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The three headed back into the castle, ending up back where they had begun, in McGonagall's office. It was only then that Harry realized that the death of Umbridge might pose a problem for all of them, even though she had not been harmed directly by either professor or himself. "Sir?" He stopped himself from tugging on Snape's sleeve like a toddler. "What happens now? Now that Umbridge is . . .gone?" He didn't know how else to put it, seeing as she had been killed and eaten by a giant bird.

Severus halted and looked at him. "There will, of necessity, be an investigation by Fudge to determine cause of death, though with Moody's testimony and our own, there should be no problem deducing what caused it. The Stymphalian Bird that dwells in the forest is known to hunt humans upon occasion and we have no control over what it hunts when awakened, though it usually does not go beyond the bounds of the forest itself. That it awakened at that particular moment, as Umbridge entered its domain, was sheer chance."

"Professor Snape is right, Harry," McGonagall said, laying a comforting hand upon his shoulder. "None of us were expecting the bird to attack, when you sent the owls after her, it was more to harry than to harm, though I must say the owls really detested her if they followed a hawk's orders to that degree, which says something about her treatment of them," The witch sniffed. "Be that as it may, we were trying to arrest her and bring her in for questioning and trial, not murder her." McGonagall said firmly. Then she added, in a voice so low only Harry and Snape could hear it, "Although I won't shed a tear over her casket, I'll tell you. That woman was as evil as they come, and in a way, the Stymphalian Bird did us all a favor."

Harry looked faintly revolted, but whispered, "Because she might have gotten off even with our testimony at a trial, right?"

Severus nodded. "That was always a possibility, given who she worked for. The Minister has been known to pull strings for his favorites before." The Potions Master grimaced in disgust. "Though given the evidence I have in the form of the Cuff of Binding and your own eyewitness account, I think there is little Fudge can do to salvage her reputation now she is dead. People will find it much harder to pardon a dead witch and will most likely be cursing her name within a fortnight."

"As well they should. Binding a child as well as a new Animagus that way is a heinous crime." McGonagall stated.

"Yes. As such, Harry you need not feel guilty over her death. She died a victim of an attack by a wild beast, a known hazard when you stray too near the Forbidden Forest. If Trelawney were here, I would wager she would say that it was her destiny to die, and the forest chose this way of meting it out. Fudge will probably wish to speak with you, but that's all."

"What if . . .what if he tries to blame me for her death?"

Snape shook his head. "He would not. You were an observer, as were all of us. None of us summoned the bird, it came on its own."

"What about that curse you threatened her with, sir? The Curse of a Thousand Wings?"

"Ah, that. There is no such spell, Mr. Potter," Severus declared, his eyes glittering with mirth. "I made that up to scare her into removing the manacle."

"But, professor, I saw the shadows of the birds and heard their wings beating," protested the fifteen-year-old.

"As you were meant to. That was a mere bit of illusion charms, enough to fool her into thinking the spell was active."

Harry whistled. "Wow! That's really clever, sir. I never would have thought of a bluff like that."

"Which is why he's in Slytherin, Mr. Potter." McGonagall pointed out, though she too gazed at her colleague with respect. "They put their cunning to good use."

"Indeed."

"I wonder if anyone else saw?" asked Harry.

"I doubt it. The castle is too far away from the forest to have a good view even if you looked out one of the uppermost windows. And nearly everyone else was probably studying or sleeping. But they will all learn of her demise tomorrow morning, when Minerva announces it in the Great Hall."

Harry had one more question. "Uh, Professor Snape, what's a Stymphalian Bird?"

"Do you know your Greek mythology? Yes? Well, if you'll recall, Hercules had twelve labors to complete and one of those was to kill or drive off the Stymphalian Birds around Lake Stymphalia in Arcadia. The myth says the birds were Ares's pets and those that were not killed returned to him. Of course, that was not true, the birds scattered to the four winds and have been hunted to near extinction by would-be heroes. This one is the only one left in Britain, it has dwelled in the forest for centuries, though it is rarely seen."

"Unless it is awakened by a screeching banshee of a witch," McGonagall said tartly. "This is the first time the bird has eaten someone in over a century, I believe. In a way, it was poetic justice." She gestured for them to have a seat in her chairs, which were blue tartan upholstered. "She who scorned beasts as beneath her has now become nothing more than bird food."

Harry shuddered a little, for the way Umbridge had died was not pleasant, but he found he could not muster up any true regret for the one who had cuffed him like a stray dog and bound his magic with darkness, nearly harming him permanently, so she could control him. He would not have killed her, but now that she was dead, he felt relieved. He wondered if it were normal to feel so?

