Actions

Work Header

A Year Like None Other

Chapter Text

If there was anything that Harry Potter liked more than chocolate frogs or sugar quills, it was getting mail from his friends. Sometimes, that had been all that had got him through those miserable summers with the Dursleys. He honestly didn't know how he'd managed to make it through the monotonous vacations back before he'd known Ron and Hermione and Dean and Seamus and Remus and Neville… Of course, there'd been that awful summer when Dobby had charmed all the owls away, when his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had been furious that he'd spent an entire year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They hadn't wanted him to go, which actually puzzled Harry whenever he thought about it. It had got him out of their hair for an entire school year. You'd think they'd have been delighted to send him off to any boarding school, even if it was one that taught magic. So what if they hated magic? They hated him more.

"Going to open that, mate?" Ron asked between bites.

"Yeah," Harry answered without looking up. It was no wonder that seeing this letter had brought to mind all those times he'd been stuck at the Dursleys and gasping for mail from his friends. He was at school now, sixth year, surrounded by happy Gryffindors gulping down a quick lunch -- although how anybody could be happy before double Potions was a good guess -- and it seemed he'd got a letter, delivered by magic owl, from those same Dursleys, the ones who hated anything magical.

Nah, couldn't be, Harry decided. It was a joke, right? From Fred and George, even though Harry had no idea how the twins could have gotten his Muggle address. Sure, sure, they could find his house, if they had another enchanted car, that is, but to know how to write out the location of it, Muggle style? But there it was, written right there on the envelope: 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey…

Harry sighed, thinking it less and less likely this could be a joke. Fred and George's father might work in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Department at the Ministry of Magic, but since he'd once asked Harry what the precise purpose of a rubber duck was, Harry didn't think that Mr Weasley understood much at all about Muggles. And this letter… well, even if you ignored the address, it had Muggle written all over it. The envelope wasn't made of a nice parchment, it was just paper, and long and white like the envelopes Uncle Vernon used for business. Besides, a return address? Wizarding letters didn't need those, and they certainly didn't bear postage!

Sighing, Harry began picking at the little profile of the Queen, just for something to do. It was better than opening the letter, that was for sure. In over five years, the Dursleys had never once written him at school. It couldn't be a good sign that they were starting now.

"Eh, Harry?" Ron prompted again, this time with his mouth full. "You want me to open it for you?"

"Nah." Harry shook his head. "I just think… maybe it'd be better if I waited a bit. Yeah. Until after Potions, you know. Best to go into that with a clear head. That slimy excuse for a teacher'll take a thousand points off Gryffindor if I let my potion boil over again like last week."

Hermione looked up from the book she'd been obsessing over for the past day and a half, Countering the Countercurse: Reversing Reversals. "How could you mistake salamander eyes for sea grass, though, Harry? You should know by now that adding animal elements to a potion based on poppy seed oil is going to have repercussions! Don't you remember the principles we learned third year, about animal, vegetable, and mineral, and how some ingredients just want to stay true to class?"

"Ah, Miss Granger. Showing off again, like the arrogant Gryffindor you are." A cool voice from above made them all look up. Snape, of course, his lips twisted, his eyes burning like twin torches, only black. Just the sight of it made Harry want to shudder. No, cancel that. It did make him shudder, because he remembered that same look near the end of last year, when the Potions Master had refused to go help Sirius, no matter that Harry was pleading.

Come to think of it, maybe he'd refused because Harry was pleading. In any case, Sirius had died. Suddenly, instead of being worried that Snape might have heard the "slimy excuse for a teacher" remark, Harry hoped he had.

"And Mr Weasley, with his mouth crammed full as usual, dropping crumbs for the house-elves to magic away. Ten points from Gryffindor for sloppiness." His eyes passed over the three of them, but Harry didn't look up. No point, not when he'd just lose points for his house. The rage smouldering in his eyes would be enough to set Snape off. Not that Snape had ever needed an excuse, let alone a reason, to take points off Gryffindor.

Snape slid past them then, and Harry breathed a sigh of relief.

"The nerve!" Hermione hissed as soon as Snape exited the tall doors at the end of the hall. "He knows perfectly well that the house-elves don't have to sweep this floor! But that's good, isn't it? I mean, they have enough to do. Whoever spelled the floor to blink away debris about to hit it must have thought so--"

"Hermione!" Ron groaned in exasperation. "Do you have room for anything in your head except studies and house-elves? Harry's got a letter he's afraid to open, or didn't you notice?"

She noticed then, plucking the envelope from his fingers and flipping it over twice as she examined it. "Oh. Sorry, Harry."

Ron still didn't know which end was up. "What? What's the matter?"

"It's from the Dursleys," Harry groaned, though how his Muggle relatives had got their hands on a magic owl was still a good question, in his view.

"The Dursleys," Ron slowly repeated. "They don't ever write you."

"So it can't be anything I want to hear," Harry concurred.

"Aw, they can't do much to you," Ron replied, stuffing another slice of carrot cake between his teeth. "It's not like they can take you out of school, is it? Dumbledore'd never stand for it. For one, you're safe here, and for another, how're you going to fight You-Know-Who if you don't become a fully trained wizard?"

"I suppose," Harry murmured, taking the letter back from Hermione. He should probably open it, right? What could the Dursleys do, after all? They'd been cowed the whole summer, just because Mad Eye Moody had given Uncle Vernon some strict advice regarding Harry and mistreatment. In a lot of ways, it had been his best summer yet. The Dursleys had ignored him completely, had looked right through him and acted like he wasn't even in the house, but that was better than chores from dawn until dusk and rants about his parents.

"Read your letter after Potions," Hermione suddenly agreed. "It's probably nothing, Harry, but you don't want to risk it, not with Snape. He's really had it in for you this year, worse than before."

"Yeah," Harry said again, thinking of the pensieve, of Snape's worst memory. Even as angry as he was over Sirius, he was still sorry he'd pried like that. Or maybe he was sorry not so much because he'd offended Snape, but because he'd seen things he really didn't want to know. About his father. About Sirius. "Time for Potions, then," he groaned, pushing to his feet.

"What about the letter?" Ron urged. "It can't be that bad. Why don't you read it on the way?"

"Later," Harry refused. "Much later."

In fact, if he had his way, he just might never open that letter. Harry's expression brightened at that, even if he was on his way to Potions. Yeah, that was it, he'd just never open the letter. The Dursleys wouldn't have written him anything he wanted to read, so that was that. Of course he might have some explaining to do when summer rolled around, but that was months away, still.

Harry shoved the letter deep in his bag, determined to forget about it.

Chapter Text

Harry sighed and shoved his Transfiguration textbook away with both hands. He could do the spells, sort of, so why did he have to learn so much blasted theory? And what good had theory ever done him, anyway?

Well, his memory chimed in, if you'd have understood that twinned wands cancel each other out, you'd have been better prepared to see your parents flowing out of Voldemort's wand...

Harry groaned out loud and flopped his head down onto his arms.

"You read it, huh? Was it so bad, after all?"

Looking up, he saw Ron just stepping through the portrait hole. "Oh no, it's not that." A scowl twisted his lips as he'd thought of how close he'd come to reading the letter. He'd actually opened the stupid envelope before he'd chickened out and shoved the whole thing back into his bag. Now why was it that he could face down Voldemort, but he was afraid of one lousy, measly little letter? Ron was right: the Dursleys couldn't really hurt him, not any more. He wasn't small, and helpless, and friendless, now. But still, that letter in his bag was unnerving him more than anything he thought he'd ever faced.

"It's just the extra reading McGonagall assigned," Harry went back to his previous line of thought. "Honestly, we just need to learn to do the transfigurations, don't you think, not be able to explain every last element of each swish and flick..." Harry glanced to the side and barked a pre-emptive, "Don't say it, Hermione!"

She closed her mouth, but her eyes said it for her.

"How about a game of Wizard Chess?" Ron suggested, plunking himself down on the opposite side of the table from Harry. "That'll get your mind off things."

That was just too much for Hermione. "He doesn't need to get his mind off things, Ron!" she sharply rebuked. "He needs to get his mind on them. Or do you think that Potions test is going to just go away? When have you ever known Snape to threaten a test and not give one? Honestly!"

Potions test.... that was right, Snape had promised one for Friday. Harry had written it down in his notes... somewhere. He dug in his bag, upending books and whatnot, and finally found his potions notes... yeah, Friday, that was what they said. It had seemed a long ways off, back on Tuesday when he'd written it down. Tuesday, the day he'd got that letter.

No, don't think about the letter, he scolded himself. You're going to forget it ever came, right? In fact, if anybody asks about it, you're going to lie, no matter what the sorting hat has to say about Gryffindor honesty and valour.... And if they point out that owl mail never goes astray, you'll say...

"You all right there, Harry?" Ron prompted, elbows on his knees as he leaned close.

"I was just remembering that I'd forgotten all about the Potions test," Harry sighed, leaning back in his chair. "And here it is Thursday night. Ugh. Maybe I could skive off my morning classes and study. What do you think? Hagrid wouldn't mind. Well, not much."

"You are not skipping classes in order to get study time!" Hermione erupted. "You have to get better organized than this, Harry! Start with that bag of yours. I've never seen a messier assortment of quills and texts and extra sheets of parchment. Honestly, how can you even find anything in there?"

"Has anybody ever mentioned how irritating you can be?" Harry shot back.

Hermione only smiled. "That's why you love me."

"Yeah, guess so," Harry admitted with a sheepish smile of his own. Then he glanced at Ron. "Not like that, mate. You know. Friends."

"Yeah," Ron echoed, glancing between the pair of them. "Well, Wizard Chess is off, then. I suppose we have to cram for Potions." Flipping open a book, he groaned. "Okay, who knows the ten most common uses for dragonfly wings in potions with a base of flobberworm fat?"

"There's seventeen primary uses," Hermione pointed out.

"Snape's not going to ask us for all seventeen!"

"Want to bet?" she challenged.

Harry just sighed, and fished his own Potions text out of his disorganized bag.

-----------------------------------------------------------

The next afternoon in Potions, as Harry read the first question on the test, he had to repress a strong desire to chuckle.

Describe in detail the seventeen primary uses for dragonfly wings in potions based on flobberworm fat. Give examples of the potions incorporating each use. Explain the primary healing effects of each potion, including the advantages and disadvantages of ingestion versus topical application.

Actually, the question wasn't all that funny. By the time Harry had finished reading it, he was scowling instead of smiling. Who was Snape kidding? Nobody could answer this, although no doubt Hermione would give it a stab. Oh yeah, and that twit Malfoy. At least Hermione honestly didn't know when she was showing off. She was just enthusiastic about learning, and it sort of bubbled out the top of her head and spilled all over the place. She honestly didn't understand that when it came to some subjects, her enthusiasm wasn't catching.

"Is there a problem, Mr Potter? Is there a reason you've yet to so much as touch quill to parchment?"

The ominous voice boomed from the front of the classroom, startling him so much that he almost upset his ink pot. He righted it with one hand while the other one clutched his quill so hard it threatened to snap.

"Is the content of my lectures too much for your hero's brain to absorb? Perhaps we need to send you back to Remedial Potions again, this year?"

The reference to Remedial Potions made Harry see red, but it also reminded him that what he should do to keep from getting so angry was to Occlude his mind as Snape had taught him. Trouble was, the Potions Master never had really taught him. He'd just yelled at him and demanded he do it, without once so much as explaining what it was he was supposed to do, never mind how. Occluding his mind wasn't much of a choice, in the circumstances, and realizing that fact just made Harry even madder.

Clenching his eyes shut to keep from glaring at the insufferable git, he spoke through gritting teeth. No choice, if he properly opened his mouth, he'd say what he really felt like saying, and if he did that, he'd be every bit as stupid as Snape liked to claim. He'd learned his lesson from Umbridge. With teachers who hated the very air you breathed, you limited your comments to what was strictly necessary.

"No, sir," Harry replied, his eyes shut so tight that he could see stars at the back of his vision.

"Then get to work!" Snape shouted. "Now, Mr Potter! Or do you think yourself above the rest of your classmates, whom I might point out are ignoring the spectacle you present and working, something you've never had the slightest inclination to do? I will say you come by it honestly, though. Your father was the same way, not to mention your sainted godfather--"

Harry suddenly screamed, but not because he'd lost control of his tongue. By the end there, he was biting his tongue to keep from replying. But those last insults had been too much, Snape having the nerve, the unmitigated gall to ridicule Sirius when Harry knew that Snape was responsible for his death, when that same ridicule had driven Sirius out of Grimmauld Place and into danger! It was too much for Harry to take.

The fingers holding his quill tightened, snapping it clean in half, and a shard of brittle feather stalk speared his right palm. So of course Harry screamed, though it was more a yelp of surprise than a full-throated scream of pain. He'd endured the Cruciatus Curse at the hands of Voldemort himself, so a little accident with his quill was hardly going to make him cry.

Well, Snape was wrong about one thing, Harry thought. One thing more, that was. His classmates weren't ignoring him now. They were staring, and not even trying to hide it, and Hermione was mouthing something at him, but he couldn't catch it.

"Are you quite through with today's demonstration of your colossal carelessness, Mr Potter?" Snape sneered. "Shall I have the class thank you, one by one, that at least today you have endangered no one but yourself?"

"Professor, he's bleeding!" Hermione called out.

"I am well aware of the fact, Miss Granger," Snape rebuked her, coming down the aisle in a flurry of billowing robes. "Five points from Gryffindor for speaking out of turn." Glaring down from his imposing height, he watched without comment as Harry yanked the quill out of his flesh and flexed his fingers. Harry tried his best not to so much as wince, not with Snape's beady eyes watching his every move, but a small gasp as it slid out did cross his tightly clenched lips.

Hermione was wrong, he thought as he stared at the wound. He really hadn't been bleeding before, but now the wound was gushing. Fumbling, Harry fetched a handkerchief from his overflowing school bag and wound it tightly around the injury.

"Shall I owl the hospital wing to have your favourite bed made ready, Mr Potter?" Snape sniped.

"I'll just get on with my test, sir," Harry calmly replied, though he felt anything but calm inside. Hmm, maybe he wasn't as bad at Occluding his mind as he'd though. Still, if he was really Occluding it, should he still feel a raging boil of anger just begging to spill out?

"Do that, Mr Potter," Snape sneered, and when Harry didn't so much as move, he continued, "Well?"

Harry ignored him as best he could, and bent down again to fish through his bag for a new quill. Everyone else got back to work when it seemed the confrontation was over. Truth to tell, Harry was almost relieved that Snape had had his say. After all, the Potions Master basically attacked him in every class session. At least this time, he'd got it out of the way straight away. Now Harry could relax somewhat, and just do his best on his test, for what that was worth.

Relaxing, he soon realised, wasn't going to be an option, but not because of Snape.

As Harry dragged a fresh quill from the tangled contents of his bag, he dragged something else out, too. An envelope, one he'd been trying to forget existed. Unfortunately, he wasn't the only one who saw it. Draco Malfoy, sitting right across the aisle, glanced down, probably to make some snide remark of his own about Harry's mishap.

He said nothing though, his gaze merely resting on the odd Muggle envelope.

Then he looked at Harry, and raised an eyebrow.

Horrified, it suddenly occurred to Harry that Malfoy had just seen his summer address.

Harry snatched the letter up onto his desk and began to smear ink all across the numbers and letters on the envelope. 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey.... He covered it all up, and then sat back with a silent sigh, and tried to remember what he was supposed to be doing. Oh yeah, the test, that was it.

Harry shoved the letter underneath his exam paper, and with his injured hand began to scratch out an answer about dragonfly wings, but before he'd even got to the fact that it made a difference whether you harvested them off dead or live insects, a harsh voice was accosting him.

Again.

And this time, it wasn't coming from across the classroom; it was coming from directly in front of his desk.

"What you have slipped beneath your exam paper, Mr Potter?"

Harry glanced up, a bit disoriented from the sudden shift from dragonfly wings. Then he remembered, and flushed. "Nothing, sir."

"Nothing, Mr Potter?"

Somehow, Harry thought, Snape could manage to make any three words in a row sound sarcastic.

"Nothing important, Professor," he clarified.

"Allow me to be the judge of what might be important, Potter. Hand it over."

Harry blanched. "I'll just put it away sir," he said, the words coming out coherently although it felt just like he was babbling.

Draco Malfoy chose that moment to pipe up, "I saw him taking it out after the test began, Professor Snape. I bet it's some sort of cheat sheet--"

"It's not!" Harry erupted, turning a fierce glare on Malfoy.

"Ten points from Gryffindor for yelling during class," Snape calmly intoned.

"What about him?" Harry spat. "He accused me--"

"Ten points from Gryffindor for arguing with a staff member," Snape interrupted. "Ten points from Gryffindor for not doing as I requested, at once. Now, will you hand it over, or shall I spend the remainder of the class period taking points from Gryffindor?"

"I wasn't cheating," Harry mumbled as he slid a hand beneath his exam paper and drew out the envelope. It was sticky with ink, as was the back of his test, Harry realised. Grimacing, he handed it to Snape.

"Can't even keep your secret notes clean?" Snape sniped when he saw the item. "And why conceal them in an envelope at all, let alone one such as this? Haven't you heard of parchment by now, or is that too big a leap for your Muggle-raised mind to manage?"

"It's a letter!" Harry shouted, out of patience. "Haven't you heard of them, you great big--"

"Harry!" Hermione cut him off.

"Twenty points from Gryffindor for insolence," Snape snapped. "And twenty more for speaking out of turn again, Miss Granger." He turned the envelope over in his hands, the smirk on his face growing more evil the longer he stared at the letter.

"So it's a missive, is it? Passing notes in class now, are we, Mr Potter? Well, as you've chosen to disrupt my entire class with it, I think it only fitting that the entire class hear what it has to say, don't you?"

Without waiting for an answer, he drew a piece of plain paper out of the envelope and began to read it out loud.

Chapter Text

"Potter," the letter began, Snape's awful tone of voice making it sound worse than it probably was. Almost as soon as he had begun, though, the Potions Master broke off from reading the text. Aloud, at least. Harry was glaring so hard by then that his vision was coming and going in waves, but he was sure... well, almost sure... that Snape had swept his eyes over the rest of the letter before he folded it, the sound crackling in the dungeon, and shoved it back inside the stained envelope.

Harry's glare changed to a stare, then. An incredulous stare. What, Snape was going to pass up an opportunity to humiliate Harry Potter? Of course, Harry reflected, he didn't know what the letter said. Maybe it was something Snape couldn't read out loud in class no matter how much he could hurt Harry with it. Maybe it was from Uncle Vernon and contained some of the foul epithets Harry had grown used to hearing over the years. Phrases like "you goddamned fucking little freak" weren't exactly appropriate, were they? Not even in the dungeons.

At any rate, Snape appeared to have gone off the idea of reading the letter out loud. "Resume your tests!" he snapped as he sat behind the potions counter up front and stared at them. After that, not a sound did they hear except the scratching of quills until one more barked command came ringing through the air. "Pass in your papers!"

Harry's lips twisted as he complied. Of course his grades in Potions were almost always awful, thanks to Snape hovering over him like a crazed bat, taunting him until he could hardly remember which cauldron was his. But this test was bound to set a new record. Could you get a score below zero? It shouldn't be possible, but if your answers were stupid enough, Harry reasoned, Snape might take off sufficient points to manage it.

He began to pile away his schoolwork, wondering why he was even bothering to continue in Potions, anyway. So what if his O.W.L., graded by an unbiased scorer, had been Outstanding? That didn't make any difference to the likes of Snape, and if Harry had thought that past years were bad, well, he just hadn't known how mean and awful Snape could get, had he? Now he did. Snape was determined to get even with Harry for that pensieve incident; it didn't even matter to the man that Harry had apologised at the time, and meant it, or that he'd never breathed a word of what he'd seen to anyone... well, except Sirius.

About the only reason he was still in Potions was because he needed it to enter the Auror's programme, and whatever Snape wanted to do to him in class, he couldn't mess up Harry's N.E.W.T. scores. Unlike class tests, official wizarding exams were graded by somebody other than hook-nosed, greasy-haired, just plain mean Potions Masters.

He was just turning toward the door, his school bag draped over one shoulder, when the summons came. "Stay behind, Mr Potter."

Harry reluctantly turned back, catching Ron and Hermione's glances. He shook his head a bit when they looked as though they might hang back to be on hand. Snape was wise to that trick. Might as well just face him down and get the whole thing over with.

"Sir?"

Snape looked up from the exams he was stacking, his features unreadable for all his dark eyes remained intense. Before he spoke, though, he warded the doors with a hissed Silencio, waving his wand in an arc that encompassed all the cracks around the heavy wooden frames. "Aren't you forgetting something, Mr Potter?"

Harry could have scratched his head, he was so baffled. Then it came to him. "Oh, you mean the letter?"

The Potions Master's gaze grew even more intense, if such a thing were possible, but strangely, his voice went soft, and not in that menacing way he sometimes used. He sounded almost... sympathetic, though Harry was positive that couldn't be the case. "Yes, I mean the letter, you idiot child. Why haven't you asked to see the Headmaster about this?"

Harry swallowed, not really knowing what to answer. See the Headmaster? Why on earth should he do that? What did the blasted letter say, anyway?

"Er... I didn't really feel that was called for, sir," he finally offered, then stepped back suddenly when Snape stood to hover over him.

"What did you say?"

"I... er... well, it just seemed like, er..."

"Stop your blathering," Snape suddenly commanded, staring straight down into his eyes. "You're making less sense than usual, Potter, and believe me, that is saying something significant."

Harry just stared back, determined not to admit to the truth that he'd never even read the stupid letter.

Snape gave a long-suffering sigh, and only then did Harry recall what a skilled Legilimens the man was. Even without a wand, or a spoken spell, he'd caught enough of Harry's thoughts to draw his own conclusions. Unfortunately, those conclusions were all too accurate.

"What an ungrateful brat you are," Snape remarked, the comment delivered with level precision, not the biting sarcasm Harry usually got from him. Snape didn't sound like he was trying to make him angry now, he just sounded like he was stating facts. Depressing facts. "A letter from your relatives delivered on Tuesday, and here is it Friday, and you've yet to so much as read it."

"How do you know when I got it?" Harry hotly demanded. "For all you know, it came at lunch today and I haven't had time."

"Credit me with some powers of observation, Mr Potter. You were holding it in your hand the day you commented that I was a 'slimy excuse for a teacher.'"

Harry gaped, then recovered himself enough to hold his hand out. He wished it wouldn't shake. It was ridiculous that he could single-handedly defeat a Basilisk, yet quail before this man. Then again, words could cut deeper than fangs, especially Snape's poisonous words. If there was one thing the Potions Master knew inside and out,  it was the art of the insult. "Can I have my letter back, sir?"

"An apology is in order, first," Snape imperiously commanded, crossing his arms. "For that remark."

"Oh yeah, right," Harry murmured, his back taut with resentment. Snape insulted him all the time. When had the professor ever apologised? But if it would get him his letter back, he could do it. "Sorry, sir."

"Like your potions, barely passable," Snape commented. "Ten more points from Gryffindor. All right then, about your letter,  Potter. Do you ever plan to read it?"

Harry didn't see what business that was of Snape's, but he also didn't see the point of another argument, or losing more points. "Yeah, right. All right, yes. Fine, whatever."

"I don't believe you," Snape announced, those eyes that could see right through minds piercing him with some sort of dark anger that Harry really didn't understand. "You may have it back on condition that you read it now, in my presence."

Harry clenched his fists. "What's it to you, sir, whether I read my mail or not?"

"Disappointed it's not fan mail, Potter?"

"So much for your powers of observation," Harry retorted, "sir. If you had significant ones, you'd notice that I hate that vapid stuff people send me."

"Let's be clear, Potter. If you won't read your own post, I shall read it to you."

"Oh, just give it over," Harry sighed, feeling defeated. If he wanted anything less than to read the Dursleys' letter, it was to listen to Snape's sarcastic commentary about it. "Fine, all right? I'll read it."

Snape handed him the inky envelope then, and sat down and watched carefully as Harry wandered to a free desk and dealt with the letter.

His hands shook as he took the letter out and smoothed it flat. Even when it was lying there before him, and he was staring at the words, he had the devil's own time getting started reading. Deep down, he didn't want to know what the Dursleys had in store for him, but there was no avoiding it, now.

Sighing, his brows puckering with reluctance, Harry began to read.

 

Potter,  the letter began.

Petunia says she doesn't know where your freak school is, or we'd have sent this the way normal people send post. Arabella Figg heard us talking about needing to reach you, though, and offered us an owl. We never knew she was one of those. Bet you knew, though, and didn't tell us, did you, boy? There ought to be a law.

Get back to Surrey, Potter. Your aunt's much worse. She's in hospital now; the doctors say it doesn't look good. I don't care if you come on that freak train, or if you have to ride a damned broomstick or something, you get yourself back here. If you know what's good for you, you'll make it fast, and you won't bring a single one of those freaks you associate with along. Petunia doesn't need to see anything like that. It's bad enough she has to see you.

Vernon Dursley

 

Harry looked up then, not knowing what to feel. It was probably wrong to be glad that Aunt Petunia was ill. Yeah, it was definitely wrong. He was supposed to be upset, at least. But he wasn't. Well, at least he hadn't sunk so low as to be happy about it. Not even the littlest bit, he told himself, swallowing back a rush of something horribly shameful.

Snape drew in a sharp breath, then it seemed he deliberately steadied his breathing. "Just how ill is your aunt, Mr Potter?"

"Don't know," Harry admitted, shrugging. "First I've heard of it."

Snape began speaking in his I-can't-believe-a-human-can-be-so-dim voice, each word delivered slowly and enunciated with maddening precision. "What does she have?"

"I told you, I don't know!" Harry retorted, a little impatiently. "Listen, sir, I'm going to be late for Transfiguration if you don't dismiss me, now. May I leave?"

Snape looked absolutely thunderstruck, just before all that astonishment converted itself to burning rage. "Transfiguration! You're still not going to ask to see the Headmaster, you gibbering fool? You don't have the slightest idea what's at stake here, do you? You should have been gone on Tuesday; it may be too late already."

Somewhere in the middle of all that, Snape had grabbed his forearm. Harry tried to shake him off, but Snape only gripped him all the more fiercely. Fed up, Harry finally yelled, "What do you care if I go see her or not? It's my own personal business if my family doesn't give a flip if I live or die and I feel the same--"

Snape leaned down, practically spitting with fury. "Your personal business, is it? If your aunt dies, the wards protecting you fall, Potter! We might like to at least be aware that such a thing has happened, you selfish brat, so that we can make other arrangements to keep you safe and sane. Or do you really think that Neville Longbottom is going to rid the world of the Dark Lord?"

Harry felt like he would fall over, but that Snape's fierce grip kept him upright. "Dumbledore told you about the wards, about the prophecy?"

"The Headmaster and I have few secrets. Now, as I don't trust you further than I could throw you, Mr Potter, I believe we'll both go the headmaster to arrange your departure."

"But if the wards are in danger of falling, surely I should stay right here?" Harry pleaded desperately.

"I do believe you are the most spoiled, egocentric, thoughtless child I've ever had the misfortune to know," Snape replied. "Your aunt is dying, Mr Potter. Apparently that means less than nothing to you, but your family has requested you go see her, and that you will do, like it or not."

"I can't believe you care if I see my dying aunt!"

"Quite correct," Snape confirmed, finally letting go of Harry's arm. "What I care about, Mr Potter, is that you don't irrevocably alienate what little remains on this earth of your mother's blood."

"You mean my cousin Dudley?" Harry gasped. "But you know what he's like! I mean, you saw, over and over, last year! You know, during the Occlumency lessons--"

"Do not call to mind any incidents of last year, Potter, particularly not those incidents!"

Harry mentally stepped back, realizing that it wasn't such a good idea to bring up anything that might remind Snape about how Harry had sneaked a look in that pensieve. "All right, sorry," he muttered, then spoke louder. "But Dudley? You have to be joking. He's not going to participate in any warding, I can tell you that. He'd like to see me dead, him and my uncle both. God only knows why my aunt went along, she hates me just as much--"

"You're hysterical," Snape announced. "Enough, Potter. We're going to the Headmaster to show him this letter, is that clear? And you're going to go to Surrey and beg your family's forgiveness for whatever you did to offend them, is that clear? I don't care if you have to plead on bended knee, Potter, you will be warded by your mother's blood, and if that means making peace with your cousin, then so be it! Now, come along!"

"Yes, sir," Harry muttered, but he might as well not have bothered. The dungeon doors were flying open by then, the Silencio spell sizzling as its vapours dissolved, and Snape was dragging him down the hall toward the stairs.

From behind a carved granite column, Draco Malfoy smirked.

Chapter Text

"This is quite serious, Harry," Albus Dumbledore commented, waving a vague hand to include Severus Snape, who sat with folded arms and a tightly controlled expression. "You'll have to do as the Dursleys ask, of course. This isn't a time for family members to be apart."

Harry sat stone-faced, unwilling to give vent to his true feelings about certain family members. It was bad enough that he'd exploded all over Snape about it a few minutes earlier. Telling Snape, of all people, that his family had always hated him and always would. Well, at least the greasy git hadn't taken him seriously. He'd decided that Harry was hysterical, instead. And that was fine by Harry. He'd rather be thought emotional and immature than give Snape some true fodder for insult. God, he could just imagine it, Snape sniping at him in class about how nobody had ever loved poor, pitiful Harry Potter. Is the supply closet too reminiscent of your cupboard, Potter? he would say. Is that why you rush in and out of it in a tizzy, because being famous Harry Potter doesn't stop you from being scared of tight places? Have a touch of claustrophobia, do we, Potter?

All right, Snape would probably die before he used a word like "tizzy," Harry admitted, but he could easily see the rest of it coming out of that hateful mouth. That, and worse.

So yeah, he'd rather Snape believe that those comments had been born of hysteria. Better that than the horrible man, than anyone, in fact, know the simple, awful truth that he'd never had a home, let alone a family, until he'd come to Hogwarts. While you are here, your house will be your family, he recalled McGonagall saying. And she'd been right. Gryffindor was his family, his only family.

"Are you listening, Harry?" Dumbledore prompted.

"Yeah," he answered, indignant, and then realizing he hadn't been, admitted in a low voice, "No, not really."

"Quite understandable," the headmaster returned, ignoring the way Snape snorted. "News like this is never easy to absorb, particularly when you've had your differences, to say the least, with your family. Severus is right, though; none of that matters, not against the need we have to keep you well-warded. Another cup of tea, Harry?"

Since Harry had yet to so much as touch his first cup, he stared at the headmaster rather incredulously.

"Sherbet lemon, then?"

"No," he sighed, tired of the old man's games. What did he think, that Harry was still a child to mollify with sweets? Actually, Harry reflected, refusing to read that letter hadn't been the height of maturity, and complaining about going to his aunt's deathbed was even more infantile, even if there wasn't the whole issue of his mother's blood staring him in the face. He had been acting like a child, and he was determined to cut it out.

"So I'm off to Surrey, then?" he accepted, launching right into the next logical issue. "I suppose the Order will go on guard duty again, round the clock watches to keep me safe?"

When Dumbledore nodded, Harry conceded. "All right, then. Does the Hogwarts Express run in October, or should I floo to Mrs Figg's house?"

"Floo, I should think, Headmaster," Snape put in. "But not alone. This isn't like the summer when he stayed mainly in and around the house. The aunt's in hospital; Mr Potter will have to put a fair amount of time in there, and in transit. Given that he'll stray far out of bounds of the wards, it's not enough to merely have invisible Order members guarding him."

"He happens to be sitting right here," Harry interrupted. "Don't talk about me like I'm not!"

Snape spared him a cursory glance. "If you want to continue sitting there and listening, don't interrupt again. Now, as I was saying, Potter needs one of us within reach at all times. A visible presence, the better to deter any attempts on his life."

Harry couldn't help but snort. "I thought you read the letter, Professor. No wizards, remember?" He snapped his mouth shut before he could say something more, like They hate magic worse than poison, and me worse than either one.

"I am in fact literate, Mr Potter," Snape sneered. "I'm well aware of your uncle's terms."

Until that moment, Harry actually hadn't been sure that Snape had read the whole thing. That glance he'd given it had been so swift... Harry clenched his fists, wishing he could hit something, groaning a little when the palm of his hand complained. Irritated, he unwound the bandage to inspect the damage. Hmm, not too bad. Didn't even really need Madam Pomfrey, though it was terribly sore. 

Still furious, but determined to put a mature face on it, Harry stood up and faced the Headmaster. "Sir, before I go, I would like to file a complaint against a member of your faculty."

The figure in the chair beside him stiffened, but Dumbledore remained relaxed. "Yes?"

"Professor Snape had no right to read a letter addressed to me, or to begin reading it out loud to a class full of Death Eaters in training."

"Is this true, Severus? You read this aloud?"

Harry was pretty sure that Snape's flashing glance was on account of hearing his dear Slytherins described that way, not because he thought he'd done anything wrong.

"One word," he drawled in a low, mocking tone. "Just to teach Potter not to deal with his post during class. And as for reading the letter in its entirety? Somebody had to."

"Unfortunately true," Dumbledore agreed, but Harry wasn't about to let it go at that. He might not be able to make capital out of the letter, given all the circumstances, but he was determined not to leave this office until he'd shown Snape that teachers weren't the only ones with power.

"There's another matter," he blithely went on, ignoring Snape's gaze boring into the side of his head. "Because Professor Snape had confiscated an extremely personal letter, and because also I'd had an accident with my quill just as class began, I wasn't able to concentrate on my test. I'd respectfully request that you require him to give me a make-up."

"That certainly seems fair," Dumbledore murmured. "Especially given as you were a bit distraught over your aunt, as well."

"Albus," Snape scathed, "he didn't even know about his aunt until after the test. He didn't care to know."

"Ah, well, there is that. Still, Severus, I'd think you could relax your stringent standards just this once."

"I offered Mr Potter the chance to go to the hospital wing when he so stupidly injured himself."

"No, you didn't," Harry insisted, turning toward the Potions Master and ignoring the way that black gaze seemed to bore into him. "You sarcastically asked if you should owl Madam Pomfrey to reserve my favourite bed. You ridiculed me for being hurt. When Hermione said I was bleeding, you took points, and never even bothered yourself to look and see if it was serious--"

"Which it wasn't."

The more Snape argued, the more determined Harry was to get his way on this. It was a matter of pride, he supposed. Snape regularly smashed his all to pieces, and Harry was powerless to stop it. Just once, he was resolved, he'd make the Potions Master swallow something he didn't particularly care for.

Extending his hand, Harry unfurled his fingers to display his palm to the headmaster. "No, it's not serious, and of course I don't need Madam Pomfrey. But that's not the point. I wasn't in any mental or physical state to take that test, and it's Professor Snape who caused the difficulty. If he hadn't insulted me, I wouldn't have snapped my quill."

"I wouldn't insult you if you'd apply your brains to something other than Quidditch and playing hero, Mr Potter. If you don't like the way I conduct my classes, I suggest you drop them, given that sixth year Potions is in no way required---"

"It is required," Harry interrupted. A N.E.W.T. in Potions was required for the Auror's programme, but Harry wasn't about to go into details, not with Snape. Not even with Dumbledore, really. Dumbledore, who always kept Harry in the dark. He'd only ever told McGonagall about his career plans, and that was only because he had to, if she was going to place him in the classes he needed.

"Enough," the headmaster intervened. "Severus, you will prepare an alternate test for Harry; I don't think that's too much to ask. And Harry, in return you will stay close by your escort at all times, is that agreed? The Order will still be watching, but Severus is right: what we need this time is someone who can grab your arm and Apparate at an instant's notice. Will you do as I ask, Harry?"

"Sure," Harry agreed. What else could he do after Dumbledore had just shoved Snape into a corner for him? The satisfied feeling that engulfed his heart spread until he could feel it tingling in his toes. Yeah, serve the greasy bastard right, that he had to take his time to write a special test just for Harry Potter, that he had to do something he didn't want to do, and do it for Harry Potter, of all people.

"So whom do you suggest, Severus?" Dumbledore mildly inquired.

Snape swallowed back something which looked suspiciously like disgust. At first, Harry thought the Potions Master was just reflecting on the fact that he'd lost a battle to Harry Potter, but when Snape replied, he decided there was something else going on.

"Lupin," Snape replied, grimacing. "If he's willing."

"Oh sure, Remus'll be glad to pal around with me," Harry volunteered. "I know he was my professor and all, but we're actually pretty good mates."

"We're not talking about that mangy werewolf actually being responsible for your safety, Potter--"

"Why not? He saved my life third year. If not for teaching me that Patronus charm, the Dementors would have got me for sure--"

"Yes, you and Black," Snape grated.

"Well, he was innocent, you know! I know you know!"

Snape made a visible effort to get the conversation back on track. "We're talking about Polyjuice Potion, Potter. I'll look like Lupin, but I'll be the one with you at all times. At all times, is that clear?"

"You! You can't," Harry sputtered. "I mean, what about Voldemort--"

"Call him the Dark Lord!" Snape snapped.

Harry went right on. "Listen, being seen protecting me isn't going to do your standing among the Death Eaters any good--"

"Hence the Polyjuice Potion," Snape explained in that voice he reserved for first years. "Assuming your dear beloved werewolf will donate a few shards of hair."

"No," Harry protested, only to stop at Dumbledore's raised hand.

"It really is the best solution, Harry. Severus alone is in a position to know Voldemort's plans and intentions regarding you, therefore, he's the only one equipped to truly protect you. As well, I might add, Professor Snape is the foremost expert available on defensive spells, not to mention battle tactics. You'll be in good hands."

"If he's so good at defence, how come you never give him the job?" Harry sniped.

"That is really a matter between Severus and myself," the headmaster lightly chastised. "You go back to your dormitory and pack whatever you might need, while we contact Remus Lupin to ask for his help. Oh, but Harry? Need I mention that you must at all costs stick to the cover story we have devised? You're going to visit your relatives, and Lupin will accompany you. I wouldn't even mention to anyone that your aunt is ill. We don't want to give Voldemort any ideas about how those wards might have been constructed."

"Yeah," Harry agreed. Of course Ron and Hermione would never betray him, he was sure of that, but try convincing Snape of the fact. He couldn't help but ask, though, "How's it going to be such a good cover story if Professor Snape disappears from Hogwarts just the same time I do?"

"But he won't," the headmaster assured him. "I'll use the Polyjuice, too, and take charge of his classes, assuming you're still away on Monday, of course."

So much for that idea. Harry tried another. "But we can't leave now," he pointed out. "Polyjuice takes a month to make. And by then, my aunt could well be dead, sir."

"You really think I don't keep essential potions on hand at all times, Potter?" Snape inquired, raising an eyebrow.

"Won't Remus' hair turn you into a werewolf, though?" he wondered out loud, the danger just occurring to him.

"If you paid the slightest attention in Potions class, Mr Potter," Snape sneered, looking down his long nose as though at some particularly gruesome species of slug, "you would know the answer to that. No, it won't change me, unless I happen to take animal hair for my resolvent. And who, pray tell, would be such a blithering idiot as all that?"

He sounded exactly like he knew about Hermione and the cat hair. Harry gulped. "Well, all right then. I'll just go pack like the headmaster said."

"Bring something to study. I recommend your Potions text," Snape abruptly instructed. "Unless, of course, you've changed your mind about wanting another test?"

"No, I think you'll enjoy writing it," Harry shot back, headed out the door.

"I think I shall," Snape agreed, a dark laugh rumbling up from his chest. "I knew you were stupid, Potter, but this is a new low even for you. To demand another potions test? From me? Oh yes, it will be great fun devising questions especially for you."

Harry froze, realizing that he really should have thought of that, sooner.

Snape stepped closer, his dark cloak swirling around him before it settled into folds that swept the stone floor. "But something else shall be even more fun," he whispered against Harry's ear. "Watching you with you cousin. Watching you beg. It isn't just for your protection that I accompany you, Potter. I want to be sure you do it. I want to see it." All at once he stepped back, his demeanour completely different. "Now, get out so the adults can get some work done!"

"Go, Harry," Dumbledore said, more softly. And Harry did. As the door was closing, he heard a chiding, "Severus, you really do need to get your temper under control. He's just a boy--"

"He's a spoiled, selfish, Gryffindor brat who can't see beyond the end of his own nose."

Then the revolving staircase swept him around and down, and Harry turned his footsteps toward the path that led to Gryffindor tower.

Chapter Text

There was something altogether creepy, Harry decided, about looking at an exact replica of Remus Lupin and knowing that someone like Snape was lurking inside. Actually, just looking made his head ache. He supposed it was the horrible juxtaposition of friendship and malice.

He trusted Remus, after all. Really, Remus was the only adult he did trust. When he was younger, he could have said that of Dumbledore, too, but no longer. The headmaster knew too much about Harry, things he refused to speak of with Harry, though he apparently felt free to give Order members all sorts of information.

And now he was staring up at Remus' friendly features, remembering how his defence teacher had looked while talking to him of his parents. At the time, he'd been gasping for an image of them... an image besides the one the Dementors had plagued him with, the one of his mother screaming as she died. Remus had given him that image, and more. Remus had been there for him, had tutored him, had cared.

Harry wanted to throw himself at that beloved figure, and hug him tight, and thank him, and say that he was so, so sorry about Sirius...

But he couldn't. The man standing with Dumbledore wasn't Remus, no matter how convincing the evidence before his eyes. Snape's habitual sneer wasn't even possible on Remus' face, and though the mannerisms weren't entirely what he would call Lupinesque, they certainly didn't call Snape to mind, either. Harry supposed that the Potion Master's normal hostile bearing just wasn't quite possible, not now that he was wearing a body conditioned to hold itself differently.

Not Remus, he said to himself, hating the feeling that he was going to have to repeat it quite a lot. This is not Remus. 

At that moment, Snape said something to the headmaster, something quiet that Harry didn't even catch, but it came out in Remus' voice. Polyjuice potion would do that, of course; Harry knew it would. Hadn't he and Ron sounded exactly like Crabbe and Goyle as they'd questioned Malfoy about the heir of Slytherin? Harry forgot about all that, though, in the rush of happiness that drenched him just hearing that voice again.

"Remus?" he asked out loud, thinking that sure, it was possible. Remus had come through the Floo to give Snape some hair, hadn't he? Maybe he'd stuck around a bit. Maybe Snape was still down in the dungeons fetching the Polyjuice potion...

"No," Snape quickly returned. "He's already departed."

Harry blinked, disappointed on more than one front. "Oh. He couldn't even stay until I got back up here?"

"Apparently not," was Snape's snide remark.

"Why?" Harry heard himself asking. He hadn't meant to say it, really. It made him sound too... wistful. And he wasn't wistful, not really. He didn't waste his time wishing for things he couldn't have, like a real home and a family who gave a damn about him, or a forehead that didn't announce his destiny to any wizard who cared to look... He tried not to think of such things, full stop.

At least Snape hadn't noticed that plaintive tone. "Look at the moon, Potter, and think," the Potions Master sneered, but to Harry's ears it was Remus belittling him. He swallowed, and told himself again. Not Remus, definitely not Remus. Even when Remus had to rebuke you about sneaking out to Hogsmeade, he did it gently, without insults.

Or maybe Snape had heard more than Harry would have wished, because he was suddenly snapping, "Oh, here!" and thrusting a small roll of parchment at Harry. "I dare say I won't have to force you to read this one."

Harry ignored him to tug off the tattered ribbon and unroll the note.

 

Dear Harry,

Albus hasn't told me much of the situation you're facing, but I do agree with him that if you need protection, Severus is the best choice. I also understand why it would be better for him to not quite be himself, so to speak. In a few minutes I'll floo through to do whatever I can to help. Albus has already told me that you're up in your rooms packing. Probably that's just as well, Harry. I don't see enough of you, but I'd frankly prefer you not see me like this. If you'll recall, I used to take three days off teaching before each full moon. Even with Severus' potion--and yes, he is still graciously providing it for me--the coming transformation leaves me weak, and shaky, and ill. 

Keep me apprised of anything more I can do to help you, Harry. 

Yours,

R.L.

 

Drawing a deep breath, Harry moved to tuck the note away in the front pocket of his snug black jeans, only to have Snape snatch it from his fingers and toss it into the fire with a growled, "I don't trust the werewolf's discretion!"

"It didn't say anything!" Harry protested, thinking that gracious was an overstatement and a half. Snape was never generous, except maybe with Slytherins, so if he was still making the Wolfsbane potion for Remus, it had to be from some other motive.

"Then you won't miss it much, will you?" 

Dumbledore eased into his peacemaker role, then. "All set, Harry?" he asked, gesturing toward the school bag Harry carried.  He'd repacked it with all his textbooks, not just Potions, and had made Hermione promise to take extra thorough notes in all the classes they shared. What was he worried about, though? Hermione's notes had been extra-thorough since first year, and he wouldn't be gone that long, would he? Trouble was, he really didn't know how long the Dursleys would want him around.

Of course, Harry didn't much care what the Dursleys wanted, though he supposed it was only right that he did see Aunt Petunia before it was too late. It was the decent thing to do, he knew, and whatever he'd suffered in her house, she had in fact protected him when he'd most needed. She'd taken him in as a baby, offering him refuge from the Death Eaters determined to put an end to the Boy Who Lived. And yes, she'd done it unwillingly, ungraciously, hell, resentfully... but she had done it. Harry knew that he was supposed to appreciate that, somewhere deep down. He had to, right?

The truth was, though, that any gratitude he might possibly feel was buried beneath a whole mountain of ill-will.

So yeah, it didn't matter to him what the Dursleys wanted. If he had his way, he'd just pop over to the hospital for a quick hallo, and rush right back to Hogwarts. Just enough so that if his conscience bothered him in years to come, he'd be able to tell himself that no, of course he hadn't ignored a deathbed summons.

Since when did Harry get his way, though? He was the Boy Who Lived.

He was the Boy Who'd Better Keep On Living, the Boy Who Was Going to Grow Up to Kill Voldemort. The Boy Who Needed His Mother's Sacrifice To Keep Protecting Him Until He Was Old Enough To Do His Duty.

Harry was good and sick of thinking of himself that way, and being reminded of it every time he so much as sneezed.

The entire wizarding world was relying on him to solve their problem, though not all of them knew it. They all had an inkling, though. He hadn't needed a prophecy to confirm his fate, had he? It had been emblazoned across his forehead since he was a year old, and even if people could have managed to forget that, Voldemort's coming for him again and again and again certainly tended to make people believe that he was the only one who could vanquish the evil git. Why else would Voldemort be so intent on killing him off?

So until he had the age and experience to protect himself, he needed all the warding he could get. Even if it came from a lumbering, cruel, gluttonous boy like Dudley Dursley.

"Of course I'm ready," he finally answered the headmaster.

"Excellent. Now Severus, I know this may be difficult, but you must endeavour to stay wholly in character at all times... except perhaps when you and Harry are alone and thoroughly warded."

"I think if I can manage to fool the Dark Lord himself as to my loyalties, a topic in which he is intensely interested, I can pretend to be Potter's friend, thank you," Snape returned. Harry had the feeling he was trying to use that icy tone he favoured, but Remus' voice just couldn't carry it off. It came off like a touch of self-pity, actually.

Talk of staying in character, however, brought another issue to Harry's mind. "Remus doesn't call me Potter," he felt obliged to point out. "You'd better call me Harry, or it'll look strange to anyone who's ever seen me with Remus. And you never know who might be watching, do you?"

"Didn't you hear what I just said?" Snape challenged, but Harry wasn't through.

"Remus isn't a professor here, any longer," he went on, thinking he might as well give it a shot. "So no fair taking points off Gryffindor, no matter what may happen. Remember, you aren't acting as head of Slytherin house. In fact," here Harry had to choke back a slight laugh, "in this guise, you're a Gryffindor, yourself!"

Snape ground his teeth together and didn't bother to reply.

Throwing a pinch of powder into the flames, Dumbledore called, "Arabella, we're ready now." Then he gestured for Snape to floo first. Before Harry stepped into the cavernous fireplace, Dumbledore cautioned, "Do come back safely, both of you."

"Arabella Figg's house!" Harry shouted, and went up in a tower of flames.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Mrs Figg helped brush him off, her hands a bit too motherly for Harry to endure. Why did everybody insist on treating him like he was still eleven years old? "It's all right!" he finally protested, giving her a slight push away. "You'd think I'd never flooed before!"

"Wizards' robes repel the ash a bit better than what you've got on," she insisted in her high voice as her hands tried to still fuss. "For pity's sake, why did you both come through without wearing any?"

Harry glanced down at his maroon dress shirt. "You know what they're like. Remus here isn't going to let on that he's a wizard, either."

"That probably would be best, dear." Mrs Figg began biting her lips. "Are you going straight to hospital?" She glanced out the front window of her home. "The car's gone, that's likely where they are. It's where they are every day."

"I have to change first," Harry announced, and then to make their act look authentic, beamed a strained smile over at Snape. It had to be strained, right? He was supposed to be a little worried about his aunt, but he was also supposed to be great friends with Remus, so he offered, "Say, have you ever got a close look at the inside of a Muggle house? I'll give you the grand tour. You'd be amazed what they can do without magic."

"That sounds interesting," Snape said in his Remus-voice, and Harry nearly had to strangle a laugh. The comment was banal and meaningless, the type of thing Snape liked to denounce at great length as utterly inane. The fact that it had crossed his lips just proved that Snape was in fact aware of utterly inane things like social niceties.

So Snape was usually rude on purpose, eh? It wasn't just a case of him not knowing any better? Figures, thought Harry. Maybe he's only rude to Gryffindors. 

Snape chose that moment to give Mrs Figg a slight smile as he said in Remus' easygoing yet cultured tones, "So nice to see you again, Arabella. Thank you for the use of your Floo."

"Anytime," she offered, before turning her attention again to Harry. "Do let me know how Petunia is doing, will you?"

"Of course, Mrs Figg," Harry returned. "And yes, thanks. Well, let's go, Remus."

He led the way down the street, Snape trailing behind him.

The door to Number Four Privet Drive was locked, and the key wasn't under the mat or the flowerpot, or hidden deep inside the drainpipe in the side yard. Harry shrugged, figuring they must have moved it again. Typical. As soon as Harry knew where the key was, they moved it, even though Dudley was a bit like Neville Longbottom when it came to remembering things like how to get through the door.

"You'd better do it," he finally whispered to Snape. "I'm not allowed--"

"I am actually aware of the Decree for the Restriction of Underage Wizardry, P--." Wincing, Snape eased his wand out the sleeve of his wool coat. "Alohomora."

Once they were inside, Harry headed up the stairs. "I won't be long."

-----------------------------------------------------------

He would have taken longer if he'd had any notion what awaited him downstairs. It didn't surprise him that Snape would have methodically walked through every room and hallway, his wand held before him as he searched for hints of dark magic in the place. He'd even explored upstairs, and in the cupboard under the stairs; Harry surmised that much from the way the half-size door was hanging open.

What did surprise him was what Snape had found out.

"There's black energy scattered all throughout this house," he announced. "Though it's a different sort from what I would associate with the Dark Lord. Any explanation?"

Harry shrugged. "Muggle houses don't exactly spell themselves weekly with good luck charms."

"It's more than that," the Potions Master mused, tapping a finger against the side of his cheek. The gesture was quintessentially Snapeish, yet on Remus it looked wrong. All wrong. Harry had to repress a shudder.

"The blackness is strongest there," he pointed at the cupboard, "and inside the room where you were changing--" Snape's eyes grew rounder as his mind caught on a single thought, as he really looked at Harry. "Merlin, what could possess you to change into that? What are you trying to prove?"

Harry shrugged as he glanced down at his Dudley cast-offs. These ones were a couple of years old, so while they were loads too big, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. "Nothing, all right. Let's just go."

"We are not going to visit your aunt in hospital with you looking like some-- some-- vagabond!" Snape exploded. "Have you no shame at all? Or are you trying to sabotage this whole enterprise? Don't you want the wards extended?"

"You don't understand," Harry began, but that was the wrong tack to take. If there was one thing Snape couldn't stand --one thing besides Harry, that was-- it was to be told he didn't know everything.

"No, you don't understand!" Snape growled, leaping across the space that had separated them. "You're going to get back upstairs and change again, this time into some decent clothes! The ones you had on before were fine. Change your shoes, too; I don't even see how those huge things can stay on your feet! Now, move!"

Harry probably would have; he knew better than to defy that particular tone of Snape's, but since the tone was softened marginally by the fact that it was filtered through Remus' voice, he managed to stand his ground.

"No," he calmly answered, again that feeling of Occluding his mind, well sort of Occluding it, anyway, pressing in on him. It was like his anger had gone someplace else, someplace not very far away, yet still somehow distant. "This isn't sabotage, Professor."

He added the title quite deliberately, knowing that it would catch Snape's full attention. Besides, it wasn't that big a slip. Remus had been a professor, too.

"Listen, I know you think you know all about me, but you really don't," Harry went on. "Not that it matters, you understand." Quiet dignity suffused his voice, but to maintain it, he had to look away. He didn't want to say these things, not to anyone, and Snape least of all, but the fact that he looked and sounded like Remus just now... well, it helped. Harry knew that was stupid of him; he understood that this was all just an illusion. But still, it helped.

Because if he had needed to, he could have told Remus these things.

"I want the wards extended," Harry confirmed, encouraged because Snape was at least listening instead of reacting, finally. "I'll do all I can to achieve that, Professor. I know what's at stake; I do see beyond the end of my nose. Look, I don't even know how to explain about the clothes. It's just that they'll be happier--well, not happier--but less upset to see me if I'm dressed this way, all right? My whole idea here is to try not to upset them, so that they might agree when I ask... look, you might as well know right now that they absolutely loathe magic, so it's not too likely that Uncle Vernon will even let Dudley take part in any warding, but I will do my best, all right? This is part of it."

Snape was staring at him by the time he finished. Harry was absolutely sure he couldn't have withstood that stare, not if it looked like it was coming from Snape. But coming from Remus, he could. Just barely.

This isn't Remus, he told himself again. Of course it's not. Remus would be giving me a hug by now. Not that I need one. I'm sixteen, I'm not a baby...

The Potions Master cleared his throat. "You aren't making any sense, Pot--... Why would your relatives be less upset to see you dressed in rags than your own clothes?"

Harry closed his eyes. "Don't you get it? These are my clothes, Professor. The Dursleys have never even seen the other ones. And if they do, they're going to wonder where I got them, how I paid for them. I guarantee you, it'll make them angry to see me in something nice."

"Where did you get those other clothes?" Snape quietly asked.

"Does it matter?" Harry sighed. "Oh, fine. Marks and Spencer. Ron and Hermione and I went there right after Madame Malkin's last summer. And before you start yelling that I shouldn't have left Diagon Alley, that Muggle London could be dangerous for me... Hell, I know that. You're right, all right? I admit it. Death Eaters everywhere. But I couldn't stand another year of throwing nice robes over clothes like these."

Snape didn't state the obvious, that Harry had been stupid to value fashion sense more than his life. "Why are there locks on the outside of that door upstairs? I presume that is your bedroom?"

Now it was Harry who was staring. What was wrong with the man? Of course, this was Snape, so Harry knew the answer to that. "You're going to make me say more than I have already? What do you want, even more dirt to feed to your nasty little --" Slytherins, he had been going to say. A single word, but it could prove to be a fatal slip if anyone overheard.

"This is a stupid discussion," Harry decided, frowning, his voice dropping until he was talking to himself, saying the same things that had helped him all along. Well, since he was eleven, anyway. "None of this matters, not one bit. It's just the way things are. Let's just get on with the rest of it so I can go back to my real life."

Walking past Snape and into the kitchen, Harry snatched the telephone receiver from its cradle and quickly rang Directory Enquiries. "Surrey, Frimley Park Hospital. Yes, National Health!" he bit out, memorizing the number as it was recited to him. Five plus years at Hogwarts would do that to you.

Snape had followed him, still staring incessantly. Harry hoped it was because he'd never seen a phone in use, before. He turned his back on his professor as he was connected to the hospital and finished the call.

"All right, she's there," he finally announced, absolutely determined to forget he'd said a single thing about the clothes, let alone the rest. "How do you suggest we get there? Can you Apparate us both?"

"Not to a place I've never been, not without some call towards it," Snape returned, finally turning his gaze aside. It seemed, though, that he couldn't leave the other subject behind. "Are you certain you should go like... that?"

"Yes," Harry answered, the single word so sharp it cut the air. "All right, what do you want to do, take a taxi? Umm, that's like a Knight Bus for Muggles. Did you bring any Muggle money? They won't take Galleons. I'm guessing the Knight Bus itself isn't an option, bit conspicuous, and Stan's seen me before, it'll get around..."

"I've no objection to a walk."

"A long walk, Professor."

Snape nodded, and headed out the front door. Now it was Harry who was staring. How could the man look like his robes were billowing when he wasn't wearing any? When, in fact, he was wearing the quaint, slightly old-fashioned suits Remus tended to favour?

Well, at least he looked somewhat like a Muggle in them. Harry groaned, wondering if he needed to explain yet further about the Dursleys. Nah, he decided. Probably not. After all, don't bring any freaks along and they loathe magic were hints enough. Snape would know better than to act the wizard while in view of the Dursleys.

And Harry would know better than to so much as mention magic, or Hogwarts, or any part of his real life. He'd just smile and nod as they insulted him, and hope against hope that Snape wasn't paying too much attention to detail.

Fat chance of that, Harry thought to himself. What is the entire discipline of Potions but details? Snape's even said so. "It's all in the details, Longbottom! Wormroot elixir is not unicorn blood!" 

This isn't going to be a pleasant visit. He's going to notice everything they say, every nuance, every word. And when we get back to Hogwarts, if not before, he'll use it all against me.

Poor Harry Potter, he'll sneer. Nobody's ever loved him. Is that why you play the hero, Potter? Are you looking for approval? Well, you won't get it here, will you? Not unless you can manage to produce a halfway decent Pepper-Up Potion, and we all know how likely that is, don't we?

Poor Harry Potter...

Shoving his hands in his pockets, Harry grit his teeth and trudged along.

Chapter Text

By the time they were heading down Portsmouth Road toward the hospital itself, Harry was really beginning to wonder about the Polyjuice Potion. An hour, he'd thought. That was all the time it gave. That was why Crouch had had to drink all the time from that hip-flask, back in fourth year when he was pretending to be Mad-Eye Moody, because the effects only lasted an hour....

He'd wanted to ask Snape about it for the better part of an hour, because even without a watch, he was sure that at least two must have passed. He most definitely didn't want to talk to Snape, though. Not about anything. They'd passed the entire walk in absolute silence so far, except for the time when Snape, not understanding the difference between a red light and a green one, had stepped out into oncoming traffic. And even then all Harry had uttered was a low hiss of warning to get the man back onto the curb.

Still, this was getting ridiculous. Snape's life was at stake if he accidentally transformed into his true shape. As much as Harry detested Snape, he didn't want to be responsible for any more deaths. Besides, if worse came to worst, the Order would lose its spy, and all the potential information that spy could bring to bear in the war against Voldemort. Harry had no idea how a potions expert like Snape could be so careless as to let that happen, of course, but still... something had to be on the man's mind, right? Why else would he be neglecting his potion like this?

Harry pressed his lips tightly together, knowing all too well what was likely on his professor's mind. Why couldn't Snape just have let matters be? Why did he have to poke and pry until Harry had admitted to those awful things?

Simple answer, he didn't trust Harry Potter. 

Yeah, well the feeling's mutual, Professor, Harry thought. The rumours about his magic-hating, Harry-hating family would be all over Hogwarts as soon as they returned, he just knew it. Par for the course, as Uncle Vernon would say, though Harry tried his best not to emulate his horrible uncle.

That was all beside the point, though, Harry told himself, trying his best to stay in the mature mould he'd been cultivating for the past few hours. Whatever was wrong with Snape, Polyjuice Potion was nothing to fool around with. What if Snape snapped back into an imposing, downright sinister-looking Potions Master right in front of the Dursleys' faces? They'd both be thrown out of the hospital on their ears, litanies of I said no freaks, boy, don't they teach you to read at that damned school? shouted after them.

Okay, so like it or not, he had to mention the fact that Snape was overdue on his potion. Harry chewed his lower lip, wondering how to phrase it. Getting his head bitten off for trying to help --an all too common occurrence in class, though granted, he was usually trying to help Neville, not Snape-- was never very fun.

The mature thing would be just to say it, wouldn't it? Harry had been working hard on doing the mature thing. If not for that, he wouldn't be here, and he certainly wouldn't have explained about his clothes. A more childish version of himself would have changed clothes when Snape had ordered it, and left it to the Potions Master to sort out the almighty row that was sure to erupt when Vernon saw him wearing something that Harry James Potter couldn't possibly have afforded. Harry wasn't even sure what might have resulted --an accusation of shoplifting, perhaps-- though it was a sure bet that after that, all hope would be lost when it came to the warding.

But it wasn't going to come to that, and why? Because he'd done the responsible thing, painful as it was. He would live to regret it when all of Slytherin House made capital out of his pitiful excuse for a childhood, when the comments followed him up and down the halls, but the point was that he would in fact live.

So too with this, even if he had to listen to Snape's typical barrage of sarcastic remarks.

"Isn't it time, sir?" he asked, trying for a simple, matter-of-fact tone while cloaking the question for the benefit of the Muggles all around them. "For you to take more of your... er, medicine?"

"It's an improved formulation," Snape answered, sparing him a cursory glance. To Harry's shock, there wasn't any derision present in those eyes, and none in the words that followed. "It should last eight hours, but I'll drink it every six to be sure I don't have..." he seemed to be searching for an appropriate Muggle term. "A relapse."

Harry didn't have to ask who had improved the formulation. They didn't hand out the title of Potions Master for nothing. Now, if the man could just teach as well, he might actually be suited for his job. Of course, Snape couldn't teach at all, not even something as simple as potions safety precautions. He'd just rather watch the students melt cauldrons and blow themselves up, then yell at them afterwards. As far as Harry could tell, Snape had never even bothered to try to teach them.

Frimley Park finally looming before them, Harry strolled straight up to the glass hospital doors. When they slid aside to allow him entrance, Snape looked a tad suspicious, as if he suspected Harry had muttered a quick, illegal Alohomora of his own. Did he think that Harry's wand work was that clever, that he could slide it out of his baggy sweatshirt sleeve and spell a door without Snape even seeing? Or did Snape actually suspect that Harry could do wandless magic? Of course he couldn't do any such thing, but the idea of leading Snape up the garden path was awfully tempting. Stupid, though, not to mention immature. Snape would just report the illegal magic to Dumbledore, and Harry would have to admit that he'd only pretended to have such a talent, and then he'd come off looking exactly like the attention-craving brat Snape liked to claim he was.

"It's just Muggle stuff," he admitted in a low voice as they approached the reception desk. "I told you, they can do interesting stuff, too." Snape raised an eyebrow and nodded, though he didn't appear satisfied until he glanced back and saw the doors sliding aside for several other hospital patrons.

"Petunia Dursley's ward," Harry requested of the lady in the starched white uniform, cap perched neatly on her head. "Can I have the number, please?"

The nurse swiftly tapped out something on her keyboard, then studied the computer screen. Snape was watching the whole process rather incredulously.

"She's in intensive care, and visitors are restricted. I'll have to check if you're on the list. And you are?"

"Harry Potter, her nephew." What a relief that was, to say his name to someone who didn't immediately gasp and look for his scar. Actually, she didn't react in the slightest, but just kept waiting. "Oh, yeah. And this is Remus Lupin, a friend," Harry added.

"I'll ring through while you sign in," the nurse announced, pointing out a gridded sheet of paper attached to a metal clipboard.

Harry did, and was a little startled to see Snape writing out Remus Lupin in a script that almost exactly matched the writing in the letter he'd read earlier that day. Weird.

"Yes, I understand. I'll send him up, straight away," the nurse was quietly saying. Hanging up the phone, she swivelled on her chair and regarded the pair of visitors again. "You can go through," she said to Harry as she pointed. "Take the lift. Ward 328." Her gaze snapped to Snape's. "You'll have to wait here, I'm afraid."

Snape narrowed his eyes, and Harry didn't have to be a Legilimens to know what he was thinking. He wasn't even surprised when Snape leaned over the reception desk, stared straight into the woman's face, and quietly murmured, "Obliviate minimisco." Only one thing surprised Harry: Snape could do wandless magic. Some, at least. He wondered again why Dumbledore didn't give the Potions Master the Defence Against the Dark Arts job. Of course, maybe it was because Dumbledore knew that Snape couldn't teach to save his life, and the headmaster would prefer that the students actually acquire some real defence skills. But that didn't really tally, did it, considering the absolute clowns who'd held the coveted post year after year. At least this year he didn't have Umbridge again, but in Harry's view, Professor Aran was very nearly just as bad. He wouldn't let them do much in the way of practical magic, either. On the other hand, when he gave detention you didn't have to write lines in your own blood. That had to be worth something, even if the most useful thing they'd learned in weeks of class was that you spelled kappa with two p's.

 Absolute, utter rot, that Defence class, just like every one he'd endured outside of third year.

Good thing they'd kept the D.A. running. Somebody had to try to get the students ready in case it came down to a battle with Death Eaters, let alone Voldemort himself. And if the teachers wouldn't do it, the students would do it for themselves.

Yet one more reason why Harry had lost most of his respect for Dumbledore. He could hire decent defence teachers; Harry was sure of it. Yet he didn't. He chose to expose the students to idiocy instead.  No doubt he had his reasons... a big, undulating tangle of rationalizations for why he had to do things that way, and why he had to keep it all a secret... Dumbledore thought he was some great strategist or something. Well, too much strategy had ended up with Sirius falling through a veil of death at the end of last year. Harry was sick of putting up with it. He couldn't force the headmaster to reveal his little intrigues, or tell the whole truth. All he could do was what he'd been doing.

His best.

By the time Harry had reasoned all that out, the nurse was shaking her head as though coming out of a dream, her voice a low slur of sound. "Ward 328, I said. Well, off with you." That time, her languid wave encompassed them both.

They headed toward the lifts, but only got halfway there before Harry said, "Wait. I should have thought of this, sooner. Do you have any Muggle money on you? I don't."

"The headmaster thought it would be prudent," Snape murmured, fishing in a vest pocket. Really, Snape in a seersucker vest was just too much, though Lupin could carry the look rather well. "What do you need?"

"Flowers." Harry pointed at the florist-and-gift-shop they'd just passed.

"Ah. Well, here, then," Snape said, and thrust several fifty-pound notes towards him.

"Put most of that away, Remus," Harry stressed. It was a pretty bad gaffe, but at least if any of Voldemort's supporters were lurking in the shadows, the mistake wouldn't strike them as strange. How would they know how much Muggle money would be appropriate?

Snatching a single bill off the top, Harry shoved it in his pocket, crossed over towards the shop, and quickly surveyed his choices. The lilies were lovely, he thought... but nah, better not. More than likely, they'd just remind Aunt Petunia of Lily Potter. Besides, they were expensive. He ended up with a half dozen posies smashed into a small glass vase. Pretty paltry, really, but he knew that if he bought anything more extravagant, Uncle Vernon would accuse him of conjuring it. As it was, he was going to have to explain how he'd afforded even these few.

"Thanks, Remus," Harry said, putting on a bright face as he extended a fistful of change towards Snape.

"Keep it," Snape growled, turning aside.

"No, really--" Harry insisted, but Snape was already walking away. "Well, fine. Thanks for the loan," he added as he caught up.

Anything Snape might have replied was cut short by the sight of the lift doors opening and people streaming out. The man looked dumbstruck again, which was fairly ludicrous considering Snape could claim with a straight face to be able to bottle fortune, brew fame, and put a stopper in death. What was so fascinating about a simple lift?

It was Muggle magic, that was what. Except that it wasn't magic, it was just machines. Harry knew that, and of course Snape did, too, but it sure seemed like he'd never seen any of those machines close up, before. Probably best not to snicker, Harry decided. He just hoped that Snape would be able to cool it in front of the Dursleys. If he gawked at the hospital equipment like a two-year-old discovering the loo, Harry's family would know he was a wizard for sure.

They stepped in, and Harry pressed the button for the third floor, trying not to smile when the lurching motion of the lift almost knocked Snape off his feet. No doubt about it, magic gave you a much smoother ride.

"Okay, 328," Harry said when the doors opened. He checked the arrows on the wall. "This way." In no time at all, he had found the right room and glanced inside. There were ten narrow beds, five on each side of the room. All in all, the setup wasn't too different from the hospital wing at Hogwarts, although of course here there was medical equipment everywhere. Harry didn't really recognise any of it, but he wasn't going to let on as much to Snape. He'd spent enough time feeling clueless in Potions class that this little role-reversal was rather heartening.

"You're a Muggle, remember," Harry hissed under his breath just before they entered. Then one more thing occurred to him. "Listen, when Uncle Vernon loses his temper, he tends to be indiscreet. There's no telling what he might say, so can you place a silencing spell all around us? Er, can that be done without walls or curtains or something to attach the spell to?"

"Defence is no better this year than any other, I gather," Snape remarked, though he did nod at the suggestion.

Harry couldn't resist. "Oh, but you were great, Remus, really great. Best teacher at Hogwarts, that's how I always think you of you, the absolute best."

With that, he swept ahead into the ward. Once he got inside, though his smile didn't last for long.

-----------------------------------------------------------

A few patients turned their heads as they walked past, but most people in the cancer ward were asleep. That included the Dursleys. All the Dursleys.

Aunt Petunia was lying on the bed nearest the window, her features bonier than Harry had ever seen, her skin so pale it almost seemed translucent. In places it was actually bruised. Her eyes were closed, her face turned toward the light, her thin chest moving up and down in rapid, shallow sequence. Harry gulped. Of course he'd heard that she was ill, that it was serious, even. For some reason, though, he'd expected her to look like her usual self. Acerbic, sizing him up and down, lips twisted in dismay as she yelled at him for muddying the floor, or putting too much salt on the roast, or getting better marks than Dudley.

Instead, she looked ill. Very ill, so much so that Harry could scarcely believe his eyes. For a long moment, he just stared. He'd before never seen anybody in a state like this, not even Cedric in those awful moments after Voldemort had hissed, "Kill the spare."

That had been bad enough, but this was worse. Slow death, Muggle death. It was positively hideous, what the cancer was doing to Aunt Petunia.

In that instant, Harry faced the truth inside himself, a truth very nearly as hideous: when he'd first read the news of her illness, he had been just the tiniest bit glad that she might suffer. After all, he'd suffered, too, and at her hands. He'd believed that she deserved this, that she was getting her just deserts.

Well, he could attest that Aunt Petunia was far from perfect, but he'd revised his opinion of cancer. Nobody deserved this. She was rotting away while still alive, her body clinging to hope when there clearly was none. His stomach tightened with the sensation of wanting to be ill, but swallowing helped. Some, at least. Drawing in a few bracing breaths was even better. Only then could he tear his horrified gaze away from the sight of her.

He wasn't crying, not over Petunia, but tears were pricking at his eyes. Tears of shame. One or two spilled over to wet his face, but Harry didn't even notice them until Remus silently passed him a plain white handkerchief. No, not Remus, he had to remind himself, though this time it was harder.

"Thanks," he whispered without looking at Snape. Thank God it wasn't Remus standing there beside him, or he might have said more, might have babbled out his guilt that he'd practically wished this on her. But he hadn't known, he hadn't really understood what death could mean. He should have, after Cedric, after Sirius. But no, he'd been stupid and thoughtless and immature. About everything.

Harry thrust the handkerchief  back at Snape and determinedly ignored him to survey the rest of the scene. Vernon Dursley was asleep in a chair shoved up against the bed, his head tilted to the side as he lightly snored, and Dudley was in another chair, leaning over front ways to rest his head and arms near the foot of the bed. There were day-old carnations on the night table, and a small pile of opened cards.

Harry stared for a moment, unsure of what to do, then shrugging, he set the small vase of posies down next to the carnations, and went to lift an unoccupied chair from one of the sleeping patients. Setting it soundlessly down a short distance from Petunia, he gestured that Snape should sit. After that, Harry fetched another chair for himself.

They sat there in silence for a few minutes, Harry coming to terms with himself, getting used to the dreadful facts that this visit encompassed. Facts not just about life and death, but about himself. Maturity again, he fairly grimaced.

At some point, he realised that he should have brought a book to read. Then again, he didn't have any books except Hogwarts texts, and those certainly wouldn't go over too well. He'd been right to leave them back in his bare bedroom in the Dursley house. There were other books in the house, of course, but Harry knew better than to so much as touch them.

Snape seemed more restless than Harry had ever seen him, but he supposed that made sense. Since when did the Potions Master ever just sit and do nothing? In class he was a frenzied ball of activity, rushing from table to table to sneer at the Gryffindors' potions and praise the Slytherins', even though they often looked remarkably the same. When he did sit down in class, it was to mark papers, one finger steadily running down the scroll as he read, the other hand furiously writing comments such as It seems you have mislaid your entire brain, this time. Pray do not return to class until you have located it.

Even when he was just watching them take a test, he would also be clarifying solvents, or sorting through potion components, his sharp eyes on them all the while. No wonder he'd seen Harry slip that letter underneath his exam paper.

Now, Snape had nothing whatsoever to do, and Harry could tell it was going to drive the Potions Master mad before too long.

Snape abruptly stood, his steps taking him to the foot of the bed where a scribbled chart was hanging. Snatching it up, he set to reading, his finger moving down it line by line, just as when he was marking essays.

"I don't think visitors are supposed to look at that," Harry pointed out, whispering.

"It's no use anyway; it's completely illegible," Snape all but snarled.

Harry thought that was a fine comment coming from that quarter. All that kept some first-years from crying when they got their Potions essays back was that fact that half the comments were written in a long curling scrawl that nobody in his right mind could hope to read. Just as well. After you'd seen If you truly believe that fermented yew sap is not poisonous, I suggest you prepare some and drink it. Do be sure to share it with your fellow Gryffindors, written in the margin, you really didn't need to know what the other comments might say.

Snape's snarl hadn't been loud by any means, but it had been enough to wake up Dudley.

The boy stretched out his arms, mumbling something, and then his head came up, wobbling with exhaustion. He stared at Harry, and blinked several times.

For his part, Harry couldn't help but stare back. Dudley looked nearly as ill as Petunia, and though he didn't have that wasted away look his mother bore, he had definitely lost weight. A lot of weight.

Of course Dudley was still grotesquely fat, but still, it was a marked improvement. Strangely enough, though, the family hadn't bought him any new clothes to fit him better. Dudley's shirt and pants were rolled up just like Harry's were.

Thinking quickly, Harry made sure his wand was fully tucked up his sleeve. Then he stood, and went over to his cousin, and knelt down on one knee beside his chair. But not to beg. He wasn't going to beg, no matter what Snape had to say on the matter. It wasn't pride stopping him, though, it was just reality. If the Dursleys didn't want to help him, then they wouldn't, it was as simple as that. Begging wouldn't change matters. He'd learned that much before he'd turned five, and he hadn't begged since. Not once.

In any case, it was too soon to talk about the wards. That wasn't the kind of thing he could just come out with. He'd have to figure out how to ease into the whole subject, how to not make it sound completely crass and self-centred to worry about himself when Aunt Petunia was lying there so ill.

Kneeling now... it just seemed simpler than dragging his chair over. It seemed less intrusive too, and more respectful of the atmosphere in the hospital room, of Dudley's own obvious grief.

"Hallo Harry," his cousin finally groaned, still disoriented enough to state the obvious. "You came."

As Harry nodded, Vernon Dursley began to stir, and he had more to say on that particular topic. A great deal more, as it turned out.

Chapter Text

Uncle Vernon cracked open first one eye, then the other, and wiping his mouth on his sleeve, saved his talking until he was fully awake. Even then, all he said at first was, "Took you long enough, boy."

Harry flushed, unwilling to admit that he'd ignored the letter. Instead, his glance passing over Aunt Petunia again, he quietly murmured, "How long has she been... er, how long has she had...?"

Uncle Vernon stared at him like he'd grown six heads overnight. "How long?" he gasped, lumbering to his feet and marching over to tower over his nephew. "How long, indeed! Are you blind and deaf as well as just plain stupid? You sound as though you don't even know what ails her!"

"But I don't," Harry quietly pointed out, rising to his own feet. Some part of him was aware of Snape getting up, too, but that only made the sensation of being threatened even worse. Bit stupid, really; he knew Snape was there to protect him. He even knew that Snape had saved his life, way back in first year.

Trouble was, Snape had never once acted like he was glad he'd saved Harry at all. In fact, Harry suspected he deeply regretted it. Or would, if not for the prophecy. Yeah, that awful prophecy did make Harry sort of necessary to the wizarding world, but it still didn't mean Snape was happy Harry hadn't fallen to his death.

"You don't know what's wrong with her, you say?" Vernon spat. "I suppose you're going to claim now that you don't remember this past summer at all!"

"I remember that we stayed out of each other's way for once," Harry returned in level tones. He thought better than to add that it had been his best summer yet.

"Hmph. Well, there is that, I suppose," Vernon admitted, rubbing a fat hand against the back of his neck in a seesawing motion. A series of loud creaking noises ensued as he stretched his neck first one way, then the other. "Maybe I didn't tell you at that. We were all of us just so upset, and we didn't know what you might take it into your head to do if you knew Petunia was under the weather. Don't think I've forgotten Dudley and the python, or the damned car that broke the bars off your window, let alone the time you blew up your aunt or when your stupid friends messed with Dudley's tongue or you summoned demons to kill him--" For a moment, he appeared to have lost his train of thought.

One more glance in Harry's direction gave Vernon renewed focus, though, because he'd finally noticed Snape. "Who's this, then?" he snarled, grabbing his nephew by the forearm and roughly shaking him. His voice became a low, furious growl. "I told you, I was clear as day, no freaks, you worthless little snot! Just seeing you will probably be the end of poor Petunia, the shape she's in, but it better not be, you hear me? 'Cause you'll be next, boy. Don't think I don't mean it!"

Harry saw Snape stiffen slightly, but all he did in reaction was extend a hand in greeting. "This is Remus Lupin, Uncle Vernon," he rushed to say, wiggling his arm a bit until it was let go. "And he's not... well, he's not like me, all right? He's a Muggle. I mean... he's a normal person."

"Didn't know there were any normal folk up at that school of his," Vernon muttered suspiciously, though he did take the other man's hand and pump it up and down as though testing Snape's mettle.

"He's a full professor," Harry interjected, knowing that his uncle had a tendency to respect titles. "Of, er..." Here he lowered his voice a bit and launched into his plan. "They call it Muggle Studies. See, he's supposed to help people like me learn to act, er... less weird. That's actually a huge part of the curriculum at my school," he added, deciding that he might as well lay it on thick. The whole idea here, after all, was to placate the Dursleys. Oh yeah, and putting on a bit of a contrite expression wouldn't come amiss, either. Harry opened his eyes wide and let his lips quiver a little as he went on, "See, they know we're all... well, they know that kids like me need help. Er, controlling ourselves, like with Aunt Marge. I'm loads better now, thanks to Professor Lupin. I'm really, really sorry I've been so awful, Uncle Vernon."

Remus' clothing rustled beside him. Harry glanced swiftly to the side and noticed Snape staring fixedly into Vernon's eyes. Uh-oh... Legilimency, and without a wand. It didn't last long, though, so Harry wasn't sure how much Snape might have learned.

Oblivious to the fact that magic had been at play, Vernon was giving a definite nod. "Highly approve," he commended Snape, bobbing his great weight up and down on the balls of his feet. "First time I've heard the boy apologise for what he is. So what's your connection with Potter here? Just have him in class?"

"The headmaster didn't trust the boy to travel down alone," Snape flatly offered, his gaze deliberately seeking out the window. "He's a troublemaker."

Uncle Vernon smiled in an oily, satisfied sort of way. All it took to improve his uncle's mood was for someone else to badmouth Harry, apparently. Well, that figured.

