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The next morning, Severus rose early, as was his wont, and decided to go and see the Headmaster. Albus would be expecting him and he wished to give the damn old fool a piece of his mind as well as showing him the pictures he had taken with his magical camera as proof that Potter's bloody relatives had been mistreating him. Even Albus would not dare to ignore that evidence. Severus had already caused the camera to develop two sets of prints, one he would keep, just in case, and one that he would show the Headmaster.

Severus knew that Albus was not an evil man, but so fixed upon his own agenda of defeating Voldemort that he became blind to anything that impeded it. Albus was used to calling the shots as Head of the Order of the Phoenix, most of its members were Gryffindors who bloody worshipped the ground he trod, and hardly any of them, save perhaps Minerva, dared to question his dictates. Only Severus did so on a regular basis, for he refused to be anyone's pawn, not even the "greatest" wizard in Britain's. Selene had given him a brain so he could use it, and he was Slytherin enough to take nothing at face value and always see if those in authority had an ulterior motive. He had learned the hard way as a child not to trust male authority figures, and though Albus had never raised a hand or wand to him, Severus still was wary. Whenever he entered the Headmaster's office, he did so with his magic at the ready and his wand up his sleeve, ready to fall into his hand with the briefest flicker of movement. Albus would have probably been shocked, but the habit was ingrained in him, as was his sworn vow to never let another man hurt him the way Tobias Snape had.

As with Harry, Albus had never noticed what Severus tried to hide, not until that fateful day in potions when he had collapsed in a dead faint and been sent to the Hospital Wing. Once Poppy had managed to worm the truth out of him, by using her compassionate logic and her medi-witch scans, she had reported directly to the Headmaster. Albus had been shocked and horrified, and had offered Severus the sanctuary of the school during holidays and the summer. But it was Poppy who had escorted him home and helped him pack his things, and it was she who had cast the Retribution Curse upon Tobias, which caused misfortune and illness to dog the man's footsteps, not enough to kill him, but enough to make him suffer as Severus had suffered. For she too was Selene's disciple, and there was nothing worse to her than the deliberate harm of a child. Especially after Snape's father had attempted to try and manhandle her the way he had Eileen. Healer she might be, but Poppy Pomfrey was nobody's pushover, nor did she flinch from doling out her own brand of justice.

She had earned Severus' respect that day and so it remained. Severus never returned to Spinner's End from then on, and Tobias suffered the curse until he was killed in an automobile accident three years later, driving home from the pub after having one too many for the road. Severus went back long enough to settle his affairs with a solicitor and then he sold the house and used the proceeds from it to start a small mail order potions business, renting a room at the Leaky Cauldron and selling his wares in a local apothecary. Because of the war, his healing potions were in high demand, and soon he had enough Galleons to purchase the horse farm here in Nottingham.

It had been then that he had been approached by both Dumbledore and Selene, and had agreed to be the shadow in the dark, and spy on the Death Eaters, in order to bring about Voldemort's destruction. And Dumbledore had also offered him the position of Potions Master, both to aid in his deception and because he needed a competent Master to replace the retired Slughorn. It was a situation that was mutually beneficent to both of them. Dumbledore gained a window into the actions and motivations and plans of his enemy, intelligence gathered by the best spy he had ever known, and Severus gained a way to fulfill his vow to his goddess and a decent job with time to brew on his days off.

Albus had tried repeatedly to mentor the younger man, but Severus would have none of it. He respected the elder wizard as an employer and leader of the Order of the Phoenix, but other than that he wanted nothing more. Albus had failed to put a stop to the Marauders' bullying of him and had failed to see the abuse he had suffered, forever tarnishing his golden image in the Potion Master's eyes. Let others bow and scrape to the Supreme Mugwump, he refused, for he knew that Dumbledore was as flawed as any man, and the only one he ever bowed his head to was Selene.

Not even Voldemort had ever made him perform anything but lip service, and thus Severus remained unbowed and unbroken, forever wild as the stallion whose shape he bore.

So when he dressed and left Harry asleep upstairs, scrawling a quick note to tell the the boy where he had gone should he wake before Severus returned, he was fully prepared to fight tooth and nail for Lily's son, no matter what. He would not be intimidated and he was immune to the old wizard's charm as well. He had done what was right, not what was easy, and nothing Dumbledore said would change that fact. Or the fact that it had been Dumbledore's decision that had placed Harry with those no-good Muggles in the first place. It was a decision that Snape knew the Headmaster would now live to regret.

He Flooed directly to his office at school, because it was easier doing so than into Albus' office and because he didn't like dropping in on the Headmaster unannounced. One never knew just what Albus might be doing at any given moment, the old man was known for trying out strange and outlandish notions. He had made that mistake only once, a first-year professor, Flooing into the office to ask Albus about a grading rubric and found the old man "taking an air bath" just like the late Benjamin Franklin used to do, with all the windows open and Albus naked as a jaybird. Severus had almost passed out. He had muttered a quick, "Excuse me, sir, I'll come back at a more convenient time," and immediately threw himself back into the Floo. Even now, he still flushed slightly, recalling that incident. Albus merely thought it was amusing, but then he would, having quite a different view upon modesty than Severus.