Now that she was dead, would things return to normal? He gazed at the elder witch and asked hopefully, "Does this mean I don't have to finish that entire pile of make up work?"

Minerva considered. "Well, it would be a good idea for you to attempt to finish the core courses you will need if you are to enter the Auror program, but you do not need to make yourself sick over it if you cannot complete it before OWLS."

"Thank you," Harry said sincerely, smiling a bit. At last the pressure was off and he could relax somewhat. He decided to finish the assignments in both the Very Important pile and the Important one and as for the rest . . .he would see if it were feasible. "Uh, what will happen now, Professor McGonagall? Will the Headmaster return to Hogwarts?"

McGonagall pursed her lips. "That is difficult to say. When Fawkes used the escape spell to transport them both away, they could have ended up anywhere . . .like a tropical island on the other side of the world. We have no idea where he has gone, and I have not dared tried to contact him yet, just in case the toad was monitoring her. Plus, the escape spell erects a protective bubble about the wizard, preventing communication for a time. I shall try to find him tomorrow." Minerva sighed. "In the meantime, I am Deputy Headmistress at the school. I will be attempting to bring the school back to its original form."

"Do you mean to dismiss all the education decrees she had put up?" Severus demanded. He sounded as if he would not mind in the slightest.

Minerva smirked like a little girl given a treat. "Those will be the first to go, this is a school, not a prison. Oh, and Mr. Potter, you will resume Animagus lessons with me on Sunday mornings-proper ones this time-practical as well as theoretical. However, there will be new rules to follow-the most important being that you will not transform without permission-mine or Professor Snape's. Am I clear?"

"Yes, ma'am," Harry said dutifully, though he thought that rule sucked.

"Good. I want no more accidents. From now on you are allowed to change only during lessons or supervised outings with Professor Snape."

Harry thought about protesting, he'd been a hawk for weeks at a time and he had been fine, but he kept silent, since spending some time in Animagus form was better than nothing. Then he recalled something else she had said as well. "What about my . . . apprenticeship?"

"I think it best if you wait for the Minister to speak before you begin lessons, wouldn't you agree, Severus?"

"Yes, that would be less distracting." He turned to Harry. "I will explain what an apprenticeship entails for both of us after we have met with the Minister. My only concern is maintaining my cover while still being an effective mentor." He eyed McGonagall sternly.

Minerva remained unperturbed. "Don't fuss so, Severus. I have a solution worked out."

Snape looked dubious and muttered, "I am not fussing, for Merlin's sake!"

"Listen. After I break the news to the rest of the school tomorrow morning of our . . .late High Inquisitor's demise, I shall make a statement that I believe we need to encourage cooperation between the Houses, and foster better relations, since Umbridge's policies did nothing but encourage old fears and prejudices. To that end, I shall introduce a cross-House mentoring program, with a teacher from one House mentoring a student from an opposite House. You and Mr. Potter shall be one pair-Slytherin professor and Gryffindor student-and the other pair . . .I shall have to consider who-"

"Perhaps this might help. Hagrid spoke to me earlier about letting Vincent Crabbe study further with him in Care of Magical Creatures. He seems to think the boy shows great promise. I have already given him my permission, but as yet have not told Crabbe."

"Oh brilliant! I shall reinstate Hagrid as the Magical Creatures teacher, since his post was unfairly snatched away from him and Wilhemina really wants to retire anyhow and then we will have our second pair-Gryffindor professor and Slytherin student. The other two Houses I shall have to think upon, but your precious cover as a spy won't be compromised at all, Severus, seeing as it is a direct order from me."

"Just so. And my Slytherin Death Eater offspring will believe I took Potter under duress and not suspect a thing." Severus said, pleased with how it had all worked out.

"Does that mean I have to act like I hate the idea?" Harry inquired softly.

"Grumble and act disgusted, then become resigned to it," Severus offered. "Part of your duties as my apprentice will be teaching small classes of first years. So you will be doing more than brewing, and that should sweeten your temper some."

"You can discuss this in more depth some other time," Minerva said. "For now, it's getting late and Mr. Potter ought to get a good night's rest. For as soon as the paper gets wind of it, they'll be coming around, so expect interviews."

Harry groaned. He hated interviews and reporters ever since Rita Skeeter had printed all those scandalous articles about him during the Tri-Wizard Tournament. "I don't have to give them one, do I?"

Minerva cast him a sympathetic look. "Perhaps one, then refuse any others, it will look odd if you refuse all interviews. I wouldn't worry about it till then. I shall see you both tomorrow, gentlemen. Oh, and I must remember to tell the Weasley twins to remove their swamp from the hallway."