"Troublemaker. Yes, he is that," Vernon echoed, sighing a bit as he went to sit down, again, the padded metal chair straining under his weight. He waved Harry and Snape back to their seats, then glanced at Petunia. When he saw that she was still asleep, he went on talking. "We took him in as a baby, you know. Had to. His wastrel father got himself killed in a car crash. Him and his wife, both. Driving drunk, he was. James Potter never was worth a wad of spit, and that one's even worse. Sure as I'm sitting here, he'll never amount to anything. My sister Marge knew it the first time she saw him, she did. Bad blood will out, she said, and mark my words, truer words were never spoken."

So much for meek. Harry felt anger washing over him in waves. He tried to control it, tried to build walls in his mind to hold the roaring tide back, but it kept seeping through the cracks, demanding an outlet, and the longer his uncle talked, the worse it got.

"Had to teach him a lesson more times than I can count," Vernon went on, convinced that anyone who taught Muggle Studies --at least as Harry had explained it-- would see eye to eye with him on all matters Potter. "Not that the boy ever learned. You'd think a whole month of weeding twelve hours a day would make him think twice about sneaking his books up to his room so he could learn more spells to curse us with, but no. I had to get out the strap before we were through, and he still insisted he needed to do his homework, he did. The nerve. One summer we actually had to burn his books to put an end to it. Can you believe what he said then? Claimed some great ugly twit of a teacher was going to make fun of him in Potions class!"

The vase holding the posies abruptly cracked clean through.

Snape gave him a warning glance. Harry stared stoically back.

Dudley, finally fully awake, had flinched back a yard at the noise. "Dad..." he ventured, shaking and pointing at the broken pieces on the nightstand.

Vernon's eyebrows drew together as he rounded on Snape. "Looks to me as though he needs a few more lessons in self-control!"

"He'll get them," Snape promised in a tone Harry recognised even through Remus' voice. It was intent. Cold, merciless intent.

Vernon wasn't through, though. "Now, where'd those damned flowers come from, boy? You'd better tell me the truth, or by God I'll have a thing or two to say about it! Did you--" Vernon halted, and continued the rest of the question in a low, thoroughly revolted tone. "Did you magic them here?"

"No, I bought them in the gift shop downstairs," Harry said, trying to make it sound gracious. It was difficult when what he really wanted to do was pummel somebody. "I thought they might cheer up Aunt Petunia."

"And since when do you have money to cheer up anybody, boy?" Vernon ground out, leaning forward as far as he could over his massive rolls of fat. "It's not like your worthless father had any to leave you, is it? No, you were left to burden us, weren't you, and you've done your best to be a burden--"

"Professor Lupin lent me some money," Harry interrupted, rather desperate to cut off his tirade. He should have known better than to have bothered.

"Oh he lent you some, did he! So how do you think you're going to pay him back, eh? We've fed and clothed you all these infernal years, much against our will, I might add. You think we wanted our sweet Dudley exposed to the likes of you? Well, boy? Where're you going to get two pence to rub together? You're just like your father. He never did a lick of work, either, just sat around boozing. Unemployed, you know," he added to Snape, who made a noise that could be interpreted as concurrence. Vernon turned his attention back to Harry. "You're a waste of space, but you'd damned well better learn to do some work sometime in your life. Money doesn't grow on trees, you know, and we don't just hand it out like sweets!"

"When did you ever give me a sweet?" Harry erupted. Oops, wrong tactic. "Sorry, Uncle Vernon, that was rude. What I meant was, I already promised Professor Lupin that I'd scrub his floors every weekend for a month, to pay him back. He thought it was a fair trade."

"Make it two months," Vernon advised Snape. "He's a slacker, that one."

Mention of sweets had got to Dudley, who said he was going to get something from a vending machine down the corridor. Harry repressed an urge to roll his eyes.

"Wipe that smarmy look right off your face, boy!" Vernon rebuked him. "Dudley's been wasting away with worry for his mother. Didn't you see how his clothes just hang on him, now? He needs to keep his strength up. Hell, he's only eating now because he's relieved you're here. We've been waiting for days and worrying ourselves silly that that stupid owl wouldn't know a letter from a field mouse. Owls, honestly! It's an outrage, and I'll have a thing or two to say about that Figg character when the neighbourhood council meets, just see if I don't!"

Harry knew from long experience how best to reply to rants like that. "Yes, Uncle Vernon."

Snape broke into the conversation again. "Mr Dursley, I'm afraid that Harry didn't explain very well when the headmaster instructed me to come along. May I ask about the situation with your wife? I'll need to notify the school if Harry will be here for an extended time."

"Ach, maybe Harry couldn't have known what to say," Vernon gruffly admitted, seeming to calm again. Snape was having that effect on him, Harry realised. He wondered how much of it might be due to a subtle spell. Or maybe it was the tone of voice he'd used: one of Remus' very softest ones. "This past summer's just one long blur of worry to me. I can't remember telling him. Course, how could I have? The boy made himself scarce, and I wasn't in any mood to seek him out, not after that creep with the bulging eye told me I'd get what-for if I so much as looked at him cross-eyed."

Snape waited patiently for Vernon to get to the point, which was more than the Potions Master had ever done for his students. Except maybe for the Slytherins.

"Anyway, it's leukaemia," Vernon glumly admitted, making it sound as though the word itself was strangling him.

Harry could see Snape trying to decode the word, break it into Latin parts perhaps, to glean some meaning from it. He could also see him failing to truly understand. In that, the professor wasn't alone.

Leaning forward a bit, Harry quietly asked, "Leukaemia? Is that um.... some sort of cancer?"

"Blood cancer," Vernon sighed, looking suddenly so weary that it was a wonder he stayed awake. "Add that to your course outline, professor. The stupid boy doesn't even know basic facts about how normal people live and die. Anyway, she's on the waiting list for a bone marrow transplant. Dudders and I applied to be donors, but we weren't compatible." His voice caught on the last word. "It's a long list and the doctors say she might not be able to make it until..."

Vernon abruptly stopped talking and closed his eyes, his hands clenching on the arms of his chair, his whole body shaking slightly.

"I'm sorry," Harry offered, wishing he had the kind of family relationships where he could at least lay a hand on someone's arm as he said that. But he didn't, and he knew better than to try. The few times when he'd hugged his aunt's or uncle's legs --three-year-olds couldn't reach up much farther than that-- he'd been shoved unceremoniously aside and screamed at. We don't like your kind, so keep your distance. Now, back in your cupboard until you learn to keep your grubby hands to yourself... Harry flinched slightly, remembering the awful click of that bolt sliding shut, remembering the stifling air inside.

"You should be sorry," Vernon balefully returned, recovering, a glare growing in his eyes despite his obvious exhaustion. "This is your fault, boy, every last bit of it! All those years of worry, of having to put up with you, Petunia reminded of her freakish sister at every turn! The outright lies you told us! Floating puddings, indeed! I thought I'd be able to beat the dishonesty out of you, but here you sit, still exploding vases without so much as a by your leave! Is it any wonder she's fallen ill? The sheer stress of raising you is like to kill her!"

That time, Harry had Occluded his mind in time to better tolerate Vernon's barrage of abuse. Or at least he thought he had. It was hard to tell Occlusion from stoicism. Maybe they were the same, Harry thought. Maybe he just needed to feel less. About everything.

No amount of stoicism, however, could have prepared him for the next outrageous words that came spilling out of his uncle's mouth.

"You can pay her back, now, though," he said, lowering his voice to a pitch that Harry could barely hear no matter how he strained. "You know we don't like this funny business you're always up to, and no wonder, but if you've learned anything at all up at that school of yours, you must have learned to do some good with it, eh? That's why we called you back here. You didn't think any of us wanted to see you, did you? We want just one thing from you, and it's to make Petunia well again."

Harry swallowed, hoping he'd misunderstood. He had to have, right? "You... er, you actually want me to do magic, Uncle Vernon?"

"Yes, boy! Are you simple? You twiddle your wand over her, or whatever it takes, and get her blood back to normal! Well? Get on with it!"

Horrified, Harry couldn't help what he did next.

He looked to Snape for guidance. Snape.

But he had to; there was no one else.

The Potions Master looked to be deep in thought, and it was a long moment before he spoke. "Mr Dursley. That is... an unusual request. Harry's not been trained to heal. Perhaps you'd allow me to look into the matter?"

Vernon's eyes narrowed still further. "You look into it all you want, Mr Lupin, but when all's said and done, the boy had damned well better save my Petunia."

"I understand," Snape murmured, his voice still that one that vaguely reminded Harry of a calming draught. "I must point out, however, that it may well be beyond his capabilities--"

"Ha!" Uncle Vernon shouted, unwilling to concede that. Whatever spell Snape had been using on him, it certainly wasn't working now. "I've put up with his freak magic for years! Awful things he's done to me and mine! If he can't use his abnormality to do one single thing I request, well then, he can just starve on the streets for all I'll care! You got that, boy? It was Petunia took you in, and Petunia who insisted you stay even after you cursed Dudley with those whatever-you-call-'ems that live in... what did she say, Bazakan! It's been Petunia sticking up for you all along. Now you'll do what's right for her, or I'll chuck you out on your ear, and good riddance!"

Harry cleared his throat, began to croak out some sort of reply, only to feel Snape's hand abruptly catch his fingers and give them a tight squeeze. Well, that was just as well. It wasn't like he had the slightest idea how to reply to his uncle's insane demand. Truth to tell, by then his vision was starting to tunnel in.

Panic, he recognised, as his legs tried to buckle.

And it was Snape, of all people, who was holding him up.

Chapter Text

Snape shifted his grip to Harry's forearm, the better to keep him upright. "We'll have to take the matter under advisement," he was smoothly explaining. When Vernon went to speak, the professor held up his hand to forestall it. "Yes, I understand completely that time is of the essence. That doesn't change the fact that you're asking for an unknown spell. If the magic you're requesting is possible at all, it will have to be developed."

"Well, how long will that take?" Vernon demanded.

"The sooner we begin work on it, the better," was Snape's final word on the matter. "Now, I believe Harry could do with some food. Look at him. He's shaking."

Harry thought that a rather large exaggeration, though he couldn't deny that he was hungry.

Vernon started to grumble, something about how the boy'd gone hungry plenty of times before, and been no worse for it, but his typically heartless comment was completely overshadowed by what Dudley did.

"You want a sweet, Harry?" he asked.

Harry could hardly believe his ears, but when he glanced towards the other side of Snape, his cousin was extending a chocolate-almond bar, still wrapped. Dazed, he somehow took that in, also noticing that Dudley hadn't eaten much of what he'd bought. Harry supposed that Aunt Petunia's illness really was getting to his cousin.

"Uh, sure, yeah," Harry diffidently replied. What had happened to the Dudley who terrorized the neighbourhood, beating up on anybody smaller than him? Who never said anything to Harry that wasn't either an insult or a threat? It occurred to Harry to wonder if the offer was some sort of trick.

But it wasn't. Dudley passed the chocolate bar over without hesitation.

"Uh, thanks, Dudley," Harry managed to say. Really, he was feeling a bit better, and Snape didn't have to be holding onto him any longer, but when he gave his arm a tug, the Potions Master didn't let go.

"Save that until later," Snape directed. "After dinner."

Hmm, maybe it was a good thing Snape hadn't let go, at that. Harry's wooziness returned in force, then. How on earth was he going to do what Uncle Vernon had asked? He couldn't, could he? Harry didn't think anyone could, but he wasn't exactly sure. And what about the wards protecting him from Voldemort? The Dursleys would never let Dudley take them on, not if Harry let Aunt Petunia die, no matter that he couldn't do anything about it---

"Breathe," Snape quietly said beside him, just before addressing Vernon again. "Perhaps you could recommend an inn where we might stay the night?"

Vernon had turned aside to stroke Petunia's forehead. Distracted, he didn't hear the question until Snape had repeated it.

"What? Oh. Er, well actually..." he cleared his throat and seemed to consider that, his chest puffing out with self-importance when he began to speak. "Until I say otherwise, the boy's welcome at the house. He's let me down plenty of times, but this won't be one of them, will it? I'm sure he'll do right for his family. Won't you, boy?"

Snape's hand squeezed his arm, harder than before; when Harry glanced up, it was to see his professor giving a tiny shake of his head.

Harry didn't know what that meant, but since it wouldn't be a good idea to answer no, he gave a non-committal noise and looked back down at his floppy, oversized shoes.

"I'm afraid I have to stay wherever Harry does," Snape was saying. "Headmaster's orders. Hence my request."

"Troublemaker, yeah," Vernon mumbled, leaning further over Petunia. "She hardly ever wakes up, these days. Well, professor, I guess the headmaster knows what he's about. I don't exactly want the boy alone in my house, anyway. No telling what he'd do. You take his room; the boy can sleep on the living room floor."

"Alone in the house?" Harry croaked, confused. "Aren't you coming home?"

"Well, of course not!" Vernon erupted. "Dudders and I have got a room just around the corner, but we hardly use that, as it is. I'm going to be here whenever Petunia happens to wake up, don't think I won't! We haven't been to the house in days!"

Harry managed to shake Snape's arm off, that time, only swaying slightly once he was standing unassisted. He didn't know what to say to his uncle's outburst, except a hesitant, "Should I stay here, too, then?"

"Go with your teacher," Vernon sighed, leaning his head back on the wall, again.

Harry tried not to look back as he left. He didn't want to see Aunt Petunia looking so awful, again; he really didn't. Something compelled him, though.

As Harry glanced back over his shoulder, what he saw was Dudley, standing at the foot of the bed, rubbing his eyes as he tried not to cry.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"You're in no shape to walk back," Snape announced as they entered the lift. This time he didn't seem fazed by it.

"Oh, I'm all right," Harry insisted, stretching a bit. That panicked feeling had receded into the background, but he knew it was lurking on the edge of his consciousness, ready to sweep over him again if he thought too hard about what his uncle wanted.

"Spare me your hero routine. Have you ever Disapparated?"

"Um, well I've portkeyed," Harry thought to say, rubbing his forearms with his hands. Snape had known that already, he felt sure. The third task, Cedric... "I didn't like it."

"This isn't much better, especially if you're not used to it." Without any warning at all, he took a step toward Harry and pulled him tight against his own body. "Close your eyes and stay still--"

"Let go!" Harry shouted, struggling, though the feel and smell was that of Remus. Not Remus, not Remus, he chanted as he thrashed.

"Fine," Snape spat, stepping back again. "Be it on your own head."

And with that, the world around Harry dissolved into a sickening mush of colours. There wasn't a hook behind his navel, or the feeling of being yanked somewhere. There was just a horrible certainty that the whole world had melted around him. Then it was melting into him, his bones aching with it, his muscles protesting, his mouth filling with acid as his body fought a battle and lost.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Harry abruptly found himself on his hands and knees on the front lawn of Number Four Privet Drive. For a long moment, he stayed perfectly still. It seemed to him that the earth was whirling at a dangerous speed, and if he stood up, he just might be flung off it. After that moment, though, the spinning slowed to a smooth roll and he pushed up with his arms, ending up in a kneel.

"Not much better?" he questioned, balefully glaring at Snape, who stood a few feet distant, arms crossed, a slight smirk on his features. "How about a thousand times worse? You could at least have warned me!"

"I tried to absorb the shock of it for you, if you recall."

"Ever think of telling me that?"

Snape narrowed his eyes, though on Remus the expression wasn't nearly as intimidating as the Potions Master intended, Harry felt sure. "Experience is the best teacher. You'll hold onto me next time, I warrant."

"Don't bet on it," Harry muttered, getting to his feet. It was dark out, which made him wonder how long they'd been in the hospital. Dark was good, though; it meant the neighbours probably hadn't seen them arrive. As for their departure, however... "Just so you know, most lifts have cameras installed. Somebody might have us Disapparating on film. That's a lot worse than  people claiming to have seen a flying car."

"Hmph." Snape merely replied. "Alohomora. Your uncle told you to stay here, but didn't think to give you a way to get in."

"Yeah, well he just figures I'll do what you did."

"Are you in the habit of disregarding the Decree?"

"No!" Harry shouted, out of patience. "I've never done any magic here except what I couldn't help, all right?" That admission just reminded him of the vase breaking, and of what had caused him to lose control. All that virulence, directed at him, and plenty of lies to top it off with. And Snape had heard it all.

Sighing, Harry walked past Snape and headed toward the kitchen, where he started opening cabinets, looking for something he could cook without much fuss. Soup, maybe.

"Sit down," Snape directed. When Harry didn't, he actually took him by the shoulders and shoved him over towards the table and into a chair.

"I thought you said I needed to eat!" Harry erupted, pushing his chair back. "We don't have any house-elves here to do the cooking. Or were you going to do it?"

"Be still, you idiot child," Snape bid, taking a seat across the table. Leaning his palms on the mahogany surface, he spoke with quiet intent. "You've had several serious shocks today, and you've just experienced a sensation not unlike being turned inside out. Take a few deep breaths. Unless you let your body calm before you eat, you'll make yourself ill."

"Sod off," was Harry's reply to that. What did he care what Snape thought? He'd been looking after himself for... well, forever, basically, and he didn't need a snide interfering bastard of a teacher regulating his meals.

"Five points--" Snape broke off, chuckling slightly, but Harry didn't see the humour. As far as he was concerned, things rapidly got even less funny, because the next thing the Potions Master said was, "It's fairly obvious that you've been the house-elf here, Harry."

Harry huffed. "So you don't think I'm famous Harry Potter, primped and pampered and spoiled?"

Snape raised an eyebrow. "No, I think you're tired, overwrought, not as old as you'd like me to believe, and in need of a good meal. One you don't have to cook, yourself. I also think we have quite a bit to discuss. Is there a restaurant around here you'd recommend?"

For some reason, Harry wanted more than anything to say Sod off again. Strange, considering that Snape was being... well, almost like Remus would be, actually. Maybe he just didn't trust it.

"Oh, just let me order a pizza," Harry groaned. "I don't need any more calamity raining down on my head tonight. Inside this house, supposedly, Voldemort can't get to me, so hand me the phone."

"Why supposedly?"

"I don't believe half the things Dumbledore says, any more," Harry sighed. "Case in point. He said it was a mistake to have asked you to tutor me, last year. Said he should have realised that past history was going to make the whole thing the disaster it was. Yet here we are again, thrown together at his direction."

"This is rather different from Occlumency," Snape pointed out. "Who should look after you, here in Surrey? Mundungus Fletcher? Arabella Figg?"

"How about the real Remus?"

"Who will shortly become a werewolf asleep in a locked room. Besides, if the Dark Lord's interest in you suddenly spikes, I'll know before anyone else on our side. That could be critical, and Albus knows it."

Our side. Strange to hear it put like that. Too many years of thinking of Snape as a nemesis. Which he was, oh, he most definitely was... but that was something apart from the war.

"I suppose," Harry muttered. "Still, if you want to know why I don't trust Dumbledore, you don't have to look any further than his inconsistencies."

"Life isn't a quartz crystal. It's fluid, and constantly changing. If you judge Albus too harshly merely for reacting to altered circumstances, then you're a fool."

"I thought I was a fool, anyway, in your books."

"You certainly are, if you're dim-witted enough to believe that half the things I say in class aren't on display for Malfoy to report to his father." Snape passed a hand over his hair, stroking Remus' brown strands back from his forehead. "In retrospect, I realise I shouldn't have stopped your Occlumency sessions, though I will point out that your complete refusal to practice rendered them close to worthless no matter what I did. At any rate, I would suspect that Albus believes he's giving me a second chance. I would further speculate that my bringing you and the letter to him personally convinced him I could... do better, this time, no matter the past."

Snape waited for a reply, and when none was forthcoming, prompted, "You were going to 'order a pizza,' I believe?"

"Yeah, well I said to hand me the phone." Harry found he had to explain. And point. If he'd been in a better mood, it would have been funny. Maybe. "That blue thing, on the wall." He didn't feel like getting up to find the phone book, so he rang Directory Enquiries again to get the number he needed.

Snape wandered off, his wand at the ready as Harry dialled. Harry didn't know exactly what he was up to, but he didn't care. Let him go looking for the black energy in the house. Hell, let him find it. There wasn't much left to figure out, was there?

Laying his head down on the table, Harry stared bleakly into space and waited for the stupid pizza.

-----------------------------------------------------------

He must have gone to sleep, because the next thing he knew, the pizza was already on the table, along with plates and utensils, and Snape was trying to figure out how to serve the thing.

Harry sat up groggily, listlessly beginning to eat the misshapen slice Snape had finally transferred to his plate. He didn't really get any energy up until he noticed Snape take one bite and gag. Yeah, well it couldn't be worse than some of the foul concoctions he likes to make us swallow... But that thought reminded Harry of something. "Did you take your, er... dose?"

Snape stared at him, which Harry took as a definite yes. Feeling better, he got up to fetch them both some water. This time, Snape didn't try to stop him.

"All right," Harry launched right into it. "You heard what they want. What do I do?"

"That decision can wait," Snape replied. He drained his entire glass of water without pause before resuming, and grimacing, used his knife and fork to eat another bite of pizza. The image would have been positively bizarre, if not for the fact that Harry could imagine Remus, at least, eating pizza. When Snape had finished his slice, he set his utensils down, automatically lining them up parallel, as if they were tools on a Potions desk. "Let's analyze your uncle's behaviour. He writes you a letter whose wording is offensive, to say the least, and then berates you at length to your face. This, in front of a stranger? One of your own teachers?"

"So Uncle Vernon's an insufferable pig," Harry admitted. He'd never said that out loud before, and found it was relief to get it off his chest. "Big deal."

Snape wrinkled his brow as though he thought it was, but Harry figured he just didn't know how to control Remus' expressions very well. "My point, Mr Potter---"

"If you're going to call me that, I hope you cast Silencio." Come to think of it, Harry realised, he should have thought of that a few minutes before. Just went to show how tired he must be.

Snape just gave him that stare again. That I-am-the-teacher-and-you-are-the-student stare. Harry stared right back, only to find himself nonplussed when Snape apparently relented. "That and Imperforable," the Potions Master sharply replied. "Now, as I was saying. Your uncle's motive for summoning you was to request a rather significant favour, yet he hardly acted the supplicant. From what I could deduce, he did all he could to insult you. It gives the term irrational new meaning."

"Well, you're the one who Legilimized him. Yeah, I noticed. Anyway, you must know what he's like. He gets angry, he doesn't think so well. Why does it matter?" That said, Harry picked up his pizza with his hands and set to eating.

"It matters because understanding him means we understand how best to deal with him, Mr Potter. Legilimency serves to unlock memories, not psyche. If we're going to convince him to let us extend the wards, we must determine how best to influence him."

"Well, that's easy, isn't it? Use Obliviate to make him forget how much he hates me, then ask. Hmm, if that's not enough, I'm sure there's a spell you can use to give him some level of concern about me."

"We definitely need a better Defence course," Snape muttered. "Although perhaps sacrificial magic is more a seventh-year topic. Well, be that as it may, you can't trick people into participating in protective wards. It simply doesn't work."

"Dumbledore distinctly said that my aunt took me unwillingly, Professor."

"Dumbledore whom you don't trust?" Snape lightly mocked. "It's a matter of semantics. She might not have enjoyed taking you in, Potter, but she did in fact do it willingly. Nobody forced her; nobody hexed her. She wasn't even bribed. Her conscience alone dictated her actions, and that's what we're going to need from your cousin."

"So I can't even offer them some of my gold," Harry glumly concluded. "Not that I'd give them Galleons, anyway; they'd think they carried curses, I bet. But I'd thought I might convert some to pounds. You're sure that won't help, not at all?"

"Not even if you beggar yourself; you can't buy good will. Your uncle's lack of any could be quite a problem, assuming that Dudley won't agree unless his father does."

"You don't have to tell me they lack good will, Professor."

"I'm sure I don't." Harry didn't look up, sure that Snape would be half-smiling. "But it goes beyond the mere lack thereof. Your uncle's memories of you are all rather twisted. He believes you're to blame for all your misfortunes."

Misfortunes. Well, wasn't that a nice, neutral term for rampant emotional abuse, not to mention chores until midnight and the occasional slap across the face? Harry resolutely went on eating, determined not to be upset about just what memories Snape had likely accessed. So what if the Potions Master knew everything? So what if he did spread it around Slytherin, or worse, spit it out bit by bit during the usual barrage of insults during every Potions class? Worse things had happened to him, that was for sure. Yeah, like having his own blood help raise Voldemort to a terrifying new reign, like knowing he was to blame for every subsequent death. Like realizing he wasn't a boy, he was just a scar and a prophecy.

Like unintentionally luring Sirius to his death.

"Well your childhood wasn't a picnic, either!" he suddenly exploded, not even caring, this time, if Snape got mad about what Harry knew.

"True," Snape acknowledged, tilting his head to the side to regard Harry thoughtfully. "I think perhaps we are even."

"Oh, goody," Harry sniped, too upset to realise that was a significant admission coming from the likes of Severus Snape. "That just makes my day. Well let me tell you just one thing, Professor! I said I was sorry at the time, and I was sorry, and I never breathed a word about it, not to anybody except Sirius, and I only asked him because I needed to know what he thought he was doing, needed to know how my father could have been such a complete jerk-off arsehole, all right? So if we're even, then... oh, forget it," he ground to a halt.

"If we're even..." Snape mused, narrowing his eyes, studying Harry in a way that Remus never did, like a predator sizing up prey. "Ah. Would that outburst be an awkward and somewhat infantile way of asking me not to share what I've learned about you?"

Harry glared down at his plate. Really, pizza looked quite repulsive when half-eaten. He had a strong urge to throw it at the wall and watch the tomato sauce drip down the hideous floral wallpaper.

"Mr Potter?"

That supercilious tone coming out in Remus' voice had him looking up, green eyes still fuming. "I wasn't asking for anything, sir. I don't ask for what I can't get."

"No doubt one more legacy of living here," Snape commented, shaking his head. He hesitated, then went on, "I'm certain my timing leaves something to be desired, but might I inquire what your godfather replied when you questioned him?"

"Oh sure, why not? Pick my whole life apart," Harry groused. "He said they were both idiots. That they were fifteen, and everybody's an idiot at fifteen."

Snape eased back in his chair, steepled his fingers together, and solemnly regarded Harry. "Your father, Mr Potter. Contrary to what you've been told, he was not unemployed."

Harry didn't quite know how the conversation had got around to that, but it seemed to take the sting out of what had passed before. "I know," he admitted. "And he didn't die in a car crash, obviously, and he wasn't a penniless good-for-nothing."

"He wasn't penniless, no," Snape returned, a comment which could have been snide as hell, but it hadn't sounded that way. More like... Snape couldn't admit that the fifteen-year-old had grown up and left his idiocy behind.

Harry finished another slice, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve, thinking that pepperoni was a lot oilier than he'd remembered. But these were Dudley's clothes, so it wasn't worth getting up to find a napkin, even if Snape curled a disdainful lip.

"Let's return to our previous line of thought," the Potions Master directed. "Your uncle. Do you have any notion why he would deliberately antagonize you at a time when he needs your aid?"

"Oh, that's easy," Harry replied, shoving his plate away and wiping his hands on Dudley's pants, just to see Snape wince again. "Uncle Vernon never persuaded anybody to do anything in his life. All he knows is intimidation." Harry frowned, remembering scores of things to back that up, then forced his mind back to the topic at hand. "He'd figure I wouldn't do it if he asked nicely."

"Granted, he didn't ask nicely," Snape's lips quirked slightly. "But that brings me to another matter. Why did the asking make you hyperventilate? I've heard detailed accounts of you, both from Death Eaters and from Albus. Frankly, you've faced down the Dark Lord with far less anxiety than you display before your relatives. You can't possibly find them more frightening than him."

"Yeah. I don't know..." Harry raised a finger to trace his scar. "Maybe at least with him, there are things I can do. It's not like I think I can dent him; I was terrified in that graveyard. But I had... I don't know. Choices. Spells. Something. Besides, every time I've faced him down, as you call it, I've also had help. First it was the Mirror of Erised, then Fawkes and the Sorting Hat, and um, my parents coming out of his wand, and actually Dumbledore and some statues the last time."

Snape didn't question a word of that ramble. Well, he'd probably heard it all from his sources, as he'd said. Wasn't it just peachy to be the Boy Everybody Talked About All The Time?

"Anyway, what does it matter?" Harry asked, recognizing the impulse toward self-pity and trying to reject it. "They feel the way they feel, and I can't change it. Not even saving Aunt Petunia would really change it, I don't think, though Dudley did have me wondering."

"He saw what your uncle didn't," Snape quietly affirmed. "That alienating you wasn't the best way of asking for help."

"Ha." Harry fished out the chocolate bar as he spoke, and started eating. "Personally, I think the Dementors scared some sense into him. Either that, or when they were trying to suck out his soul, they managed to extract just the worst bits. Yeah, it's probably all linked. I mean, think about it, he didn't give me the caramel-coconut thing, he gave me chocolate." It wasn't funny, but for some reason Harry laughed.

"Don't joke about Dementors," Snape chided.

"I wasn't. I really do think they might have changed Dudley for the better." Harry leaned back and studied the ceiling. It sort of wavered before his eyes, which only went to show how tired he was. That was likely what loosened his tongue to say, "You know, it's too weird, sitting and talking like this. I don't think you've insulted me in the past three minutes."

"Would it make you feel better if I did?" Snape asked, a little snottily. Well, that was better, Harry supposed.

"Yeah, it probably would," he admitted, standing and stretching. "It'd remind me that you aren't Remus. Well, I'm beat. Uncle Vernon'll pitch a fit if he finds out, but I'll take the sofa, not the floor. You can have my room like he said. Don't guess there's any point in keeping you out of it, not now. Good night."

"Go upstairs to your room," Snape directed. "I'll be right up."

"What for? I haven't needed someone to tuck me in since--" Oh, crap. Aunt Petunia had never tucked him in, but he was hardly going to say so and sound like a sorry-for-himself little twerp.

Snape was shaking his head. "This house may be soaked in your mother's blood sacrifice, but if your aunt dies during the night, the Dark Lord will enter. You should not have let Mr Malfoy see this address. There is no doubt that Lucius has communicated it to all interested parties, by now."

"So you knew it was a letter, you knew before you even took it that I wasn't cheating!"

"Yes," Snape confirmed without remorse. "I keep aware of what is happening in my class, Mr Potter."

"If you did, Neville wouldn't add dragon scales when he needs pixie skin!"

"Mr Longbottom is required to learn by experience, as are you all."

"And it doesn't matter to you that we end up learning nothing at all!" Harry retorted. "That's just brilliant, sir. Anyway, if it's so bloody perilous here, we should go right back to Hogwarts, shouldn't we?"

"Not without transferring the power of your mother's sacrifice to your cousin. That's imperative. When all things are considered, this house is safer for you than Hogwarts, which has allowed Voldemort entrance multiple times since you arrived." Snape frowned at the electric lights in the kitchen, but before Harry could move to turn them off, he'd waved his wand to extinguish them.

All Harry's anxiety came rushing back over him until he felt submerged in it. "Dudley may have given me a sweet, but he won't go against his father, and Uncle Vernon won't lift a finger to help me as long as Aunt Petunia is lying there sick. So what are we going to do about that? I mean, I obviously can't cure her, but is there anything that would? Some potion you know, something St. Mungo's might have, something, anything at all?"

Snape started up the stairs and beckoned Harry to follow. "No."

"Are you sure?" Harry asked, that feeling of panic closing in on him again.

"Wizard remedies work by interacting with the magical core inside our own bodies. With rare exceptions, they're either useless or lethal when used on Muggles."

"Shite."

"Shocking language for a pure-hearted Gryffindor like yourself, Mr Potter," the Potions Master drawled as he strode upwards.

"See, I knew you couldn't go three minutes without insulting me."

Snape whirled on a riser, and stared down at him. "You consider that an insult? And here I was restraining what I really think."

"Sure you were," Harry shot back. "I know what you really think of me. You make it clear every time I go to your class, not to mention at random times in the hallways, and don't you tell me that it's all just some show. You started it back when Lucius Malfoy didn't have anybody to report to."

"The events of your second year should show you the error of that conclusion."

Snape waited until Harry had climbed past him and their faces were on a level. Then he leaned close, his eyes gleaming in a way that actually called Snape, not Remus, to mind. His voice thrummed with confidence in his own words.

"Allow me to share what I really think of you, Mr Potter. At the hospital today, you called yourself not normal, and made up stories about what Muggle Studies really is. You subjected yourself to insult and abuse, and said hardly a word to refute it."

"So what?" Harry retorted, standing his ground even if it did seem like Snape was breathing down his neck. He felt like Snape was calling him a coward, which just went to show how little the man understood. "You're the one who said I'd better get on their good side!"

"You bought those flowers," Snape resolutely continued, "in a deliberate bid to provoke an argument about money so that you could claim that someone else was working you like a house-elf. You knew your uncle would like that idea. You lied, Mr Potter. You manipulated. You manoeuvred. It was positively Slytherin."

Harry stiffened and spoke through clenched teeth. "That's hitting a bit below the belt, don't you think?" Of course it was. Snape was a Slytherin, himself. Since when did they fight fair?

"What I think, Mr Potter, is that you should have let the Sorting Hat do its job!"

So much for clenching his jaw; Harry's mouth dropped completely open. "You know about--"

"Of course I know; I was there," Snape softly returned, finally backing away. "Gryffindor valour and honour, such noble traits. I suppose they have their place. But to bring the Dark Lord down will take a great deal more. It requires cunning, something you'd have mastered by now if you'd  been placed in my house."

"Gee, thanks, I always wanted to be a cheat and liar," Harry drawled, shaking his head. He didn't want to think about what would have happened to him in Slytherin, he really didn't.

"You are imprudent to exclude any battle tactic that might win this war." With that, Snape strode down the hall to gaze at the series of locks outside Harry's door, no expression whatsoever on his face. That was pretty hard to pull off with Remus' features, Harry thought.

When Snape opened the door and stepped in, Harry decided he'd had just about enough. "Look, this is mental. I don't need a nursemaid, and even if I did, there's only one bed in there--"

"Do you think I plan to sleep?" Snape enquired, chin lifted a bit in challenge. "No. You will sleep; I will keep watch. I truly do not think your aunt will die tonight, but I am not willing to risk you if she does."

"I can't sleep if you're going to sit there and watch me!"

"Yes, you can. I have potion--"

"Stuff your potion!"

"Harry," Snape said quietly, his voice completely level, "Stop this idiocy and go to bed."

Maturity could go hang, Harry thought. "Look, the couch is sounding better and better--"

"You will sleep in your bed," Snape flatly announced, "or you will sit up with me and explain the black energy in the cupboard under the stairs. No? I thought not."

Harry crawled under the covers fully dressed, and snapped his eyes shut, his whole face scrunched up into a scowl so fierce it actually strained the muscles. He wasn't going to go to sleep with Snape watching, he just wasn't. It wasn't obstinacy, or idiocy as Snape had said, it was just the truth. He couldn't relax, not even if a soft spell drifting through the air made the sheets smell slightly like a meadow. Not even if his eyelids were getting heavier, and the faint noise of a chair scraping on the floorboards seemed like it was being woven into a dream, and the room was slowly being swallowed in a rush of warmth... and comfort...

Not even if...

"Hey," Harry murmured sleepily, rolling onto his side, his hands hugging himself beneath the bedspread. "You called me Harry... um, I think, when nobody was around to hear it."

"Somebody was around," Snape quietly replied. "Hush, now, Harry.  Let yourself sleep."

Chapter Text

When Harry opened bleary eyes the next morning, it was to see Snape leaning back in the desk chair, a book propped open on his crossed knee, his black eyes rapidly scanning text.

Harry shook his head, his hair flying wildly as he tried to think past a fog of early-morning confusion. Something was wrong, something beyond the fact that Severus Snape would be in his bedroom at all, or that Harry would be at Privet Drive in October. Something else... why was Snape wearing Remus' clothes, which didn't even fit him?

The Potions Master glanced up as Harry shoved the covers aside and sat up. "Good morning."

It was Snape's voice... It took Harry only a second longer to put it together. "Your potion!" he accused.

Snape brushed a long strand of black hair away from his eyes. "No need to panic," he chided. "We're safe in here." Setting his book aside, he fished in a pocket for a small metal flask much like the one the false Mad Eye Moody had used. "I'll take more now, though. It does seem to make things... simpler."

Harry ignored that remark to focus on the one before. "We're safe, you said. So Aunt Petunia's still all right?"

"She's still alive."

Harry looked away as Snape sipped from the flask. He remembered the flavour of rotting cabbage, the awful nauseous feeling sliding down into his stomach as he'd drunk that same potion, then the wrench of the change, itself... But the potion didn't seem to bother Snape. Either the man was used to drinking horribly noxious substances, or his formulation had improved on more than mere duration.

It was Remus' familiar voice again that said, "I found this book downstairs. Read this part."

Harry took the proffered tome, Leukaemia: Diagnosis and Treatment, and ran his eyes over the paragraph Snape had pointed out. "I... I don't really understand this, Professor," he admitted when he'd read it through twice. Without even realizing he was doing it, Harry braced himself for a caustic comment.

"No doubt you don't. It's badly written," Snape succinctly replied. "Muggle publication, so what can you expect? Pity they can't even write to the level of the average Hufflepuff, but still, after wading my way through the extraneous verbiage, I gleaned a few useful things. Get up, we'll discuss them over breakfast."

Remembering all they had discussed in the kitchen the night before made Harry wary. And resentful. But he didn't know how to broach that, so the resentment spilled out in another direction. "Are you going to let me make breakfast," he sniped, "or will it be another pizza?"

"If you'd seen your face, whiter than Mr Malfoy's as you stumbled off the lawn, you wouldn't have tried to stay on your feet. But you look fine, now, so by all means play the house-elf if you like."

"I don't like, but food doesn't just make itself, not here."

"Pity," Snape replied.

Harry shuffled through the bedclothes for his shoes and socks. Funny, he didn't remember taking them off. Must have kicked them off in the night... except that they were laid out neatly on the floor, socks folded, laces tucked away inside the gaping shoes. Irritated, Harry shot Snape a nasty glance. "Don't touch me, all right? Especially not when I'm asleep."

"You were thrashing," Snape explained, "and it looked all too likely that those huge... things would fly off your feet and hit something. What was in your dream?"

"Nothing."

"The Dark Lord? Death Eaters?"

"Nothing!"

"Cedric? Crouch?" Snape drew in a breath. "Black, Harry?"

"Aunt Petunia and Dudley, if you must know!" He rapidly pulled on his shoes and socks, and without another word, stomped out the door, down the hall and stairs, and into the kitchen. There wasn't much to eat, really, and the milk in the fridge had gone sour. Harry found some tinned milk and dry cereal --god awful sugary stuff that Dudley had demanded ages ago-- and had a simple breakfast on the table in under three minutes.

Snape didn't comment on the cuisine, though he didn't eat much, either. Harry had three helpings, washed down with some orange juice he'd mixed up from frozen, and afterwards, he felt a lot less grouchy.

"All right, let's have it. What did you find out from that book?"

"You're in the range of relatives who might be bone marrow compatible."

Harry scratched his head. "Yeah, all right, I guess that makes sense. Uncle Vernon said he and Dudley had tried to donate, and been refused. You think I could donate, then?"

"It's within the realm of possibility," Snape answered. "And this book is well-thumbed; I'm sure your uncle knows that you should be tested, at least. But he didn't mention that. All he asked for was your magic."

"Weird," Harry had to say. He poured himself another glass of juice. "It's not like he's come around to thinking that magic is all right, so why wouldn't he rather have my marrow than... oh, so that's it."

"Come again?"

Harry flashed the sort of grim smile that always accompanied epiphanies about his relatives' regard for him. "Bet you anything they think my bone marrow would taint her, or something. You know, with magic."

"Interesting notion," Snape murmured. "Wizard blood is in fact a highly magical substance, and Muggle theory insists that blood cells themselves are born in the marrow. Though that may not hold true for us, you understand. Still..."

Harry laughed. "Oh, please. Petunia as a witch." Suddenly it wasn't funny, not at all. "You know, I think she would rather die. No wonder they didn't ask me to donate. The way they figure it, magic to heal her would be safer. Controlled. Though it's anybody's guess why Uncle Vernon would associate magical control with me. He's never seen me do a real spell, just... accidental magic."

"All wizard children do that," Snape lightly observed. "It only means that you are in fact normal."

"For a wizard."

"Yes. For a wizard."

Harry piled the dishes in the sink, then turned back towards the table where Snape still sat. "So, what do we do about Aunt Petunia, then?"

"It's your choice," Snape replied, fingers tapping on mahogany. "You can pretend to do some sort of spell, and hope they believe it worked. I could even place a glamour over your aunt to make matters look authentic, though that wouldn't change her true state of health."

"Can you glamour the machines, too?" Harry pressed. "There's one for blood pressure, I think, and they probably track her temperature. And... well, I don't know what else, but you could just make all the equipment show normal readings."

"I wouldn't know what constitutes normal for a Muggle," Snape pointed out. "Although research could remedy that problem. Still, magic is highly organic. It's wedded to the natural world, to be  used by living beings for living beings. Altering complex machines with it could have... unforeseen consequences."

Harry remembered Hermione's many lectures on how Muggle technology didn't even work in the presence of excess magic. "Yeah, better scratch that idea," Harry conceded. "Okay, so we can fake a spell, but not very well. Well, Uncle Vernon's like you; he doesn't trust me farther than he can throw me, either--"

Snape sat up straighter. "What did you just say?"

"I think you heard me." Leaning on a counter, Harry reiterated, "You actually are a lot like Vernon Dursley, you know. You both enjoy cutting people down to size, especially relatively helpless people, like students who can't fight back. You both just love to threaten people and watch them squirm. And it's more than threats, too. One after another yesterday, you both grabbed my arm and held onto it until it pleased you to let go, no matter what I had to say about it."

"I was keeping you from falling, you stupid boy!"

"I'd rather fall than be manhandled. Just like I'd rather sleep in my shoes if I want! If I need help, I'll ask, all right?"

Snape shoved back his chair so hard it clattered to its side on the linoleum. "That's just the problem, you don't ask!"

"Yeah, well I sure as shite asked for help with Sirius, didn't I? And all you did was look down your supercilious nose at me and tell me to sod off, because you wanted him dead! You knew he was blameless in my parents' deaths, but he wasn't innocent, not in your books, and you couldn't look past the fact that twelve years in Azkaban was punishment enough for-- for--" Harry abruptly stopped talking, because it was either shut up or burst into tears. Turning away slightly, he blinked to dispel the feeling.

"All right," he finally said when he felt more in control, though he didn't actually know if Snape was still in the room. It felt almost as though he had lost a span of time, as though he hadn't been conscious of anything for a few minutes. What had happened to his resolve to be mature? Sirius was dead, and Snape was glad about it, and no amount of blubbering would change a thing. Harry's hands had been gripping the counter until he felt like his bones would snap, but then he deliberately let go, and tried to wall his anger. "All right, so it seems like pretending to spell her is out. If the price of the wards is returning her to health, that leaves me donating bone marrow, I think. What else is there?"

"Is that rhetorical, or are you asking for help?" Snape stiffly replied.

Feeling suddenly drained, Harry moved toward a chair and waved for Snape to sit down, too. "I'm asking what you know, what you got from the book."

Snape didn't sit down, but he did answer, pacing back and forth as he reasoned, talking his way through the problem. Harry just watched and listened, his eyebrows drawn together in a frown. It didn't sound like bone marrow donation was a big deal for Muggles, but Snape was all too aware that Harry was a wizard, and an unusually powerful one, at that. Was Harry aware, he asked --without waiting for an answer-- that fewer than half of fully-trained wizards could produce any Patronus at all, let alone a corporeal one? And Harry had done it at the absurdly young age of thirteen. Preposterous, really, but Snape reasoned aloud that it shouldn't have surprised him overly much, given that Harry's own father had developed Animagus powers, without any training, while still at school.

It was well known, Snape continued after a short pause, that wizards and Muggle medicine didn't mix well, and the effect tended to be magnified for more powerful wizards, though very little was really known about the phenomenon; most wizards had enough sense to call a healer when they were ill. Still, children, the younger the better, were thought to tolerate Muggle interference better than adults, though this again was based on the occasional anecdote, which was hardly a basis for belief. And then there was the whole issue of wizard blood itself carrying the magical signature of an individual. It might make Petunia worse instead of better, especially as she had a strong aversion to magic in general and Harry in particular. On the other hand, Snape reasoned, it could instead serve as a catalyst to change Petunia's own core. Her sister Lily had been a powerful witch even when Snape had known her at school, and then later she had actually managed to save her child from the Dark Lord, so there had to be highly significant wizarding bloodlines in the Evans family tree, even if they'd lain dormant for long enough that the family had forgotten all about it... and on and on it went, Snape pacing and talking the matter through.

"You've given this a lot of thought," Harry had to admit when Snape finally did stop. "But if they only agree to help me because I'm going to give them marrow, isn't that a lot like bribery, anyway? You said that wouldn't work."

"I don't think Galleons can generate true good will," Snape corrected. "This could, if you're willing."

"If I'm willing?" Harry echoed. "What do you mean? What happened to you're going to get on your knees and beg even if I have to make you?"

Snape had the grace to look a little chagrined, at least. "I thought you were an ungrateful child who took your relatives' love and care so much for granted that you couldn't bother to even read their letter. James was a bit like that. He tended to put fun with his friends above family."

Harry thought about that, realizing with dismay that it did fit what he'd seen of his father as a fifteen-year old. "I wish people would stop confusing me with James," he murmured. "Well, I suppose there's not much choice to be made, is there? I'll have to donate my marrow. I don't see another way of generating enough good will."

Snape sat down across from him and splayed his hands on the table. "I think, perhaps, your only real choice is to leave your aunt to her fate. If we lose you in an effort to maintain the wards, we have lost all that matters. You've heard the prophecy."

"Lose me?"

"To Muggle medicine!" Snape hissed, scowling. "Weren't you listening? You are not a Muggle, Harry. You should not subject yourself to doctors, full stop. I should likely not have even mentioned it."

"So why did you?" Harry asked, head tilted curiously to the side.

"Because you are not fifteen and not an idiot," Snape sharply retorted. "You do better with more information rather than less, a notion the headmaster is beginning to appreciate as well, though I'm sure you don't believe that. You can weigh these matters for yourself. I said it was your choice, did I not?"

"Yeah," Harry mused. "I do know what you mean about Muggle medicine. Mr Weasley tried some stitches last year; they didn't work out so well. Of course, that might have just been because of the venom. But you know, I was Muggle-raised, which might give me an edge, and you said children could tolerate things better. See, I was listening. Although I sort of remember something strange about doctors, hmm..."

Snape eyed him critically. "What?"

It took Harry a minute for the memory to come clear, and even then he wasn't sure he wanted to reveal it. But after what Snape had just said about sharing information, he thought he'd better. "Well, I can remember going to the doctor lots of times, but mostly it was just for Dudley. One time, though... I don't know, I must have been three, maybe. Dudley was getting shots, and the doctor said that I was supposed to, too." At Snape's blank look, he explained, "Um, that's where they stick this needle in you so they can inject a... um, I guess it's sort of like a potion?"

Snape was barely breathing, Harry noticed, but he had air enough left in his lungs to say, "Was this done to you, Harry? This..." he sounded thoroughly revolted. "This injection of potion?"

"Yeah," Harry admitted. "But they had a time of it. When the nurse showed me the needle I screamed. I mean, really screamed. They had to hold me down, but when it touched my skin I felt this strange shivery wave sort of coursing through me. I... uh, made the needle bend double, I think. I'm not sure. I just know that Aunt Petunia started screaming, too, and then she hissed at them to get another one, and that time she held her hand over my eyes when they did it."

"I imagine you were punished," Snape surmised.

Harry shrugged it off, his mind so lost in the past that he'd forgotten, really, who he was talking with. "Whatever they injected, I had a reaction. I can't really remember the details. Just getting sick, so sick, and it was hot and sweaty in the cupboard, and I wanted to rinse my mouth, but they wouldn't let me out." The memory was one of his most chilling, probably because at the time he'd been too young to understand why nobody would help him. Harry shrugged again, and tried to leave it in the past. "Anyway, I never had to get another shot. I don't know how they got out of it, come to think of it. I have this idea that I should have had more, to be allowed to attend school." He gave a mirthless laugh.

"You were locked in that cupboard whenever you did accidental magic?"

"Oh, no, I lived in there all the time," Harry explained, then could have cursed his Gryffindor forthrightness. He should have just let Snape believe the other thing; it would have explained the black energy just as well. Some part of him, though, was relieved to let go of the secret. Yeah, the confused part of my mind that almost thinks he's Remus, he caustically told himself. Then he realised that wasn't really true. Or fair. Maybe it's the part of me that remembers yesterday. He tried to make the Disapparating easier, he made me sit down and rest instead of cook, he sat up all night to be sure I'd stay safe. He researched the leukaemia, and without even pointing out that I should have had the brains to think of that on my own.

"Harry?" Snape questioned, and somehow, the name clinched it.

"You aren't going to tell anyone," Harry murmured, but it wasn't a question, or a command.

Snape's gaze was level, almost non-committal; he didn't give any reaction at all, though he did say, "You aren't the only one with a sense of... decorum, about such things."

Harry supposed that was Snape's way of saying he'd understood that Harry had needed to talk to Sirius. Or maybe he was trying to thank Harry for not spreading Snape's worst memory all through Gryffindor Tower. A little of both, Harry decided.

"Yeah. Decorum, good word."

They sat in silence for a few minutes, until Snape prompted, "So. It is your choice, Harry. We can go back to Hogwarts without further comment and never speak of this again. No doubt your aunt will die, and the wards will fall, long before summer comes, which will free you from the necessity of ever coming here again."

"Talk about tempting," Harry admitted. "But you're the one who said Hogwarts wasn't completely safe. And how could it be, when Dumbledore's idea of a Defence teacher is a bloke with Voldemort sticking out the back of his head? Much as I hate it here, I probably do need to hang onto the one place on earth that might actually keep me secure. And if that means Muggle medicine gets its hands on me?" He lifted his shoulders.

"Hogwarts may be a safer option than subjecting yourself to the marrow extraction procedure," the professor pointed out. "From your account, you were highly averse to Muggle medicine even as a child. And now you're nearly full-grown, and the medicine in question is far, far more invasive. Accio book," he suddenly called, waving his wand toward the upstairs bedroom.

After the book landed on the table with a thud, Snape flicked his wand to make the pages turn themselves at high speed. He muttered an incantation at the flipping pages, some series of Latin phrases Harry had never heard before. The book abruptly went still, and Snape flipped it around to face Harry. "Read this chapter before you decide," he instructed.

So Harry did, pulling awful faces all the while.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

"Oh, ick," was about all he could say when he first finished reading. "That was completely gross from start to finish. And they use needles. Just what I need."

"You can see why I have reservations."

"Yeah," Harry admitted. He did wish he could run away home to Hogwarts, but he knew the wish was selfish, on several fronts. "Um, but it doesn't really matter, you know? I mean, I'd have to do it even if I wasn't angling for the wards. She is my aunt."

"You do know how irrational that sounds?" Snape returned, shaking his head. "She may share your blood, but she's been your aunt in name only, Harry. You do not owe her a thing."

"I owe my mum," Harry clarified. "She wouldn't want me to let Petunia die, not when I might be able to forestall it."

"You might be surprised," Snape tightly informed him, eyes fierce. "I knew Lily Evans. I heard her talk about her magic-hating Muggle sister. That alone should have told me that my assumptions about your first eleven years were erroneous. At any rate, I have no doubt that your mother would not want you to undergo a painful, highly dangerous and dubious procedure in hopes of saving someone who has treated you so shamefully."

Harry didn't know what to say to that, since the Potions Master did have a point.

"Furthermore," his teacher went on, "your mother gave her own life to save yours! Do you think she would want you throwing that away for the likes of Petunia Dursley?"

"A little dramatic, as scenarios go," Harry shot back. "Get a grip, would you? I'm not going to die!"

"How do you know that? Have your Divination skills improved?" Snape sneered, waving his hands in a random manner Harry'd never seen from him before. "I did see your O.W.L. results, Mr Potter!"

"Look, if I can survive Cruciatus, I can put up with a needle shoved through to bone."

"Cruciatus," Snape gasped, his hands falling gracelessly to the table, so hard it would leave bruises. "What do you mean, Cruciatus?"

"Aren't as well-informed as you think, are you?" Harry sneered. "Yeah, you heard me. Voldemort cast it on me after he snatched me from the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Imperio, too, and I still made it out of there alive. I'm pretty adaptable; if I wasn't, the Basilisk would have got me! So just stuff your worries in a sock or something--"

Harry abruptly shut up, his mind clanging on a single thought. Oh, shite. That's it, that's why he's looking so shattered, why he can't meet my eyes. He's worried about me. Not the prophecy, not the future... me.

"It'll be all right, you'll see," Harry resumed in a lighter tone. "Trelawney would no doubt predict my demise, but she's been wrong every time yet, so you don't have to... er, be concerned."

"Cruciatus at fourteen. Dear Merlin." Snape's fingers curled into claws. "Haven't you endured enough? Why must you do this, too? Don't excuse it on account of your mother. I guarantee she would not want this."

"Well," Harry murmured thoughtfully, glancing sideways at Snape, "Hermione would say it's because I have a saving-people thing."

"That is singularly not funny, Mr Potter."

"Better switch back to Harry; I want to go out."

"Out?" Snape looked like he was still contemplating the curses Harry had endured.

"Yeah, can we? You don't sense any dark magic outside, do you? We should head to the hospital, I guess, but I really don't want to Disapparate if it can be avoided."

Snape nodded, pointing his wand, revolving it in a slow sphere, even pointing it towards the floor and ceiling at times, as he incanted Finite Incantatem. Then he swept the wand in a wide arc, his eyes blazing with concentration. When he finished, he shook his head in dismay.

"I think perhaps you'd better come here, Harry."

Understanding what the professor hadn't said, Harry stepped close. Remembering the last time, he closed his eyes and stayed still, only flinching slightly when Snape laid an arm across his shoulders. Then the world was melting around them and through them, but at least when Harry realised he was in the hallway just outside Ward 328, he was still on his feet.

Swaying, almost incoherent, his stomach somewhere near his knees, but he was on his feet.

He took a moment to breathe deeply, some vague part of him glad to still have that arm around his shoulders. Even better, when he went to shake it off, it moved away at once.

"All right?" Snape asked, but not in a pitying way. Just matter-of-fact. Harry liked that.

"Yeah, fine. Winded, but fine. Er, thanks."

Snape gave a slight gesture as though to brush that aside. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Harry grimaced, but nodded. How bad could it be? Not worse than that dunce Lockhart removing his bones and Madam Pomfrey having to regrow them, surely. Certainly, it couldn't be any worse than Cruciatus, even if he didn't respond to the procedure the way a Muggle would.

An audible breath escaping his lips, Snape remarked, "I must admit, I find myself hoping that you won't be considered compatible, Harry."

"Ha. With my luck?"

"Perhaps your family will refuse, on account of..."

"My abnormality," Harry finished. "Well, there is that. I may just have to insist."

Snape placed a hand on his shoulder when Harry tried to go in. "Miss Granger may be right, you know."

"About my saving-people thing?" Harry sighed. "Well, let me just get to it, then."

Chapter Text

It was good to be back at school, Harry thought, even if he knew he was going to find the waiting rather difficult. He wanted to be doing something about Aunt Petunia's problem, which was after all, his problem as well, but that wasn't how the Muggle world worked.

He'd gone into Ward 328, Snape in Remus guise at his side, and between the two of them, they'd somehow managed to get it through Uncle Vernon's thick skull that magic just wasn't going to be an option. The spell didn't exist, they said, and it couldn't be developed. Magic didn't work that way; it wasn't for Muggles. Of course that was an oversimplification, to say the least, but Snape had insisted that Vernon was best equipped to deal with nothing more complex than simple axioms, Harry. Your uncle's not exactly Ravenclaw material, now is he? 

All in all, the news hadn't gone over too well. Vernon had yelled and blustered and pretty much disowned Harry and threatened to kill him, but he took most of it back when Snape calmly laid out the alternative. Harry's willing to donate bone marrow to your wife, the Potions Master had explained. I really do think you ought to thank him.

Of course Harry hadn't got any thanks, but after talking the matter over a bit more rationally, Vernon had glumly agreed that marrow donation might be Petunia's best hope. Sure enough, he'd admitted to being leery because of "freak side effects," as he put it, but Snape had smoothly allayed all his fears, telling him that such a thing was most definitely not possible.

Very Slytherin of him, Harry had thought at the time, since he knew full well that Snape believed the transfer of marrow to Petunia might indeed render her magical. He told Harry later that in all likelihood, any such change in the woman would be gradual. In the meantime, the wards would be extended to Dudley so that even if Petunia relapsed, Number Four Privet Drive would continue to be a haven. Actually, Snape had sneered that last word.

Harry was thankful that he'd left it at that. Just a sneer to show what he really thought of the Dursleys. Snape didn't do what Hermione would have if she'd found out the truth; he didn't try to get him to open up and talk about his feelings. He just let Harry be Harry.

Convincing Vernon had taken about an hour, an hour during which Dudley had been nowhere around. Harry had wondered about that; he'd rather wanted to test out the waters a bit, and see if his cousin was still in a friendly mood. It might be important for the wards, but Harry didn't get a chance to see Dudley.

Directly after Vernon had agreed to let Harry be tested for compatibility, and told a nurse so, Harry was whisked away for a series of tests that made the O.W.L.s seem like a picnic. Physical tests, most of which he'd never heard of before, though the nurses guiding him through it were perfectly willing to explain things as they went.

It all started with a questionnaire he could hardly read for the unfamiliar words, and then a lengthy interview designed to ferret out even more information. Personal information. Question after question about his parents; questions he couldn't answer. How many times did he have to explain he'd been orphaned at the age of one and had never been told anything much about his mum or dad?

Then came the questions about him. Harry didn't know what to say to half the things they asked. Did he drink, even on occasion? Well, sure, I'm not averse to a butterbeer or two... What medications had he taken in the past year? Calming draught, Pepper-Up Potion, way too much Dreamless Sleep... Had he used any recreational drugs in the past three months? I don't know. Can what the twins produce rightly be called drugs? They're definitely recreational...

Unable to answer with anything remotely approaching truthfulness, Harry had basically ummed and errrred  and mumbled his way through the whole process, while Snape sat there smirking, no doubt thinking unhelpful thoughts about Slytherins and cunning. Harry was irritated by the smirk, but truth to tell, he was glad that Uncle Vernon had loudly insisted that Professor Remus Lupin was his representative who was to accompany Harry through the entire testing process. That was Snape's idea, no doubt spelled onto an unsuspecting Muggle, but the medical staff accepted it since it did come from Harry's legal guardian. It might not be comfortable with Snape in the room, but the dark shadows on Privet Drive that morning had been warning enough; Harry knew he needed to stick close to the one who could Apparate him to safety.

Still, he found it increasingly uncomfortable to be put through these medical paces with Snape looking out on it through Remus' kind brown eyes.

The medical interview was bad enough, but at least they let him keep his clothes on for that part. Shortly afterwards, things got faintly ridiculous, as far as Harry was concerned. Why did they need all this stuff from him? Just take his marrow and be done with it! But no, they had to have his blood and tissue typed. Actually, those necessities he understood, once they explained the phenomenon of rejection, which scared him silly. He didn't want to be responsible for Petunia's death.

But why did they need to x-ray his chest, let alone attach him for an hour to a machine that recorded his heartbeat? He'd had to take off Dudley's stained, oversized sweatshirt for that part. Then they drew blood again, explaining that he'd have to be tested for what seemed like a whole alphabet of problems. And then more blood for what they called DNA analysis, which would be the final watchword on whether his marrow was suited to be introduced into Petunia's.

Harry was starting to wonder if they were planning to leave him any blood. He winced every time a needle came near, and clenched his eyes, and told himself, You've had a basilisk fang embedded in your flesh. Surely you can withstand a thin little needle.

Somehow, though, the needle was more frightening, probably because he had to sit there and just take it. At least he'd got to fight the Basilisk. Harry actually had to restrain himself from using magic to make that needle go away. He was just itching to, especially on the last draw, when the nurse was having trouble finding a vein. Over and over she slid the horrid thing in, while Harry scrunched up his eyes and shook from head to toe, his arm holding still only because the nurse's grip was surprisingly firm.

Up until then, Snape hadn't done much but watch, but for that last draw he went to stand by him. Not touching, not speaking, not even casting a wordless spell to calm him. He just stood there, reminding Harry that he wasn't alone.

And it had helped.

As soon as the nurse was loading vials of his blood into a tray, Snape had returned to his chair.

Harry had thought the ordeal was over, then. They'd bled him nearly dry --well, seemed like it to him-- so what else was there?

He should have known it was only going to get worse. Because then, they had to ask him for urine. At first he'd just stared, shocked speechless that a pretty redheaded nurse's assistant no older than eighteen was handing him a small plastic cup and telling him to go into the adjoining bathroom and urinate on demand, then hand it back to her, filled. He didn't think he'd ever been so humiliated, and there sat Snape, listening to every word.

His professor evidently thought he was over-reacting, though. "It's not so different from what you'd have to do to brew some of the more advanced potions," he nonchalantly offered, leaning back in his chair, legs languidly extended as he closed his eyes.

Decorum again, Harry sensed. Snape had quite a lot more of it than he'd ever let on. Harry did as he'd been requested, blushing as he handed the sample back to the pretty nurse's helper.

Only to find out that after all that, he had to wait for all those tests to be performed and evaluated.

They'd explained and said a quick good-bye to Uncle Vernon --still no Dudley in sight, Harry noticed-- asking him to use Mrs Figg's owl again as soon as he had word of the results. Vernon had scowled, but agreed.

And then, after a long day of discussion, and decision, and Muggle medical idiocy, Harry had finally flooed back through to Hogwarts, Snape in his wake. The headmaster's office was deserted when they arrived.

"Dinner hour," Snape explained, and Harry groaned. No way could he eat, not after all that.

Snape seemed to understand what he was thinking. "It's only going to get worse, Potter," he quietly pointed out. "What they did to you today wasn't much compared to the extraction procedure itself."

"I know, I read the book!" Harry snapped, not wanting to think about it.

"It's not too late to change your mind."

Harry stared up, trying hard to see Snape somewhere inside Remus' features. It wasn't easy.

"It is too late," he argued. "I already said I'd do it."

Snape shook his head, a single, disdainful word lancing the air: "Gryffindor." Then he was striding from the room to return to his dungeons.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"Oh, you're back!" Hermione cried out as she launched herself at Harry's sofa in the Gryffindor common room. "What great luck!"

Harry cast a glance over her shoulder at Ron, and mouthed, "Luck?"

"'Cause you were only gone for the weekend, mate," his friend explained, twirling a finger near his ear so that he wouldn't have to say mental out loud. "You know, you didn't have to suffer the shocking tragedy of missing an actual class--"

Hermione just laughed, and curled up next to Harry, kicking off her shoes. "So, how is Remus?"

A strange, half-strangled noise erupted from the back of Harry's throat. "Oh, er... well, you know Remus." Then an answer came to him, an answer Hermione would figure out anyway, he was sure, so he might as well say it. "It was the full moon part of the time, you know. He slept through it. Apparently he's still got Snape making the Wolfsbane Potion for him. And when he wasn't... er, sleeping it off, he didn't look so good, honestly."

It occurred to Harry to wonder, then, if Remus had been the best choice for Snape's disguise. Wouldn't anybody watching be a bit suspicious to see the werewolf looking human during a full moon? It wasn't as if Remus Lupin wasn't known to be one. Snape had made sure that everybody in Slytherin found out, after all. That still steamed Harry, it really did. Somehow, though, he couldn't resent Snape as much as he should, not now. But it had still been a rotten thing to do, revealing Remus' secret like that.

The secret was out, though, which left Harry to wonder just why Dumbledore would send Snape out looking like Remus when everybody knew Remus should be a werewolf at that time. One thing was for sure, though. Something was going on, something far beyond problems of leukaemia and warding. Harry didn't know what, though. He didn't have much hope of figuring whatever intricate plan Dumbledore had woven into their trip to Surrey.

Only one thing was sure: whatever was going on, Dumbledore hadn't seen fit to tell Harry about it.

As usual.

Ron flopped down on the other side of Hermione and with a wink at Harry, pulled her away to settle her against the length of his side. Hermione half-heartedly hit him, then melted, a soft smile curling her lips. Ron wasn't quite so relaxed, though; mention of the Wolfsbane potion had turned his thoughts toward Snape. "That vicious greaseball hates Remus," he grumbled. "Lost him his job, the louse. Fixed it so he'd have to resign, and Remus really needed that job! Wonder what Snape thinks he's up to now, making him that potion? Maybe it's a slow poison?"

"I thought that the first time I saw it," Harry reminded Ron. "And I was wrong."

"Well," Ron mused, "maybe it's a really slow poison."

Harry felt himself bristle a bit, and then wondered over it. Granted, greaseball was rather crude, and accusations of attempted murder a bit melodramatic, but Harry had certainly said his share of nasty things about Snape. Five-plus years of nasty things. But he didn't want to say them now, not even though Ron seemed to be expecting it.

Thankfully, Hermione sailed in with an answer, about the potion at least. "Snape and Remus are both in the Order," she pointed out, and then, with a confused look --it didn't sit well on her features-- she pressed Harry, "Why'd Dumbledore send Remus along with you if it was going to be his wolf time?"

She was right, that didn't make much sense at all. "Well, for moral support," Harry tried, almost cringing as he heard how nutters that had come out. Thinking fast, he added, "I mean, he didn't know I'd only be gone for the weekend. It might have been longer."

"Bit of a shock for the Muggles, though, a werewolf in the den?" cackled Ron. "Say, how's your cousin's tongue?"

Harry ignored that, because Hermione was pressing on, "Why'd you need moral support, Harry? You never did tell us what was in that letter."

"Snape nearly did," Ron had to put in. "In class there, you looked like you were about to fall over dead, mate."

"It was just... family stuff," Harry whispered, miserable. He hated keeping things from his friends, but he did see the necessity. He wondered if that made him as Slytherin as Snape had said. 

Ron completely misunderstood Harry's mood. "'Bout time you had some family stuff to be going on with," was his pragmatic observation. "Welcome to my life, family pestering you all the time. Can't even get away from it at school," he added as Ginny sailed through the common room with a group of friends.

"Yeah," Harry said, casting about for another topic. Any topic. "So, what did the two of you do with your weekend?"

Hermione directed her gaze down, and Ron appeared to find the granite wall of some interest, and then they looked at each other, and giggled with mad glee, their legs twining further together.

"I see," said Harry in his darkest possible tone, which only made Hermione blush and hide her face against Ron's sweater.

"Well, we did go to Hogsmeade, too," Ron exclaimed, because Harry was waggling his eyebrows up and down like a stage-show villain. Hermione squealed louder at this tacit acknowledgement, which had Ron rolling his eyes a bit, but for all that, he looked happy enough.

"Come out, Hermione," Harry called, and when she did, he gave her the kind of grin that would put anybody at ease. "Well, I'd say congratulations are in order. How about we all sneak down to the kitchens? Dobby'll give us some butterbeer--" When Hermione's brows drew together, he quickly added, "if we ask nice. Oh, for pity's sake, Hermione! Dumbledore's paying him, you know. Dobby's the one house-elf you shouldn't get upset about. It's not even past curfew, yet. You've got no complaints."

-----------------------------------------------------------

Harry was a bit apprehensive the next morning as he headed down to the dungeons. It had been one thing to conclude back on  Privet Drive that Snape would keep mum about all the awful things he'd learned.... In the first place, Snape had looked like Remus, and in the second, it was unreal to have a wizard staying with him at that place, anyway! Looking back, the entire scenario just seemed fantastical. And unlikely.

Now that he was back in the real world, he was having a hard time reconciling  memory with reality. Snape discussing decorum? Snape, almost sympathizing when Harry'd had to face all those needles? It just didn't seem possible, not when the Snape he knew here never passed up an opportunity to humiliate Harry Potter.

Besides, it had only been two days. Nothing much could really change in two days, could it? Harry nodded to himself and braced for the worst.  Conveniently ignoring the plain fact that in only two days, his entire concept of Severus Snape had undergone a radical rethinking, he slid into his usual seat, prepared his materials as usual, and glanced up in trepidation as he heard the teacher's entrance to the room creaking open.

"Today we will be endeavouring to make Scaradicate Salve," Snape sneered, emphasis on the word endeavouring. His robes billowed as he swept into the room, his voice as imperious and menacing as ever. "No doubt there are among you miscreants who will offer up cloudy, miscoloured abominations for my perusal, but let there be no mistake: this is a simple potion, well within the range of your idle hands and feeble brains. Anyone who fails to produce a satisfactory salve will receive a detention with Mr Filch."

Across the aisle from Harry, Neville Longbottom gulped. Harry darted him a sympathetic glance. Neville had wanted to drop Potions altogether after fifth year, but Professor Sprout had insisted that Herbology without an adequate foundation in Potions would be all but useless.

"I would like to say that you will test your potions on one another," Snape continued, eyeing the Slytherins as though to give them ideas, "but alas, house rivalries have yet to render any of you sufficiently scarred. No, Mr Weasley, acne scars do not count."

Uh-oh, thought Harry, suddenly understanding what Scaradiate must mean. Well, at least I can see this one coming.

"However, we do have Mr Potter and his scar of rather dubious acclaim." Snape strode up the aisle towards him as he spoke. On the other side of the room, the Slytherins twittered, and Draco whispered something to Pansy, something that Harry felt sure must resemble This is going to be good... "Unfortunately for Mr Potter, his is a curse scar. Mr Malfoy, what are the primary properties of a curse scar?"

"It's hideous and disfiguring, sir."

"Indeed. Five points to Slytherin."

Hermione gave a low growl of protest, followed by a hissed, "That wasn't even a proper answer!"

Snape ignored her. "The other distinguishing characteristic is that unlike other scars, a curse scar cannot be removed by mere potion. I am afraid that Mr Potter will have to bravely struggle on despite his... how did Mr Malfoy put it? Ah, yes. Hideous disfigurement."

Harry stared up, eyes furious, mouth clenching. He said it was an act, a voice whispered in his mind. Trouble was, Snape's so-called act seemed all too real. Hell, it was real: Harry was being held up to ridicule as usual. But what did he care if Snape went back to being... well, Snape? He'd sort of expected it, actually. He'd known it would be idiotic to expect anything else.

Snape gave him a longish stare, then drawled, "I do believe our Gryffindor hero is on the brink of tears. Do not be a fool, Mr Potter. Show us some decorum."

And with that, Harry knew he could relax. Nobody else would catch the hidden meaning in those words, but they meant something significant to Harry. It was just a game, a game of trick-the-ferret. However much Snape might have meant his hurtful comments in the past, he didn't mean them now. Well, not like before, anyway.

Harry gave his usual glare back, playing along, but he wasn't expecting what Snape did next.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"Honestly!" Hermione fumed as they climbed their way back out of the dungeons. "The nerve of that man, refusing to so much as score your test! He knows you didn't cheat, knows it was a letter! And assigning you a second test, today, without any warning! You were called home on family business; you couldn't possibly have studied over the weekend! I think you should take it up with the headmaster, I really do!"

Harry couldn't help but snort, imagining Dumbledore's mock-befuddled reaction if Harry came to him complaining about a test he'd demanded in the first place.

"It doesn't matter," he told Hermione. "I'm sure I got a mark of Troll no matter which one he scores. Troll-minus, more likely."

"Well, it's just disgraceful! He took points off of Gryffindor because you didn't complete your potion, but how could you complete it when he slapped an exam paper on your desk and demanded you do that instead?"

Harry had to admit that part had been disgraceful.

"Were the questions even on the same material?" Hermione railed on. "Or did he test you only on the alternate readings, which he knows you hardly ever do?"

"Alternates," Harry answered, unable to help grinning a bit. He knew it seemed unfair to Hermione, but to him, it was just funny. He'd sort of asked for it, after all. "Forget it," he advised his friend. "You complain and it'll get back to him, you know it will. Then it'll be--" Harry lowered his voice to approximate Snape's deep, sarcastic tones. "Ten points from Gryffindor for expecting justice to prevail despite all evidence to the contrary."

"Having fun, Potter?" Draco Malfoy's sneering voice came up beside them.

"Yeah, actually," Harry admitted, knowing that nothing would get to Malfoy quite as much as the fact that Harry was feeling happy. "How about you?"

Malfoy smirked. "Have fun in detention, too."

Hermione clenched her fists. "Oh, you just have to run to the teacher with everything, don't you, Malfoy?"

Malfoy's silver eyes went wide and innocent. "Nothing to do with me, Mudblood. Professor Snape already assigned it. Penalty for not finishing his potion."

Hermione gave a strangled scream.

-----------------------------------------------------------

The detention was definitely unfair, Harry thought, but he'd served unfair detentions for Snape before. Things were just getting back to normal, he supposed. Snape was making sure of it, and Harry understood. Things had to look like business as usual.

Argus Filch gaped at him when he reported to the caretaker's office. "First I's heard a any detentions fer tonight, Potter," his hoarse voice rasped. "Though I do got me a few billygruffs runnin' wild in the halls by night, an' I need fresh bait to snare 'em. You're jus' about the right size--"

"That's all right," Harry quickly said, stepping back. "My mistake."

Only, it wasn't. Snape had definitely assigned a detention. Sighing, Harry made his way down to the Potions classroom and knocked on the open door. "Professor?"

"Ah, Mr Potter," Snape drawled. "Five minutes late, so five points from Gryffindor. It's really quite kind of you to make detention so enjoyable for me. Perhaps next time you could arrange to be even later?"

Harry gritted his teeth. "I reported to Mr Filch, first."

"Bizarre behaviour. Idiotic, one might say, considering you have a detention precisely so that you can brew the potion you missed."

"Oh," Harry said, his voice low. Snape was going to make sure he didn't fall behind on account of the extra test Harry had demanded... he actually hadn't thought of that.

"Before you begin, however, I've finished marking your exam."

When Harry took it from Snape's outstretched hand, his own was shaking a bit, but not because he was worried about his grade. You couldn't sink any lower than Troll-minus, so there was nothing left to worry about, was there?

"Do sit down to read it, Mr Potter," Snape sneered, then returned his attention to another stack of papers he was marking. "I dare say you may be shocked at the things I have to say to such a vaunted and celebrated Gryffindor as yourself."

Shocked was right, Harry thought as he dropped into the nearest chair and ran his glance over the paper.

Troll-minus without a doubt, the comments read. You can't expect much better if you continue to ignore the alternate readings, Harry. Keep the following points in mind:
1) Bobotuber pus is unstable in bronze cauldrons and will actually explode if heated in them.
2)  Mandrake root must be shredded and pounded before the juice is extracted.
3) Bicorn horn and unicorn horn are not remotely similar.
4) Mr Malfoy is almost certainly eavesdropping.
5) Burn this beneath your cauldron when you start your potion and be sure you mix the ashes well with the others in the grate.
6) A little raving would not come amiss. Emphasis on little, or I will find myself in a position where I will have to take points.

It was a little much for Harry to take in all at once. No insults? Even more surprising, some helpful tips? Hermione did sometimes get those, and more rarely, Ron and Neville, but he'd never seen them couched in impartial language before. Usually it was Whatever possessed you to believe that toadstools form any part of Salivary Potion? Were you raised under one? 

Harry looked up, saw Snape's lips quirk, and realised that it was the first time he'd actually seen Snape's lips quirk. The sight was decidedly bizarre, but Harry knew better than to laugh out his relief. He'd understood the message in those last three points.

With a muttered oath, he shot to his feet, mashed his test paper into a crumpled ball, and announced, "Professor! This grade isn't fair! I didn't even know the test would cover the alternate readings! I wasn't prepared!"

Snape barely spared him a scornful glance. "Does it break your Gryffindor heart that life isn't fair, Potter?" Then he stood, robes swirling. "Get that insolent look off your face before it's ten more points from beloved Gryffindor. Now, you have a potion to brew, do you not?"

One gesture of a wand, and the instructions for Scaradicate Salve appeared on the board.

Harry set to work, burning his exam paper as asked. When he set his finished vial up front on the professor's demonstration table, Snape didn't say a word. He just looked up, and nodded, and went back to marking papers, but his gaze returned to Harry as the boy walked up the aisle and left the room.

Chapter Text

The owl came during lunchtime, a week and a half later.

Harry stared at the Muggle envelope, half-afraid to open it. He didn't want to know the test results, not really. He didn't want to go back to Frimley Park and have a big needle stuck in his hip, all the way through to bone, and lie there as his marrow was sucked out. Sure, he'd told Snape that if he'd survived the Cruciatus curse he could survive anything, but looking back, that sounded like bragging. Like arrogance. 

Strange that Snape hadn't called him on it, considering all he'd had to say in years past regarding Harry and arrogance...

Well, bragging that he could take anything was well and good, but now that he had this letter in hand, he was realizing that he really didn't want to follow through on what he'd promised back in Surrey. No hope for it, though, right? Not unless the letter said he wasn't compatible, after all. But what chance was there of that? Harry doubted that Uncle Vernon would bother to write, were that the case. This letter had to mean what he thought; it just had to.

Without really intending to, Harry found himself glancing up towards the raised platform where the teacher's table was. Snape was leaning over, deep in conversation with Madam Pomfrey, something he'd been doing a lot, lately. Well, what had he expected? The Potions Master wasn't going to pay any attention to Harry in public --well, not any attention except the thoroughly negative kind, that was.

"Don't let the Muggles get you down," Ron said by way of sympathy. "Your last visit went all right, it seemed. Yeah?"

"Sure," Harry agreed, slipping a knife beneath the flap and drawing out a sheet of paper. What he saw there made his eyes bug out a little.

It wasn't a letter from Uncle Vernon at all, it was a single page of densely typed medical information summarizing, Harry supposed, all his test results. He couldn't make much sense of it, except for a few lines at the bottom.

Compatibility factor: .93 (.85 is the minimum threshold for transplant.)
Please report to Frimley Park Hospital at 8:00 a.m. on October 22 for the extraction procedure. If you are unable to make this appointment, inform us in writing at Frimley Park Hospital: Oncology, Portsmouth Road, Frimley, Surrey GU16 7UJ or ring us at 01287 408965
.

It all sounded so... official, Harry thought, as he felt the blood in his face rush down towards his stomach, which was twisting itself in knots already. The letter slipped through his fingers to flutter to the floor.

"What is it?" Hermione asked at once, her fork clattering to her plate as she put an arm around Harry and turned him to look at her. Lowering her voice, she barely breathed, "Your scar?"

"Er... no," he croaked, wondering what on earth was wrong with him. It was just a needle, right? It was just a big, long, needle spearing through his pelvis, going all the way into bone, six times, or maybe eight...

Ron had leaned under the table to scoop up the letter, but he didn't try to read it, just handed it back across the table to Harry. 

Hermione had no such compunctions. Snatching the letter from Ron's fingers, she scanned the page, her eyes rapidly assessing the text. "Harry..."

"Not here," Harry hissed. Yanking the letter back, he stuffed it into his pocket and stood on unsteady feet. "Room of Requirement. Now."

He didn't notice Snape's black eyes watching as he left the dining hall, his two friends in tow.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"Are you going to explain?" Hermione challenged, hands on hips as she stood on a Persian carpet. All along the base of the walls, incense holders, some of them shaped like Aladdin's lamp, were sending pungent smoke aloft. "And what sort of room did you wish for, anyway? This place looks like... a... a harem!"

"I think the room's just trying to calm me down," Harry murmured. "I'm kinda worried about--"

"About your transplant?" Hermione demanded. "Harry Potter, you will tell me right here and now just what is going on!"

"No, he will not," another voice smoothly answered as Snape slid into the room, closed the door, and crossed his arms. After only a moment more, however, he was turning back towards the entrance and casting several silencing charms upon it. Then he strode forward, black robes swirling as though a tempest were spinning inside him.

