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Snape knocked twice at the office door before opening it and entering. Harry wondered if it were some sort of secret code, because Dumbledore popped his head out of the adjoining room, which opened into the office, and did not look at all startled to see the Potions Master. He was wearing one of those old-fashioned nightcaps that Harry recalled seeing in the movie A Christmas Carol. "Severus? Is something wrong?"

Snape nodded curtly, then reached out and pulled Harry into the room.

"Hey!" Harry yelped, though Severus immediately released him.

"Is the office sealed, Headmaster?" was Severus' first question.

"Yes, of course," Albus said sleepily, waving his wand behind his back to activate the privacy wards. He came into the office in his lavender dressing gown and fuzzy star and moon slippers. Harry saw with amusement that his beard had been tied with a black ribbon to keep it neat while he slept. "What seems to be the problem? Hello, Harry! I would hope you haven't been serving another detention with Professor Snape."

"He's been serving detention with me this past week," Snape said sourly. "For being out of bounds in the middle of the night. Tonight I had him collecting moonflowers and other nightblooming plants for my Illumination Draft and he was attacked."

"Attacked? By what?" Albus asked, alarmed.

"Death Eaters," Snape said flatly. "Somehow they breached the wards and attacked Potter while he was gathering in the meadow just beyond Hagrid's cottage. He just barely escaped with his life."

"Great Merlin! I . . .I had no idea," Dumbledore looked exceedingly alarmed. "Are you all right, Harry? Not hurt, are you?"

"No, sir," Harry answered, though he thought ruefully, Not unless you count being so sore you can barely walk from riding.

"Can you identify them?" was Dumbledore's next question.

"Uh . . .Bellatrix LeStrange was one. So was Pettigrew." He chewed his lower lip. It had been dark, his attackers masked, and he had nothing to go on but their voices, most of which he wouldn't recognize. "Dolohov was another. And I think . . .Goyle was also. That's all I can remember."

"You've done well, Harry. I am glad you managed to escape. How did you do that?"

Harry glanced uneasily at the Potions Master. It had been one thing to mention the horse to Snape, in the dead of night it sounded less crazy than usual, but now, with the office lit and the fire crackling merrily in the grate, it seemed the stuff of a children's bedtime story. "I . . .err . . .well you see, there was a horse. A big black horse with a white star on its forehead. And it . . .fought the Death Eaters with me and then I . . .climbed on its back and it took me into the Forbidden Forest. I woke up somewhere in there surrounded by . . .unicorns. Then the horse came back and I . . .rode him back to the school."

"You were among a herd of unicorns?" Dumbledore seemed impressed. "That's a rare thing, Harry. I knew there was a herd of unicorns within the forest, but I myself have never seen them. They tend to shy away from adult males."

"A couple of the foals sniffed me. I could swear they were laughing at me."

They were, Potter. Severus thought wryly.

"I found him returning from the meadow and once he told me what had occurred, I brought him here to you immediately." Severus finished.

"You're safe now, Harry. The castle's defenses are not anything to trifle with," said the old wizard. "Although . . .perhaps it might be best if we were to . . .send you home early. If the Death Eaters were to try anything with you, they would be waiting at King's Cross or the train in Hogsmeade. So it may be better to send you back home before school lets out in three days."

"No!" Harry blurted before he could think better of it. He quickly clamped his mouth shut afterwards, furious at his blunder.

Dumbledore looked puzzled. "Harry, this is for your own safety. I assure you it will not affect your marks. I do not want anything to happen to you. You may write to your relatives and tell them to expect you."

"They wouldn't read it anyhow," Harry mumbled. Then he froze.

"Why not?" Severus seized the opening given. "Do they not get letters from you from school?"

Harry didn't answer, stubbornly looking at the ground.

"Harry, Professor Snape asked you a question," prompted the Headmaster.

"I . . .no . . .they don't like magic and they don't want letters from me," Harry finally responded.

Severus frowned. "How odd. Even parents of Muggleborns want to hear from their children. That does not seem right."

Harry shrugged. "It's how they are." He turned pleading eyes on Dumbledore. The last thing he wanted was to have to go back to Privet Drive early. "Sir, if I stay in the castle for the rest of the term and then Floo to . . .Diagon Alley, that would confuse the Death Eaters, right?"