Severus rolled his eyes at that and Harry snickered before they left for their respective beds. Though she did not say so, Harry understood he was not to discuss what had happened that night with any of his Housemates yet. Luckily, they all assumed he had been serving detention with Umbridge or studying and so didn't ask him anything.

* * * * * *

After Minerva had made her announcements in the hall after breakfast, it was pandemonium for several minutes. Some students couldn't believe the Hag from Hell, as they had nicknamed Umbridge, was truly gone. Others were shocked that a vicious predator dwelled in the forest, but the prevailing attitude among most of the student body was thank Merlin Umbridge was no longer in charge.

There followed several minutes of loud cheering when Minerva stated that all the Educational Decrees were to repealed, and extra-curricular clubs and activities could be resumed, though Quidditch was officially over, she would allow two or three matches anyway.

"Will you play Seeker, Harry?" asked Seamus, who had been playing that position before Umbridge had cancelled everything.

"He'd better," Ron muttered. "Otherwise we'll get our bums walloped."

"Who's going to be Keeper now that Oliver's gone home?" asked Dean.

"I will," Ron said.

Everyone looked at Harry, who nodded and said, "Fine with me." He was still angry with the way Ron had behaved, but he would not deny the other a spot on the team, for her knew how much he had always wanted one.

Then McGonagall stated that Trelawney and Hagrid were able to resume their positions on staff and thanked Firenze and Professor Grubbly-Plank for their help. More clapping followed, though Harry heard Malfoy say rather loudly, "Oh Merlin, not the oaf again! I swear, I can learn more by reading a book than listening to the idiot lecture."

Harry felt his blood heat and he was just about to snap out a reply when he heard Crabbe say, "Hagrid's not the oaf you think he is, Draco. He's patient and he knows what he's about. You'd know that if you ever paid attention."

Several Slytherins gaped at the sight of Malfoy's follower daring to contradict him, as did Malfoy himself. Then he recovered and snapped, "When I want an opinion, Crabbe, I'll ask for it. Till then, shut your mouth!"

Crabbe frowned. "I don't need your permission to talk, Draco. You're not Head of the Inquisitorial Squad anymore, so don't act like it. I'm glad Hagrid is teaching again." Then he turned away and began to eat some toast, ignoring the stunned look on Malfoy's patrician face.

Huh. Looks like Crabbe's finally gotten out from under Malfoy's shadow and become his own person, Harry thought, he was sitting on the end of the Gryffindor table closest to the Slytherins and so had heard the entire exchange. Good for him! Malfoy needs to stop lording it over everyone.

Then McGonagall made the announcement he had been waiting for . . .the news of the cross-House apprenticeships. Luna Lovegood ended up apprenticed to Professor Sprout and Hannah Abbot was paired with the jolly Flitwick. Both of them seemed pleased and Crabbe was shocked speechless with his pairing.

Harry looked surprised, as much as he could. Hermione was smiling. "Oh, Harry! What a wonderful opportunity to learn new recipes and stuff!"

"Wonderful?" shrieked Ron. "How can you say that, Hermione? It's bloody cruel, is what it is. To be stuck with Snape for the rest of term. I'd hex myself first." He looked over at Harry. "Well? Don't you have anything to say?"

Harry shrugged. "Well . . .Umbridge was worse. There's nothing I can do about it, really. So . . .I'll make the best of it, I guess."

"I think McGonagall's gone round the bend," stated Seamus. "Snape will make your life miserable, Harry."

"Maybe. But I'll live." Harry sighed, looking unhappy.

Only Ron was not quite taken in by his pathetic acting and as soon as they were away from the Hall, Ron dragged him into a corner of the corridor and hissed, "What game are you playing, Harry? You don't seem all that upset about this. Why not? Because your little friend is there to play with, huh? Do you forget what the bastard did to you for four years or whatever during class?"

Harry clenched his jaw. "No. But that's in the past." He moved away from Ron and said softly, "You don't understand and I can't explain it, but I've my own reasons and either you accept it or not. Your choice."

Ron said nothing, just gaped at Harry, who then turned upon his heel and continued down the corridor. Get your head out of your arse, Ron, for Godsake! I'm not going to have this argument over and over. Just when things start looking up, something else bloody happens. I can't wait to see what Fudge does.

* * * * * *

It was two days before Fudge managed to pay a call to Minerva and discuss what had happened to Dolores Umbridge, and during those two days, the Daily Prophet had a field day with her death, though no fingers were pointed at anyone, it was speculation run rampant, and there were no close relatives to have a funeral procession, especially since there was no body. Fudge was quoted as saying there would be a "small ceremony" held, though when and where was not revealed. Privately, Severus wondered just who would come to it, for Umbridge had not had many friends as Under Secretary either.