"Look, I have to tell them," Harry explained, feeling defeated by the whole situation. "Hermione saw the letter. She's going to figure it all out, anyway."

"Not after Obliviate," Snape mercilessly sneered.

Harry jumped to his feet, all apathy vanishing. "No!" he shouted, but Snape was already pointing his wand, an ugly light in his eyes as he began to twirl it in a way Harry recognised, for all the motion was less theatrical than the one Lockhart had used down in the Chamber of Secrets. 

Hermione was fumbling in her robes, trying to draw her own wand; Ron's was out already, and pointing; Snape at once incanted, "Accio wands!"

Harry's wand flew out of his pocket.

Snape deftly caught all three as they sailed his way, and tucked them away in his cloak as he continued to stare at Hermione, his wand still swirling in that disturbing arc that meant Obliviate might be only a heartbeat away. 

Furious, Harry stomped up to Snape and tilting his face up, yelled, "Don't you dare, don't you fucking dare, you got that?"

Ron's eyes went huge. "A thousand points from Gryffindor," he moaned, though points were the least of their problems at the moment.

"Oh, shut up," Harry spat. "He's not going to take points, and if he does, it'll be well worth it." Then he spun his head back to face Snape. "Just read it for yourself, all right? And then we'll figure the rest of it out." 

With that, Harry thrust the sloppily folded letter up at his teacher, and ignoring that damned wand, still pointed, turned to look at Hermione.

She had sunk to the floor, and was hugging her knees and rocking back and forth. Ron was doing nothing more helpful than muttering, which irritated Harry no end. Kneeling beside Hermione, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close to breathe against her ear, "Shhh, it's all right. He won't do it. I swear he won't. I'll tell you later how I know, but I know, all right. Trust me, Hermione."

Hermione nodded, and stopped her frenetic motion, but she still looked worried.

When Snape stopped reading, he addressed himself to Harry. "I am seriously disappointed, Mr Potter, that once again, you cannot manage the simple matter of keeping your post to yourself!"

Ron's courage came sailing back upon hearing his friend unfairly attacked. "That's rich!" he yelled. "You're the one who takes his letters away to read them out loud, sir."

"Keep your mouth closed, Mr Weasley, or it will be points from Gryffindor," Snape growled, which did have the effect of shutting Ron up, though his eyes flashed a question at Harry: After what you said, he's not going to take points? 

"I'm sorry I dropped the letter, Professor," Harry told Snape, keeping his tone even as he stood up. It was almost killing him to not give vent to anger, but the instinct that had helped him survive five years of trials was telling him not to escalate the situation further.

The tactic seemed to help, at least. When Snape next spoke, his tone was matter-of-fact rather than snide. "Obliviate really would be the simplest solution."

"No," Harry insisted. "You can't. If you do that to her, I'll explain the whole situation, every last detail. And I'll do it as many times as you use Obliviate, so there's not much point."

Snape's eyes flashed. "Perhaps I should just wipe your memory clean then, as well!"

"I don't think Dumbledore will approve of you obliviating any of us," Harry retorted, refusing to fold.

"Sometimes I really do hate you, Potter," Snape snapped back, while from behind Ron mouthed only sometimes? "All right, Miss Granger, calm down. I suppose Mr Potter has convinced me to leave your considerable intellect intact. Do try to use it for something other than showing off, will you?"

Hermione dusted herself off, though she wasn't dusty, and waved a bit at the smoke coming from the nearest genie's lamp, but when Ron finally went to her, she all but collapsed against him.

"Sir?" Harry asked, indicating the pillow strewn floor. "Please."

Snape scowled, but he did sit down cross-legged on the floor, his robes pooling around him. Only after Harry had sat as well did he speak.

"We seem to have a situation," he sneered. "Miss Granger knows more than she should, and no doubt Mr Weasley will weasel what she knows out of her during a passionate tryst, or what passes for grand passion among inept sixteen-year-olds."

"Can we do this without the insults?" Harry requested, which got him a baleful glare. But what was the point of Snape going on like that? Ron and Hermione both would already have figured out that something was up. They'd seen Harry swear at Snape and get away with it, so there was no sense in pretending, not with them, that the old animosity was still as thick and potent as ever.

Although, Harry thought, after this, all the old animosity might come roaring right back.

He was surprised at how much the thought dismayed him.

"It's Order business," Harry thought to say to his friends, since Snape had gone silent. Maybe without the insults, he just didn't know how to talk to students? No, that wasn't fair; he'd done all right with Harry in Surrey... "So I really can't talk about it," Harry concluded. "Sorry."

"How is it Order business that you need a transplant?" Hermione looked up to say. "And since when are you in the Order?"

"I'm not in it," Harry confirmed. "I'm just involved, as usual. And as for the other, you'll just have to trust me, Hermione."

Tears filled her eyes. "But a transplant, Harry? I know, I know, you were Muggle-raised like me, so maybe you don't know, but you really shouldn't be going to a doctor for a procedure like that." Wrenching herself away from Ron, she leaned forward to rest a hand against Harry's knee. "Isn't there something else that can be done? Have you been to St. Mungo's, spoken to a healer, something?"

Snape stepped into the conversation, his voice markedly calmer. "I'm afraid, Miss Granger, that in this particular case, magical remedies will not prove efficacious." He paused, clearly reluctant, but finally went on, "May I have your word, yours and Mr Weasley's both, that you will not press Harry for more information? That you will not investigate on your own? I cannot stress this more strongly: delving into this issue will put his life at risk. I think it's been at risk quite enough in the past few years, don't you agree?"

Ron was staring open-mouthed, but he managed to nod in reply.

"Miss Granger?"

When Hermione hesitated, Harry reached down and caught hold of her hand, still resting on his knee. "I'm not in danger," he assured her. "Not unless you start to pry, which could end up calling more attention to my... situation."

"But Muggle doctors," she softly moaned, meeting his eyes. "Harry, I nearly died twice before my parents figured out to steer me clear of doctors. They thought I was allergic, to medicines, immunizations, whatnot, but it wasn't an allergy. It was my magic, not wanting to be trampled."

Harry thought better than to tell her his own Muggle doctor horror story. "I know what I'm doing," he said instead, wishing he felt as confident as he sounded. "And Professor Snape knows."

"That's not exactly reassuring, mate," Ron broke in, with a sideways glare at the professor, who raised his nose a bit, as though even incense couldn't mask the stench of a Weasley sitting five feet away.

"Well, Dumbledore knows, too, all right?" Harry tried, then realised he didn't know that for a fact. "Um, you did tell him?" he asked Snape.

"The headmaster was disappointed you didn't come to see him, yourself," Snape pointedly answered. "But yes, he knows the particulars of your situation."

"And he approves?" Hermione challenged.

"It's not an ideal situation, Miss Granger!" Snape bit out. "But we will all do our best if you will be so kind as to let us!"

"Promise me, Hermione," Harry begged, scared that if she objected too much more, Snape just might Obliviate her after all. "Promise you won't interfere. I'll tell you about it when I can--"

"Mr Potter!"

"When I can," Harry stressed. "Hermione? Promise."

"Oh, all right," she grudgingly agreed.

Snape audibly scoffed. 

"I won't do a thing to find out more!" Hermione insisted, letting go of Harry's hand and sitting up straight. "Harry has my word on it."

"Break your word," Snape sneered, "and I'll not only see you expelled for phenomenally bad judgment, I'll use every Dark Art at my disposal to hex you into a quavering ball of mush!"

Harry sighed, thought about offering a calm Hey, don't threaten my friends, but decided he'd better not. He'd presumed enough, already, and for all he knew, Snape was heartily wishing he'd never gone to Surrey at all.

Hermione made things worse, though that wasn't her intention. "I don't break my word, sir," she haughtily replied, sniffing as though the very idea was offensive. "I'm a Gryffindor."

"So was Peter Pettigrew," Snape caustically replied, yanking his robes tightly around him as he rose to his feet. "There's nothing sacred about your house, loath though I am to destroy the pathetic misconceptions that no doubt lull you to sleep at night. Or is that Mr Weasley's job?"

"Professor," Harry warned. 

"Potter," he mocked back. 

Harry sighed. He didn't really know what to say to the man. Everything had been so much simpler in Surrey... of course, it hadn't seemed that way at the time, had it?

"May I have my letter back?" 

"No," Snape said, his tone leaving no room for argument. 

"It is his," Hermione pointed out, though Harry tried to shush her.

Snape's only reply was to toss three wands onto the Persian carpet underfoot before he stalked out.

-----------------------------------------------------------

 "What the hell was that, Harry?" Ron demanded the minute the door slammed shut.

Harry put a finger to his lips as he fetched his wand and performed the most thorough Silencio he could. He hoped it would be enough; he didn't know how to cast Imperforable. Gesturing to his friends to join him at the far side of the room, he sat with them on the cold granite floor. When Snape had slammed the door upon leaving, the harem scene had vanished, but that was all right; Harry didn't think it had been what he'd needed, anyway.

"Use quiet voices," he cautioned.

"All right," Ron whispered back. "What the hell was that? Answer me, this time."

"It's true that I can't tell you what I'd like to," Harry stressed.

"That's not what I'm asking and you know it," Ron shot back, his whisper furious, this time. "What was that with Snape? I'm sorry I dropped the letter, Professor!" he snidely mimicked. "What was that, Harry? He tortures you in Potions, makes fun of your scar and encourages the Slytherins to do the same, assigns you an extra test for no reason at all and gives you detention because you actually do it, then tries to hex Hermione right of of her mind, and all you can do is ask him to sit down, please. You practically offered him tea!"

"Don't be a prat," Harry growled. "I stopped him from hexing Hermione! All you could do about it was mumble about our stupid house points!"

"Stupid!" Ron objected.

"Yeah, stupid," Harry confirmed. 

Ron looked to say more, but Hermione held up a hand to confirm, "Compared to what Harry's facing, Ron, they are." With that, she leaned in so close that her nose nearly bumped Harry's. "You said he wouldn't really do Obliviate. I guess you were right, but what made you so sure?"

Harry's answering smile was grim. "I know for a fact that he can do it without a wand, that's how," he explained, thinking of Snape spelling the reception nurse at Frimley Park. "He was putting on a big show of doing it, but if he'd really intended to do it, he'd have just gone ahead."

"Vicious bastard," Ron breathed. "Making Hermione think a thing like that. What did she ever do to him?"

Good question, Harry realised, but there was in fact an answer. "Well, third year all three of us did hex him," he remembered out loud. "And we never even got punished. For attacking a teacher! I'm thinking that little scene, taking our wands, was Snape's way of getting even."

Yeah, he's big on things being even....

"Anyway, it doesn't matter," Harry continued, still in a whisper so low that Silencio probably wasn't even necessary. "What matters is that you do keep your own counsel, both of you. I'll have to go away again --don't ask me for what, but I bet you can guess-- and while I'm gone, you just stick to whatever cover story I spread around the Tower, all right? It's important. Not just for me, but for the war."

"We'd never endanger you, Harry," Hermione swore. "Are you... I mean, can I ask, are you going to be gone for more than a weekend, this time?"

"I don't know," Harry admitted. "But do what you can to keep me up in class, will you?" He paused, uncomfortable. "Are we all right, now? I can't tell you, and I'm sorry I can't tell you, but I will let you in on everything just as soon as it's all... settled."

"Well, we weren't going to stop being your friends, Harry," Hermione said in a startled tone. "We love you."

Harry hugged them, wishing he could tell them how scared he was. But he couldn't. All he could do was hang on.

-----------------------------------------------------------

The stairways in Gryffindor Tower were misbehaving more than usual, Harry thought as he trudged upward in Ron and Hermione's wake, but all was explained when he saw the Potions Master lurking in the shadows, crooking one tapered finger to indicate that Harry should follow.

Harry hesitated, hating all the subterfuge, but with a sigh, acquiesced.

"Hey," he called up the staircase, "I'm going to go talk to Dobby for a bit, all right?"

"Bring us back some pudding," Ron said as he and Hermione turned a corner. 

-----------------------------------------------------------

Snape didn't speak until he had drawn Harry into an unused office halfway to the dungeons and cast wards across the door. It was pitch black inside, and Harry was tempted to get out his wand and utter Lumos, but he decided he'd just as soon not see the look on his teacher's face.

"I've discussed your letter with the headmaster," Snape announced, his deep voice eerie in the dark. "Be prepared to floo out of here early in the morning on the 22nd. We'll use his office as before."

"We?" After the scene in the Room of Requirement, Harry hadn't been sure.

"After a fashion." Snape curled a lip. "I'll look once more like that beast you call a friend."

Harry thought that over, surprised to find himself a little disappointed. He didn't like it, he realised, when the boundary between Snape and Remus blurred beyond recognition. He liked even less the feeling of not knowing where he stood. Things had been clear, before. Convoluted, but clear, if that made sense. Now, everything was in murk. "I suppose the disguise is necessary," Harry murmured. "Um, sir?"

He could almost feel Snape's glance as it speared him through the blackness. "Yes?"

"I'm sorry I had to yell at you."

"Is that supposed to be an apology, Potter?"

It took Harry a moment to figure out what his teacher meant, then he felt a little chagrined, though it was difficult to figure out why. "Yes, sir. It was supposed to be."

A low noise echoed off the granite walls. Harry was slow to recognise it as dark, grim laughter.  "Sir?"

"I was just thinking of Mr Weasley's face when you uttered that foul word."

"Oh," replied Harry, not sure what to say to that. "Well then, good night, sir."

"A moment, Mr Potter."

Harry turned back, nervous despite Snape's apparent calm. But of course he couldn't see the man, so maybe that accounted for his feeling of unease.

"Why did you say the matter had to do with the Order?" 

Harry shifted on his feet. "Doesn't it? I figured if it's Order business to stand guard duty on me all summer, then my wards would be, too, and by extension this whole... project. Why?"

"Mention of the Order was the one thing likely to gain your friends' agreement to our terms."

"Uh-huh," Harry returned, still feeling confused.

Robes rustled as Snape swept nearer. "I'd thought you'd said it to manoeuvre them."

Slytherin, Harry thought, and winced. "No. Just being honest. As much as I could."

Snape raised his voice a fraction. "Do you believe Miss Granger to be just as honest? If she scurries to the library to investigate,  and Mr Malfoy makes it his business to follow her research track, the Death Eaters could well reason out what you are doing, and why."

Harry shook his head in the dark. "Malfoy's not so likely to follow Hermione around the library, Professor."

"I assure you, it is all too likely he will do precisely that," Snape snapped. "He'll suspect she knows something about your disappearance. He'll be looking for any clue he can pass to his father!" Another rustle, and the voice spoke right beside his ear. "Lucius Malfoy will not hesitate to kill your aunt and cousin, Mr Potter, to dismantle the wards. And you will be next."

"I trust Hermione," Harry insisted. "And Ron."

"The Dark Lord trusts me." The warning chilled the air where they stood.

"Yeah, but you're a Slytherin," Harry protested, shivering. "You know how to play both ends against the middle. Hermione's a ..." He didn't want to say Gryffindor and get insulted. "She's a friend," he concluded.

"She does care for you," Snape commented, sounding a trifle puzzled. "Deeply."

"You think it's strange that someone might care for me?" Harry bit out. 

"I did not say that."

"Then why'd you sound so mystified?" Harry retorted, wondering if this whole conversation wasn't just one more exercise in Slytherin cunning.

"Because a person's loyalty is most often only to himself."

"You need to get out of the dungeons more," Harry told him. "Can I go? It's almost curfew and I still have to make it to the kitchens before I go up to the Tower."

"The 22nd," Snape reminded him. "Early. Bring your books again. You may need something to read as you... recover."

Recover. Harry didn't like the sound of that. He was used to an overnight stay in the hospital wing fixing just about anything. While he was still thinking about that, Snape recited something soft and Latin, then opened the door. 

Chapter Text

Snape hidden inside Remus' form was strange enough, Harry thought, but to see that form dressed in surgical scrubs? Too bizarre for words. Still, at least the sight helped distract him from the panic looming ever larger in his mind.

And no wonder, for Snape's bare forearms were on display. Or Remus', that was; if Harry thought about it for too long, he tended to confuse himself. He'd been curious about the Polyjuice Potion, though. It had given Snape Remus' outward form, but was it strong enough to obliterate the Dark Mark? 

Apparently, it was. Harry was pretty impressed; he'd figured that the ugly snake-and-skull symbol would persist. Of course, Polyjuice had gotten rid of his own curse scar, temporarily, so maybe he shouldn't be so surprised.

Once he'd reasoned that out, he didn't have much else to think about except the obvious. Panic began flooding his airway until he had to pant to breathe. He wanted more than anything to hug something to him. A pillow, maybe. Or a teddy bear. He'd never had a teddy bear, and he'd used to really, really want one. Harry clenched his eyes to stem what felt like tears, and told himself to stop being such a stupid crybaby. 

Right. Time to grow up, act his age. He was sixteen, for pity's sake. Uh-oh, he's staring at me, Harry realised. Well, if Harry was sure of anything, it was that he wasn't going to let one of his professors see him cry. Except Remus, he added, a thought which was unbelievably unhelpful.

"So you convinced them to let you stay, eh?" Harry tried to joke. It was either that, or lose it completely, but he recalled at once that Snape was hardly likely to laugh, not when he'd been taciturn and downright nasty-tempered the whole morning. No doubt the Potions Master was still miffed about events in the Room of Requirement. Harry wished he would just get over it. He had, and he'd had a lot more to forgive than Snape did. 

"I think you know how I convinced them," Snape obscurely replied. "And why."

Yeah, Harry knew why; it had been discussed at length with Dumbledore that morning, no doubt for Harry's benefit, the whole conversation staged. There were still shadows circling Privet Drive from time to time. Voldemort knew something was up, he just hadn't figured out what. And if that wasn't enough to keep Harry within arm's reach of Snape, there was the whole issue of the medical procedure itself. No telling how Harry's body might react. The plan was for Snape to rush him to St. Mungo's the instant it appeared that anything serious was going wrong, though of course they all hoped nothing like that would happen...

Blah, blah, blah. Harry almost stopped listening after a while, it was so nauseating to be discussed like this, the two of them talking over his head as though they didn't realise Harry was sitting right there!

Snape had seemed disinclined to look at Harry since the other evening --maybe that was why he'd insisted on talking in a perfectly black room-- but now, he finally settled his gaze on the boy laying nervously on the operating table. 

Remus' brown eyes warmed, just slightly, though with Snape behind them it was actually hard to tell. "Do not be apprehensive."

Well, that was just a bucketload of comfort before he went under the knife, wasn't it? Not that Harry needed coddling. He'd never been, and he never expected to be, and he couldn't imagine Snape offering consolation, in any case. "You stink at this," Harry suddenly exclaimed, fed up. "You're supposed to--"

Snape stepped closer.  "Yes?"

Hold my hand, tell me it'll be all right... "Never mind," Harry muttered. He wasn't asking for things he wouldn't get.

Some part of his need must have communicated itself without words, though Harry was sure he hadn't been Legilimized. But still, in the next moment Snape was stepping closer yet again, just alongside him, and murmuring, "I truly do not think you need to worry, Harry--"

"Yeah, sure. You were the one who said this would kill me."

"But you said it would not," Snape pointed out. "And your instincts are often quite good. So what has you holding yourself so taut?" Harry didn't say, so Snape pressed on. "Is it the needle?"

"Great, remind me, rub it in," Harry moaned. "You totally stink at this."

He wished the real Remus could be there to stand by him as the operation progressed. Remus would know what to do. He'd lay a hand on Harry's brow, and talk about how proud his parents would be of him, he'd say that it would all be over soon....

Harry had to give the man credit, though; Snape did try. "You did well with that," he assured the boy, gesturing toward the intravenous tube the nurses had inserted in Harry's arm to provide hydration.

"Yeah, well that was plastic," Harry stressed. "Or rubber or something, I don't know, I was trying not to see! It hurt, but it wasn't gigantic, and it wasn't going to go straight through me like the--" he gulped.

"You won't even see the... it," Snape pointed out, sounding as though he were keeping his voice calm with great effort, and only for Harry's sake. "Don't you recall? They're going to administer... some sort of vaporous Potion, I believe it is, and also feed a medicine through that tube so that you will go to sleep." 

"That just makes it all the more horrible," Harry opened up enough to say. "It's the helplessness that's the worst thing. To have to just lay here and take that needle, to be unconscious so that I can't fight back even if I need to..."

He knew he wasn't making any sense. After all, he'd chosen the general anesthetic, as the Muggle doctors called it. He'd been offered an injection in his groin instead, but Harry knew better than to stay awake for the procedure. His terror would overcome him, he just knew it. Reflexes would kick in. Accidental magic would spill out of that deep place in his soul to vanish the extraction needle clean away. 

If he wanted to go through with this, he didn't have any choice but to render himself helpless, but that didn't mean he had to like it.

"I will fight for you, if it comes to that," Snape solemnly promised.

"Don't leave me," Harry heard himself beg, and cringed.

"I would not."

Harry nodded, strangely reassured, but before he could say much else, the surgical team was coming in. A few preliminaries, during which Snape took off Harry's glasses to pocket them. Then Harry saw a needle after all; something was being injected into the tube that had been fed into a vein in his arm. He jerked slightly, though the needle hadn't touched him, and felt a hand suddenly clasp his fingers in a warm, secure grip, a grip that promised it would be there as long as he needed it. It helped focus him, helped him remember that he wasn't alone with the Muggle doctors. There was someone here who understood, who would help him if things went horribly wrong.

A sensation of unbearable sleepiness began to wash over him. Harry closed his eyes, barely feeling it when a mask was put over his mouth and nose, when he started to breathe in something cooler and moister than usual.

And still that hand held his, an anchor he could cling to, though his fingers were losing all grip. 

Harry's last thought before he went under was, Well, what do you know? Maybe Snape doesn't stink at this as much as I thought.

-----------------------------------------------------------

The next thing he knew, vague voices were bouncing off the walls all around him, and he couldn't open his eyes. He couldn't move, either, but it seemed like less than half of him even wanted to, so he wasn't bothered. 

Snatches of conversation revolved around him, drifting in and out of reach, some force outside himself pulling them closer, and then away. Harry was vaguely reminded of a trip to Brighton when he was little, the waves lapping the shore, Dudley running in and out of the water, splashing Harry until he cried. Chips, Harry suddenly thought, his mind veering off. Really good chips. With vinegar ... Tincture of Anatase is in no way similar to vinegar, Mr Potter ...  but no, Mr Potter is my father, isn't he? .... wait, do I have a father?

Suddenly feeling distressed, Harry made a little whimpering noise.

He heard footsteps approach, and this time it seemed his ears could reach out and grasp snippets of speech, disconnected ones that took a while to make sense, though he could tell by then that it was Remus' beautifully calm voice talking. Remus, and someone else.

"They said four hours..."

"Too long... been days..."

"...wish he would wake up..."

"Remus," Harry managed to surface enough to croak. He didn't want Remus to be worried about him; he was awake, now. Well, sort of. It seemed like he went right back to sleep after saying the name, though he could still hear and feel through his slumber. A hand stroked the hair back from his forehead, then somebody was washing his face, though a cleansing spell would have done just as well, surely... but the water felt good, so very good. Warm, and lightly scented, easing him right back into sleep. 

Harry drifted under and dreamed of a long-haired witch crooning lullabies to a tiny, dark-haired baby.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"Harry," a voice came again, this time each sound distinct, like his hearing was amplified instead of muddled. 

Harry blinked, then felt his eyelids start to ache. The sensation spreading, he realised that his whole body throbbed with low-level pain. Ignoring it, he blinked again, then managed to keep his eyes open. The world wavered before his eyes like ripples of heat across a windswept landscape. Harry stared at it, not seeing the room he was in or the corridor beyond the open door. All he saw was Remus, looking a bit less-defined than usual, but still recognizable.

"Hey, Remus," he groaned, squinting a bit. How long had it been since he'd really got to talk to Remus?

Remus pulled a chair close to the bed and laid a hand on Harry's forehead. "No fever," he commented, but when he went to pull his fingers away, Harry awkwardly caught hold of them and sighed, intertwining their fingers as he pulled Remus' hand to rest beside him on the bed. Why was it so blasted hard to move his own arm? No matter, he felt ever so much better now that he had Remus.

"Why would I have a fever?" he thought to ask, though the question seemed nonsensical. He wasn't even sure he'd really heard right.

"You had one for hours," Remus explained, flexing his fingers, but Harry tightened his own so the man couldn't get free. But why would Remus want to pull away? Remus had never been reluctant to offer him comfort, before. Maybe Remus was mad about what had happened to Sirius? No, that couldn't be it. That short note he'd got hadn't been angry at all. At least, he didn't think so... 

Remus' quiet words came back to him, then... You had one for ours... But the words didn't make sense.

"Ours?" Harry echoed, his brow furling. "Our what? Oh, you mean our study sessions?" A hazy expression somewhere between a frown and confusion settled on his features. "I feel really bad, Remus."

"What is it?" Remus sharply questioned, leaning closer. "You slept forty hours when they said it would be four. You could be having yet more complications--"

"Huh?" was all Harry could make of that. "No, I feel bad about our study sessions, silly," he chided. "I don't think I ever thanked you. Hmm, maybe I did. Seems like I can't remember, but third year's a long time ago. Or was it second year I had you for Defence?"

Next to him, Remus stiffened as though quite surprised by the question, but then he slowly nodded. "It was third year when you... ah, had me for Defence, Harry," he replied in a voice that sounded somehow off. Amused? No, not amused, more like bemused, Harry thought. "And I'm quite sure you must have thanked me."

"Nobody else ever tutored me, Remus. Nobody. Not once, not ever." Harry said, pushing up a bit groggily. It hurt, but so did lying prone.

Remus seemed to frown at that, which befuddled Harry until he figured out Remus had noticed that he needed the bed adjusted. The man pulled his wand from inside his warm vest and spelled the mattress to tilt slightly upwards.

"Ahhh," Harry moaned, stretching out his back against the incline. Wasn't that just like Remus to be so attentive and considerate? "Mmm. Thanks, Remus. I feel loads better, now."

He looked at Remus again, this time noticing that he was sort of funny looking. Blurry. Hmm, the whole room was blurry. It didn't occur to him to ask for his glasses, though, or even realise that he usually wore them. Actually, the blur was sort of nice, he thought. It matched the fuzzy feeling in his brain.

"Do you like lemonade?" he asked, clear out of the blue.

"Too sweet," Remus answered, sounding as though he was having rather a hard time not chuckling. "Would you like some, Harry? Are you thirsty?"

But Harry's thoughts had already gone sailing past that. "Do you think the house-elves have a thing against citrus? Say, remember the chocolate? That was really strange."

It looked like Remus blinked to Harry, but things were so bleary, he couldn't be sure. "The chocolate your cousin gave you?"

"No, the chocolate you gave me, silly," Harry said, squeezing Remus' fingers. It was so good to talk to him. He could tell Remus anything. "On the train. You know, after the Dementor nearly got me. Did I thank you for the chocolate? Anyway, it was... really strange."

"Er... what was strange about it?"

Harry closed his eyes and shivered. "That something like chocolate could make me feel better, after hearing my mother screaming, pleading for my life, dying to save me..."

"Is that what you hear whenever Dementors come near?" Remus barked.

Harry woozily cracked his eyes again, though the world was still a blur he could hardly make out. Hmm, Remus sounded appalled. Maybe Harry hadn't thanked him for the chocolate? Oh no, it was the other thing, wasn't it? But why would that surprise Remus? "I told you all about it, third year. Or was it second when I had you for Defence?"

"Third," Remus sighed. "Why don't you try to rest more, Harry? I don't think you're aware of it, but you're rambling a bit. Sleep is definitely in order."

"I don't want to sleep," Harry said, petulant, his lower lip quivering. "I'll have those dreams. I want to talk. I never get to see you, Remus. I wanted to see you, that whole awful year when they made me compete in the Tree-Blizzard Tournament." A sob caught in his throat. "I really, really wanted to see you. I bet you'd have known about Sillyweed. You could have told me where to get some, too. I thought I was going to drown, 'cause I'd never heard of it and didn't have any idea how to be a mermaid. Good thing Dobby knew where some was." All at once, his mind seemed to jump clear across the lake. "Um, can I ask you something? It's... sort of personal. You can tell me to sod off if you like. We'll still be mates."

A blurry nod answered his question.

Harry rolled a bit on his side, and stretched again, trying to remember what he'd wanted to say. Oh, yeah. 

"Does it hurt to change into a werewolf?"

"How long have you wanted to ask that?" Remus gasped, sounding like he was holding his breath.

"Since third year," Harry patiently explained, sounding rather as though Remus was the one who was rambling. "Or was it second when I had you for Defence?"

Another strangled laugh. "Second year you had Gilderoy Lockhart, Harry."

The fingers he was holding slid from his grasp, then Remus' voice came from farther away. Harry squinted, and saw him talking with a mediwitch wearing sage-coloured robes. Hmm, mediwitch. He wondered why he wasn't with Madam Pomfrey, if he was hurt. Hmm, how had he got hurt? Quidditch? 

"Will he remember any of this?" Harry heard Remus say.

"Doubtful," the mediwitch replied. "We'll start the rest of his treatment once he's more lucid. I usually wouldn't hesitate, but given what sent him here in the first place? Best to be a bit cautious."

Harry sat up completely, realizing rather dimly that he wasn't in school robes. He was awkwardly swivelling his legs over the side of the bed, thinking he'd better get dressed for Transmorgrifaction, or Transmigrification, or Trans-something, anyway, when when Remus came back and gently lifted his legs back onto the cot. Pushing him down onto his back, Remus tucked the covers around the boy. Harry felt like he was melting clean away, but this time, it was a good melt. He could trust Remus, he thought. He could tell him the awful truth.

"I didn't like Lockhart," he admitted, unaware that it was completely irrelevant. "I had him for detention. He made me sign his fan mail using my own blood."

"What?"

Strange how a roar could be quiet, Harry thought. "Yeah," he blithely went on, the memories swirling, muddled... but there. "There was this quill that scratched your skin and took your blood. Whatever you were writing, it got carved into your arm. Yeah.... I must not tell lies, all over those photos of Lockhart on the broom, and on my arm practically down to the bone."

Remus made some sort of strangled sound.

"I still have the scar," Harry sighed. "One more scar. Did you know that the... um, primary characteristic, I think it was, of a curse scar is that it's hideous and disfiguring? Oh, wait. That's two characteristics, isn't it?" He furrowed his brow. "Maybe it's just hideous. I can't remember--"

"Your scar is not hideous," Remus quietly affirmed.

Harry paused, a vague glimmer of information seeming to shine through the fog in his mind. "Oh, you know what? I think the lines were for somebody else. Snape maybe? Nah, he's not so bad. Did you know he's not so bad, Remus? He just doesn't like werewolves, or students, or me, or teaching I think, or Gryffindors, or Hufflepuffs really, or scratched cauldrons, or Snuffles, or Ravenclaws much, or me saying Voldemort, or--"

"What did you lie about?" Remus interrupted, sounding rather tired of the conversation.

Harry settled himself more comfortably against the mattress. "Lie? In bed, silly. You know what Ron says? Slytherins lie like a rug." He suddenly giggled, the humour cut short only by a wide yawn. "And there's way too much pumpkin juice, would you let Dobby know? Um, can you wake me up in time for class? I have Transfoogriffination next and I can't miss it. I'm really bad at it."

"I'll wake you up in time for class, Harry," Remus drawled, adding after a pause, "Shall I call a mediwitch and ask if you might have some Dreamless Sleep?"

"Doesn't work on me any longer," Harry murmured, oddly lucid as a wave of exhaustion pulled him under. "Scar makes me dream. Or... something else. But sometimes I dream of Snuffles, so that's all right."

"We need to resume Occlumency lessons," he heard Remus sigh. But Remus had never taught him Occlumency. Did Remus even know it?

Confused, Harry let the questions slide from his mind, and leaning against the arm that curled around his shoulders, went to sleep.

Chapter Text

"Feeling better, now?" a voice at Harry's elbow asked.

The world still looked bleary when Harry opened his eyes, but this time, he knew enough to reach for his glasses. Before he could find them, however, a pair of hands was gently settling them atop his nose.

He felt stiff and sore, and his hip was throbbing, inside and out, but that only stood to reason, considering. At least he was through with needles; that had to be worth something. "Yeah, better," Harry finally answered, glancing up.

"Have some lemonade."

For some reason, that sounded really, really good. Harry quaffed the glassful handed to him, thinking that maybe all he'd really been was thirsty, because the tangy citrus drink seemed to wipe the pain clean out of him. Wiping his lips on a pyjama sleeve, he looked around, recognizing the ward as one at St. Mungo's. No way would Frimley Park have not a single medical machine in evidence.

Snape went and closed the door, then warded it, before turning back to ask, "Do you know who I am?"

"Yeah," Harry answered, wondering why he'd ask. Glancing around, he saw that his bed was the only one occupied. Even so, he didn't feel completely comfortable answering too openly. "You gave me a Troll-minus on my test, along with some interesting comments."

Snape gave him a hard look, then resumed his place in a chair at the side of the bed. He turned it to face Harry, before asking, "So you're not still feeling confused? About anything?"

"Why would I be confused?"

"Well," Snape drew out the syllable, seeming with enjoyment, "you seemed to take my appearance a little too much for granted, for a while." He smiled at the look of shock on Harry's face. "Actually, it was a bit as though you'd taken a Babbling Beverage. Very enlightening. I gained the clear impression that you felt at perfect liberty to say anything you liked to Remus Lupin."

Harry was not the slightest bit amused. "You aren't serious?" Hmm, seemed like he was. "What did I say?"

Snape shrugged, though the impression was belied by the way his shoulders shook with repressed laughter. "Most of it was nonsensical. You couldn't seem to count to three with any accuracy, for instance."

"That's not true!"

"I assure you, it quite is. You also reminisced over tutoring sessions and chocolate, and asked me if it hurt to transform to a werewolf."

Harry felt himself going red in the face.

"Don't," Snape said, his voice more soothing. "They warned me at Frimley Park that it's entirely normal to speak rather freely when one emerges from the anaesthetic potions."

"But I can't remember waking up, let alone talking, and anyway, I have wondered, but I wouldn't ever ask Remus... that."

"Apparently, you would," Snape pointed out, his lips beginning to twitch again. "And your lack of recall is also perfectly normal. I wouldn't fret over it, Harry."

"It seems like I just had a little nap," Harry murmured, part of him still wondering if Snape was having him on. "It was just this morning when we left Hogwarts, wasn't it?"

"Today is the 26th," Snape insisted. "If you don't believe me, ask the mediwitch when she comes in. Or," he suggested sardonically, "would you like to see the Daily Prophet?"

Harry shuddered. Sure, the Prophet had finally deigned to report Voldemort's return, but as far as he was concerned, it was still a disgraceful rag of a newspaper. "Um... no. I don't think so."

Still embarrassed, Harry did his level best to let the matter go, though he did wonder what else he might have said. Had he talked about Snape, or revealed something that might get Ron and Hermione and him expelled, such as their own dabbling into Polyjuice Potion? Had he admitted that he'd saved Sirius from the Dementors, explained Hermione's time turner?

It was hard to imagine Snape being so friendly if he'd talked about any of those things, though, so Harry decided not to worry about it. "This isn't Frimley Park," he pointed out. "So what happened?"

"You ran a tremendous fever for hours, and didn't regain consciousness when you should have," Snape explained, his brow wrinkling with remembered concern. "Those fools wanted to administer more Muggle medicine through that tube they shoved in your arm, as if they didn't realise that their foul, misbrewed potions were responsible for your condition in the first place!"

"It's all right," Harry said, thinking it strange that he should be the one to do the comforting.

"Perhaps it is now," Snape admitted, his hands still clenching one another. "But you lay either senseless or rambling for almost four days. And too, the healers here recognised you."

Harry's nostrils flared with irritation. "That could be a problem."

"Yes. I should have Apparated you to a safe place, then summoned a healer from the Order. But I feared there wasn't time. I'd never seen a fever as high as that, nor one even close. I... I panicked."

"Oh," Harry answered in a small voice, rather shocked. "Um, well that's understandable. I must have been in a bad way."

"Quite."

"So, what did you tell them?"

"You went driving a car and crashed it, injuring your hip. While you were out senseless, emergency doctors dosed you; you were obviously having a reaction to the inappropriate treatment."

"They bought that?" Harry exclaimed. That book had boasted pictures of the marks left by a bone marrow extraction: tiny slashes, aligned in neatly spaced parallel rows. Nothing like the injuries that would result from a car crash. "Didn't they even look at me?"

Snape couldn't meet his gaze. "They...ah, I didn't let them use any spells to scan you, nothing that might detect your missing marrow. I insisted on potions only, ones that would clear the tainted substances left over from your surgery." At Harry's suspicious look, he added, "I conjured them into your stomach myself. At any rate, there's no need to fear that anyone here will realise the full truth."

"Yeah," Harry pressed, "but didn't any of them look at me?"

"Perhaps you should do so," Snape weakly replied, and turned away.

Harry did, peeling back the covers and peeking beneath the waistband of his pyjamas. Ugh, ick. His hip area looked lacerated, like the surface had been scrubbed away and the flesh sliced open the way Aunt Petunia had taught him to score a roast.

"Oh," he finally said, a little surprised it didn't hurt. "You... er, you spelled this onto me?"

"It was necessary," Snape stiffly insisted, arms crossed so that the threadbare elbows of Remus' coat showed. "But I do apologise for the intrusion."

"Um... well, good thinking, I guess," Harry replied, trying to laugh it off, though he did find that a bit difficult. He couldn't help but wonder if Snape had had to bare his hip in order to conjure the injury. Nah, probably not, he decided, but he certainly wasn't going to ask. Time for a new topic. "How's Aunt Petunia? If I was out that long, she must have had her own operation by now?"

Again, Snape seemed to have great difficulty meeting his eyes.

"Well?" Harry prompted, worrying his lip with his teeth as Snape still said nothing. "I can tell there's been some problem. She rejected it, like they talked to me about? Is that it?"

"No, Harry," Snape quietly told him, then reaching over, took both his hands in his. "I am sorry, but there is no easy way to tell you this. Your aunt has died."

Harry stared at the wall in front of him without really seeing it. "Oh. Um, I guess it's pretty awful that my first thought is about the wards."

"Practical, I would say," Snape assured him, those hands squeezing his lightly.

"No, it's Slytherin," Harry decided, but he didn't sneer the word. He wondered what sort of person he'd be by now if he hadn't argued with the Sorting Hat. He sat up in the bed, again feeling that stymied need to do something, but there was nothing to be done. "I should be upset. Some, at least. I mean, especially considering."

Snape hesitated, then moved one hand to the back of Harry's neck and began to rub the knots there in slow circles. His touch was tentative at first, but when the tension in the boy's frame began to wane, he increased the pressure, his fingers expertly seeking out the healing loci where certain potions were best applied.

"Especially considering what?" he softly asked.

Harry knew he was being managed, perhaps even manoeuvred, but it felt so good to be taken care of that he honestly couldn't bring himself to mind. Not even about the fact that it was Snape comforting him; Harry knew that all he had to do to make it stop was say a single word. He didn't want it to stop.

"Well, you know," he answered, relaxation creeping all across him as those fingers continued to massage the vertebrae in his neck, though the subject was hardly comfortable. "It wouldn't have happened if not for me."

"But it would have, Harry," Snape insisted, placing a finger under Harry's chin until the boy looked at him. "It did. This isn't your fault. You saw the state she was in."

"I can't --" Talk about it, he had been going to say, but his teacher seemed to understand.

"All right," Snape easily agreed. "I'll inform the healers that you're awake and lucid. I imagine they'll make short work of your outward injuries, though as we can't mention your operation, you'll have to rely on my potions to help with the pain inside."

"There's no pain inside," Harry protested, though in a certain sense, that wasn't true.

"There will be, once the Helasbreath elixir I put in your lemonade wears off."

Harry nodded, weary. Not so very long ago, the idea that Snape had slipped him something would have been positively  gruesome. Now, he just couldn't bring himself to be concerned about it. Ron would say he was a nutter, but then again, Ron didn't know Snape.

And Harry barely knew him, but he did know enough. "Thank you," he said, laying back down. "For all of it, staying with me through the operation, being here with me, now. For the potion, for..." He didn't know what else to say.

"You're very careful to thank people, aren't you?" Snape observed, rising to his feet and brushing lint from Remus' wool trousers. "You don't need to thank me, Harry."

Then, as if ill at ease with what he had just said, he briskly announced, "I'll summon someone to see to you. In the meantime, if you feel up to it, you might catch up on some schoolwork."

Following his glance, Harry noticed his books piled on the night table. He hardly felt like studying, but maybe it would take his mind off everything else. As Snape departed, Harry pulled Transfigurations: Sixth Year Theory and Cases from the pile and began to read.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

"One would think you hadn't eaten in four days," Snape lightly commented when Harry polished off his second dinner tray.

"Yeah, well I haven't," Harry returned, then wondered at his teacher's smirk. "Have I?"

"I couldn't let you starve, could I?"

"Once you would have," Harry mused, then realised that wasn't true. Even first year, Snape had been looking out for him, protecting him when Quirrell hexed his broom, for instance. He'd been merciless with criticism, and had acted for all the world as though he'd like nothing better than to see Harry dead, but when it came right down to it, they'd been on the same side, even way back then. "So you spelled something into my stomach?" he reasoned.

"Pumpkin juice," Snape quipped, then quirked a grin at Harry's expression. "No, of course not. It was a nutritive potion, very light, but enough to keep you alive indefinitely." He shrugged. "No one knew how long it would be before you regained consciousness."

"Well, I'm fine now," Harry announced, swinging his legs over the side of the bed to stand up. Hmm, fine might be a slight overstatement; he was a tad unsteady on his feet. However, it was nothing that he couldn't handle. "All I need is a phone. I don't suppose St. Mungo's has one?"

"A... phone," Snape echoed, nonplussed.

"Yeah, to call Uncle Vernon," Harry explained, and when Snape still looked blank, exclaimed, "Could be wizards do things differently, I don't know. But I have to find out about the funeral. Maybe we should just make our way back to Privet Drive."

"I didn't think you would care to go to any funeral," Snape cautiously offered.

"Well, you thought wrong," Harry retorted, feeling defensive, miserable, and vulnerable all at once. All in all, it was a dreadful combination. "It's the decent thing to do, and before you start going off about how Gryffindor loyalty is utter rot, think about our objective here. I'm not likely to get on Dudley's good side after this, but he certainly won't agree to any warding if I skive off his mother's funeral. Though..." Another thought occurred to him. "When did she pass on, anyway? I suppose the funeral might have come and gone while I was out of it."

"She died the day before yesterday," Snape offered.

"So, I wouldn't have missed it, not yet."

"Likely not. Though we can still excuse any absence by saying that you were too ill to come."

"No."

"Harry--"

"No."

"All right," Snape acquiesced. "I will endeavour to locate a phone, since I do not recommend you return to Privet Drive without talking to your family, first. Your uncle is too volatile."

Harry didn't know how his professor had managed, but the man was back in a few minutes, proffering a slim, silver mobile. Harry had never used one. It took him some time to realise that there was never going to be a dialling tone, and a little longer to figure out that he had to turn it on.

After he heard another phone ringing, he whispered over to Snape, "Would you mind?" and more or less waved him from the room. Snape didn't leave, although he did step away, toward the warded doors.

Harry took a deep breath and braced himself to weather Uncle Vernon's wrath, but it was Dudley who picked up the receiver.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

 Dudley, who'd obviously been blubbering, Harry thought. He could barely make his cousin out.

"Oh, H-- Harry," he sobbed. "It's awful, awful. D-- Did you hear, did they tell you?"

"Yeah, they told me," Harry softly replied. "I'm sorry, Dudley. I know it doesn't help, but I'm really, really sorry."

"D-- Dad thinks you did it on pur-- pur-- purpose!" Dudley said, his tone somewhere between a screech and a moan. "Said you can't come home, Harry. Ev-- Ev-- Ever!"

Some gulping noises ensued, and then it seemed that Dudley had managed to get himself more in hand.

Harry had more or less assumed that Vernon would refuse to take him again; that not just the wards, but his only home outside of Hogwarts was well and truly lost. It surprised him a bit that Dudley sounded so regretful, but Harry chalked that up to general emotional devastation. It occurred to him that if you had to have your mother die, maybe it wasn't so bad having it happen when you were only one year old, and couldn't understand the loss.

"Can you tell me when the funeral is?" Harry asked. "And where?"

"Ooooh, you'd better not come, Harry," Dudley urged, his voice insistent. "I mean it. Dad's going to kill you."

"Well, you know he always says things like that," Harry murmured. "To me, at least."

"Yeah. I used to think it was funny. I'm sorry about that. But now..." Dudley gulped again, and began talking quickly, as though he'd heard someone coming. "You haven't seen him. He's got this look in his eyes. It's scary, Harry. Don't come, all right? Don't come."

"Dudley--"

"I've got to go," his cousin yelped. "Don't call again! But... well, you can write me. I'd like that, if you didn't use an owl. Bye!"

The line went dead. Harry stared at the phone for a while before remembering to turn it off. When Snape came back over, Harry said, "I don't think Dudley hates me," but his voice sounded dead. "That won't be enough to keep my mother's sacrifice active, will it? I mean, if Uncle Vernon won't have me in his house, there's no place to ward."

"I think we should return to Hogwarts," Snape announced. "The sooner, the better. I can see to anything else you need as you recover."

"No," Harry said again, trying to figure out why the idea filled him with such distress. "Don't you see? I... I don't know if my parents even had a funeral. I can't just go off and act like nothing's happened. I can't pretend that it's nothing to do with me that Aunt Petunia died!"

When Snape still looked reluctant, Harry pressed, "We'll stand at the back, all right? We'll just sort of lurk... out of sight. But I have to go, Professor. I just have to."

"When and where?" Snape sighed, taking the phone and slipping it into Remus' vest pocket.

"Dudley didn't say." Harry didn't think his cousin would say, either, even if he rang back. "Get me some papers from Surrey, then. There'll be an announcement."

Snape stared.

"Don't want to help?" Harry sniped, worried he'd miss it after all if Snape remained so intractable. "Fine. I'll wander around Muggle London looking for Surrey papers, myself. I'll yell if I see Voldemort, how does that sound?"

"Stop being so childish. I can't hunt up your heart's desire either, not unless I leave you alone here, which I will not do."

"Conjure them!"

"Your faith in my powers notwithstanding, Potter, I can't."

Harry gaped. "You can't?"

"It is heartening to see you so shocked at the notion that I can't do everything," Snape sneered, his disdain for the whole topic clearly evident even in Remus' tones. "But no, I can't."

"Then get someone from the Order to go collect them!" Harry shouted. "Now!"

"I don't much care for your tone, Potter!"

Harry wasn't about to give an inch. "I don't care at all for yours!"

"This is descending to something rather infantile," Snape drawled, contempt lacing every word. He glared at Harry, then turned his back. "Stay here, do not move. And control your hysteria. I will get you to this funeral, much good will it do you."

Harry flopped back into bed and told himself that when all this was over, he didn't care if he never saw Severus Snape again.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

The day was cold and wintry, storm clouds brewing in the south, the cemetery cast in long afternoon shadows. Harry shuddered as he stood in the distance, watching the burial progress. Wind whistled in his ears so that he couldn't make out the words of the hymn the mourners were singing, but that was all right. He just wanted to watch, and know that he was brave enough to bear the sight.

They'd ended up missing the funeral proper. Snape had deemed the parish church too small to afford any hiding place, and had caustically asked Harry if what he really wanted was to cause a horrid scene at an event which should appear, to all intents and purposes, sacred. He hadn't been amused when Harry had suggested using an invisibility cloak, but then again, Harry hadn't been joking. If the charmed cloak hadn't been back in his trunk at Hogwarts, he'd have used it. Too bad an Accio charm wouldn't work on something all the way in Scotland. He wondered if it might, for someone like Albus Dumbledore.

Or Voldemort.

The burial service ended, Harry watching from behind a tree as one by one the mourners wandered across the rolling lawn to cars parked a short distance away. Mrs Figg was among them, and a few other people he recognised from the neighbourhood. Uncle Vernon and Dudley were the last to leave. Father and son, mourning together, shaking slightly, the older man's arm encircling the boy's shoulders. Harry wished he could walk over to them, and say again that he was sorry, that he hadn't known it would come to this, that he'd only wanted to help.

He knew better than to make that speech, but standing there behind the tree, clutching Remus' coat around himself, he mouthed the words, and told himself that would have to be enough.

Snape was eyeing him. "Are you all right?"

No, I'm not all right. She's dead, dead. And it's my fault. And my hip hurts something fierce, your damned Helasbreath elixir is lousy! It doesn't even work anymore! And she might not have loved me, but she did raise me, and I owe her something, don't I, for taking me, letting me stay even after  the Dementors attacked Dudley to get to me? And I can't even attend her funeral except by skulking around! No, I'm not all right!

"Yeah, fine," Harry answered. He peered out into the distance and saw that the Dursleys had left. "I want to go up and see the grave."

Snape frowned, but answered that he'd felt no darkness there save that of grief.

"You..." Harry gulped. "Wait here, then. I want to be alone."

"I will not be far," Snape assured him, shivering a bit. Harry didn't think it was from fear.

"Here, take your coat back," he offered, starting to shrug out of it.

Snape shook his head. "It is Remus' coat and he would rather you have it, if you are cold."

"No, that's all right--"

"I would rather you have it, as well," Snape announced. "Go."

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Harry found the grave restful, and couldn't help but think that was rather wrong of him. He knelt before the gaping hole, looking at the mound of freshly turned earth beside it, and tried to think of what to say to Aunt Petunia.

The cemetery stopped being restful then, and his voice hurt when he spoke.

"You were supposed to love me," he started, trying to think his way through the tangled emotions choking him. "I was just a baby, and it wasn't my fault I got left on your doorstep. It wasn't my fault I wasn't a Muggle! Did you know how much I tried to stop my magic, to be something you could love? But you were supposed to love me no matter what, you were!" He paused, smearing a palm across wet cheeks. "I guess you knew I didn't love you, either. I guess it doesn't matter, now, but I didn't hate you... well, not the way you hated me. I didn't want it all to end like this, leaving Dudley without his mother--"

A sob climbed up from his belly, because he knew what it was like to wish for a mother who wasn't there.

The talking wasn't helping, Harry decided. It was just making him more upset. He knelt a while longer in silence, hugging Remus' coat to himself. It was more than warm, now; it was comforting.

Twilight began to paint the graveyard grey.

Harry stood up, realizing that Snape must be freezing, must think that Harry was positively daft to kneel here for so long, and all over a woman who'd never meant much to him while she was alive.

"You!" a voice came charging over the lawn as he rose to his feet. "How dare you! Come to laugh, to desecrate her grave?"

Before Harry could so much as run, Vernon had felled him with a vicious swipe across the face. Harry flew several feet before crashing to the ground, stars spinning behind his eyes, familiar rage sweeping him, rage that required an outlet and would find it.

But nothing exploded from his soul; no accidental magic stretched forth to save him. Vernon was stomping towards him, fury  consuming his features, his fat jowls shaking with it. And Harry was thinking the hell with the Decree, I'm not going take this, not this time. Reaching into his jeans pocket, Harry brandished his wand with confidence as he roared, "Petrificus Totalus!"

But nothing happened, absolutely nothing. Vernon Dursley didn't even quail in fear. He just kept coming, screaming about Aunt Petunia and Harry and unmitigated gall.

"Petrificus Totalus!" Harry shouted again, pulling all his powers into the hex, the wand an extension of his furiously pointed hand. An impotent extension; once again, no force flowed through him to erupt from the wand. "Immobulis!" he tried. "Impedimenta Forneo! Serpentsortia! Avunculare Evanesco!" 

Vernon was nearly on him when Harry began scrambling backwards, flailing in his panic. "Exilio Fumare!"

And then magic exploded around him, a shower of liquid greenish sparks that boiled the air as a low boom of thunder shook the ground beneath his feet. Vernon fell face-forward with a deafening thud, and Dudley ran up from behind to scream at Harry, "What did you do? All we wanted was another minute here beside my mum! I told you not to come, I told you!"

Harry somehow swayed to his knees, then looked down at his wand, which still lay cold and useless in his hand. It wasn't his magic that had stopped Vernon, that much was clear.

Snape shimmered into view, just steps away, and Harry stared, and weakly told his cousin, "It wasn't me, it wasn't mine, I didn't do--"

Then Snape started to say something, but it was just a rush of noise to Harry. He fainted dead away, collapsing to the grass with his head at the Potions Master's feet.

Chapter Text

Harry woke up in a room that was eerily familiar, though it was far less grimy than the last time he'd seen it. What was he doing here, in Sirius' bedroom at Number Twelve Grimmauld Place? Harry groaned out loud, rolled over onto his side, and pulled his legs up toward his chest. He closed his eyes, but it seemed like he could still make out the sight of the room bathed in hazy, pre-dawn light.

"Harry?" Remus' familiar voice asked at once. 

He kept his eyes clenched shut. "Get me out of here, all right? I'm not sure what you thought you were doing, bringing me here of all places, but get me out!"

"I didn't bring you here," Remus answered. "Severus did."

"Severus?" Harry uncurled and awkwardly sat up on the double bed, balancing himself on one bent leg as he stared at Remus. "What do you mean, Severus!"

"He's downstairs," Remus explained, "but I'll call him if you like--"

"Hold up," Harry ordered, flushing as he heard how rudely the words had emerged. "I mean, you aren't..." It came to him rather belatedly that with Polyjuice Potion, anybody could impersonate Remus, so he'd better watch what he said. "Um, when you were at Hogwarts, where'd you used to go at a particular time each month?"

"Oh, Harry," Remus laughed, but when the boy's expression remained fixed, he murmured, "The Shrieking Shack."

Still suspicious, Harry went on, "What does mischief managed mean?"

"It wipes the Marauder's Map clean. Really, Harry!"

"Oh, okay," Harry conceded. "I guess you're you. So Severus... er, I mean Professor Snape is downstairs?  Is he back to his usual self?"

"I wouldn't say that," Lupin replied. "Oh, the Polyjuice has worn off, if that's what you're asking. But he's... a bit unsettled, we'll say."

Harry looked around the room again, and started shivering. "Well get him up here, will you?"

"Harry," Remus quietly said as he stood up from the bed. "We will solve this, all right? We will."

That was when Harry remembered the graveyard, and Uncle Vernon, and hex after hex that had refused to flow through him and into his wand. He looked up, green eyes wide and slightly wild as the truth twisted his stomach into tight knots. "I've lost my magic, haven't I?"

"We will solve it," Remus repeated. "Let me get Severus for you."

-----------------------------------------------------------

Harry sort of goggled when his other teacher did come up; he didn't think he'd ever seen Snape in casual clothes before. Well, except once when a boggart had impersonated him, but that hardly counted. Now, the Potions Master was wearing dark grey trousers and a Slytherin green turtleneck sweater. The look could have worked if worn with robes, he supposed, but without? It just wasn't Snape.

"We were premature to think you had recovered," Snape opened the conversation, standing stiffly in the doorway as though reluctant to draw any closer to Harry. "You were unconscious for several hours before you began to truly sleep, which facts strongly indicate that you still need to heal."

"Not to mention that I tried about ten, twelve hexes on Uncle Vernon," Harry muttered. "They didn't even make him twitch, and they sure didn't stop him from coming. It was like he knew I couldn't catch hold of my magic any longer!"

"He was simply angry."

Harry gave a half-hysterical laugh. "Does it count against the Decree if the curses you try to throw don't fly anywhere? Not that it matters if they break my wand, not now. It's not much use to me, is it?"

Remus' soft tones broke in. "Harry, you know better than anyone that you're allowed to use magic in self-defence."

"Yeah, I know," Harry admitted. "I just can't believe this is happening to me. I mean, what the hell is wrong? Wizards don't just lose their powers!"

"Obviously, the bone marrow extraction has affected your level of magical control," Snape brusquely explained, and at Harry's intent look, added, "Yes, yes, Lupin knows everything. He has to, as you'll be staying here with him until the situation is resolved."

Harry's eyes bugged out. "Here? I can't stay here!"

"Where else should we safeguard you?" Snape inquired, a little of his old sneering tone evident. "You will never return to Privet Drive, and Hogwarts is quite out of the question."

"Hogwarts sounds good to me," Harry staunchly replied. "I have to get back to my classes."

Snape made a snarling noise reminiscent of Remus in his wolf-form. "Have you gone completely daft, Potter? At the moment, as far as we can tell, you have no powers! Yet you propose to resume attendance at an institution where almost every class session requires you to utilize active magic? How long do you suppose you can you conceal your condition from your classmates?"

"Ron and Hermione would never tell a soul--"

"Merlin spare me from simpleminded idiots!" Snape exclaimed. "Not everyone at Hogwarts is a simpering, sycophantic Gryffindor just itching to keep your secrets! You share lessons with Draco Malfoy several times a week in your programme, do you not? Do you suppose it will escape his notice that you can no longer perform the simplest spell or charm?"

Harry hadn't realised he'd been holding his breath until he let it out. "Oh. I get it, I think. You're worried about Voldemort finding out."

"Brilliant deduction, Mr Potter," Snape sneered. 

"Now really, Severus, you and I have had several hours to reason this all out," Remus broke in. "Be fair."

"Ah, Gryffindors and fairness," came the contemptuous reply. Snape did seem to calm after that, however. Stepping further into the room, he continued speaking to Harry. "The Dark Lord would like nothing better than to see you dead. You have bested him, Mr Potter, a fact which he can hardly endure. Should he learn that you are currently defenceless, he will shove hell itself aside to get to you. Hogwarts, for all its ancient protections, has been far from safe for you, in the past. Only your vast capacity for magic, along with a great deal of luck, has kept your skin intact!" 

"All right, all right, I understand," Harry bit out. Geez, he could have stopped after the first sentence; he didn't have to treat him like a complete dunce. "I don't like it, in fact I pretty well hate it, but I suppose you're right. Number Twelve Grimmauld Place is probably the safest place for me. Unplottable, location only able to be revealed by a Secret Keeper, who happens to be the only wizard Voldemort's ever feared! All right, all right? I get it!"

"He sounds distressed," Lupin commented under his breath. 

"What do you expect?" Harry exclaimed. "Sirius loathed this place! He hated being cooped up here, with nobody for company but that screeching portrait of a mother who despised him, and the most disloyal house-elf in the history of wizardry!" An ugly light made Harry's eyes blaze iridescent, and when he next spoke, his voice was cold and calculating. "Where is Kreacher, anyway?"

"Kreacher's dead," Remus announced. 

"Is his head mounted on the wall?" Harry sneered, hands clenching with disappointment. He'd wanted to kill the little shite himself. Yeah, wring his neck until his eyes bulged and popped out of his skull, then twist the head off and give it a good hard kick, over and over until it was nothing but a bloody, pulpy mass. 

Dark shadows swam in his eyes as he contemplated it.

"Get yourself under control, Mr Potter!" Snape suddenly roared, stepping forward to take Harry by the shoulders. He didn't shake him, though, just held on to get his point across. "The issue at hand is not your house, nor house-elves you hate, nor any other meaningless notion that should flit across that distractible mind of yours. It is your magic."

"Or lack thereof," muttered Harry, looking up at Snape. His long black hair was half-concealing his face, obscuring his expression. Yeah, Snape did like to hide... It came to him then that his teacher's sarcasm and anger was masking something else, something he'd seen before, though he'd seen it on Remus' face at the time. But Snape had been inside that face. Snape was worried about him, practically frantic. Unsettled, Remus had called it. 

Either way, it killed Harry's own anger and left him feeling just... defeated. Because not even Snape's concern could fix this, could it? "It's sort of ironic, isn't it?" Harry said, swallowing as he shrugged off his teacher's hands. "I spent years trying to wish my magic all away. And now, just when the Dursleys have done with me for good, it goes away on its own!"

Remus' soft tones offered assurance and hope. "I expect it's a temporary aberration, Harry. We've had you examined by a healer, already."

Harry took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and put the glasses back on. "And?"

"She spelled you up and down," Snape flatly announced, still standing just inches from Harry's knees, "and concluded that your prolonged high fever is largely to blame. Combined with the tainted Muggle potions in your system, it burned your magical core down to ash. It did not help that while this was underway, your body was recognizing that it had lost marrow. Focused on that, instead of what mattered, your blood did not defend itself against the problem. Or so Healer Marjygold believes."

"You believe differently?" Harry asked, afraid the answer might be more unpleasant than what he'd heard so far.

"The situation is more complex than Healer Marjygold is in a position to appreciate," Snape explained. He sat down on the foot of the bed, but turned to face Harry. "She is in the Order, and I trust her, else I would not have summoned her, but there are inconsistencies in her theory."

Harry sat up straighter. "Such as?"

"The Helasbreath elixir eased your discomfort. If your magical core had been completely burned through as Marjygold claims, the potion would have been either useless or lethal, as I once told you."

"It did work at first," Harry told him, a constriction in his chest making it difficult to breathe. "But by the day of the funeral, it was useless." Good thing it wasn't one of the lethal ones.

"You were in pain and didn't think to tell me, Harry?"

"Look, I'm pretty much used to not complaining, all right?"

Snape nodded, his features thoughtful as he exchanged a significant glance with Remus.

"What?" Harry prompted, and when they hesitated, added, "Come on. What?"

It was Remus who spoke. "Severus mentioned a few things you've said in recent days, Harry. About... blaming yourself, thinking you're at fault when other people die. We wonder if you're trying to punish yourself. We suspect the healer's missed the truth completely. No doubt your core is charred, at least, from the fever, but the real issue could be your desire to suffer for giving your aunt the marrow in the first place."

Harry felt like he might throw up. Is that what Remus really thought of him?

"You don't believe that claptrap, do you?" he demanded to know, shifting away from Snape as he asked him, then on second thought, letting his glance include them both.

"You chose to suffer in the cemetery rather than ask for more elixir," Snape pointed out.

"Yeah, and good thing, because otherwise a magic potion might have killed me!" Oh, wait... the elixir had turned out to be one of the useless potions, not the lethal ones. Well, that was beside the point. "And I had a lot on my mind!"

"Exactly," Remus softly averred. "It's probably not just your aunt, either, is it? You blame yourself for Sirius, and Cedric Diggory, and no doubt for Voldemort being resurrected in the flesh."

"Had a nice long chat, you two, did you?" Harry scathed. "Well, let's see. Hmm, I did act like a complete nitwit and charge into danger, dragging Sirius in my wake, and I did insist, just like a Gryffindor, wouldn't you know, that Cedric share the stupid Tri-Wizard Cup with me, and it was my blood that helped raise that murderous arsehole, so I'd say my perceptions are pretty much spot-on. Why don't we just finish the list, shall we? If you want to get right down to it, it's my fault my parents died, as well! Voldemort was coming after me, we know that now. If not for me, Remus here would still have his best friend. Two of them, actually!"

"Black was my fault as well," Snape averred.

"I know that," Harry yelled, jumping to his feet. "And Dumbledore, and the Death Eaters, and Voldemort, and if you come right down to it, Sirius himself! I don't think it's all my fault. Hell, you're partly to blame for my parents too, aren't you? You were spying already by then, and you didn't do a bang-up good job of it, did you?"

"Harry--" Remus broke in.

"Let me talk," Harry interrupted right back, pacing to the end of the room and back as he assembled his thoughts. "All right. There's plenty of blame to spread around, and I'm not stupid enough to pretend that none of it's mine, no matter what platitudes you want to drench me with. But your other idea?" He laughed, the sound so harsh it bordered on a cackle. "I'm punishing myself? What a load of crap. I bet neither one of you has a psych degree, so just lay off analyzing me, all right? Think about it! Oh, sure, I'm punishing myself by losing touch with my magic! That makes sense, doesn't it? 'Cause now there'll be nobody to fulfill that prophecy, nobody to put an end to that snakelike shite once and for all. So loads more people can die, and I can feel even guiltier. Thanks for your sterling opinion of my character, but I am not that barmy!"

"He does have a point, Lupin," Severus replied after a moment.

"Yeah, he does," Harry mocked. "How old do I have to be before you stop talking over my head?"

"Speak to us with some respect," Snape rebuked. "Lupin's here to help you, as am I."

I'll speak however I damn well please, Harry wanted to scream back, but he knew his teacher was right. He'd vented, and got it all off his chest, and now it was time to take stock of the situation. 

"So what's the plan?" Harry calmly asked them both as he leaned against the wall, rather enjoying their dumbfounded expressions. He supposed they had expected him to keep raving for a while longer. Maybe they were remembering the fact that he'd gone so out of control last year that he'd wrecked Dumbledore's office.

He could do something like that again, he knew. He was angry enough. Actually, he felt like that black energy from the cupboard had wormed its way right down into his injured marrow. But he wasn't going to explode with it, not any more than he had already. He was going to hold it together, and get the problem solved, like Remus had said.

Snape assessed Harry's calm facade for a moment, then explained the plan, as Harry had put it. "Lupin is going to tutor you to rouse your magic. He'll stay here with you as long as it takes, and for the time being, the rest of the Order will not visit headquarters. The less that is known of your... problem, the better. I must return to Hogwarts to resume my post, and my duties for the Order, but I will floo here each evening, as I can, to help you master Occlumency."

Harry raised a hand to his scar. "You think this is still a conduit, even with me a.... a... squib?"

"You are not a squib," Snape at once contested. "You have been injured, but you will recover." He paused, but Harry said nothing. "As for your scar, I have no reason to believe that the Dark Lord has been tapping your magic when he sends you dreams, which is why you must learn at all costs to shield your mind."

"But how can I do that, without any magic of my own?"

Snape looked surprised. "To discipline your mind does not strictly require sorcery, Harry, though of course it helps. At any rate, I expect your magic will begin to re-emerge as you work with Lupin throughout the length of each day."

"So Occlumency," Harry murmured, nodding. "Right. If Voldemort looks into my mind, and sees my powers gone, I'll be in deep shite."

"Exactly."

"But Dumbledore said he should have taught it to me, himself," Harry remembered. Not that he wanted to work with Dumbledore, but he supposed the headmaster might insist. "Wouldn't that still hold true?"

"Professor Dumbledore, Harry," Remus chided.

Snape raised his chin a bit. "Have you objection to my teaching you? Should that be the case, I will certainly express as much to Albus." He paused, and looked away. "I know this morning has not been easy, but I thought we had got beyond that, Harry."

"We have," Harry murmured, sort of embarrassed to have to admit to that in front of Remus. "It's just..." He didn't know how to say it; it wasn't like he wanted to snipe, or score points off Snape. He didn't even want to hurt his feelings, assuming he could, that was. But this was too important to just ignore, so he plunged ahead. "Are you going to teach me, this time? Last year, all you did was yell and threaten. Oh yeah, and attack until I could hardly see straight."

Remus chuckled slightly. "Rather like old Trutt in Charms, Severus. Remember? Of course you were a quick study, but I do recall that even you occasionally found his style... irksome."

"I do not instruct like Trutt," Snape breathed, clearly appalled. "That man was worthless."

Harry didn't know about any Trutt, but he did know what he thought of Snape's own teaching style. "You just kept insisting Occlude your mind, Potter, over and over. You are letting me win, you are handing me weapons!" he mimicked. "But you never once told me how not to!"

"I told you to clear your mind each night before you slept, you ungrateful little twit!"

"Yeah, and I didn't even try," Harry admitted, not wanting to think about why he hadn't bothered. "Okay, so back to blame: we're both at fault and I know it. I'll do better, I swear. I'll do my part this time; I do understand what I stand to lose, what we all stand to lose, if Voldemort gets a good look inside me, now."

"Severus?" Remus prompted, as if he thought that Harry's offer had been more than fair.

Snape huffed a bit. "I will endeavour to explain matters better, and help you practice."

"There, see how easy that was?" Harry lightly taunted. "Say, can I write to my friends while I'm here?"

Snape's tapered fingers pushed long strands of black hair back from his scalp. "Yes, but be careful what you write. Do not owl your letters, though. I will take them when I come, and post them from Hogwarts' own owlery."

Harry thought that a bit paranoid, but supposed that if anyone was watching, it wouldn't do to have owls coming or going from  Grimmauld Place. 

"You just can't leave my post alone, can you?" he quipped.

A slow smile crept across Snape's face. "What's the matter, Potter?"

"Oh, pipe down," Harry lightly replied. "Or I'll tell Remus here how you read a personal letter out loud in Potions class one day."

"Severus!" Lupin gasped. 

"Relax, he relented," Harry laughed, thinking that he'd really needed a good laugh. It was sort of satisfying that he could have one with Snape, who was breathing a bit too deeply, as though trying hard to hold it all in.

As for post, though, could owls even find Grimmauld Place? It's not like they'd been told personally by Dumbledore that the place existed. 

"Um, I need a favour," he ventured. "Ron and Hermione need some way to write back to me. I'm guessing the owls aren't a good option. Can I tell them that they can slip letters into their Potions essays, you know, roll them up real tight in the scrolls, and you can bring them by?"

"I suppose," Snape drawled, trying for a dark tone he didn't quite achieve. "Do mention to your little friends not to drop any letters on the dungeon floor, would you?"

"Yes, Professor."

Snape nodded briskly. "I really must go now, Harry. You will be all right with Lupin, here?"

"Well, sure." Harry wondered why he'd even ask. 

"Do not take him out of the house," Snape cautioned Lupin. "It deflects Dark Magic, more so now than when Kreacher lived inside. It is possible that the Dark Lord may not be able to communicate via the scar, just so long as Harry stays within. It may give us the time we need for him to come to terms with Occlumency." 

That time, Harry didn't bother to point out that he was standing right there, even when Snape continued, "He still looks pale, Lupin, and he may need to work with me well into the night. Be sure he sleeps several hours during the afternoon."

"I don't guess I'm allowed a sleeping draught?" Harry questioned. "Useless or lethal, I'll bet."

"Those are useless."

"Um, how about something we could get from a pharmacy? You know, Muggle medicine?"

"Do you really think it wise to expose yourself to more of the bastardized substances that contributed to your condition in the first place?" Snape haughtily questioned.

Put like that? No, Harry didn't think it was such a good idea. He sighed.

"I am sorry I can't do more for you," Snape softly admitted, all haughtiness gone. "No doubt your hip still aches, but that, too, will just have to be borne."

It ached something fierce, and Harry had a feeling that the pain itself would tire him out long before it was afternoon, but all he said was, "It's all right. I've had worse."

Snape nodded. "I will see you late tonight, then," he remarked to Harry, before he strode to the hearth and snatched a bit of Floo powder from the mantle.

Harry turned to Remus as the Potions Master vanished in a flash of green fire. "So, I'll get dressed then?" He looked down at the unfamiliar too-large pyjamas, vaguely wondering if these had belonged to Sirius. The thought made him feel queasy and comforted, all at once. "Um, is any of my stuff here?"

"Severus brought some through the Floo," Remus explained, gesturing to a battered chest of drawers.

Harry wondered how he'd pulled that off. As Remus, maybe. Somehow, he just couldn't see the dreaded Potions Master strolling into the Gryffindor common room and casually announcing that he needed Harry's clothes. But there they were, neatly folded, an assortment of shirts, jumpers, and jeans. Even shoes and socks. No school robes, but he wouldn't need them here, would he? 

"Hey, where are my textbooks?" Harry called. Remus had left the room so that he could get dressed.

"Severus said you wouldn't need them," Remus called back, and Harry, just pulling on his jeans, nearly tripped. 

"What's he think, I'm on some sort of holiday?" Harry shouted, yanking open the door while he was still doing up the zip. Remus was just outside. Oops. "Sorry, didn't mean to deafen you."

"We both think you need to focus on the only thing that matters at this juncture," Remus softly explained.

"Yeah, well my N.E.W.T.s matter too," Harry retorted, before coming to his senses. "But not if I can't do magic, I don't guess. Okay, first things first. So what's first then, Remus? How do we even get started?"

"Fetch your wand; it's in the lower drawer," Remus directed. "And come downstairs. But don't worry, Harry. I can't believe your magical core is burned completely through. We'll find an ember left, and coax it back to life."

"Yeah," said Harry again, but deep inside, he wasn't so sure.

Chapter Text

Kneeling just before the hearth in the downstairs parlour, Harry pointed his wand at the scattered ashes within, and bellowed with all his might, "Incendio!"

A single tendril of ash fluttered slightly upwards, then cascaded back to join its fellows in the grate.

"See, that was better," Remus said, all encouragement. "That time something happened."

"Remus, I blew on it, is all!"

Harry flopped onto the floor and stretched out full-length, almost wishing a doxy or a grindylow would come flying out of the shadows. At least then, he'd get to watch Remus do some magic. His own, he was sad to admit, wasn't working at all. 

Well, at least Remus didn't have Snape's awful habit of snapping that he wasn't trying, even when he was. He had been trying, with all his might. To visualize the flash of fire from his wand, to feel the sizzle deep inside him rising to the surface of his skin and then beyond, to make the spell come out

But it was just no use.

"Come now, back to work," Remus quietly insisted, pulling Harry up by one hand. "We can't let a few setbacks get us down, Harry. Perhaps Incendio wasn't the best place to start. We need something simpler, Wingardium Leviosa, perhaps."

Harry shook his head. Spells didn't get any easier than Incendio, and Remus knew it. Who did he think he was kidding? You only needed one split-second of power to light a fire; raising something aloft and holding it there required you to sustain the magic.

But still, Remus wanted him to, so Harry tried. "Wingardium Leviosa," he incanted at a bit of fluff that had torn loose from inside a cushion on the sofa. He stared at it hard, willing it to rise, but the fluff just stared back. Smirking at him, Harry thought with disgust. He turned to Remus as if to say, Now what?

"Harry, anyone who could produce a Patronus at the tender age you did could not have lost his magic over a mere fever." Rocking on his heels slightly, Remus lost himself in thought. "Ah, perhaps that's what the matter is."

"What?"

Sitting down on the mouldering sofa, Remus patted the spot beside him until Harry sat down, too. "These last few days have concentrated your attention on rather dark thoughts, haven't they?"

"Um... well, not really. I mean, I felt a lot worse at the end of last year," Harry admitted, wondering what his former defence teacher was getting at. 

"But being thrown into the thick of things with Severus, Harry--"

"Hey, Snape and I are getting along all right, didn't you notice?"

"Professor Snape, Harry, and it was good to see. But still, it can't have been comfortable for you at first. Add to that your worry over the wards, your aunt dying and your uncle attacking you, which I gather has not been an uncommon occurrence, not to mention the terror you felt when you had to subject yourself to general anesthesia, and--"

"Snape's got a big fat mouth," Harry grumbled.

"The point," Remus quietly continued, "is that all these things have weighed on your mind, one after another. I think you're in a dark place, emotionally--"

"Oh great, another load of psychological crap. Are you going to cast me as a masochist again, or just a run-of-the-mill coward this time?"

"Where did you learn a word like masochist?" Remus gasped, taken out of stride.

"Remus, I'm sixteen, not twelve," Harry retorted. "And I read it in a Divination text."

Remus tried to get his thoughts back on track. "You're in a dark place," he repeated, his voice going about as stern as Harry had ever heard it. Which wasn't very stern, all things considered, but it still reminded Harry to stop interrupting. To show a tad more respect, as Snape had said. "Believe me, Harry, it's not nonsense. It's well-established that mental attitude affects healing. You have injuries that need to heal, both physical and magical. Your depression might well be keeping that from happening.

"Therefore, I suggest we work first on the Patronus Charm, which as you know, requires overwhelmingly joyful memories to propel it. By forcing your mind to dwell on those, we will convince your injuries to begin healing."

That was about the daftest thing Harry had ever heard from Remus, primarily because he knew he wasn't depressed. Sure, his life had been dark lately, but when hadn't it been? From cupboards to Voldemort to friends petrified to friends actually dying to his disaster with Sirius, life just hadn't been a bed of roses. But he'd never been depressed, not like Remus meant. He'd just learned to ignore the awful bits, push them aside, and keep going.

Though it had hurt to push Sirius aside, it really had.

Maybe, Harry thought, he was a little bit depressed, after all. He frowned, not liking that idea. Did he seem depressed to Snape, too?

"It's perfectly normal to be feeling blue, after all you've endured," Remus soothed, his glance on him sad and understanding all at once.

Seeing that glance, Harry felt like a hippogriff whose feathers had been ruffled the wrong way. Or maybe more like a hippogriff that had just been insulted. He didn't need coddling, and what was more, he didn't need Remus thinking that he did. 

On the other hand, he did understand that Remus was just trying to help. For the sake of their friendship, not to mention his magic, Harry decided, he'd concentrate on mastering his lessons, not on pointless arguments about his feelings.

"All right, Patronus Charm," Harry murmured, standing up and assuming the familiar stance. Now for the memory. Something suffused with positive glee, with giddiness unchecked. That magical, perfect moment when he'd believed he'd get to live with Sirius...

Harry flung his arm out, wand held out at an upward angle. "Expecto Patronum!" 

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

By afternoon, Harry had felt happy thoughts until he was quite literally blue in the face. Hours worth of screaming Expecto Patronum, every minute of them riddled with frustration, hadn't exactly improved his mood. 

And for all that effort, he'd not got so much as a silvery hiss from his damned wand.

Well, Harry thought, if he hadn't been depressed before, he certainly was now. He went upstairs to get some sleep, mainly because he didn't want to be nodding off during Occlumency, later. Snape was going to see, this time, that he was taking the skill seriously.

Instead of returning to Sirius' bedroom, he headed into the one he'd shared before with Ron. The beds in there were stripped, but Harry didn't care. He lay down on his uninjured side, and eyes shut, started counting backwards from one thousand. Sometimes that helped him sleep, sometimes not. This time, it did. 

Kreacher was standing on a table, sloshing wine from a fifteenth-century silver goblet bearing the Black family crest as he screeched in rage. Mistress' portrait had been removed, and the tapestry too, by a blood traitor in flowing black robes, the one who came but never stayed. Oh, he'd used Dark Arts to unstick them both, he had, spells and incantations and curses rising through the air, though he wasn't a proper dark wizard at all. Oh yes, Kreacher knew, Kreacher knew, and Kreacher would be revenged, as he'd been revenged on the nasty little master who'd broken Mistress' heart...

Whirling motion, Kreacher spinning round and round, and then the whole room was spinning, then the city itself, until the spinning stopped, and Kreacher was gone, and Number Four Privet Drive came into view. 

Dark energies were lurking under the stairs, then streaming out through cracks in the door to whip around corners and fill the house to overflowing. Dudley was screaming on the lawn, no, no, make it stop, make it stop, but it didn't. The house filled, expanding with the pressure. Windows blew out, and whirling gases flooded forth, blackening Privet Drive and Magnolia Crescent beyond, and through the thick, choking mass of black magic, Harry could see the house, imploding now, withering away to nothing, until it wasn't so much as a speck on a patch of charred and wounded earth. 

And above it all, the Dark Mark hung ominously in the sky.

Gasping, Harry bolted upright and flung a hand to his forehead.

But that was pure reflex; his scar wasn't hurting. Not even in the dream had it been hurting. The dream hadn't come from Voldemort, Harry decided, but from within his own mind. 

Maybe, he reflected, he was a little more depressed than he'd thought.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

The absence of any house-elves had meant that magic practice had to stop so that someone could prepare dinner. Good thing, Harry had decided. Directly after his nap, Remus had set him right back to working on the happiness spell, as Harry had come to think of it. But it hadn't made him happy, now had it? One more failed Patronus Charm and he was liable to strangle somebody. Too bad Kreacher's not around, after all, Harry thought darkly.

He'd never adored cooking, though he'd got fairly good at it. With Remus helping out, though, it wasn't such a chore. Not that salad and a couple of roast chops were much work to begin with.  

Harry couldn't help but notice, however, that Remus refrained from using any magic in his presence. He'd even opened a tin of grapefruit juice by hand, though he clearly didn't know the first thing about using a tin opener. If that wasn't a telling indication of how Remus really felt, Harry didn't know what was.