Then he swept up from the dungeons like a bat out of hell, ignoring the squeaks of students as they scattered out of his way, and to the gargoyle that guarded the Headmaster's inner sanctum. After speaking the password, "Sugar Quills", Snape stepped up on the staircase and was transported to the office door. He knocked twice and waited until he heard Albus acknowledge his presence before stepping inside.

The Headmaster was seated behind his desk, perusing some reports, dressed in his usual flamboyant purple robes, his blue eyes sparkling over his half-moon spectacles. "Ah, Severus! Back from your trip to Muggle suburbia already? How did it go?"

Snape's eyes flashed, suddenly in no mood for the usual jolly attitude Albus displayed. "How did it go?" he hissed. He slapped the photos down atop the papers beneath his employer's nose. "Take a look at those, Headmaster, and then ask me that same question. I did as you required, and left Potter with his relatives, but as I said before, something about them seemed off, so I stayed to look around and observe. That is what I saw."

Dumbledore looked puzzled. "I don't understand, Severus."

"You will. Look closely at the pictures. And keep in mind, these are affluent people, able to afford a decent house, private school for their son, a large car, vacations. Yet that is where they chose to keep their only nephew."

Dumbledore examined the pictures, one by one. "This can't be right," he cried. "You must be mistaken."

"I am not. I saw with my own two eyes the room in which Potter stays in when he's at home. Those were the first pictures I took. The next set shows the room of his cousin, who looks kin to a baby hippopotamus and is just as nasty tempered as a full-grown one. Do you see the locks upon the door to Potter's room, Albus? Locks that belong on a bank vault, not the room of a fourteen-year-old. Do you see the shoddy pitiful furniture, the bed with springs poking out, the cracked shelves? I've seen better on a roadside motel. Now look at this one's room. Bit of a discrepancy, wouldn't you say?"

Snape's voice was sharp, dripping sarcasm.

Dumbledore remained silent for a few moments, his face still and set, his eyes sad. "They favor their own natural son over him. I never thought they would do such a thing."

"No? Why not? That is what most people do—favor their own. Unless they are drunken deadbeats like my sire," Severus said coldly. "And before that, Albus, they put him here—in a cupboard under the stairs." He stabbed a finger at the pictures of the wretched cramped cupboard. "They put a little boy in with the mops and brooms. And do you know why they did such a thing? Because they didn't see him as a person, but a useless magical freak. A slave to do the washing up and the cooking and the scrubbing and yard work. A boy Cinderella."

"Cinderella? I'm not familiar with that reference."

"Look it up in the bloody encyclopedia!" Severus snarled. "Now do you see why he was reluctant to go home? Now do you understand?"

The old wizard paled. "I understand that I was mistaken all those years ago."

"Mistaken! Is that what you call it? You left him on their doorstep like a bottle of milk and never bothered to ask if they wanted another child."

"I left a letter with him, informing Petunia of what happened. She was Lily's sister, she had an obligation to care for him."

Severus made a disgusted noise. "Petunia never gave a damn about Lily. If you knew anything about her, you would have known that. You should have listened to Minerva that night, Albus. She told you they were the worst sort of Muggles."

"She was not speaking from experience, Severus."

"If you had consulted me, I could have told you that I wouldn't put a gnat in the care of bloody Petunia Dursley. I grew up with her, and she hated magic even then. She was always jealous of Lily and me, always sneering and calling us freaks and outcasts. She and Lily parted ways before Lily left Hogwarts, she would have been the last person I would have recommended, Albus. The very last."

"I did not know," the Headmaster muttered feebly.

"Did not know, or did not want to know?" queried Snape silkily.

Albus frowned up at him. "I had to put Harry somewhere safe, it was chaos that night, as I'm sure you'll remember. I had no time to consult anyone. Blood provides the strongest protections there is."

"Only if the relative considers the person part of his or her family. She never did!" Snape argued. "You don't treat your family like trash, Albus! You should have gone back and checked on him afterwards. Why didn't you?"

The old man looked away. "I . . .sent Mrs. Figg. She told me they had taken him in. I assumed he was fine. They should have taken to him, Severus. He was only a baby, and helpless."

"But he was a magical baby, and therefore anathema in their eyes. Do you know what else I learned during my visit, Albus? Listen closely and you will hear how well the Dursleys loved their homeless baby Potter. . . " Snape rasped.

He then told Dumbledore nearly everything Harry had revealed to him. When he was done he noticed that the Headmaster was pale and bloodless, his blue eyes filled with sorrow and regret. "So there you have it. The reason why he never went home for holidays, because to do so would be to walk right back through the gates of hell. Much the same as another boy I once knew."