As predicted, Fudge summoned both him and Harry to question them about what had gone on that night, since Moody had put them down in his report as witnesses and the Ministry also had his accusation and deposition against Umbridge using dark magic as well.

"I find it hard to believe that she would . . .ah . . .use such an item on a student," Fudge protested. "Much less Harry Potter."

"The evidence is right before you, Minister," Snape said tightly. "Here is the object in question." He produced the Cuff of Binding with a flourish, he had it tucked in a small pouch in his pocket. "As you can see, it is the same object as in the photos and if the Minister would examine Potter's wrist, where he wore the cuff for a period of eight days . . ."

Harry shoved his sleeve up. Though mostly healed from the burns, there was evidence of some scars and redness. "It looked much worse when the cuff was on me, sir," he said quietly. "Madam Pomfrey says that if I had worn the cuff much longer, it could have killed me or damaged my magic permanently."

Fudge peered at Harry's wrist and then at the cuff gravely. He placed the tip of his wand upon the silver manacle and whispered something. The manacle began to glow a sickly green. The Minster recoiled as if he had touched a viper.

"It . . it would seem . . .as though you are telling the truth, Mr. Potter. This is, indeed, an item of dark magic, Merlin forfend!"

Harry fought to keep from rolling his eyes and blurting, Thank you, Captain Obvious! It took you long enough! Instead, he put on his most pitiful face and looked all persecuted and lost, like a hurt puppy.

Fudge sighed and said, "I . . .regret this happened, Mr. Potter. I had always considered Dolores to be . . .trustworthy. A bit zealous perhaps . . .but not crossing lines. It appears I was mistaken. She was seduced into darkness and this is the result."

He eyed the cuff with distaste. "Might I suggest you get rid of that? Melt it, destroy it, but get rid of it, Snape. I will declare this matter closed, based upon the testimony of Alastor Moody, Minerva McGonagall, Severus Snape, and especially Harry Potter. The official cause of death shall be presented as accidental devouring by a magical creature. Such a shame, when she tried so hard to forget that she was one-eighth banshee."

Harry gasped. "Umbridge was one-eighth banshee? But how is that possible?"

"One of her ancestors made a pact with one long ago and it bore a half-human child and that was where Umbridge's line got most of its magic. But Dolores loathed her part-human ancestry and never acknowledged it, claimed it was all hogwash. But she did possess one small talent from her banshee ancestory-the ability to howl like one once a month."

"We experienced the effects of that howl, Minister," McGonagall said dryly. "I nearly went deaf."

Fudge winced. "Well, there you have it. Do you have anything else you would like to add? No? Then I bid you good day." He Flooed back to his office, still shaking his head and muttering, "Poor Dolores! What was hidden overwhelmed her at last."

Snape snorted, then said to Minerva, "With your permission, Minerva, I shall teach Potter how to brew a potion that will melt this abomination down and banish it forever."

"Be my guest, Severus. It is past time we rid ourselves of it."

Snape tucked the cuff back into his pouch and beckoned Harry to follow him. "Come along. We're wasting daylight."

Harry rose and followed the black-robed professor back down to the dungeons, where he watched avidly as Snape concocted a very acidic electric blue potion that hissed and frothed agitatedly even after removed from the fire.

Snape wore dragonhide gloves and so did Harry, as well as a mask, and even then Harry could feel his eyes water.

Severus removed the cuff from its pouch and looked at Harry. "Would you like to do the honors?"

Harry gulped, took the cuff gingerly by the edges and tossed it into the cauldron.

It sank like a stone and immediately the potion hissed, smoked, and turned a viscous black. It smelled like rotten eggs too.

Harry nearly gagged, until Severus cast a Fresh Air charm to blow the stench away.

But after three minutes, the potion quit steaming and smoking, and when Snape stirred it, there was no trace of the manacle in the cauldron. He pointed his wand and uttered the familiar, "Evanesco!"

The contents were banished forever, and the Cuff of Binding, bane of Animagi, was no more.

Harry looked up at Severus and grinned. "It's really gone, isn't it?"

"It is, fledgling," he reassured the boy. "And now, let us go to my quarters, where we can discuss what it means to have an apprenticeship."

"Can we have some tea and scones too?" begged the Animagus shamelessly.

"Oh, for the love of . . .very well," Severus grumbled. "Can't have anyone saying I starve you."

He summoned Twixie once they returned to his apartments and over cups of tea and a dish of blueberry scones, detailed what it meant for Harry to call him mentor.