After the meal was over and the dishes washed, Remus rubbed his hands together and suggested another stab at the Patronus Charm. Harry would sooner puke than face that again so soon, so he said he had to get some letters written before Snape came.

"Professor Snape," Remus had chided, right on cue.

"Yeah," Harry muttered, and fled upstairs to his bedroom, only to find no parchment in there. Sighing, he went along the landing to Sirius' bedroom, and paused outside.

But then he went in, telling himself that Sirius was dead, and no amount of hating the house was going to change that.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Parchment and quill were easily found in a big, old desk in the corner of the room. Unable to resist, Harry quickly searched through all the drawers. He didn't know what he was looking for; he just wanted to look. But someone had been through here before him; there was nothing personal of Sirius' left. Even the quill looked like it had been purchased at Flourish and Blott's just a week or two before.

Sighing, Harry sat down and prepared himself to write. One letter, he thought. Might as well; Ron and Hermione were practically glued together, these days. But he had to be careful how he put things, just in case the letter fell into the wrong hands. Harry chewed on his quill for a while, mulling it over.

 

Dear Ron and Hermione,

I'm fine, but things have got a little complicated and it'll be a while before I can come back to school. I wish I could tell you everything, but I know you'll understand when I say I can't. Remember summer before last, when Dumbledore swore you to secrecy about a bunch of stuff, and you kept your word and didn't tell me, not even in letters? This is sort of the same. I know you'll be every bit as understanding as I was. (Don't remind me now that I screamed and yelled and basically carried on like a spoiled little prat. I'm sure you'll handle it much better than I managed to.)

So, how are classes? It's funny not going to any, but I'm keeping pretty busy. Hey, at least I don't have to go to you-know-which class taught by you-know-who. 

I'll write you again, soon. Speaking of a particular class, though, I have something to tell you. It's going to sound a little strange, but just do what I say, okay? To get a letter to me, you have to roll it up inside an essay and hand it in. Which class, you ask? Hmm, well Ron's acne was a recent topic (Sorry, Ron). Yeah, that class. I've only hated it since the very first day. And while we're at it, I've been told to warn you to not let this letter out of your hands. Really, I'd recommend you burn it and scatter the ashes in the hearth, just in case somebody who shall go nameless but just might be a nasty little ferret at heart, decides to try his hand at a reconstitution spell.

Don't worry about me, okay? I'm doing fine.

Harry

He read the letter through twice more, and decided it would do. 

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Harry was dozing on the couch downstairs. Every so often he would drift awake, and wonder if he should give up and go to bed. After all, Snape hadn't said that he'd come every night.

Two things kept him downstairs, though.

One, he really didn't want to bother making up a bed, or sleep in Sirius', and two, he really did want to see Snape. 

Strange thought, that, Harry mused. But it was true. Remus might think he knew everything about Harry, but it was Snape who had stood by him these past few days. Snape, who'd seen that cupboard but had never let on about it in class. Snape, who'd refrained from making any fun when it turned out that Harry was afraid of needles. But he hadn't been as afraid, had he, not with Snape standing there beside him.

Harry drifted back to sleep, again.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

The noise of someone flooing in woke him, and as he sat up on the couch and fumbled for his glasses, Snape was striding forward, his robes billowing around him as dramatically as ever. Dark and imposing, he looked as though he'd stepped directly from the dungeons into Sirius' house, but of course, he more or less had.

"Hey," Harry greeted him, blinking a bit and rubbing his eyes. "Um, things with my magic didn't go so well today."

"Good evening," Snape replied. "And yes, I know; I've already spoken with Lupin."

Harry remembered Dumbledore saying that Order members had more secure ways of communicating than owls and fireplaces, so that made sense. It brought to mind, though, the letter he'd written. Harry took it from the lampstand by the sofa and standing, went to hand it to Snape. On the outside of the envelope he'd simply scrawled Ron Weasley & Hermione Granger, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Snape took it, but instead of concealing it in his robes, he turned it over twice in his hands, and asked, "May I?"

Harry gulped. "Read it, you mean?"

A dark, sardonic glance said without words that the question had been inane.

"Why do you want to?" Harry asked. "Don't you trust me?"

"Do you have several hours, Mr Potter? I believe it would take at least that amount of time to even begin to define the parameters of my trust as it applies to you."

"You could just say no," Harry pointed out. "Since you obviously don't."

Snape flicked a bit of ash from the shoulders of his robe. "I trust your intentions, I should say. It's to your own advantage to be discreet about your situation. However, I have concerns about the execution of that discretion. And frankly, Mr Potter, I place a far higher value on your life than on your privacy."

"Fine, read it," Harry gave in. He had a sneaking suspicion that if he refused, Snape would read it anyway, most likely in front of him. Harry could do without having his pride trampled quite that much. "But no taking points," he added.

Snape raised an eyebrow as he slit the envelope open with a quick charm from his wand. 

Harry tensed, and held his breath, remembering how he'd written that he'd hated Potions since the very first day. Well, at least he hadn't used the words greasy git or worse, that slimebag hell spit out. 

"Well worded," Snape decided as he crisply folded the letter back in fourths. "You will need to prepare a new envelope. A repair would be invisible, but still detectable if one had suitable spells at one's disposal."

Definitely paranoid, Harry thought, but he found he didn't really mind. He was too relieved that Snape wasn't going to say anything about the contents of the letter.

In that, however, Harry was wrong. As he handed a freshly addressed envelope to Snape, the Potions Master remarked, "I did not realise you understood Reconstitutio, Harry. Did Miss Granger discover the spell during one of her frequent forays into the Restricted Section?"

Harry covered his surprise well, he thought. "Restricted Section? What's that?" he brazenly lied, though of course every student had heard of it within a week of the Welcoming Feast. "And why do you want something on Hermione, Professor?"

"Why do you think?" Snape replied, moving toward the sofa. "She's a Gryffindor. She sent you these, by the way," he added, fishing in his robes for an enormous, tightly curled roll of parchment. "Class notes since the 22nd. The girl needs to learn not to write down every word of every lecture. Notes are supposed to be just that, not bloody transcriptions."

Harry chuckled slightly, not just at Snape's dead-on depiction of Hermione's idea of diligence, but also at the next-to-last word. It didn't seem like the Potions Master of Hogwarts to speak so unreservedly, but then again, Harry was realizing that there was more to Snape than he'd ever suspected. A lot more.

Then another thought occurred to him. "Um, how'd she know that you could pass these on to me? She hasn't got my own letter yet!" And then, on the heels of that thought. "Oh. She figured it out. Well, that's Hermione for you."

"Disgusting amount of intellect for someone her age," Snape scathed, though Harry could tell his heart wasn't really in it. Truth to tell, Snape looked a bit as though he'd found cause to admire Hermione. Reluctantly, though. Very, very reluctantly. Snape was frowning as he sat down and crossed one leg over the other, his long, slender hands taking a moment to arrange his robes.

"I probably revealed too much when I followed you into your... well, I honestly don't know what it was, Mr Potter. Arabian boudoir, perhaps? At any rate, Miss Granger knew then that I was involved in whatever difficulties you were facing. Irritating girl. I was tempted to hex her when she handed me those, not the least because you don't need schoolwork cluttering up your attention, just now."

"Right, Remus and I covered that earlier," Harry agreed, tossing the notes aside as he sat down on the other end of the sofa, sitting sideways so he could see Snape. "We covered a lot of things, actually," Harry added darkly. "Like the fact that he knows about my uncle not being the nicest person ever to grace the earth. Like the fact that famous Harry Potter was terrified to go under the knife! Whatever happened to decorum, eh? To discretion?"

Snape flicked his wand at a lamp to turn it on, then laced his fingers together before he replied. "Did I ask you to apologise for discussing my personal business with your godfather? No, I did not. Nor will I, ever. You had a purpose for speaking with him, a valid purpose. And so too did I with Lupin. I quite assure you, I never once referred to you as 'famous Harry Potter,' though I did tell him all I deemed necessary."

"Necessary!" Harry exclaimed.

"Lupin's quite intent on a theory that mental, physical, and magical states of being are irretrievably interwoven."

"I noticed! Not only does he think I'm a bloody masochist hell-bent on my own destruction, he also believes my bad attitude explains my lack of magic." Harry moved his hands in an outward arc, and shot a glance at his teacher. "He thinks I'm depressed!"

"It would not be abnormal, in your situation." Snape thought to say.

Harry wasn't about to let him skive off that easily, though it didn't surprise him that Snape hadn't gone for the verbal bait. The man knew how to manoeuvre, no doubt about that. But Harry wanted to know, so he asked: "You don't think I'm depressed, do you? I mean, not just today, but lately? In general?"

Snape tapped his index finger against his cheek, and looked at Harry as he considered that. "You wrote your friends that you were fine. I think you believe this, yourself. But that does not necessarily make it true."

As answers went, that one was about as ambiguous as they came, but Harry let it go. "How were your classes?" he changed the subject. "Dumbledore covered for you, er, pretended to be you while you were with me all last week?"

Snape stared at him a moment more, then drawled, "He taught every level first through sixth to reduce fruit sugars down to lemon drops."

Harry almost laughed --the image was ludicrous-- but instead felt a cold, hard rage gripping him, rushing up from his core to spill out his fingertips. "That fool!" he shouted, fury ripping through him so fiercely it hurt. "What's he playing at? Nobody would believe for an instant that you would let us make candy in class! The whole school's got to know by now that it was Dumbledore on Polyjuice, so that leaves them knowing that I'm gone while you're gone, and two and two makes four, doesn't it, last time I checked! Hermione's not so effing smart after all, is she--"

"Harry, Harry!" Snape was shouting over his outburst. "I was joking, Harry."

Harry stopped yelling and gave his teacher a long stare. "You don't joke."

"Well, I certainly won't in future," Snape retorted. "You seem... tense, which isn't going to help with Occlumency. I thought a little humour might help relax you. Instead, you snapped like an old wand. And please, keep a civil tongue in your head. Albus Dumbledore is not a fool."

Harry thought of last year, of secrets kept from him too long, of the price he'd paid simply because the headmaster had ignored him, and kept his lips firmly pressed together.

"Perhaps we should commence what I came here, for," Snape suggested, his voice markedly calmer. "It is late already, and I cannot stay all night. Have you practiced clearing your mind?"

"No, because I don't know how!" Now Harry's hands were drumming against his knees. "What am I supposed to do, just think of nothing? How can anybody who's alive sit around and think of nothing?"

"That's not precisely what clearing your mind entails," Snape explained. "I spent a while today, thinking about your comments regarding last year's lessons, and doing some research. It is true that I was impatient for you to learn. I felt it most imperative that you exclude the Dark Lord from your mind at the earliest possible instant, and so I rushed you." He stopped, looking pained. "You said after your operation that no-one but Lupin had ever tutored you, which of course is not true, as I had also. But that you could believe that gave me food for thought, Harry. Last year, I resented your presence being foisted on me. I had no... understanding of you, not then. I thought of you as James, in fact. Your abominable behaviour, not practicing, not respecting my privacy, did not help."

"Right," Harry agreed, his hands coming to a halt atop his thighs. "I never said I'd been the perfect student."

"But more fundamental, perhaps, is this," his professor continued, his gaze like storm clouds held at bay by force of will. "Occlumency for me came as naturally as breathing. I have an innate facility for it, which is just as well, considering how often I must be in the Dark Lord's presence. Frankly, I expected you to be the same."

"Because I could produce a Patronus at thirteen?"

"I suppose that might have played a part; I did know you were a strong wizard. But mainly, Harry, I expected so much of you because it is difficult for me to imagine Occlumency being any sort of a challenge. Potions are the same. They make inherent sense to me."

"Well, they don't to me, or to Neville, or to Dean, or to pretty much anyone in sixth year except Malfoy and Hermione, you know."

"I am beginning to see," Snape obscurely answered. "At any rate, as concerns Occlumency, I have today consulted some texts by leading authorities. Teaching texts, Harry. We will not begin as we did last year. I see now that I was demanding you fly before you had even learned to crawl."

"So how do I learn to crawl?"

"By trusting me," Snape simply answered. "To teach you, I will have to be in your mind."

Harry's tongue felt thick in his throat. "Legilimency, again?"

"No, not that. I will not wring memories from you as before. It is more a case of sharing thoughts and working toward a common goal. But Harry, I cannot do this for you unless you let me. Hence the need for trust."

"Do you have several hours?" Harry weakly joked, then added, "No, that was stupid. I don't think you're going to--"

"Invade your mind for the purpose of opening it to the Dark Lord?"

Harry winced. "Geez, Dumbledore does tell you everything, I guess. No, I don't think that any longer. I remember the headmaster saying he trusted you, and I remember thinking what utter rot that was, and how I'd rather fling myself into a cellar stuffed with Devil's Snare than trust the likes of you, but... yeah, okay. I've grown up since then, I guess."

"You have," Snape confirmed. Drawing forth his wand once more, he waved it in a swirling motion and conjured two glasses filled with an amber liquid and clinking cubes of ice. One glass bobbed its way through the air over to Harry, and settled in his hand. When Harry sniffed it, he wrinkled his nose. 

"It's very fine whiskey," Snape insisted. "Single malt."

"Not firewhiskey?"

"That has magical properties, so for now, you'd better drink the Muggle kind." He lifted his glass. "Cheers."

Harry sipped at it, made a face, and sipped a little more. "What are we celebrating?"

"We are relaxing," Snape explained. "Relaxation is conducive to the rest of the process. So drink your whiskey, Harry."

"You say that in the same tone Mrs Weasley says, 'Drink your pumpkin juice.'"

"Well, she cares for you too, I should imagine," Snape gruffly commented. 

Without looking at Harry, then, he tilted his head back and downed his entire drink.

Chapter Text

"I do believe that's quite enough whiskey for now," Snape announced, leaning forward to pluck Harry's glass from his fingers. "We want you relaxed, not falling down drunk."

Harry giggled a little bit. "I only had one and a haff. No, two."

Snape pointed his wand at the hearth and set the fire alight with a quick Incendio, then seated himself cross-legged on the floor near the flames, gesturing for Harry to join him. When Harry sat down facing him, Snape indicated with a whirling motion of his fingers that the boy should spin around and scoot back.

"Is this comfortable for your hip?"

Harry had a feeling it wasn't, really, but everything had such a pleasant haze to it, after the whiskey, that he really wasn't too aware of it. He yawned a bit. "S'all right."

"Good. Now, lean back. Rest your weight on your palms if you like. I need to touch your temples."

After Harry had done as he was told, he felt cool fingertips sifting through his hair to massage both sides of his scalp. The feel of it seemed to revive him from the lull of the whiskey. Imagining the picture the two of them must make, he couldn't help but giggle again.

"Hmm?"

"Um, I was just thinking it's a good thing you didn't try this technique last year," Harry admitted. "I'm sure I'd have tried to hex you, and things would have gone from bad to worse. Though, I don't see how they could have got any worse in the end, actually."

"You're thinking of the pensieve?"

"No," Harry admitted. He'd been thinking of Sirius. "Did you use the pensieve before you came?"

"No, Harry," Snape's voice came across, a lazy drawl as his fingers continued to massage Harry's temples. "This won't be like that battle last year, when I would snatch your memories and feared you might do the same to me. This will be... harmonious. Now, stay relaxed. Lean back more if you like; you won't knock me over."

Harry let a little more of his weight fall onto his palms.

"Good," Snape soothed. "We're going to work on clearing your mind, Harry. It doesn't mean to think of nothing, not the way you took it to mean. It means to focus on one thing until it fills your whole mind, until there is no thought left, just an image that consumes you utterly. When done well, you'll cease to be aware even of the image, so completely will it block all thought."

"Uh-huh," Harry mumbled. He was losing himself in sensation, in the steady drone of his teacher's voice, and past all that, it was hard to concentrate. He shook his head a bit, trying to clear it, and Snape's fingers tightened on his temples.

"You were doing fine before," he said. "Relax, again."

But Harry couldn't. "You're practically putting me to sleep," he complained. "And I won't be able to follow your instructions."

"Stop tensing. You're doing fine, I said." With a slight oath, Snape stretched his legs out on either side of the boy, and pulled him fast against his chest. "Feel my breathing," he urged. "Match yours to mine. This is like hypnosis, Harry, have you heard of that? You don't need to concentrate on keeping your mind clear. You need to let go of thought and let me guide you to an image."

Harry pulled in a breath when Snape did, and as he let it out, those fingers returned to smooth up and down across his temple. Snape kept speaking, his voice low and calm, and Harry found that every time he exhaled, he leaned more against his teacher, until he felt boneless. It was a feeling he hadn't liked when Lockhart had caused it, but now, it was actually pleasant.

"All right," Snape murmured. "Now don't try to think, Harry, don't try to feel, or remember, or react. Just let yourself go, let yourself just be. Yes, that's it, melt into me. I'm going to enter your mind, now, but don't be alarmed."

On one side of Harry's head, those fingers still caressed him, but on the other, they were replaced by the hard tip of Snape's wand.

Incantations filled the air, breathy whispers that Harry thought he could have understood, had he really listened. They drifted all around him, twirling themselves against his neck and face, and then it seemed he breathed them in through his nostrils, and he felt an otherness, a presence, alongside him in his mind.

It wasn't like being possessed by Voldemort, or being under Imperio. He was still there too, and in control, but the wispy otherness was there with him. Snape, he was slow to recognise. Snape, waiting patiently for Harry to let him enter further.

Harry slumped, leaning completely against his teacher, and let his teacher fill his mind.

Rivers flowed through him, wide rivers such as never could exist outside the realm of dreams. Then, just one river, widening as he watched, until it filled the entire landscape of thought. He saw it from above, until the waters rose in incandescent glory to engulf him. Submerged, surrounded on six sides, he felt the current, felt the coolness, felt the lull of the waves.

And then the tableau before him underwent a change, for he was no longer in the water, feeling and seeing it; he had become the water itself, and there was nothing in all existence save that great river. No Harry any longer, and with him, no memories. Just a huge rush of water that filled the universe to overflowing, baptizing all creation in a realm of purest being.

Coming out of it all at once was rather like being dunked in the river he had just been visualizing, it was such a shock. Harry gasped, and tensed against Snape, but his teacher's arm held him fast until his breathing had slowed to something approaching normal. Then Harry levered himself up, and swivelled his head to look at Snape.

"That was... well, bloody magnificent, I think."

Snape nodded, his eyes half-closed, his body mired in lines of exhaustion.

"Is that what Occlumency is supposed to be like? I thought I was supposed to turn off my emotions, or something."

"No wonder you did so poorly, last year," Snape wearily replied.

Harry felt like he'd just caught the snitch; it was that same sensation of triumph and excitement, the same surge of adrenaline filling his veins. "Last year, why didn't you tell me it was about... I don't know, non-existence instead of stoicism?"

A long, painful sigh greeted the question. "Don't you understand? It's not even a learned skill for me, Harry. It's a birth power. I just needed to be pointed towards it, really, and the one who taught me was... rather harsh in his methods."

"Oh," Harry said, thinking that over. What Snape had told him before the session was coming back, and making more sense than it had then, even through the drink and the rush of sensation that was Occlumency. Snape had taught Harry the only way he'd known, the way he himself had been taught. But it hadn't worked well, had it, because for Harry this wasn't a birth power. "Hmm, I guess Occlumency is for you a bit like what Parseltongue is for me," he murmured. "Though that's not strictly a birth power, I don't think. But still, I've never had to work at it. It just is."

Snape just gave a groan in reply to all that.

Feeling a bit of a jerk that he'd only thought of himself up until then, Harry turned around more and took a good look at his teacher. "That was kind of hard on you, I guess. I'm sorry. Is it that terrible being inside my mind?"

"The questions you ask," Snape roused himself to murmur, frowning as he crossed his legs again and bent low over them. "It's as if all those years listening to your uncle speak of normal people have convinced you that you aren't one. It's no more terrible being in your mind than anyone else's, Harry. Directing thoughts can be exhausting, that is all."

"Anyone else doesn't have Voldemort lurking around in his mind."

"Not true, although no one else has quite your scar, certainly. At any rate, the Dark Lord wasn't in there tonight. I think that eliminating Kreacher from your house has helped considerably to strengthen the protections charmed onto the structure."

Something about Snape's wording caught Harry's attention. Come to think of it, he'd heard that phrase earlier, too. Your house. He wanted to ask about it, but first things first. "You... um, you don't look so good, Professor. Is there anything you need? A glass of water, maybe, or more whiskey?"

Snape pushed himself off the floor, stumbled slightly, and collapsed into a thickly upholstered, if tattered, arm chair. "Just talk," he said, the request strange in Harry's ears.

"Talk?"

"Yes, is that too complex a concept for you to follow?" When Harry recoiled slightly at his tone, Snape sighed, tipped his head back against the cushions, and explained, "I could Floo back now, though it wouldn't be wise when so debilitated, but neither should I fall asleep here. So talk with me, Harry. Keep me awake until I feel... more myself."

"Uh, okay, sure," Harry replied, flopping full length onto the couch and plumping up his cushions to hold his head up enough to see Snape. "So, how long since you have slept, Professor?"

Snape gave a low, harsh chuckle. "A while. That's not your worry."

Hmm, not exactly a fruitful avenue for conversation. Well, Snape had mentioned that the house was safer for Harry now that that evil excuse for a house-elf was dead, and Harry had been meaning to ask, so he went ahead. "Okay... what happened to Kreacher?"

At that, Snape opened one eye and stared rather fixedly at Harry as though determining how much to divulge. A long moment passed, and then another, until finally Snape said three words Harry wasn't expecting:

"I killed him."

"You. Killed. Him," Harry slowly goggled, his mind feeling like it was playing leapfrog with itself. "Um, because of what he did to Sirius?"

"That certainly made it easier to kill him," Snape admitted, his voice absolutely flat. Harry got the feeling that the Potions Master didn't give a fig that he'd killed a house-elf. Not that Harry had any love lost for Kreacher; he probably would have killed him himself, given half a chance. He was frankly shocked that Snape had done so, though. It wasn't like Snape had gone into mourning over Sirius, now was it?

But Snape confounded him once again, by detailing, still in that level, emotionless tone, "I know what you think, Harry, but I didn't want Black dead. I did once, I won't deny it, but at the time I did honestly believe him responsible for both your parents' deaths and a massacre of Muggles. It took a while for me to rethink all that and understand it had been Pettigrew all along. After that, everything you saw pass between us... it was just the old antagonism still festering. But he was fighting the Dark Lord as he could, as was I. I shouldn't have still been jeering at him for wounds inflicted over twenty years earlier. I'm not proud of it."

"That's what he said," Harry recalled, rolling onto his side and propping his head up on an arm. "About how he and James treated you. I'm not proud of it."

Snape raised his knees to sit sideways in the chair, letting it cradle him.

"But Kreacher," Harry pressed. "Why did you kill him, if it wasn't for Sirius?"

"Many reasons," Snape sighed, curling his body a bit more. "He betrayed his master last year; he couldn't be trusted. He'd already shown an affinity for dark wizards, and for the Malfoys in particular. To give him clothes would send him straight to them, and though he couldn't betray the location of this house, he could give out information the Order needs to keep quiet. Freeing him was out of the question, but so was keeping him underfoot, once you were here. How could I know he wouldn't leave this house again, this time telling tales of Harry Potter having lost his magic?"

"Once I was here," Harry repeated. "Wait. Just when did you kill him?"

"About an hour before you woke up this morning."

Harry blew out a breath. "Couldn't you have waited for me?"

"So you could strangle him?" Snape questioned in an odd tone. "I thought you might want to, but it's not an impulse I would encourage. Besides, it takes magic to kill a house-elf; they do have rather formidable defences, not to mention the capacity to survive quite a lot of punishment."

Harry thought of Dobby beating his head against the wall, and winced.

"It takes Dark Arts," Snape added.

Harry gave a startled laugh. "You used Dark Arts in the house? Today?"

"Yesterday, to be precise."

"I thought you wanted the place free of taints," Harry admitted, confused. "You know, so that Voldemort can't reach me through my scar."

"Sometimes only evil vanquishes evil, Harry," his teacher explained. "I'd already used Dark Arts to unstick that infernal portrait and tapestry from the walls. Kreacher wasn't pleased, though I don't think he realised that he was next. And then, once I'd dealt with him, Lupin and I cleansed the house of dark magic, which is no simple matter, I assure you. He's a better Defence teacher than I gave him credit for, I think. We finished the respelling shortly before you woke up. Hmm, it occurs to me to wonder if that was a coincidence, or part of the reason you did wake up."

"Kreacher was standing on the kitchen table guzzling wine out of Sirius' silver goblet!" Harry exclaimed, his dream snapping into vivid focus in his mind.

"And how, exactly, would you know that?" came a soft question from Snape's tensed lips.

Harry tensed, too. "Um, I dreamed it, just this afternoon."

"You dreamed it," Snape repeated, all scepticism.

"Well, how else would I know? I mean, is it true?"

"It's true, and you would know if Lupin told you."

"Well, he didn't!" Harry retorted. "If you think I'm such a liar, then ask him."

"Harry, it's just that I've seen your Divination marks. You're not exactly a seer. But if you say you dreamed it, then you did, all right?" Snape uncurled and sat up straighter. "Well, at least this goes to show that Marjygold missed something. Your magic isn't completely gone, not if you're divining things while you sleep. What else did you dream?"

"It's a good thing you killed the little shite; he was making plans to get you, in between congratulating himself for what he did to Sirius," Harry recalled out loud. "Oh, and I also dreamed that the Dursley's house spit black energy out all the windows and sort of... collapsed in on itself while Dudley screamed on the lawn. Oh yeah, and the Dark Mark was in the sky."

Snape sat bolt upright and stared at him, then surged to his feet. "You didn't think to mention this to Lupin? You didn't think to tell me straight away that in this house I thought I'd made safe for you, you had a dream from Voldemort this very day? The very first day?" Snape took him by the shoulders, as he had that morning, but this time, he shook him roughly and bellowed, "I need to know these things, Harry!"

Harry jerked his face backwards as far as he could, reflex taking over as he arched out of Snape's grip and slid to the floor. Once free, he jumped up and backed warily away, prudence and experience taking him far out of striking range.

"Dear Merlin," Snape breathed, his expression aghast as he pushed up from the couch himself, and saw Harry's distrustful stance. Then, in tones of self-reproach, he whispered, "I wasn't going to hit you, child."

"I know," Harry whispered back, feeling about as awful as Snape looked. "I mean, I do know that, Professor. I mean, if you didn't beat me to a pulp for looking in your pensieve--"

Snape shook his head. "I should never have told you about Kreacher."

"No, it's not that!" Harry exclaimed, shocked, taking a step forward when it seemed that Snape was unable to move towards him. "I'm not afraid of you, Professor. Getting away is just instinctual, that's all. Bit stupid, really. I know you aren't my uncle, okay? Don't make it out like I compare you to him, 'cause I don't, I swear."

"You did," Snape softly pointed out. "You said that we were quite alike."

"You both belittle people," Harry tried to explain. How had he ever said a thing like that to Snape? The truth was, both men knew how to be unpleasant as hell, but the reasons for the behaviour were night and day. "But with you, it's just some dark sarcastic humour thing going on, do you think I don't know that? Or else it's absolute and genuine. I mean, when you scream at someone who's just had a cauldron explode, you're actually angry, I think, and eager to inspire a little well-placed fear so stupid mistakes won't happen again. Though I do think you could get your point across more effectively if you left us some pride," he had to add. "But with Uncle Vernon, it's just... well, it's sadism, basically. He likes to see me cower."

Harry took a bracing breath and looked Snape in the eyes. "The fact is, when he got really, really angry, he used to shake me by the shoulders like that, and I learned I was better off getting away than staying put to be slapped."

"Muggles," Snape breathed in disgust, shaking his head.

"Don't blame it on that," Harry corrected him. "I've seen Lucius Malfoy with Dobby. Er, he's a house-elf. Anyway, Malfoy was much worse to him than Uncle Vernon's ever been to me. Wizards can be just as bad as Muggles. Worse, if you take into account the kinds of curses we can throw."

"True," Snape admitted, sighing deeply. "It occurs to me to wonder why you haven't asked someone to check on your family, after a dream like that."

Harry widened his eyes. "Same reason I didn't mention it to you sooner. I knew the dream wasn't from Voldemort; my scar didn't even twinge."

"If it does, tell me, or Lupin, at once."

"I thought I was just mad at them," Harry admitted, wincing. "It never even dawned on me to think... But if the thing about Kreacher was true? Do you think...?"

"No," Snape announced, his tones short. "If an attack upon your house had been carried out, or even contemplated, I would know."

"Can we have a firechat with Mrs. Figg, just to be sure?"

"Not at this hour in the morning."

"But--"

"Trust me, Harry. Nothing has happened on Privet Drive. If you still feel unsettled about it later, have Lupin talk to Mrs. Figg through the Floo Network. In no case are you to speak to her yourself."

"Yes, sir," Harry murmured, recognizing the value in that advice. It was probably also why Snape didn't want to deal with the situation; the fewer people who knew he was involved with Harry, the better. "Will you at least tell me what you did to Uncle Vernon in the cemetery? I mean, is he all right? I've been meaning to ask," Harry added, feeling more than a little guilty that he hadn't done so sooner.

"I frankly fail to see why you would care," Snape drawled.

Harry actually had to think about that one; it came to him that he'd asked more out of a sense of right than any heart-wrenching interest in the matter. "Hmm. Well, you're right. Part of me doesn't care, but then there is Dudley to think of. Not that there's much love lost between us, but he really was decent during that last visit. He even warned me not to go to the funeral. And he's just lost his mum, see? He hardly needs to lose his dad, too, even if Uncle Vernon is a right git."

Snape pondered that for a moment, before volunteering, "I used Troneo-Relampagare to knock him unconscious, that's all. A thunder-lightning blast. I imagine he was up and on his feet within five minutes of my Apparating you to here. No doubt he was still screaming abuse."

"Yeah, no doubt," Harry murmured. He'd never had a decent dad. He used to wish for one, before he'd met Sirius. After fate had snatched away all chance of living with his godfather, though, he'd more or less come to accept that there were some things he'd never have.

"I think I'm able to floo, now," the Potions Master continued. Funny how he could keep his face in shadows when it suited him, Harry thought. The lighting didn't seem to matter. He wasn't sure how Snape managed it.

Harry nodded his understanding. "All right. Thank you, Professor."

Snape halted on his way toward the hearth. "I told you not to thank me."

"Yeah, but I have to," Harry started to explain.

"Tell Miss Granger you have a thanking-people thing too, will you?" Snape snapped. Clearly, the man was at the end of some sort of tether. "I will not stand for this idiocy, Potter, is that clear? You will get Occlumency lessons, and whatever else is deemed necessary, because you need them to survive what is apparently to be your lot in life. I would prefer you not die and plunge the Wizarding world into an era of endless dark. No thanks are necessary."

With that, the Potions Master snatched a handful of grey powder from the mantle.

Harry thought about just shutting up, but the truth was, he didn't want to. "I wasn't thanking you for the bloody Occlumency," he called across the room, with some difficulty refraining from adding on a phrase like you great git.

Surprisingly enough, Snape went for the bait. "Oh, do enlighten me," he sneered.

"You treat me like I'm normal, not like I need to be pitied, or worshipped, or hated and feared," Harry announced, standing his ground against a glare from a pair of very, very black eyes. "And you may not believe it, but you're the only adult who does. Ye gads, even Remus today oozed with compassion until it made me ill. But you? You're not afraid to use your magic in front of me just because right now I have none. You don't think I'll break down over it. You don't think I'm weak."

Floo powder fell through Snape's fingers as he flexed them. "I don't," he confirmed. "But Harry, sooner or later, everyone breaks down over something."

Well, that gave Harry some food for thought, but he didn't have time to ponder it then, because Snape wasn't through talking. Just before he flung the Floo powder down and yelled out a destination in the Hogwarts dungeons, he added one more thing.

"And Harry? You are welcome."

With that, he was gone in a shimmering flash of green fire.

Chapter Text

"Snape doesn't think I've lost all my magic," Harry announced over scrambled eggs on toast the next morning.

Remus paused as he lifted his teacup to his mouth. "The Occlumency went that well?"

"It was ok, yeah," Harry acknowledged. "Turns out Snape does know how to teach, when he really wants to."

He waited for the expected Professor Snape, Harry, which came right on cue, but managed not to snort in derision. Remus didn't deserve that, though Harry was coming to realise that he much preferred Snape's entire attitude towards him. Snape didn't feel sorry for him, and he certainly didn't try to make him say Professor Dumbledore. He'd even given up on making Harry call Voldemort that asinine title, the Dark Lord.

"Anyway," Harry continued, finishing up his breakfast, "the magic thing is more due to a dream I had night before last. There was a part about Kreacher, how he was standing here on this table toasting Sirius' death, and also a part about Dudley's house sort of... crushing in on itself while the Dark Mark floated overhead. Snape said the Kreacher part was true, but not the other, but he said I could ask you to firechat with Mrs. Figg this morning, just to be sure?"

"I'd be happy to," Remus responded, pushing back from the table. "Straight away?"

"Please."

Harry hid in the corridor just off the parlour while Remus confirmed that Number Four Privet Drive was still standing and had experienced no strange phenomena. At one point he thought to hiss, "Wait, wait! Tell her to get me a mobile, okay?" But Remus couldn't hear him; technically, his ears were all the way in Surrey.

Harry sighed the minute Remus pulled out. "I meant to tell you to have her get me a mobile. You know, so I can call home and check whenever I want, so we won't have to bother her in case I get another dream like that."

"Are you expecting more dreams like that?" Remus asked, rubbing the side of his head.

"No... I don't know. Maybe. Er, if it's a bother to ask Mrs. Figg, maybe you could go out for a bit and get one? I have some Muggle money Snape lent me. I think I could still find it--"

"Absolutely not," Remus flatly refused. "I'm not leaving you alone in this house."

"Why not? It's cleansed of dark magic, now. Snape said you were actually a fair hand at Defence, did you know that?"

Professor Snape, Harry...

Remus, as it turned out, wasn't so easy to manoeuvre, if that's what Harry had in fact been doing with that bit of flattery. He wasn't actually sure, himself. Then again, the whole phone thing had been worked out ahead of time; Harry just didn't know as much. "Here," Remus said, opening a drawer in the parlour. He handed over a phone Harry had seen before, the slim silver one he'd used while at St. Mungo's. "Severus said you might want it."

For just a moment, Harry wondered where Snape had got the phone. And too, he wasn't quite sure how things worked with mobile phones, but wasn't somebody getting a bill for the calls, the way the Dursleys would get bills for their house phone? Hmm. He wondered if he should mention that to Snape, offer to pay with some of his Gringotts' gold, something like that? On the other hand, Harry didn't know how many calls he could make before the phone's batteries would go dead, so maybe the whole thing was a moot point.

One ring, two... Harry waited until ten had passed. Obviously, Uncle Vernon and Dudley weren't there. Not that Harry knew what to say, in any case. He felt sort of tongue-tied, probably because he couldn't recall a time he'd called home, except for that once to find out about the funeral. And that hadn't gone so well, had it?

It wasn't lost on Harry that Remus had sat down in Snape's armchair from last night, and was just watching him make his call. Harry had an ugly, squicky sort of feeling that even if he'd connected, Remus would have remained there, listening to every word.

It was hard for Harry to believe; mind boggling, in fact, but the truth was staring him in the face. Literally.

Severus Snape had more decorum, and respect for Harry, than Remus Lupin.

At least Snape had asked permission to read that letter the night before. Of course Harry had his suspicions about what might have happened had he refused, but still, Snape had done him the courtesy of asking. Even if he hadn't meant it as much as he should have, it still counted for something.

Whereas Remus was still sitting there, apparently unaware that a young man of sixteen violently estranged from his only family just might want a bit of privacy for his phone call home!

Harry turned the phone off and thrust it in his pocket, deciding that he'd try again later, and that he'd do it away from prying eyes... and ears. Of course, being as Remus was a werewolf, and Harry had long suspected he had unusually good hearing, that might take some doing. Still, Grimmauld Place was a big house. He'd find a quiet spot in which to talk. Somewhere.

That reminded him.

"Snape keeps saying this is my house," Harry volunteered as he jumped to his feet. "Is that just a turn of phrase, seeing as I'm staying here for who knows how long?"

Remus looked surprised. "No, it is your house, Harry. Sirius left you everything he had, right down to the socks in his drawers. You didn't know?"

"There were no socks in his drawers," Harry remembered bleakly.

"True. While Severus was dealing with the portrait and the tapestry --Merlin, you have no idea what he had to go through to unstick those monstrosities-- I cleared out Sirius' bedroom for you."

"What on earth for?"

"Well, they were reminders--"

"Yeah, reminders I might have liked, you great lout!" Harry exclaimed. He suddenly had a strong urge to hit someone, most likely Remus; his wand hand actually began itching as though it wanted to throw a violent curse. Thinking that might prove useful, he ran upstairs for his wand, nursing his fury all the way, and then took the stairs three at a time on the way back down, his right arm extended as with a rapid spiral movement he hurled "Rompere!" at Remus.

Or rather, at Remus' reflection in a mirror; Harry wasn't really going to hex Remus, even if he was mad enough to do it.

In the end, though, it didn't matter. The mirror didn't so much as waver under the curse, let alone crack clean through.

Frustrated, Harry yanked off one of his trainers and threw that at the mirror, which still didn't break. "Oh, yeah?" he shouted, thinking that he'd had about enough of this. The next item to go sailing through the air was a small bronze statuette.

Remus flinched when the mirror shattered into a thousand pieces. "Harry..."

Turning toward the voice, Harry gave a sheepish smile. "Um, I'm not as out of control as it probably seems. The shoe was pure anger, I'll admit. But then I wondered if the damned mirror had been spelled unbreakable, if that was why my hex failed." He shrugged. "There goes that theory. By the way, though, don't toss out anything else that belonged to Sirius. It really wasn't your place."

"Nothing's been taken from the house except the two things Severus removed," Remus soothed. To Harry, even the tone implied an insult. "Everything else was boxed and put down in the cellar."

His cellar, Harry thought, the phrase itself rather unnerving. He really owned the house, the whole house? "Why didn't anybody tell me all this was mine? Snape seemed to think I knew already."

"Professor Snape, Harry. As to the other, I don't know. Albus should have let you know, as he was appointed executor. Maybe it has to do with the way Sirius died, the circumstances somewhat nebulous."

Maybe it has to do with Dumbledore treating me like I'm still an eleven-year-old he can manipulate, Harry thought, his wand hand itching again. This time, he didn't bother trying to curse anything. Maybe it has to do with last summer. Dumbledore knows I'd rather have come here than gone to Privet Drive, but instead of laying out my options, he made out I had no choice. He didn't trust me to understand the wards, or to realise that my interests would best be served by keeping my mother's blood sacrifice in force. I wonder what else he knows but hasn't told me.

"Is there anything besides the house I should know about?" Harry's voice rang with echoes of dark thoughts. "From Sirius?"

"His Gringotts' vault is yours as well," Remus offered, wincing slightly. "And the Blacks were like the Potters, Harry. More wizard gold than the rest of us actually think decent."

Touch of jealousy, there, Harry thought. "I suppose Dumbledore has the key?"

"Professor Dumbledore, Harry," Remus said, though he nodded.

A sudden thought seized Harry's mind, something he really should have thought of before. Remus had said in his letter that Snape was "graciously providing" the Wolfsbane potion, but that phrase might have more to do with Remus' innate civility than with the stark truth. "Is there anything you need?" Harry thought to ask. "I mean..." He didn't want to offend, after all, but he did want to offer. "Um, maybe a lifetime supply of your Potion?"

"It doesn't keep," Remus said, a slight smile curving his lips. "Though you're right; it is quite expensive. As long as Severus and I work together in the Order, I think he will continue to supply me. But I do thank you, Harry."

"It's nothing," Harry answered, and meant it.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Remus kept Harry busy until nightfall not only with more failed Patronus charms, but with a whole host of ego-shattering experiences. Not that Remus had intended as much, Harry knew. That, and that alone was about all that had kept him from actually yelling at his former Defence teacher.

In a way, it was ridiculous. Just how many times did Remus have to see him stumble, before he concluded that this spell or that just wasn't going to work? Not that Harry thought his magic was gone for good; he'd believed Snape's comments about his dream. He just thought, by then, that Remus' methods weren't going to yield anything of use.

He'd dreamed again, that afternoon, though until he checked with someone, he wouldn't be able to say if these latest dreams were in any sense prophetic. Again, the dream had seemed to have two distinct parts separated by a sensation of mad whirling. This time, though, nothing in the dream had seemed particularly alarming. He'd seen Snape and Remus in Dumbledore's office, exchanging mild pleasantries for a few moments; Remus had looked absolutely awful. Ashen-faced, weak, trembling, his eyes a bleary red, but he'd sat there, polite as you please, and answered, Why yes, Severus, Lucinda is quite well. And Snape had smiled and nodded, rising from his chair, a murmured If I may? crossing his lips before a small stroke of his wand had severed a few strands of Remus' hair.

Then the dream had spun round in faster and faster circles, Dumbledore's office vanishing into a rush of swirling colour, and Harry saw a forest scene, an empty glade, tree branches shifting as a slight breeze picked up. The woods were peaceful and dark, late at night. Abandoned. But something was coming, someone was coming...

Harry woke up before anyone or anything arrived.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Remus had offered to help him in the cellar, but Harry made it pretty clear that he wanted to be alone. He had more than one reason for that. This time, after he flipped open the mobile and dialled, Uncle Vernon picked up. Harry opened his mouth to speak, but in the end, he didn't say a word. He'd wanted to talk to Dudley, but when it came right down to it, he found he didn't have the nerve to so much as ask for him.

You've faced down the Dark Lord with far less anxiety than you display before your relatives, Harry remembered Snape saying.

Disgusted with himself, Harry vowed that next time Vernon Dursley answered, he'd face him down, too.

The phone call out of the way for the moment, Harry quickly found the boxes piled high with Sirius' things. Clothes filled most of one largish box. Several smaller ones held personal items, among them titleless leather-bound books spelled to stay shut. Curious, Harry laid those aside and kept diving through the boxes.

He found an old wand, probably one Sirius had outgrown, and tried a few failed spells with it.

Last, at the very bottom of a box, he found a small mirror, the companion to his own. Harry clutched it, moaning, experiencing again the awful feelings he'd suffered when he'd found his mirror after Sirius' death. It wasn't just grief that he'd never be able to talk to his godfather in the mirror, it was a horrible, gut-wrenching sense of guilt. Damn it, he'd had a way to contact Sirius, a way Kreacher's machinations wouldn't have been able to confound. He'd had a way all along, and he hadn't known. If only he had opened the package Sirius had given him! If he had, Sirius would be alive today. Harry would have known not to go on that wild-goose chase to the Department of Mysteries, if only he'd known at the time about the mirror.

Stupid, stupid! Irredeemably, unforgivably stupid!

Harry sat down hard on the ground, bent low over the mirror, and sobbed.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Harry didn't know how much time had passed, but eventually, his tears trickled to a halt. He sat cross-legged, staring at the walls, which were lit only by a dim glow spelled to go on whenever anyone was present in the cellar. The mirror still lay cradled on his lap, unresponsive and dead. Like Sirius.

Pain gripped his heart anew, but he had no more tears to shed. Somewhere deep inside of him, he felt cold. Freezing, to the very core, the bite of frost so fierce it felt like it was cleaving him.

A slight noise caught at the edge of his consciousness. Mired in grief, Harry didn't register it until it repeated itself at irregular intervals. Then he looked up, and saw a tiny snake slithering forward by slight degrees. Pure maroon, yet with a golden iridescence shimmering as it moved, the snake drew closer, and raised its head, flickering its tongue at him.

Harry blinked, remembering the python at the zoo. This snake, though no longer than his own arm, regarded him with the same curious, somewhat somber expression. It certainly didn't call to mind the more frightening snakes he'd encountered, such as Nagini and the Basilisk.

"Well, hallo there, little fellow," he said by way of greeting, wiping slightly at his eyes.

He didn't know he'd spoken in Parseltongue, which sounded just like English to his own ears, until the snake replied in a hiss which Harry understood completely. How could he not? It sounded like English to him.

"You have been here a long time, man-boy."

Harry sat up a little straighter, and set the mirror aside. "Yes. And you? Do you live down here?"

"There are mice here," the snake replied, slithering forward again, stopping just shy of Harry's knee.

Harry patted his leg, inviting the snake to climb, but it continued to just regard him thoughtfully. "My name is Harry, not man-boy," he offered. "Do you have a name?"

The snake shook its head back and forth in confusion.

Well, that could wait a bit, Harry thought. "Do you like it here?"

"Cold. But there are mice here. I eat, then I climb."

Harry glanced toward the cellar stairs, and understood. "Have you eaten enough for now? I will climb, now, and take you up to warmth, if you like."

At that, the snake nodded, winding itself around the wrist Harry held out.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Upstairs, Harry lit a fire in the parlour, and throwing some cushions down in front of it, relaxed on the floor. The snake slithered down his arm to the floor, and settled itself in coils on the rug, its head propped up on itself.

"Why do your eyesss drop rain?" it asked, and Harry supposed that as snakes couldn't cry, Parseltongue probably didn't have a word for tears.

"I was upssset," Harry answered in tones that would sound like hissing noises to anyone save himself.

The snake nodded slightly. "Are you ssstill?"

"Yeah, think ssso."

They sat in silence for a few moments, the quiet punctuated only the crackling of fire in the grate. "So warm," the snake finally said. "But it is not the sssame for you, man-boy? You feel warm, but you are still up-sset?"

"Call me Harry," Harry explained again. "But yeah, being warm doesn't really change anything for me."

The snake crawled onto his lap and settled on his thigh. "Becaussse Harry is warm at all timesss."

"Yeah, maybe ssso."

His thigh itched a bit as the snake wriggled a bit. "Then what up-ssets Harry?"

Harry couldn't help but smile a bit. Was he really going to sit here and pour out his troubles to a snake? Well, why not? Better that than let Remus find him brooding. Remus, who would conclude something daft about depression blocking all access to his magic.

Well, it wasn't all blocked, was it? He had more than dreams to base that on, now, he had the Parseltongue itself.

Feeling more like a wizard than he had in a while, Harry finally answered the snake's question. He explained about the Dursleys, about things he'd almost forgotten, they were so long ago. He spoke of his parents, of Sirius trapped in Azkaban when it was Pettigrew all along who had belonged there. Of saving Sirius, and letting Pettigrew go, only to have his kindness repaid in the foulest way after the Tri-Wizard Tournament. He talked of being the Boy Who Lived, and how he'd never wanted the acclaim and expectations that went along with it. He didn't even want to be The Boy. Just... a boy. A man-boy now, as the snake had said.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"Who's Lucinda?" Harry asked after dinner, absently wondering what Remus would say if he poured himself some whiskey; Snape had left the bottle behind.

Remus gave him a hard look. "Where did you hear that name?"

"Today in a dream," Harry tossed out. "I told you, Snape said parts of my dreams were divining things."

"Professor Snape, Harry."

"Yeah, whatever. So anyway, I saw you both in the headmaster's office, and I guess he had asked about this Lucinda, because you were answering that she was well. Who is she?"

Remus hesitated. "A friend."

Well, Harry thought, never let it be said that he couldn't take a hint. "Okay," he answered easily. "Here, have you met Sals?"

He watched Remus' brows arch in surprise as he began speaking to the snake that had been resting comfortably inside the sleeve of his jumper. No doubt Remus was hearing the slurred, hissing noise that was Parseltongue, at least as Hermione had described it.

And then Sals poked his head out Harry's cuff, tongue flickering. Harry brought his other hand around to catch her, and drew her out. "Beautiful, don't you think?"

That one must have been in English, for Remus answered, "Yes..." in a hesitant, wavering voice.

"What, you aren't afraid of snakes, are you?" Harry thought to ask.

"No, I just didn't expect one to come crawling out your sleeve. Was it in there all during dinner?"

"Yeah. Asleep, I think. Sals does a lot of that."

"Sals," Remus repeated dubiously.

Harry smiled. "Well, it was going to be Sally, but then I realised I didn't know if Sals here was a girl snake. And I guess I could have asked, but it... felt wrong. Hard to explain. I mean, I think I could have got the question across in Parseltongue, but it would have been awkward. So I just decided that Sals would be better. You know, it kind of covers either possibility."

"Why didn't you ask the snake its own name?"

"I tried," Harry acknowledged. "I don't know, maybe they don't have names unless a wizard dubs them. Sals didn't seem to understand at first, but now I think it's clear." He switched to Parseltongue. "This is Remus, Sals."

The snake hissed something at Remus. Harry frowned, and shook his head.

"What?" Remus prompted.

"Nothing." Harry swallowed another gulp of tea, wishing more than before that he'd had the nerve to help himself to the whiskey. That wasn't a good idea, though. It might disrupt the strange rapport he'd managed to build with Snape.

"Why did you frown?" Remus pressed. "Did Sals threaten to bite me or something? Should I keep my distance from your little friend?"

Harry glanced up in surprise. "Oh no, Sals isn't dangerous. It's nothing like that." He uttered a few hissed syllables at the snake. "Sals asked if you were my father, that's all. Actually, it was more like asking if I used to be your egg. Parseltongue can be a bit odd in certain respects."

"And you frowned because...?"

"Geez, do you ever lay off? Why do you think I frowned?" Harry retorted, raising his voice. He'd managed to withstand Sals' question fairly well, because of course the snake hadn't known better than to ask, but Remus damned well should. The more he thought about it, the angrier he became, and things he'd never meant to say out loud came spilling past his lips. "Because I might have liked to have had a father for ten bloody minutes I can remember? Oh wait, scratch that. Maybe it's because I'd have liked to have had a father I could actually respect! Oh yeah, that must be it! James Potter, Gryffindor. You're so much like your father, Harry, everyone says. My Patronus, just like his. And then I find out last year what he was really like, a vain, selfish, cruel little arsehole, and my bloody brilliant godfather excuses it all with some incredibly lame-brained excuse about how they were idiots as if that makes everything all right!"

"Harry--"

"You should just stop trying to pick apart my emotions!" Harry yelled. "Shite, I never thought I'd rather spend time with Snape than you!"

"Professor Snape, Harry," Remus corrected, and Harry saw red.

"I don't need you to tell me how to speak!" he exploded. "Say that to me again, and I'll start to call him Severus, I swear!"

A slight noise caught his attention, the sound of a throat clearing.

Harry turned, light-headed, almost afraid to look. He knew already who was there. Who else would it be? The whole Order knew to leave Grimmauld Place alone for the time being. Everyone except Harry, Remus, and... Snape.

"How long have you been there?" Harry gasped.

"Long enough," Snape replied. "Apologize to Professor Lupin."

"He's the one who should apologize to me!" Harry erupted, snatching up Sals from the table. All the shouting was making the little snake scared; he could tell.

"Severus," Remus quietly said. "It's all right. Harry's under a great deal of stress."

"When is he not?" Snape challenged. "Mr Potter has most specifically told me that he would prefer to be treated as a normal young man of his age, his special circumstances aside. In that spirit," he turned toward Harry and leaned over slightly to demand, "apologize to Professor Lupin. Now."

Alternating waves of hot and cold coursed through Harry from his scalp on down. He knew Sals could feel them; the snake was getting more frightened all the time. He also knew that Snape was likely right. He couldn't claim he liked being treated like anyone else would be, and then rail against it when the going got tough. And... oh, hell. Remus had just been trying to help, no matter that he was going about it in entirely the wrong way. Harry had overreacted and he knew it.

"I apologize, Professor Lupin," Harry stiffly announced, and then in softer tones. "Really, Remus. I'm sorry."

Sals wrapped around his upper arm, Harry did his level best to maintain a sense of dignity as he left the dining room to the adults.

Chapter Text

Snape found him in the parlour some time later. Since Harry didn't know what Snape and Remus could have been discussing for so long, it occurred to him to wonder if the Potions Master had just been giving him time to cool off. Irritated that might be the case, Harry ignored his teacher's entrance and just kept up his conversation with Sals.

Snape listened for a while, leaning on the mantle, before commenting, "Beautiful snake."

Deciding that ignoring the clear overture would be too juvenile, Harry forced himself to meet Snape's eyes. "Yeah. I found Sals down in the cellar."

"Interesting name."

Harry unwrapped Sals from his bent knee and set the snake on the floor, shooing it away with a slight hissing noise, then glanced up again. "Well, I thought first of Gryff, actually. You know, for the colours. Burgundy and gold. But in the end I settled for Sals."

"Short for Salazar?"

Caught off guard, Harry choked back a laugh. "Oh, as in Slytherin? No, that didn't cross my mind." Snape went to sit down, then, and Harry started feeling nervous. Hating that, he prompted, "So, more Occlumency tonight?"

"In a bit. I need to relax, first." He didn't say that Harry did too, though it was fairly obvious.

"Whiskey?"

Snape gave him a long look. "I think not. We'll talk. Have you thought about what your new pet portends?"

"Yeah. You do mean the Parseltongue, right?"

"A wizard gift," Snape nodded, looking out at him through half-closed eyes. "Most assuredly, your magic is not gone."

"Hmm, I thought so too, at first. But you know Dumbledore doesn't think my being a Parselmouth has much to do with my powers. He thinks the talent got transferred to me along with this." Harry tapped an index finger against his scar.

"I disagree," Snape informed him, stretching out his legs and propping them on a low table. Harry stared, then reminded himself that the man wanted to relax, after all. Leaning back into the couch, Harry stopped holding himself quite so tensely.

"Albus is a brilliant and powerful wizard," Snape was continuing. "Still, the headmaster's knowledge of the Darkest Arts is far from comprehensive. The talent to be a Parselmouth could not have found fulfilment in you, had you yourself not possessed the requisite power to utilize the gift."

"So Parseltongue is Darkest Arts, is that what you mean?" Harry gasped.

"Certainly, but do not be alarmed. Darkest Arts is hardly an ethical classification. It's a convenient term to describe magic of a kind that can be put to the foulest use imaginable. That same magic can be used for neutral or higher purposes. I thought you understood that. Were my spells to unstick that ghastly portrait evil?"

Harry shook his head.

"Parseltongue is thought to be evil primarily because it has been put to terrible use," Snape explained.

"Yeah, Voldemort told Nagini she could eat me after he was through with me," Harry recalled, shivering.

Snape chuckled, a response Harry found baffling until the Potions Master clarified, "You know, Harry, it gets a bit difficult to treat you as a normal sixteen-year-old when you come out with claims like that." He cleared his throat. "I am trying, however."

Harry appreciated that, but he managed not to say thanks.

"At any rate, I would expect you to be fully at ease with your facility in snake language, by now," Snape went on. "Since second year you've known, haven't you? It shouldn't still be troubling you."

"Ha, and wasn't that fun, having everyone think I was the Heir of Slytherin out to cleanse the school of Muggleborns."

"An unlikely scenario," Snape concurred, smiling slightly as he folded his hands across his waist.

"Except for a python at the zoo when I was ten," Harry volunteered, "I've heard Parseltongue only from Voldemort's pet snake, the Basilisk, and that serpent Malfoy conjured in a duel. Not exactly a catalogue of heart-warming experiences."

"Well, then chat with Sals more," Snape suggested. "You might as well get used to your talents, Harry. They are part of you, whatever the headmaster may have said."

"Lets just get on with the lesson, Professor," Harry sighed, tired of talking about it.

"In a moment. Do you actually know what your father did for a living, Harry?"

Harry snorted, thinking that Snape had heard a good deal more than he'd let on. "Did he do anything?" he retorted. "I mean, considering the Potters have more wizard gold than the rest of the world thinks decent?"

"That sounds like Lupin talking. I won't deny that James was rich, or that I didn't appreciate the way he treated me during our school years. The fact that you looked so much like him at first glance certainly influenced me... for years, Harry. But the picture you've built up since looking in that pensieve? It's not a good one."

"You don't have to tell me that!" Harry hotly disclaimed. More uncomfortable by the second, he scooted to the floor where they'd worked the night before, and prompted, "Occlumency?"

Snape stood, and reaching down, pulled him up to stand, then leaned down slightly to speak face to face. "I do have to tell you this," he vowed. "The pensieve is not objective, Harry. What you saw was a reconstruction of my perceptions of that day. No doubt they have their truth, but they also have their flaws. And what you saw was but one day out of your father's entire life."

"Sirius told me they were always picking on you!" Harry objected.

"True, but that day was exceptionally grim," Snape informed him. "James does not come out of it well, but you have apparently decided that he was entirely without worth. That..." The Potions Master cleared his throat. "That is not so."

Harry huffed. "Next you'll be saying that when all was said and done, you ended up liking him!"

"I did not like him," Snape denied. "I never liked him. By the time we were grown, there was too much... water under the bridge, if you will." A moment of indecision, and Snape was settling his hands atop the boy's shoulders. "But Harry, he wasn't fifteen forever. He became a fine man, and though we could never have been friends, in the end I did respect him. He and Lily thrice defied the Dark Lord, you know that. James was in the Order, a dedicated wizard doing all he could to protect probable victims and bring Death Eaters to justice. He did the work of an Auror, though he refused all pay. That was not just due to his family wealth; the Ministry then was not much more competent than it is now. James preferred to remain unaffiliated with official policy, which was unfortunately all too apt to bend to political whims."

Not knowing what to say to all that, really, Harry admitted, "Nobody's ever told me that much about him at once, Professor."

"When people say you are like him, they are thinking of the man he became, you know," Snape answered, "not the one you saw in my pensieve."

Harry drew in a deep breath, then released it. It shouldn't matter to him that Snape had practically admitted that in the end, he'd forgiven James. It shouldn't matter... but somehow, it did. He felt better. Not about everything, but at least about some things.

Still, he shrugged off his teacher's hands to say, "Can we get to the Occlumency, now?"

"You're still nervous," Snape observed.

"Well, I can't not be, can I?" asked Harry. "I mean, it was great and all, but having you fill my head with... stuff, was still pretty weird. Honestly, I do think some whiskey would help."

Snape stepped back a measured pace. "You must be able to achieve a cleared mind without such aids. And without me, Harry. Tonight we will go about things a little bit differently. We'll try it without physical contact."

"And then, without you even entering my mind, I bet," Harry guessed. "And then what? Is that it? I think it'd help me to know the whole plan, if you don't mind. I mean, if it won't be counterproductive or something."

"It shouldn't be," Snape commented. "Your being able to repress all thought, and to do it without external aid, is the first critical step, but it is by no means the last. You must be able to maintain your calm even in the face of attack. Beyond even that, however, is the fact that the Dark Lord is a far more skilled Legilimens than I. What you truly need is the ability to convince him not to attack you with all his strength."

He motioned for Harry to sit, then sank to the floor facing him, his robes billowing out as he knelt.

"How am I going to convince Voldemort of anything?" Harry questioned, hands lightly gripping his own knees at the sound of the question itself. "I can't see him backing off on my say-so."

Snape raised an eyebrow in unmistakable challenge, and drawled, "Oh, come now, Mr Potter, surely you see the way?" When Harry just shook his head, Snape's voice grew slightly more biting. "Only part of you is a pure and honest Gryffindor, you know."

Cunning... Slytherin cunning... "Oh, you're talking about... misdirection, aren't you?"

"Why are you afraid to call it what it is?"

Harry opened his mouth, then closed it, not knowing what to say.

"Lying is no more evil than are the very Darkest Arts, Harry," Snape remarked in an entirely conversational tone. "It all depends upon the purpose to which the misdirection is put."

"Right," Harry answered, feeling more confident. "Voldemort is stronger than me, so I have to be smarter than him--"

"The Dark Lord is not stronger than you. He marked you his equal."

Harry stared at his teacher, feeling like all the blood in his body was rushing away from his brain to make him remarkably stupid. Snape couldn't have meant what he'd just said. He couldn't. It was ridiculous. He wasn't even Snape's equal, let alone Voldemort's!

"Look, I told you," Harry began. "Everyone thinks I've bested him, but it isn't true. I had help, every time, I told you that!"

Snape waved a hand as though none of that was of any import. "Nevertheless, the Dark Lord has no more power than you do; the prophecy speaks to that. What he does have is a far better grasp of how to channel his magic. You have virtually no such grasp."

"I have virtually no magic, Professor," Harry argued, his thoughts roiling. "I should have listened to you and Hermione, and stayed well clear of Muggle doctors! It's my own stupid fault I've lost my powers, I should have left Aunt Petunia to her fate, as you said. It's not like I ended up helping her any, is it? And now if the whole Wizarding world falls, that will be my fault, too! I'll be responsible for every last thing that dark bastard does--"

"Much as it gratifies me to be classed with Miss Granger in anything," Snape smoothly interrupted, "you should not forget that your motive was to safeguard your wards. You were trying to protect yourself until such time as you were ready to face the Dark Lord. I know this, as does Albus."

"Yeah, well fat lot of good my pure Gryffindor motives do us now," Harry bit out, chewing the inside of his cheek, he was so agitated. "I should have let the damned hat put me in Slytherin."

"Well, at least you named your new friend Sals."

The remark relieved some of the tension gripping the room, as did Snape's quirked smile. "As for what is past, Harry, you must let it be past. Even the most unfortunate decisions can turn out well, when one takes a longer view of matters."

Obscure words, but Harry somehow knew that Snape was talking of the Dark Mark branded into his arm. His gaze drifted to it, though it was covered with voluminous robes, and most likely, more than one sleeve.

"Yes," Snape merely murmured, the single syllable spoken low and slow. "You understand me."

Harry nodded.

"Good, then let us begin," Snape decided. He moved marginally closer to Harry, but avoided any contact, and held his hands up before his face, fingers spread.

"Match your hands to mine, but do not touch me," he intoned, his voice dark, but also calm. Harry felt like he was falling into it. When he did as requested, he could feel a frisson of energy pulsating through the air between their hands. It was like the time he'd played with Dudley's magnets and felt how when turned backwards, the energy between them became a tangible propulsive force.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

It took longer, that time, for Harry to fall into the mental water and merge with it, but once he got there, it seemed he could sustain the state for longer, too.

When Snape finally drew back, his hands dropping exhausted to the rug, he confessed, "You were by yourself, in the end, Harry. I had left your mind some time earlier. Did you sense that?"

"No," Harry murmured, slumping. Occlumency was a lot more tiring when he didn't have Snape to prop him up, mentally or physically, he supposed.

"That means your Occlusion was quite complete. Very well done, Mr Potter."

Harry had to resist an urge to preen. When had he ever got a compliment from Snape? It meant more than it should, he thought, but he was actually too tired to try to figure all that out.

"Tomorrow," Snape directed, "spend some time thinking of an alternate image you can lose yourself in. Water is mine, you understand. I would like to believe that my own Occlumency is skilled enough that the Dark Lord never sees the image I use to withstand him, but I should not care to risk my life if he should ever sense my hand in your powers."

"Oh..." Harry hadn't thought of that. Using Occlumency against Voldemort could actually endanger Snape? If Harry did it wrong, that was? "Yes, all right, Professor. I'll do as you say."

"Remarkable words." Snape stifled a yawn behind a hand. "Ones I never thought to hear you say, let alone mean."

"I do mean them!"

"Yes, I know, Harry," Snape admitted in a sardonic drawl, before leveling his voice. "I did not mean to imply otherwise. By the way, I have asked Lupin to not bother himself with whatever you wish to call me."

Harry stared. "Er... why?"

"I told him that our Occlumency lessons require a certain level of mental closeness, and his insistence on upholding my authority as a teacher could only endanger the progress we have made."

Something about Snape's phrasing caught Harry's attention. "You told him, you said. Wasn't it true?"

"Thinking like a Slytherin," Snape approved.

"Is it true?"

"I don't know," Snape admitted, awkwardly coming out of his kneel and pushing to his feet. Ouch. Harry was sure he'd heard some bones creaking, in there. "It may be; we will see. At any rate, it is time I went."

"Are you able to floo, so soon?" Harry asked, concerned. "Maybe you should stay a while. We could talk again, keep you awake."

"Do you need to talk about anything?" Snape softly asked, sounding as though he genuinely wanted to know.

Harry thought about his dream, then shook his head. It hadn't been much, after all. Just a scene of Snape finalizing the Polyjuice Potion, and then an empty clearing in the forest. Nothing dire, not like the previous dream.

"I will return now, then," Snape announced, stepping into the cavernous fireplace that graced one whole wall of the parlour. "Remember to practice, Harry. Clear your mind several times tomorrow, and do try to lose yourself in an image other than water."

Before Harry could answer, Snape was gone.

"Yes, I will," he answered anyway. "And thank you, Professor. For everything."

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, Sals became Harry's near-constant companion. He took the little snake everywhere, sometimes tucked away in a shirt pocket, sometimes wrapped around his wrist, sometimes dangling around his neck like exotic jewellery. It got so that Parseltongue came quite readily to his lips. At times, he was still speaking it when he turned aside from Sals to address one of his teachers, though of course he didn't realise as much.

The funny look Remus or Snape always gave him tended to set him right, however.

Harry spent several hours each day practicing spells and charms and incantations, not a single one of which ever worked. Thank goodness, he would tell himself, that he was making more progress at night, when he concentrated on mastering Occlumency. Those long sessions with Snape continued to yield results which frankly astonished Harry, but of course he was finally doing what he should have done last year: taking the training seriously. He completely cleared his mind several times each day, and on Snape's suggestion, began doing so during everyday activities. See if you can carry on eating breakfast in that state, Snape had suggested. Try it while you're washing your hair. Don't get soap in your eyes.

That last had been thrown out a bit like a jest, but it wasn't, not really. Harry knew what the professor had meant: he needed to be able to Occlude his mind at any time, and do it without others realizing it was happening. If he had to enter a trance state for the Occlumency to be effective, its use would be limited. Harry understood that limits were dangerous. Voldemort certainly wouldn't respect them.

Of course he no longer immersed himself in water for his image. Horrified that his use of Occlumency might someday put Snape in danger, Harry wasted no time in searching for an image of his own. At first he tried placing himself at Hogwarts, but there was too much detail to keep track of. He'd find his mental self traversing corridors, looking into hallways, thinking. He needed something more elemental, he sensed, and after a few more false starts, found himself able to fall quite readily into the sensation of fire. He could become the flames, yet never burn.

"Fire," Snape had mused when he'd been in Harry's mind as it blazed. "It's a dark force, associated with death, with retribution. Symbolic of destruction, Harry. Even annihilation."

"It also represents purification," Harry had argued, not liking Snape's take on the matter.

"Purification?" Snape had assessed him for a long, silent moment, his dark eyes raking Harry up and down. "Very Gryffindor of you to think so. Let us continue."

And so Harry had meditated on fire, maintaining the image for longer and longer each time he tried, Snape moving out of his mind by slow degrees as Harry's grasp of Occlumency strengthened. Once he could manage to block all thought without any assistance, his teacher nudged him toward the next step, that misdirection Harry had guessed at.

"The Dark Lord will press his mind all the harder into yours if ever he senses that you are blocking him," Snape had explained. True Occlumency, it seemed, involved protecting some thoughts while letting other, less harmful ones, range free. "It must seem that he has vanquished you, Harry, though you must let him see only what you wish him to see. Prepare an arsenal of memories and impressions that he can access without restriction. Cast these above your image, in layer after layer for him to sift through. Never give him cause to suspect that anything more lies beneath."

So now, in addition to working with Remus and practicing clearing his mind, Harry spent several hours each day with quill in hand, cataloguing a huge array of memories he was willing to let Voldemort lay hands on. Each evening with Snape, he practiced placing those memories above his wall of fire, casting them so thickly in his mind that the fire itself could not be perceived.

And then it was time to test his mental discipline against a true Legilimens.

Surprisingly enough, Snape came through the Floo that night carrying Dumbledore's pensieve. He set it down on the low table before the couch. Harry hung back near the entry to the parlour, nervously stroking Sals, who squeezed his wrist almost as though in understanding that he needed a little hug. The thought made Harry wonder about the little snake's intuition. It was uncanny, the way Sals could sense what he was feeling, but of course, he'd spent so many hours talking to his pet that he decided he shouldn't be surprised. Sals knew him by then, that was all.

His teacher beckoned him, one crooked finger brooking no opposition. "Have you ever used one of these?"

Harry nearly choked.

"No," Snape patiently explained, a ghost of a smile on his lips. "I didn't ask if you had looked into one. I think we both know the answer to that. Have you ever used one, yourself?"

Harry mutely shook his head.

Snape put one hand lightly on the boy's shoulder. "Would you like to, tonight? Before we begin?"

"I don't know why you're offering," Harry whispered, guilt welling up inside him. He'd grown used to the almost unthinkable fact that Severus Snape could indeed be kind --when it suited him--, but it was wrong for Snape to be so kind about this, wasn't it? After what Harry had done? "I mean, you didn't last year."

Maybe he really meant it when he said that we were even, Harry thought, his brow furrowing.

"Last year," Snape quietly explained, his fingers tensing on his shoulder, though not painfully, "I violated you repeatedly, and in a particularly heinous way. I told myself that the Dark Lord would have no pity and that it was best for you to accustom yourself to such. I believed that your horror of having me see . . . certain things, would motivate you to fight me off. But it was ill-done of me, and not the usual way to proceed with such lessons. And so, Harry, if there are things you'd prefer I not see, you may use the pensieve."

Harry gave a shaky laugh. "Um, I think you know most everything, by now. And I don't know how to make it work, and besides, my wand's pretty well useless these days."

Snape touched the tip of his own wand to Harry's temple, whispering, "Pensare non pensatum," before saying, "Now, think."

Harry closed his eyes and thought of the first time he'd realised what a birthday was, and had understood why he'd never got any presents. As Snape drew his wand slowly away, Harry felt a sensation of something moving in his head, something being drawn out through his skull. He didn't watch as Snape deposited the silvery white strand into the pensieve.

"Again?" Snape asked.

Harry swallowed. "I don't see the point. I mean, it doesn't matter what you see. Not now."

"Of course it matters, you foolish child. Everyone has things they would prefer to hide." Snape touched his temple once more. "Pensare non pensatum."

Harry thought then of something he'd prefer to hide, after all: how much he was beginning to trust Snape, and how much the thought of it sometimes worried him.

"Again?"

"No, I'm through." Feeling a bit better, Harry gave a cocky little smile. "I didn't need that, anyway. You're not breaking through. I know how to hold it together, now. Must have had a good teacher, this year."

"Confidence will help," Snape agreed, ignoring the praise. "Arrogance, you will find, can be counterproductive." He moved the pensieve out to the kitchen, then returned, brandishing his wand. "Shall we begin? Legilimens!"

As Harry tensed, Sals scurried down his leg and disappeared between a crack in the floorboards. Startled, Harry almost lost his grip on his image. He felt Snape pressing inward, broaching his defences, but at the same time, he felt himself filling with fire and blocking all thought.

They battled for what seemed an eternity.

Then Snape broke it off, conjured him something cold to drink, and demanded they begin all over again.

Snape didn't hold back; didn't coddle him. But Harry had been right; he was ready. He could hold his concentration steady against the strongest of Snape's attacks. He practiced letting harmless memories drift free, practiced keeping them layered atop his fire, even against the sensation of Snape's questing mind. He never once found himself collapsed on the floor, helpless and practically retching, as had happened so often the year before.

"Your magic must be at play in this as well," Snape finally said one evening several nights later, as they were resting after a session. That time, Harry had kept up his defences for a solid hour.

"You said even Muggles could learn mental discipline," Harry reminded him, wiping at his brow with a damp cloth. Sighing, he laid his head on the kitchen table, letting the tension drain from his frame. He felt Sals returning, crawling up his back, then diving down his shirt to curl up against him.

"Muggles can't acquire the skill as well or as fast as you have," Snape assured him. "The way your Occlumency is coming on, I'm tempted to wonder if it's a birth power for you, as well."

"You can't think that, not after I was so bad at it before."

"Before," Snape stressed, "you did not want to learn it. That much was painfully evident."

Harry gave a harsh laugh. "True enough. I didn't want my dreams blocked. I thought Voldemort was trying to get a weapon from the Department of Mysteries. I was trying to find out what he wanted." He paused, and drank his cooling tea, then continued in a calmer tone. "I also didn't want to learn it from you. I mean, why would I have? You obviously hated me, and half the time I did think you were . . . messing me up on purpose."

"Perhaps you didn't hear me when I told you to put the past in the past, Harry."

When Sals slithered out his collar and whispered something in his ear, Harry replied in a rush of Parseltongue, the sounds more clipped than slurred, his hands curling into fists on the table.

"What is your snake saying?"

Harry rolled his eyes a bit, and tried for a semblance of calm. "Now Sals wants to know if you're my father. Honestly, are snakes all so obsessed with family?"

"I wouldn't know. What did you reply?"

A bit strange, that question. What would he have replied? Feeling a bit on edge, even more so than when Sals had asked the question, Harry admitted, "I said I didn't have one and never would and not to ask again, though I don't know as Enough, already really goes over so well in Parseltongue."

"I think you offended her." Snape pointed at Sals, who was winding her way down a table leg before slithering off across the floor.

"Her?"

"Speculation."

"I think she's just hungry," Harry decided, accepting the speculation as fact. Might as well; he'd never really liked referring to Sals as an it.

"Hmm," Snape returned, watching until the snake vanished. "There's just one more thing you need to master in Occlumency. We'll start it tomorrow: you must learn to push me out of your mind."

"All that effort to control what you see," Harry weakly laughed, "and now you want me not to let you see it?"

"From a wizard of your calibre, the Dark Lord will expect resistance; you must be able to push out at him, and do it in a way that doesn't rend the false fabric of thoughts you've woven atop your image."

Harry stared, a little bit confused. "Last year you started with that. Push me out, Potter . . . if I heard you yell it once, I heard it a thousand times."

Snape's teacup clattered to his saucer as he scowled. "I have said to let the past be past! What part of that concept is not soaking through your skull to reach the dubious grey matter beneath?"

"I just wondered why Occlumency was so one-dimensional last year," Harry defended himself.

Relaxing a fraction, Snape admitted, "Last year, the primary goal was to help you block your dreams. Albus' notion, though a sound one since the Dark Lord was actively manipulating you through them."

"And now?"

Snape's expression hardened, reminding Harry that he didn't tolerate fools. "You know the answer to that."

"Yeah," Harry slowly agreed, realizing as he spoke that he did. "You're trying to make sure I'm ready, not just for dreams, but for the next time I have to face down that ugly bastard."

"Another encounter does seem inevitable." Snape looked down at his hands, and then at Harry. "I wish that I could spare you."

Harry shivered, one word sparking an unwelcome memory. Kill the spare . . . Shaking his head, he submerged himself briefly in mental fire. It wasn't stoicism, but strangely enough, it did help.

All at once, an awful look crossed Snape's face, like agony wrapped in horror but coated in resignation. No . . . resolution. The man had his right hand pressed to his left forearm as he stood and stumbled toward the Floo.

"Shite!" Harry yelped, understanding coming all at once.

"Go to Lupin," Snape bit out, the words wheezing through clenched teeth. "Stay with him tonight. Do not leave this house for a single instant, do you understand me?"

"Yes!" Harry shouted over the sound of Severus screaming out the code words that would take him back to his dungeon quarters. From there, Harry supposed, he would don his horrid robe and mask, then Floo to someplace else . . . someplace from which he could Apparate towards Voldemort's call.

"I wish that I could spare you, too," he said, talking to the thin air.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Remus made it his practice to retire upstairs and leave Snape and Harry strictly alone during the Occlumency sessions. It was a small courtesy, but one Harry had come to appreciate. He felt a little bad, actually, that he'd believed Remus had no sense of decorum.

He knocked on Remus' door and was bid at once to enter.

"Snape's gone. Dark Mark," Harry bleakly explained, shaking a little as he remembered the awful look on his teacher's face.

"Oh, Harry!" Remus crossed the room in two strides and enveloped him in a comforting hug. "I've seen it happen during Order meetings. Not a pretty sight."

"No," Harry agreed, voice muffled against Remus' soft flannel shirt . . . oh, pyjama top, he was slow to realise. "Um, were you asleep?"

"Just reading a bit." He gestured toward his rumpled covers, and Harry saw a book entitled Finding your Inner Wolf: A Guide for the Alpha Wizard. "Severus' idea of a joke, I'm afraid."

"But Snape hates you," Harry stated, feeling the leading edge of a headache coming on.

"He's good at making me think so," Remus laughed. "But every so often he slips up. I don't know; perhaps he intended the book as an insult. With Severus, it's difficult to be sure."

"He always calls you Lupin, never Remus. Like he used to always call me Potter, back when he hated me."

"I'm glad you know he doesn't hate you, now," Remus quietly commented.

"Yeah, well I wish he didn't hate you, either. It's kind of awful, when people I ---" People I care about, he had been going to say. He decided he wasn't ready to admit to that about Snape. At least, not out loud. "When people I have to hang around with can't stand each other."

When Remus smiled, Harry knew the man had heard what hadn't been said. "Perhaps you'll feel better, Harry, to realise that Severus has never stopped supplying me with Wolfsbane Potion. That's right; not three weeks after losing me my job at Hogwarts, he was owling me a supply. And every month since, right as clockwork."

Harry rubbed his temples a bit, but it didn't help his aching head. Funny, when Snape had done it that once, the massage had released all his tension.

"Here," Remus said, and took over, his own massage more than competent, although nowhere near as skilled as Snape's had been. "You're worried about him."

"Yeah, well if you could have seen him when the Mark started to burn, you would be, too."

"I've seen, I know," Remus repeated. "You know what's odd about the potion he makes for me, though? Severus won't accept thanks. He would get positively hostile when I used to try."

"You're trying to get my mind off what's probably happening right now," Harry muttered, stepping away from Remus' caring fingers. "What if the Death Eaters are on one of their rampages? Killing Muggles, Muggleborns? I feel ill, Remus. Snape does those things too, doesn't he? I mean, he'd have to, if he's going to keep up appearances so he can spy for the Order."

"I should have spoken with you earlier today, prepared you," Remus murmured.

"What? How could you know he'd be called tonight?"

Remus gave him a long, strange look and said, "Well, Harry, it is Halloween."

Harry started. "I'd lost track," he realised.

"You've had a great deal to occupy you," Remus sympathized. "Why don't we go downstairs and have some cocoa? It might help soothe your nerves so you can sleep."

All at once, Harry was absolutely, positively sure of one thing. "You're barking mad," he calmly declared. "No offence, all right? But how can you think I would sleep? I'm not going to, not until Snape gets himself back here, and probably not even then."

"What are you going to do, then?"

"Stay with you," Harry answered. "He said to. I'll be right back."

He returned a moment later carrying a pillow and a pile of blankets, then settled down on the floor and made himself a nest of sorts. Remus stared like Harry was the one gone barking mad, but Harry ignored that. He figured he was in for a long night and he might as well be comfortable.

"If you want to stay with me," Remus offered, "there's no need to lie on the floor. The bed is easily big enough for both of us."

Harry was sure it was, but he was also sure he didn't want to be treated like a child. If he went over there, Remus would fuss over him, probably offer cocoa again, or milk and cookies, or something. Harry didn't think he could take it.

"Nah," he refused. "I'm ok, here."

Remus didn't push the offer, for which Harry was grateful. It came to him again that he shouldn't have been rude to Remus, all those times. Remus really cared about him. He just didn't always know what Harry needed. The magic lessons were a case in point. Thinking happy thoughts was not going to yield his Patronus, not until whatever else was going on was resolved. But what was going on? By then, Harry rather doubted he could blame his missing marrow. They'd claimed at Frimley Park that his marrow would restore itself in about ten days. It had been that long, nearly. Of course, maybe wizards were different, as Snape had said. And it was true that not all his magic was gone, but still . . . Harry was starting to feel discouraged.

"So," he prompted when, after five minutes, Remus had yet to say another thing. "Let's talk about my magic. Why do you think it's only coming back in three respects? Snape feels that might be significant."

"Parseltongue, Occlumency, and divining dreams." Remus nodded. "Severus is right; it's odd that only those three manifestations of your powers remain. No charms, no spells, nothing that requires a wand . . ."