Albus flinched. "Severus, had I known, had you spoken up sooner, I would have—"

"Would have what? Hexed my father into oblivion like he deserved? Please! Your ethics prevent you from using magic on a Muggle. And I would have never told you anything, just as Potter never did. Want to know why? Because we were conditioned not to, or else we would get it three times as bad. Don't speak, don't tell. Ever. But the signs were there, Albus. They were there and yet you never saw them."

"I . . .I didn't know what to look for."

"With me, no. But I'm not talking about me, Albus. I'm talking about Potter. How could you miss the same thing again?"

"He always seemed so happy . . ."

"Here, he was. But he told me he asked second year if he could stay at school over the summer and you refused. You sent him back there and didn't even ask why. Selene have mercy, Albus!"

The other's eyes flashed. "He had to go back there, Severus Snape! There were blood wards keeping him safe from dark wizards. His mother's sacrifice made it imperative that he live with his family."

Severus laughed once. "The wards will do little if the recipient keyed to them believes he doesn't belong to a family. As for Lily's sacrifice, do you not know that it was not her alone who deflected the Killing Curse? She called upon the Lady and Selene answered. It was Selene who caused the spell to rebound upon He-who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

"You see your goddess' Hand in everything. It was Lily's love that protected Harry."

"If that is so, if a mother's love is so powerful, then why didn't it save all the rest of those children the Dark Lord murdered? He killed hundreds of children, while their parents watched! I know . . .I was there . . .I saw . . .their mothers begged him for mercy, they offered themselves for their children, they died for them . . .but none of their children survived the Killing Curse. Are you saying that Lily's love was so much greater than theirs? They were witches too, some of them. With their dying breath, they tried to save their children with magic. Yet they failed." Snape pointed out chillingly. "Your theory is flawed, Headmaster. Lily was an avatar that night, and that is why Potter lived. Because She Marked him for her own."

"How do you know that? He bears a lightning bolt, not the crescent."

"His Mark is not visible on the outside. It is within. I can See it, it shines like a beacon to my Magesight. You could See it too if you looked."

"Then why did you not See it before?" challenged Albus.

"Because I, too, was blind," Severus admitted. "In any case, you now have proof that Potter is being mistreated, and after what I had seen, I acted upon my discretion and removed him from there."

"But Severus, the blood wards!"

"Are null and void!" Severus growled, aggravated at the other's stubbornness. "They were abusing him, Albus, did you just expect me to stand there and watch it happen?"

"No, but you should have consulted me first."

"As you said to me before—there wasn't time."

"Where is Harry now?"

"Safe. In my home."

"Severus, you cannot keep him there."

"Like hell I can't."

"Now Severus, be reasonable, you're my spy, how would it look if you were to be seen taking in Harry Potter?"

"No one knows I have done that, Albus," Severus said through gritted teeth. "No one but you. And you will not be running to tattle on me to the Dark Lord, I hope?"

"Severus, you cannot possibly protect him adequately. My blood wards are the strongest protection—"

"To the bloody abyss with your blood wards, Albus!" Severus cried, his temper slipping its leash. "I am his guardian, Dursley signed him over to me and Potter agreed willingly. See for yourself!" he removed the guardianship document from his pocket and shoved it at the other wizard.

Albus' jaw dropped. "You . . .are Harry's guardian?" He rubbed his eyes. "I am not certain I'm not dreaming."

"You're awake. You wouldn't be half this irritating asleep," Severus growled.

A shrewd gleam crept into the Headmaster's eyes. "Well, well. Who would have thought? And here I figured you would carry your resentment of James' son to your grave."

Severus ignored that dig. "I am sworn to his protection. Like me, he is Selene's Chosen. And who better to look after him now than me, Her initiate?"

"Harry does not worship, Selene, Severus. I forbid you to convert him."

"Forbid, Albus? You cannot forbid me anything, and I do not need to convert him. He will come to Her willingly or not at all, like the rest of us did. Why does it bother you?" Severus frowned. Albus had always been skittish about religion, the professor did not know what deity he worshipped, or even if he worshipped any.

"I fear he will come to depend upon Her, like a crutch. That is the trap of religion." The Headmaster murmured.

"A trap? Oh, Albus, you know nothing about Selene if that's what you think. She does not trap, She frees. And just because you call upon Her doesn't mean She answers you. She's not a dog. I have served Her since I was thirteen and my will is still my own. My choices are still my own. She takes none of that away. She gives me courage in dark places and when I stand before that beast in human shape, I know that She stands beside me, always. How do you think I have endured for so many years without going insane?"

"You're a natural Occlumens. And strong-willed."

"That is not enough. I draw my strength from Her, Albus. And thus I am able to keep my promise." Snape's mouth tightened. "Harry stays with me, Albus. He will never return to those . . .Muggles. I have called the plagues down upon them for what they have done, and I gave him my word that he would never see Privet Drive again. I will not be foresworn."

Albus looked startled and then pleased. "You called the Moon Lady's vengeance upon them?"