"Before Hogwarts ever existed, there was the old system of master and apprentice in the wizarding world. The mentor program is a continuation of that old tradition," Snape explained. "Your apprenticeship would normally last two to three years and involve a written agreement from you pledging you to learn all I have to teach willingly. It also pledges me to teach you thoroughly and compassionately, by that I mean without using curses to compel you or whippings or incarceration, my area of expertise until I have deemed you competent. According to the Mentor Articles, by the time you are graduated from your apprenticeship, you ought to be able to brew almost as well as a full Potions Master."

"What? But Severus . . .I'm only average in potions now!"

"That will change. Furthermore, it is also the duty of a mentor to ensure that his apprentice is in good health, of sound mind, and has practical skills necessary to be a credit to the wizarding world. For the duration of the apprenticeship, I am, for all intents and purposes, your legal guardian, since you are a minor without parents living."

"My . . .my guardian? As in . . .I have to live with you?" Harry stammered.

"You may if you wish, though here at school you must still reside in Gryffindor Tower."

"During the summer, though, I can stay with you? And not the Dursleys?"

"Legally, yes, I have that right. Does that bother you, Harry?"

"Bother me? To get out of that house? Are you bleeding cracked, Severus?"

Severus half-frowned at the boy's rather cheeky address, but all he said was, "I shall take that to mean you are amenable to spending the summer with me."

"But Dumbledore said I had to go back to the Dursleys. That I had no choice."

Severus's face darkened. "I shall speak to him about that when he returns. The manipulative old coot will not like it, but neither will he condone what your relatives did to you, Harry." At least I pray not, he added silently.

"Does that mean that Hagrid is now the guardian of Crabbe too? And Flitwick of Hannah?"

"Yes and no. The mentorship I just described to you is the ancient one, with all of the responsibilities and commitments that entails. There is another, lesser version, which is more of an extended study program, and does not bind the mentor to act as a guardian or last more than a year at the most. That is the mentor code I believe the rest of my colleagues will follow. I can do so as well, if you would like."

"But if we did that, then I would still have to return to the Dursleys, right? Dumbledore could force me to go back."

"Yes. With the lesser version, I would have no authority to prevent him, and you would legally be under the jurisdiction of your aunt and uncle."

"What else does this apprenticeship mean?" Harry asked, sensing there was more.

"It means that you will have shortened periods during school, leaving a half a day free for me to tutor in potions. When I think you ready, I may also assign you to teach a class or two of first and second years and possible third years as well, as an adjunct. You will learn how to brew all the drafts on the syllabus for each year, plus the counterdrafts and correct papers and tests and be given the authority to take points and detention as well. However, I reserve the right to override your disciplinary procedures, as I am the more experienced teacher, if necessary."

Harry made a face. "But you won't, will you?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

"On whether you know how to discipline effectively," answered the professor. "But that will not be occurring for several weeks yet. First you must learn how to gather ingredients and brew properly. Not to mention study for your OWLS."

"Am I allowed to play Quidditch?"

Slowly, Snape nodded. "Yes, since you need some form of recreation. But be warned, mister, as your mentor, I can and will revoke privileges if you disobey me or misbehave. And that includes confiscating your broom."

Harry blinked and eyed his teacher warily. "What other punishments will you give me?"

Severus coughed, noting the way the boy instantly stiffened and glanced away. Clearly, he was distrustful of anyone in authority over him, which, given what Snape knew of his past, was not surprising. The boy had learned early that adults with power were not to be trusted, since the adults he had known tended to abuse it. From the Dursleys to Dumbledore, all had failed to give Harry the stability and consistency an adolescent needs, not to mention the physical security. Severus too was guilty of harming the boy's self-esteem, and he flinched inwardly. But perhaps now he could begin to make amends for his harsh treatment, he reflected.

"Harry, I am not your uncle. Nor your father, though the guardianship gives me the authority to discipline you, I shall never abuse that privilege. Given my past record, you may not trust me, but I swear wizard's oath that I shall never mistreat you, physically, magically, or verbally. I will try and give you clear rules and consequences if you break them. Said consequences may include a period of grounding, loss of privileges, like your broom and restriction of your Animagus form, lectures, chores done the Muggle way, and written essays. And that is all. I will never hex you, strike you, or starve you, nor lock you in a cupboard. Does that sound fair to you?"

Harry cocked his head and pondered. On one hand, he was wary of letting an adult figure have control over his behavior, but on the other hand, he had learned gradually to trust Severus to keep his word. And he knew the power of an oath sworn upon a wizard's honor. The consequences Snape had outlined were no worse than those his friends' parents had for them and ten times better than what he had been subjected to at the Dursleys. He considered carefully, mulling it over for a good twenty-five minutes before at last saying, "Yes, that sounds fair. I can live with that."