"Maybe I need a new wand?" Harry wondered out loud. "Though it's hard to see why I would. And I'd be afraid to use any other wand, anyway, now that I know mine and Voldemort's cancel each other out." He sighed. "Anyway, I found an old school wand of Sirius', down in the cellar. It didn't work for me, either."

Remus thought about that for a moment. "Have you had other divining dreams?"

"Only every day," Harry drawled. "Or night, that is, ever since I've felt well enough to stay up all day long. You know what, though? I've noticed a distinct pattern to them. They're always in two parts, and the first part is always about the past. And as the days go by, I'm going ever deeper into the past in those dreams." He paused a moment, counting on his fingers, and detailed, "First it was Kreacher, then I saw Snape cutting your hair for the Polyjuice. And in the days since, I've seen the Slytherins plotting out some Quidditch cheats, and Dumbledore hiring Aran for the Defence job, and Hogwarts being respelled over the summer . . . things like that. It's all fairly innocuous, except for Kreacher where it started."

"And you're sure that everything you've dreamed is true?"

"Well, a couple of days after the Quidditch dream, Ron mentioned in a letter some things that confirmed what I'd seen. And I asked Snape about the respelling; he seemed absolutely gobsmacked that my dream had been so . . . comprehensive and detailed, he put it. I don't know about Aran getting his robes eaten by Dumbledore's spiral staircase, but I suspect that's true as well."

Remus frowned as he settled himself back into bed. "What about the second part of each dream, Harry? Any patterns there?"

"That's where things get more confusing," Harry confessed. "I mean, I think there is one, but I haven't been able to figure it out. I get impressions that are sort of random. The Dursley house destroyed, okay, I told you that. Then it was just a clearing in the forest, nobody around, but it had a creepy atmosphere, I can tell you that. The next time I saw a small stone room, empty, almost claustrophobic, though it made me feel really thirsty, of all things."

"What else?"

"Hmm," Harry had to stop and think, not because he didn't remember, but because he really didn't know how to put things into words. At least, not these things. "I've been in the hospital wing at Hogwarts, wracked with pain. I couldn't see, but I knew it from the smell . . ." Remus smiled, and Harry figured that a werewolf would know what he meant. "And I was screaming and screaming for Snape. Anyone else came near me, I flailed, but at the same time I felt like I needed only him, just the smell of him made me positively nauseous." He paused. "Weird, huh?"

"Oh, I wouldn't say so," Remus denied. "Anything else?"

"Um, yes, but it just gets weirder. I'm down in the Hogwarts dungeons, living there instead of in the Tower, and Ron and Hermione come to visit me. Hmm, I can see again in that one. Ron says something derogatory about Slytherins, and I hit him--"

"With a hex?" Remus sounded excited.

"No, with my fist. Learned it from Hermione; she's decked Malfoy a couple of times." Harry paused, trying to recall more. "Oh, and then there's this one where Malfoy calls me his brother, and I laugh. Now if that's not sick, I don't know what is."

"Would you like to hear my analysis of your dreams?"

Surprised that Remus had asked, Harry turned over more towards him. "Does it start with you're in a dark place, emotionally?"

"I take it you don't want to hear."

"No, no, I do," Harry decided. "Might as well. Maybe I am in a dark place, like you said. I didn't think so at the time, but these dreams, especially the parts about me, aren't exactly sweetness and light."

"That's the first thing I noticed," Remus commented, pushing up to lean against his headboard. "The second part of each dream is about you."

"Except for Privet Drive."

"You don't think images of Privet Drive are about you, Harry?"

"Hmm. Maybe they are."

"Now, you're likely right about the first part of each dream divining the past. Interesting power, especially as I don't believe you've really possessed it before."

"You've seen my O.W.L. scores, too? Or Snape told you?"

"Intuition," Remus corrected. "Based on the fact that the true gift of second sight is exceedingly rare. I would say," he continued, "that you're divining the past for one reason only: to force you to understand that these are no mere dreams. They are visions, rather, and your powers are telling you to take them seriously."

"Like it matters if I know that Professor Aran is too dumb to ride Dumbledore's staircase without getting his robes caught and ripped to shreds!" Harry couldn't help it, he laughed. "And I don't need visions to know that Slytherins cheat like mad, Remus."

"Exactly."

"Huh?"

"Those things don't matter, you're right. They exist as markers only, so that you will realise the other parts of your dream need paying attention to. The parts about you, Harry."

Harry plumped his pillow. "All right, I understand. So what of those parts? Do you see a pattern in them, somewhere, other than the fact that they mostly concern me?"

"They reflect your ambivalence," Remus told him, brown eyes steady. "About many things."

Harry had a feeling he wasn't going to like Remus' interpretation. "Go on," he said darkly, staring right back.

Remus abruptly shut off his light, though he winced as he used magic to dispel the magical glow emanating from the lamp. "You hate the Dursley house, but you've come to have confused feelings about your cousin, as I understand. So you dream of the house being crushed, but not with him in it."

"Yes . . . "

"You feel trapped here. You want out, but you know it isn't wise. You dream of stone rooms, walls closing you in, making you thirst for what you can't have, yet when you dream of clearings, an image of apparent freedom, the image strikes you as creepy."

Harry raised an eyebrow, rather impressed. He did both hate and not hate Dudley, these days. He did feel trapped, but realised that leaving could be even worse. "Go on," he quietly replied.

Remus took a deep breath, then plunged on. "Then there's Severus. Years of distrust and hate between you. More years than you've been alive, on his part. But now you're both managing to build . . . a friendship of sorts. You're ambivalent about that. I think you like him now, at least sometimes, so you dream of calling for him. But you fear you're being blind, so you dream that you cannot see. He makes you feel sick because no matter your feelings now, you can't help but remember all the misery he's caused you."

"He's out causing misery right now," Harry muttered, hating the thought. He couldn't bear to ponder it, to visualize what the man might be doing. "All right, what else?" he asked Remus. "Don't tell me I'm ambivalent about Malfoy, too, because I know that's not the case. He's a right bastard, just like his evil father."

"I wouldn't say you're ambivalent about Draco, but about yourself. You dream of hitting Ron because he insults the Slytherins, and of a Slytherin calling you a brother. I would say that Draco in your dream is representative of the house into which you were very nearly sorted."

"Now I know it had to be Snape who told you that."

"Mmm. He waxed philosophical about it. I don't know if you realise as much, but he takes his Head of House duties very seriously."

"Yeah, never seen him take a point from Slytherin yet," Harry grumbled.

Remus softly snorted. "Oh, Severus is very partisan, no doubt about it. But that's not what I meant. He knows all the children very well, and their families too."

"That's because they're all purebloods, just like him. Sirius explained that tapestry to me, you know. The pureblood families are all interrelated. Snape's probably known most of his charming little Slytherins since they were born."

"They aren't all pure-blooded, Harry. The ones who aren't learn quickly to keep their background quiet. Regardless of bloodlines, Severus spends a great deal of his free time seeing to his students. He talks to them, after hours, makes sure they adjust to life at Hogwarts. He goes over end of term grades with each, admonishing and counselling them as needed. When the Slytherins get testy, he's a nearly constant presence in their common room."

"Well, he'd have to be, wouldn't he?" was Harry's sour response. "Slytherins aren't Gryffindors. When they get mad, the result might be murder." When Remus just waited, Harry grudgingly admitted, "Okay, okay. It sounds like he does a bit more than McGonagall, all right?"

"He'd have done all this for you, too, if you'd been placed in Slytherin," Remus continued.

"Oh, sure."

"No, he would have," Remus insisted. "Severus has . . . a peculiar sort of honour. Being a Slytherin would have made you his own, Harry, and he takes care of his own, no matter that he can't stand the sight of some of them. I think he would have seen you for who you are, much sooner, if he'd been in a position where he had to get to know you, more."

"Yeah, well, what's past is past," Harry murmured. "The dreams . . . so you think I'm ambivalent about having chosen Gryffindor over Slytherin?"

"I think you're starting to realise, inside yourself, that you are both. Or perhaps merely that the Gryffindor way of honour and loyalty is not the only useful way of looking at things."

Harry crossed his arms behind his neck and stared at the ceiling. He'd have to think about that, but not now. Thoughts of Snape at the Death Eater meeting crept back into his mind, and to banish them, he wondered aloud, "What do you think's going on at Hogwarts, tonight? Halloween is always great fun. Well, except for the year Quirrell set a troll loose in the dungeons. Um, Quirrell was the defence teacher two years before you."

"Some defence teacher," Remus returned.

"You don't know the half of it. He was possessed by Voldemort."

"You're having me on."

"No, I'm not. Ask Snape. Quirrell tried to hex me off my broom, Voldemort's doing. Snape incanted a counter-curse to save me, though at the time I believed he was the one doing the hexing."

Remus let silence reign for a moment, then said in an odd tone, "I don't suppose you've ever thanked him for that."

"No, and I don't suppose I will," Harry admitted. "He might bite my head off."

"He would." Remus' yawn was accompanied by rustling noises as he rolled over and got more comfortable. "Good night, Harry."

"Good night," Harry quietly replied, though he knew he wouldn't sleep. He lay there thinking about Hermione's last letter, mentally composing a reply he'd write at first light. And then he couldn't fight it any longer: he thought about Snape. Memories assailed him of the Death Eater meeting he'd been unwillingly portkeyed to after the Third Task. Voldemort, vengeful and cruel to his own followers. The Cruciatus curse. Wormtail cowering.

Was Snape at a meeting like that one, a circle of Death Eaters worshipping Voldemort as he spouted his evil plans? Or were they on a rampage tonight, terrorizing some half-wizard village, slaying half-bloods and Muggleborns?

Just as well he'd decided not to sleep, Harry realised. He wouldn't have prophetic dreams, not tonight. His every thought was the stuff of nightmares.

Chapter Text

By the time Remus woke up, Harry had written a letter to Hermione and another one to Ron, leaving both of them unsealed so that he wouldn't have to address another envelope in case Snape wanted to read them. He hadn't asked to do so again, not since Harry's very first letter from Grimmauld Place, but it wasn't every evening that Harry saw the Dark Mark flare to life, was it?

He'd said nothing whatsoever about that, of course, which left him in a bit of a quandary. What should he write to his friends? He couldn't tell them that he was getting on better with Snape. Not only would Ron think he'd gone nutters, information like that would get Snape killed if the letter fell into the wrong hands. So too with explaining how much better Occlumency was this year, and how good he was getting at it. He probably shouldn't even mention staying in the house with Remus, he realised. Anything to do with an Order member was best kept secret.

In the end, Harry settled for a long description of Sals and how funny it was to have chats with a snake. He asked about their Halloween, and how classes were going, and tried not to sound too worried.

But he was worried. About Snape.

Harry left Remus' room when his teacher began stirring, and for lack of anything better to occupy his mind, cooked up a breakfast that would do a house-elf proud. Cooking wasn't so bad, really. Not when you had someone appreciative to eat the results, that was.

"We need the Daily Prophet," was the first thing he said when Remus appeared after his shower. "I want to know if there were any Death Eater attacks last night."

"I don't think you should read about them, if there were," Remus replied, serving himself a plate full of pancakes, bangers, and poached eggs.

Harry wasn't about to be put off so easily. He set down his fork with a definite thud. "I am not a child, Remus. I have to know what Snape was doing last night!"

Remus set his fork down too, albeit more gently. "You are not a child, no. But you are not an adult, either, and you are certainly not Severus' keeper. All you have to know about last night is that he was doing his best to help the Order win this war. It's not for you to judge him, whatever he may have had to do."

Harry gnashed his teeth. "I'll find out sooner or later. You might as well just get me the paper, like I asked!"

"I'm surprised you would believe a word written in the Prophet," Remus admonished. "I certainly don't believe what I read in there about you."

"Well, there is that," Harry grumbled, though he was scarcely mollified. "It's nothing but a mouthpiece for Fudge and his cronies. They've been reporting Death Eater activity, though. Finally."

"You'd do better to concentrate on your wand-work than worry yourself over what Severus' own responsibilities might include."

"My wand-work's hopeless and you know it." Harry took a huge swig of orange juice, wondering if Snape would even notice a couple of inches less in the whiskey bottle. He could pour it into something like juice, couldn't he? Remus would never know. Hmm, well maybe he would, with that sense of smell that came along with werewolf territory.

"I know you seem to need some sort of catalyst," Remus was admitting. "I thought focusing on joyful thoughts would do it."

"It won't."

"I'm beginning to accept that," his teacher quietly acknowledged. "Do you have any ideas, Harry? Any at all?"

Shocked that Remus had asked, Harry gave it some hard thought as he ate. "Hmm. You know how nearly everybody thinks that Parseltongue is a sign of a dark wizard? Well, I'm starting to think that my dreams are pretty dark, too. Not the past bits, so much, as the ones about me. I don't know if Occlumency is a strictly dark skill, though. Hmm, maybe it is, for me. The image that works best for me is one Snape associates with death and destruction."

Remus sipped his tea. "What are you getting at?"

"I don't know. It just seems like . . ." Harry shrugged. "I don't know, really, just that everything I can do now seems . . . well, not dark, not exactly. But other wizards would look at it that way. What do you think we should try next?"

"I think we should try an ice-cream sundae from Florean Fortescue's," Remus replied. "And I'm not saying that because I think you're a child, Harry. You just need a break from this awful house. I can see why Sirius hated it so."

"Yeah, me too," Harry murmured. "I don't like it here. Sometimes I don't think I even want the house, though it's useful for the Order. I wonder if I should deed it over? Not that it's officially mine, yet, what with Sirius' death being . . . rather problematic. I mean, has it actually been declared? Legally?"

"You'd have to inquire at the Ministry of Magic, or ask Albus. He would know."

"He's back to his old trick of ignoring my existence," Harry pointed out. "You know, it used to be that when I was in the hospital wing, he'd make time to come see me. We'd talk. When I was in St. Mungo's, he didn't bother to so much as send me a message. And nothing since, either."

"Severus is keeping him informed, Harry."

"Bet you are, too."

Remus had the grace to look away, at that. "It's necessary."

"I know," Harry admitted. "But it wouldn't kill him to ask me how I am for himself. About the ice-cream, though? It sounds good, but I'd better not leave the house."

"Of course you'd better not," Remus agreed. "I wasn't seriously suggesting it. And as for what we should really try next about your magic . . . I don't know, Harry."

"Me neither," Harry sighed. "Look, let's take a break today. You read your wolf book or something, and I'll try to get through Volumes One through Ten of the class notes Hermione's been sending me."

"I wouldn't think you'd consider studying a 'break,'" Remus observed.

"Compared to spending hours incanting spells that don't work, it is. And one more thing, Remus. Can you please stop thinking I'm going to crack in half if you do a bit of magic in front of me? I'm not that fragile, all right? And I am so sick of doing the washing up by hand. How about a little Scourgify on that skillet, and a bit of Lavare spread all around? All right?"

Remus looked reluctant, but he did clean the kitchen with a few waves of his wand.

"Good," Harry thanked him, and went upstairs to wade through some of those notes.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Snape came through the Floo late that afternoon, but Harry didn't know as much until a hand was shaking him awake.

"What?" he grumbled, flipping over onto his back, expecting to see Remus' friendly features. Instead, he looked up into a face that he used to think harsh and forbidding. Now, for all the cruel angles that made up the planes of Snape's face, the overall effect wasn't one of menace, not for Harry.

But still, he couldn't help but wonder what sorts of cruelty and menace the man had perpetrated the night before. It made him sick even to think about it, but he had to know. Harry looked away, unable to really meet Snape's eyes as he asked, "Er . . . you all right today?"

"What were you dreaming?" Snape replied, sidestepping the question. "You were screaming like a man possessed."

Harry rubbed his temples, trying to remember. Normally he didn't have any trouble recalling his seer dreams, as he'd taken to thinking of them, but of course, he normally wasn't forced to wake in the middle of them.

"Um, I don't know," he finally had to answer. "But my scar doesn't hurt, so it probably doesn't really matter."

"Lupin and I have just been discussing your dreams, Mr Potter, and we both believe they matter a great deal," Snape returned, brushing his robes aside as he sat down on the edge of the rumpled covers. "We have yet to determine how they matter. So think harder."

Harry did, not that it helped. "Maybe if you told me what I was screaming, that would bring it back."

Snape stared at him, his dark eyes disturbed. "I am not able to repeat your words, or interpret them. They were in Parseltongue."

Now Harry was the one who was staring. "I was screaming in Parseltongue? I didn't think that was even possible. I mean, you really have to hiss it; it's hard to hiss a scream--"

He broke off because Snape was regarding him with that expression he reserved for particularly inane babbles, as the Potions Master termed them.

"All right, sorry, don't know," Harry finished. "I can't remember."

"What were you thinking of as you fell asleep?" Snape pressed, those black eyes boring into him, now.

"Um, Charms, mostly. I was reading Hermione's notes."

Snape's first response to that was a disgusted expression. Harry didn't know if that was because he wasn't supposed to be devoting his attention to classwork, or if it was just a general disdain for Hermione.

"And before that, Mr Potter?"

"What's with the Mr Potter?" Harry challenged, unnerved, but not so much by the name as by what he had been thinking about. "You haven't called me Harry since you got here!"

"Since I just came from instructing a class, that shouldn't astonish you," Snape dryly replied. "Now, answer my question, Harry. What were you thinking of before devoting your valuable and better-spent time to the encyclopedias Miss Granger feels compelled to copy?"

"Well, if you must know," Harry erupted, "I was worried about you being at that meeting! It had nothing to do with Parseltongue!"

"Worried about me," Snape repeated. "Harry, I've withstood the Dark Lord's attacks before."

Harry blanched, remembering his own experience at Voldemort's hands. Without thinking, he settled a hand atop Snape's sleeve. "Cruciatus, you mean?"

Instead of pushing him away, Snape covered Harry's hand with his own. "I meant Legilimency, but I am familiar with the other."

Harry swallowed, hating the thought of that, hating even worse what he was going to ask next. But he had to know, he just had to. Remus had been right about ambivalence, he thought. He trusted Snape, or at least he thought he did . . . or maybe it was more a case of wanting to be able to. Really wanting to be able to.

Harry suddenly jerked his hand from underneath his teacher's, deciding that he couldn't bear to keep seeing him day after day, wondering all the time what horrors the man had done on Halloween. He was tired of everybody keeping secrets from him, tired of them deciding what he needed to know.

"I was worried about you because I worried what you were doing," Harry clarified, yanking himself off the bed to pace around the room in sock feet. "Did Voldemort round his Death Eaters up for an attack on Muggles? Muggleborns? Half-bloods like me?"

"By my reckoning, you are not a half-blood. Both your parents were magical."

"Yeah, well my mum was a Muggleborn as you well know, so I'm not exactly a pureblood, either," Harry tightly elaborated. "And what about last night?"

Snape folded his hands together and remained seated on the bed. "All you need to know has been reported in the Prophet."

"Remus won't let me have a copy," Harry retorted, anger roiling up inside him. "And I'd rather hear it from you, anyway. Was there an attack, Professor?"

"Yes."

Harry stopped pacing. "What happened?"

"What do you think happened, you idiot child?" Snape questioned, soft tones underlying hard words. "The Muggleborns didn't stand a chance, any more than did the half-blood witch who came to try and help them."

Harry's teeth started to chatter. "Was it at least quick?"

Snape's voice grew caustic. "No, it wasn't quick. Where's your mind, today? It's never quick. Can you truly want to hear the sickening details?"

He didn't, not really, but he wanted to hear Snape recount them, so he could know for sure that the man was in fact sickened.

"Yeah."

"You're even less a Gryffindor than I thought," Snape snarled. "You don't want to cling to your comforting illusions? To believe that the world is a place in which right triumphs over might?"

"No," Harry answered, and when it seemed like Snape still wouldn't tell him, added, "How in bloody hell am I supposed to defeat Voldemort unless I know everything there is to know?"

"Knowing things such as I could tell you will not help you defeat him!"

"Let me be the judge of that!"

"Does it not occur to you," Snape harshly whispered, "that I do not care to describe the meeting yet again? I have done it once already, for Albus!"

Harry glared. "I have to know. Don't you get it?"

Snape clenched his fists. "So be it, then. In case you didn't know, the Dark Lord thrives on torture," he spat. "This time, it was a family of Muggleborns trying to hide their magic in a Muggle village in Cheshire. The Dark Lord sat like a king on a throne and watched as Cruciatus was cast at the son, about your age, until he tore handfuls of hair and scalp out. The parents had to watch, too, then under Imperio kick him until every single one of his ribs broke in half. It was about this time the young witch showed up. I don't think she'd had a day of magical education in her life, but there's no doubt she'd have been sorted into Gryffindor. Brave and foolish, all at once."

Lips curling at the memory, Snape detailed in icy tones, "She was passed around, as was the wife, whom the Dark Lord released from Imperio so that she could understand the full horror of struggling to no avail. Do you really need to hear just what was done to these women at the hands of over fifteen angry, vengeful men? Men who believe that only purebloods are fully human? Perhaps you'll be satisfied merely to know that after the women's voices were screamed raw, the Dark Lord had them both gutted! While they were alive!"

Something horrible and foul rose up into Harry's throat. Gagging, both hands pressed into his stomach, he forced it back down.

"Enough?" Snape sneered, rising to tower over him. "There's more, if you still need to know everything. I haven't divulged yet what happened to the man, or the boy in the end, or how Legilimency can end up being Darkest Arts when you use it to force upon your victims the things they most fear in all the world--"

"Enough," Harry finally found voice to answer.

"It should be!" his teacher roared. "It's sufficient that I must be there, that I must speak of it to the Order! I do not wish to relive the experience vicariously for your listening pleasure, as well!"

Harry was never sure, really, where he found the nerve, but he heard himself asking the question that had haunted him ever since he'd seen Snape rushing to Voldemort's call. "So which parts of all that did you do?"

Snape's brows drew together, his expression thunderous. "What concern of that is yours?"

"It is! It has to be!" Harry yelled, desperate to know. "I let you in my mind! I trusted you!"

"You knew I was ostensibly in his service," came Snape's cold reply. "If the thought of what that entails offends you, then you shouldn't demand to know what happens on a raid, now should you?"

"Answer my question! How many Unforgivables did you cast? Did you take your turn with the women? Was it your wand that gutted them?"

"Your audacity is beyond belief, Mr Potter," Snape retorted, his voice all the more dangerous now because it had gone quiet. "But I will answer you, since you are possessed of such a burning need to know. None, no, and no."

It took Harry a moment to match the answers to his questions, and when he did, he was filled with stark disbelief. "Right," he drawled, incensed. "What do you want me to think, that you stood there a pillar of virtue and Voldemort didn't even notice? I know you had to be doing those disgusting things right along with the rest of them!"

"You know nothing," Snape announced, "but you are going to find out. Not because I wish to vindicate myself. I care nothing for what a sixteen year-old whelp thinks of me. I care nothing for your trust, either, such as it is! But I will show you all that happened, regardless. For one reason, Mr Potter."

Leaning down, he hissed at Harry's face. "If you are old enough to hear about such things, you are old enough to see them, too. In fact, I insist."

Robes billowing, he spun for the door, one clenched hand beckoning Harry to follow.

Chapter Text

Harry didn't know quite what Snape had in mind until they reached the kitchen and he saw the pensieve sitting in the middle of the table. It hadn't been there, earlier. Harry supposed that Snape had brought it through the Floo again, which meant that he'd intended for them to practice Occlumency. But Snape had never arrived in Grimmauld Place before nightfall, before.

"How come you're here so early?"

"We can dissect my schedule after you know everything, Mr Potter," Snape sneered, yanking his wand from inside his robes and jabbing it to his temple. He drew out a silvery strand that roiled and twisted under its own weight, then sank heavily toward the floor as it drifted towards the pensieve. With a furious motion of his wand, Snape propelled it into the stone receptacle.

Harry backed up a step. He didn't want to see last night's Death Eater meeting. He hadn't even wanted to hear about it, not the way Snape thought, anyway. He'd just wanted to be sure he knew what his teacher thought of Voldemort's . . . methods.

"Get back here!" Snape barked, even as he withdrew another heavy strand from his mind.

Harry didn't. "This isn't necessary, Professor," he argued, trying for a tone that might calm the man down.

"I beg to differ, after your insistence upstairs that you must know everything about the Dark Lord!"

"All right, all right!" Harry shouted, wrapping his arms around himself. "That was misdirection, all right? Or lying, whatever you want to call it! I didn't want to know all that, those things you told me! I just wanted to know if I could trust you!"

"You would have made a dreadful Slytherin," Snape sneered, still pouring memories into the pensieve. Harry sort of shuddered. "Trust! It matters so much to you that you feel you have every right to trample my clear request to not discuss last night's festivities, does it? Then so be it, as I said. You will watch the meeting, Mr Potter. You will know not to question me again!"

"Look," Harry tried. "You're angry. I'd be angry too, if I were you. I'm sorry I asked, and I'm sorry I doubted you. I just . . . Look, it's hard for me, all right? I . . . like you, now. Well, most of the time, anyway. And I couldn't just split my feelings up into neat little slices where one part of me ignores what the other parts know, and I didn't want things to change and go back to how they were--

"Stop babbling and look in the pensieve!"

"No!"

Snape took a step towards him, his teeth clicked together as he snarled in clear intent, "Look in the pensieve, Mr Potter, or I will shove you in!"

When Harry didn't move, Snape snaked out a hand, wrapped his fingers around the back of his neck, and began to thrust him towards the edge of the kitchen table.

Harry struggled, but since he didn't have much chance against a grown man, he did the only thing he could think to do, in the circumstances. "Remus!" he screamed, his lungs close to bursting with the force of the yell. "Remus! REMUS!!! REEEEEMUS!!!!!"

Snape gave a harsh laugh and tightened his fingers. "Your beloved werewolf is not here. He went to get you ice cream. He thinks you are a little child who needs protecting. But you're not, are you? You're old enough to challenge me. You're old enough to know everything."

As Snape began to remorselessly shove him towards the pensieve again, Harry screamed, desperate, "I don't want to violate you, not again!"

At that, the Potions Master let him go, releasing him so suddenly and unexpectedly that Harry half-stumbled across the floor, knocking into the table. The liquid in the pensieve sloshed towards the rim, but didn't spill.

Unable to really believe Snape had relented, Harry froze in place and cast a wary glance over at his teacher.

Snape still looked furious, but now, he also looked controlled. Yanking out a chair, he seated himself on the far side of the pensieve, and glared at Harry. The glare quickly became a scowl. "You can wait for Remus and your ice cream sundae," he sneered, "or you can prove yourself an adult and finish what you started."

Harry pulled out a chair, too, and flopped into it, feeling sick with relief. "How does it make me an adult to look in that again? I told you, I don't want to violate you!"

"You violated me already, upstairs," Snape returned in a voice coated with ice. "You demanded my version of events, though you knew I preferred not to speak of such things. Not to mention, you made it clear you didn't trust what I'd said."

"I thought you didn't care about trust!"

"I don't," Snape snapped, curling his fingers and looking away. "Unfortunately for me, your trust is necessary to fight the Dark Lord effectively. We failed last year, Mr Potter. You doubted my intentions, my very allegiances, and Sirius Black died! Now the Order has one fewer member to carry on the fight. I will not allow that to happen again!"

"I do trust you, all right?" Harry was starting to feel even more desperate than he had when Snape was threatening to plunge him into the memories by force.

"You don't," Snape returned in that cold, hard voice he hated, his gaze seeking Harry's again. "You can't. It was evident upstairs. You need to see for yourself."

All true, though Harry was ashamed by then that he hadn't had more faith in Snape.

"Are you a man or a child?" Snape taunted.

Without another word, Harry yanked the pensieve towards him, leaned his face down into it, and felt himself sucked into a scene of carnage and horror far worse than anything he'd ever imagined could exist.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Snape's hand was on his neck again, though this time he had his grip on the collar of Harry's shirt, and was pulling him backwards. Disoriented, still caught up in the cyclic terror whirling in the pensieve, Harry fought, but Snape was stronger, and jerked him free.

"Drink," he ordered, shoving the pensieve out of the way and slamming down a glass of something clear yet viscous.

Harry quaffed the liquid, which tasted vaguely of rotting melon. It quelled his churning stomach, though not completely, not after all he'd seen. Upstairs, he realised now, Snape had told him just the barest outline of what last night's victims had suffered. The truth was worse, so much so that he felt tainted. Dirty. Reeking with it.

"I'm sorry," Harry whispered, his voice rasping painfully against a lump of regret in his throat.

"I'm certain you are," Snape returned, his voice still glacial, though without that dreadful fury that had filled it, before.

"I . . ." Harry gulped, not knowing really what to say, after all that. "I think I need more potion."

Snape narrowed his black eyes. "You are going to be sick?"

"Um, probably not, but my stomach still feels . . . awful," Harry understated, pressing his hands into his midsection. Then another thought came to him. "You gave me potion! I thought I wasn't supposed to have magical cures until my own magic came back!"

"It is back, as I have painstakingly laboured to explain to you. You simply do not have clear access to it, except through certain restricted avenues."

"Oh, right," Harry murmured, rolling his shoulders a little. It felt like he couldn't get his bearings. The images in the pensieve still haunted him, and as a particularly gruesome sequence replayed in his head, he felt the sickness in his stomach surge up into his lower throat. He swallowed it back down, gasping, "Can I have more potion? Please?"

His teacher shook his head, then tilted it to the side as he considered the request at greater length. "The amount you drank should have worked completely. Apparently you can tolerate magical cures at present, though they are not as efficacious as they should be. Interesting."

It wasn't terribly interesting to Harry at that moment, though he was relieved that the Potions question appeared to have calmed Snape down. Unable to bear the taste of acid in his mouth, he pushed up weakly, filled the glass with water, and sat back down, drinking it with a sigh.

"So, you just happen to carry Stomach Calming Draught around with you?" Harry asked, thinking to keep the conversation on safe ground. He wasn't too comfortable chatting with Snape, not after a few words put wrong upstairs had led to so much fury. He wondered how long it would be until Remus returned.

"I conjured it," Snape shortly replied.

"Oh." Harry actually hadn't thought of that. "Um, how come we don't just learn to conjure them, then, instead of make them? It'd be quicker. Less mess." Fewer explosions.

Snape stared at him as if not even a blithering idiot would ask a question as daft as that one. "I conjured it from my personal stores, not from the thin air," he drawled.

"Oh," Harry said again, thinking that that would be the end of his Potions questions for a good, long while.

"Go ahead, ask your questions," Snape uttered in a long-suffering tone.

Harry's gaze snapped up. "What, about Potions?"

"Merlin preserve me," Snape intoned, jerking a thumb towards the pensieve. "Of course not, Mr Potter. About that. What you saw."

"I don't have any questions," Harry denied.

"We'll work on your pathetic inability to lie convincingly another time, Gryffindor. Ask your questions."

"It's called civility," Harry retorted, his stomach finally calming. "You didn't want to talk about it, remember? I'm trying to respect that."

"So you can lie convincingly?" Snape mocked.

It was on the tip of Harry's tongue to say Sod off, Snape, but he thought he'd better not. "Where did Remus go for that ice cream?" he said instead. "All the way to Diagon Alley?"

"Stop procrastinating and ask your bloody questions!"

"Okay, okay." Harry held up his hands as though to ward off Snape's rudeness. "Since you insist. How come Voldemort let you just stand there and watch? I mean, every other Death Eater there, he told them what to do and they did it." A low shudder coursed though his shoulders at the thought of just what the Death Eaters had done.

"Every other Death Eater?" Snape mocked.

"Turn of phrase," Harry excused it. "Don't pretend you didn't understand me. I know you did."

Snape curled a lip. "You must be feeling better, you insolent brat."

"Be glad I trust you enough to be insolent," Harry snapped. "I'm not stupid, you know, whatever you like to call me. I wouldn't speak my mind around you if I didn't feel safe doing it."

"That explains a great deal," Snape retorted, nostrils flaring. "I suppose I can understand what makes you so horrendously rude to Lupin, in that case. You must feel extraordinarily safe with him."

"Yeah, well, I do. So what about my question?"

"Ah yes, the Dark Lord." Snape sat up straighter in his chair and conjured a cup of tea for himself as he assembled his words. "He trusts no one else to make his potions, Mr Potter, and contrary to what you might think, not all the elixirs he needs are strictly Dark Arts. Many consist of what the uninformed tend to term 'Light Magic.'" He paused to sip his tea. "I convinced the Dark Lord years ago, during his first reign of terror in fact, that the preparation of certain elixirs requires my hands to be clean of blood."

"How'd you convince him of that?" Harry had to ask. Compared to Snape, he didn't know much about potion-making, but he knew enough to recognise a cock-and-bull story when he heard one.

"My position as the foremost Potions Master in Britain helped," Snape informed him, nose lifted a bit. "Add to this the fact that many of the elixirs I refer to are my own development. No one else can make them, thus the Dark Lord is in no position to dispute me when I tell him what such potions require."

"And you're good at Occlumency, lies, and misdirection," Harry added.

Snape sneered down his long nose. "You think matters are so simple, Mr Potter? I don't break under Cruciatus; that's the main reason the Dark Lord believes my claims. He summoned me every night for a week and cursed me as thoroughly as his powers would allow. And when I still insisted that I could not have blood on my hands, then he finally let me be."

"Cruciatus every night for a week?" Harry gasped, closing his eyes. He remembered the Longbottoms, tortured with the curse until they lost their minds, and realised with some measure of respect that Snape was far stronger than he'd ever given him credit for.

"I, however, was not fourteen," Snape admitted, his eyes a bit shadowed at the memories.

Harry cleared his throat. "Um, well . . . how come you didn't tell him, while you were at it, that you couldn't watch things like that, either?"

"A spy is not much use unless he has a chance to be present," Snape dryly explained. "Who can say what the Dark Lord might reveal of his plans and intentions during one of these . . . sessions? He finds them recreational, did your poor pure Gryffindor brain not glean that much from what you saw?"

"Yeah, I got that," Harry answered, deciding to ignore Snape's phrasing.

"He is more likely to let things slip over his tongue when he is relaxed," Snape said with some measure of disgust. "It was during a raid on Muggles that he revealed his plan to capture a certain prophecy, for example. I have to be there to hear such things."

Harry swallowed, nodding. "But . . ." Tears rose to his eyes, though he didn't let Snape see. "But don't you wish that you could stop it, save them?"

"I don't wish anything," Snape flatly denied, his eyes hard. "I can't afford to. I Occlude my mind, and layer my thoughts so that he sees nothing but bloodlust, and rage, and deep-seated regret that I can't partake as the others can."

"How do you make yourself feel things like that, things you really don't feel at all?" Harry whispered, appalled.

Snape's lips twisted into an expression of self-loathing. "I have a memory, Mr Potter. Unlike you, I know how to use it."

"You mean you used to like seeing people being tormented and torn apart?"

"You oversimplify everything, which, I might add, is one of your major failings in Potions class," Snape mocked. "Shall I explain it in terms even you can comprehend? Once upon a time, I was an angry young man. The Dark Lord used that. And before you decide, in your Gryffindor nobility, to somehow idealize me as just one more of his victims, allow me to share another shard of truth. I fully agreed with his views on blood purity." He snapped his fingers, the sound almost explosive, it was so abrupt. "I would not have thought twice about killing your mother, and even less than that about killing you."

Harry was quiet for a long moment, before he asked, "What changed?"

Snape scowled. "I found I could not agree with executing blood traitors, as the Dark Lord called them. Any fool could see that there were too few purebloods as it was."

Harry didn't like the sound of that. "That's it?" he quietly questioned.

"At first, yes. But it led me to other questions, other conclusions." Snape sighed, and leaned his chin on his hands as he sat at the table, his dark eyes turbulent. "I began investigating bloodlines and discovered to my dismay that everything I had believed about wizardkind was founded on entirely false suppositions. There are no purebloods, not in the sense I once thought. We all have Muggle heritage; yours is simply more proximate than mine. And to say that only wizards are fully human is a complete misrepresentation of reality. We are the ones with non-human ancestors; it's where the magic comes from."

"I just knew Malfoy was part veela," Harry weakly joked, biting back on the other part he wanted to add, that Snape was likely part vampire.

"A hundred generations back, or more," Snape merely commented. "It's why Muggleborns exist, in fact. The magic mated into the bloodline finds full expression at some point in time. Pure-bloodedness is a myth. You are no less a full wizard than I, and your mother was every bit a witch."

"But about the Death Eater meeting . . ." Harry gestured hopelessly with his hands, trying to communicate regret that he still didn't understand. "Afterwards . . . when you get back to your dungeons, when you're free to really think, don't you wish then that you could have saved them?"

Snape suddenly shoved his chair back as he stood. "I can't save them. It's not in my power. I stand there with twelve, sometimes twenty, Death Eaters, every one of them intent on worse than murder. If I make a move to save anyone," he sneered, "it will not succeed. I will have sacrificed my only advantage for nothing!"

"I know you can't save them, Professor," Harry murmured, his words washing over Snape's obvious pain. Pain the Potions Master was trying to deny, he recognised. "I'm sorry you have to see those things, time after time, and even sorrier that I asked you about them. You're a brave man."

Snape turned away, each of his hands grasping the opposite elbow, but before he could reply, Remus was strolling through the front door, a large white bag in his hands. Animated ice cream cones across the front of it appeared to be involved in a food fight. "Anyone for sundaes?"

"Um, I'm not really hungry," Harry denied. In fact, he felt a bit like his stomach would never tolerate food again. "But thanks, Remus. It was really sweet of you to go out and get me some."

"Severus?"

Snape huffed. "I'd thought to advance Mr Potter's Occlumency, but I am distinctly not in the correct frame of mind."

With no more comment than that, he stalked from the kitchen. Not a moment later, the whoosh of the Floo told them that Snape had gone.

"What was that about?" Remus asked, setting the ice cream down next to the pensieve.

"I asked him what he got up to last night," Harry admitted, miserable.

"Ah." Remus didn't add that he thought that hadn't been such a capital idea, but he did inquire, "Do you want to talk about it?"

Nice of him to ask, Harry thought, instead of just launching into a reprimand, or worse, a discussion. Harry didn't need one. By then, he felt every inch the idiot child Snape liked to call him. A tightness in his throat had him gulping a bit, and casting his thoughts about for something to distract him.

"I'd rather talk about my dreams. I was trying to stay awake, but I dozed off over Hermione's notes, and when Snape woke me up, he said that I'd been screaming in parseltongue. I don't remember a thing from the dream, myself."

Remus stared at him. "Do you feel ambivalent about parseltongue?"

"Not really. Well, I used to. A lot. But even then, it was more a feeling from outside, than one of my own. I mean, half the school thought I was up to no good, and the other half didn't trust Parselmouths on principal. That's probably why I pretty much tried to forget I was one. But since chatting with Sals so much . . . and Snape and I had a talk about it, too . . . No, I really think I'm okay with it."

"I don't know, then," Remus admitted. "Maybe it was just a nightmare."

"Maybe," Harry acknowledged, but he really didn't think so. The dream meant something; they all did. He felt like the knowledge was just out of his grasp, that if he could reach out a bit further, he'd finally understand.

"Where is Sals, anyway?"

"Haven't seen her all day," Harry realised. Surely the little snake couldn't have been offended as Snape had claimed. Could she have? Just because Harry had basically told her to stuff her questions about fathers? "Oh, she'll come out when she's ready," he decided, scooping up the ice cream bag to stow it in what passed for a freezer. The fridge was pretty similar to an old-fashioned Muggle appliance, he decided; it was just kept cold through magic instead of electricity.

"Well, if there's not going to be an Occlumency lesson tonight," Harry announced, "let's you and me work some more on my magic. Wandless, I think. See if my wand, or even a wand, come to think of it, has been the problem all along."

"Could you cast wandless spells before?" Remus gasped.

"Nope, not one whit," Harry replied, trying to get himself into a cheerful frame of mind. "Not intentionally, anyway. I don't count accidental magic. I mean, all children do that; Snape told me it was normal. I don't think it means we can all bring it under conscious control. But I have to try something different than we have been doing."

"All right," Remus agreed. He went to move the pensieve out of their way.

"Don't look in that," Harry quickly cautioned. "It's full."

"With your thoughts?" Remus glanced about as if afraid to offer, but aware that he probably should, as Snape had left so abruptly. "Shall I help you put your memories back, Harry?"

"They're not mine," Harry told him, deciding he'd let Remus draw his own conclusions. "Come on. We'll go out to the parlour where Snape and I always work. And for Merlin's sake, Remus, don't be afraid to use your own wand. It's all right. I'm okay."

Harry didn't glance once at the pensieve as he strode from the kitchen.

Chapter Text

Snape didn't come to Grimmauld Place for three nights. The pensieve, still full of his memories, sat abandoned in the kitchen. Not wanting to even see it, Harry stopped doing any cooking, grateful when Remus took over without a word as to why Harry was avoiding the kitchen. They started eating in the dining room, even for breakfast.

Harry had got nowhere with wandless magic, and since both he and Remus were basically out of ideas, their lessons fell by the wayside. Harry occupied his time penning more letters, studying, practicing his Occlumency, and searching for Sals, who had yet to make an appearance.

He also found time, and the requisite nerve, to attempt another phone call to Privet Drive. Sitting in the damp, cold cellar, his eyes scanning for Sals by habit, Harry dragged the phone from his pocket and tapped out the number on the keypad, then held his breath as he listened to the ringing on the other end.

"Hallo?" A man's voice answered. Harry very nearly hung up before he remembered that he wasn't going to let his uncle intimidate him, ever again. Keep that thought, he told himself.

"Dudley Dursley, please," he politely requested, though he knew it wasn't likely to be as simple as all that.

Sure enough, it wasn't. "Who's this, then?" Vernon barked down the phone.

Breathe, Harry had to tell himself. Swallow. He can't do a thing to you, not now. He can't even threaten to eject you from the house. Been there, done that. "It's Harry."

A stream of invectives had Harry holding the phone a foot from his ear. He didn't hear all of it, though ungrateful freak and should have chucked you out into the street, basket and all, the minute we found you on the stoop stood out from the rush of words.

"Let me talk to Dudley," Harry finally ordered over the harangue.

"You can go straight to hell, boy!"

"Let me talk to Dudley or I'll come there in person," Harry tried. As expected, the threat worked. There was no way Vernon wanted Harry within a hundred kilometres of his home.

"Hallo, Harry," Dudley's voice came on, his tones sullen.

"Uncle Vernon!" Harry shouted, exasperated at the sounds of two people breathing into receivers. "Get off the extension!"

"How'd you know--"

"How do you think?" Harry tried for that icy tone Snape used to scare the students witless. "Now get off the phone so I can talk with Dudley, and while you're at it, get out of the house, too!"

"Don't you hex him, boy! I had a headache for a week after that stunt you pulled at Petunia's grave, God rest her soul. Have you no shame at all? At her grave, it was!"

"I didn't hex you," Harry snapped. "That was my teacher, who unlike you, is a decent sort. For some reason, he didn't want you to kick me senseless when all I'd done was go there to mourn!"

"Kicked senseless is too good for the likes of you," Vernon railed. "You killed my Petunia!"

"No, he didn't." Dudley had finally spoken again. He still sounded sad, but not as resentful as before. "He was trying to help Mum."

"Oh, grow up and smell the coffee, boy! He knew what he was about, the whole damned time!"

"Uncle Vernon," Harry broke in. "Get out of the house so Dudley and I can talk."

"Who are you to tell me what to do in my own home, by God?"

Harry sighed. He'd known all along that it would come to this. "I'm a wizard, and pretty soon here, I'm going to be an angry wizard! You know what happens when I get angry! Remember Aunt Marge? Now, get off the line!"

A phone slamming down was the only reply Vernon made to that. After a moment more, Dudley quietly announced, "He went to the backyard, Harry."

"Good," Harry said shortly, then willed himself to calm down. "How are you, Dudley?"

"You called to find out that?" Dudley sounded confused.

"Yeah. Are you doing all right? It must be really hard."

"I miss her," his cousin moaned.

Harry didn't know what to say to that, since he could hardly make the standard claim of I miss her, too.

"Was it really your teacher?" Dudley went on. "Who did that to Dad, I mean?"

"Yes."

"But I saw you cursing him!" Dudley argued. "It sounded like a whole bunch of different . . . er, spells, I guess. And then this big boom and blast all around . . ."

"Listen, Dudley," Harry tried to explain. "You were right to tell me not to come to the funeral. I think Uncle Vernon really was going to kill me. I didn't do any magic, but if I had, it would have been in self-defence."

"But you were screaming curses, Harry," Dudley went on. "How can you say it wasn't you?"

Harry wasn't about to get into that, so he merely replied, "I was just trying to scare him, Dudley. But he was too mad to listen, so my teacher helped me before things could get even messier."

"Your teacher's a wizard, then."

In other circumstances, Harry would have laughed. Dudley sounded like he'd just solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, or something, when all he'd done was state the obvious. Harry didn't laugh, though. Nothing was very funny at the moment.

"Yeah, he's a wizard."

"You said he wasn't. You lied to Dad."

"Yeah, well you lie to him about a hundred times a week," Harry pointed out.

"I do not!"

"How many times did you sneak puddings and deny it?"

Dudley gave a groan. "I haven't done that lately. I'm never hungry anymore, Harry. I think I've lost two stone since I saw you."

"Well, don't stop eating completely," Harry urged, concerned despite himself.

"How are you, Harry?" his cousin asked, a question which took Harry completely by surprise.

He shifted position, leaning on the wall as he sat cross-legged. "Um, all right, I guess. I was really sore for a while, after the operation."

Dudley drew in a little breath. "Oh, yeah. I'm sorry, I forgot. That's stupid, isn't it?"

"No, it's not stupid," Harry insisted. "You had enough to do, thinking about your mum."

"Yeah," Dudley acknowledged. "But I think Dad still doesn't really get it, what you did, what you tried to do, for her. It's kind of awful, actually. I didn't think much about it at the time, but I'd be scared to have an operation like that, and you're younger than I am, and Dad didn't even go sit with you, or anything. Even if he wouldn't, I could have, but honest, Harry, I didn't think of it until you were already gone. I'm real sorry."

Shocked almost into speechlessness, it took Harry a moment to answer. "Well, I had my teacher there, you know. So it was okay. Don't feel bad, Dudley. You were where you were supposed to be, with your mum."

"She never even woke up!" Dudley cried. "I didn't get to say g-- g-- goodbye!"

"I'm sorry," was all Harry could think to say to that. He heard a slight slithering noise, and darted his gaze towards it, but didn't spot Sals.

"You didn't get to say goodbye to your parents, either, though, I bet," Dudley said in a slow, sad voice. "Harry? I'm really, really sorry I was so awful to you. I mean, calling you scarhead, and little orphan Harry, and getting so mad when Mum and Dad let you move out of the cupboard, and forgetting your birthday and . . . stuff."

Who are you and what have you done to Dudley Dursley? That was the question on the tip of Harry's tongue, but instead of asking it in quite that way, he tentatively ventured, "Um, Dudley? Why are you being so nice all of a sudden?"

Harry heard a long sigh come down the line. "You remember those . . . things, Harry? In the alley? I couldn't see them, but I could feel them, coming closer until they were just all over me."

"Yeah. Dementors. I remember." Harry shivered.

"I . . . um, well I thought you made them attack me, at first," Dudley admitted. "I mean, I thought that for a while. You were already gone away to school before I realised that you made them stop."

Since Vernon had specifically said that Harry had set demons after Dudley, Harry wondered where his cousin's insight had come from. Somehow, he couldn't imagine Aunt Petunia getting it right, either. "That's true, I made them stop," he agreed.

"With . . . your wand, and some white-silver thingy galloping around," Dudley whispered.

"Yes. My Patronus," Harry explained. "Sort of a magic . . . saviour. I didn't think you saw it, though. Um, I'm not even sure that Muggles can. You can't see Dementors, after all."

"I don't know if I actually did see it," Dudley admitted. "But I know what it looks like. I bet that sounds strange."

"Er, well . . . yeah, it does."

"It's like this," Dudley explained, his voice catching a bit. "M-- M-- Mum was really worried about me, afterwards. I couldn't sleep but two or three hours a night, and those were filled with awful, horrible dreams. Like I'd never, ever be happy again. I don't think I can really explain what it was like--"

"You don't have to," Harry murmured. "I know. So, um, are you still having trouble sleeping?"

"Some, but that's because I miss Mum," Dudley sobbed, though after a few seconds he got himself under control again. "Those really awful dreams stopped after Mum took me to a . . . a therapist. Oh, Mummy and Daddy had an awful row about it, they did. Dad said it made me a Nancy boy, but Mum insisted."

"Your mum was right," Harry assured his cousin. "The therapist helped you, I hope?"

"Yeah . . ." Dudley mumbled something as if figuring out what to say, then went on, "Um, she hypnotized me, Harry. And that was when I remembered what you did to those . . . things in the alley. I don't know if I saw you make that silvery animal thing, really, but I could see you do it under hypnosis, if that makes sense. Um . . . can all wizards make those things?"

"Not all," Harry admitted.

"Yeah, that's what the therapist told me. She said you must be a really powerful wizard and I was lucky you'd been there to save me. She said those awful things were trying to suck out my soul and I'd have been a goner if I hadn't had a cousin who could stop them."

Harry dropped the phone.

"Harry?" he heard his cousin's voice asking. Harry scooped the phone up.

"I'm here. I was just surprised. You . . . you went to a therapist who knows about . . . um, people like me?"

"Yeah. Mrs Figg recommended her. Told Mum she'd better take me to someone who could understand what had happened, because otherwise I'd be locked up for a raving loony before too long. Mum didn't like it, but after a while I stopped sleeping completely, and I guess she figured Mrs Figg was right. Dad pitched a huge fit, but well, you know what Mum's like--" Another sob. "What she was like when she was determined to get her way."

Harry did know. Vernon would have thrown him out after the Dementors had attacked Dudley, but with a little prompting from Dumbledore, Aunt Petunia had put her foot down and insisted he be allowed to remain.

"I'm glad you got some help, Dudley," Harry said sincerely. "I hope Uncle Vernon isn't still being a git to you over it."

"Nah. Well, as long as I call you a freak every so often, he figures I'm doing okay. But I don't mean it anymore, Harry. I'm . . . I'm real glad you turned out a wizard, and one powerful enough to . . . stop those, you-knows. I've felt bad that I went barmy and blamed you when I should have been thanking you, that night."

Harry gave a low laugh. "Feels like I'm meeting someone new, Dudley. Hallo, I'm Harry Potter, pleased to meet you."

"I wanted to thank you at the hospital," Dudley confessed. "But with Dad there? I thought I'd better not."

"Good thinking," Harry approved. "No sense getting his back up."

"I gave you the chocolate hoping you'd understand it wasn't just chocolate."

For Dudley, Harry thought, that's a pretty complex concept. "I appreciated it."

Dudley cleared his throat. "I feel really bad about Mum. I mean, not just because I miss her, but . . . well, I was the one who told Dad that we should let you try some magic to heal her. After I knew what you'd done to those you-knows, I was sure you could do anything."

"I'm sorry I couldn't, Dudley. You do understand that, don't you? I did want to help, but there are some things magic's just no good for."

"Yeah, I get that, but it's hard to take. I mean, a wizard in the family, but what good did it do Mum? No offence, Harry."

"None taken."

"The worst part though is that I made Dad write that letter. He didn't want to, not at first. And . . . and then--" Dudley gulped in what sounded like a bucketful of air. "You offered what you could, the marrow I mean, but she rejected it, and died, and in a way it's all my fault because if I hadn't made Dad write you, you'd never have known, never have tried to help!"

"Oh, Dudley," Harry moaned, easily recognizing the sentiment, the fatal chain of logic leading to the flawed conclusion. "No, you can't do that to yourself. It's not your fault. You might as well say that your father's right and I'm to blame. It was my marrow."

"You were trying to help!" Dudley immediately objected.

"But so were you," Harry calmly insisted.

"Yeah," Dudley admitted, reluctance coating the word. "I tell myself that, sometimes. Part of me knows you're right, but there's this other part that keeps going over it, over and over, you know?"

Oh yes, thought Harry. I do know.

"I worked through a lot of things with Marsha," Dudley rambled on. "That's my therapist. Anger, mostly. And why I wouldn't stay on my diet. I . . . I'm glad you called. Dad says if you come around here, he'll show you what-for, and I figured after the . . . after what happened after the funeral, you'd know not to come home for the summer, or even try and visit, and well, anyway . . . I thought I'd never hear from you again, you know?"

"I'll keep in touch," Harry promised, surprised to realise that he meant it. "Are you still seeing Marsha? You know, to help you deal with . . . um, your mum dying?"

"Dad knows she's talked to me about . . . er, people like you, so now that Mum's not here to insist, he won't let me even mention her." Dudley sounded dead hopeless.

"Hmm. Well, tell you what, Dudley, I'll see if I can persuade him to be more reasonable."

Harry could hear Dudley swallowing. "I don't really think you should go around threatening people, Harry."

"That's a bit rich, coming from you," Harry coolly observed.

"Yeah, but--"

"No buts. Your therapy is really important, Dudley. Now, just one thing, all right? If you don't hear from me for a long time at a stretch, don't think it means anything. Things can get busy at a boarding school, and besides, we don't have phones or regular mail. Just owl post."

"How're you calling me?"

"Oh, long story," Harry told him. "I can't really get into it."

"You're hiding, huh?" Harry could almost hear Dudley nodding. "Dad's been saying that somebody's trying to kill you. Er . . . a wizard. A real bad one."

For a moment, Harry wondered how Uncle Vernon could know about Voldemort being after him again. Then he remembered that after the Dementor attack, it had all sort of come out right there in the Dursleys' living room.

"I have to tell you, Harry," Dudley admitted in a hushed, fearful whisper. "Dad'll be furious, but I just have to. Ever since the funeral, he's been going on about how he'd just love to help this whoever-it-is. Says it's time you got what you deserve, and who cares if it's some evil wizard who's after you, he'd help the devil himself if it would put you six feet under."

Harry almost dropped the phone again, but managed to say, "Uh, thanks for telling me that, Dudley. Though I really don't know what Uncle Vernon could do. I mean, this evil wizard isn't exactly in the habit of asking Muggles for assistance. In fact, you should warn your father to steer clear of him. He's really, really dangerous. He kills Muggles all the time."

"Yeah, well you be careful, too, Harry."

"I will," Harry promised. "Let me talk to your father now, okay?"

"Don't threaten him."

"No more so than he does me," Harry grimly replied.

Surprisingly enough, Dudley understood. "Yeah. Guess you have a point there. Okay. I'll talk to you later." Harry heard the phone being set down, then a bellowing voice growing fainter as Dudley walked away. "Dad! Harry wants to talk to you! Oh, come on, Dad! Come in!"

The next thing Harry heard was Vernon roaring "What now?" down the line.

"Can you guess what the Incendio curse would do to you?" Harry pleasantly inquired. "Or Petrificus Totalus? I didn't mean any of my hexes after the funeral, which is why it took my teacher to fell you, but I won't be so restrained if you go about offering to help other wizards arrange my death."

Vernon began stammering, but Harry cut him off.

"You're not to take it out on Dudley that he mentioned it to me, either! Just be glad that he has sense enough to appreciate family! And one more thing, Uncle Vernon."

The silence on the line was palpable.

"You let him see Marsha as often as he likes, and don't you dare give him a moment's grief over it!"

Vernon was cowed, but not so much so that he'd take that lying down. "Now just a minute! Who do you think you are, telling me how to raise my boy?"

"I think," Harry drawled, trying again for that glacial tone Snape could do so well, "that I'm sorely tempted to hex you right now over the phone. No reason why it shouldn't work, really. Shall I start with Alohomora? Trust me, you don't want to know what that'll do to you."

"I'll take him to his damned shrink!" Vernon screeched, rage punctuating the fear in every syllable.

"Good," Harry replied. "I'll be calling again to make sure you have. Good-bye, Uncle Vernon."

The only answer he got to that was the sound of the receiver slamming down hard enough to shatter it.

Harry sighed. Uncle Vernon was probably angry --and stupid-- enough to wish he could betray Harry to Voldemort. It wasn't a good feeling, knowing that his own uncle would gladly do that to him. But at least Uncle Vernon wasn't his blood. He was just an uncle by marriage.

Dudley, however . . . Dudley was different. In more ways than one, now.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Harry had finally made his way through Hermione's notes for Charms and Transfiguration. He was just bundling them up, along with the letters he'd written in the past three days, when he heard Snape and Remus talking downstairs. A peculiar sort of nervousness washed over him, similar to what he'd felt last year when he'd had to go to Potions after that horrible Occlumency session, the one during which he'd seen pieces of Snape's past. Similar, but somehow even worse. Back then, he'd trampled his professor's privacy, which was bad enough. But this time, he felt as though he'd done worse: he'd betrayed a friendship.

Why hadn't he just accepted it when Snape didn't want to discuss the Death Eater meeting? Why hadn't he believed the man when he'd claimed not to have taken part in those awful goings-on?

Because I didn't, simple as that, Harry admitted to himself. Snape was right; I had to see for myself . . . Doesn't mean I'm proud of it, though.

Well, there was nothing for it but to go downstairs and face the music, was there? Snatching up the parchments and letters he'd bundled, Harry made his way down to the parlour.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

"Mr Potter," was Snape's level greeting. No emotion there at all, not that he had expected any.

"Professor," he replied, nodding slightly. He felt like he was in a fancy-dress play, or something, even his words stilted, but he didn't know how else to speak, not after what had happened last time. "I have some things for you to owl to my friends, if you'd be so kind."

Snape took them from his outstretched hand, but kept his gaze averted.

"Severus has been asking about your dreams," Remus volunteered, looking from one to the other. He tapped an impatient foot as though he didn't care for what he was seeing. "I had to tell him that you haven't mentioned any new ones."

"I haven't had any," Harry explained. "Not that I can remember."

"Just as you don't remember screaming in Parseltongue, Potter?" Snape frostily inquired.

"I can't help it if I don't remember," Harry sighed. He really didn't want to go on, but he knew he'd better, all things considered. "Um . . . there's something else you both really should know, though. Probably the Order should know, too. I was talking to Dudley this morning, down in the cellar, er . . . on the phone, I mean, and--"

"Is this leading to an actual point, Potter?"

Harry took a breath, this time organizing his thoughts before he spoke, though it was difficult when what he really wanted to do was let fly with a few choice words about sarcastic arseholes. He managed, though, and succinctly announced, "Vernon Dursley's said that he'll sell me out to Voldemort, first chance he gets. I tried to discourage him, but knowing him, he'll say to hell with the consequences and do it anyway."

"What consequences?" Remus asked.

Harry closed his eyes, wishing he didn't have to admit it, especially in front of Snape. "Um . . . I told him I'd cast Alohomora on him, actually."

"Alohomora," Snape repeated, one half of his mouth curling in disdain.

"Look, he doesn't have a clue what it means," Harry retorted, tired of being polite. "What should I have threatened him with, a little friendly Avada Kedavra? And don't say I'd have to mean it, because for him, I damned well could!"

"Stop it, you two," Remus demanded. He glared at Harry. "Don't talk about the Unforgivables, Harry. It's obscene at your age. You shouldn't even be thinking about such things!"

"What's my age got to do with anything? Is it going to keep Voldemort from Avada Kedavraing me? I'd think the lot of you would be training me to wield the Unforgivables, because if you don't, I'm pretty much a walking dead man! Or did you think I was going to fulfil my destiny using Cheering Charms? Maybe I should just offer him a plum pudding and be done with it!"

"Potter, you're hysterical," was Snape's cold-hearted response.

"No, I'm aware I'd rather not die, thank you very much!"

"Please, sit down, Harry," Remus broke in. When Harry did, he turned his brown eyes on the Potions Master. "And you, Severus."

Remus took a chair only after Snape had sunk into one. "Now," he directed, "the question before us tonight isn't how best to help you once your magic comes back in full. It's whether Vernon Dursley poses any sort of real threat."

Snape blew out a breath through his teeth, and laced his fingers together. "The Fidelius Charm speaks to that. Potter may own this house, but he's not its Secret Keeper. He can't have told Dursley where it is, not even by accident or implication. Ergo, as long as he manages for once in his life to do as he is told, and stay here, he will be perfectly safe, his uncle's animosity aside."

"Harry?"

"I don't trust Uncle Vernon." Harry grimaced. "But like the professor, I really don't know what he could do to hurt me. I just thought I ought to mention it."

"I'm glad you did," Remus warmly replied. "I'll go let Albus know, too. So if you don't mind, Harry, I'll leave you and Severus to your Occlumency lesson."

Harry almost wished he could call him back, but he wasn't that much of a coward. The minute Remus had swept up the stairs, Harry turned to Snape and waited.

Snape regarded him for a long, silent moment. Harry cracked first.

"Do you have any letters for me?"

Snape withdrew a packet from his robes and leaning forward, passed it to him.

Harry sighed. Well, he'd known this wouldn't be easy. He was tempted, in the face of the man's silence, to go ahead and read his post, but decided that wouldn't really help matters. "I'm sorry, all right?" he finally offered, setting the letters aside. "I should have trusted what you told me."

The Potions Master narrowed his eyes to black slits. "Inadequate, Mr Potter."

"Inadequate? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Inadequate," Snape recited. "Insufficient. Unacceptable. Incomplete. Unequal to the purpose; deficient; not meeting the requirements especially of a task--"

"I know what it means!" Harry erupted.

"Then perhaps you shouldn't inquire as to the meaning."

The man was impossible. Absolutely impossible. Harry spoke through gritted teeth. "What do you want me to say, Professor? Let's just start with that, so I can say it, and we can get past this!"

Well, that was a lot of help. Snape gave him contemptuous look and didn't reply.

"Oh, the hell with it," Harry gave up. "Fine, hold your grudge. It's not like I'm not used to you hating me."

He'd sort of hoped to spark a reaction there, something along the lines of I don't hate you, Harry, of course I don't hate you. Now as to your reprehensible behaviour last night . . . At least it would have got them talking. Snape, however, declined to take the bait.

"Let's just get started, then," Harry conceded. "Get out your wand and yell Legilimens, and I'll start working on trying to push you out, all right? I've been practicing, but without someone to push against, I can't tell if I'm doing it right."

Harry saw Snape take a breath, and fancied the man relaxed, just marginally. "Aren't you neglecting something?"

Harry furrowed his brow. "Um, no, I don't think so."

Snape muttered something that Harry couldn't catch, but he was pretty sure he heard both foolish and Gryffindor in there somewhere. "The pensieve! Bring it, Mr Potter."

Flinching a bit at touching it, Harry carried the pensieve out of the kitchen and set it in its usual place on the low table before the couch, watching without a word as Snape incanted the Latin that would allow him to withdraw his own memories from it. Then, as he had done so many times before, he touched his wand to Harry's temple and whispered, "Pensare non pensatum."

Taking a chance, Harry thought of how much he regretted having pressed Snape to tell him about the Death Eater meeting.

"Again?"

"No." He arched back from the tip of the wand.

"Very well." Backing off a few paces, Snape cautioned, "This will be harder, Potter. Every time you push out at me, I will push in harder. Keep your focus. Centre yourself in the fire. Legilimens!"

---------------------------------------------------------------------

It had been their most gruelling session to date. By the time it was over, Harry was dripping sweat and felt close to passing out. Collapsing on the couch when Snape finally lowered his wand, Harry leaned back against the cushions and closed his eyes, gasping.

"It will be worse with him," Snape saw fit to warn. "Magnitudes worse."

"Yeah, got it," Harry moaned. "I'll keep practicing, now that I have more of an idea what to do."

"Do that, Mr Potter." Snape flicked his robes as though preparing to leave. Moving his wand toward the pensieve, he began chanting the incantation that would let him restore Harry's memories.

"No, not just yet," Harry blearily requested.

Snape arched a sarcastic eyebrow and waited for Harry to explain.

"I . . . I . . ."

"Yes?" Snape asked darkly.

His head felt like a lump of granite, but Harry lifted it anyway, green eyes searching out Snape's dark ones. "You said my apology was inadequate. Maybe it was, I don't know. But I'd really like you to accept it, anyway. Please. I thought we were . . . I don't know. Friends, in some respect at least."

Harry couldn't have said that Snape's expression softened, but at least it didn't get any worse. That alone was probably what gave him the courage to finish. "I want you to look in the pensieve. I mean . . . I put my apology in there. Maybe this time you'll think it's adequate."

A sigh escaped Snape's lips. "You don't have to do that."

"Yeah, well I want to. Professor?"

Snape shook his head. "Apology accepted, Potter. We'll leave it at that."

"But I really do want--"

"Do me the courtesy, this time, of respecting what I want."

"Like I should have done to begin with," Harry acknowledged, understanding dawning. "Yes, all right. Thank you, sir."

Snape gave another sigh. "I do believe I prefer you insolent, all things considered."

"I'll work on it." Harry grinned slightly. He didn't feel entirely at ease, but decided to try to act as though he did. Maybe that would get Snape to ease up, too. "Speaking of which . . . just tell me to sod off if I shouldn't ask, and this time I will, I swear, but I was wondering why you came here at all on Halloween. You must have known you'd have to leave. Did you want me to . . . um, see you getting summoned?"

An incredulous look, Harry thought, was at least a reaction.

"Okay, I guess not," he surmised. "I couldn't think why you'd want me to see, but you are a Slytherin, so I figured it had to be some sort of manipulation."

"Hardly," Snape denied, though he didn't look in the least put out at having been called manipulative, Harry noted. "The Dark Lord's summons usually comes at midnight both on Halloween and Samhain. I had planned to be gone before that hour."

"Samhain?"

"The cross-quarter day between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice," Snape snapped. "Really, Potter, this is very basic Astronomy! You should have known all this before you ever set foot at Hogwarts!"

"Yeah, well I was raised by Muggles," Harry drawled. "Remember? Most of them aren't so big on cross-quarter days, or all the other stuff you teachers assume we ought to know. It means I have trouble in a lot of my classes."

"It doesn't appear to trouble Miss Granger," Snape returned.

"We're not all brilliant." Harry smiled. "But I will pass on your compliment, Professor."

Snape didn't look concerned. "She will never believe I said it."

"You think? Nah, she'll trust a fellow Gryffindor."

To Harry's disappointment, Snape didn't acknowledge the banter by so much as a raised eyebrow. Damn.

The Potions Master merely gave a slight nod toward the pensieve. "We had best restore your memory before too long has passed. Hold still, Mr Potter."

After Snape had placed Harry's thoughts back where they belonged, Harry had to ask, "Why'd you leave your own memories in there for three days, then?"

Snape narrowed his eyes a bit. "I wasn't eager to draw them in and out of my mind, repeatedly. It was simpler just to leave them be until everyone concerned had looked his fill."

Harry wrinkled his nose. "Huh?"

A long sigh, then: "Albus needed to see them too, to look for patterns I might have missed, and since disembodied memories don't typically survive magical travel, he had to come here. His schedule didn't permit that until late last night."

Harry stared, a familiar fury filling his veins until they felt like they might burst. "The headmaster was here in this house last night? And he didn't even bother to see me, talk to me? What, does he still think Voldemort's going to reach out through me to get him? Even here?"

"Albus has to do what he thinks best," Snape answered. "I do not know why he has been avoiding you of late, but I could hazard a guess."

So could Harry, once he thought about it. "Yeah, he wants us to learn to get along."

"I should think it's more a case of . . . he wants you to have someone you can turn to," Snape clarified. "You were angry enough to destroy half the contents of his office last year, so he doesn't imagine you long to turn to him. But you do need someone, especially now that Black is . . . gone."

Harry closed his eyes, then clenched them. It helped. "I have Remus, still," he managed to say. "And Ron, and Hermione."

"A teacher whom even you admit doesn't acknowledge that you are growing up, not to mention one whose condition makes him regularly unavailable; and inept adolescents who cannot possibly understand the weight both of past and future that you must bear."

"Great, now I feel more alone than ever."

"You are not alone."

Green eyes opened, eyes that were old before their time. Eyes that had seen too much. "Of course I am. I can't firecall you in the middle of the night if I have a bad dream, or go on about how much Dudley baffles me, these days. It's not your problem."

"You may wake me anytime you have need," Snape steadily returned, though he didn't look the slightest bit compassionate about it. Just . . . factual. Analytical. "Any need. As for your cousin, who else can you tell? For all you say you have them, you have never told Lupin or your friends the full truth about Privet Drive."

"Yeah, well I never told you, either. Not really."

"Regardless, we are where we are, you and I." Snape paused for a delicate moment. "Might I ask what you meant about your cousin?"

"Nothing," Harry passed it off, then realised that Snape might be a good person to ask the one question that had been bothering him. "Just . . . I'm starting to think he might be willing to ward me, even if Uncle Vernon objects. But it's not his house. Does that matter?"

"It does."

"Figures. Oh well, it's not like I want to go back, anyway."

"Even were the wards intact, you would not go back to a home whose owner might conspire with the Dark Lord."

"Too bad he didn't say he'd do it sooner, then," Harry quipped. "I'd rather have spent summers here with Sirius."

"Black would have liked that," Snape admitted. "He asked Albus, more than once."

It was good to hear that, but it hurt. Terribly, reminding Harry of all he'd missed. He clenched his teeth, and purely to distract himself, asked, "So when's this Samhain?"

"Three nights hence." Snape bit out the words as though they were something frozen and distasteful. "And before you worry yourself again over what might transpire on that night, allow me to elucidate that for the Dark Lord, Samhain is ritual, not recreation."

Shivers convulsed Harry. He'd seen Voldemort engaged in ritual, after all. The blood of an enemy . . . the bones of his father . . . the sacrifice of a servant. "Oh, ick. That's probably even worse."

Snape didn't answer that, saying instead, "I will be not be here, tomorrow, although if you need something from me, Lupin can contact me through the Floo."

He wouldn't ask, Harry told himself. He wouldn't ask. He didn't need to know, he wouldn't ask . . . "Why aren't you coming?" he heard himself ask.

"The same reason I have not been here these past few nights. I have been brewing the Wolfsbane Potion for your mangy friend."

Harry whooshed out a breath. "It's that complicated?"

Snape got a strange look on his face, one Harry really couldn't even read, until the Potions Master admitted, "The first batch was unfortunately ruined."

"You failed to brew a perfect Potion, Professor?"

Snape scowled. "I had things on my mind. Do not inquire further."

That time, Harry knew enough to let it go. He certainly wasn't going to say what Snape always said in class: If you can only be competent when there is nothing to distract you, then you are not competent!

"All right," he murmured as Snape moved toward the Floo. "I'll see you day after tomorrow, then?"

"Yes. Late," Snape confirmed. "Until then, keep practicing, Mr Potter."

Harry nodded, and watched him go, belatedly realizing that not once all evening had his teacher chosen to call him Harry.

Apology accepted and You are not alone, he decided, were pretty much meaningless, in that case.

Harry was still frowning over it as he headed up to bed.

Chapter Text

"Still no luck?" Remus asked the next afternoon as entered the small room downstairs where Harry was working.

"Still no luck," Harry echoed in disgust, laying aside his wand. "I really thought that might do it, you know? If I just worked completely alone so I could really concentrate, so I could Occlude my mind while I cast the spells, if I just took hold of the dark powers that seem to be all I have left . . ." A harsh laugh rebounded against his clenched teeth. "Oh, well. At least now I have an excuse for being so bloody bad at Transfiguration."

"Is that what you've been trying all this time? You missed lunch."

"Not hungry," Harry excused, scowling at the wooden cooking spoons he'd collected from the kitchen. "And yeah. I figured I'd try something ridiculously simple, something McGonagall would laugh at, it's such a joke. No shift in function, let alone life force. No real change in structure, just a transmutation in form. Spoons to ladles, what could be easier? But I can't even do that."

"Perhaps simplicity itself is the problem. Have you tried something complex?"

"Yeah, when I got good and sick of these spoons. No luck there, either."

"How about something dark?"

Harry blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Or rather, what other wizards would term dark, Harry? Have you tried that?"

"Well, no . . . " Harry had to pause to think. "I mean, the magic I seem to have left would strike most wizards as somewhat dark, but that doesn't mean I know any dark spells. Besides, the one time I did try an Unforgivable, I couldn't make it work. And it's a sure bet I don't know anything that would qualify as a dark transfiguration, unless you mean . . . change something good into something evil?"

"Just a thought," Remus shrugged.

A shudder coursed across Harry's shoulders. "I . . . I can't. I mean, what would I make, assuming I could? What's evil, aside from people? A cursed object? Ummm, the Dark Mark?"

Remus just watched him, until Harry said again, this time with more force. "I can't. If the only magic I have inside me now can only come out as Dark Arts, then . . . I don't think I want it."

"Your Parseltongue is not Dark Arts. You know that. I don't think your dreams are, either."

"Yeah," Harry admitted, rubbing his neck as he stood up and stretched. "I just feel . . . confused. Speaking of Parseltongue, though, I think I'll go hunt up Sals. If I can find her, that is."

Still wondering if dark magic was somehow the catalyst he needed to fire up his powers once again, Harry pocketed his wand and made his way down to the cellar.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"Sals," Harry hissed, keeping the snake's mental image in mind so that hopefully, the words slipping past his lips would be in Parseltongue. He looked around the dim interior of the cellar, wishing that whoever had spelled it to glow had been a little more liberal with the Lumos. "Sals . . . come out. Where are you? I'm sorry for what I said about fathers, okay? I just know better than to wish I had one, but sometimes I wish that, anyway. Come on, Sals . . . I wasn't upset with you, not really . . ."

Harry heard a slight slithering noise, very faint. "Sals?"

No answer, but the sound came again, even fainter than before. Harry stopped moving, and listened closely. Hmm, behind that dilapidated chest of drawers, maybe. Harry tried to shove it aside, but it was heavy, and it had sat in the same place for so long that its square legs were embedded in the dirt floor of the cellar. Harry couldn't budge it, not even when he leaned his shoulder into it and shoved with all his might.

Never one to accept defeat, he did as he used to do when Aunt Petunia would demand he move things far too heavy for his small frame. The key was leverage. He sat on the floor, bracing himself against the wall, and planted both his feet squarely on the lower edge of the chest. Deep breath . . .

It moved a finger's breadth.

After fifteen minutes of shoving, Harry had got the chest pushed far enough aside that he could see a hole behind it. Just about the size of the air vents in the foundation of Number Four Privet Drive, the hole was torn out of ragged concrete, the opening so old that the cement was crumbling to dust. Beyond the hole, he saw a larger space rapidly swallowed up in darkness. No sign of Sals.

Harry poked his head through the hole, anyway, and brought the snake's image to mind, again. Too bad he couldn't tell for sure if he was speaking Parseltongue . . . "Sals? Come on, Sals. I said I was sorry. Are you back there?"

No more slithering noises, not a one, but Harry thought he heard . . . something. Very, very faint. Could you detect a snake's breathing? If so, it sounded shallow and rapid . . . and very irregular.

All at once Harry felt positively awful. All this time, he'd thought that Sals was upset with him because he'd overreacted to the "father" comment. Now, it seemed more likely that the little snake was ailing. Hurt, maybe. Or ill, and without enough strength to climb out of the cellar to the warmer rooms above.

"It's okay, Sals," Harry assured her, stretching out his arm. "You're cold, huh? Can you reach my hand? Just coil around my wrist like you used to, and I'll take you up and light you a nice fire, okay?"

He strained to hear a reply, but the only noise he could detect was that stressed breathing.

Sighing, Harry drew back from the hole, and after a minute, announced, "I'm going to make the vent wider so that I can get in there to help you, Sals. Don't be frightened at the noise."

With that, he was using a loose brick to carefully chip away at the opening. It was slow going, but Harry was afraid to slam brick against cement, for fear that shards of it would be propelled backwards into Sals.

"Okay, I'm coming in for you now, Sals," Harry finally said, this time insinuating his head and shoulders into the space. It was still a tight fit, but he managed, wishing he could do a spell to see just where Sals might be curled up. It was absolutely pitch black in there. "Sals?"

No reply. Again, just that breathing, along with a slight slither. A restless noise with no direction, but it told Harry that Sals was a bit further down the air space. He slithered forward on his belly, feeling a bit like a snake himself, and reached out his hand, gently patting it in a semicircle in front of him as he gingerly felt for Sals. His fingers clattered against odd bits of junk as he searched.

Hope she doesn't bite me, Harry suddenly thought. Normally Sals would never do that, he felt sure, but if the snake was ill, and startled, it could happen. Keep talking, don't surprise her . . .

Harry inched forward a bit farther, still whispering, "Sals? It's just Harry, nothing to be afraid of . . ." He angled his feet to get them through the air vent, and made his way forward again, still reaching out for the snake.

Then he felt her, a cool shivering ribbon only loosely coiled. Gently scooping Sals up, Harry cradled her between his palms and brought her close to his face. He squinted in the darkness, and thought he could almost see a faint shimmer of gold. Blowing some warm breath on her, he whispered, "It's okay, Sals. I've got you now. I'm just going to back up, and then we'll climb up to the warm place, all right?"

He felt the swaying of a tiny head lifting, the flickering of a tongue coming out to taste his skin. "Harry?" Sals slowly asked, the name sounding like slurred English to Harry's ears.

"Yeah, it's Harry," he repeated, blowing warm air on her again. The little snake seemed to sigh in pleasurable response, relaxing in his hands. Harry delicately transferred Sals to just one palm so that he could use the other to start pushing himself back out of the vent, whispering that everything was fine and Sals would be upstairs in the nice warm place in no time at all.

And that was when it happened.

Quite what happened, Harry wasn't exactly sure. All he knew was that one second he was ensconced in the calm, cool, dark, talking quietly to Sals, and the next, Number Twelve Grimmauld Place shook on its foundations. The walls surrounding the air space ripped like paper torn in half, and the wooden beams above him seemed to blast apart before they rained down all around. Instinct had him cupping his hands around Sals and ducking his head behind his arms.

Daylight streamed onto him, the light harsh and unforgiving on eyes that had spent too long indoors.

And then a snarling laugh as a pair of black boots thudded to the earth in front of him. Disoriented by the explosion and the brilliant sunlight, Harry squinted, and tried to see, but the image before his eyes wavered like a half-formed mirage. Before he could so much as reach for his wand, he felt himself wrenched to his feet, the hand on his shoulder so fierce that nails punctured shirt and skin both. He was yanked against someone tall and very cold, someone whose entire bearing screamed menace in a way that not even Snape ever had.

The fog across his mind clearing, Harry flailed with all his strength and reached for his wand -- sheer instinct overriding all knowledge that it was useless to him, these days. The man was stronger, though, easily able to hold him secure while he plucked the unused wand from between Harry's clenching fingers.

"None of that now, Mr Potter," a smoothly polished voice announced. "The Dark Lord has no interest in duelling you again. Oh, no indeed. He has much better use for you than battle."

"Malfoy," Harry gasped, the man's sleek curtain of white-gold hair coming into focus.

"Draco will be so pleased to see you," the man murmured against his ear. Harry struggled, but felt himself pinned. "I've had no end of letters from him lamenting your mysterious absence from school."

Harry abruptly dropped Sals to the ground. "Get Remus," he hissed in Parseltongue, though he had little hope that the sick little snake would even be able to. "For me. Make your way past the wreckage and back up to the warm place. Hurry!"

"You think to frighten me?" Malfoy mocked the hissing sounds. "I rather think you are the one who should be frightened, Mr Potter."

And then he was pulled even more closely against the man, his face smashed into thick velvet robes until he couldn't breathe, and he felt the sickening sensation of the whole world melting into him as Lucius Malfoy and he both Disapparated.

-----------------------------------------------------------

It was worse than it had ever been with Snape. Much, much worse. Harry found himself deep underground again, falling to hands and knees on a hard stone floor, throwing up what seemed like everything he'd eaten for the past three days. Even when there was no more point to being sick, dry heaves convulsed him until he thought he'd black out.

It's because my magic is blocked, Harry thought as he writhed against the floor, agony twisting his intestines into knots. That's why it's so bad.