"Yes. They suffered the seven plagues of Egypt, more or less."

"Including the last?"

"The death of the firstborn? Don't be ridiculous. I am no dark wizard, to kill a child. Though after what I did, they may wish themselves dead," said Severus, his voice throbbing with satisfaction.

"Good. I cannot say I feel sorry for them," Dumbledore said, his tone an echo of Snape's. "Though I would have preferred Muggle justice be involved."

"My way was quicker. The boy could not bear to be in that house more than a night. Nor would he have trusted Muggle police to tell them the truth." Severus leaned forward upon the desk. "After seeing that and hearing what I told you, tell me that you wouldn't have done the same, Albus."

The blue eyes hardened. "I may have done worse. It was never my intention to have Harry hurt, I thought Petunia would take better care of him, I thought it safer for him to grow up away from the wizarding world. When I saw him for the first time in the Hall, I did think he was small for his age, but I figured that was just how he was, I never thought they were starving him. I never thought to ask Mrs. Figg to go inside the house." He grimaced, looking weary and old. "I have failed him badly. All this time I thought he was being treated like any other child, and instead it was the opposite. There is nothing I can do to change it, and I don't know if he will ever forgive me for it."

Severus could hear the regret in the other's tone and breathed a sigh of relief. "There is one thing you may do."

"What is that?"

"Apologize to him for your poor decision and then let him live with me, as he has chosen. My home is well guarded, trust me on that. No Death Eater even knows where it is and none have ever breached the wards. You do not even know where it is. Harry will be safe there. And also happy."

Albus sighed. "Very well, Severus. You have twisted my arm. I shall allow him to remain with you, as you are his guardian now. I hope you may be able to undo some of the damage the Dursleys inflicted. For if you cannot, than no one can."

"He will recover. I did. It simply takes time."

"You would know best," the other conceded regretfully. He stared down at the pictures numbly, the pictures of a broken childhood, and so missed entirely the startled look upon the Potion Master's face. It was rare that Dumbledore admitted he was wrong, but apparently finding out the truth about Harry's home life had shaken him badly. "I wish you luck, Severus. Poor child. I shall give him time to settle in and then come for a short visit. Perhaps in a week?"

"That would be fine. Send me a letter beforehand and I shall write back and send you a charm to get past my wards." Severus conceded. He removed the guardianship paper and the photos from the desk. "I will go and file this at the Ministry. Augusta Longbottom works in Records, she will be discreet about it."

"I could do that and save you the trouble," Albus offered.

"No, that is quite all right." Severus declined. Though Albus had seemed to accept the guardianship, he still did not trust the man to not throw a monkey wrench into the gears, and losing the document would foul up his claim considerably. He was not about to let that happen. Things that inconvenienced his plans had a way of "disappearing" off of Dumbledore's desk, and Severus knew he would not have been the other's choice to look after the hero of the wizarding world. Albus would have much preferred one of his loyal Gryffindors, instead of his argumentative, independent, Moon-worshipping Slytherin. "Good day, Headmaster. I shall see you in a week."

"Goodbye, Severus." Albus responded, though the twinkle was gone from his eyes. "Oh, and Severus, I am truly sorry. For everything."

"Now is too late for regrets, Albus. What's done is done," was all he replied. Then he left the office in a swirl of black robes, feeling extremely satisfied. For once he had managed to get the jump on the wily old coot and outmaneuver him.

One week later:

Severus had taken Harry to get his new glasses earlier than planned, as the Occular Specialist had had a cancellation. Harry had gone disguised by a Disillusionment Charm cast by his guardian, one that lightened his hair to nondescript brown, changed his eyes to hazel, erased his scar and gave him tanned skin and a rounder face. He was introduced as a student whose parents had died recently, an Ernest Brown.

"Ernest Brown?" Harry had protested. "You couldn't come up with something better?"

"Better than what?"

"Something cooler?"

"This is not about being "cool", as you put it, young man. It's about blending in. Do you want new glasses or not?"

"Yes."

"Then shut up and stop whining."

That was the end of that conversation. The visit went well, however. Harry walked out with a brand new pair of rimless glasses, made of shatter and glare proof magical glass. They also were scratch resistant and doubled as sunglasses when needed. He loved them, but nearly fell over when the occulist announced the price. Over two hundred Galleons! Severus wrote him a bank note.

"You didn't have to do that, sir," were the first words out of his mouth once they had arrived home.

"Do what? Buy you adequate glasses so I don't have to squint and ruin my eyes trying to decipher your awful scrawl, Potter? Or perhaps you think I like trying to figure out whether the blob on the paper is a word, a letter, or an obscene picture?"

Harry blushed. He had a point. "Uh . . .no, sir. It's just I . . ." He trailed off, digging his foot into the floor. How could he explain the fact that no one had ever gotten him anything because he really needed it and not expected something in return?