"Too risky, Potter," Severus interjected before Dumbledore could respond. "The Death Eaters could have spies in Hogsmeade or be watching the Floo in The Leaky Cauldron." He eyed Harry sternly. "Suppose you tell us why you don't want to go home, Potter? Are you perhaps in trouble with your relatives? Under threat of some punishment?" Harry refused to answer. Snape gritted his teeth, familiar with those tactics, as he had used them himself once upon a time. He continued, trying to prompt a response from the stubborn boy. "Were they displeased with your marks last term? Did they threaten to cut off your allowance? Forbid your friends to come over? Ground you from your fan club?"

"I don't have a fan club!" Harry snapped, nettled.

Struck a nerve there, the professor noted, hoping he would not have to grill the boy too much longer. He did not like forcing the boy to admit to what he was almost positive was an abusive home life, but he had to make Albus think something was wrong enough to get the old coot to send him home with Potter. "No?" Snape raised an eyebrow. "Mind your tone, Potter. You will address me as "sir" or "professor"."

Harry lifted his eyes from the floor and gave the other a glare. "Fine, Professor. Why do you care?"

"Harry, don't be rude," Dumbledore scolded mildly. "Professor Snape cares for all his students."

Harry almost burst out laughing, until he saw the look on both wizards' faces. Snape looked angry and Dumbledore sad. "My aunt and uncle want nothing to do with the wizarding world," he said finally. "They'd prefer if it never existed."

Unspoken, Severus heard the silent wail—and that I never existed either—that the boy left unsaid.

Dumbledore frowned. "I am sorry, Harry, but you must go back home for the summer. The school is not safe right now."

"But the Death Eaters are gone."

"That's as may be, but they could return. And most likely will as soon as possible. You must not be here when they return. If you like, I can send Professor Snape with you to explain things to your aunt and uncle, and to escort you home safely."

Harry gasped. "Go home with—Professor Snape, sir?" he stuttered. "But he's . . .I don't need anyone . . ."

"Albus, surely you can find another to escort Potter home, I have a full curriculum of potions to brew for the school stores," Severus protested, pretending to be ticked off and irritated. "How about Flius or Minerva?"

"No, Severus. They are not used to interacting with Muggles or moving in the Muggle world, and you are, since you too were raised like one."

Harry nearly fell out of his chair. Snape had been raised Muggle? "But he's a Slytherin!" he cried.

The professor shot him a look that could have curdled milk. "And your point is? Do you think Slytherin is only purebloods, Potter? Because I assure you that every House in Hogwarts has its share of purebloods, half-bloods, and Muggleborns. Every House."

"Oh." Now Harry felt utterly idiotic. How did Snape always end up making him look like a colossal fool? "Are you like Hermione then? A Muggleborn?"

"I fail to see why it concerns you, Potter," Snape began.

"Professor Snape is a half-blood," Dumbledore answered Harry cheerily. "Like you. His mother was a witch and his father was a Muggle."

Severus ground his teeth and wished Albus' tongue would spontaneously erupt with boils. The man had no subtlety and even less sensitivity for things that Severus wished to keep private, especially from nosy Gryffindors with big mouths. "The Headmaster is correct," was all he said.

"So, you see, Harry, Professor Snape will be the ideal person to take you home the Muggle way, as he is already familiar with such things," Dumbledore said, looking very pleased. "I trust you will behave for him?"

I'd sooner run away from him, Harry thought rebelliously. Then he nodded reluctantly. He wished that he could just remain at school, the threat of Death Eaters finding him was mild compared to the Dursleys. "Do I have to go, sir?" he tried once again to get the Headmaster to relent.

But Dumbledore remained cheerfully oblivious. "Now, Harry, it's all settled. Professor Snape will escort you home tomorrow morning. You may take the Knight Bus for some of the journey and Professor Snape will speak with your relatives and explain to them what happened with the tournament and the Death Eaters. I'm sure they will be glad to have you back safe and not care about whatever mischief you got into before going back to school. After all, boys will be boys." He winked at Severus, who remained stonily silent, unamused and almost, Harry wondered if he were seeing things, disgusted.

Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon don't consider me a boy, sir, the desperate boy thought angrily. They think I'm a freak, and they'd throw a party if the Death Eaters captured me. As for getting into mischief—ha! I don't have time to do that, not with all the work I do around there, and Uncle Vernon's temper. Can't you see? Can't you understand?