"Good. In return I ask that you try and respect me as a mentor and realize that my dictates may occasionally seem strange or hard, but that they are that way for a reason, to protect you. I also ask that you try not to endanger yourself by being foolish and reckless the way you have done in the past. Your life, fledgling, is a precious gift your parents died to preserve, so do not waste it. And if you have a problem, do not hesitate to ask me for advice. I know you are not accustomed to relying on adults, but there is no reason you have to solve all of your problems alone. I have been where you are now, Harry, so use my experience to help you if you need it."

Once again, he hesitated. He understood where Severus was coming from, that he should have more care for himself, but no one had ever put it like that before. That his life was a gift. Instead he had been made to feel as if his life mattered nothing, and that to risk it was to risk nothing at all. This was the first time he had ever been told that what he did mattered and it touched him profoundly. And yet . . . there was still a part of him that whispered What if you trust him and he fails you like the others? What if? So he looked at the man sitting next to him and said candidly, "I . . .can try, Sev. But . . . I'm not too good at asking for help. I've never . . .nobody ever really cared before . . .and I don't know . . .I mean, I'll agree to listen to you, it's what I'm supposed to do . . .and I'll try to remember to ask you for help . . .Is that okay with you?"

Green eyes filled with a wary uncertainty gazed into his own, and Severus felt a sudden connection flare between them. He gently put an arm about the boy's shoulders. "Yes, Harry. It's all right. I know it will take time for you to trust again. We can take it slow . . .one day at a time."

"Okay."

"Very well, shall we sign these documents then?" Severus asked, summoning the Mentor Articles from the top of his desk.

"Sev, what about Dumbledore? What if . . .he gets mad that you're my guardian? And what about . . .You-Know-Who?"

"Harry, Dumbledore has nothing to say about this, he is not your relative. It is your choice, Harry, and only yours. This can remain between us. Until you choose to reveal it. As for the Dark Lord, he will never learn of it. I can hide it from him, as I have hid many things from him over the years."

"How? How can you hide things when he . . .hurts you?"

"Because I am a master Occlumens."

Harry's brow wrinkled. "An Occlumens? What's that?"

"It is a wizard who has a natural talent in the art of Occlumency, which is the discipline of closing one's mind against another, so they cannot enter it."

"Like reading your mind?"

"Well . . .not exactly. The mind is not a book, it is full of thoughts and memories, and they aren't organized, most times. But a wizard skilled in the discipline of Legilimency can penetrate your mind and find out your secrets. The Dark Lord considers himself a skilled Legilimens, but he uses brute force to penetrate minds, not subtlety. It can be . . .unpleasant, but he has never penetrated through my shields. He can read what I wish, and that is all."

"Is that why you're such a good spy?"

"Partly, yes. The rest is because I have learned to observe and retain what I've learned."

"Could you . . .teach me?"

Severus hesitated. He had never taught anyone Occlumency before, it was not something he had ever been taught, he had learned it instinctively. "Why don't we wait a bit before I teach you that discipline? It is not easy to master and it will require you to . . .let me into your head. For now, I think you need to concentrate on studying for your OWLS and learning how to brew potions."

"All right." Harry agreed, sensing that Severus was uncomfortable with that request for some reason.

Severus pulled the Mentor Articles over and signed them with a flourish. He then handed the parchment and quill to Harry, who read the Articles first and then signed them. As soon as the ink dried upon the parchment, a green light shone from it, coiled about their two wrists, and bound them together.

An instant later, it vanished.

Harry smiled at Severus. It was done. They were now mentor and apprentice, guardian and ward, bound by magic and by something deeper that neither of them recognized yet.

* * * * * *

One week later:

He opened his eyes and gasped sharply, trying to soothe his racing heart. He sat up, shoving the covers off of him frantically. There was only one thought in his mind that kept the fear at bay. Severus. Must get Severus. He stood, his bare toes curling as they met the chill stone floor, and snatched up his wand from beneath his pillow.

One pass and his pajamas became his jeans and Gryffindor sweatshirt and trainers. Then he tucked his wand up his sleeve, Severus had shown him how to master that little trick, and sprinted from his dorm room. His feet had wings that night and he reached Severus's quarters in ten minutes. He placed a hand upon the stone wall and whispered the password.

The stone dissolved into a wooden door and he turned the handle and went in.