"As your guardian, it's my responsibility to provide you with necessities," Severus said calmly. "Those are one. Now you no longer have the excuse of not seeing to be able to read all your assignments and do them correctly, boy." He reminded his charge with a smirk. "You can begin on your summer homework now."

Harry groaned. He should have seen that coming. "How far do I have to get?"

Severus' eyebrow went up. "Negotiating? Read the first chapter of my assignment and then Herbology. That should take you an hour and a half at most. Then we shall have a small snack and I shall take you with me into Sherwood and introduce you to the forest."

Harry nodded. "Okay, sir." He half-ran up the stairs, pausing almost to the top and calling over his shoulder belatedly, "Thank you, professor."

Snape grunted, then added, "Read the words, Mr. Potter and comprehend them. No skimming!"

Harry bit back another sigh, but he went and got his books from the bookshelf Severus had given him and flopped on his bed to read.

The assignments weren't as bad as he feared and he was done with them fifteen minutes early.

After a snack, they headed out to the forest, which Severus explained had two sides to it—the mundane one that everyone could see and walk in, and the magical one that only wizards could enter.

It was cool and filled with life, the trees in the full bloom of their greenery, and Harry took in great gulps of air that felt as pure and pristine as heaven itself. Snape paused about ten minutes into the trees and laid his hand upon a venerable oak, one that had large gnarled roots and many intersecting branches. "Come here, Harry. Let the Ancient One know you."

Harry frowned. How could a tree know him? "Sir?"

"Place your hand on the oak."

Harry did so. He felt the rough bark beneath his fingers and wondered what was so special about it. Then he felt a tingle and sudden warmth spread up his arm and he could feel the tree's sap running, warm and thick and ancient. He could feel the rustle of the wind through the branches and the way the sunlight hit the leaves, which drew the sweet hot energy into itself and fed it all the way through the trunk and down to the roots nestled deep within the nourishing soil. He could sense the pulse of the land, ancient and unwavering, that counted time but lightly. And he could feel a presence, feel the wood eyeing him, the way you would a curious new visitor.

He gasped, and then felt the wood glance aside. There was no danger in this one. Power, but no evil.

Harry opened his eyes. "What was that, Professor Snape?"

"That was the heart of Sherwood Forest. Since it has acknowledged and accepted you, it is safe for you to enter it for brief periods. Come, I need to gather several specimens of moss and a creeper vine."

Harry followed his professor deeper into the trees, looking about eagerly. He could sense the magic in this place, it was ancient, as old as the Forbidden Forest, but not as dark feeling. Severus walked swiftly, he was clearly familiar with the paths they trod, and Harry had to trot to keep up with the man's long legged strides.

Even so, he managed to catch a glimpse of a glitter quail, a golden plumaged bird with a glittering silver tail, scurrying into the undergrowth, a balck squirrel, and he swore for a moment he saw a slender girl's face peeping out from behind a tree. She had green skin and reddish hair and golden eyes and she grinned and winked before vanishing.

"Professor Snape? Are there . . .girls that live in the forest?" he asked uncertainly.

The professor halted. "Girls?"

"Well, you see, just as we went by that big oak tree, I thought I saw a girl's face, only she was green and had red hair like fire."

"A dryad. That's what you saw," Severus said. "They live in the oaks and maples and ash trees here. They won't harm you, but don't let them kiss you."

"Kiss me?"

"Yes, dryads have a . . .fondness towards human males. Especially young ones. They like to take them for mates, since there is no such thing as a male dryad."

"There isn't? But why?"

"That is just how it is. So they look for likely humans."

Harry gulped, reddening spectacularly. "But I'm . . .I'm too young to be . . .uh . . .a dad!"

Severus chuckled wickedly. "Not to a dryad. They prefer men between sixteen and twenty. Young and handsome and easy to enchant."

"Enchant?"

"Yes. They say a dryad's song can bring a man to forget his own name and family for a time, and when she sings to call a mate to her for a night or two . . ."

"But what if I don't want to be her m-mate, sir?"

"After you heard her singing, Potter, you wouldn't mind at all." Snape was very amused, his dark eyes twinkling almost like the Headmaster's.

"Have they ever . . .I mean have you ever . . .heard them singing . . .?"

"Once or twice. But I was careful to stop my ears with beeswax plugs. That's one way of defeating their song."

"What's another way?"

"To fall in love with a girl of your choosing. A dryad's song will not affect a man whose heart belongs truly to another. The enchantment cannot break the bond of love."

"Oh." Harry said. Then he asked, "Professor, do you have any of those earplugs?"

Snape's mouth twitched and he made an odd sound.

It took Harry a minute before he realized the dour wizard was actually chuckling. "You won't need them today, apprentice. It's not the right season for a dryad to seek a mate. Like the trees, dryads seek mates in autumn."

"They do? So I'm . . .safe?"

Snape nodded.

Harry glared at him. "You knew that all along!" he accused. "And you let me think . . .that I might be . . ." He blushed furiously. "You're so . . .so . . .bloody . . ."