When the contractions wracking his belly finally calmed to slow, roiling tremors, Harry pulled himself into a sitting position, knees tight against his chest, and tried to assess his surroundings. He was in a stone room, but not the one he'd seen in his dreams; this one was larger, though like the other it had no windows, or even doors. Just blocks of pebbled granite on six sides, and magical light infusing the air with a moderate glow.

Definitely, not the dream room, though, because in that one, he'd been all alone. And here, Lucius Malfoy was standing a short distance off, examining his gleaming nails with a studious air of indifference as he waited for Harry to recover.

"All better now?" he lightly sneered when Harry's breathing began to resemble something normal. "My, but you are quite the weakling, aren't you? Draco hasn't carried on like that since he was nine."

Aware that Malfoy was trying to get him to look up in retort, he closed his eyes and found that place deep inside himself where the fire dwelt. He didn't know for sure that the other man was a Legilimens, but he didn't know that he wasn't, either. What he did know was that Legilimency required eye contact, except perhaps from Voldemort himself.

Lucius' voice grew deliberately contemplative. "Of course, Draco comes from decent stock. What can one expect of Mudblood spawn like yourself? I dare say Severus is right, and it's only luck that's kept you alive until now."

Harry said nothing, the mention of Snape snapping him into a state of instant alert. Whatever happened, whatever was going to happen, he knew he couldn't risk betraying his teacher's true allegiances. Just so much as a thought out of place could do it. Harry instantly began to think of all the reasons he'd collected, year after year, to hate one Severus Snape, layering those thoughts along the top of his mind as he strengthened the rest of his mental defences.

Snape, greasy git, sarcastic arsehole . . . dropping Harry's nearly perfect potion so all that hard work would add up to another zero . . . twenty points from Gryffindor . . . Snape practically foaming at the mouth at the prospect of the Dementor's Kiss being forced upon Sirius . . . "I see no difference," . . . Hermione bursting into tears . . . "When I want you to spout nonsense, I shall have you drink a Babbling Beverage, Potter . . ."

"What, nothing to say?" the older man mocked, stepping closer, his heeled boots clicking on the stone floor. "No diaries to return? I still owe you for that, Mr Potter. Never let it be said that a Malfoy doesn't pay his debts."

With that, he reached down and viciously backhanded Harry across the side of the face, his signet ring flaying open a cheek.

Harry felt the pain and the sheer physical jolt try to draw him out of his mental fire, but he was easily able to redouble his efforts and keep his thoughts submerged. All that practice Occluding while I brushed my teeth, while I ate, while I read, even, he pondered, deep down beneath the fire, where it was safe to think. All that practice . . . good thing. I'm safe against distractions, I can do this, I can stay in the fire no matter what they do. They won't know the things I know, I won't let them see . . .

But what he knew, Harry didn't dare to think, not even beneath the fire protecting his mind. Discipline, discipline, he told himself, as he kept his eyes trained on the floor and concentrated on thinking things he didn't mind Malfoy seeing. Hogwarts, Quidditch. Hating Snape. The giant squid. Ron laughing with his mouth full. Dobby . . .

Malfoy raised his hand to strike again, but another voice interrupted him. A chiding voice. "Samhain, Lucius."

Harry glanced up quickly through his lashes and saw that a second man had Apparated in, one he didn't recognise.

"Indeed," Lucius drawled, dropping his hand. An expression of rank disgust crossing his sneering features, he angled his wand at the floor and murmured a contemptuous Scourgify, then pointed his wand at Harry. Expecting Legilimens, Harry braced himself against the wall and dove his thoughts all the way to the bottom of a well of fire, but Malfoy merely repeated the cleaning spell to mop up Harry's clothes, though he did nothing to stem the flow of blood trickling down his cheek.

Incantations filled the air, and a thin, vertical opening appeared in the stone wall behind the two men. Lucius waved at it, his wand executing an elaborate flourish before he thrust it back into his elegant walking cane. "Your accommodations, Mr Potter. I do so hope our Lord's hospitality meets the high standard of habitation you have long been accustomed to."

Since Harry wasn't willingly going anywhere Lucius Malfoy wanted him, he didn't move a muscle.

"Oh, come now," the blond wizard mocked, his voice that syrupy sneering one Harry had always hated. "Surely you aren't afraid of tight spaces, after all that time spent huddled in a cupboard?"

Against his will, Harry visibly flinched.

"Oh, but you are afraid," Lucius continued in mock consideration. "Poor boy, you're a veritable mass of scars. Such a shame your relations had no concept of the proper way to treat a wizard, but that's what one gets for having a Mudblood mother, I'm afraid." With that, he took hold of Harry's injured shoulder and thrust him through the crack and into a much smaller stone room. "You'll wait here for the Dark Lord," Lucius hissed. "And while you're waiting, Mr Potter, why don't you spend your time wondering what else we learned from your great fat lout of an uncle? Oh, my, yes. We do know a few things about you, Mr Potter. It must be awful to have relatives who are so very . . . common, not to mention Muggles, of all things."

Harry stumbled, falling to his knees after he was shoved inside the smaller room, and thought to himself, Fire. Fire fire fire. Firefirefirefirefire . . .

But his mental discipline could not sustain all Occlusion, not when Lucius Malfoy spoke again.

"I really must remember to thank Draco for letting me know you'd wandered far afield of Hogwarts," he drawled. "I wonder what would be appropriate. A new broom, do you think? Perhaps a house-elf of his very own? Ah, well." Lucius turned away slightly, and addressed his companion, all sneering humour entirely gone from his voice as he gave the command.

"Annihilate the dwelling standing at Number Four, Privet Drive."

Chapter Text

This stone room, Harry instantly recognised, was the one from his dreams.

An instant after Malfoy had thrust him inside, the narrow vertical gap between the stones vanished. Hoping the solid surface was just an illusion, Harry threw himself against the wall, but of course it was useless. Malfoy wouldn't knowingly leave him a way out.

Time to take stock, Harry thought.

Not that there was much to take stock of. This was more a cell than a room, and so tiny that he could sit down only if he bent his legs. A soft glow emanating from the blocks meant that he could see despite the absolute lack of natural light, but there were no windows, no doors, no openings of any kind, just solid block, and all of it several feet thick if the gap he'd been thrust through was any indication.

Now that he was secured in the cell, there were no doubt anti-Apparition wards up all around to keep him in place, not that he had ever Apparated on his own, or had the slightest idea how to go about it, even. But such wards would keep anyone else from showing up to rescue him. Knowing Voldemort, they'd even prevent the use of Portkeys, though of course only Voldemort's closest henchmen were likely to have one linked to this place. Closest henchmen . . .

Still Occluding his mind, though less fiercely than before, Harry carefully avoided thinking anything that would incriminate . . . anyone. Not even in his deepest mind did he permit himself to attach a name or an image to the vague hope stirring deep in his soul. Truth to tell, he tried to squash the hope, too, just in case it was too much a giveaway.

He concentrated on his own situation, such as it was. Even that required him to tread carefully through his mental fire, lest Voldemort, unbeknownst to him, was attempting to access his true thoughts. Was the ugly git such a skilled Legilimens that he could, without using eye contact, or even being physically present, sneak past Harry's formidable defences, undetected? Harry simply didn't know, but he was all too aware that just a few months earlier, Voldemort had actually possessed him. Not that he'd been Occluding at the time, but still . . .

Harry saw no reason to take any chances, so he deliberately didn't think about having lost proper access to his magic. He merely pondered, at the forefront of his mind, I don't have my wand. Malfoy took it, and refused to consider the greater issue at stake.

Stretching his arms as high as he could reach, he began to systematically pound on each and every one of the stones encasing him. Up and down the walls he struck and shoved, testing for weaknesses which, he found to his disgust, didn't exist, at least not physically.

What about magical weaknesses? he wondered. Of course he didn't have his wand, but he'd just recently been thinking about all the times during his childhood when he'd done magic without one. Accidental magic, perfectly normal for a wizard child. All it had taken was enough emotion, and the fierce, instinctive desire to do something with it.

Closing his eyes, Harry tried his best to summon those surges of fury that had plagued his childhood. From memory after memory --ones he didn't care if Voldemort saw-- he called forth the rage that used to make the glass over Dudley's photos shatter. The anger that had momentarily silenced Aunt Petunia once, that had more than once blown the door of the cupboard clear off its hinges.

Dark thoughts, dark memories, the dark core of himself, the one he hid from everyone else, the one that had started creeping forth after he'd seen Cedric die. Harry reached deep down into it, all the way through the fire shielding it, and reached for his power, for the magic he knew was there, the magic that was coming forth in dreams almost every time he slept.

All around him, the stone walls rippled, as though they were water disrupted by a falling rock.

Eyes closed, Harry didn't see it, but he felt it, that surge of magic flowing from his soul.

Reaching even deeper, he tried again, tried for an emotion worse than anger, worse than rage. A longing to kill, to murder, to destroy as he had been destroyed, day past endless day of never having had a family, never having had a home, nobody to care, nobody to give him the love that any child, even a freak, craved with every fibre of his soul . . .

Annihilate the dwelling standing at Number Four, Privet Drive, he heard Malfoy say again. Harry laughed, a harsh cackling sound more reminiscent of an insane old man than a sixteen-year-old boy, and snapping his eyes open, watched the laughter claw the walls. The air itself vibrated with the force of magic spilling past its confines. The blocks rippled again, then shimmered, the surface layers glowing translucent until it seemed he could see the very heart of the stones.

By that time, though, Harry had drained himself of all he was. His legs giving way beneath him, he slumped in the cell, falling gracelessly to the stone floor, gasping for breath. Every muscle in his body felt as though he'd been straining on his broom for hours, and his mind itself seemed to have become some mushy substance that could hardly even sustain Occlusion.

Somehow, though, he managed to keep that wall of fire up, right up to the moment when he lost consciousness and his head hit the wall with an ugly thump.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Harry awoke to one thought only, and it wasn't fire.

Thirst.

Horrible, gut-draining thirst, his very bones parched with it.

How long had he been confined in this cell, how long had he lain unconscious, dreaming---

That was when it hit him, something that should have been obvious far, far sooner. My dreams! Remus was wrong; they aren't symbolic. They aren't about ambivalence, or being in a dark place emotionally, though by now I suppose I truly am. My dreams, though, are something else. They're literal. They're coming true . . .

In a rush of panic, Harry raised his wall of fire, scattering thoughts of loneliness and despair above it as he dove beneath to contemplate his dreams. Annihilate the dwelling standing at Number Four, Privet Drive . . . that must have happened by now; Malfoy gave the order hours and hours ago, if my thirst is any indication. So is Dudley safe? He wasn't inside when the house began to crumple, not that it means anything . . . The clearing, somebody coming, something coming . . . I was seeing the site of the Death Eater meeting . . . this cell, the awful thirst . . . it's all come true.

And so, what's coming next? The answer should have frightened him; it was terrifying enough. But somehow, it didn't. It gave him strength.

I'll survive, Harry realised. Whatever happens on Samhain, I will survive. I'll get back to Hogwarts . . . in the hospital wing. I'll be blinded, though, and my body horribly broken, but none of that will last. I've healed before; I'll heal again. I saw myself later, doing fine, though I was still kept away from the Tower, from my regular classes, for some reason. I was down in the dungeons, and I actually seemed comfortable being there . . . Oh, no, oh crap, it's true . . . I'm going to hit Ron for insulting Slytherins and laugh when Malfoy calls us brothers, and it wasn't a you-are-such-an-idiot laugh, either, it was more of a yeah-we-sure-are-brothers laugh . . .

I'm going to be screaming like a man possessed, screaming in Parseltongue . . . if that one was a seer dream, that is . . .

Something Trelawney had said impinged on his consciousness, then:
Dreams show you what may be, not what must be . . .

Harry groaned out loud, deciding that now was probably not the time to decide the Divination teacher knew what she was talking about. He had to cling to his dreams, even if the last few were more disturbing than he cared to think on. He could deal with that later. For now, he had to focus on the first few, and believe that no matter Voldemort's filthy plans for him, he would come through it alive.

It helped, knowing what was going to happen, at least in part. He'd be tortured, but not killed. He'd be blinded, but he would escape. Somehow. No need to dwell on the who or how, thoughts that were, at the very least, a peril he'd better avoid.

All he could do was prepare himself as best he could, Harry decided. Since knowing some things had really helped, he decided to figure out what else Voldemort had in store for him. He had more than dreams to help him with that; he had Lucius Malfoy's vicious comment about cupboards, about what else the Death Eaters might have learned from Uncle Vernon.

Uncle Vernon, who wanted nothing more than to see Harry suffer and die. Uncle Vernon, who was certainly dead himself by now, having chosen the wrong allies in his fight against Harry. Hmm, what would Vernon Dursley have talked about, besides cupboards? Of course, maybe he hadn't talked at all; everything Lucius knew could have been gleaned by means of Legilimency, but as far as Harry was concerned, it boiled down to the same thing. Uncle Vernon had meant him ill, after all.

So what could he reveal that would tend to really, really hurt Harry?

Hmm . . . Realizing he was getting distracted, Harry bolstered his wall of fire, spreading above it a few innocuous memories of learning to paint at primary school. Then, deep down in a safe place, he resumed his contemplations. Funny that Lucius would think the cupboard would frighten him. It didn't, though come to think of it, Harry had made the same assumption before, thinking that . . . certain people . . . who heard about it would believe him claustrophobic. Strange how life turned out. Sure, sure, he'd blasted the door off the cupboard a few times, but not because the enclosed space frightened him. He'd just wanted to show Uncle Vernon who was really in charge. The little bedroom itself was actually sort of comforting. Cosy. Back when he was little, and he used to wish he could have a hug, he'd huddled under his blankets at night and fantasized that the walls close in were cuddling him, that he was sleeping in a warm, safe embrace. Besides, even when it was daylight out, and he was playing with broken toys filched from the rubbish bin, he was relatively happy under the stairs. Nobody else ever came into his cupboard, so there was nobody in there to call him a freak and a misfit. And really, it wasn't like the cupboard had been a prison. He wasn't always locked in there. Most of the time he'd stayed in there by choice, because compared to a house full of Dursleys, a little room all to himself was a haven.

Anyway, Lucius had got it wrong when he'd decided that being locked in a tiny cell would demoralize Harry. Definitely, his current surroundings weren't comforting, but they didn't really bother him, either, except insofar as they were keeping him here to wait for whatever Voldemort had planned.

So, what did Voldemort have planned? That was the real question. What had Lucius told him? And what did Samhain really involve? Wishing that he'd paid a bit more attention in History of Magic, Harry wracked his brains for anything Binns might have mentioned about cross-quarter days in general, or Samhain in particular. Hmm, it predated Halloween, didn't it? Yeah . . . once Muggles started depending more on their calendars and less on the stars, they'd fixed All Hallows Eve to fall on a particular day. But Samhain still varied a bit, though it tended to presage the same sorts of things. In particular, death. Harry had a strange idea that fire was somehow associated with Samhain as well, but he couldn't really remember how it fit in. Too bad Binns wasn't interesting enough that you could actually pay attention to his lectures. And anyway, it wasn't like Harry had heard any of this recently. When you score a grade of Troll on an O.W.L., you don't tend to go on in the subject, do you?

And as for what Lucius Malfoy might have learned from Uncle Vernon? Harry didn't really know. What did Uncle Vernon think he was afraid of, besides the cupboard? Hmm. Nobody on Privet Drive could think he feared hard work or insults. And while he was obviously smart enough to avoid a thrashing when he could, it wasn't like the thought of one made him hysterical, either.

There was one thing, though, that did make him hysterical . . . or at least, that used to. He'd done better with it lately, hadn't he? Of course he'd had help to cope, but still, he had done better. Uncle Vernon didn't know that, though. All he knew was that when Harry was too little to even understand what a needle did, he'd unleashed defensive magic and screamed to wake the dead, just because he'd seen one in a nurse's hand.

Needles, he thought with a gasp of horror. Bet you anything, anything at all, they're going to use needles.

All at once, he knew with blazing insight just how they were going to blind him.

Harry swallowed back the bile that had risen to his throat, and straightened against the wall, bending his legs into a more comfortable position. He wanted to escape, to get away before the worst could happen, but he knew he couldn't. His dreams were true, every one. He was going to be blinded, and he was going to somehow manage to endure it.

But he didn't want to go through that. He really, really didn't want to.

Harry thought of summoning once again that dark surge of magic, a stronger one this time, one that would do more than fade parts of the stones away. Something that would shatter them, or make them melt, so that he could run as fast as his feet would carry him.

It was hopeless though, and he knew it. It wasn't just the dreams that told him so, it was the fact that unleashing all that energy before had hurt him more than it had helped. It had weakened him, something he could ill afford. He had to stay strong, he sensed, to make it through whatever Voldemort had in store for him.

Right now, he had to stop thinking about needles, about blindness, about becoming some semi-Slytherin who punched his best friend in the face.

Pulling his knees up to his chest, Harry closed his eyes against the steady light, and shifted his Occlusion so that there was just the fire, with random thoughts drifting atop it, but nothing beneath. He let himself sink deeply into fire, into nothingness, into a mind cleared of all worry and fear. He closed down his thoughts, and let himself simply rest.

So that he would be ready, come what may.

-----------------------------------------------------------

The light in the cell changed, became slightly brighter before it steadied again, and Harry opened his eyes to see that a gap, wider than before, had appeared in the wall. Beyond it stood a Death Eater in full meeting regalia, simple mask and robe, yet the whole effect was hideous.

Harry stared, bleary-eyed, but with enough presence of mind to realise that he was Occluding already.

He knew it was Malfoy even before the foul creature spoke with saccharine intent.

"Too weak to stand, Mr Potter?"

Harry pushed up from the floor, reeling. He didn't know how much longer had passed, only that the constant ache of thirst had gone numb by then. His tongue was thick in his mouth, his skin like a dry husk, but it no longer hurt. It just was, and he would survive it, as he would survive anything Voldemort cared to inflict. Not because he was famous Harry Potter, the Boy Who Bloody Well Wouldn't Die, but because of the magic still inside him. The magic that gave him dreams couldn't be wrong. His magic had never been wrong, had never truly failed him, though at times it might have seemed that way. Even when he'd thought it gone, it had been weaving a dark spell inside him, granting him dreams to keep his mind and soul free no matter that his body would be soon be subject to torments unspeakable.

"Come," Lucius beckoned, gloved fingers elegantly curved. "It's time."

Harry didn't move, but it didn't matter. Lucius entered the cell through the wider opening, and strangely, stroked a leather-clad finger straight down his cheekbone, tracing the raw scar he'd inflicted with his ring. His head tilted, he regarded next the holes torn in the shoulder of Harry's shirt, the blood spotting the pale fabric.

"Tsk, tsk," Lucius commented, shaking his hooded head from side to side. "These won't do at all." His wand out, he pulled Harry from the cell, turning him around to look at him from all angles.

"Contusio evanesco," he incanted, pointing his wand at the place where Harry's skull had collided with stone. Then he was sweeping his wand in an arc to encompass Harry's whole body. "Lavare. Sanare."

His skin tingled all over, the sensation painful as it coursed across the scar on his cheek and the small wounds scattered across his shoulder, and then Lucius was regarding him once again.

"The shirt could be made presentable," he lightly sneered, "but I should think the Dark Lord would prefer you without. Besides, if memory serves, it will soon be filthy again in any case. Remove it, Mr Potter."

Harry didn't, but again, it didn't matter. One quick spell later, and the shivering cool of the stone room was washing across his bare chest and back.

Lucius pulled him close, yanking him into a hideous parody of an embrace, and whispered, "Harry Potter, guest of honour at Samhain. Whoever would have thought?"

And then, the whole world dissolved, a sensation that was becoming rapidly familiar to Harry, though no less distressing.

Chapter Text

Harry lost his concentration as he was forcibly Disapparated, though he didn't realise as much until a new world came into focus around him. A dark forest clearing, the one from his dreams, but it wasn't true now that somebody was coming.

Something had arrived.

Voldemort.

And with him, a horde of Death Eaters, all of them wearing those hideous masks as they stared at the spectacle before them. It certainly was a spectacle; even Harry could recognise that much. He'd fallen to his hands and knees immediately upon appearing in the clearing, and was in the throes of vile convulsions, his body violently objecting not just to Apparating, but also to the lack of any food or drink in his belly. His stomach wanted to reject something, and when it couldn't, it twisted itself in tight knots instead, and tried to propel itself surging up his throat. Or so it seemed to Harry.

He began Occluding the moment he saw Voldemort's fierce red eyes fixed on him, but by then, it was too late.

Laughter rang out in the clearing. Horrid, evil laughter made all the more sinister by the fact that as soon as Voldemort began it, his Death Eaters echoed the sound en masse. A symphony of laughter as Harry crouched, retching. He thought it was his condition Voldemort found so amusing. Yeah, nothing like a bare-chested sixteen-year-old boy tossing up his socks to get your jollies going, he mentally commented, placing that thought above the fire, where any Legilimens could see it. But he'd misunderstood Voldemort's laughter.

The Death Eaters stood motionless, a slight breeze ruffling the hems of their robes while their leader stepped down from the raised platform where he'd stood. Two scaly hands reached out to grasp Harry firmly by the shoulders, the contact on his bare skin horrible, just horrible. Voldemort pulled him upright until he was kneeling, naked from the waist up, then leaned down to peer directly into Harry's eyes.

Fire. Fire. Firefirefirefirefire---

But damn it, damn it! Voldemort's powers were strong.

"You're thinking of your home destroyed," the Dark Lord softly whispered, moving to speak against his ear, though a rustling of Death Eaters told Harry that they could all detect the quiet voice. "You don't care much about that, though." Voldemort laughed softly. "I told Lucius you wouldn't, though it was a fitting end for a houseful of Muggles who thought to use me instead of the other way around. Ah, and you think so too, I see. We're alike, Harry, more so than you know. I told you that; do you remember? You should have listened."

All that passed through Harry's consciousness like candy floss across his tongue, dissolving before he'd had the barest taste, though it grated to hear Voldemort use his name. What mattered was to protect his mind, protect his secrets, to let the evil wizard think he knew Harry to the core, when he didn't know anything at all. Or, not anything that mattered.

But that wasn't true, as Harry found out in the next instant. Voldemort did know something that mattered.

"Pity you've lost your magic," he purred, his hands reaching out to cup Harry's face, his rough fingers caressing his temples, stroking his cheeks. "Of course it's in there somewhere . . . you know it, so I know it, but you can't find it, can you? My dear Lucius didn't need to take your wand, after all. You're like a child among us, wand or no. No defences, none at all."

Someone in the circle of Death Eaters jerked. Flinched, it seemed to Harry, though his vision was starting to waver. Voldemort was staring deeply into his eyes again, which meant that Harry had seen the slight motion with his peripheral vision, if he'd seen it at all. Lucius Malfoy--or the one he thought was Lucius; it was difficult to be sure now that the man had joined the circle--moved slightly, too. A sharp motion of his hand, palm facing the ground, as though forbidding something.

Harry tried hard not to wonder who it was that had flinched, just as he applied every scrap of mental discipline he'd ever had to not contemplating which one of those masks hid the one he wouldn't think of. Not here, not now.

Discipline, fire, maintain your focus. You can do it, Harry.

Finally recovering from Apparating, Harry found the strength to knock Voldemort's hands away from his face, and then, the strength to stand, though day past day without any water meant the ground beneath his feet felt strangely unstable. Voldemort rose with him, to tower over him, and kept gazing into his eyes.

He felt it again then, even stronger than before, the pulsing sensation of seeking, searching, a mind inside his own, trying to find his defences, trying to broach them, trying to rape his thoughts. Harry pushed back as he'd practiced, just enough for Voldemort to perceive the fight, just enough for him to think that Harry was resisting . . . giving him what he expected, protecting his mind from an even greater assault . . . then a semblance of yielding, of exhaustion, as Voldemort pulled from him memory after memory, thought after thought . . .

Though only those which Harry was allowing him to plunder.

The world collapsed into a whirlpool of blood, the red of Voldemort's eyes encompassing the whole of his vision, but Harry kept his mental fire burning, and kept all that really mattered safe, though his hands twitched convulsively as Voldemort searched layer after layer in his mind. It was ever so much worse than he had imagined, far worse than he'd been warned. Like slime oozing across the surface of his mind and then sinking into every cell. Caustic slime that burned where it touched, that left in its wake an imprint of evil to taint his soul.

Finally satisfied, Voldemort stepped back and smiled, wicked enjoyment painted across his face. Harry blinked, clearing his vision of all that red, and noticed Nagini slithering in a circle behind the Death Eaters.

Voldemort clapped his hands just once before he announced, "Behold, the so-called saviour of the world. Is it not delightful, the prospect he brings to us this night? Harry Potter, without a shred of power. The Boy Who Lived, without a trace of magic." A slight frown wrinkled his scaly face. "I'm surprised you didn't note this yourself, Lucius. It's been true for some while. The boy . . ." Here, Voldemort laughed. "The boy thinks that he can hide the truth, fancies himself adept at Occlusion, but I saw it all the moment he graced us with his presence. He's become little more than a squib."

Harry clenched his fists, knowing that wasn't true, but other than that, he didn't let Voldemort's antics from distract him from what really mattered: keeping his thoughts so well hidden that the Death Eaters didn't even know they were hidden.

"Well, we shall have to change our plans," Voldemort was announcing, his voice consumed with mock sorrow. "Wizard tortures won't mean nearly as much to the boy now that he's barely a wizard." He licked his thin, almost non-existent lips. "Lucius, I believe you had a suggestion?"

A robed man came forward to kneel at Voldemort's feet, right next to where Harry was standing, and again, Harry had the fleeting sensation that someone in the crowd had drawn back from the sight.

"My Lord," came Malfoy's obsequious voice. "Your brilliance exceeds words, my Lord."

Voldemort laid a hand atop Malfoy's hood, and pulled it off, then rippled his snakelike fingers through the man's white-gold hair, separating strands from the tie which had bound them in back. "So good to hear you think so," he purred. "And your suggestion, Lucius?"

"As the boy's little more than a Muggle," Malfoy purred right back, "let him be tormented as a Muggle until it's time to make the sacrifice."

That time, Harry was the one who flinched. Sacrifice?

"Ah, yes," Voldemort replied to the slight gesture. "Lucius didn't explain, Harry? How remiss of him. I take a sacrifice each Samhain. The blood of an enemy, Harry." He shivered, his eyes glowing a deeper red. "How delicious that this time, I'll partake of you."

From somewhere, Harry found his voice, though it hurt to feel words rasping through a throat parched with thirst. "Each Samhain?" he mocked, the sound rough. As much as it hurt, though, speaking seemed to help with the dizziness that had plagued him ever since he'd stood. It gave him something to focus on besides the raging whirlpool of fire that was keeping the real him safe. Besides, cowering had really never been his style. "Each Samhain! Can't you bloody well count? There's only been one Samhain since you crawled your way out of the ooze and into a body, Tom."

A ripple of disbelief coursed through the circle of Death Eaters, the sensation so strong that Nagini stopped moving and stared, her tongue flickering strangely. One Death Eater actually stepped back, out of the circle, but remembered himself a moment later and moved forward again, though the motion seemed . . . almost reluctant.

Harry couldn't help it; beneath the fire he felt himself think, Oh no, don't give the game away, Snape! You can't be so foolish as to let them see the truth, you just can't. Show them what they want to see, you're the one who taught me that!

Harry spoke again mainly to distract himself from thoughts he knew he shouldn't be indulging, even if it definitely seemed that Voldemort had desisted from the Legilimency.

"What, don't your lackeys use your name, Tom?" He cleared his throat when the dryness in it threatened to choke off further words. "Lucius here knows it; he did have your diary, after all." Harry smirked then, a wicked smile of his own, and glanced down at the kneeling man. "Dobby's doing fine, by the way. Shall I tell him you said 'hi'?"

"Why, you--!" Lucius was on his feet in an instant, his hand reaching out for Harry's neck, but Voldemort was faster still. His wand appearing from nowhere, he gave a flick, and "Crucio" fell from his lips, the incantation sounding almost idle, as though Voldemort had much better things to do and this was a tiresome task indeed.

Lucius Malfoy fell to his side and writhed in the dirt while Nagini, interested, slithered her way into the middle of the circle to watch.

"Finite Incantatem," Voldemort murmured after a moment. "Really, Lucius, you must learn to control your temper. Do you see me spilling his blood before the proper time? And as for you--" He returned his attention to Harry. "You're a foolish boy if you think I wasn't celebrating Samhain for many years before the night I slew your parents."

It's not going to work, Harry thought, deep down where it was safe. You're not going to make me lose my temper. I'm going to stay in control of myself, and keep Occluding, and watch for my chance to escape. It has to be coming, it just has to. The dreams are real, the dreams are true . . .

Defiant green eyes stared back at Voldemort as Harry spoke with the utmost contempt ringing through his rough, raw vocal cords. "Too bad for you that when you slew them, you missed me."

"I did not miss you," Voldemort hissed, stretching out a finger to trace Harry's scar, which burned as the evil wizard touched it. "It's there, for all the world to see, proof that you've been honoured for a time to bear my mark!"

"It's hideous and disfiguring," Harry said flatly, remembering the way Draco Malfoy had described the scar that day in Potions class. Someone in the crowd gave off a choking sound, and it was all Harry could do not to think Shut up, Snape! or really, even yell it. "It's a curse, not an honour," he went on. "Just like those godawful ugly burns on everybody's arm. I notice you don't have one yourself, Tom. Is that a case of you being able to dish it out, even though you can't take it?"

"I'd bind your mouth if I didn't wish to hear your screams," Voldemort spat back. "Perhaps you won't be quite so insolent once you understand your position, Harry. First we shall have some fun. Muggle-style, since it's all you deserve. And then, the sacrifice. I'll have to bleed you, I'm afraid. Tradition, you know. My tradition. You didn't think I let you get so thirsty for no reason at all, did you? Oh yes, I know how thirsty you must be. It's to thicken your blood. And then . . ."

He pulled Harry to him by the shoulders, his arms so strong that Harry knew it was magic, not muscles, compelling him forward into a close embrace, his entire chest pressed against Voldemort's robes. A chill came straight through them, a chill that suggested the evil wizard wasn't truly alive, though of course he was. He dipped his head to rest his lips against Harry's ear, his tongue flickering out to lick his neck as he spoke in soft, almost loverlike tones, though the words were hardly lovely. "Ah yes, I'll drink mine enemy's blood, and when I've drunk my fill, the sacrifice proper shall begin. You'll burn, my sweet child. You'll burn while you're still alive, and I'll inhale the sweet tang of the smoke, and when it's all over and you're nothing but a blackened husk, why then, I'll grind you into dust. There are Potions, you know, Dark Potions that use such dust. We'll toast you every Samhain, Harry. Literally."

The purpose of the speech had been to frighten him, to make him crumple as though the deed were done already. But Harry wasn't frightened, and he wasn't about to crumple, not when he knew with absolute confidence that it wouldn't come to that, that it couldn't.

And if the point of these ridiculous theatrics is to see me quail with fear, then I'll do just the opposite, Harry decided as Voldemort let him go, expecting no doubt to see his legs collapse beneath him. They wanted to. Harry locked his knees and stayed on his feet.

"Fuck off, Tom," was his casual rejoinder, delivered just as though he really didn't have time for this garbage. And as though he found Voldemort stupid beyond belief.

Voldemort, it seemed, had had enough of games. "Severus," he called, turning slightly to the side. "Come hold him for us. We'll have no magical bindings here, not tonight. No, that would make things easier for him. The boy positively detests you; it's all there in his mind." Voldemort cackled. "He knocks over so many potions in your class because he shrinks away whenever you pass by; he can't abide the thought that you might touch him! So doff your gloves, Severus. Lay your bare hands on him, now, and we'll see how long his reckless courage lasts."

A robed man, tall and thin stepped forward, his voice slightly muffled by his hood as he replied, but Harry easily recognised it. He Occluded all the more fiercely as he braced himself to act his part, to feel again the hate that had since grown into something rather different.

How do you do it? he remembered asking, though it seemed he'd asked in some other life, not this one. Make yourself feel things you don't feel at all?

And the answer. I have a memory. I know how to use it.

Harry had a memory, too, and what was more, after all the time he'd spent with Snape, he had a sense of misdirection. Act the part, some deep piece of him whispered. Play the role. What would these Death Eaters expect to see, to hear? You hated Snape, and you thought he worked for Voldemort; any fool would have suspected that much. But you didn't know for sure, did you? They would all expect Snape to have been too wily for that. And so they'll expect surprise, betrayal, outrage . . .

"You rat bastard!" Harry shouted, and as Snape came near, he pulled back his hand and slapped the man across the face, just as hard as he could manage. In his condition, it wasn't that fierce a blow, but of course all that mattered was that it appear authentic. "Albus Dumbledore trusted you! But you're on the madman's side, after all! I knew it! I knew it all along!"

Voldemort laughed in true enjoyment. "Ah, his hate before is nothing to what it is, now, Severus. Well done. Well done, indeed."

Harry raised his hand to hit Snape again, but the sight of Voldemort's upraised wand gave him an excuse to back down. "Enough of that, young Harry," the Dark Lord intoned. "Or I shall have to use Imperio on you. Should you like to try resisting it again, and in your current state?" He curled a contemptuous lip.

"My Lord," Snape was saying, on his knees by then, removing his black leather gauntlets even as he spoke. "My hands, the light magic, your potions, my Lord . . ."

"Oh, we won't bloody your pure precious hands," Voldemort laughed. "Lucius has more finesse than that." He turned to Harry. "Get on your knees!"

Harry stayed upright, defiant. Proud. If the bastard wanted him on his knees, he could damned well make him kneel. Let him try Imperio. It would be a victory, of sorts, that he wouldn't bend, not on his own.

Voldemort, though, was relishing another kind of force, this evening. The Muggle kind. "Severus," he prompted. "Now."

Snape stepped behind him, and then Harry felt warm hands on his shoulders, the grip firm enough to leave bruises as he shoved Harry straight down and forced his legs to bend. It isn't real, Harry told himself beneath the fire. It's a feint, just like those last few Potions classes I attended. It has to look real; it has to look sadistic, and vicious in intent . . .

But it felt real enough as Snape grasped his arms from behind and dragged them remorselessly together until the slightest move on Harry's part sent agony surging through his shoulders. He didn't think he could wrench himself away without dislocating a joint. Not that that was a remote danger. Dehydrated, starved, still half-weak from Apparating, he wasn't in any shape to brawl, and even if he were, he was still only sixteen and small for his age.

"Lucius, up," Voldemort was saying, his robes rustling as he conjured a chair and seated himself to watch the show. "You shall have your revenge, now, but at my direction, is that much clear?"

"Yes, my Lord," murmured Lucius as he crawled to the seated man and kissed his robes. Voldemort patted him on the head much as a kinder man might pet a favoured hound. "Conjure needles, my Lucius," he throatily whispered, holding out his hand. "The boy hates needles, as you well know."

A pile of glimmering silver shards appeared in Voldemort's palm.

"Oh, you can do better than that, surely?"

A larger pile materialized, the needles thick and stout like the ones Aunt Petunia used to use with yarn. Only sharper. Far, far sharper.

"The boy's afraid," Snape sneered from behind him, though the hands holding his arms in place said something different. His teacher's fingers shifted in a deliberate motion. It wasn't methodical, and it wasn't anything as obvious as a caress, but it served to bolster Harry, nonetheless. It reminded Harry that however it looked to the rest of the gathering, he in fact wasn't alone.

"He should be afraid," Lucius replied, the words as dark as his tone as he held out his own hands for the needles. Voldemort dropped them one by one into his palms.

"The face, first," came Voldemort's command. "And then you may indulge your wildest dreams, Lucius, but for one thing. Save his eyes for last."

"Yes, my Lord," said Lucius, silver gaze glinting in the moonlight. He'd never replaced his hood.

Even knowing his dreams, even knowing what must be, when a needle came into his line of vision, Harry did again what he'd done in the cell. He reached consciously down into the well of anger, hate, and horror that had been so much of his life, and tried to pull forth an explosive force the likes of which had made those stones half-vanish. But this time, there was little answering reaction. Was he too weak from thirst to manage it? Had he drained himself too far with that last huge surge of magic?

He made the needle heat a bit; that was all.

Not the result he wanted, for Lucius had taken his gloves off as well--for dexterity, Harry supposed--and when he felt the sharp shard of metal warming, his silver eyes narrowed in appreciation. "Ah, very nice," he smoothly remarked, before glancing back at his master. "Heated needles, I should think, my Lord."

He spelled his hands to not get blistered, then used Calorum to make the needle glow red-hot, and brought it close again. Harry tried to bear it bravely, not even whimpering as the thick, ugly needle came close, but when heat and pain pierced slowly through his cheek, he sucked in a harsh breath and clenched his teeth, and whimpered, his eyes filling with tears.

"Auspicious beginning," Lucius murmured, smiling, though the expression didn't reach his eyes. He wasn't sated. Far from it. "Are you sure you wouldn't like one, Severus? Just one?" Another hot needle danced before Harry's eyes as Malfoy held it up for Snape to see.

"You know I can't," Snape growled, shifting to hold both Harry's wrists with one hand. His free arm came around the boy in an embrace that pinned Harry's back against the length of Snape's torso. "Do your worst. For me."

"Save his eyes for last," Voldemort repeated, his voice gone lazy with pleasure. "But do be creative until then. Make the insolent child ask me for mercy."

I don't ask for things I won't get, Harry clearly thought, some part of him satisfied to see Voldemort startled by the claim, though it warned him to keep clear hold of his protective image. I don't. I won't. I can't . . .

"And make him scream," added Voldemort, leaning back in his chair, hands held idly in his lap.

And that, Harry couldn't deny his captors, though he did try. Six times he felt the blazing needles shoved viciously through his flesh. Six times he held his breath and gritted his teeth and waited for the pain to pass. But all Lucius did in response was conjure larger needles, and begin plunging them like daggers into places where they'd scrape against bone.

Harry screamed, then. He screamed himself hoarse, and thrashed against Snape's tightening hold, and before it was over, he lost all semblance of control and bucked like a wild horse, but Snape held him in place, for all of it, every bit, even the last. By then Harry was stripped completely naked, and flat on his back on the dirt. Every inch of his skin was riddled with puncture wounds, needles sticking out of him at hideous angles. More needles were fully embedded inside him, stabbing the interior of his back and legs every time he breathed. They were spelled to stay hot, to burn him for just as long as it pleased Voldemort to watch him suffer.

And then, as the sound of his last screams rebounded off the distant mountains and echoed in the clearing, the worst came to pass.

Lucius sat atop him on his chest, and another man held his legs, but it was Snape who had his large palms affixed to either side of his face. Snape whose thumbs and fingers pried his eyes open and held them that way as Lucius did as the Dark Lord had commanded, and saved his eyes for last.

Harry prayed for death, though he wasn't disposed to go quietly. When Malfoy's fingers passed too close to his teeth, he growled just like a dog and tore a vicious chunk from the bastard's hand, spitting it out like so much offal.

Lucius' response was swift and merciless, though he glanced at Voldemort first and waited for a nod of approval before swinging back his other fist and crashing it straight into the side of Harry's face.

Stars, stars inside the fire . . . stars and sparks and whirling flames inside the firefirefirefire . . .

Harry thought then that he would faint, and counted it a mercy, but the feel of Snape's strong hands holding him in place became an anchor keeping him there to endure it. The needle came back, wavering before his eyes, undulating like a serpent about to strike. He struggled to close his eyes, but the reflex was thwarted by those thumbs digging cruelly into his face.

His blood curdled in his veins as the thing came closer, and plunged straight down through the centre of his vision.

Not once, not twice, but over and over in some hideous dance of fear and pain. Tears slid down his face, thick hot pungent tears dripping from his eyes and draining into his mouth. They tasted odd, slick and coppery and cloying, and it came to him that these weren't tears at all. It was blood from his wounds. Blood, coating his skin, and as it flowed, the hands released him. Different hands took over. Colder ones, holding him again so that the other eye might suffer the same fate as the first. But these hands weren't an anchor.

Losing his grip on reality, Harry felt himself slipping away into the depths of a great, deep sea, into waters that quenched his fire, that cooled him and healed him and whispered, deep in his mind, that he had done well.

For he hadn't begged, not once. He hadn't given the craven monster the satisfaction.

Chapter Text

Harry surfaced to an awareness of pain coursing through his entire body, though after a moment or two he realised that the needles were all gone. He was upright, which was a strange, disorienting position to be in just upon waking, wasn't it? Perhaps not; he could feel magic all around him, holding him up, supporting muscles that on their own, were little better than puddles of tired silk. His mind felt the same way. Woozy, wavering. Almost blank.

Harry shook his head to clear it, his hair so lank and sweat-soaked that it remained plastered to his head, and blinking fiercely through the agony that used to be his eyes, tried to adjust to the fact that the whole world had gone formless and black. It was too much to take, too much to believe. He kept expecting each blink to bring the world into focus.

The expectation was pointless, though. All he was managing to do was make himself sick to his stomach, the fierce stinging in his eyes roiling down the back of his skull and straight through his spine until he thought he would pass out again.

Tempting option, but even through his blazing headache he was beginning to think more clearly now, and knew that giving in to pain and fear wasn't in his best interests. He had to be ready to flee, didn't he? Even blind, he had to be ready to seize the chance that was coming.

What must be, what must be . . .

It was getting harder to believe that he was really going to get out of this, though, divining dreams or no, an impression that was bolstered when the magic holding him upright began to fade away and with maddening slowness, he was left to stand on his own.

He tried to take a step forward, and couldn't, and only then did he realise his position -- in more ways than one. Heavy, rough manacles encompassed his wrists, which were held behind some sort of pillar. Stone, he thought, from the cold scraping feel of it on his bare back and buttocks. He was naked still, breezes brushing his knees, and all around him he could hear the murmur of voices as somewhere below him, Voldemort held court with his Death Eaters.

Below . . .

He must be on the raised platform, then.

He must be on display, for the sacrifice.

Harry began Occluding, again, though this time not so much to protect his thoughts as to protect his sanity. Fear like he'd never known was clawing up from his guts, but he'd learned by then that submerging himself in mental fire did help him be more stoic. At least, sometimes.

And what helped, too, was thinking about something other than himself.

Fire danced atop his mind as he let his private thoughts wander. Dudley. What has happened to Dudley? Did he survive the destruction of Uncle Vernon's house? Did he just stand out there on the lawn like a dolt, until some Death Eater noticed his mouth hanging open? And what of Sals, and Remus? Sals was sick, Sals felt awful in my hand. So chilled, so cold, far more than she should have been, even down in that cellar. Did she make it up the stairs and back to Remus? But what if she did? What was I thinking, sending Sals to warn him? He's no Parselmouth. And anyway, what if there was no upstairs left for Sals to get to? I don't know how Malfoy got to me, though it seemed the whole building was destroyed right on top of my head! What if Remus is gone--

A voice outside himself roused him from his thoughts. Lucius' voice.

"My Lord, my most precious Lord. The hour approaches."

It seemed to Harry that Voldemort must have Apparated directly next to him, for one second he felt himself entirely alone on the dais, and in the next, a rush of frigid air snaked its way around him as an evil voice hissed straight in his ear.

"So it does," Voldemort crooned, his voice bursting with anticipation. "Wormtail. The knife."

The flat edge of a cool, smooth blade caressed Harry's cheek. "You remember this knife, don't you, my sweet, dear child? You've seen it before--" Soft laughter broke the sentence into parts. "Ah, but you can't see, can you. Such a pity. No magic, no sight."

Harry shuddered. He'd have been only too pleased to spit in Voldemort's face--or at least in his general direction--but the lack of moisture in his mouth nixed that plan. His voice came, hoarse, croaking, weaker than before. So weak it disgusted him, actually, but at least he didn't quail. "Fuck . . . you . . . Tom."

"My Lord," Lucius' smooth tones came though, far closer than before. "I should be honoured to be the one to bleed him for you, if you so desire."

Sound of robes brushing wood, and someone's hair being tousled. His hearing was unnaturally acute, almost preternatural, Harry thought. That was supposed to happen when you were blind, he'd heard, but wasn't it supposed to take a while to develop? All he could think was that his magic was at play, amplifying the slightest noise until it filled the limits of his universe. The sensation was strange, but helpful in a way.

"Severus, the potions," Voldemort said, as Harry heard steps approaching, boots on dirt, then someone climbing the platform.

He thought about yelling a few more insults about treachery and such, but really didn't have the energy. Or maybe it was something else. Snape's mere presence near him made him shudder violently. Images spilled through his mind, the feeling of being held tightly down, being restrained so that Lucius might ply the needles. A roaring in his head made him almost pass out before he forced it back by sucking a huge, harsh gasp of air into his lungs.

More breaths, coming faster. The feeling that he was hyperventilating, blended with a feeling that he wasn't breathing at all. He forced himself to stop it, to slow, to think beneath the fire burning in his mind. To listen, and stay aware.

Clink of glass as a vial was opened, and a smell wafted through the air. Cinnamon, clove, and other things he couldn't identify, though Merlin only knew he'd smelled them at least a hundred times during Potions class. "It merely awaits the finishing touch," Snape was explaining, the position of his voice making Harry suspect a kneel, as well. It was all he could do not to kick out in Snape's general direction, and this time, the violence wouldn't be a feint to fool Voldemort.

"Ah yes, fresh blood." Was Voldemort actually licking his lips? Sounds like it, Harry thought, managing to get his mind off Snape. He found to his disgust that he could actually smell the blade on that knife, could smell his own blood from last time still coating it in dried flakes. Or was that Wormtail's blood as well? Another vision flashed through his mind, an older one. Wormtail, cutting off his own hand, the sight so gruesome that even as a memory it made Harry ill. Had Wormtail used the same knife, though, the same one he'd used to bleed Harry?

At that moment, Harry couldn't actually remember, but decided that the idea of his blood and Pettigrew's being mingled was the most disgusting thing he'd ever heard.

It was almost a mercy that nobody gave him any longer to hold the thought. Someone moved behind him--Lucius, he guessed--and without any further ceremony at all, the manacle was shoved up towards his forearm and his left wrist was slashed. Strange that it didn't hurt much at all. Were his arms gone numb from being pinioned so long behind him? Or was it just the fact that after all those needles, his nerve endings had had about as much as they could take? Either way, it was a mercy that the vicious cut felt no worse, really, than when he'd stabbed himself with his quill.

He felt blood dripping down his fingers, though that sensation seemed muted, too, and realised only slowly that his fingers were touching something made of glass. He was bleeding into the vial, completing the Potion. He heard it froth as his blood hit it, smelled the spicy odour once again, though this time it seemed the spices had gone rank and sour. How long they let him bleed, he didn't know. It seemed like hours, but it also seemed like it passed in just a moment. Harry let his head loll forward, his jaw slack, and wished like hell that even if they were going to burn him as they'd said, somebody would give him a fucking drink of water, first.

Another clink of glass, the potion capped, though Harry felt the blood continue to drip down his fingers. He heard it spilling onto the platform, splashing against the wood.

"Enemy's Bane," Voldemort murmured in tones of ecstasy as the liquid in the vial sloshed slightly, as though he was holding the Potion up to the moonlight to examine it this way and that. "But more potent than the last few batches you've made up for me, Severus."

"No doubt, my Lord," came the Potions Master's voice.

"Burn him. Now," was the answering command, ringing out in the darkness that was Harry's mind.

No wood at his feet, no kindling carefully arranged, but these were wizards. They didn't need props to their theatrical. "Incendio Conflagare," Lucius' voice calmly intoned.

And Harry began to burn from the inside out, his magical core lighting like a torch, the fire blazing all the way to the bottom of his soul.

Strangely enough, it was a familiar sensation, one not so very different from the mental fire he could create himself. Without conscious thought or decision, he felt himself snapping fully into the image of his fire, more completely than ever before. Fire burning, fire raging, fire chasing demons from his mind, from his core.

Firefirefirefire . . .

Dark powers engulfed him until he was drowning in the flames. But these were his flames, or rather, these flames were himself; they couldn't harm him. These flames existed at the very core of his magical being, that core that had never quite burned itself through, that had come alive in dreams, and Parseltongue, and fire itself.

His core was burning now, but it didn't matter. When it came to fire inside him, Harry was in control. Fire battled fire as Harry fought off Malfoy's spells. He fought the intrusion into his core, forced it back, as images of Snape began to play inside his mind. Harsh images from the year before. Force me out, Potter. Force me out.

He hadn't known how to, not then, but he did now. He could push thought with thought; it wasn't much different to push fire with fire.

So Harry pushed, his consciousness bound up in the fight, his body straining with effort, his head coming up, blind eyes blazing with power, though the fight was purely mental.

A pulse of power cracked in half inside him, a shock wave so fierce he thought it would rip him apart as it tore through his muscles and blasted through his skin. He felt it ripple through the clearing much as it had rippled through the stones before, only this surge of magic was far more powerful. Screams shot out from every direction, the Death Eaters scattering, though Voldemort was still issuing curses. Even his voice though, sounded as though it were coming from farther away. Had he been flung back by the blast of magic?

Harry tried to fathom that, but the content of the curses caught his attention instead. Fire curses again, but these were literal, designed to set him ablaze from the outside in.

"Fuegarum diablare! Infierno!"

Smoke began to curl at his feet, heating his toes, filling his nostrils with its acrid scent.

And then, it seemed that everything happened all at once. Someone tall and hard was wrapping his arms completely around him, encircling the pillar, too, pressing the entire length of his body into soft robes that smelled vaguely of wormwood, and lavender, and oil of clove.

He knew who it was even before he heard the voice, or felt the sweep of hair close against his cheek. Hair he'd felt before, when Snape had cradled him in the hospital, or pulled him close to practice Occlumency.

Healing waters doused him again, the instant he was pulled into that embrace, and he heard his teacher's voice close against his ear, but warm, so warm. Not cold like Voldemort's. A rush of warmth to ply the waters in his soul through every limb, every aching bone.

"Hold tight, Harry."

That was all he said, just those three words, before something blazing hot was pushed against his shoulder, connecting with both Snape's finger and his own skin.

The familiar jerk behind his navel yanked him from the meeting site, yanked his hands free of the manacles, and sent him crashing down into a damp meadow that smelled strongly of clover. A robe was wrapped around him, and he was lifted, cradled firmly against Snape's warm chest, and carried forward. No merciful numbness, not now. Every step jarred his wounds, and Harry cried out softly, but then he was lowered to some sort of pallet, his limbs carefully arranged when he could not move them on his own.

He felt a hand come up to stroke his brow, though it stayed well clear of his eyes.

He heard a spell, felt a wand touching lightly here and there, fleeting like a feather. Was that a spell being incanted? A long spell . . . or maybe there were several, overlapping in his ears. He tried to make them out, but his head was full of cotton wool, and anyway, they didn't make sense. That didn't matter, though. He felt his belly fill with something warm and wet that washed across his veins, felt the pain tracing every nerve begin to fade.

" . . .--mire," was the last thing he heard before he was sent slowly spinning into a great vat of drowsiness that pulled him underneath the healing waters in his soul.

-----------------------------------------------------------

The next thing he knew, he was in the hospital wing, familiar smells surrounding him, and someone's hands were tightly grasping his. Gnarled hands, knobby with age. Harry pulled his own hands away, and rolled awkwardly onto his side, pain coursing through him, though it was manageable. Even his eyes were just a dull ache, assuming he still had eyes. He didn't know, didn't want to touch them to find out, and certainly didn't want to ask.

So instead he asked, "Remus?"

"No, it's Albus," the headmaster softly replied.

I'm blind, not an idiot, Harry wanted to snarl back, but he wasn't quite so far gone as to actually do it. "I was asking for him, not saying you were him," he groaned instead.

"I'm sorry, Harry," came the headmaster's muted voice. "Remus Lupin can't be here."

"Is. He. Safe?" Harry enunciated with staggering precision, just so there'd be no more room for misunderstanding.

"Oh yes, of course," Dumbledore murmured.

"There's no 'of course' to it, not from my viewpoint!" Harry shouted, just before his last word sent him into near hysterics that emerged as mad laughter, until with a furious scream, he forced himself to cut it out. He wasn't going to fall apart over this; he just wasn't. "I bloody well don't have a clue what's happened! To anybody! Is Snape safe?"

"Professor Snape will be back shortly with some potions he's been brewing for you," Dumbledore replied, calm in the face of the storm. "To restore your sight. They may take some little while to work, though. We aren't sure how long."

"Are you going to tell me what the eff happened at my supposed safe house, or not?"

"You left it," the headmaster sighed, a hand reaching out again to touch Harry, this time lightly on the arm.

"Don't," Harry said shortly. "Don't. I don't want anybody laying a hand on me, is that clear? It . . . reminds me."

"All right." Robes rustled as Dumbledore leaned back in his chair. "Is there anything you need, Harry?"

"I need to know about Remus! And Sals! And Dudley! And what do you mean, I left? I'm not as daft as that! And if Snape had a Portkey on him, why'd he wait so bloody long to get me out of that hellhole? Do you know what that arsehole had done to me? What the fuck is wrong with everybody? Talk, damn it!"

Another voice echoed from the direction of the doorway. Pretty much the last voice Harry was expecting to hear--well, short of Voldemort's, anyway.

"Oh, come now, Headmaster." Draco Malfoy's smooth tones, so much like his father's drifted into the ward. "You've got to take points from Gryffindor for language like that."

Dumbledore didn't have to tell Malfoy to get out. Before the headmaster could say a word, Harry had sat bolt upright in bed, the pain be damned, and was screaming in incoherent rage, his hands reaching blindly out to grab whatever was handy and fling it toward that hateful voice. A vase of flowers, something fruity, and then several vials of potion went flying, judging from the sounds and smells as they crashed against the walls.

"Too bad you missed me," Malfoy said, his tone a smirk, but then, his entire attitude changed completely. "Oh, shite. Look, I didn't mean to say that, Potter. I just came to . . . oh, fuck it. I'll talk to you when you're feeling better. Here, catch."

A small package landed on Harry's bed just as he heard Malfoy walking away.

"Ten points from Slytherin for language," the headmaster murmured, a tiny bit of humour lurking in his voice. "Ah . . . Mr Malfoy appears to have given you something, Harry. Would you like to unwrap it? Or shall I?"

"Ha. Not likely," Harry retorted, laying back down. "Check it for curses. Or maybe just consign it to deepest hell on principle. Whatever. Just get it away from me."

"As you wish." More rustling sounds, robes, footsteps, and the noise of cleaning spells to wipe away the mess near the door. Then the door was closed, and locked, though Harry didn't think it had been warded. That was rather odd. Then again, Voldemort knew his magic was messed up, and he sure as hell knew that Harry had been blinded, and unless his fuzzy memories were playing tricks on him, he also knew by now that Snape was loyal to Dumbledore. And Harry. So maybe, there weren't really any secrets left to keep.

"I think perhaps it would be better if we weren't disturbed again," the headmaster said as he settled back down into his chair. "I have quite a lot to tell you, though I'm sure you won't understand the full story until Professor Snape's brewing reaches a point where he can join us."

"When's that going to be?" Harry groaned, not sure if the emotion pressing in on him was fear, or reluctance, or worry, or anger, or hope, even. He cut the feeling off by filling his mind with fire for a few seconds. Useful trick, and he was glad to know he could still pull it off, even though some part of him was warning him that he couldn't resort to it every time his emotions became overwhelming. It isn't healthy, he could almost hear Remus saying.

And it wasn't, he could tell that in the next instant, because he just began shivering, violent shudders wracking him from head to toe as the fire consumed him and he remembered what it had been like to stand there chained, naked, helpless, while Lucius Malfoy tried to set him afire from the inside out, while Voldemort tried to burn him with physical flames . . .

Harry stopped all efforts to Occlude, all efforts to protect his thoughts and mind and self, and that was when it struck him.

"What's this about Remus Lupin can't be here?" he pressed, sudden panic washing over him, because the answer to his question was obvious, wasn't it. "Can't be here!" he gasped out. "That's the most baldfaced lie I've ever heard! Remus would move heaven and earth to be here with me, Remus would kill anybody who stood in his way, Remus would never, ever, not in a hundred billion eons let me wake up alone after what I've been through! He's dead, isn't he? Dead, dead, dead like Sirius---"

"He's incapacitated!" the headmaster interrupted, raising his voice to him. That was so unusual that it quieted Harry at once. "When you went missing, Professor Snape disregarded everything else, to search for you and devise a means of rescue. Everything else, Harry. Do you understand?"

Oh, dear Merlin. "Yes," Harry moaned, guilt welling up in him, though surely it wasn't his fault, the things that had happened. "You mean the Wolfsbane . . . Snape said he'd ruined a batch and had to start over, he was going to be working on it that day, the day Malfoy found me." Panic crowded in on him, again. Blind panic that actually had him trying desperately to see the headmaster's expression. "Incapacitated, you said. But you said he was safe . . .?"

"He's in bad shape. Rather . . . torn up, and not recovering as well as he used to. It's been years, you understand, since Professor Lupin had to endure his moon time without the help of the Wolfsbane Potion. But he will be fine, Harry, he will. He just needs time. I'm sure he'll come to see you the instant he's able."

"Yeah, okay," Harry said, swallowing back the rest of his panic. "So how did Lucius Malfoy get into my house? 'Cause I didn't leave it."

"Are you sure you wish to hear everything just now, Harry? Miss Granger and Mr Weasley have expressed a strong desire--though demand would be more the word, I should think--to be informed the instant you wake. They'd be here now, missing all their classes and meals as well, if we hadn't chased them out." Dumbledore chuckled slightly. "Repeatedly. I'm afraid I had to confiscate your Invisibility Cloak, Harry. But never fear; I shall return it. I doubt you're feeling up to wandering, just yet."

The truth was, he didn't feel up to visitors, either, not even his friends. Besides, he recognised the misdirection for what it was. He was being managed, just like he'd been managed all along, strung along by Dumbledore like some sort of puppet dancing to his tune. The headmaster was seeking to distract him, probably hoping he would lay back and rest. But Harry needed to hear the truth. He needed to understand.

"Please," he sighed, sinking back into the pillows. "Explain what happened. No more secrets. Just tell me. Everything you know. And don't leave out Dudley." Exhaustion began to swamp him, though he felt awake enough to listen for hours, if need be. "Um, he's my cousin. Not sure if you knew that. Go on, talk. I need to know."

Chapter Text

It didn't take hours for the headmaster to explain all he knew, but it did take a good while, as he interrupted his narrative to answer Harry's frequent questions.

Yes, Number Four Privet Drive had been utterly annihilated on Lucius Malfoy's command. The Ministry of Magic was quite put out that Death Eaters were getting bold enough to strike as fiercely as that, and in broad daylight, and in a crowded Muggle neighbourhood, no less. They'd explained the destruction of the house as a gas explosion, despite the fact that after the windows had blown out, it had quite obviously imploded. And as for the Dark Mark in the sky, they'd used Obliviate on enough Muggles that the rest of them were starting to doubt they'd ever seen it.

Dudley . . . yes, the headmaster knew that Harry's cousin was called Dudley. Professor Snape had mentioned that the two boys were getting on a bit better than in years past. Yes, yes, Dudley was fine, at least physically. He'd been out walking, taking some much-needed exercise his therapist had recommended, when the attack began. He'd seen the Dark Mark hanging over his own house. He'd run home, and just as in Harry's dreams --which the headmaster was well-informed of-- he'd stood screaming on the lawn. No doubt the Death Eaters would have made short work of him had Arabella Figg not rushed over and spirited him away into her own house. Dudley was there, still, and asking to see Harry. No, no, he hadn't been one of the ones Obliviated. The Ministry, in an odd fit of lucidity, had thought it best to check with Harry before taking a step like that. But yes, Dudley was still with Mrs. Figg. He was going to see his therapist every day now, instead of twice a week. The Ministry was paying, though really, the boy was seventeen and should be capable by now of supporting himself.

"Dudley's not really seventeen, not where it counts," Harry had murmured, rolling over slightly and reaching out for the glass he'd been sipping from every few minutes. When the headmaster placed it in his hands, their fingers brushing, Harry flinched, though he didn't mean to. "If you want to talk maturity, he's more like twelve. Maybe thirteen."

Dumbledore hadn't disagreed, though he hadn't dwelt much more on Dudley. Vernon Dursley was dead, he'd said, and Harry had nodded.

As for Harry's own house--as the hospital wing was unwarded, the headmaster didn't call it by its address--Lucius Malfoy hadn't broached the intricate defences at all. Harry had left the house. Hadn't he realised that air vent in the cellar was in an exterior wall? He'd inadvertently entered a crawl space in an adjoining house. A Muggle house, though it was no more; Lucius had demolished it completely to get to Harry so that he could Apparate him away.

As far as Harry was concerned, parts of the story didn't make much sense. "What, Malfoy just happened to be walking past just as I went looking for my snake? And he can see through walls and floors, now? I was in the cellar, for crying out loud!"

"He didn't happen to just be walking past." Dumbledore gave a heavy sigh. "It troubles me to have to tell you this, Harry, even though I know from Professor Snape's reports that you're well aware your uncle meant you harm. But the truth is . . ." Another sigh. "Lucius boasted to Severus that your uncle had led them straight to you."

"I didn't tell Uncle Vernon about Grimmauld Place!" Harry insisted, his voice rough with emotion. "Even if I'd wanted to, which believe me, I never ever would have, it wouldn't have mattered! The Fidelius Charm! I'm not the Secret Keeper!"

"No, no, you're not. But Harry," here the headmaster's voice went very soft. "When you went to the hospital with Professor Snape, you introduced him to your uncle as Remus Lupin, do you recall? After your aunt died, your uncle remembered that. He was angry."

"To say the least," Harry muttered.

"Death Eaters had been snooping around Privet Drive ever since Lucius Malfoy had learnt you were not present at Hogwarts. Your uncle recognised them as wizards at some point, and ascertained that they were not, shall we say, much enamored of you. When they mentioned that you had still not returned to school, your uncle informed them that you were with Remus Lupin; that if they found him, they would find you."

"But so what?" Harry pressed. "Remus stayed in the house with me. They couldn't have found him, either . . . oh, oh no." It came to him in a flash of understanding. "He went out one day to get me ice cream. He went to Diagon Alley, and he didn't Apparate back in, he was trying to avoid magic around me, so he walked in the front door."

Silence. "I can't see you when you nod, Headmaster," Harry felt obligated to point out.

"Yes, of course. At any rate, Professor Lupin unwittingly led them back to you, though because of the Fidelius Charm, they could not perceive the house, let alone get in. But they knew that you were somewhere in the vicinity. They began searching."

Harry closed his eyes. Strange how he kept having that urge to look out through them, though it was utterly pointless. "So they were out there when I crawled through that vent. But I still don't understand. It's ridiculous. I was underground, and it's not like I was shouting to give my location away. I was afraid of frightening Sals, so I was just whispering, really quiet."

"In Parseltongue," Dumbledore needlessly reminded him.

"Well, sure, in Parseltongue. At least . . . well, the truth is I can't tell when I'm speaking it, not until somebody gives me a look or a snake replies or something. But anyway, I might not have been speaking it at first, but then I picked Sals up, and then she answered so it must have been Parseltongue then . . ."

He sensed rather than saw the headmaster's long, pointed stare.

"Oh," Harry said, his voice almost inaudible. "Parseltongue. As far as anybody knows, I'm one of only two Parselmouths around."

"Well-reasoned," the headmaster commented. "As soon as Lucius knew you had to be somewhere nearby, he cast a spell over the entire area, a spell that alerts him to any use of Parseltongue. It seems they've used this before, to try to locate you. Well. The spell was of no use whilst you stayed inside the house, but once you left its confines?"

Harry nodded. "And what happened to Sals? Did she make it back upstairs to warn Remus?"

"Your brave little snake nearly expired from the effort, but yes, she did. She wrapped herself around Professor Lupin's ankle and pulled and tugged until he got the message and went into the cellar as she seemed to want. He put his head through the vent she indicated, and after that, it was fairly clear what had happened. Apparently the warding on Grimmauld Place meant that nobody inside could hear the blast itself, but thanks to your snake, Professor Lupin alerted Severus and me at once."

"But Sals is okay, now?"

"Harry, in between trying to find you, and rescue you, and then endeavouring to heal you once Severus had you safe, there hasn't been time to spare to look for your snake. No doubt she's still in your house, and doing fine."

"No, she was sick, really sick . . ." Harry suddenly stopped speaking, then resumed. "Oh, no. You don't think she was a Voldemort plant put there to get me to speak Parseltongue, do you? Tell me you don't think that."

"She could not have been," Dumbledore softly assured him. "Nothing with evil intent toward you could have been introduced into that house, not after Severus and Remus spent most of a night spelling it specifically to safeguard you. And that, Harry, isn't even counting the Fidelius Charm which guarantees that Voldemort could not have found where to plant her. Have no worries on that account; your snake is entirely blameless."

"Well, I know that," Harry murmured. "I just didn't want anybody else getting het up over it. Um, would you send some of the old crowd over there to look for her? Sals was so cold, I don't know how much longer she might have had . . . Please?"

"Certainly," Albus agreed, "though Harry, you should know that it's been a few days since Samhain."

"I've been lying here unconscious for days? Again?"

"Most of the time you were actually unconscious in an unplottable shack in Devon. Severus patched you up, kept you safe until the Death Eaters stopped swarming the Apparition boundary surrounding Hogwarts."

"I didn't go to St. Mungo's again?"

"It was safe to go there last time, since Voldemort was unaware you'd been injured donating marrow. This time, he anticipated such a move. It was being watched."

"Yeah . . ." Harry thought back to St. Mungo's. "Snape said then that it would have been better to take me somewhere safe, and summon a healer."

"Yes. He did exactly that, but as your magic is still . . . somewhat in flux, the treatments Marjygold recommended were largely, though not exclusively, Muggle in nature."

Vague memories stirred in Harry, then, memories less substantial than dreams. Mere wisps, only. Something tight wrapped around one wrist, and fragrant poultices laid across his brow . . . no, over his eyes, or what remained of them. And spells, so many spells, interspersed with bouts of swearing. He supposed he must be remembering Snape's frustration that magical cures didn't work quite as they should on him, any longer. But most of what he'd taken for dreams didn't seem magical at all, just as the headmaster had said. Thin broth spooned into him, hour after hour, while he lay barely able to swallow. And lemonade, and something a bit thicker, something that had tasted of barley, or oats.

The more he pondered it, the more the fog in his mind began to part. Warm fires banked each evening, and gentle fingers applying salve to each and every wound that dotted his body. Whimpering, and being rocked to sleep, the arms around him tightening every time the nightmares sprang to life. Those same arms again, holding him through awful chills. A hand lovingly clasping his. Lovingly? Well, maybe not. But caringly, at least . . . and a voice, that voice, quiet and soft, talking to him hour past hour as he lay enduring pain and fever that the potions couldn't cure. Talking of . . . well, nonsense, really. Harry couldn't put it together. Stories? Something about a yellow-eyed cat, and a herd of hippogriffs in Ireland, and cookies that made you sneeze.

He hadn't been awake, but he hadn't been asleep, and he actually didn't think he'd been unconscious, either. Just . . . drifting.

Harry brought his mind back to the story. "Um . . . so after Remus saw the cellar, he firecalled you, right?"

The headmaster hesitated, then divulged, "Severus immediately left his Potions lab and found some pretext for contacting key Death Eaters. He sounded them out, but not even Lucius would admit that you had been taken, let alone tell him where you were being held."

"They suspected he was a spy," Harry breathed.

"No, I think not. They know how to guard their secrets, that is all. However, there is no doubt now that Severus' true loyalties are known. In full view of Voldemort, he portkeyed you away."

The Dark Mark, Harry thought. Voldemort will torture him now, through the Dark Mark.

Harry lifted his water to his mouth, but his hand was shaking so much he spilled most of it down the soft pyjama top he was wearing.

The headmaster took the glass away, set it down with a decisive clink, and cleared his throat. Then he waited until Harry calmed. "Severus and I have talked, though your condition made it rather superfluous. It is quite obvious what he allowed to happen to you at that meeting, but I understand it went beyond that, Harry." A long pause. "That he held you . . . for them. Harry, it may take some time, as I said, but we will see you healed of all your injuries. I must tell you, my boy . . . I am so very sorry for all that Severus had to do."

Had to do. Even the sound of the phrase made him sort of sick. "Um . . ." he answered, swallowing hard, then reaching out for his glass, finding it, and drinking what little was left of the water. "Um, well . . ." His voice cracked. "I know."

"Harry, Severus does not often . . . he does not care to show emotion, but---"

A roiling nausea rocked through Harry. "I need Stomach Calming Draught," he choked out, struggling not to disgrace himself.

It took only a moment, and a whispered conversation, for Dumbledore to procure some from Madam Pomfrey. "There, there, drink it all," he murmured as he held it to Harry's lips. By then, the boy's hands were shaking so badly there was no question of his managing on his own. "Better now, Harry?"

"A bit," Harry admitted, drawing in a few deep breaths. "Potions sort of halfway work on me just now."

"Yes. Severus mentioned as much. You may have to be in the hospital wing a little longer than the usual."

Harry shrugged, not really caring about that. He was pretty well used to it, even if his typical visits had him patched up overnight and ready for Quidditch again in the morning. "So, the story. S-- er, S-- Snape, nobody would tell him where I was being held. And . . .?"

"With Samhain just two days away, he deduced that you would be presented by Voldemort to be . . . sacrificed. We delegated the search for you to several dozen Aurors, Tonks included. Then, Severus and I devoted ourselves to the question of how to rescue you from the meeting itself, assuming the Aurors' search efforts failed."

Harry drew in another breath. The Stomach Calming Draught was helping a bit more, now. "Okay, it's simple then. Snape brought a Portkey to the meeting."

"You cannot believe things are as simple as that," the headmaster chided. Harry heard robes rustle as he leaned forward, and flinched back a bit, but the old wizard merely rested his hands on the bed sheets, not touching Harry. "You must know, Harry, that Severus would have portkeyed you out of there instantly had that been an option."

"Yeah, I know that," Harry admitted. "It's just hard, thinking he had it on him the whole time, but I had to wait . . . through that . . ." Deep shudders coursed through his shoulders. "So, what's the story then? Anti-Apparition wards snapped into place the minute Malfoy brought me through to the meeting? Um, anti-Portkey wards, anti-pretty much anything wards?"

"More or less." There was a sad smile in the headmaster's voice. "I had taken the precaution of placing a tracking charm on Severus. A very weak one, or Voldemort would have noticed it, but it was enough to give the Aurors and me a focus for our spells. We drained ourselves, spent hour after hour trying to unlock the wards, to find some way through to you, while Severus watched for his chance on the inside. The Portkey was spelled to heat when it became active, so that Severus would know within an instant that there was finally a way out for you."

"Oh, okay," Harry sighed, starting to understand. "He had to wait until your spells broke through."

"And in the meantime," the headmaster continued, sounding as though his hands were softly patting his robes, "he had no alternative but to act the part of a loyal Death Eater. If he had attempted to rescue you before he had a true means, he could only have achieved both your deaths."

"Yeah, yeah, I got that, all right? I'm not stupid!"

"No, but you've been through a terrible ordeal, and at the hands of someone you . . . to be honest, Harry, I'm not quite sure how you've felt of late."

Harry waved his hands wildly until his sore muscles protested. "It was a terrible ordeal at the hands of someone I trusted, all right? Trusted! It was horrible." Feeling like he was strangling, he began gulping air, and it only slowly came to him that he was trying to cry. Trying . . . but he couldn't, and not because he was ashamed to blubber like a baby, though that was certainly true. No, the real reason he couldn't cry, he thought, was because of Lucius Malfoy's vicious use of the needles. He hadn't just jammed them into Harry's eyes, he'd damned near mangled everything in the vicinity. Tear ducts, too. Harry gulped again, and tangled his hands into the bedclothes, gripping them with both fists. It was either that, or give in to a reflex to rub his eyes, and he really didn't want to find out how bad that would hurt.

"Ah, Severus," the headmaster abruptly said, his voice sounding as though he had turned to face another direction. "So good to see you out of your laboratory. Harry and I were just talking about the . . . ah, incident . . . at Samhain."

"Mr Potter has my most sincere apologies," Harry heard his teacher stiffly say. He sounded so formal. Not just that, but angry. Stiff. It came to Harry in an awful rush of understanding that Snape had been acting just this way the last time he'd seen him before Samhain. They'd fought over Harry's having asked about the Death Eater meeting, and Snape had insisted he look in the pensieve and see it for himself. And afterwards, he'd been so very cold toward Harry. Snape had said that Harry could firecall him in the middle of the night, if needed, but he'd sounded so methodical about it. As if . . . there were certain things he'd bring himself to do because they were necessary, but he'd do them without compassion, or affection, or sympathy.

That conversation seemed so long ago, now. Unimportant, distant. But maybe it wasn't, not for Snape, since this behaviour was more of the same.

"I have brought the boy's potions," Snape was saying, his voice completely without emotion. "The green one first. Let it cool completely, then have him take it with food. An hour after, the blue."

A whirl of robes, and the Potions Master was turning to go, without a word to Harry.

"These are for his sight?" the headmaster prompted, halting the man's exit.

"Yes," Snape snarled, actually snarled. "If that is all, Headmaster, I have more brewing to do."

"I believe Harry needs to speak with you--"

"What Mr Potter needs," Snape loudly announced, "is Scaradicate Salve, and Blood Replenisher, and Skele-Gro for his chipped bones, and no doubt, a great deal more Healing Draught and Painless Sleep! And he needs them all made fresh, to maximum potency, if they are to have much hope of interacting with his magic, which as you know, is in an indeterminate state that at present defies all diagnosis! And I have more Eyesight Elixir to tend to in the dungeons, or did you wish the child to remain blind?"

"Go, Severus," Dumbledore said in tones of defeat.

"Wait!" Harry called, but when he heard his teacher's stomping steps pause, he didn't really know what to say. It didn't help that he felt so very ill just knowing Snape was near, or that he could feel himself shaking with an absolutely irrational fear. He fought his way past it. "Um, er . . . will you come back later, sir? I . . . I really did want to talk with you."

A pause, and then a longer pause, still. "I will endeavour to be back later this evening, Mr Potter," Snape heavily announced, as though the prospect of such a visit was second only to drinking pure hemlock.

Harry, the boy thought rather desperately, but didn't say it. Snape hadn't called him "Harry" since before the disaster with the pensieve. From the sound of things now, he never would again.

The footsteps stomped off.

"Harry," another voice said. Dumbledore, again. "Would you like to eat now, and take your potions? Or should you like to hear the rest? There isn't much more."

"Let's just finish," Harry said, the words somehow feeling heavy. "The potion has to cool first, anyway. You were telling me about the Portkey. You finally found a way to wake it up, despite all Voldemort's wards?" He huffed, and crossed his arms before his chest, a feeling of being hurt welling up inside him. But this hurt wasn't physical. Somehow, it was worse. "Kind of convenient, wasn't it, the timing and all? I mean, wait until after I've been tortured and blinded, wait right until Voldemort's giving up on letting Malfoy burn me and is starting in on me himself!" He knew he was being unfair, but he couldn't seem to stop the words. "Couldn't you lot have found a way to break through a little sooner?"

"But that's just it, Harry," Dumbledore softly admitted. "We never did break through his wards. You did. Your magic went completely wild for an instant, and nullified every spell for leagues around. Severus felt the ring heating, and leapt to touch it to you. The timing . . . well, you did that."

Harry was staring without seeing, trying to comprehend that. He vaguely remembered a feeling of utter power blasting through his bones and flesh and skin, the sound of Death Eaters scrambling for cover. "I did that," he acknowledged, nodding. "I did something similar when I was locked alone in the cell, but it was weaker . . ." His eyes closed. "If I could do it at the end, then, why not any earlier? I did try, I did. I felt . . . too drained. The needle didn't even bend," he added irrelevantly.

The headmaster ignored what Harry had said about not being touched, and lightly patted his hand. Harry shivered, hating it, but managed not to do something drastic like roll away. "Wild magic, such as you did, is called that for a reason. It's not well understood. I think perhaps you needed something truly remarkable to happen before you could unleash it."

"Headmaster," Harry groaned, "having my eyes practically shredded while they were still in my skull was truly remarkable, don't you think?"

"A physical intrusion. What happened later was a magical intrusion, Lucius Malfoy attempting to set your very magical core on fire. You fought back. Admirably well." Fingernails clinked against glass as he touched his hand to a vial of potion. "This has cooled, but you must take it with food, as Severus said. Shall I summon you a meal? Do you feel able to eat?"

"Yeah." Strangely enough, he wasn't ravenous, and it had been a while since he'd eaten at the cottage, hadn't it? Maybe, since he'd been at Hogwarts, Snape had been spelling nutritive potions into him, or something. Or better yet, Madam Pomfrey, because now it seemed to Harry that Snape wouldn't bother doing that himself, not now that he hated Harry again. Maybe all those memories of the cottage weren't memories at all, but dreams. They were so faded and blurry, Harry couldn't really be sure. Ha, he thought. I've always really, really wanted somebody to hold me and take care of me when I was feeling ill. Ten to one I dreamed all that just because I wanted it so bad.

At least the headmaster, and Madam Pomfrey too, had enough sensitivity to leave Harry alone for his meal. They didn't even offer to help feed him, or arrange for someone else to, and Harry was grateful for all of it. In the first place, he wasn't very good company at the moment, and in the second place, he really didn't want anyone watching as he fumbled blindly about. He made a right mess of everything: tray, sheets, his own clothes, but he didn't care. He wasn't even thinking about it, which probably explained why he was so clumsy. It wasn't like him.

But he had other things on his mind. Why was Snape so blasted mad at him? Surely Harry was the one who should be angry! Well, actually he was. Mostly at Voldemort and Lucius Malfoy, and Death Eaters in general, but Snape was mixed up in there somewhere, even though Harry wasn't stupid and he did understand what his teacher had done, and why.

But why was Snape so mad at him? So mad he wouldn't even talk to him! Just like he'd been about the pensieve, only worse . . .

Harry suddenly felt all the food he'd eaten try to rush back up his throat. He swallowed hard--dang, he was getting pretty good at forcing back queasiness--and felt again that peculiar sensation of needing to cry and not being able to. Because that was it, wasn't it? It all went back to that night when Snape had made him look in that horrid pensieve. Harry had demanded to know what went on at a Death Eater meeting, and Snape had been offended at the question, let alone the way Harry had gone about pushing it.

And now, he knew what went on at a Death Eater meeting, didn't he? He knew personally just how evil and sick and twisted that snakelike son of a bitch could get. And Snape probably thought that Harry had got what he deserved. He'd wanted to know, and now he did.

Great gasping sobs took hold of him as he shoved his tray away with both hands and heard it clatter on the floor. Collapsing to his side, Harry shoved a fist in his mouth, and bit down hard to stop his blubbering. So Snape was an unfeeling prick. So what? It wasn't like he hadn't known that from way back. But it hurt, even though it shouldn't. It hurt, it really did.

At least he was calm by the time Madam Pomfrey came to scourgify everything in sight, Harry included. Even better, she knew better than to so much as pat him on the head. Harry supposed she wasn't a licensed Medi-Witch for nothing.

"Come now," she said in brisk, professional tones. "It's time for the second half of your Sight Restorative Potion this evening."

She let Harry push up on his own, let him take the vial and drink it unassisted, just as she'd let him eat on his own, no matter the mess it made.

"Now, sleep, I should think," she continued. "Do you need anything else, Mr Potter?"

Drowsiness was already washing over him. Something from the Potion? He didn't think so. It felt more like emotional exhaustion. "No," he said, flopping back. "Thank you . . ."

He was asleep before he even heard her moving away.

How long he slept, he couldn't have said. But at some point, he seemed to wake . . . though it was more like those drifting, dreamlike states he'd experienced in the cottage in Devon. He couldn't move, but he surfaced to some sort of awareness.

He heard voices, over by the door. Snape and Dumbledore, whispering, their tones low and hushed.