Please, let him be okay. Please, don't let the dream come true. I've had the same dreams for a week now, except this was a new one. Tonight's dream had a sinister quality to it, and eerie feel of reality as he watched Severus kneel before the serpent-like Voldemort and Voldemort had smiled and bid him to rise. "What news of Harry Potter, Severus? Have you found him yet?"

There was more to the dream, but all he could recall was fear and darkness, and suddenly he needed his mentor and now here he was, walking into Severus's rooms, certain he would find the man asleep or, Merlin forbid, cursed into unconsciousness again. Instead he found Severus seated upon his couch, tending to scratches on his arm, and drinking a cup of tea.

He exhaled sharply, relief holding him mute for a few moments.

Severus looked up. "Harry? What's wrong?"

Harry's mouth worked, but no sound came out. Then he said, "You're all right! I thought maybe you were hurt. I had a dream . . .and I thought . . ."

He closed his mouth abruptly, fearing he sounded like an idiot.

"Come and sit down," his mentor invited. "Tell me about this dream."

Harry came, now feeling embarrassment and shame swamp him. He'd run down to the Potions Master like a six-year-old after a nightmare. It was a miracle Snape didn't sneer at him and offer him warm milk and to tuck him in bed. He was reluctant to speak yet, so he watched the Potions Master rub some healing ointment upon the long scratches upon his arm.

Suddenly he recalled another part of his dream that night.

". . . .and you never knew the boy was an Animagus, Severus?" hissed Voldemort.

"No, my lord."

"You wouldn't be lying to me, now would you?"

Then Voldemort lashed out with one scaly green hand with sharp claws, and they cut a bloody row of scratches down the Potion Master's arm.

Harry stared at the row of scratches Severus was tending.

They were the same as the ones in the dream.

He blinked and rubbed his eyes.

But how could they be, unless . . .?

A sick feeling stirred in Harry's gut. Since the incident in the graveyard, he had been having weird dreams and sometimes he could feel Voldemort's anger, like a red-hot iron in the back of his mind. Having that dream coincide with Severus's injury was a bit too much of a coincidence.

"You went to him tonight, didn't you?" Harry said abruptly, the knot in his gut migrating to his throat and emerging from his throat in an accusing tone. "You went to him and you didn't tell me."

Severus frowned, not caring for the boy's tone. "I wasn't aware I had to clear my comings and goings with you, apprentice. I have been going back and forth to the Dark One since before you were born."

"I know, but . . .what if something happened to you? Like last time? I wouldn't have known . . ." Harry's voice was getting shriller as his anxiety was growing.

"Calm down, Mr. Potter. Poppy and Hagrid were aware of where I had gone. I didn't see the need to wake you in the middle of the night and disturb your rest."

"Is it because you don't trust me, Severus? I mean, I know I have some freaky . . . connection with Old Snake Eyes, but . . .if something happened to you . . ." he rubbed his scar, which was throbbing like seven hells, in accompaniment to his terror at losing Severus to the evil bastard. "He could kill you . . .You could die like Cedric . . .die . . .and then who would be there when . . ." He trailed off, not wanting to say the words aloud-who would be there for me? No one.-he had already said too much, flipping out like a little girl. He turned away, hiding his burning face.

Then he felt a touch upon his shoulder.

"Harry."

He stubbornly remained with his face turned towards the wall. He wished he dared shift into Freedom, for hawks did not blush.

"Harry, look at me."

He shook his head stubbornly. "No. I know what you're going to say. That I'm stupid and overdramatic and a freak and I should mind my own business. That you can take care of yourself." He stared down at his shoes, his stomach churning. "Go on then. Say it. I know you want to."

Suddenly, he felt his chin seized in a firm grip. "Harry James Potter, look at me, this instant."

Green eyes filled with uncertainty and trepidation met onyx ones.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled.

"Why are you apologizing?"

"Because I'm acting like a twit. I don't know."

"You are not. You are acting . . .concerned over your mentor's welfare. Thank you." Severus paused before continuing. "That is not something I am used to . . .but I would never call you stupid. Or overdramatic. A bit . . .disturbed, perhaps," he teased, and then tentatively rumpled the boy's hair.

"Disturbed? You think I'm crazy?"

"I was . . .making a joke, Harry."

"You have a sense of humor?" Harry smirked slightly.

"Sometimes I forget myself."

In spite of himself, Harry managed a smile. "Funny, Sev."

"Now, what was that comment about a connection between you and His Darkness?"

Harry squirmed a little. Snape's penetrating stare was a little unnerving. "Uh . . .well, I don't exactly know how to explain it."

"Generally, it is best to start at the beginning," Severus prompted, releasing the boy's chin.