"Careful, Potter. You don't want to find out how long it takes to whitewash a fence, do you? Or how bad cod liver oil tastes, now do you?" warned the professor, his tone hard.

Harry froze. He shook his head rapidly.

"I thought not. Come, the grove isn't far now." He beckoned the sullen teenager onward, saying softly, "And here I thought you Gryffindors possessed a sense of humor."

The boy followed, his pride smarting a little, but then he realized that Snape had been teasing him, and his astonishment at that discovery made him grin in spite of himself.

They spent the afternoon gathering blue ferns and greenwood moss and seed pods, plus the cuttings from a wandering lavender ivy. Severus made Harry sketch each new plant in a notebook he Summoned, writing down their properties and how they were used in potions. Thus began his lessons in summer potion-making.

Severus also showed him where wild onions and carrots grew and how to gather them, as well as walnuts and fresh blackberries. "The forest provides food if you know where to find it, so you will never starve."

That night they feasted upon a fresh salad, bread, fish fillets, and a blackberry compote with ice cream.

Harry then washed the dishes using wandless magic again, it took him only thirty-five minutes to focus himself this time. Then they played a rousing game of Wizard Chess before Harry nodded off over the pieces and Severus shook him and told him to go to bed.

That set the tone for the rest of the week, until Friday arrived, and Harry had just emerged from the shower and was coming down to breakfast when he heard Severus talking to someone below. He peered over the railing and saw Dumbledore standing in front of the fireplace, holding a newspaper in his hand and looking rather grave.

Harry paused as he came down the stairs, wondering what the Headmaster was doing here. Had he come to yell at Severus for taking Harry away from Privet Drive? Harry bit his lip, hoping he hadn't caused the professor to get into trouble. It would not be a good thing if Snape were sacked for helping him.

" . . .shall you tell him, or shall I?" asked Dumbledore quietly, but the sound carried in the wide open area and Harry heard every word clearly.

"Albus, as it was you who came here to speak with him anyhow, you may as well tell him all of it," Severus replied testily. "I am tired of being the crow all the time, delivering ill news."

"Very well."

Harry moved then, making enough noise so the two men turned to face the stairs. "Tell me what?"

He winced as his voice echoed loudly and there came an annoyed screech from Hedwig upstairs on her perch. Ron had sent her back at the beginning of the week, along with a letter that said he hoped Harry was okay wherever he was. "Sorry, Hedwig," Harry called.

"Harry, come here and greet Professor Dumbledore properly," Severus ordered. "He wishes to discuss something with you."

"Hello, Harry. I hope you're doing well," Dumbledore said, smiling at him.

"Hello, Professor. I'm fine now."

"Good, I'm glad to hear it. I trust Professor Snape has been treating you well?"

"He has, sir," Harry said. He eyed the other wizard warily. "Much better than my relatives did."

Dumbledore winced at the bitter note in the boy's tone. "I am sorry for that, Harry. I never thought they would treat you so."

The young wizard's eyes flashed. "You could have asked. I told you I didn't want to go back there."

Dumbledore looked ashamed. "You are right. Instead I assumed that you simply were having too much fun at school with your friends, like your father used to—" he shot a look at Severus, who snorted loudly. "I cannot tell you how sorry I am that I did not recognize what you were trying to tell me and do something about it. It is something I should have been aware of." He met the boy's eyes then. "Can you forgive me for it?"

Harry thought about it. He was silent for a long moment. The damage had already been done. Did it make sense to resent the other for it now? Still, he did feel resentment and anger over Dumbledore's blindness. He could have been spared so much misery if the old wizard had seen the signs. He stared up into the blue eyes and saw the regret written in them. Sure, you regret it now. He felt the resentment coil within him, into a cold knot. "I'll have to think about it, sir."

Dumbledore exhaled, looking unhappy. "I understand. I erred badly in thinking that your Muggle family would accept you without reservations. And now, I'm afraid, I must tell you some other depressing news."

"Like what?" Harry asked, feeling a sharp frission of fear shoot down his spine. "I won't . . .you won't make me leave here, will you?" He unconsciously edged closer to Severus, who reached out and put a hand upon his shoulder.

"No, Harry. Professor Snape is your guardian now, and you are his ward. Please, come and sit down."

Harry followed Dumbledore to the couch and sat, a sick feeling stirring in his stomach. "What is it? What's happened? Is it Ron? Or Hermione?"

"No, your friends are fine. It's your aunt and uncle and cousin. I went by their house today and found it borded up and some odd yellow and black tape across the door and lawn. A neighbor told me what had happened, and then I found a copy of the local paper in town. Here. It's best if you read it for yourself." He handed Harry the paper.

Harry took it and read the following headline.

Family Found Dead in Home. Cause of Death Unknown, Nephew Missing. No Sign of Foul Play. Police Baffled.

Harry felt his stomach start to churn. They were dead. The Dursleys were dead. He slid his eyes from the newspaper to Dumbledore. "They're . . .dead."