He looked up again at the man who he had once regarded as a brilliant wizard and wondered bitterly how such a great man could be so dense? Or maybe he didn't care that Harry would be sent back to a place he hated, so long as he was out of his hair. Dumbledore's eyes twinkled and he twirled the end of his beard inbetween his fingers, making Harry want to yank it out by the roots.

"I could stay with Ron," he suggested.

"No, my boy, the Weasleys are not safe enough either. Home is best." Albus said firmly.

"Potter, why do you not wish to return home?" Severus pressed, angry with Dumbledore's obtuseness. "Do your relatives mistreat you? Hurt you?" I shouldn't be asking these questions, damn it! You should, Albus. He trusts you. He might answer you where he won't me.

Harry almost let everything spill then. Snape's eyes bored into him, cold and black, and he felt as if the other could see into his very soul. He wanted so badly for someone to help, for another to know the anguish and pain he was feeling. But then he recalled who was asking and he refused to let Snape mock him. Refused to have the man sneer at him and say that if his uncle happened to give him a smacking, it was no more than he deserved for his cheekiness.

"Potter, answer me." Snape's voice suddenly went soft, uncharacteristically so.

"Forget I said anything," Harry said. He dropped his eyes to Snape's boots.

Severus swore inwardly. Just as he had predicted.

"Harry, is there something we ought to know about your relatives?" Dumbledore began, finally catching on.

"No!" the boy snapped, curling back into his defensive shell. "Just forget it! You were right, sir!"

"Potter, do not shout at the Headmaster," Severus reprimanded, but his tone lacked his usual sting.

"It's all right, Severus. Harry is tired, he ought to be in bed," Dumbledore said, waving off Harry's apology.

Harry felt himself flush at the Headmaster's words. Dumbledore had just made him sound like a whiny little baby. A child that could be soothed with a cup of milk and a sweet. As if!

He looked up angrily at both wizards and caught Snape's knowing look. He flinched. His impudent act hadn't fooled the professor at all. He quickly stood up before Snape could ask any more probing questions. "I am rather tired, sir. Guess I should go to sleep. What time should I be ready tomorrow, Professor?"

"Ten o'clock sharp," Severus replied. I know what you're hiding, Potter. No one knows better. And one way or another, I must get you to reveal it to me before we get to your relatives' house. He made a mental note to bring along a camera so he could document anything that happened on Privet Drive.

"Yes, sir." Harry managed to say respectfully. He would just have time to say goodbye to Hermione and Ron. Now he had to get out of here, before he ended up confessing everything to that probing obsidian gaze. He had the feeling Snape knew exactly what he refused to say and for some reason it made him want to babble like a gossipy witch. "Good night, sir. Goodnight, Professor Dumbledore." Then he walked out the door as quickly as he could without losing his dignity.

It was only after he had climbed the stairs to Gryffindor Tower and stood before the portrait hole that he realized why Snape's stare unnerved him so.

It was because there had been no irritation or mockery in the professor's gaze. Only a kind of rough sympathy and understanding.

Severus whirled upon his complacent employer. "Albus, there is something wrong with Potter. Or rather, with his home life. What fourteen-year-old boy doesn't rejoice when he's let out of school early?"

"Harry enjoys Hogwarts, Severus. He loves learning magic, much like another boy I could name."

Severus snorted. "Potter seems to regard the school as a refuge," he said. As did I. "I believe there is something off about his home life and I will get to the bottom of it."

"Of course you will, Severus. That is what you do best."

Snape's eyes narrowed. "And if I do find something amiss?"

"Use your discretion, Severus. I trust you." Dumbledore said, then he yawned. "Forgive me, but I seem to need more sleep now than I've ever done. Good night, Severus. Pleasant dreams and have a good trip tomorrow."

Severus didn't bother to respond to that ridiculous statement. "Good night, Headmaster." He sailed out the door, his robes billowing behind him, hoping sleep would find him quickly and that he could somehow get Potter to reveal himself without damaging the boy's fragile psyche. Given time, he could tease it out of him, but time was the one thing he did not have. Perhaps he would have to make the boy an offer he couldn't refuse.

What did you think of the conversation?

What do you think Snape meant by that last line?

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