"Umm . . .okay. I think it started that night . . .the night in the graveyard . . .after Cedric was killed . . .and Pettigrew took my blood for the ritual . . ." Harry took a deep breath, and then he began to tell Severus about the dreams he had since that night, the dreams where Voldemort was speaking to his Death Eaters, or torturing one of them, or stroking the head of his gigantic snake, Nagini. ". . . .sometimes, when he's angry . . .I can feel it . . .my scar hurts . . .like it did tonight. I woke up and I was hurting . . .and I was . . .scared . . ." he whispered, so softly Severus could barely hear it.

The Potions Master bit his lip hard, for he was angry that Harry had waited so long to inform him of the strange link between himself and the dark wizard. But he knew if he snapped at the boy now, it would ruin the fragile trust that was developing between them. And, to his surprise, he didn't want that to happen. Harry's concern was open and honest and he discovered he liked it. It reminded him of the way Lily used to scold him for spending so many hours studying instead of getting enough sleep.

"That's understandable," he said calmly. "However, I wish you had said something to me before about this connection, Harry. You should not have kept something that important from me," he reproved firmly.

"I . . .didn't want you to know." Harry hung his head. "I hate feeling him in my head, Severus. Besides, what can you do about it? Lock me up in the crazy ward? That's what they do to crazy people."

"No. I can teach you Occlumency."

"But you said you wanted to concentrate on potions and stuff."

"That was before I knew you were having such dreams and feeling the bloody Dark Lord in your mind, young man. Had you informed me of that little detail before, I would have begun trying to teach you then."

"I'm sorry."

"Stop apologizing, won't you?" he said gruffly. "I'm not going to wallop you over a mistake, you ought to know that by now."

"Why not? I screwed up again."

"Stop that. You're feeling sorry for yourself and that I won't tolerate. We all make mistakes, Harry. The trick is to remember and learn from them and hopefully to not repeat them." Severus cleared his throat. "Is your scar still hurting?"

Reluctantly, the boy nodded.

Severus put two fingers beneath his chin and tilted the boy's head up so he could examine the scar. He gently brushed the hair away from Harry's forehead and saw that the scar was red and swollen. He gingerly touched it and asked, "Does that hurt?"

Harry flinched. "A . . .little. But not too bad," he added quickly, lest Snape think he was a wimp. "It's just tender."

Severus gave him a knowing look. Then he summoned his anesthetic salve and applied it to the lightning bolt shaped area. Some of the tension eased from the boy when he did that. "How's that?"

"Better. Thanks."

Severus wiped his hand upon a cloth. "Tell me about your dream tonight, Harry. You saw the Dark Lord in it? And me, I presume?"

"Yes." Quietly, he related the dream. "And it happened. It wasn't just . . .a dream."

"No. And that means that your . . .connection is getting stronger. You must be careful, Harry. It could work both ways. That is why I need to teach you Occlumency. So you can shut him from your mind and vice versa. But, I'll warn you now, it is a difficult discipline to master. It takes much work."

"I don't care. I'll do it."

"Well, you're too tired now to start, so might I suggest we wait until Monday night? For now, I will give you Dreamless Sleep and tell you that the first step towards mastering Occlumency is learning to clear your mind."

"Clear my mind? Huh? I don't get it."

"Make your mind a blank, so that nothing can be known of you," Severus said softly, hoping he was doing the right thing. It was so difficult trying to teach something he knew intuitively. It was like trying to teach a cat to bark, he had no idea how to break down what he did into steps.

"Okay, I'll try."

"Good." Severus waved his wand, and summoned a vial of lavender colored Dreamless Sleep from his private stores. "Take this and go back to your dorm, Harry. You'll sleep peacefully and after class tomorrow we can work on brewing some more of this, or maybe a Draught of Peace."

Harry took the potion. "All right. I'm sorry I acted like such a-"

"If you apologize one more time, child, I swear I'll swat you a good one," he threatened. "You have nothing to apologize for. What have I told you about asking for help?"

"That . . .it was all right."

"It is and always will be. Now, get on up to bed. Because if you oversleep tomorrow morning, I will have you in detention so fast your head will spin."

"Yes, sir." He turned to go, then added over his shoulder, "But how would you know? I don't have class with you at all tomorrow."

"I have my ways, you incorrigible fledgling." He gave the boy a mock glare. "Bed, Mr. Potter. Or shall I carry you there and tuck you in?"

"No!" Harry yelled, horrified. Then he bolted out the door, and so missed his mentor's sly chuckle.

Really, Harry, you need to develop a sense of humor.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Sorry for the wait, it was busy this weekend. Hope you enjoyed this one!

Next: The Occlumency lessons begin and Severus tries to help Harry with nightmares, past and present.

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