"I am very sorry, Harry. I know they were not kind to you, but still . . ." He went to put a hand upon Harry's shoulder.

Harry flinched away. "How . . .did they die? Was it by magic?"

"I fear so. I had one of our people examine the bodies at the morgue," said the Headmaster. "Harry . . .there's no easy way to say this . . ." He paused, looked over at Severus, who was standing off to one side, face expressionless.

"Tell him, Albus. He deserves to know the truth."

Dumbledore sighed. "As you wish." He turned back to Harry. "They were killed by the Killing Curse. After they were tortured with the Cruciatus. It is my theory that Death Eaters came there seeking you and when they didn't find you . . .they wouldn't have believed your relatives saying they didn't know where you were, so they . . .tried to get them to talk . . .Harry, you are not to blame yourself for this—"

Harry's mind whirled. He could not quite grasp all the Headmaster was saying, but one thing was perfectly clear. The Death Eaters had come for him and killed the Dursleys in his stead. As much as he had hated them at times, and feared his uncle's wrath, he had not wanted them dead. Not that way. Not tortured to death by dark wizards.

He was on his feet then, his insides a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. "How is it not my fault? They came because of me. What happened to the protections?"

"They fell when Vernon repudiated you," Dumbledore said. "In truth, they had not been working well for some time because of how they treated you. I was not aware of it until—"

"There seems to be a lot you weren't aware of!" Harry cried angrily. Then he whirled and ran past them, heading out the back entrance.

"Harry!" Dumbledore called, and made as if to follow.

Snape put out a hand and halted him. "Let him go, Albus. Leave him be. He won't go far."

"Severus, he's upset—"

"I know and he wishes to be alone right now. I will go find him later." Severus said. "For now, how about a cup of tea and some scones?"

"Thank you, but no. I must be on my way. I have a meeting with the Minister." He looked across the room and out the large bay window. "Poor boy. So much for him to bear."

Indeed. And whose fault is that? Severus thought darkly.

Some twenty-five minutes later, Severus walked out across the back pasture, a small bundle tucked under his arm. He was not wearing his customary black robes that morning, because he was not brewing, and so was only dressed in ordinary khaki slacks and a long sleeved lightweight shirt colored a marine blue. It was warm out and the sun peeked from an array of fluffy clouds cautiously.

He found Harry at the edge of the pasture, beneath an old beech tree, sitting with his knees drawn up and his head down. He almost appeared to be asleep. But Severus knew better. "Harry."

At his name, he lifted his head. His face was pale and there was a smudge of dirt on one cheek. His glasses were awry and the eyes behind them were filled with a helpless regret and anger. "What? Is it time for lessons? I'm not in the mood."

"I thought perhaps we'd start with breakfast."

"Not hungry."

Severus dug a familiar vial out of a pocket of his trousers. "At least drink this."

Harry made no move to accept the Nutrient Suppliment. "Can't. Stomach hurts."

"That's because you need something in there. Take it." He proferred the vial again.

Harry batted it away. "No! You want me to sick up all over you?"

In answer, the Potions Master removed yet another vial from his pocket, this one containing a white milky potion. "Take this first and you won't get sick."

Harry shook his head.

Exasperated, the professor snapped, "Mr. Potter, take the damn potion. It won't harm you. Or do you like feeling as if your stomach is going to heave itself out of your throat at any moment?"

"No."

"Then quit acting like a baby, or else I will treat you like one."

Hearing the warning in the other's tone, Harry took both vials, downing them one after the other, so quickly he choked.

Severus tilted his head up and rubbed his back till he had stopped sputtering. "Trying to drown yourself will not help you, foolish boy," he scolded gently. "It will not change the fact that they are gone."

He seated himself on the ground next to the boy, one hand resting casually upon his bent left knee. "The Headmaster was right, you know. Blaming yourself is fruitless. There was no way you could have known what would happen. None of us predicted that the Death Eaters would come to Privet Drive."

"I know that. But still . . ."

"Look at me." he waited until Harry had done so, then said, "You are not responsible for the actions of others. The Death Eaters have killed and tortured Muggles before this. They take pleasure in such things. Had you been there, you could not have prevented it. You could only have suffered along with them."

"They might not have been attacked if I was there," Harry began.

"Don't be an idiot! I told you, Death Eaters hurt Muggles for sport. They would have killed two birds with one stone. Blame them, not yourself." He gave the boy a slight shake.

Sudden tears filled the emerald eyes. Angrily, Harry swiped them away. He would not cry for the Dursleys. He wouldn't. "I don't even know why I . . .I feel like this. They hated me. They couldn't wait till I was gone off to Hogwarts. They never wanted me. They hurt me and thought I was some kind of freak. They never acted like my real family. I used to wish Uncle Vernon run over by a car lots of times. So why do I care now that they're gone? They would be throwing a party if it were me lying there dead. I never loved them . . .never! So why do I feel this way?" He turned away abruptly, sniffling hard.