" . . .no," Snape was hissing. "No, Albus. Do not suggest this again."

"But surely," the headmaster softly insisted, "if you would just speak to him, Severus . . ."

"I will not speak to that irresponsible idiot if I can possibly avoid it, Albus, is that not clear to you by now? He left the house! You know what that led to."

"Severus, be reasonable. He didn't realise--"

"Oh, he never realises, that one," Snape quietly snarled. "Never thinks of anyone but himself. But he should have, Albus. What are we to do now, to stay ahead of the Dark Lord's mad schemes? Thanks to him, the Dark Lord will never trust his secrets to me, again!"

"Severus--"

"No, I will not talk to him. And what is more, Albus, I am of half a mind to stop making his potion, as well. Let him suffer. I certainly can't bring myself to care."

A heavy sigh, and footsteps stalking away.

Harry bit his hand again, and told himself it was just as well he couldn't cry.

Chapter Text

Harry woke up to the sound of a furious voice shouting in outrage, "What are you doing in here?"

Groggy, he opened his eyes. Reflex, since he couldn't even detect light levels. He pushed up with a groan, and asked, "Ron? Is that you?"

"Damned straight it's me," Ron snarled, stepping across the floor as though headed into battle.

Hermione's voice broke into the fray. "Put that wand away, Ron! His isn't out, and you might hit Harry!"

"Not," Ron sneered, "until he tells us what he thinks he's doing! Harry, why are you letting him sit in here?"

"There's no letting to it, since I was asleep until you started screaming your head off," Harry retorted, grumpy. "And I'm blind, in case nobody's thought to mention it! How should I know who's in here?"

A chair scraped back as someone stood up.

"Well, what of it?" Ron pressed, his voice directed over Harry's head, that time. "What do you think you were doing, hanging about in here while Harry's asleep?"

"I think," came Draco Malfoy's slightly sneering tones, "that I was waiting for him to wake up. I suppose I could have shouted to achieve my aim, like you did, but that's a bit common, don't you think?" Draco drew a breath. "So what did you think I was doing, Weasley?"

"Waiting to hex him, more likely!"

"You're the one with the wand out," Draco drawled, the toe of his boot tapping on the hard stone of the floor. "And really! If I'd had the slightest urge to hex him, why would I have been waiting around? I have much better things to do than waste my time."

"Then why are you in here, Malfoy?" Hermione questioned. Something in her calm tone made Harry think she'd put a hand on Ron's wand arm.

"You're the smart one, Granger," Draco came back. "I thought it would be obvious. I was sitting with him, and I was letting myself be seen sitting with him. Put that together with the fact that I'm definitely not in here to waste my time, and figure it out."

He walked out without a word to Harry.

"Merlin's balls, Harry!" Ron exclaimed, dragging over a chair for Hermione before he sat down in the one Draco had vacated. "What do you think he meant by all that?"

"Oh, what does he always mean?" Harry sighed. "It's some Slytherin plot. Listen, I have no idea why he'd come sniffing around; I'm just glad you guys stopped by. The thought that he was sitting there, right next to me, while I was asleep and helpless and blind, and without my wand?" He shivered. "I don't know why Pomfrey would let him. It's not exactly a secret that he'd just love a ticket straight to Voldemort's heart. What better way than through me?"

"Yeah, what's wrong with that Pomfrey?"

Before Ron could get too far into that topic, Hermione leaned close and spoke. "So, how are you feeling?"

"Oh, fine," Harry lied. She hadn't touched him, but she was near enough that she could, and Harry found that even the idea made him feel all jittery inside. He pushed back on his hands to give himself more room, but the pressure on his palms and arms made him wince.

"Harry . . ." she chided. "The truth."

He angled her a sheepish smile, and wished he could see her expression. Tone of voice only went so far in conveying emotion; he wondered just what nuances he was missing every time anybody spoke to him. "Oh, I'm sore," he admitted. "Really sore, all over, and I have an awful headache most of the time. Probably because of my eyes. Um, I don't know how much they told you? About what happened?"

"You don't have to talk about it, mate," Ron assured him, placing a small box in his palm. Even that made him shrink back a little. "Here, we brought you some Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans."

Harry fumbled to open it, realizing as he felt the small candies that without his sight, he'd really have no idea what flavour to expect each time he popped one in his mouth. The idea sort of unnerved him, but he tried one anyway. Hmm, paint. The funny thing was, it wasn't half bad.

"Maybe he wants to talk," Hermione was chiding, sounding an awful lot like Remus. Harry didn't mind that. He missed Remus, and wondered how long he'd have to wait to see him. "Maybe he needs to get it all out of his system."

Harry really didn't, though he also didn't want to say as much. "Maybe he wants to hear what's been going on around here for the last three weeks," he said to distract them, though it occurred to him that that was a stupid question. It was a school, after all. "Um, are you guys missing classes to be here?"

"It's lunchtime," they said in unison, and then giggled. Harry could just imagine them holding hands, their fingers twining together.

He gave a little smile of his own, but it was tinged with sadness. "I don't know how I'm going to catch up on everything I missed," he admitted. "I mean, I didn't even know before, but now . . .?"

"Oh, you'll get your sight back," Hermione assured him. "And your magic, too."

Harry gulped. "Um, everybody knows, huh?"

"Well, it was sort of hard to miss," Ron explained. "Sorry to have to tell you this, but you made the front page again. Captured Death Eaters confirm that Boy-Who-Lived poses no more threat to You-Know-Who, something like that."

"Captured? Where?"

"Here. We all had to stay inside the castle for a few days after . . . er, Samhain, 'cause there were so many Death Eaters in the vicinity. Quidditch practice was even cancelled! Oh, shite, sorry!"

"Sorry," Harry blankly repeated, but Ron's telling silence cleared up the mystery. "You can mention Quidditch, Ron," he assured his friend. "And chess, and whatever else you like, even if I can't see it, all right? But tell me first about the Death Eaters."

"Not a whole lot to tell, since they couldn't get onto the castle grounds, or so we were told, anyway. Hermione here has her suspicions. Anyway, they started going away after the Aurors began capturing them."

"Who'd they get?" Harry wanted to know, though his throat felt thick when he went on, "Lucius Malfoy?"

"Nah. Sorry. We sort of heard it was mostly Malfoy who um, well, you know, did those awful things to you."

"Sort of heard?" Harry questioned.

"Er, well," Harry could almost hear Ron blushing. "Even after that story came out, you were gone for days, and we were so worried, 'Mione and me. So the instant they got you in here, we came running. But then they kicked us out, so we sneaked back using your dad's old cloak and kind of eavesdropped."

"Kind of eavesdropped?" Harry echoed, laughing that time. Ah, did it feel good to laugh, even if it jarred his headache a bit. "I guess that's why the headmaster said he'd confiscated my cloak."

"Oh, he told us you'd get it back," Ron assured him.

"Still, I think it's horribly irresponsible of the Prophet to print that story," Hermione huffed.

"I think it's bloody magnificent," Harry declared, amazing them both. "You don't know what it's like having everybody always looking to you, expecting you to be this amazing hero just because Avada Kedavra bounced off your head when you were too young to remember."

"I think people have a few more reasons than that to look up to you, Harry," Hermione objected.

"Yeah, well, I could use the break," Harry decided. "Not that I can see them looking, anyway, but that won't last forever. I'll get my sight back."

"That's the spirit," Ron encouraged. "Buck up. Good job."

"This isn't positive thinking," Harry corrected him. "I know I should be panicking or freaking out or, well, something. I mean, darkness all around. It could be pretty scary . . . but I know, I just know I'll get my vision back. I've been . . ." He hesitated, but knew his friends wouldn't think he was pulling a Trelawney if he told them. Actually, some students at Hogwarts would, but not these two. "See, I've been having dreams that come true, lately. Er, not all my dreams, but lots. I even dreamed this, that I'd be blind and in the hospital. But I also dreamed that I could see again, later, so it'll be okay." He frowned, remembering what else he'd dreamed. Things about Slytherins, and Malfoy, and hitting Ron.

"What is it?" Hermione pressed, seeing that frown.

"Oh, nothing," Harry excused, but before she could Harry . . . him again, he went on, "Hungry, I suppose. I mean, I slept through breakfast."

"You need the rest," Hermione acknowledged. He heard her leaning down towards him, but at the last moment some look on his face must have made her think twice about touching him. "Ron and I will tell Madam Pomfrey you want some food, all right?"

"Tell her to keep that Malfoy git out of my face," Harry growled. "He's been by here twice, now. It's getting pretty creepy."

"Twice when you were alone?" Ron pressed.

"No, the first time Dumbledore was with me," Harry remembered. He thought about mentioning the mysterious gift, but decided that it wasn't a good idea to set Ron off, again.

"Well, I'm sure he gave the little twit what-for," Ron approved, sounding like he was nodding vigorously.

"Dumbledore didn't get a chance to," Harry admitted. "I gave him what-for. I threw a bunch of stuff at him. Missed, but oh, well. Dumbledore did take points, though. From Malfoy, I mean."

Ron was building up a head of steam, and was far from through. "I should think so! Imagine him having the gall to come around here when it's his own bloody precious father who got you into this state. Well, him and Snape."

As hurt as Harry was feeling after what he'd heard in the middle of the night, he wasn't about to stand for anybody badmouthing Snape. Well, not about the Samhain stuff, anyway. "No," he argued. "That isn't true. Not the last part."

"Oh, come on," Ron urged.

Harry crossed his arms. "You can think what you want. I'm not going to listen to it."

"Harry--"

Harry interrupted him to turn in the direction of Hermione's voice. "You have Potions class today, don't you? Give Snape a message from me. Tell him I'm sorry. He'll know what about."

"You're sorry," Ron gasped. From the sound of it, he was turning a nice shade of red. Or purple, even. "You're sorry! You're absolutely mental, you are! What have you got to be sorry for, that you didn't have three eyes for those bastards to skewer?"

"Ron, you're not helping," Hermione chided. A scuffling sound ensued, and Harry suspected she was pushing Ron away. "Just calm down," she whispered from a short distance away. "Harry's not himself. Can you blame him?"

"Harry can hear you," Harry called. "And I'm managing just fine, thanks. I owe Professor Snape an apology, and--"

"He owes Snape an apology!" That time Ron sounded like he was positively choking. "Of all the nutters things I've ever heard, Harry, that's the nuttiest, bar none!"

"Shut up, Ron!" Hermione flatly commanded. She took a few steps toward Harry. "I'll tell him, yes. Is there anything else you need?"

Harry took a moment to think about that. "I need Ron to say we're all right."

Ron sort of mumbled for a second before he admitted, "Well, 'course we're all right, Harry. I just . . . I just think you haven't really realised what that git put you through."

"That git," Harry snarled. "Saved my life! Again!"

"Yeah, well it took him long enough!"

"He did what he could!"

"Maybe we'd better leave," Hermione broke in. "We'll come by later when tempers are cooler."

"Yeah, do that," Harry agreed, his teeth still clenched. "And let's all agree here and now that we're not going to talk about Snape, all right? Is that goddamned good and clear? Don't you two even mention Snape to me! I can't bear it!"

"Fine," Ron snapped.

Hermione, however had gone strangely silent, until she said, "Oh. Hallo, Professor."

Harry's breath froze solid in his chest. "Professor?"

No answer.

"Um, he walked on past," Hermione admitted, a niggling sound telling Harry that she was worrying her lips with her teeth. "He was carrying some vials, probably went into Madam Pomfrey's office using the corridor entrance." She sighed then, and said to Ron, "Even you have to admit that Snape's been working day and night preparing Harry completely fresh potions for all his . . . er, injuries."

"Yeah," Ron did admit. "Even during class. He's brewing away while we get stuck doing bookwork. Well, all of us except his little pet creep."

"You don't mean--"

"Yeah, I do mean," Ron groused. "Malfoy. He gets to be up at the demonstration table, snarky little teacher's pet that he is, and help Snape make batch after batch of glop."

"Malfoy's helping brew my Potions?" Harry sucked in a huge, panicked breath, only to find he'd accidentally inhaled a Bertie Bott's Bean. He tried to breathe again and couldn't, at least not until Hermione abruptly pounded him on the back. Shite, did that hurt. All over the pinpricks that hadn't quite healed over. And worse than that, it gave him the creeps to have Hermione's hands on him, which was just plain ridiculous! At least she hadn't touched his skin. That made it bearable. Barely.

Once recovered, Harry didn't know what to say. Draco Malfoy was helping make his Potions? And Snape was letting him? It was beyond strange; it was downright alarming. The only thing he was sure of was that he wanted to be alone to think about it. "Um . . . you said lunchtime. I think I'd better eat, okay?"

"An excellent notion," Madam Pomfrey practically sang as she sailed into the ward from her office. "Professor Snape has just dropped off both halves of your Sight Restorative. You remember the procedure, Mr Potter? Green first, with food, and an hour after, blue."

"I can't see green from blue," Harry pointed out. "Though I think I can smell them apart. The follow-up potion's absolutely gross. Tastes like liquorice that's been half-digested and vomited back out."

"Are you quite sure of that, Mr Potter?"

"Well, maybe it's more like rotten liquorice that's been half-digested and--"

"Are you quite sure you can't perceive any colours whatsoever?" the Medi-Witch clarified, impatience ringing in her tones. He heard a wand swishing in front of his eyes, heard a quiet Lumos Maxiliare. "What can you see?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?" she echoed in disbelief.

"Pitch black," Harry clarified.

Her robes rustled as she put something away. The wand, he suspected. "Well, drink your potions anyway." She waited while he sniffed them both, then set the blue one aside. "Very good, although I'm sure you'll be able to see light before too long, and detect colour as well. Ah, here's your food."

Harry felt the tray descend on his legs, then lift up to float slightly above. Patting around, he found what seemed like a carrot stick, and began munching it. It turned out to be a turnip stick, and as he chewed his way through it, he realised that he didn't really care if Ron and Hermione stuck around for the whole meal and saw him making a total mess of himself.

Apparently, Poppy Pomfrey did. "Well, off with you!" she shooed the students. "You'll be needing your own lunch too, and the house-elves only serve another fifteen minutes, you know. I wouldn't think Miss Granger would care to give them extra labours."

"Hermione," Harry reminded her between bites. "Give the professor my message. Don't forget."

-----------------------------------------------------------

Over the next two days, Harry grew used to being interrupted every few minutes, or so it seemed, by loads and loads of visitors. Every single one of his teachers stepped in, with the notable exception of Snape, though he was around plenty. Harry heard him sometimes, a low voice beyond the wall, talking to Madam Pomfrey each time he delivered a fresh batch of potions. He could make out enough words, too, to know that he was telling the Medi-Witch just how to use each brew, no matter that he'd given her the same instructions every time he'd come. It irritated Madam Pomfrey, Harry could tell, but Snape didn't appear to care at all about that. Even when she told him, point blank, that she'd been healing children since you were here at school, Severus, he'd merely replied Mr Potter's treatment will not be compromised for anything, Poppy, not even your considerable pride.

It didn't sound to Harry like the man positively hated him, and he certainly hadn't stopped making his potions as he'd threatened, but that was little solace after the awful things he'd heard Snape saying to Dumbledore. And too, there was this business about Snape letting Malfoy help make the various salves and elixirs Harry was taking every day and night. It gave him the heebie-jeebies every time he had to swallow something, but he did trust Snape, so he went ahead and swallowed anyway. After all, Snape was a Potions Master. He'd know if something had been adulterated. And anyway, Harry was pretty sure that even an angry-at-that-stupid-Potter Snape wouldn't hesitate to expel Malfoy if the Slytherin boy actually tried to poison him.

All the same, he didn't like the idea that Malfoy had been hovering around his potions.

And he liked even less the fact that Snape was obviously avoiding him like the plague.

Ron and Hermione came back several more times, mostly for short chats during which no-one dared mention Snape. Each evening, however, Hermione felt absolutely compelled to lecture Harry on all he'd missed in the last few weeks of classes, Potions included. Harry put up with it in good humour, though; he really did want to catch up, though it all seemed rather daunting, the things the students had moved on to while he'd been away. At least after a couple of hours of it she was willing for the three of them move on to another topic.

All the sixth-year Gryffindors stopped by to see him, and loads of the older and younger students, too. A fair number of Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws visited, as well. Mostly the students came in groups of three or four, and stayed just a few minutes while Harry tried hard not to feel like he was some freak on display. He often wondered what he looked like, now. Madam Pomfrey had mentioned in passing that his eyes weren't bandaged because exposure to the air, and to normal variations of light as the day waxed and waned, would help with healing. He remembered the needles, vividly remembered the pain, and so he knew his face must have been utterly mangled. But nobody who came to see him gasped in shock, or even spoke in the stilted way people had when they tried to bear the unbearable, so he knew he couldn't look that bad. But surely he couldn't look normal, could he, not when Potions worked but half as well as they should?

There wasn't anyone he could ask, he realised. Every kindly soul who visited, even Ron and Hermione, would soften the truth with good will, or little white lies. So Harry didn't ask, though from time to time he still wondered.

With so many people coming by to see him, Harry got pretty good at opening cards he couldn't see. Thankfully, most of them were a benign version of Howlers, so pretty voices would chant, or sing, or sometimes positively chime messages at him. He got very good at unwrapping candies, sight unseen, and was just thankful that Fred and George weren't there to gift him with their strange ideas about what made a sweet fun.

There was no shortage of flowers beside his bed, mainly because a few of the Hufflepuff girls got pretty ridiculous and sent him self-propagating bouquets. By the second night, the room smelled like the greenhouses in full spring bloom, but when Harry complained a bit, Ron said the girls were sending the flowers because they liked Harry. When Harry said well sure they liked him, Ron and Hermione started giggling madly again. Then Hermione explained that Brenda and Strella and Halsey and Kat didn't just like him, they liked-him-liked-him. Harry said that was a stupid way to put it, and when Ron agreed, he got to listen to Ron and Hermione bicker over it.

Just to shock them into forgetting their argument, he unwrapped a Chocolate Frog and caught it before it could really go anywhere.

Ron seemed to be having a hard time talking, but finally he came out with, "Are you having us on, mate? Your vision's back!"

"Nah. Just Seeker reflexes," Harry passed it off.

Suddenly feeling tired, he lay back and closed his eyes. He didn't want to ask, he really didn't, especially not in front of Ron, but he'd been waiting for two days for Hermione to bring it up, and she hadn't. Probably for the same reason: Ron.

But he couldn't wait any longer.

"Did you tell him?" Harry abruptly asked, brushing the Chocolate Frog wrapper off his bed.

Hermione didn't have to ask tell whom what? She knew. "Yes. Of course I told him."

She wasn't going to say anything more? She was going to make Harry drag it out of her? Well, fine then. "What did he say?"

Hermione's robes made a fluttering little noise. Harry's guess was that she'd bent down to retrieve the Chocolate Frog wrapper, to save the house-elves some work since the hospital floor wasn't spelled to eliminate its own messes. It couldn't be. Sometimes the Medi-Witch had to see just what foul substance a student's body had decided to produce.

"Hermione?"

"He didn't say anything, mate," Ron put in, sounding as though he was trying to be helpful. "I had to stay after to scrub cauldrons. Heard the whole thing."

"Liar," Harry accused, but without rancour. "Oh, not about the cauldrons; I'm sure that's true. But come on, how bad could it have been? You went up, and you said . . . well, what, exactly? How'd you put it?"

Hermione thought back to two days earlier. "'Sir. May I have a moment of your time? Harry asked me to pass on a message. He wants you to know that he's sorry.'"

"And think, she didn't even choke on it," Ron put in. "Just stood there, polite as you please, and gave him your message like you wanted."

Harry could appreciate, really appreciate, that Ron was trying to behave, so he overlooked the "choke" comment to simply press, "But what did he reply? Hermione?"

"Don't make me tell you," she begged.

Oh, Merlin. It's bad, then. Well, the way Harry figured it, he might as well know the worst. "Hermione," he chided, in exactly that tone she always used to get him to spill.

"Oh, all right," she grumbled, the candy wrapper making crinkling noises as she twisted it. "All right! So, I had just said, 'He wants you to know that he's sorry,' and Professor Snape looked straight down at me in that glaring way he has, and growled two words."

"Two words?"

Ron took over, and divulged, "Yeah, two words. Get. Out. That's all he said, Harry, I swear. Just, Get. Out."

"Shite," Harry swore out loud.

"Yeah," Ron agreed, evidently thinking Harry was calling Snape a shite. "And I didn't even do anything to be assigned cauldron duty, either."

"Not anything?"

"No--"

"Ron, you only glared at him like he was the devil's own spawn for two solid hours!" Hermione reminded him.

"It was my way of sticking up for Harry!"

Uh-oh. Harry could see the trend of the conversation, and he didn't like it. "That's it," he shortly announced, his nerves set on edge. Get. Out. What was that? "I'm really tired out. So I'll see you two tomorrow, okay?"

"Yeah, okay," Ron agreed.

"'Night, Harry," Hermione bid him, quietly leaning over to peck him on the cheek.

Harry flinched back a yard, almost knocking himself completely off the bed.

"Harry!"

"It's nothing," he insisted, levering himself back into a stable position.

"It's not nothing if you can't stand a simple touch!" Hermione exclaimed. "This is really serious!"

"You," Harry said in a hard tone, "do not know what I went through. I don't care what you heard eavesdropping, you do not know what it was like, you do not know what I suffered, and you do not know how I'm feeling now! And while I'm at it, you do not know what I think about Snape! Got that?"

"Harry, I wouldn't hurt you," Hermione exclaimed, her voice so close it scared him. "Not about Snape, or any of the rest of it. I'm your friend!"

"Then back the eff off!" Harry all but screamed, clawing panic starting to tear him apart inside. He didn't really think she'd touch him again; that wouldn't be like her, but the mere prospect was enough to shatter him.

He heard Hermione stepping backwards, trying to turn the storm into calm, her voice light and casual. "We'll see you again tomorrow, Harry."

"Yeah," Harry managed to grumble, already ashamed of himself. But he couldn't help it. Every time he had the slightest physical contact with anyone ---hell, even Madam Pomfrey who was doing nothing but taking good care of him--- he completely freaked out. And it was only getting worse, not better. The more time he had to think back to Samhain and remember, the crazier it made him. "Tomorrow, yeah."

-----------------------------------------------------------

His dreams that night were dark and ugly, filled with faceless monsters who spoke in Lucius Malfoy's saccharine, superior drawl. Hands were all around, grabbing him, holding him down to be tortured. It wasn't hot needles that lanced into him, though, this time it was blazing hot pokers like Uncle Vernon used to use back before the fireplace had been bricked over. Thick, iron pokers, searing with heat, and Lucius was plunging them into him, over and over, laughing. Cackling, chortling, guffawing . . . and then Draco was there, too. He wasn't laughing. He was filing his nails, the sound grating on Harry's ears as Draco said in utterly bored tones, "He's screaming again, Father. It's so vulgar. So very Muggle."

The scene changed, and his wand was flying through the air in an arc that seemed to span all England, flying out of his hands to soar out over the Atlantic, then plunge down to a watery grave. His wand that twinned Voldemort's, the only real weapon he'd ever had . . . and it was gone. Gone forever, as Lucius Malfoy kept laughing.

And then the hands were back, clawing at him this time, shredding his skin. No hot pokers now; the hands themselves were forged in fire, burning the muscles they unsheathed.

Harry screamed, his back a raw mess, only to find that somebody was holding him, stroking salve across his injuries. An herbal scent rose from the steaming wounds, the smell of healing potions, and Harry relaxed into the arms around him. It was all right to be touched, just now. But at the same time those hands were so caring, so loving, yes, loving, voices were echoing all around him. Or rather, one man's voice, a dark sardonic drawl casting contradictory comments on the wind, until they spun and whirled in Harry's mind.

I care nothing for what a sixteen year-old whelp thinks of me . . . . You are not alone . . . . Trust is necessary to fight the Dark Lord effectively. We failed last year, Mr Potter . . . . You will know not to question me again . . . .We'll work on your pathetic inability to lie convincingly another time, Gryffindor . . . ..I do believe I prefer you insolent, all things considered . . . ..Let him suffer. I certainly can't bring myself to care . . . You may wake me anytime you have need, any need.

That last phrase started circling his thoughts, taking hold of them in a stranglehold, refusing to let go. You may wake me anytime you have need, anytime you have need . . .

But he couldn't, could he? Because Snape hated him now, didn't even want to brew his potions, was letting Malfoy help with them! Snape had promised to come to talk to him, and he hadn't, not once, not even after Harry sent the apology!

Still that voice kept talking, though: You may wake me anytime you have need. Any need. Any need . . .

Inside his dream, Harry started shrieking, his throat on fire as he poured all his pain and anger and fear into one word. One word, but he screamed it ceaselessly, over and over, his body aching to be touched and held again, even while his mind rebelled against that very prospect. The whole horror of Samhain coalesced into a single name as he flailed on the bed, his dream bleeding out into the hospital wing, into a life where people heard him and came running, footsteps all around, hands trying to calm him.

Hands he couldn't stand, hands he couldn't trust.

The margin between dreams and real life shattered, then, and Harry came awake, but he couldn't stop flailing, or stop his screams for Snape.

Chapter Text

The windows in the hospital wing shattered into millions of tiny shards as the stone walls abruptly buckled, then righted themselves.

And still Harry screamed, even as he felt another enormous surge of magic washing in him and over him and out through his skin. The walls all around began to blaze with such fierce, unnatural light that Harry could feel it even if he couldn't see it.

The world began collapsing all around him; only his screams were real. Beyond desperate, they were begging, pleading, frantic, and this time, there was more than a name to them. Snape. Now. Now. Now. Snape. Now!

A litany, pouring through his brain and out his teeth.

Then other noises broke through his frenzy, even as he flailed and kicked and batted hands away. He heard the whoosh of a Floo, and solid footsteps coming towards him, and a voice he recognised shouting, "Harry!"

But Harry couldn't tell if Snape was calling his name from inside the dream, or from just beside his bed. He couldn't see to find out, either. It felt like darkness was consuming him, like it wasn't just something surrounding him with endless black; it was deep inside him, too, running through his veins, lodged within his marrow. Panic taking over completely, Harry convulsed and screamed again, behind it a horrified gurgling noise, for he could feel a third surge of magic beginning to gather deep down in the pit of his bones---

"Harry, I'm right here!" The voice came again, louder, as strong fingers snatched up both his hands and squeezed them. Hard. He'd fought the other people reaching out for him; he'd thrashed like an enraged basilisk, unable to bear it, screaming all the louder every time they tried to grab him. But this touch was different. Some part of him recognised it, even though the grip was so fierce it actually hurt. That wasn't important. All that mattered was one thing: this touch brought him back to a consciousness of himself. He became Harry again, not a mindless well of need that lashed out at everyone with fists and voice and magic, all at once.

This touch tamed his wild magic.

Snape's grip levelled off the moment he stopped thrashing. Harry felt like he'd just been trampled, but his hands held securely in his teacher's, he started to calm down. He'd been breathing for forever through his mouth, it seemed; screaming so much it actually felt dry inside. Closing it finally, rolling his tongue over his teeth, he sucked a breath of air in through his nose, and at once smelled something so rank and awful that it made him think he'd lose every bit of food he'd ever eaten.

He didn't know if his face had turned puce, or if his queasy groan told the tale, but Snape realised the problem at once. "Albus, my robes!" the Potions Master commanded, his hands still locked to Harry's. "Vanish them away, inner and outer both! And apply a freshening charm to my clothes."

The air near him tingled with magic, and as the awful smell vanished, Harry inhaled a scent he'd come to know in Devon. His scent, laved by spells and charms until there was nothing left but just the clean smell of his clothes, and the man inside them. To Harry, it was a scent that meant care and comfort; warm buttered oatmeal and honeyed water; and restfulness instead of panic, even while his injuries had ached and the world all around was endless dark.

Harry breathed the smell in deeply, and relaxed still further.

It came to him that Snape hadn't let go of his hands. Harry flexed his fingers, but not to free them. He just wanted to feel that the grip was really there, that he was awake now, and no longer in that half-dreaming state he'd come to know so well in Devon.

Madam Pomfrey began chastising in her high, sing-song voice, "Has no-one any sense? That magic he just let loose! Let him go, Severus! The boy can't bear so much as a finger applying salve--"

"But look, Poppy," Dumbledore's soft voice interrupted. "Look at him."

Even without sight, Harry could tell she was, that she was staring. Hating the sensation prickling at the back of his neck, he rolled until he could hide his face against the side of Snape's torso, burrowing his cheek against the man's soft shirt. Cotton . . . well-worn, well-washed cotton, the weave fuzzy with age. It would be black, he thought, and long-sleeved to hide the Dark Mark. Frowning, Harry shifted closer to his teacher, wondering what was going to happen to Snape now that Voldemort's harsh summons would have to be ignored.

"This is not how trauma recovery proceeds," Madam Pomfrey was still insisting. "I am a trained Medi-Witch, as you well know! Severus may have had the best of intentions, but he was present at the events, participated in them. And now Mr Potter is clinging to him; Albus, this is not healthy for the boy--"

Thankfully, that was all Harry heard. Her voice faded down the corridor where Dumbledore had--gently but firmly, no doubt--led her.

As soon as her protests faded off, Snape slid an arm beneath Harry's shoulders and effortlessly drew him up so the boy could rest a cheek against his chest. Good thing, thought Harry. He'd almost started to suffocate there, with his face pressed in against his teacher's side.

For a long time after that, Harry lay silent, just soaking in the feeling of someone who would sit quietly with him, someone whose presence didn't make him feel like he had to put on a show of being cheerful and brave. He wasn't brave, not now; he was afraid to so much as speak. Or maybe it was a case of being confused, of not knowing what to say, or how to say it, even. Madam Pomfrey had a point, after all. Snape had been there, had helped hurt him, or at least, allowed others to. But he hadn't had much option; Harry understood that, when he could rise above the memory of the staggering pain, and think about things rationally. Samhain . . . that wasn't who Snape really was. That had been a feint.

Afterwards . . . that was what mattered.

Afterwards, when Harry had lain dazed and half-conscious, unable to recall or remember much of what he'd suffered during Samhain. Snape had held him and held him, hour past hour just like this, sitting beside him, holding his hands, letting Harry lean into his strength and draw from it. His body remembered that, recognised the comfort, he thought. His body knew, just like the thinking part of his mind, that Snape was no threat. Strangely, his teacher's touch was the only one he could bear, but more than that, it was a touch he wanted. Craved, even. Now that he was being held, he realised it was like getting water after an eternity of thirst. But perhaps that wasn't so strange, after all. Snape's touch was the one thing that stood apart from the horror, because Harry had been given so much of it then, all he could want, really, in that time before he'd woken up. Before he'd realised he was supposed to be afraid.

It was Snape who finally broke the silence enveloping them.

"Better now, Harry?"

Harry gave a jerky nod, his cheek brushing against the hard little buttons on Snape's shirt. He wanted to ask so many things, but every one of them sounded stupid even to him. Do you have to hate me now? You aren't really going to stop making my potion, are you? Why did you have to be the one to hold me down while they tormented me . . . He cast about for something better to start off with, something that wouldn't have Snape sneering at him and going back to Mr Potter.

"Um, Professor? What was that terrible smell?"

Snape's chest moved up and down in a slow, calming rhythm as he breathed. "Sight Restorative Potion. I believe you're familiar with it."

"Oh, yeah." Harry shuddered, thinking he'd almost rather stay blind that drink that dead liquorice flavour twice each day. He didn't say that, though. Some frightened part of him couldn't bear the thought that Snape didn't like him, not really, not anymore. He'd move away if Harry said something insulting, wouldn't he? And Harry needed to be held, even if his teacher was only here because he'd thrown a screaming fit. "Smelling it was worse than drinking it," he settled for explaining.

"It would be," Snape remarked, easing one hand from Harry's and bringing it up to rest it very gently against the back of the boy's head. His fingers wove themselves through the strands, but other than that, didn't move. "You're sensitised to it because it's in your system. It took me a moment to realise; nobody else could detect the smell at all."

"You were making it, again?"

"I was spilling it, you idiot child," Snape softly replied, pulling his head a little bit more snugly against him as he said it. It came to Harry then, that strange as it might seem, when Snape said that phrase he meant it . . . affectionately. It was sad, in a way, as though Snape hadn't ever had anyone he could care about, and didn't really know how it was supposed to work.

Though come to think of it, this slow hug where he could feel the man's heartbeat through the slightly fuzzy fabric of shirt . . . this was pretty good. If it lasted. That was the part that worried Harry. What if Snape was only being nice to him because he so obviously needed it? Because if he didn't, Harry's wild magic might lash out again?

"I spilled it all over me when Albus connected the Floo to my laboratory, and I heard you," Snape went on, his voice calm and matter-of-fact. Not even angry, and when had Snape ever not been angry over a potions accident? It was odd, but Harry lost track of the strangeness as his teacher talked on. "Poppy should have let me know at once that you wanted me, but I don't think she realised you were screaming my name as a summons." He paused. "Was it a nightmare, Harry?"

Harry nodded, a desperate little sob catching in his chest, somewhere near his heart. "Should be used to them," he muttered, feeling cowardly and ashamed, by then. He was glad Snape had got there, and helped him stop those awful, uncontrollable surges of violent magic, of course, but still, he'd been having bad dreams for years and years.

"These aren't your usual nightmares, I expect," Snape returned, sighing, his fingers moving downward until they rested on Harry's nape. He began to rub the pads of his fingers there, in slow, tiny circles that made the boy's tense shoulders loosen and finally droop. "Samhain, yes?"

Harry shook his head and muttered something unintelligible, his shoulders tautening again, but then Snape said very slowly, as though it was being dragged from him, "I have nightmares about it, as well."

Harry brought his cheek up, wishing he could see his teacher's expression. "Really?"

This time there was no pause before the admission. "Yes."

They sat a while in silence after that, probably because, Harry thought, neither one of them needed to detail out loud just what was in their dreams. They knew.

"Do you need me to say how sorry I am, Harry?" Snape abruptly demanded, his voice gone cold.

"Sorry I have nightmares?" Harry said without thinking, but then his mind caught up. "Or sorry because you were um . . . there, with them?" Helping them, he almost said, but didn't.

"Don't be a bloody fool," Snape sneered. "Of course because I was there with them."

Harry shivered a bit, the twice-repeated phrase making him a bit ill. He didn't want to talk about Samhain, he really didn't. Or at least, not yet. '"I know you're sorry," he offered, and then heard himself volunteering, "I dream about Devon too, you know."

Harry felt Snape's breathing jerk as his teacher questioned, "You recall being at the cottage?"

"Yeah . . ." Biting his lip, Harry tried moving a bit. He hadn't realised at first, probably because he'd still been so recently emerged from the nightmare, but it was a little bit awkward leaning just his cheek against Snape, who seemed to be sitting on the edge of the bed. He didn't want to lose the touch, which really helped, but he was starting to think he might slide down into the sheets if he didn't get into a more stable position. Easing one hand from his teacher's grasp, Harry pushed up on it and moved his cheek up, until it was just beneath Snape's chin. That let him sling an arm around the man's ribs, and gave him something to hang onto. Of course, he held his breath the whole time, even though by then, it didn't seem too likely that the man would shove him away.

Snape didn't shove him away. In fact, he scooted more fully onto the bed, propping his back up on Harry's pillows before gathering him close against the length of his side, tucking his head into the curve of his shoulder. Ah, did that feel good. Strange that it would, though, with the childhood he'd had. Really, nobody had ever lain beside him, offering comfort and warmth. Not once, not ever, not anyone.

Not until Devon.

"I remember you holding me," Harry went on after a bit. "Just like this, for hours. I remember wishing there could be a house-elf to stoke the fire and bring my broth, because I hated it when you had to get up and leave me."

"It's odd you would remember," Snape mused, his chest rising and falling in that comforting rhythm. "You were asleep."

"No," Harry yawned, a lull washing over him. "Half-dreaming."

Snape accepted that, saying only, "You're almost half-dreaming again. You need your rest; I'll leave you to sleep, now--"

"No!" Harry cried, the word now doused with fear. "Stay. Please, Professor. Oh, please. I don't want . . ." Gritting his teeth, Harry broke off speaking. It was awful, what he had been going to say. Awful, but true.

His teacher hadn't moved. "You don't want what?" And then, when the boy didn't answer, in a harder tone, "What, Harry?"

Harry felt his legs clenching up just thinking about it, and a surge of anger, and something else he couldn't identify, churning inside him. "I don't want to have to blow the windows out again, just to get you up here, all right?"

Snape's voice went low and hard, as he spoke in clipped syllables, each one distinct. "What do you mean?"

Harry sat up a little bit straighter, all exhaustion burned away by the anger and the other feeling clawing up inside him. Hurt, that was it. Yeah, hurt. Because he'd needed this before, damn it! Needed to talk, to be held! And Snape had ignored him and sneered on and on about potions to Dumbledore, and walked straight past to Pomfrey's office without a word to Harry, and told Hermione to get out when Harry had sent that apology!

"Well that's what it took, didn't it?" he challenged, almost reeling with it, he was so angry. "You hate my guts again, just like before, and don't think I don't know it! You're only here now because the headmaster was afraid I'd let my magic really fly if I didn't get my way! I bet he thought I might burn down a whole wing of the castle, or something, or blow the stones apart or---!"

Snape pulled him back down and settled him close against his chest, the embrace firm and safe as Harry trembled.

"Hush, you idiot child," he whispered against his hair, tightening his arms about the boy until he stilled. "I don't hate you, Harry, of course I don't. I haven't hated you for . . ." his voice dropped still lower, to wryly admit, "well, for a while, we'll say."

"Oh, sure," Harry sneered.

"I should probably tell you how I, what I . . ." Snape muttered, his teeth clicking in an agitation Harry could feel communicated through the man's hands, as well. His teacher cleared his throat, started to say something, then abruptly stopped. Finally, after yet another abortive attempt, he managed to admit, "Harry. Listen to me. I don't hate you at all."

As declarations went, that one was absolutely, incredibly lame, Harry thought, but he liked it all the same. For one thing, he could tell it was true. But beyond that, it seemed to him that Snape was covering something he felt but couldn't say. Severus does not care to show emotion, the headmaster had said, so yeah, Harry could listen to I don't hate you at all and know that there was more to it than that.

When Snape shifted slightly, Harry clutched at him, afraid he was going to leave. He wouldn't want to sit with Harry now, would he? After he'd just unbent enough to say something like that? If he knew Snape, the man would disappear again. Either that, or hide behind some cold mask of indifference. "Don't leave yet," Harry softly cried. "I want to talk, all right?"

"All right," Snape agreed, his own voice surprisingly easy. Harry thought then that maybe he didn't know Snape as well as he had thought. The man seemed . . . well, okay, even after what he'd just said.

Snape shifted back, adjusting them more comfortably on the narrow bed. "We'll talk a while longer."

Harry nodded, and then thought for a while, trying to decide what they'd better talk about. It seemed like dozens of questions were crowding his mind. Even worse, the more he melted against Snape, the safer he felt, which just meant that he could dream up even more things he'd like to say. But that was good, wasn't it? It was nice to finally feel safe; it meant he could to admit to one of the things that had been bothering him. "That first day when I woke up here, you said you had to work on potions . . . which I think is true, but I also think you were using it as an excuse to avoid me. Because you said you'd come by later, when you had time, and you never did!"

"I did, Harry," Snape insisted, still in that easy voice that Harry could centre on. "You were asleep, but I sat with you, for a while. Albus can tell you that; he was there."

"Okay, fine," Harry muttered, deciding he could accept that at face value. It wasn't like he needed to check up on Snape's story. Actually, he thought it was strange that his teacher had mentioned the headmaster like that. "Why haven't you come back since, even after I apologized? And why were you so nasty at first, anyway?"

Snape sighed, a long drawn-out sound as he inhaled and exhaled, then muttered, "I truly do not know where to begin . . . Harry, when you first woke up here, I felt . . . it's difficult to explain. I was certain you would remember Samhain; I didn't expect you to remember Devon in the least. I anticipated that speaking with you would be . . . well, difficult. But still, I did intend to try. A little, at least."

"Then why didn't you?"

Snape pulled him even closer, and wrapped an arm completely around his back. "Because when I came through the door, you were telling Dumbledore what had made Samhain so very horrible. You were hurt by someone you trusted."

"But that is what made it so horrible," Harry murmured, slow to understand. "Or one of the things . . . Oh. Oh, no . . . I get it. You thought I meant I'd been hurt by someone I had trusted and didn't any longer?"

"It would be a perfectly rational reaction on your part," Snape quietly admitted.

"No, it wouldn't," Harry argued, wondering how to explain. "'Cause I knew, see. I knew from my dreams that there'd be a way out, that I wasn't going to end up dead that night. You had to wait for a chance, watch for it." He gulped, his fingers knotting in Snape's shirt. "Samhain was awful because I couldn't hate you for it, Professor, not even during. It sounds stupid, I know, but it's true . . . hating you would have made things, I don't know. Easier." Harry paused, then plunged on. "Anyway, I thought you didn't care about trust."

"Ah. Well . . . so did I."

For another long while, they just lay there, listening to the wind whistle through the open stone portals that used to be windows. It came to Harry that Snape was being deliberately quiet, letting Harry guide the conversation. Maybe it was because Harry had insisted he wanted to talk; his teacher was letting him.

"Why did you tell Hermione to get out like that?" he finally gathered his nerve to ask. "I was just trying to apologize, you know. I'd have told you in person if you'd have come up here."

Snape rolled slightly onto his side, facing Harry, settling the boy's head onto a pillow. It came to Harry to wonder how much light there was, how much Snape could see of his expression. Wondering that made him want to hide.

"I suppose," Snape said after a moment, "I used that tone of voice because I mistook what your apology was for, Harry."

"Huh? What did you think it was for?"

He felt his teacher's legs shifting on the bed. The sound of it was restless. "I had been delivering potions shortly before, when you were yelling at your friends not to even mention my name. After Miss Granger saw fit to announce my presence--tactless girl--I surmised you were apologizing that I had overheard how much you detested me."

"But I don't detest you."

"Yes," Snape drawled beside him. "I had gathered as much."

Harry almost wanted to punch him lightly in the ribs, but decided it was a little too juvenile for the Professor to tolerate well. "What you heard was me yelling for them to just shut up, 'cause Ron seemed to think you could have saved me from everything if you'd wanted to bother," Harry admitted, frowning. "He doesn't get it. You were all I had, at that meeting, and you had to keep your head and keep yourself alive so you could get me out!"

"I think you actually do understand," Snape murmured, sounding rather startled.

"Yeah, of course I do," Harry muttered. "I'm not the least bit stupid. But even so, you know . . ."

"I know," Snape commiserated. "Well, then. I suppose I must have frightened Miss Granger."

"Hermione's pretty fright-proof."

"Ah, yes, the first-year who thought she could handle a Mountain Troll all by herself."

"Oh, she just made that up," Harry clarified.

"Hmm," Snape murmured, but didn't ask more. Or rather, not about that. "It occurs to me to wonder why you sent Miss Granger with that apology, Harry."

Uh-oh. Harry braced himself, and admitted in a small, guilt-ridden voice, "Because you can't . . . er, work for the old crowd any longer, at least not doing your usual job, if you catch my drift . . . and now when your forearm starts to hurt, you won't be able to do anything about it, and . . . well, it's all my fault!"

"It is?"

Whatever Harry had expected to hear, it certainly wasn't that. "Well, yeah," he went on, thinking it a bit weird he'd have to. "I mean, I left the house."

"Ah." Snape laid a hand on his shoulder. "This reminds me of another conversation we've had. I think it's a habit of yours, this taking on of far more blame than is warranted by the circumstances."

"Professor, I left the house," Harry tried explaining again, his tone that time the same kind of one he'd use to get a point across to a five-year-old.

"Yes, I know, Harry," Snape replied in exactly the same tone. "But this isn't like your typical escapade. You didn't use your father's invisibility cloak; you weren't trying to sneak out of bounds."

"What difference does that make? I ended up next door," Harry protested. "And . . . and . . ." he gulped. "I figured you'd think I al- almost deserved what I got, 'cause I wanted to know what it was like at a m- m- meeting, and I was really rude to you over it, and then I found out the h- hard way---"

The hand on his shoulder squeezed, hard. "That is obscene, Harry. You didn't deserve what happened."

"I didn't say I deserved it, I said you probably thought I did!"

"You can't really think that of me," Snape quietly asserted, but then his voice lost its confident edge. "Can you?"

"Guess not," Harry said after a moment. "Um, I mostly wondered about it after Dumbledore explained how Malfoy managed to nab me, 'cause you'd been up here being so mean to me. But then later . . ." Harry sighed. "I shouldn't have let it happen, I know that."

Snape sounded like he was scowling when he countered, "I'm the one who let it happen, Harry. It was my job to protect you! Mine, and Lupin's, I should say, but I was the one who inspected the cellars. Quite obviously, I didn't do an adequate job of it, as I left not only an exit, but one which didn't even appear to be one." He paused to draw a slow, controlled breath. "It is I who should apologize to you."

"If you think that," Harry cried, those awful feelings from that night welling up in him, "why'd you tell the headmaster you didn't even want to make my Eyesight Elixir? You said you'd rather see me suffer!"

Snape went absolutely rigid as the words shot from between his teeth. "Harry! I wasn't talking about you!"

"You called me an irresponsible idiot," Harry blubbered, tears spilling into his eyes and down his cheeks as he balled up a fist and punched his pillow. "You always call me that."

"Because I've seen you be one," Snape dryly put in, but then his voice gentled once again. "But not this time, Harry. You didn't know you were leaving all margin of safety. You weren't indulging your saving-people thing."

"It was a s-- s-- saving-snake thing," Harry miserably admitted, sniffling, raising a pyjama-clad arm to wipe at his eyes. "I just w-- wanted to find Sals, that was all."

"Shhh," Snape murmured, stroking his hair. "It's all right, Harry. When I realised what had happened, I was horrified, but I wasn't angry with you, I promise."

"Yeah, well you were angry at somebody," Harry returned, unwilling to let it go.

"Lupin."

"Remus?" Harry questioned, lifting a confused face, though it didn't do much good when he couldn't see.

"Yes, Remus," his teacher snarled, abruptly losing all semblance of calm as he yanked both his hands off Harry. "That idiot werewolf left the house, and then, as if that weren't irresponsible enough, sauntered back in broad daylight, just as if he'd never heard of a Floo! He practically invited Lucius Malfoy to investigate Grimmauld Place! And for what? Bloody ice cream, as though you were a child to be comforted by sweets!"

Harry didn't think he'd ever heard Snape be angrier, not even when Sirius had mysteriously escaped the Dementor's Kiss. He shivered, glad that all that fury wasn't directed his way. On the other hand, he didn't want it directed at Remus, either.

"It was an innocent mistake," he pointed out. "Kind of like mine. I mean, Remus wasn't trying to give away my location."

"It was nothing like yours!" Snape sneered. "Short of examining blueprints, you had no way of knowing that you were following your snake through an outside wall. Lupin knew full well that certain parties wanted you and were more than capable of following him to you!"

"But he didn't know Uncle Vernon had blabbed I'd been hanging about with him!" Harry said in Remus' defence. "He didn't know anybody would think to follow him!"

"He knew it was possible!"

"You're just still mad at him from your school days! You've never stopped!"

"Don't presume to judge my anger, Harry," Snape warned in a voice that was cold, clear through.

"I won't." Because Snape's anger, after all, wasn't really the point, was it? It was what he did with it that mattered. "But please, Professor, you can't stop making his Wolfsbane over it! Please tell me you won't. That's just awful!"

"Yes, it would be, wouldn't it?" Snape drawled in a dark, sardonic voice.

"You can't hate Remus so much that you want innocent people to get killed!"

The Potions Master scoffed at that. "Oh, but Lupin's a noble Gryffindor, Harry. Not too much unlike you, actually. He'll chain himself so that he's no option but to attack himself when the moon goes full."

"Stop it!" Harry cried.

"Oh, I will make your mangy friend's potion," Snape growled, placing a finger across Harry's lips when it seemed the boy would speak. "Just do not thank me."

Harry nodded, thinking that was fair enough, and wiped again at his eyes. It hadn't seemed significant while emotion had just been churning inside him, but now that he was calmer, he realised that he was crying. It was probably too late to hide his face, but he tried it anyway, feeling defensive. Severus Snape had probably never cried. Or not since he was little. Sixteen, though, wasn't so little.

"Don't," Snape urged, nudging Harry's head a bit away from him. "If your tear ducts have healed, it means the Restorative Potions are beginning to work as they should. Lumos." Harry heard the swish of a wand. "Can you see any difference?"

"No . . . maybe something. It's not light, though. The blackness looks . . . well, less black."

"Grey? Colours?"

"No, just less black. I can't really explain." Snape hadn't said Nox, so Harry figured this was as good a time as any to ask what he'd been wondering about ever since he'd woken up. "Um, Professor?"

"Hmm?" Snape sounded like he was still peering closely at his face.

"You'll tell me the truth if I ask for it, won't you? The plain honest truth, no matter how horrible it turns out to be?"

Snape considered that a moment before answering. "Are you asking me never to misdirect you?"

Harry didn't want to open that whole can of worms, not right then. "Actually, I was just wanting to know what you saw. Um, you know, when you look at me."

Snape sounded a bit puzzled. "Dark hair, green eyes--- ah, you mean your eyes and what they look like, now. Yes, I'll tell you the truth. Hold still." Harry heard the wand moving again, and felt his eyelids being pried open. He couldn't help it; he jerked himself away.

Snape said nothing of it, merely detailing, "Your eyes are intact, the irises still green, although the colour may be more . . . intense than before. Glossier, somehow. At any rate, I can see residual scarring on your cornea. Like scratches on glass, Harry. Faint to imperceptible, unless one looks closely. You're nearly healed. I think tomorrow you should begin the Eyesight Elixir."

Harry breathed a sigh of relief. All in all, things didn't sound too bad. But Eyesight Elixir? "Haven't I been drinking it all along? That rotten smelling stuff?"

"Potter," Snape drawled, effortlessly snapping into full Professor mood, "Sight Restorative Potions and Eyesight Elixir are completely different in formulation and use."

"Yes, sir," Harry muttered, before another thought occurred to him. "Do you have a batch that Malfoy hasn't had his finger in? Because Ron and Hermione told me he's been helping you make my potions, and . . . well . . ."

"Yes?"

"That's just gross," Harry announced, lifting his chin. "And . . ."

"Oh, please do speak your mind," Snape put in, sounding . . . well, Harry didn't know. Sort of snide and amused, all at once.

"Yeah, well you asked for it," Harry muttered, deciding that he might as well. It's not like this was some little thing he could just ignore, was it? "Letting Malfoy anywhere near my Potions is pretty irresponsible of you, don't you think, Professor? No offence, but are you thinking? His shitefaced father did just try to burn me alive, you know."

"Draco Malfoy is not his father," Snape briskly stated, abruptly levering himself off the bed and away from Harry. "Nonetheless, he has not been helping make your potions. Your friends are mistaken."

"Then why doesn't he have to do the bookwork everybody else has been getting?"

"I thought you trusted me," Snape remarked. Harry could almost see that raised eyebrow.

He thought of saying I thought so, too, but decided it was petty, not to mention untrue. And really, it sort of touched him that Snape appeared to care about his trust, so he figured he'd better not abuse it. "Listen," he sighed. "I trusted you through tortures from the pits of Hell, so don't you dare claim I have to prove myself by not asking what's going on. It's my right to know, damn it! Besides, Malfoy keeps coming around here, and . . . it worries me. I don't know what he's up to."

"He's not up to anything."

"Yeah?" Harry challenged, pushing up to lean on an elbow. "Don't you know you can't believe a word that comes out of that Slytherin's mouth?"

"I'm a Slytherin, too, don't forget," Snape smoothly reminded him. "Now, as for Mr Malfoy, he has come to the hospital wing on my orders. Mine, and Albus'. He has been endeavouring to speak to you. It is . . . a condition. The rest you must hear from him."

"And in class?" Harry pressed.

It sounded to Harry as though Snape had crossed his arms in front of his chest. "It may surprise you to learn this, but Mr Malfoy does not approve of his father's . . . handiwork, shall we say. He wished to do something to help, Harry--"

"Malfoy did not ask to help me," Harry interrupted.

"Oh yes, he most certainly did, and as he's really quite good at brewing, I set him to making Painless Sleep Draughts. He doesn't know I've been pouring his results into the general student supply, and I ask that you not tell him."

"That little misdirection might end up poisoning somebody," Harry pointed out, flopping onto his back.

"Do you really believe I ever stock the infirmary with a potion, even one of my own making, without verifying it thoroughly, first?"

Harry didn't mean to be dim, but that just didn't make sense. "So if you've checked Malfoy's draughts and they're okay, why not give them to me? I mean, either they're safe or they aren't, Professor."

"The Potions you need just now," Snape tightly announced, "are more potent than standard formulations. Draco is fully competent to brew them, but I have not allowed it because I knew it would make you uneasy. As indeed, it has."

Harry winced, and wasn't sure if it was at the mild rebuke, or the fact that Snape had just called Malfoy Draco. He didn't like that. "Sorry, sir."

"No more apologies," Snape said brusquely as he stood up. Funny, without the robes Harry had a much harder time hearing how he might be moving. "Are you all right to sleep, now, Harry?"

"I wanted to ask something else," Harry yawned. "Um, bunch of stuff, but I can't remember. Oh, the Portkey, that was it . . . hmm, something about the Portkey . . .?"

"I think it's time you rested," Snape remarked, learning over to help pull up his blankets and tuck him in. Another first, for Harry. Or maybe not. Snape had probably tucked him in at Devon. But nobody else had, not ever, except probably his parents, but it didn't count for much when you couldn't remember.

Even under the blankets, though, Harry started to shiver. He wanted Snape's warmth back.

His teacher must have figured the breezes were what was making him cold. Harry heard a brief series of Reparo spells, along with the noise of glass chinking itself back together, and could almost imagine the sight of the windows putting themselves to rights.

"Sorry about that," Harry murmured, forgetting that Snape had asked for no more apologies. "I wasn't trying to do that, at least, I don't think I was. I don't even know how I did it, really."

"I suspect I do," Snape muttered darkly. "But now is not the time. We will discuss it tomorrow."

"Promise? You won't disappear again?"

"I will bring your Eyesight Elixir," Snape assured him, and that time, Harry caught the subtle shift in the conversation. The Potions Master was veering it away from the personal into the impersonal. Well, okay. Harry could go along with that.

"Is that like the final step? I mean, tomorrow I'll be able to see?"

"I doubt matters will proceed quite so rapidly," Snape clarified. "The Restorative Potions have helped prepare your tissues, but it will take some time for the Elixir to take full effect." With that, Snape was helping him sit up a bit and pressing a vial into his hand. "Dreamless Sleep for tonight, but far more potent than the variety you once told me didn't work on you. Drink, Harry."

"I don't need it," Harry protested. "I won't have another nightmare, I don't think, not now I've talked to you."

"Nonetheless," his teacher drawled in that insistent voice he recognised. Giving in, Harry awkwardly tilted the vial and tipped the contents into his mouth. Hmm, it bubbled on his tongue a lot more than the regular kind. Tasted fruitier, too.

He almost thought Snape had left; Harry was so sleepy, it was hard to tell. But then a hand gently settled onto his forehead and stroked his hair back from his face. It felt nice.

"Will you promise me something, Harry?" Snape softly asked. "It's important."

"Promise?" Harry drowsily asked.

"Yes. Listen to Draco Malfoy when he comes to talk to you, all right? Will you do that?"

Harry thought hard about that, because he knew that something just wasn't right, something more than the obvious. The timing, that was it . . .

"You got me wuzzy first before asking," Harry announced in a voice that anyone but a Potions Master might have taken for falling-down-drunk. "That's not . . . nice, Pre.. er, Professor."

"Just tell me you'll speak with him--"

"Slytherin," Harry accused, a wave of silliness seeming to dance across his tongue. It loosened up his vocal cords, too. He'd never realised he knew so many nice S words. "Sly scheming 'spicious Slytherin. S--- . . . um, sneaky snakey snarky snacky snooty snarley singy-songy Slyth'rin . . ."

He thought he heard his teacher mutter something like I do believe I got you a shade too "wuzzy," but he couldn't be sure of that, any more than he was sure about what happened next. He hadn't really felt what he'd thought, had he?

Nah, he decided. Couldn't be. Snape wouldn't lightly brush his lips against the scar on his forehead, would he? It was just the wuzziness of the potion making him feel warm and silly and happy, and well, not hated.

Not hated at all.

Harry giggled once or twice before falling into the happiest sleep he'd had in weeks.

Chapter Text

Harry spent the next morning catching up on some reading. Or rather, some listening. Hermione had stopped by early, bringing some of her books, along with a quill she'd charmed to read out loud. It was a neat trick, Harry thought. It took him a little while to get the hang of dragging it across lines of text without letting it drift up and down, but other than that, it worked fine. Well, except for the fact that it read out loud in her voice. Harry loved Hermione and all, but she really did have a way of talking like she knew it all.

Be sure to drink all of your pumpkin juice, Harry, she'd said at least a dozen times that morning. It's high in vitamin A, so it'll be really good for your eyes . . .

She hadn't let up until he'd drained the entire glass. At least she hadn't tried to get him a second one or something, before she'd had to rush off to class. It was kind of dull in the hospital wing after that, with just fussy Madam Pomfrey and a talking quill for company. She'd salved him again, talking in that high sing-song voice about how everything would be better soon, he'd see, and it had been all Harry could do not to shout at her that no, he didn't see!

Barmy old bat. She wouldn't even let him go to the bathroom alone! It was as if she didn't realise after six years of Voldemort and Quidditch and sundry Potions accidents that Harry had been in the hospital wing enough to navigate it blindfolded, let alone blind!

Finally she'd left him alone, though, and Harry had managed to listen to Hermione spouting her way through an entire chapter in Transfiguration. He was still behind, but tired of that subject, he flipped another book off the pile on his bedside table and opened it at random, then ran the quill across a sample line. Hermione's girlish voice rang out:

"Although Ulber of Normandy's classification system remains in limited use today, the true distinction between mood charms and attitude charms is not one of intent but rather of--"

Draco Malfoy's voice interrupted the quill as his footsteps strode forward. "Granger, what the hell are you teaching Potter? We won't be covering that rot for weeks yet--" The voice came around the fabric divider Pomfrey had Accio'd over when she'd last applied Harry's salve. "Where's Granger?"

Harry set his lips in a straight line, and closed his eyes as though Draco wasn't worth looking at. The effect was probably ruined, seeing as he was blind, but oh, well. "She Disapparated when she heard you coming," he threw out, just to see what the Slytherin would do with that.

Draco gasped, but tried to cover it with a slight cough. "You don't mean to tell me that that Mud---, that Muggleborn knows how to Disapparate."

Interesting change of terms, especially for Draco Malfoy, but all it meant to Harry was that the Slytherin was . . . well, being a Slytherin, playing some sort of sucker game. "Sure she can Disapparate," Harry answered in his you-are-so-stupid-and-I-am-so-bored-of it voice. "What, can't you?"

"Potter," Draco drawled. "Nobody can Disapparate inside this castle."

"House-elves can," Harry pointed out. It was too good, making Draco think Hermione could out-magic him. Of course she could, but try getting a high and mighty pureblood to admit to it. "I've seen Dobby do it. You remember Dobby, don't you, Malfoy?"

"You think I keep track of the hundreds of house-elves running around this place?" Draco gave a sneering laugh.

"He used to be your charming father's," Harry fairly spat and when Draco didn't react, added, "'Til one day there was this sock . . ."

"Oh, that one," Draco merely muttered.

Interesting, that the boy didn't take up for his father as he usually would, or rail against Harry for having freed the elf. Interesting, yes, but probably just one more angle to his game. "Anyway," Harry continued with forced cheer, "Hermione spends loads and loads of time with the house-elves. Part of her cause. You remember SPEW, don't you? The Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare? Well, I was as shocked as you when she started popping in and out of rooms just like they do, but then she told me they'd taught her the trick."

When Draco gave a snort, and stepped closer, Harry had to force himself not to visibly tense. Inside though, he was coiled, ready, almost shaking with suppressed violence. He could feel a low hum of power vibrating deep inside him, somewhere near his core, and darkly wondered if he could unleash it just onto Draco. Probably not, though. He'd likely blow the windows out again.

"You're a really good liar for a Gryffindor," Draco was saying, apparently oblivious to Harry's unease. "You had me going for a moment, there." A scraping noise ensued as Draco helped himself to a seat.

"Oh please, be my guest," Harry said, waving a sarcastic hand. His urge to lash out had decreased when Draco had sat down, though, so the windows were probably safe. "Anyway, what makes you think I was lying? Hermione's quite talented, you know. Even heard her called the cleverest witch of her age, by a couple of people who ought to know."

"Oh, you're a liar all right," Draco drawled, sounding like he was fussing with his robes, or maybe his tie; hard to tell. "The house-elves hate that freedom crap she tries to shove down their throats. They're not her mates. Besides, there's no way in hell Granger would Disapparate if it meant leaving you to my tender mercies."

Tender mercies. A wave of gooseflesh swept Harry from head to toe, all his previous unease returning with a vengeance. Oh God, what was Malfoy doing in here? He's up to nothing, Snape had said, but Harry couldn't really believe that. The Potions Master just didn't know the whole history, did he? Didn't know, for example, that Harry and his friends had hexed Malfoy into something resembling a giant slug, last spring on the way home from Hogwarts. They'd piled him onto a luggage rack and left him to ooze, and Malfoy hadn't had a chance to get even.

Or, he hadn't had a chance yet.

When Harry felt a hand brush against his blanket-covered calf, he kicked out at it. Hard.

"Shite! Ow!" Draco yelped, leaping back. "What in hell's your problem?"

"Get your stinking hands off me!" Harry yelled back, even louder.

Madam Pomfrey was there almost at once. "What's this then? Mr Malfoy?"

"Potter here kicked me! Damned near broke my wrist!"

"Yeah, well keep your stinking hands off, like I said!"

"I wasn't going to hurt you, idiot! I was just reaching for the Charms text, thought I'd read you the lessons you actually missed!"

"You were going to read out loud to me," Harry echoed, scoffing. "Sure you were. Listen, Malfoy, I don't want you lurking around, I don't want you watching me while I sleep, and I sure as hell don't want you making any more potions for me, got it? Now, get out!"

Dead silence greeted his pronouncement. Harry didn't hear so much as a cloak rustle.

"Madam Pomfrey," Harry tried, "make him leave."

The normally strident Medi-witch seemed oddly reluctant to eject Draco. She hemmed and hawed about Harry needing company, ignoring his strongly worded objections, finally ending the argument by announcing, "I'll be in my office, Mr Potter. I'll certainly hear you if you need anything." Turning, she said to Draco, "Mr Malfoy. Keep your distance or I wager you'll have more than a bruise to contend with." With that, she was walking away.

"Fuck," Harry swore. "What's going on around here?"

Apparently taking the Medi-Witch's advice, Draco slid his chair back another foot, away from Harry. "Oh, she heard Dumbledore telling me to catch you awake sometime, that's all."

Harry sneered, knowing he was slandering Pomfrey, but after putting up with days of her smothering crap, he didn't care. "Are you sure you didn't just bribe her with a load of your family's Galleons?"

Draco went strangely silent, and then said, "They didn't tell you."

"Tell me?"

"About my family."

"I don't want to know," Harry snapped. "Unless you have something nice to say, like Gee, Potter, my father's just been thrown back into Azkaban, and this time he's not crawling out or Gosh, Potter, my father was just smashed flat as a pancake by a fleet of falling lorries, or--"

"Golly, Potter," Draco drawled, "my father's just disowned me and put out a warrant for my death."

Harry snapped his mouth shut, but his shock only lasted for an instant. "Oh, please! What are you up to, with a story like that? What's the plan, you get in good with Dumbledore so that you can double-cross him and he can be the next person dear old Dad attacks with needles?"

"It may come as a shock to you to hear this, Potter, but I'm not exactly brimming with ecstasy over what my father did to you!"

"Oh, I'm sure you wept rivers of tears," Harry sneered. "Hogwarts washed into the lake. Last I heard, the giant squid had gobbled up the castle."

"Well, you wouldn't know what it's like, would you?" Draco sneered right back. "You, with your perfect father everybody always fawns over. James Potter. Pure-blooded and rich, just like mine. But yours was a paragon, noble and brave, even gave his life for a worthy cause. Bet he never did a thing anyone could fault!"

Harry stiffened, then grabbed the edge of his blanket and folded it down, just to give his hands something to do. "My father's not the issue," he spat back. "And you're not going to convince me you're broken with grief over how yours turned out, not when you've been playing Junior Death Eater around here for years and years!"

"Think what you want," Draco quietly replied, sounding all at once . . . subdued, actually.

"I will, thanks." Harry waited a moment, and when no reply was forthcoming, prompted, "So, is that it then? You just popped 'round to entertain me with a bit of fiction? Or is this another case of you wanting to be seen sitting with me?"

"No. Although that's good."

"Good?"

"Yeah, good," Draco said in a scowling tone. His voice was closer when next he spoke, so Harry figured he had leaned forward. "Listen, it's not like I expect you to believe me. I sure as shite wouldn't, if I were in your place. But I have to tell you, even if you think it's a pack of lies."

"This would be the pack of lies you have to tell me as a condition Dumbledore and Snape put you under? Condition for what?"

"Staying at Hogwarts, you dolt!" Draco erupted. "My parents were my legal guardians, you know. My father summoned me back home, but I knew he'd kill me if I went, so I went to Severus instead for help--"

"Severus!" Harry exclaimed, shocked.

"Yeah, well maybe it never dawned on you," Draco mocked, "but there's this little matter that he's my Head of House? You know, those adults who're supposed to help you when your life's been fucked to Chelsea and back?"

"Don't be stupid, I know what a Head of House is for!" Then again, Harry had to recognise that Snape's approach to his students was very different from McGonagall's. When he'd gone to her for help, like first year when he'd known the Philosopher's Stone was in danger, she'd told him he didn't know what he was talking about. It had been up to him to help himself. "You call him Severus?"

Draco sounded like he was running his fingers through his hair, but he stopped at that last word. "Oh. Well, I've known him really well ever since I can remember, so yeah. I've always called him that, but when I came here he said to make it Professor in class and such. Anyway, after I convinced him I was dead if I ever went back home, he got it all set up for me to never have to."

"What on earth is your game?" Harry gasped. "Why would your father want to kill you?"

"Oh, a bunch of reasons," Draco returned, rising from his chair. "But the main one is this. Don't kick me again, okay? I just want to give you something."

"I don't want anything you could give me," Harry sneered.

"Yeah, Dumbledore gave me back that little token I tossed you," Draco acknowledged. "But this is different. You'll want it, or my name isn't Mal . . . well, never mind. You'll want it, that's all."

Harry felt a slight weight settle onto his stomach. "What did you just put on me?"

"Touch it. Go on . . ."

To Harry's ear, Draco had an inordinate amount of interest in Harry's reaction, which of course made the Gryffindor suspicious. "For all I know, it's a sleeping baby blast-ended screwt," he erupted. "I could lose a hand if I go on!"

"You really think I could smuggle in livestock, right under Pomfrey's nose?" Draco chortled. "That's so flattering! I think it might be the nicest thing you've ever said to me."

"Just get it off me, whatever it is!"

"Where's that famous Gryffindor bravery?"

Harry drew in a deep breath, intending to let fly with another scream for Madam Pomfrey.

"Oh, for Merlin's sake," Draco sighed, his teasing manner vanishing clean away. Ignoring the likelihood that Harry would lash out at him, he quickly picked up Harry's hand and settled it atop his abdomen, then let go. "There, see?"

If Harry had made a list of all the things Malfoy would never, ever give him, this would have been emblazoned straight across the top in letters ten inches tall.

A wand.

And not just any wand, but his. He felt the smooth holly, caressing the length of it, recognizing it not just with his hands but with his magic, too. Magic he couldn't quite reach, but he could feel it, all the same. It was there, a beautiful glow inside him just like it had been that first day in Ollivander's shop, the sensation one he hadn't felt since before his operation at Frimley Park. Harry sighed with pleasure, forgetting Malfoy for the moment, and wallowed in the delicious feeling of magic flowing through him.

What he wouldn't give to try casting a spell . . . but hard on the heels of that thought was the realisation that Malfoy was sitting there, watching. The Daily Prophet might have blabbed his lack of magic to the whole Wizarding world, but that didn't mean that Harry was disposed to fail a simple Lumos with the Slytherin boy watching.

"How'd you get this?" he finally asked Draco.

"Nicked it from my father."

Harry drew in a breath. "Oh. That would certainly get you disowned."

"And marked for death, don't forget."

"Yeah, well that part doesn't sound half bad to me, even if you did just give me back my wand."

"Don't joke," Draco urged him. "Not about that."

"What the hell makes you think I'm joking?"

Draco sighed. "Because I've been there, Potter. I've wished you dead. Hell, if you want the truth, I wished you tortured first, too. But I didn't really understand the ugly reality of a wish like that, and when I heard what my father had done to you, I was just . . . well, revolted isn't even the word. I knew then that I didn't really want a life like that, doing things like that. So . . ."

"So you stole my wand to get in good with Dumbledore," Harry surmised, curling a lip. "Very Slytherin."

"Yes, it was," Draco unapologetically returned. "But it wasn't like you're thinking. I didn't do it for some coldhearted advantage. I did it because I had to. For one, leaving the family business would put me squarely on your side in this war, and that wand's your best weapon! See, I know who has the twin, and what that means. And for another, I was in deep shite, trying to escape my father's plans for me. I needed help, and that meant I needed a good-will token to prove my intentions, because otherwise, not even Severus would have believed I was sincere!"

"Yeah, well don't think I believe you, whatever Snape has to say," Harry put in, and then dropped a broad hint. "Shouldn't you be in class? It's not the weekend."

"Potions," Draco explained. "Severus let me out."

Oh, Severus had let him out.

"Well, run along and tell him you did your good deed for the day," Harry sniped. "Brought the blind boy his wand, aren't you just the sweetest thing?"

Draco didn't move, not one muscle. Well, as far as Harry could tell.

"What part of get your fucking arse out of this room do you not understand?" Harry bellowed, frustrated.

Footsteps came running, and then Draco was smoothly remarking, "He's fine, Madam Pomfrey. Just blowing off steam. Most probably healthy, wouldn't you say?"

"I. Want. Malfoy. To. Leave." Harry stated in the clearest possible language. "Now."

"Professor Snape asked me to catch him up on what he's missed," Draco explained, his voice so much the personification of innocence that Harry could have screamed. "We're all really concerned that Potter here doesn't fall too far behind. N.E.W.T.s are just two years off, you know!"

The Medi-Witch was muttering as she moved away, that time.

"You're a really bad liar," Harry sneered. "Snape didn't ask you to do any such thing!"

"No, but I bet he'd approve," Draco confidently asserted. "What do you say? I'll just read to you from Potions, and tell you what we did in class with each chapter. It's got to be better than lying here bored to death."

"Fuck off."

Draco's voice went as smooth as glass. "Oh, come now. You'll love listening to me; I've had diction lessons since I was three. I do wondrous declamations. Would you like to hear something classical so you'll know what you're passing up? Perhaps Adelafa Steppleburn's Sonnet 253?" He launched straight into it. "Wast thou awake beside my bed, / By Thor's own hammer, dearly led.  / A pair of nifflers I declare,  / would be thy trophy in my lair--

"Shut up," Harry ordered, trying hard not to laugh. It might give Malfoy the wrong idea, might make him think that Harry found him amusing, or Merlin forbid, could actually stand him. "That poem stinks, and as for your declaiming--"

"I'll keep right on with it unless you want to hear about Potions," Draco threatened. "Hmm, you know what would be really fun? How about I start with Sonnet 1 and work my way up from there, see how many I can remember? Hmm, I think I know through about 62 really well--"

"Fine, Potions!"

Draco laughed and pulled a book from the stack. "Oh, don't look so put out, Potter. I do have an ulterior motive, you know. See, I knew that would brighten you right up."

"What motive?"

The Slytherin's voice lost all amusement. "Well. I'm sure you remember that I like to be on the winning side. And you're sort of our vanguard, see? So it won't do to have you leave school unqualified for the Auror's program, no indeed. And no offence, but you need some serious help in Potions."

"I scored Outstanding on my O.W.L!" Harry objected.

"But the advanced level is ten times harder than Ordinary Wizarding," Draco came back. "Tell Granger to tutor you, she's good enough at it. But don't let it slide. We can't afford it."

"We?" Harry questioned, nostrils flaring.

"Yeah, we. The good guys, don't you know." Draco smothered another laugh. "Oh, one more thing. Put Granger's stupid talking feather away. I don't want it reading on top of me and ruining my delivery."

"How did you know--"

"I've only been staring at it for ten minutes. Did you know it's tinted Gryffindor colours?"

"It isn't . . . Really?"

"Yes, really. Don't take my word for it, though. You'll be able to see for yourself, soon enough."

Harry snorted. "Oh, now I know I've heard everything. A Malfoy, trying to cheer me up!"

"No, I wasn't," Draco defended himself. "I was just letting you know. Severus is whipping up a batch of Eyesight Elixir as we speak. He's bringing it up here for you straight away when class lets out."

Harry frowned, puzzled. "I heard him saying days ago that he was making the Elixir then."

Draco slapped a hand to his forehead. "You're really in your own little world up here, did you know that? He's been making a fresh batch of it every single day, in case your eyes were ready."

Well, he doesn't hate me at all, Harry felt like saying, but he certainly couldn't say it to Malfoy. Or Ron or Hermione either, he suddenly realised. Not that it mattered. He knew; that was the important thing.

"Okay, so Potions," Draco started off. "Let's see, right about when you vanished, we were starting Chapter Five: Uses and Abuses of Dragon's Blood. Let's see . . . okay, here we are. Ready? Don't fall asleep; you'll hurt my feelings. But stop me if you have any questions."

"Shut your festering gob and just read," Harry rudely demanded.

Draco's teeth clicked as though he were biting back a response to that. In the end, though, all he said was, "All potions based on dragon's blood share the following characteristics . . ."

-----------------------------------------------------------

"Ah, catching up on your schoolwork," Snape's deep voice interrupted Draco's monologue.

"I think I put him to sleep, though," Draco admitted. "He hasn't asked a question in . . . well, let's see. He never asked a question. That's not the best way to learn, Potter. Haven't you ever heard of the Socratic method?"

"No. What is it?" Harry challenged, pushing up and proving he was awake.

"Uh, not sure," Draco murmured. "Sounds good, though, huh?"

Harry's mattress lurched a bit as Snape sat down next to him and placed a hand on his chin, steadying his face. "Looking better again," he pronounced. "Lumos . . . Can you see any change?"

"The black is less black, just like before. Professor . . . is Malfoy still here?"

"Hmm? Yes, he is."

Talk about not taking a hint. "Get rid of him!"

Snape turned to address the Slytherin boy. "Did you return his property?"

"Can't say I got so much as a thank you very much, I know you risked your life to bring me this, but yes, the boy's got his wand again."

"Thank you, Malfoy," Harry loudly said, if that was what it took. "You can go now."

"Professor?" the blonde boy asked.

"Stay."

"I don't want him here!" Harry objected.

"You've made it abundantly clear," Snape replied. "I want him here."

"Why?"

"Nox," Snape said, ignoring the question.

Harry was about to object again, in terms that were even more abundantly clear, but just then Madam Pomfrey bustled over. "It's time for his Scaradicate Salve again," she announced.

"Yes, I brought fresh," the Potions Master told her.

"Well," the Medi-Witch sniped, "as you're here and you're the only one who can touch him without him kicking up such a fuss, perhaps you'd better do the honours!"

"Poppy's feeling a tad territorial," Snape remarked when she moved off.

"She's a complete bit--"

"Harry," Snape warned, his tone deep and dark.

"A witch," Harry finished, and when his teacher's fingers tightened, insisted, "Well, she is."

Draco made a sound halfway between a snort and a laugh.

"Well, off with your top, then, Harry," the Potions Master directed. "We'll see to this, first, and then tend to your eyes."

Harry raised his voice. "You expect me to strip off in front of Malfoy there? And me blind, not even able to see how much he's smirking? Are you stark, barking mad?"

Draco started making a low humming noise which didn't encompass words, but somehow seemed to suggest sounds like points from Gryffindor to me . . .eee . . .eee . . .

Snape didn't say a word about points. "Just your pyjama top," he explained. "Draco's been helping with your treatment, remember? I'd like him to see how you're doing." His tone though, communicated another message entirely. Do this for me, Harry. Harry just hoped there was an I'll explain later in there somewhere, as well.

"Oh, very well," he moaned with ill grace, undoing the buttons down the front by feel alone, and shrugging it off.

Draco pulled in a harsh gasp when he saw Harry's bare chest.

"Oh, thanks," Harry drawled. Then to his teacher, "You said my eyes looked all right, more or less. Is the rest of me such a mess? I mean, I'm not too sore any longer."

"Mr Malfoy?" Snape prompted as he began to dot a greasy salve across each wound.

"Oh, you look all right, Potter," Draco said, though the words sounded like they were being pulled from somewhere other than his throat. His gut, maybe. Harry had a feeling that the boy had glanced at his teacher before going on. "The . . . er, scars just look like furious red dots now. They aren't festering, or gross or anything."

"Well, that explains your thoroughly disgusted reaction," Harry retorted. "Not that I care one whit if I disgust you, you understand."

"It's just that there are so many," Draco quietly admitted, his voice sounding actually ill, that time.

"Yeah, four hundred and twelve!" Harry snapped. "Approximately. I lost count when that Voldemort-arselicking fucking excuse for a human being known as your father started in on my eyes!"

"That's enough, Harry," Snape scolded. "Now your back."

Harry shifted resentfully, though he was grateful he wasn't having to go through this again with the Medi-Witch. He couldn't stand her hands on him. Hers, or anybody's, except Snape's. Not for the first time, Harry wondered how long that was going to last . . . and what it implied about his mental state. If Remus had thought he was depressed before . . .

"When can I see Remus?" Harry suddenly asked. "He must be okay by now."

"You call him Remus?" Draco snidely inquired, scoring a point.

"When, Professor?" Harry insisted, ignoring the other boy.

"May I have a moment to consider the matter, Harry?" Snape calmly replied, one hand holding Harry's shoulder steady as he stroked salve on the wounds inflicted behind Harry's ears. "How about after your vision is back to normal?"

"Look, I know you think Remus coddles me, but--"

"My concern is rather different than you know," Snape drawled. "Lupin blames himself for your condition, and rightly so. Inviting him here while you're still blind is going to heap more guilt on him. Normally, this wouldn't perturb me in the least, but as you'll end up feeling just as guilty, let's leave it for now, shall we?"

"Fine," Harry snapped, not really up to arguing it in front of Malfoy, anyway.

"Lupin did find your snake, by the way," Snape remarked as he dotted the last few needle marks that showed above the boy's waistband. "Sals had curled up in the corner of the Floo. That might be what made her ill in the first place, assuming she caught a wash of magic as someone came in or out. Non-magical creatures don't always react well to spell residue. At any rate, Lupin set up a little nest in a box for her, and is coaxing her to learn to sleep there, instead."

"So Sals is okay, then?"

"Yes. If you want Lupin to bring her when he comes, though, I'd recommend they take the Express. Sals might react very badly to going through the Floo, or Apparating." Harry heard his teacher wiping his hands on something. "Can you do your own salve below the waist? Just smear it everywhere. It'll be a bit messy, but I think you can manage."

"I can. At least you'll let me, unlike that-- witch, who clutches me like I'm a lifeline or something, every time I have to go to the bloody loo! I told her I could make it across the room by myself, but nooooo . . ." Harry abruptly remembered that he had bigger fish to fry than his gripes against Madam Pomfrey. "Will you please tell Malfoy there to leave me in peace, Professor?"