Severus handed him a handkerchief. "Why do you feel remorse and regret? Because you are a better person than they, Harry. You know what my father did to me. He died when I was seventeen, killed in an auto accident. He was drunk. When I first heard the news I was stunned. It hardly seemed real. The nemesis of my childhood, the boogeyman, was gone. I need never fear going home or seeing his face again. I was finally free. I was glad the bastard was dead. Yet when I went to the funeral, and stood over his grave, intending to spit on it and curse him, do you know what I did?"

"No."

"I wept. A few tears. I cried for that son of a bitch. Do you know why?"

"No."

"Because I had lost my last chance to try and mend things with him. Even though I loathed him, even though I hated and feared what he had done to me, there was still a part of me that wanted him to recognize me as his son. Not even love me. Just accept that I was his and acknowledge me as a person. That was all. It was not something I realized consciously. But it was there, just the same. It never would have happened. The bastard would have sooner spit on me. I knew that here." Severus tapped his temple. "But here—"he placed a hand over his heart. "—I still hoped. Maybe someday, a miracle would occur. But then he died . . .and with him died my hope. I stood there, at his grave, and I hated him and I loved him. And I wept for what might have been and now never would be."

He placed his other arm lightly about the young wizard's shoulders.

He felt the boy stiffen for a brief moment. Then Harry relaxed.

Harry kept his face averted, trying to pretend the tears slipping down his cheeks were sweat, or raindrops, because he didn't give a damn that Vernon was gone, who had beaten him black and blue, or Petunia, who had pinched him and starved him and called him an unnatural freak, or Dudley who had tormented him unmercifully and then laughed afterwards when Harry got in trouble at home.

"They never loved me," he whispered harshly, the words like acid on his tongue.

More tears fell.

"But I used to wish they did. And sometimes . . .sometimes I still do."

There was silence for a moment. Harry shut his eyes. Severus was right. His tears were not for them, but for himself, and for what should have been, had they not been selfish coldhearted beasts.

"I know," came the soft answer. The hand on his shoulder patted him awkwardly.

It felt good. He turned and leaned his head tentatively upon Severus's arm, breathing in the scent of the other. It was pleasant, a sort of sandalwood and herb smell, mixed with cloth, and that uniquely male essence. It eased the guilt and regret. He pressed his nose into the other's shoulder, cheek resting upon that lean muscle and he was not afraid. He should have been afraid. Snape was an adult male, strong enough to wallop him from here to China, physically or magically. Yet here he was, trustingly leaning against the man. It was unbelievable. As unbelievable as him crying for the Dursleys.

Yet it had happened.

They remained that way for a long time, until Severus' arm grew numb and Harry's stomach growled and complained, reminding him that he needed to eat now.

Harry shifted, he was drowsy and comfortable, he didn't want to move, but hunger won out. He lifted his head and met Snape's eyes. "I think breakfast would be good now."

The professor smirked. "Your stomach agrees." He shifted too, and reached for the package lying beside him. "Here. I believe these belong to you."

Harry took the package and opened it. Inside were the Marauders Map and his Invisibility Cloak. "You're giving them back to me?"

"I said I would, didn't I? The week is up. But mark me, Mr. Potter. If you use them to break school rules again and I catch you, I shall confiscate them indefinitely. The cloak especially. That should be used only in an emergency, not for foolish pranks or some bit of idiotic mischief. Think before you act. Understood?"

"Yes, sir." He hugged the bundle to him. His stomach rumbled noisily.

Severus rose and extended a hand. "Come up from there, Harry. It's almost noon, so perhaps we ought to have brunch instead, before you expire."

Harry took the long-fingered hand in his own and allowed himself to be hauled to his feet. Before he could move, the professor had turned him about and was brushing off the back of him. "You've got something against grass?" he asked cheekily.

"No. But it belongs outside," answered the professor. He turned away and started back towards the house.

Harry followed, swiping his eyes one last time with the handkerchief, then tucking it in his pocket. The Dursleys had been awful people, but he regretted their deaths, deserved though they might have been. Or at least, he regretted what might have been. He sighed, and wondered how long he would be carrying around that ghost, before it finally left him in peace?

Severus glanced back once, then reassured that Harry was indeed following, started up the porch steps. He knew he would have to reveal his Animagus form soon, the full moon was but two weeks away and he would have liked to initiate Harry into the Mysteries by then. Providing the boy was willing to accept Selene and the fact that his guardian was also the black stallion Moon Fire. He could only hope that Harry would forgive him his deception and understand the reasons behind it.

But that could wait. He had a starving child to feed, and he knew that a teenager's stomach waited upon no man . . .or wizard either.

Hope you all liked the conversation and what followed here.

I hope it wasn't confusiing, shifting time periods like that, but I wanted to show the backstory of what was happening with Harry and Severus before moving on to the Dursleys' deaths.

When do you think Severus should tell Harry about his being Moon Fire?

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