"We'll wait outside while you do your salve, then come back to do the Elixir," Snape announced.

"Come back alone," Harry shouted after them.

"He's really disrespectful towards you, sir," Harry heard Draco remarking as they walked away. "You'd have given him detention for life if he'd ever said half those things in class."

What he couldn't hear, however, was Snape's response.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"I don't want Malfoy here," Harry gritted, rearing back when his teacher's fingers brushed his face.

Draco gave a long-suffering sigh. "I didn't do this to you, Potter. Can you get that through your skull? And I'm not enjoying seeing you this way, if that was the next idiotic claim going to come out of your mouth."

Harry ignored him. "Why are you insisting Malfoy hang about like this?" he demanded.

Snape's tone was short. "For approximately the same reason the headmaster kept flinging you and me together. Now, tilt your head back."

Harry did, fuming. He forgot his outrage the instant Snape's fingers pried one of his eyelids open. It was like the previous night, only worse, the pressure fierce like on Samhain. Unable to control his own reflexes, Harry screamed, his back convulsing.

Snape sat back and thought for a moment. "Were you trying to let me put the drops in?"

"Yes, I was bloody well trying! Just let me do it myself, like with the salve!"

"This is more important than the salve. The whole surface of your eye must be coated before you blink and introduce tears into the mixture. What do you want to do?"

Harry didn't see much option. He thought he could endure it, just barely, if Snape held him down for the drops to be put in, though it would no doubt be creepy in the extreme. "You'd better um . . . hold me down to get them in. Ugh, I think you know how, at least."

"Are you sure that's a wise course of action, Harry?"

"Well, just do it fast," Harry grumbled. "I can take it, all right? I might scream bloody murder, but it's not like I'm going to um . . . mean it, really. It's just reflex."

Snape shifted a hair closer. "Considering the reflex I just observed, I think I'll need both hands merely to hold you still."

"Yeah," Harry thickly groaned, the parallels haunting him. "Okay, well, I guess Madam Pomfrey can apply the drops, then. Just tell her first not to be so mamby-pamby about it."

Malfoy went to get her, but reported back, "She's stepped out. Shall I go look for her?"

"No," Snape decreed. "You can put the drops in, Draco. I'll watch to be sure you do so correctly."

"Just hold it," Harry exclaimed. "He's not getting near my eyes when it's his father who--"

"I'm not my fucking father!"

"As I recall," Snape growled, "you didn't like it too well when your father's faults were continuously attributed to you, either, did you Harry? I think we all know who did this to you; you needn't harp on it any more, is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Harry muttered resentfully, not wanting to think about the fact that Snape just might have a point.

"Now, will you let Draco help you?" Snape's tone lost its mocking edge. "He does want to help, Harry. I told you that. You really should believe me."

"Why does he want to help? That's the part I don't get."

"He happens to be standing right here!" Draco interrupted, reminding Harry of . . . well, himself, actually. "And I want to help because what my father did to you was sick and cruel. If that's not a good enough reason to suit you, Potter, then you can just fuck off!"

"Well, that convinces me," Harry sniped, but then he gave up. Truth to tell, he wanted the stupid Elixir over and done with, and with Snape right there, there wasn't much Malfoy could do to sabotage the treatment, was there? Not that he believed Malfoy's protests about sick and cruel just turning his stomach. Not too likely, Harry reminded himself. This was the same boy who'd tried his level best to engineer a horrible death for Buckbeak, after all. Sick and cruel was just the name of the game, to Malfoys. All Malfoys.

Yeah . . . Malfoy might have snowed Snape, but as far as Harry was concerned, his story just didn't add up.

And Harry's instincts were usually good. Even Snape had said so.

Chapter Text

"Well, that was certainly great fun," Harry said when it was all over. "Nothing like being drenched in sweat from head to toe as a pair of Slytherins hold me down and pour sticky goo all over my eyeballs."

"If you want a freshening charm, you should just ask for one," Draco pointed out.

"I wouldn't ask you for the time of day--"

"Too late!"

Harry felt a surge of super cooled air rushing all around him, tickling even inside his ears, before it was over. As it whooshed through the flannel of his pyjamas, though, it sucked out every bit of moisture and odour. Really, it was quite a nice charm, far better than the ones Harry knew, but that didn't make it right.

Before he could so much as protest, Snape was snapping, "That's quite enough, you two. We have more important concerns than petty rivalries! Harry, blink a few times. Lumos."

The world slowly swam into view. "Oh, wow, how absolutely wild . . ." Harry breathed. "It's almost like . . . er . . ."

"What, Harry?" Snape pressed. "What do you see?"

Harry hesitated, then admitted, "Well, I can see more than before, but I can't see it very well. Everything's fuzzy, but not quite like I need my glasses, I don't think. More like colours are sort of swirly, like there's a halo of light around every object. And things are, I don't know, almost vibrating . . ."

"It's like he's high on Muggle drugs," Draco supplied. "Trust me; that is what he was going to say."

"Oh, Harry," Snape sounded a bit amused, but the tone was overlaid with worry. "That's really not wise. Especially for you, after what recently happened. But ah . . . we'll talk about it later."

"What recently happened to him?" Draco rudely questioned.

"Mind your own sodding business!" Harry shouted, reaching out a hand and shoving at Malfoy when he saw his blurry shape start to lean in too close.

Draco appeared to shrug it off. "Whatever. But yeah, stay clear of the Muggle drugs. You can get better effects with magic, anyway."

"Then why'd you try the Muggle kind?" Harry gibed.

"Slumming. Why did you?"

When Harry didn't answer, Snape shook his head, incanted Nox, and tucked his wand back into his robes. "Let's try your glasses," he suggested, setting them carefully on his face. Harry remembered then, Snape taking them off partway through the torture. Presumably, his teacher had kept them for him, ever since. "Any better?"

"Ah, no. Actually, they really make my eyes hurt." He reached up a hand and took them off, pushing them onto the night table. Draco's hazy outline deftly caught the item that had been shoved off the other side.

"Flowers, Potter? Ooh, from Halsey Kiersage. Mmm, and nicely spelled to last."

"Stop mucking about in my personal stuff!"

"Fine," Draco answered, and dropped the vase.

"Draco!" the Potions Master exclaimed. "We talked about this!"

"You talked to him about not smashing presents from my friends?" Harry jeered. "Isn't he a little old to be learning that? Did you also talk to him about not trying to get other people's pets executed? How about not stealing things he happens to find lying around in the Slytherin common room, or--"

"We talked about impulse control," Snape interrupted, laying significant stress on the final two words as he trained his gaze on Draco. "Well?"

"Oh, fine," Draco drawled again. "Vasula reparo. Floreuesco. Wingardium Leviosa. There, good as new, even renewed their lovely floral perfume."

The vase settled itself back down onto the night table.

Harry decided the better part of valour might be pretending that Draco Malfoy was nothing but a patch of air. "Professor? What do you think is going on with my vision? Why do my glasses hurt?"

"I suspect the Elixir's repairing your eyes to the state they should be in," Snape surmised. "You might not need glasses after this."

"I'd rather have skipped getting my eyeballs poked full of holes, all the same."

"I have no doubt. Well, I do have quite a few potions to tend. Is there anything else you need at the moment, Harry?"

"Yeah. I need to talk to you alone. Seriously alone, Professor."

"I will come eat dinner with you in a few hours," Snape promised. "Anything else before I leave?"

"Take him with you, and send Hermione back. I need to write a letter, and while I think I could sort of see the parchment now, I don't think I could write worth a damn."

"Draco will be pleased to assist you," Snape smoothly announced. "Am I correct?"

"Certainly, Professor," Draco replied, just as if he'd helped Harry with correspondence a thousand times before.

"Harry?" Snape sounded a tad less smooth when he posed a similar question to Harry. "Will that be acceptable?"

Funny he'd be asking, when the man had been so bloody autocratic before, had been all but shoving Draco at him, but Harry suddenly realised that yeah, it was acceptable. Just probably not for the reasons Snape thought.

There were, after all, far better things to do with Draco Malfoy than ignore him.

"Yeah, all right," Harry groused, making it sound good and reluctant. Snape was as wily as they came, and it wouldn't do to rouse his suspicions. "But he has to promise to get out when I say, this time. That's not negotiable. And you have to promise you'll take points from Slytherin if he sticks around after I've said to leave. A hundred points, say."

"Mr Potter drives a hard bargain," Snape observed, sounding rather . . . satisfied by that, actually. Harry almost snorted. He knew what his teacher was thinking: that Harry's bargain was rather Slytherin itself. "Can you abide by those terms, Mr Malfoy?"

"Oh, certainly," Draco said in his holier-than-thou voice, which Harry had always thought really suited his angelic appearance. It just didn't suit the demon he was inside. "However, in the interests of Slytherin, I should like to point out that you will have only Potter's word for whether I go when asked, or not. That is, unless we'd like to ask Madam Pomfrey to referee us?"

"I think we can trust the word of a Gryffindor," Snape drawled. "Even if he is a marginal one."

"Marginal?" Draco caught the meaning, but not the implication. "His middle name's practically Godric! What do you mean?"

"Harry knows. All right, then?"

"All right," the two boys echoed in unison.

Harry waited until Snape's footsteps had echoed away, before snarling with vicious intent, "Yeah, all right. Have you got a quill and parchment handy? Let's get started."

Of course he had no intention whatsoever of actually sending the letter. To anyone. He just wanted to write it, or rather, have Draco write it. Dudley would never see one word of what Malfoy was going to write, but the Slytherin boy didn't have to know that.

And as for his real letters, Hermione could help with those. Yeah, a letter to Dudley, and another one to Remus. But those were none of Draco's business.

This one, on the other hand . . .

A slow smile split Harry's face in two.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"Dear Dudley," Harry recited, leaning comfortably back on the pillows he'd demanded Draco fluff. Five times, until they were just perfect.

Draco obediently started writing, no doubt in the extremely elegant, looping script he always used on his essays. It was practically calligraphy, and took considerable effort and time, but that was okay with Harry. He wanted Malfoy to have to linger over every word and absorb every phrase.

"Who's Dudley?" Draco asked as he carefully drafted out the name.

"My cousin," Harry explained, letting each fact sink in before he moved on to the next. Sort of like Draco would have to do with the letter. "I grew up with him. His dad just died. Guess how? Death Eaters killed him. Guess why? You gave them his address."

Draco froze in mid-stroke, his jaw working though he didn't seem able to speak.

"What, you didn't know you were a murderer already?" Harry sniped. "Yeah, his dad, my uncle. Dead, at your hand! Not that you'd care; he was, after all, only a Muggle. But I've got just one relative left in the whole wide world, and his father just met his end in a horrible, absolutely sickening way. Now maybe you'll understand why I didn't feel so compelled to thank you for giving me back a stick of wood!"

Draco's quill slipped from his slack fingers and drifted to the floor.

"Well, pick it up!" Harry impatiently ordered, able to track the motion even with his half-healed eyes. "I thought you wanted to help me. Isn't that your new mantra? I've got a lot more to say to my cousin than just 'Dear Dudley,' so hop to! Or do you not want to help me so much any longer?"

"Just dictate," Draco muttered. "Accio quill." A scratching sound told Harry that the other boy was finishing the salutation.

Harry paused a moment to collect his thoughts, then began speaking phrase by phrase, with long pauses in between so Draco could keep up.

"Dear Dudley,

"I'm really, really sorry over your recent loss. I can't even imagine what it must have been like for you, to stand out on your own front lawn and watch all that black smoke come pouring out the broken windows, knowing your father was trapped inside. How absolutely horrifying for you. And then to see the house crush in on itself, like that, and wonder if your father somehow made it out, and then realise he couldn't have, realise he's dead and gone forever . . . Dudley, I am so, so heartbroken that you had to see all that.

"It must be even worse for you, seeing as your mother passed on too, just three weeks ago---"

At that point, Draco broke off to gasp, his voice stricken, "His mother, too! Is that true?"

"Oh, yes," Harry ground out, squinting to try to make out Malfoy's features. Pointless, really. The most he could see was a blurry white face surrounded by a wavering halo of silver-gold. Surreally angelic. But this was no angel. He deserved to know what he'd done. Him, not his father, not this time.

"Now Dudley's got no-one," Harry blithely went on, calculating every word to be a blow. "I know what that's like, don't forget. No parents . . . You think of it every Christmas, every birthday. Well, hell. You think of it every day."

Draco's teeth were chattering. "How did she . . . ah . . . was that Death Eaters as well?"

"No, leukaemia," Harry snapped. No point to secrets now, was there? Voldemort knew everything already. "It's a Muggle disease. I left school to try to help her, but it didn't work. She died, and I got wizardsick."

"How could you help her?" Draco questioned. "We can't cure Muggle diseases."

Harry debated for a moment, though he knew all along, really, that he was going to tell him. Might as well; it was one more way to twist the knife.

"They stuck a really big needle in me, Malfoy, and sucked out some of my bone marrow--"

"They did not!"

"Ask Severus," Harry sneered. "'Cause yes, they did. Muggle doctors. My marrow was supposed to make hers grow back right, or something, but she had a reaction to it instead, and died."

"But you're afraid of needles!" Draco exclaimed, the parchment sheets falling through his hands, that time.

"Yes, I am! Sweet of your father to play on that, wasn't it? He found it out from my bereaved uncle who was almost insane with grief that the operation had ended up so badly! But hey, no harm done, right? At least your father got to have his jollies reminding me, over and over, how stinking awful it was for me to try to help my aunt!"

"I feel sick," Draco announced, sounding every bit the part.

"Too bad," Harry spat. "Stop your pathetic whinging and write."

Harry went on, then:

"It must be even worse for you, seeing as your mother passed on too, just three weeks ago. I wish I knew what to tell you, Dudley. I only really know one thing, and it may not help, but then again, it just may.

"All the time growing up, what was hardest for me about being an orphan was not knowing who was to blame for my parents' deaths. Car accident, I was told--"

"Car accident?" Draco echoed. "What car accident? It was Avada Kedavra, wasn't it--"

"I can't explain every bloody thing about my childhood; we'll never get the letter written! Now shut up and write!"

Harry continued:

"Car accident, I was told, with no more detail than that. I used to fantasize about finding out just how that accident happened. I used to dream I'd track down the man responsible and beat him to a bloody pulp with my bare hands. The way I figured it, because of him I'd lost everything, and I was going to take every last thing from him, in recompense. But I couldn't do any such thing, not knowing who was even at fault in that accident. Then I found out I was a wizard, of course--"

"Oh, you have got to be making this up," Draco broke in again, shouting that time. "You didn't know you were a wizard? How is that even possible?"

"This is every word true," Harry hissed. "Like I said before, ask your Head of House. He knows. Now, are you going to write it? Because I'm this close to telling you to get out!" He held his thumb and forefinger a smidgen apart, and flung the gesture up right before Draco's eyes. Nice to be able to see well enough to aim, finally.

Draco didn't say a word, though he did set quill to parchment once more.

"Then I found out I was a wizard, of course, and learnt there was never any car accident, and suddenly, all my hate and anger could have a focus. Another wizard killed my parents, and I know who it was. Now, when I think of bashing brains against a wall, I can picture him, and hope.

"You may not see what all this has to do with you, Dudley, but you will, in just a second, here. See, while Aunt Petunia's death was really no-one's fault at all, like we talked about on the phone--"

Draco made some sort of gasping noise, probably over the picture of a wizard on the phone. Either that, or because he didn't have any idea what it was.

" . . .like we talked about on the phone, your father is dead because of one person, and I can tell you who he is. Draco Malfoy. He found out my summer address one day in class, here. And God knows why, but the little shite thought it would be amusing to pass this information on to his father. That's just the kind of person he is. Thoughtless, cruel, evil. Sick, in fact. See, he's known for years and years that his father's number one goal in life is to suck up to his boss (the evil wizard who killed my parents, by the way) by delivering me to him to be killed.

"So Draco gave his father your address in Surrey, and when his father was finished getting all he could from Uncle Vernon about me . . . well, you saw what happened. Draco's to blame, for all of it. He's the reason you'll never have that really nice sauce your dad used to make to put on the steaks. Every time you eat a steak for the rest of your life, you'll think of your dad, I know. You'll miss him, and wonder why it had to be this way. But at least now you can have a focus for all that hate and anger. It helps, trust me."

Draco was gasping with practically every breath by then, his hand a trembling blur as he wrote out line after line of self-condemnation. Harry closed his eyes and listened to the scratching sound, waiting for the Slytherin to catch up. Then, in absolutely glacial tones of utter contempt, he went on:

"I thought I'd describe Draco Malfoy so you'll know how to picture him. It's how I see him, anyway, though believe me, he's such an unpleasant person to be around that I really do try not to look his way if I can avoid it at all. Anyway: tall and thin, with skin so white you'd swear he was some flesh-eating ghoul that had never been above ground. White-blond hair he fusses over constantly. In fact, I think his hair is his main interest in life, which goes to show you how he could do something like he did. I mean, he just doesn't care about anyone or anything except one Draco Malfoy. His eyes are silver, which would almost be a nice colour if they weren't constantly narrowed with hate.

"Because, you see, that's what Draco does. That's all he does: he hates. He's what they call a pureblood wizard, which basically means he thinks everyone else is beneath him. He hates Muggles (that's people like you), and he hates wizards and witches that happen to have Muggle parents, and he even hates wizards who are descended from anybody who had Muggle parents (that's people like me). Hate, hate, hate. I swear it must be his middle name. Want to hear a good one, though? Draco has this a close friend named Severus, who's a well-educated and intelligent wizard, really worthy of respect. And Severus recently explained to me that he'd done a lot of research, and found out that every wizard has Muggle ancestry, even Draco. So, if Draco has the least shred of integrity (which he doesn't), he really ought to start hating himself. Fat chance of that, though. He'll probably just decide to hate Severus, instead. Anyway, it doesn't really matter if Draco hates himself, 'cause I bet you can hate him enough to make up for it. I sure do.

"I absolutely hate his fucking guts.

"Well, Dudley, enough about that ugly git. I hope to see you soon, and figure out where we go from here.

"Love, Harry"

It took Draco a few moments longer to write out the final phrases, and then, all he said was, "What do I tell the owl?"

But his voice was dead.

"I'll take care of the owl," Harry tightly informed him. "Hand me the sheets. I have to make sure you wrote it right." He waited until he had the pages of parchment firmly in hand, and said, "That's it then. Get out."

It looked like Draco was swallowing something as he choked out, "Look, Potter, I--"

"Get out!" Harry screamed. "A hundred points, remember? OUT!"

"Points," Draco gasped. "Merlin's balls, you think I give a flip about points?"

"Out," Harry menaced in a low voice, that time. A low, determined voice. "Get the hell out. Or I'll start screaming for Severus, and you can explain to him why you aren't trustworthy in the least and how you don't bother keeping the promises you make. Now, GET OUT!"

And Draco finally did.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Harry wanted to use the enchanted quill so that he could hear if Draco had really written everything as dictated, but Madam Pomfrey was back by then. He certainly didn't want her hearing the letter.

Well, Harry reasoned, no time like the present to see if he could cast a simple charm of his own.

Drawing his wand out from where he'd stashed it--beneath his pillow since the pyjamas had no pockets--he waved it in an arc, concentrated, and uttered Silencio . . .

But the magic didn't flow. Strange that he could feel it now, flowing through him . . . that was an improvement, certainly, but it didn't help him know how to make it come out through his wand. He didn't know how to make it come out at all, except in those surges of fury. But he couldn't control those, so they weren't much use. After all, he hadn't really wanted to shatter the windows. All he'd wanted was to see Snape.

He tucked his wand back under his pillow, and stuffed the letter under there for good measure, and stared around at his surroundings for a while, trying to identify things by their blurs. It was really a pretty boring game. Besides that, it made his eyes feel tired. It didn't take long before Harry's eyelids were drooping and he was dropping into a light sleep.

Chapter Text

Snape was there when he woke up, looking like a great black smudge. Well, a smudge with something propped on his crossed knee. Book, maybe.

Harry yawned and sat up. "I can still see," he admitted. "Not too well, though." His glance swept the hazy outlines of the room. "Anybody else in here?"

"No." All the same, Snape proceeded to draw his wand and cast Silencio, which of course reminded Harry of his own failure.

"Ah, well that's one of the things we should discuss," Snape said when Harry mentioned it. "Your magic. More specifically, your wild magic. But let's leave that for a little later."

A tray levitated over towards the bed, then hovered atop Harry's knees.

"What about you?" Harry asked as he began to eat, squinting at his food. "You said we'd have dinner together."

"You really can't see too well," Snape sighed. "Mine is just over there." He waved somewhere off to his right, and then Harry saw the vague outline of a tray floating over. "So, Harry. What did you want to talk about? Alone," he mocked.

Well, that was as good a place to start as any, Harry figured. "Can you please tell Malfoy to stop lurking around? I really don't want to see him."

Snape finished chewing something before he answered. "I'm afraid I must decline your request."

"Why?"

"Put yourself in Draco's place." Snape's voice was deliberately calm. "He's been raised all his life to follow the Dark Lord. Every family and social connection he had was predicated on this expectation. He's given it all up. Now he has nothing, Harry."

"Disowned or not, I'm sure he's still got piles of gold," Harry scoffed. "I've heard him brag about how he has his own vault stuffed with money he inherited from his great-grandfather."

"You cannot be so immature as to think money can compensate for family," Snape rebuked him. "Wouldn't you trade all your Galleons for ten minutes with James?"

That was true enough, Harry realised.

"And before you say that Lucius Malfoy isn't worth a Knut, let alone a Galleon," Snape continued, "I'd like you to consider the fact that we don't get to choose our fathers."

Another good point, but Harry had heard just about enough Draco-pity for one evening. "Yeah, well he gets to choose his own behaviour, doesn't he? He dressed up as a Dementor to make me fall off my broom! Last year he was square in Umbridge's corner. This year on the train on the way here, he--"

"What is he choosing now?" Snape interrupted. "To turn his back on his family allegiances. To return your wand to your hand. To do his classwork late at night so that in class he can help me brew draughts for you."

"But don't you see?" Harry pushed his finished tray aside, letting it hover beside the bed, and went on, "This could all be some sort of plot--"

"It's not."

Snape's absolute certainty was nothing short of infuriating. "How can we know that?"

"Apply your mind to the problem!" Snape snapped, losing patience. "What plot could possibly include returning your wand?"

Harry blew out a breath through his nose. "All right. Just for the purpose of argument, assume that during some fit of insanity, Malfoy stole my wand. Maybe he was mad at his father or something, and figured it would be a good way to get him in trouble with Voldemort. So he did it, without thinking, probably. And now he's stuck. It doesn't mean we can trust him in the future!"

Snape reached out for one of Harry's hands, and clasped it gently. "Does it mean we should reject him, and drive him right back into the ranks of the Death Eaters?"

Shite, Harry thought, sighing. He would have to have a point.

"I am not saying you should trust Draco Malfoy, Harry." Snape pressed his advantage, giving his hand a squeeze. "I am saying you should think about your own choices. What can you accomplish by openly inflicting your hate and enmity on him? I happen to trust him, but let us suppose you are right, and his loyalties are wavering. Shouldn't you seek to capture them, rather than hand the Dark Lord yet another follower?"

"I hate his guts," Harry said, scowling. "He's the real reason I ended up at Samhain, you know. Lucius Malfoy only got information to find me with because he talked to my uncle. And just how did he know where to find my uncle? Draco Malfoy gave him the address!"

"Oh, that explains why the Order's been watching you like a hawk the past two summers, someone on guard duty every hour of every day," Snape mocked. "Because the Dark Lord didn't yet know your address. Be serious! He's known for years where to find you. He just couldn't get through the wards!"

Harry snorted. "You're the one who told me I shouldn't have let Malfoy see that address, that there was no doubt he'd communicated it to 'all interested parties!'"

"There is no doubt," Snape snapped. "He did in fact tell his father your address. But since Lucius had long known it, that made no real difference to anyone. When I said you shouldn't have let Malfoy see your address, I was trying to make you realise how very foolish you had been! What if the letter had slipped out of its envelope and you'd handed Draco information the Dark Lord didn't yet have?"

Too Slytherin by half, Harry thought.

"When you were missing from school and no longer on Privet Drive," Snape continued, "that's when the Dark Lord took enough interest to have your uncle Legilimized and that idiot Lupin followed. What happened to you has got nothing to do with Draco!"

Harry's stomach sank somewhere down to the region of his knees as the truth sank in. "Um, so it's not his fault either that Uncle Vernon got killed?"

Snape just glared at him, his inky eyes coming clearer the longer Harry stared.

"All right, all right, so it's not his fault," Harry conceded, though he declined to feel too bad about the letter. Draco was a hate-filled little shite, and Harry was glad he'd had to hear that, and write it down in his own hand. Actually, it was sort of strange that he'd put up with that, assuming he had of course. Harry hadn't had a chance to check what the letter said. For all he knew, it was a list of people Draco wanted to hex. "I still don't trust him."

"That's your prerogative. Just consider this, Harry. The Dark Lord did not want your wand taken out of his reach. Therefore, either Draco was sincere when he stole it, or he was indulging some childish whim that he may or may not regret in future. If he was sincere, he deserves more from you than complete and utter scorn. If he was simply getting some petty vengeance against his father, then his recklessness has placed him in our sphere of influence. Shouldn't we try to influence him?"

"I don't know how you do it," Harry muttered, rubbing at his eyes. Funny, they hadn't been itchy before. Well, not like this. "Somehow you make be nice to Malfoy sound so sensible."

"Think about it," Snape merely advised. "Is there a problem with your eyes?"

Harry opened them again, and groaned. "Everything's gone dark again!"

"Lumos . . ." Harry sensed his teacher leaning closer, so close he felt a sweep of long hair against his shoulder. "Completely dark? Or not quite black, as you described before?"

"Not quite black." Harry flopped to his back as soon as Snape uttered Nox. "What went wrong?"

"Nothing. I told you it would take time. We'll dose you again with Elixir before I go."

"My vision's supposed to fade in and out like this?"

"Ideally, no, but your magical state is still indeterminate."

"You were going to tell me something about that wild magic," Harry reminded him.

"It takes a violent form because it's a manifestation of dark powers," Snape explained. "You've had them all along; you were the source of the black energy in the Dursley house."

Harry crossed his arms. "I'm not a dark wizard, Professor."

"I didn't imply you were. What you are is a normal wizard, although very powerful. Having dark powers doesn't mean you use them for ill. I have them myself."

"What does it mean, then?"

"There are nine primary classification systems in use, but the best definition, in my view, is this: you have the ability, should you wish to wield it, to control and harm other creatures, wizards included. You can utilize the power in other ways, perfectly acceptable ways. But what makes it dark is the potential for abuse."

Harry frowned, and rolled over on his side. "By that definition, all wizards have dark powers."

"To one degree or another, yes. You have more than most."

"Like Voldemort," Harry whispered, thinking of the prophecy. Marked his equal.

"But unlike him, you don't want to use your dark powers for evil. It's like your Parseltongue, Harry. You use it to chat with Sals. He uses it to possess Nagini."

"Or Occlumency," Harry murmured.

"Ah, Occlumency," Snape thoughtfully murmured. "On Samhain, you held off the Dark Lord, and even misdirected him into thinking I was still the bane of your existence. You credited me last night with saving you, but the truth is that in large measure, you were instrumental in your own rescue, Harry."

It wasn't a compliment, but Harry still felt praised, though he had to own, "Well, only 'cause you taught me how."

"I would say it was because you made the effort to learn," Snape corrected. "You practiced."

"Yeah," Harry said, wishing with all his heart that he'd practiced when it would have mattered to Sirius.

Perhaps Snape sensed the direction of his thoughts, for he brought the conversation away from past regrets. "Occlumency is a dark power," he explained, "but it is not necessarily evil, as you demonstrated on Samhain. All dark powers, however, are very deep and strong."

"Okay, I get it," Harry announced. "Dark's not even that good a word. We ought to be calling them deep powers, or something. But what does it have to do with my wild magic?"

"After the operation, when you ran that high fever, your magical core was severely charred. It wasn't burned completely through, as Marjygold believed; the deepest of your deep powers remained. These are the hardest to bring under conscious control, which is why Occlumency is so difficult for most wizards. That you could acquire the talent so rapidly suggests that you were tapping into your dark powers."

"That's why I can't even tell when I'm speaking Parseltongue!" Harry exclaimed. "It's not really conscious . . ."

"And neither are your dreams. All dark powers," Snape confirmed. "And too, dark powers are what erupts as accidental magic. They did this when you were a child, Harry, though as you've undergone such traumas in the past few years, your capacity for rage has grown as well."

Harry thought about that for a while before he replied. "How do I get the accidental magic under control?"

"The usual way is through magical education, which teaches you to use light magic instead, to deal with this or that problem as it arises. Your capacity for light magic has been incinerated. It took some time for even your deep powers to grow back from the spark that was left, but they are present in full, now. Yet you still have no surface magic to calm them, which explains how when you grow enraged, your deep powers go completely wild."

"But how do I get my light magic, surface magic, back, then?"

Snape had let go of his hands a while earlier, but at that, he clasped them again. "I don't think you ever are going to get it back, Harry."

Harry just stared, seeing nothing, a choking feeling of utter panic coming up to cut off his air. He swallowed, but it was still there. It felt like the room was spinning, or like his head was floating up off his shoulders, or something---

"Breathe," Snape dryly recommended.

Harry tried, he really did, but a lead weight was pressing down on his lungs, constricting all movement. It hurt something fierce, almost like he'd taken a Bludger to the chest---

"Breathe," Snape said again, more stress on the word. "Breathe, you idiot child!"

He couldn't, though, not until a sharp blow between his shoulder blades startled him so completely that he gasped, then sucked in a huge wheezing rush of air to compensate. After Harry had got his wind back properly, which took a minute or two, he couldn't help but narrow his eyes, because damn it all, that blow had really hurt!

"I think you're supposed to slap someone who's hysterical, Professor."

"That would go over well, after the way your lout of an uncle used to treat you."

Good point . . .

For a moment more, Harry concentrated on breathing again, because really, he couldn't think what else to do. His light magic was gone, just like that? All he had left were the dark powers that were so . . . well, powerful, that they scared even him?

Then it came to him that Snape was wrong, that he had to be. Harry fetched his wand out from beneath his pillow, and held it as though intending to cast a spell, and once again, he felt a warm honeyed glow climbing along his spine, heating him up from the inside out, the feeling so thoroughly good that he couldn't be discouraged. Could he? "This feels the same as the first day I held it," he told his teacher. "I can just tell my magic's back inside me, sir."

"You're feeling your dark powers trying to make themselves useful."

"But it's the same as in Ollivander's--"

"Yes, it would be," Snape agreed. "Because you're the same as then, without any access to light magic. Then, it was because you didn't know how to reach into yourself and grasp hold of it. Now, it's because there isn't any to call forth."

"But my wand feels the same," Harry repeated, feeling like he didn't really follow Snape's argument.

His professor paused a moment. "The same as when you first held it, yes. I understand. Has it always felt that way to your hand? Third year, for instance, when you would take it out to practice defence spells with Lupin, did it light you up inside before you even began to work the charms?"

"No . . ."

"Because by then, it was well-wrapped in the light powers you had used it for, year after year. It wasn't drawing energy from the deepest well of all, the dark powers at the bottom of your soul. Now it is again, just as when you first purchased it."

"You have got to be wrong," Harry insisted, the idea unthinkable, really. Magic was all he was. Oh, sure, he'd spent eleven years thinking he was a Muggle, but it wasn't like he'd done all that well as one, was it? Not being a wizard meant being hated and despised. Being one was all that made him . . . well, him.

"Harry, I would like to be wrong," Snape admitted, a heavy sigh interrupting his words. "You don't know how much. But just as with the condition of your eyes, I thought you would want to know the truth, no matter how unpalatable it may prove to be."

"Unpalatable?" Harry echoed, outraged. "You just told me I'm as good as a squib, after all!"

"Would you stop using that word?" Snape rebuked him, rising to stand. "I told you no such thing. Now, listen!" He leaned over Harry, planting a hand on either shoulder, his face so close that Harry could feel as well as hear his words. "You. Are. A. Wizard. You have not lost your magic. You have, in point of fact, far more magic than any other student in this school! You, and you alone, are the Dark Lord's equal, you gibbering fool!"

"Geez, calm down," Harry stammered, a little freaked out. It wasn't that he thought Snape would do anything if he lost his temper, but he didn't much like getting shouted at from six inches away, either. Or being called a fool. That one wasn't a good insult, like you idiot child.

"I am not the one periodically forgetting to breathe," Snape sneered. "You calm down!"

"Okay!" Harry shouted, backing up a little. "I'm a wizard, not a squib. But see, that hardly makes me feel better, considering. Squibs at least get to know where they stand. They don't go blowing out windows whenever they get upset!"

"Neither will you, once you gain control over your dark powers," Snape assured him from what sounded like the chair, again. "The balance inside you has changed. You simply need to learn to compensate, and you will be able to direct the flow of magic both through you, and through your wand. In fact . . ." Snape paused a bit. "You've seen me do a charm or two without a wand. I wager you'll be able to do a fair sight more than that, once you know how to force your dark powers to do your conscious bidding."

"Wandless magic?" Harry breathed. "Me?"

"You're the Dark Lord's equal, and he's no stranger to it," Snape explained. "Moreover, you've done it already, though it was certainly uncontrolled. The windows, making the stones here fade to transparent--"

"Transparent?" Harry squeaked.

"You wouldn't have seen," Snape realised. "But they were, yes, when you made them blaze."

Harry remembered then, those surges he had called forth from his anger when he'd been in that tiny stone cell. He'd made the stones there fade, too, although only halfway . . .

"Um, were they see-through all the way, or just kind of half there?" he asked.

"We could all see the bailey outside, though it was quite a feat through the glare the stones were putting out."

"Then my dark powers have grown since S-- Samhain," Harry concluded, hating the way he stumbled over the word. He had to say it twice more as he explained his reasoning to his teacher.

"Postulate the following," Snape suggested. "Each time you experience a grave trauma: the marrow extraction, your aunt's burial, Samhain . . . your dark powers become more accessible to you, though it takes time for you to be able to reach into them. A few weeks after the extraction, you were able pull them forth out of your fear in that cell. That was even consciously done. A handful of days after Samhain, your emotions here again dragged the powers forth, to much greater effect. But that was not consciously done. The pattern would suggest that with more time, you can bring it to the conscious level, as you did when you were imprisoned."

"A few weeks, then?"

"I would speculate that the greater the trauma, the more time you may need to accept the powers being cleaved open inside you."

"But even when I controlled them, I didn't really," Harry pointed out. "I wasn't trying to make the stones vanish. I was just trying to do something."

Snape must have leaned forward, for his voice sounded nearer. "Your level of control is non-existent to abysmal, I agree. But that will improve. You have already gone through this process once, I hope you realise. When you started Hogwarts, you had no talent with a wand. Then we taught you to channel light magic to do your bidding. Simple charms, wingardium leviosa. Any wizard can accomplish as much, because surface powers are so near the wand hand; they are easily siphoned off. What you need to learn now will no doubt be harder. Consciously channeling your deep powers into your wand, or channeling them without it, is not something most wizards can achieve. But Harry, they are not the Dark Lord's equal."

"You do realise you sort of harp on that?"

"Hmm," Snape murmured, clearly lost in thought for a moment. "Yes. I think that is because for most of your time here I've thought you rather arrogant, as I'm sure you know."

It took Harry a minute to follow that. "Oh. Um, you mean now you maybe think I'm not quite as arrogant as you supposed?"

"You are not your father, any more than Draco is his," Snape quietly affirmed. "You're actually prone to believe that you could not be the Dark Lord's equal. Yet is it your magic, Harry, that nullified his wards and defences that night."

"My accidental magic, you mean."

"Exactly. So we are back to what matters. You must get your dark powers under conscious control, because then, you will be more than his equal."

Harry drew in a shaky breath. "You don't mean . . ."

"Yes."

"But I'm just a . . . a kid, and he's . . . Voldemort--"

"To think I ever called you arrogant," Snape groaned. "Listen, Harry. He has not had his darkest powers split wide open and made available for his use, as you have. You will have far more power than he can dream of. All that remains is to learn to channel it." His teacher paused. "Do you remember when I told you that your instincts were often good?"

"Yeah. It's why I don't trust Malfoy," Harry put in.

Snape ignored that. "Deciding to have your marrow tampered with . . . for quite some time now I have felt that it was a serious miscalculation, leading as it did to your illness, and then indirectly to Samhain as well. Now, though, I begin to suspect that it was as I said: a good instinct on your part. The end result may be your ascendance into powers that can finally vanquish the Dark Lord."

Yeah, sure, find the silver lining, Harry thought. "But Professor," Harry protested, "has anybody ever done what you're suggesting? Brought deep powers completely under conscious control?"

"Not to my knowledge, no," Snape confirmed.

"Do you know how I would start? I mean, how to even try?"

"I don't."

"So what's the point to any of it, then?"

Snape reached out and patted his hand, the touch light and reassuring. "I think you once believed that you could not Occlude, either. We'll find a way through this, too."

Harry just felt exasperated, and wanted to get off the subject. For the moment, anyway. He'd think about it more when he was alone. Try some things with his wand, maybe. Hmm, maybe all he really had to do was think of Draco before he let a spell loose . . . anger had worked to unleash that accidental magic, maybe it was the key to making dark powers flow at all. "I remembered my question about the Portkey," he abruptly announced. "The headmaster said my wild magic nullified every spell for leagues around. So why did the Portkey even work, after that?"

"That would be instinct again," Snape explained. "The headmaster's, this time." A clinking noise drifted through the air as Snape settled something around Harry's neck. "It's a wide gold ring studded with emeralds. I've hung it on a chain for you." He paused, then said, "It's the ring your father gave to your mother on their wedding day. Albus recovered it from Godric's Hollow the night they were killed; it's been in his keeping every since."

Harry fingered it, imagining how it must look. "Um, so this was spelled to be the Portkey? It . . ." he cleared his throat, not really wanting to cry again in front of Snape, and changed what he had been going to say. "It's tiny. This wouldn't fit on any of your fingers."

"It's a wizard's ring," Snape drawled, clearly amused. "It was made in Lily's size, but it'll change to fit whatever finger it's thrust onto. That's why I put it on a chain for you. I thought you might like to keep it the way she had it."

"Yeah," Harry murmured. "Thanks. But . . . I still don't understand why it worked after I unleashed my dark . . . um, deep powers."

"You might as well call them dark," Snape advised. "I think half the solution to getting them under your control will be to accept them. However, as regards the ring. Your parents' love for one another is bound up in that ring, and it's that same love they gave to you, right up until the night they died. I suppose some part of your wild magic recognised it as safe, as part of yourself."

"You suppose?" Harry echoed. "You don't know? That isn't why the headmaster made the Portkey this ring?"

Snape gave a sharp, dry laugh. "We were hardly expecting you to run amuck, magically speaking, and enable our escape."

"Then why the ring?" Harry pressed, before the answer came to him. "Oh, simple. Because it could be bound to my mother's sacrifice. Like . . . warding."

"Our hope was to keep the Dark Lord from detecting that it had been spelled," Snape agreed. "Of course his own wards kept the spell from functioning, until you obliterated them. Albus and the Aurors were casting like madmen to try to break through . . ." Snape groaned in remembrance. "I could do nothing for you save keep my hands on you so that the ring would transport us both out the moment it began to heat."

Harry glanced up, though he could see nothing. "Oh, I get it . . . so that's why you didn't really object to holding me down to be tortured!"

Snape's voice went low and cold. "Why did you think I didn't voice more than a token objection?"

"Well, I didn't know!" Harry cried. "I thought it was odd that you would . . . er, almost join in like that. I suppose I thought that you had to because Voldemort had asked, and defying him would have made him suspicious . . . It's not like I thought you intended to enjoy yourself, Professor! I trusted you, I really did. I just didn't really . . . understand."

"I suppose," the Potions Master replied, sneering at the memory, not at Harry, "it's a good thing the Dark Lord did demand I participate. Otherwise, I would have had to ask for the honour of restraining you to be tortured. I would have had to beg, and I dare say you'd not have trusted me so readily after hearing that."

"Of course I would have--" Harry objected.

"Don't be stupid!" Snape barked, that time unmistakably at him.

"All right, maybe not," Harry conceded. "You did know when I slugged you that I didn't really mean it. Didn't you?"

"I should hope you didn't. You barely bruised me."

That set Harry's teeth on edge. "Well, I was sick to my stomach from just Apparating, not to mention seriously dehydrated, reeling on my feet, and scared to death!"

"All the same, it clearly demonstrates a need for you to be trained in some more effective fighting techniques. It's folly to rely solely on magic, which can be foiled in various ways. Still, I will admit that your verbal misdirection---so I'm a rat bastard? what a charming epithet---was somewhat more believable than your pitiful blow."

"It wouldn't kill you to utter a simple Well done, you know," Harry groused.

"Indeed," Snape drawled, "I do believe I am still alive."

"What?"

"As I recall, I was most forthcoming on the subject of your Occlumency and misdirection during your ordeal."

"Yeah, well you didn't say well done," Harry groused.

Snape softly laughed, the sound sardonic, but also rife with amusement and resolution both. Harry didn't really understand, not until his teacher spoke again, suggesting an agreement that was Slytherin to its very heart. Something Snape wanted, for something Harry wanted. But that was all right, Harry supposed; the agreement was well balanced. "Let me put in the Elixir without holding you down, Harry, and then, I'll most decidedly say well done."

It wasn't pleasant by any means, and it took them more than one try to get it right, but by the time Snape headed off towards his own quarters, he was able to deliver those words that meant so much to the Gryffindor boy. He even ruffled his hair a bit as he said them.

"Well done, you idiot child."

Chapter Text

The hospital wing wasn't a terribly fun place to be. Harry had known that ever since first year, but of course he'd never been laid up for quite this long before. At least at first he'd had plenty of company, people dropping by at odd hours, catching him between classes; visitors from every house but Slytherin.

Well, every house including Slytherin, if you counted Draco Malfoy. At least his newfound affinity for Harry's company hadn't lasted past Harry's stunt with the letter. Draco had made himself absolutely scarce in the two days that had passed since then.

But then again, so had nearly everyone. Ron and Hermione still came by three times each day, but nobody else, not even from Gryffindor. His only other visitors were staff members. McGonagall came by just once, Harry noted. He couldn't help but think dark thoughts at that. In contrast, Snape, who wasn't even his Head of House, was a surprisingly frequent presence despite his heavy work schedule. They talked more about magic, and ate together more than once, and whenever it was time, Snape would salve just his back and let Harry take care of the rest of it. He also told the Medi-Witch to stop worrying whenever Harry wanted to get out of bed. Blessed relief -- Harry could finally make his own way over to the loo.

He still hadn't had a chance to carefully examine the letter Draco had drafted. He knew from squinting at his textbooks that his eyes weren't up to reading yet, so he'd have to use the talking quill, and he never had a moment alone! Well, unless he wanted to take the letter to the loo, but he wasn't that desperate to hear it. Actually, the thought of hearing it made him feel faintly ill; he had really said some terrible things . . . but then again, Draco had deserved to hear them, so Harry wasn't going to feel that bad about it.

Still, he couldn't quite help remembering the things Snape had said. Indulging his anger like that was probably pretty Gryffindor of him, but it certainly hadn't been cunning in the least. What if Draco had really been trying to turn, and Harry's complete contempt for him really did end up pushing him back toward Voldemort's camp?

Of course that was ridiculous -- Draco wasn't really turning toward the light. He couldn't be. He had no real reason, and that vapid rationale of his . . . It was just so awful what my father did to you . . . well, that wasn't going to wash, it really wasn't. The Draco Harry knew wouldn't give a shrivelfig about the Boy Who Lived being tortured and killed, so that was no real reason to switch loyalties.

Which meant, of course, that Snape was wrong. Draco had some trick up his sleeve, some evil plot, something positively diabolical, and it was anybody's guess what part the wand played in all of it. Harry sighed thinking about it all. He really, really wished that Snape hadn't got drawn into this Draco-is-good-after-all fantasy. Still, maybe it wasn't so surprising that the normally wily Potions Master had been taken in. It must get awfully lonely being the only good Slytherin in the history of the house.

No, no, Draco simply wasn't to be trusted; Harry was sure of that much.

He was sure of something else, too: there was something odd going on at Hogwarts. Why had his floods of well-wishers suddenly disappeared just at the time when, paradoxically, he was never left by himself in the ward? It was very strange. Before, there'd been times when nobody was around . . . Or at least he thought so; he had been blind, after all. Now though, there was always an adult present. Always. Usually, there was more than one about, and they were never too far away from his bed, either. Like . . . they were expecting something.

Harry had had just about enough of it, and enough of the hospital wing, for that matter, "When can I start going back to classes?" he abruptly demanded one day.

He didn't think he could have caused a bigger ripple of shock if he'd asked instead when he could go visit Voldemort. The room fell silent, absolutely silent, which was really saying something, as the moment before Ron had been telling Hermione a joke, Professor Snape had been debating some Latin incantation with the headmaster, and Madam Pomfrey had been fooling around with the enchanted quill. She said she was examining its usefulness for the hospital wing, but Harry thought she just plain liked to hear it blathering on and on as she made it read from mediwizard texts.

"What?" Harry pressed after a second or two of that dead silence. "I can see for about six hours at a stretch, now. Stuff's awful blurry . . ." Now that was an understatement . . . "but even if all I could do was listen, I'd still want to attend lessons."

Still, dead silence, until in exasperation Harry finally exclaimed, "Hermione, what's the matter? I can't believe you want me to fall further behind!"

If he squinted hard, he could just make out a fuzzy image of her sort of drooping. "Nobody wants you to fall behind, Harry," she quietly asserted. "But . . . ah . . . I don't think you really realise what's been going on while you've been laid up."

"Perhaps Mr Weasley and Miss Granger should leave," the headmaster gently suggested.

"Why should we?" Ron erupted. "We already know what you're going to tell Harry! Everybody knows!"

It was very disheartening, Harry thought, to once more know less about himself than everyone else seemed to. "Yeah, well why don't I know?" he waspishly demanded.

"We didn't want to upset you while you were recovering," Hermione delicately began.

Ron scoffed out loud. "Oh sure, like finding out Draco Malfoy's in deep shite is going to upset Harry!"

"It's stress," Hermione hissed, "because Malfoy's problems are the same as Harry's! And he doesn't need more stress, Ron! Don't you remember yesterday? The juice?"

Harry scowled. She would make a big deal of it. So what if he'd yelped and flung pumpkin juice all over the bed when Ron had handed him the glass? He'd just been startled, that was all. Ron's fingers had brushed his when he wasn't braced for it . . .

"It is so nice to be mental enough that my friends are afraid to talk to me about anything real!" Harry suddenly shouted. "There's more news than just Dennis and Colin dating the same girl without knowing it, I take it? And you didn't tell me!"

Ron cleared his throat, and put in, "The headmaster said it would be better---"

"Oh, the headmaster keeping me out of the loop. Big effing surprise, there!"

"Gryffindors, out!" Snape announced, advancing on Harry's friends, who bid him a rather alarmed goodbye before the Potions Master practically swept them from the room. Harry heard the door being slammed, then thoroughly warded, and wondered over that.

"Mr Weasley's asinine convictions aside," Snape sneered as he stalked back, "everybody does not know all we must reveal to you."

Harry sighed, pushing away from his pillows to sit up straight. He reached awkwardly out to grasp the water on his night-table, and took a drink. Good thing he hadn't given into the urge to throw it. He was just sick of secrets, even though he knew he was just as guilty as his friends of not coming completely clean about everything. Since waking up at Hogwarts, he'd told them about his aunt, and the operation, and he'd even admitted he was afraid of needles . . .

He hadn't told them, though, much about Samhain. Or Devon, or about Snape not hating him at all. Or about how he really needed Snape sometimes, now. They wouldn't understand . . . well, Hermione might understand some of it, he supposed. She wasn't quite so irrational about Snape as Ron was, but the way she liked to play amateur psychiatrist was so annoying that he didn't want to get into details about his stress and how he was dealing with it. She'd probably agree with Madam Pomfrey that he was nutters to want Snape touching him, after all that. And of course Ron would blow a gasket if the word touch came up in the same conversation as the name Snape.

Well, his friends were gone now, he told himself, so it was time to calm down. Way down. "All right," he prompted when he felt able to speak politely. It was a little bit of a trick, but he did it. "What do I need to know?"

"Several things," the headmaster quietly answered, moving forward to sit lightly on the end of Harry's bed. Harry couldn't help it; he bent his legs to pull them back. He could see Dumbledore shaking his head at that, though he didn't say anything.

"First," he began, rhythmically stroking his beard, "and this is the part your friends realise, the entire house of Slytherin, with one exception, is united against you. They've sworn to accomplish your death."

Snape moved to stare out the windows, his back to the boy in the bed.

"Just because I survived Voldemort again?" Harry scoffed. "You'd think they'd know how to get over it. That only happens almost every year!"

"Ah, but this time you've done something that doesn't happen every year. You've stolen away, so to speak, one of their own. He's loyal to you now, and not to the cause their families support, and as he's the only son of Voldemort's most important supporter, well . . . they find the whole thing an extreme offence."

"Malfoy," Harry realised. "Um, the whole house of Slytherin? You mean he's told everyone about his . . . er, supposed change of heart?"

"It isn't supposed, Harry," the headmaster chided. "And yes, he's told everyone."

"You made it another condition," Harry accused.

"Not precisely. Mr Malfoy was told to do what he could sway elements in his house away from loyalty to Voldemort. He also had to be seen to be publicly, overtly loyal to you. We told him we wanted no more intrigues. Unfortunately, Mr Malfoy synthesized all these objectives--"

"The fool," Snape harshly broke in.

"Yes," Dumbledore simply agreed.

"Making grand proclamations like an idiot Gryffindor--"

"That's enough, Severus."

"What did he do?" Harry asked.

It was Snape who answered, stalking away from the windows in a haze of swirling black. "Directly after speaking with us, he came here and sat with you until an hour after curfew. The state you were in evidently influenced Draco for the worse. When he left your side, he went straight away to the Slytherin dungeons and went from room to room, banging his way in and making loud pronouncements about Voldemort being weak and demanding weakness from his minions!"

"That's why you said you had talked to him about impulse control?"

"Of course! I expected more subtlety from the idiot child!"

Idiot child. That was even worse than Draco calling the Potions Master Severus. More to distract himself than for any other reason, Harry asked, "How'd he get to the girls' rooms? Aren't they warded against boys like in Gryffindor?"

"For all I know, he used his broom!" Snape snarled. "What matters is that before his little theatrical, we had thwarted Lucius from getting him home to be killed. Once word of Draco's fit of idiocy spread, Lucius arranged for his student plants to announce a reward. Five thousand Galleons for his son's head."

Harry swallowed. Five thousands Galleons was an awful lot of money, but what struck him harder was the thought of a father doing that to his son. "Uh, have there been any attempts?"

"What do you think?" roared Snape. "They're Slytherins!"

All right, all right, so Malfoy had some problems. It wasn't like Harry cared all that much. And besides . . . "I still don't see what this has to do with me attending class," Harry entreated.

Snape threw up his hands in disgust, while the headmaster made a calming gesture and said, "Harry, we haven't even been letting Mr Malfoy attend his classes, and you're in more danger than he is. You've lost access to your magic, not to mention . . . the price on your life is . . . far higher."

"And I'm far more hated," Harry acknowledged, before frowning. "But Malfoy's been going to Potions, I thought?"

"Not since the day I came up here to find him reading you the text," Snape clarified. "There was an . . . incident."

Severus let me out, Harry remembered Malfoy saying. The comment had been tossed out with such studied casualness that it had rung false at the time, but Harry had been so angry to have Malfoy near that he'd overlooked that. Now he realised that he shouldn't have. Since when did Snape just let students out of Potions class? You had to blow up your cauldron, or get yourself coated in something horribly caustic, at least. You never got to leave just because a fellow student was laid up in the hospital.

"Incident?" Harry questioned.

Snape sighed, his brows drawing together. "I knew the Slytherins were growing restless. That was another reason why I had Draco helping me brew Potions, Harry. I thought if I kept him close during class, no one in my house would dare make an attempt, not there. But that day someone incanted Serpensortia prior to class and released a viper spelled to attack only Draco."

Sounds about right to me, Harry thought, remembering how Malfoy had used the same curse on him, once. Then of course he had to remember that Snape, even hating Harry then, had got rid of the snake for him. So . . . no doubt he'd do at least as much for Draco. "You used an evanesco spell, then?"

"Draco can take care of himself," Snape said, running a hand through his hair. "That's not our main concern. The failed attempt, though, will encourage the Slytherins to take more chances next time. Students will end up hurt or worse if we let him attend classes."

"But isn't he in just as much danger in his own common room?"

"The other Slytherins are the ones in danger if they cross him," Snape scoffed. "Nevertheless, we have made arrangements to keep him . . . rather isolated."

"So who conjured the snake?" No answer. "Oh, come on! All you have to do is check their wands. Priori Incantatem?"

"Someone at Hogwarts, most likely more than one someone, has access to additional wands, Harry," Dumbledore explained.

"No doubt the wand was destroyed as soon as it was used," Snape added. "We've begun closely monitoring the post." He grimaced. "Much as Umbridge did, I'm afraid. Though Lucius most likely has other means of getting wands to his cohorts here."

"I thought the wand chose the wizard, and all that?"

"Ollivander loves to exaggerate, though it's quite good he sold you the wand he did," Dumbledore sighed.

"Veritaserum, then," Harry pressed. "I remember that Professor Snape here keeps a supply."

"The serum I gave Umbridge to use on you was counterfeit, Potter!"

Harry sighed. Even back then, Snape had, in his own way, been on Harry's side. Harry thought better than to thank him, though. "Hmm, yes. You've got the real stuff on hand, though. Don't you?"

Snape gave a sneering laugh. "Oh, brilliant, Potter. We're to administer doses of illegal truth serum to mass numbers of students? Hogwarts would be shut down within minutes of the first owl out!"

"All right!" Harry shouted. "I'm just trying to help you figure out who the troublemakers are, so I can get back to classes!"

"Are you deaf as well as half-blind?" Snape roared. "Draco Malfoy is not presently allowed in classes, and he's well able to both see, and defend himself with magic. You're helpless as a kitten!"

"The Gryffindors'll look out for me," Harry insisted, grinding his teeth. "And I am not helpless, Professor. I have that wild magic. Anybody tries to mess with me and they'll just end up dead."

Snape fluidly cursed, or at least Harry thought he had. It was hard to tell, since it had been in Latin or something. "Listen for once, Potter!" he grated when he switched into English. "Our goal is not to have Hogwarts students end up dead, even if they are Slytherins and in your estimation worthless! Moreover, if you are placed in a situation in which your wild magic is let loose, you are just as likely to kill friends as enemies! You may well even kill yourself if your magic crumples the castle walls and brings the roof down on your head! The whole essence of your dark powers is that at present, they are entirely uncontrolled!"

"Well, I have to keep up with my studies somehow," Harry shouted.

"We are working on it," Dumbledore assured him.

"Why can't you just expel them all?"

"Expel the entire house of Slytherin," Snape scoffed. "I don't think you have the faintest conception of the uproar that would ensue. Pureblood families deluging the Board of Governors with Howlers, the Ministry taking the most politically expedient stance--"

"All right, so it wasn't such a practical idea," Harry admitted.

"There's another matter," the headmaster gravely informed him. "Quite a problematical one. We've intercepted some magical communications indicating plans to attack the hospital wing."

"Oh, that explains all the hovering," Harry muttered. "And all but two of my friends going missing. I bet you spelled the corridor to keep everyone but Ron and Hermione out."

The headmaster merely inclined his head, and continued, "We haven't been able to determine if the communications originated in Slytherin, or from outside the castle, but in either case, we need to ward you with the strongest magic possible."

Harry clenched his eyes shut, seeing again his vision of that house he'd hated crumpling to nothing. "Well, thank goodness you can't send me back to Privet Drive any longer! And as for warding anyplace new, Aunt Petunia's dead, along with all my mother's blood . . . oh, not quite all. You're going to use Dudley, aren't you?"

"In so far as he shares the maternal bloodline, there is some connection to exploit, yes," the headmaster murmured.

"So I have to leave Hogwarts and go live wherever he is?" Harry gasped. "Oh, wonderful. You know, Mrs. Figg's a really nice lady, but she's a squib, so I'm hardly going to keep up my studies under her tutelage!"

"Potter," Snape snapped, "would you please stop obsessing over your studies and allow the headmaster and myself to explain?" Only after Harry nodded did he go on. "We don't want your education disrupted any more than do you. Nor do we want to monopolize the old crowd with guard duty once again. Everyone has a great many vital matters to attend to, besides child minding--"

"I thought you were going to explain!" Harry erupted.

"We propose to ward your living spaces here. You'll be perfectly safe as long as you remain in them, just as on Privet Drive you were in no danger until you ventured outside the walls."

"No danger?" Harry mocked.

"No danger from Voldemort, at least," Dumbledore clarified.

Harry saw red. "You knew! You knew how bad it got there! You've always known! Addressing my Hogwarts letter to the cupboard under the stairs. Don't you have a clue how sick those people were? What they did to me, year after year? I've never been wanted! I've never been loved! How dare you sit there on my bed like some kindly old grandfather figure when you're nothing but an interfering crackpot old coot!"

"Harry!" Snape gasped. "Apologize to the headmaster!"

Harry was hardly repentant. He looked straight at Dumbledore's blurry visage and distinctly announced, "I'm very sorry that you're an interfering crackpot old coot."

"It's all right, Severus," the headmaster wheezed, unsteadily pushing himself to stand. "I did what I had to, but as Harry's the one who suffered for it, I don't expect him to understand." If Harry didn't know better, he'd have said there were tears in the old man's voice. But that was probably just one more of his ploys, on a level with the constant offers he made of candy. "If you could explain the rest to him, Severus . . ." His voice drifted off, and then he did as well.

Snape watched him go, his breathing ragged, then stalked to the doors to re-establish the silencing charms. When he strode back to Harry, his expression alone spoke volumes: anger, disappointment, impatience, rage. Funny how clear all that was, even if the image of his face was blurry . . .

Snape's voice was low, cold, and methodical when he spoke.

"The sacrificial magic used to extend the power of your mother's love to you can potentially be applied to many things. Unfortunately for you, the only blood left in her line belongs to your cousin, who has lived almost all his life in a house imbued with one particular kind of warding. Her blood that lives on in him is therefore most appropriately applied to the same kind of warding."

Harry didn't follow that at all, although Snape's stress on the word love wasn't lost on him. He'd been wrong to say he'd never been loved; his parents had loved him enough to die protecting him. There was no stronger love, Harry knew that. It just didn't help to know it, when he'd lost it before he'd really learned to remember, or feel love himself.

"I don't understand, Professor," he admitted in a small voice.

"Well, allow me to explain in simpler words," Snape snarled. "Your cousin cannot ward the entire castle. He can only ward a personal residence."

"The Tower, then," Harry nodded. "So I'd be safe when I'm there, at least, though I still don't know what I'll do about getting to classes . . ."

"Who do you think the Tower recognises as its owner, Potter?"

Harry frowned. "Uh, I don't know. There's dozens and dozens of us rooming there."

"Your own room, then," Snape smoothly inserted, though he didn't sound too far off from the snarl of the minute before. "Who do you think your room believes is its owner?"

"Well, there's a bunch of us--"

"And though your age mates and you stay together, you change rooms each year as in Slytherin?" Snape pressed. "Not to mention vacating the Tower entirely for a full fourth of each year. So, think about this carefully. Wouldn't the room you're in now be rather confused as to who owns it?"

"I suppose so . . ."

"Then it's not a personal residence, not in the sense the warding spells will require," Snape abruptly announced. "The Tower cannot be warded by Dudley Dursley, nor even your own room in it. To keep you safe from the students out for your blood, not to mention from the Dark Lord himself and Lucius Malfoy, who not incidentally, blames you for his son's treachery, you will need to live in a place the spells will recognise as the longstanding domain of a consistent resident."

Something about the way Snape was looking at him made Harry's hair almost stand on end. Well, more than it usually did all by itself. "Longstanding?" he echoed, starting to catch on. "Just how longstanding are we talking here? Like, about twenty years?"

"I see you've deduced the plan," Snape announced, his voice cold. "You shall come to live in my own quarters until the worst of the danger has passed. At that point we can re-evaluate."

"The headmaster actually okayed this?"

"It was his idea, Potter," Snape sourly informed him. "So you might as well just save your protests. You know what he's like when he takes a notion into his head."

Harry wasn't about to stop his protests. Sure, sure, he and Snape were getting along these days, and Snape had even gone so far as to admit that he didn't exactly hate Harry's guts, but that didn't mean Harry was prepared to leave beautiful Gryffindor Tower for the bowels of the earth! "The whole idea's ridiculous," he asserted. "I'm sure the Dursleys didn't live in their house for twenty years before I came along."

"I'm sure they had clear title to their own property, too," Snape sneered. "It's a matter of convincing the spell, Potter. Your cousin can't ward an area without consent of the owners. I don't have title to my little corner of the dungeons but by sheer right of domicile for so long I feel they're mine, so the spell will serve its function."

"Look, you and Dumbledore are great at magic; I'm sure you can figure out a way to bend the spell so it can attach itself to the Tower--"

"That won't produce a teacher fully trained against the Dark Arts, there to safeguard you when the next hex or curse comes your way! It also won't carry with it the sheer deterrence my quarters will. My Slytherins will think twice before they mount an attack there!"

"Will they?" Harry questioned. "No offence, but you've got to be high on their list of people to kill, too. I mean, they must know by now that you were the one who got me away at Samhain. Your cover as a bad guy is completely blown to smithereens."

"Yes," Snape silkily agreed, "but you're forgetting two things. One, I am their Head of House, which means I can expel them at will. Meddling with my private space is a shade different from bringing a snake into my classroom. I have wards and spells plastered across my quarters to catch anyone who violates my privacy, and well they know it."

"And two?" Harry pressed.

Snape glanced heavily at him. "I know all those Dark Arts they lust after, and I'm quite capable of murder if provoked enough. Expulsion is the least of their worries. Believe me, no one will dare attack a student right under my own roof."

"If your sheer presence alone is warding enough, what do we need with Dudley?"

"My presence won't hold off the Dark Lord, or Lucius Malfoy. My own defensive measures might not even reject the former, but with the blood sacrifice shielding you, you will be perfectly safe. Remember, the Dark Lord himself could not do a thing to harm you at Number Four Privet Drive, could not even touch the building around you, not until your aunt died and the wards fell."

"I could just have a Portkey that would take me down to your rooms at the least hint of danger," Harry suggested, beginning to feel desperate.

"And what if the danger is yourself? Have you thought of that? Where do you want to be if you have another nightmare and your magic goes wild? In the Tower where your power might lash out to hurt the other Gryffindors? Or with me? Last time I was the only one who could calm you."

"That was just because we weren't all right and it was really bugging me!"

Snape shook his head. "There is more to it. I've seen your dark powers firsthand, when I've been in your mind guiding you towards Occlumency. They know me. And too, you might consider that you still cannot bear to be touched by anyone except me. Is that a burden you wish to inflict on all your friends?"

Harry didn't know what to say to that. It was true that he didn't want to unleash his wild magic in the Tower, or freak out his friends with his aversion to any contact. But still, live in the dungeons with Snape? The Slytherin dungeons, no less?

Taking advantage of Harry's hesitation, Snape briskly announced, "As your own question about classes indicates, you are well enough to finish your recuperation out of hospital. Therefore, I will have the house-elves move your things at once--"

"But I don't want to live with you!" Harry erupted, only to feel himself taken aback by Snape's irate reply.

"Yes, you've made that quite evident! Well, I don't expect it to be a basket of roses, either, but in the interests of keeping you alive, Potter, I've been good enough to agree! I frankly don't see what issue you can have with it. Or do you think I'll take my chance to poison you if you have to eat at my table?"

Harry was about to ask why he'd be eating down there at all; didn't they even think the Great Hall could be made safe for him? But that question was overshadowed by a greater one. Why would Snape bring up poison?

I frankly don't see what issue you can have with it . . .

"It's nothing personal, Professor," Harry murmured, suddenly realizing he'd made it sound like it was. "I mean, um . . . you've been really good to me lately, the operation, and Occlumency, and telling me my father came out all right after all, and saving my life again, and then Devon, and the night the windows smashed and you held me again. It's not like I don't appreciate all that, and all those potions too . . . I've been meaning to thank you--"

"Merlin preserve me," Snape drawled.

"Oh, cut the attitude," Harry chided. "You want more? I even like you, sarcasm and all. Breathe, Professor . . . anyway, don't bring up poison like that. It's stupid."

Snape's eyes narrowed, though he didn't look nearly so angry any longer, at least in Harry's estimation, which was getting fuzzier all the time. He was used to the sight by then; it meant the Eyesight Elixir was waning. "Then what is your objection?"

"I have friends in Gryffindor," Harry explained, thinking it was really weird he'd have to. It was pretty bloody obvious, wasn't it? Then again, maybe it wasn't to someone like Snape. He didn't appear to have friends now; maybe he'd never had any, so he couldn't understand how Harry must feel. "I've just got back here after what seems like a month in Hell, Professor, and we've barely caught up. And now it looks as though I won't even get to see them in classes. So when am I going to, if I move out?"

"Harry . . ." Well, that was good at least, a break from the infernal Potter Snape had been going on with. "There are more important things than friends."

Harry shook his head. "No, see? That's where you're wrong. Or maybe it's just you being Slytherin, I can't really tell. But there isn't anything more important. What's the point of fighting Voldemort if when it's all over, there isn't anybody I did it for? If I give up everybody I care about just to win, then I'm giving up my reasons to bother winning."

Snape said nothing, just stared at him, his dark eyes calculating. Just what they were calculating, Harry couldn't have said.

"I am a Gryffindor, you know," Harry continued. "Whatever the Sorting Hat might have wanted for me at first, whatever you think would have been best, I ended up there, and five years has an impact. Professor? Summers with the Dursleys weren't so much a misery for me because of the weeding and the occasional slap, it was because nobody there cared about me. After I'd been in with Gryffindors for a year, I knew how much that meant. The worst part of summers was missing my friends. You know, that's why I never read that letter until you made me?"

Snape had appeared to be listening carefully, and he was without a doubt one of the smartest people Harry had ever been around, so he was slightly stunned when his professor merely replied, "Come again?"

"Uh . . ." Harry paused, trying to think how to explain. "I'd never got a letter, except from Hogwarts or my friends here. And in the summers, sometimes I'd think the letters were all that kept me from going barmy--"

"You are stronger than that."

"Yeah, maybe so, but it felt that way. And then I got the letter from the Dursleys, and I knew it was going to be filled with insults and such . . . all right, laugh if you want, but it just seemed like opening it would make it real. And I didn't want it to be real, 'cause then the whole idea of letters would just be shot for me. I mean, it would ruin the only good thing I got to have each summer. See?" he finished hopefully.

"No," Snape shortly answered. "That is wholly irrational."

"Well, it's true, all the same," Harry answered, quirking a small smile. "We're not all cool composed Potions Masters. Really, Professor. I need my friends."

"Oh, very well," the man sighed, which lifted Harry's spirits considerably until he continued, "your imbecilic Gryffindor friends will be allowed to visit you in my quarters."

"That's not what I meant--"

Snape's voice came across as imperious, as well it might, Harry supposed; that had been quite the concession he'd just made. Actually, Harry was touched, and impressed, though he hadn't managed to say so yet. For Snape to allow Hermione and Ron and maybe even Neville into his private living space . . . that spoke volumes. A warm sort of fuzzy glow crept over Harry, making him feel like he'd eaten his fill of buttered pancakes or something.

"You have another difficulty?" Snape was snapping out, the words practically a lash.

Oh Merlin, Harry thought, that's it. I'm hurting his feelings . . . Funny how life turned out. If anyone had told him a year ago that he'd be worried about hurting Snape, that he'd feel really really bad about it . . . well, he'd have died laughing.

"Just some questions," Harry sighed. "Try not to fly off the handle."

"I do not fly--"

"Yeah," Harry cut him off, managing not to add sure you don't, right. "I know you've said not to fret over this, but what about my classes?"

"I will see to that," Snape replied rather dismissively.

"You mean you'll tutor me at night, or something? Um, no offence, but do you know all that much about every subject? I mean, I'm sure you're ace at defence and Potions, maybe Charms, that's sort of related--"

"Would you like to see my own N.E.W.T. results?" Snape drawled. "Or my curriculum vitae, perhaps? Don't be an idiot!"

All right, maybe that had been a little dumb. "What about the days? I mean, you teach. What am I supposed to do all day, rattling around in the dungeons all by myself?"

"Why, I'm sure you'll study. Isn't that your main preoccupation, getting caught up to your classmates? Without games of Exploding Snap and candies that turn you into a rhinoceros to distract you, I'm sure you'll learn more in a week than you acquire in months with all your friends about."

"Um, I don't suppose you know how long I'll have to stay with you, do you?"

"No, I don't suppose I do," Snape mocked. "We'll see how long it may take Draco Malfoy to do the job he's been assigned, and sway Slytherin to your cause. Our cause, rather. I must learn an entirely new way of speaking, do you realise that? Well, no matter. In the alternative, I imagine that the Tower will be safe for you once your powers are fully recovered. Certainly, they will be so after you put the Dark Lord in his grave, for good this time, one would hope."

"Voldemort," Harry suddenly corrected. "Say Voldemort."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous--"

"Do it. Say Voldemort. You give him power when you won't say his name. I understand when you were spying and all, you had to distance yourself from Dumbledore, who uses it. And me too, probably, when it came to that. But that's all over."

"I tried to make you say the Dark Lord as well, much good it ever did me," Snape reminded him.

"Come on, you can do it . . ." Harry thought for a second, then plunged ahead. "Tell you what, you say Voldemort for me, and I'll come live in the dungeons like you want."

"You have no choice in that. At any rate, you have already tacitly agreed."

Harry thought a moment. "True. Well, you say Voldemort then, and I'll overtly agree."

"Why does it matter to you so much, what I say?"

"A new way of speaking, Professor. A new way of thinking, really," Harry insisted. "It matters."

"You'll agree to reside in my quarters until we're agreed the danger is passed? No matter how difficult you may find it to live there?"

"I'm sure we can figure out how to co-exist," Harry murmured. "Yeah. All right, yes. But you have to say it from now on. You can't go around acting like you're still his minion."

"Voldemort," Snape said, smiling slightly.

"See, it was easy," Harry mocked.

"Taking up residence in my quarters may well not be the same for you," Snape warned. "But that's settled, now. Can you see well enough to navigate your way down with me?"

"Ah, no, don't think so."

"More Elixir, then. Hold still, Harry. Dare I say that's been well done of you the last few times?" He paused to put it in, one hand prying each eye open in turn while the other dosed him. "There. Now you'll get dressed; Minerva fetched some of your clothes so that you wouldn't have to wander the halls in your pyjamas."

Harry groaned. "Oh, no . . . there I was thinking all about myself, but what are my friends going to think when all my stuff gets moved out, when they hear I've gone down into the Slytherin dungeons to live?"

"No doubt they'll descend on me like locusts," Snape lamented. "I imagine your cousin will make it even worse, though really, he did seem much changed in that hospital."

"My cousin?" Harry gasped, nonplussed.

"Yes," Snape said, wiping his hands on a towel and neatly corking the flask of Elixir. "You didn't think he could ward my rooms from a distance, did you? Dudley Dursley will have to come here if he wishes to help you."

"Oh," Harry returned, blinking several times. Seeing that his teacher had walked off toward the windows--decorum again--Harry hurriedly swapped his pyjamas for the clothes laid out, and after slipping on his shoes, hopped off the bed. Hmm, he was still sore, but not enough to even need a pain draught any longer. Thinking fast, he stuffed the letter to Dudley into a trouser pocket, and picked up the enchanted quill from where Pomfrey had laid it. Then he pulled on his robes--now those felt nice at last--and walked over to join Snape, feeling rather proud that he only stumbled once as he navigated the hazy room.

"Dudley will want to help me," Harry admitted. "But . . . he's a Muggle, professor. I mean, he won't even be able to see Hogwarts, will he? He'll see some crumbling old ruin . . . how will he even get in, or down to the dungeons to ward them?"

"It will be a bit of a trick," Snape admitted, slanting him a look. "I suppose we shall have to use magic."

Harry was hardly amused. "We can't do this to him," he protested, his voice increasing in volume. "He's . . . fragile, Professor. Mentally, I mean. And he was raised to really, really fear magic, you know."

"Albus has spoken with his therapist, who feels it will be to his benefit to come here," Snape insisted, looking down at him. "Yes, he fears magic. But you are his only family left, and magic is an integral part of you. Your cousin needs to see you in your natural element. It will help him to know that magic is more than Dementors attacking him."

"But to stay in the dungeons, with you?" Harry couldn't help but scoff. "No offence, all right, but look at you! You'll make him pee his pants, Professor!" When Snape's soft laugh sounded wickedly amused, Harry snapped, "I'm not joking!"

Snape frowned, his eyebrows creasing as he leaned forward. "Your cousin already knows me as Remus Lupin," he commented rather darkly. "Shall I Polyjuice back into his mangy form for a few days?"

"Oh, Merlin, no," Harry gasped. "That wasn't what I meant."

"Good," Snape approved. He walked across the length of the hospital wing and beckoned Harry to follow. Hmm, a little nerve-wracking, walking unaided all that way, Harry thought. But he managed. At least he wasn't completely blind any longer.

"Good?" he lightly joked as Snape issued a series of Finite Incantatems toward the warded doors. "You didn't like being Remus?"

"I did not," Snape murmured, throwing wide the doors to the corridor. "But that is not what I meant. It is good if I remain my usual self, so to speak because . . ." he looked down at Harry, a sardonic gleam dancing in his eyes, and finished, "Anything else would, I think, truly baffle Draco."

Chapter Text

"Draco!" Harry shouted at Snape, incensed. "What do you mean, Draco will be baffled?"

Snape made a sharp motion with his hand. "We aren't behind warded doors any longer. Now, stay close to me as we make our way down. Students should be in class at this hour, but some enterprising soul may be lying in wait for us."

"I thought you were too all-fired intimidating to be attacked by your own Slytherins," Harry sniped, furious as he began to realise why Snape had made that comment about Draco.

"Unfortunately," Snape sneered back, "not every fool in Hogwarts gets sorted into Gryffindor."

Harry fumed, but after that he managed to shut up and follow Snape. Walking all the way to the dungeons was actually a lot more daunting than he would have expected. In the hospital wing, he'd got somewhat used to walking around half-blind, but the floor there was at least flat. Now, he was walking down slopes at times, and even staircases, some of them without handrails, and it was disorienting at best, downright scary at worst. Mad as he was, he still found himself having to clutch at Snape's arm at times. It was either that, or fall.

He couldn't help but realise it was a good thing it was Snape walking him down. Otherwise, he'd probably end up falling, since he still had this thing about touching anybody else.

Snape's rooms were down in the lowest levels of the castle, even further underground than the Slytherin quarters Harry had once visited in disguise. The halls down there were dark and gloomy, lit up only by Snape's muttered Lumos. After he said it, though, he gave Harry his wand to hold, so Harry figured that Snape could probably walk this route in the dark. Holding someone else's wand was rather interesting. It didn't make his insides glow like his own wand did, but it did sort of tickle at his magic, and make him want to spill some.

Snape's rooms weren't guarded by a painting or statue, or by anything at all, as far as Harry could see. The doorway was disguised as an uninterrupted expanse of stone. Even more strange, there wasn't a password like everybody else seemed to use. Well, Harry had concluded before that the man was positively paranoid, but as his own life depended on good security, Harry supposed he couldn't object too much.

Instead of talking to the wall, Snape set his hand flush against a stone. Taking up his wand again, he tapped his own fingers in some rapid sequence; Harry could only see it because the wand was still casting a narrow beam of light. Nothing happened, though. Harry was about to question that when Snape murmured, "I was simply telling it to expect another resident."

His grip firm, he placed Harry's hand, fingers splayed, on a lower stone, and tapped his fingers with the glowing wand, too. Harry couldn't tell if the sequence was the same. Snape pulled his palm away, and said, "It knows you now. Put your hand back; use the same stone."

Harry did, and the stone vanished to reveal a wooden door set into an archway. As it opened, it revealed brightly lit rooms within. Snape went to go inside, but Harry put a hand on his sleeve and asked, "Um, I don't need my wand working to get in?"

"No, though I'll set the door to require magic from you, too, as soon as that becomes feasible."

Impatient, Snape tugged Harry inside, just as the door began to close on its own. From the inside, Harry noted, it stayed looking like a door. Appropriate for a dungeon, too. Hard, thick planks of wood were welded together with thick iron strips.

"All right, what's all this about Malfoy," Harry gritted. "Spill."

"He's right behind you," Snape merely commented. "And as I'm sure you've reasoned out on your own, he's living here too, for the time being. Draco, would you show Harry around? I do believe I have some potions to tend."

With that, Snape was striding straight away, but not in the direction of the door. Harry squinted after him, bemused, then whirled around at the sound of a dry laugh.

Draco stood there, just as Snape had said, a blur of grey clothes leaning against the dark stone wall. "He doesn't, you know," the boy said, pushing off it and taking a step toward Harry.

"Doesn't what?"

"He doesn't have a potion brewing at the moment. I was just in there, I would know. That's Severus' oh-so-subtle way of saying he doesn't want to referee us all the time."

"What did he mean, you live here too?" Harry asked, warily backing up a step.

Draco's smeared visage either frowned at that, or gave a twisted little smile. Harry couldn't tell. "Just what he said. The headmaster and he moved me down here even before Pansy loosed that snake, but since then, I haven't been allowed to so much as leave."

"Pansy," Harry slowly repeated.

"Yeah."

"The way I heard it, nobody knows who incanted Serpensortia."

"Oh, they don't officially know," Draco answered, chuckling deep in his throat, "but I know. The look in her eyes, Potter."

Harry knew what look he meant; it was the way Malfoy usually looked at him. Harry squinted, wondering if the Slytherin boy was looking at him that way, just then. He couldn't really tell. "So what happened to Parkinson?" he asked.

Draco shoved his hands in his pockets, and scowled. "They fixed her up at St. Mungo's and sent her back."

"She was hurt?"

That time, there was no mistaking the smile curving the other boy's lips. "Oh, yes. You don't think I just let attempted murder slide, do you? Anyway, though, it got me kicked out of the only class they were still letting me attend. As if I needed Severus to protect me, anyway."

"If you feel that way," Harry pointed out, "you should just go back to Slytherin to live."

"Severus is a bit concerned that I'd be the only Slytherin left." Draco shrugged, then. "So. Do you want the tour? It's not much, but it's home sweet home." By the end, there, he was sneering, and Harry wasn't sure if he was just trying to insult Severus' quarters, or insinuating that he'd been disowned and couldn't go back to his own home, again.

"Uh, sure, the tour," Harry agreed, still wondering quite how to handle the whole situation. Normally he wouldn't have any trouble being completely rude to Malfoy, but Snape's nearby presence sort of put a damper on the impulse. The last thing he wanted was another be nice to Malfoy lecture, this one possibly delivered with Malfoy right there.

"All right," Draco agreed, his smooth voice easy. "How well can you see now, anyway? I wouldn't want you to trip and break your neck. Can you imagine the fit Severus would throw?" He actually laughed.

Harry didn't think that was so funny. "I can manage," he said in a tight voice. "Tour away."

"All right," Draco said again, stepping carefully around Harry so he didn't even brush against him. That was interesting. Snape must have warned him I get spooked when touched, Harry decided. "This, as you might have deduced already, if you can see at all that is, is--"

"The living room." Harry interrupted the pompous narration, gesturing around at the blobs that looked like couches and chairs. It was actually a lot more pleasant than he would have expected from Snape's rooms. Larger, too.

"Oh, please," Draco drawled, crossing his arms in a gesture that looked elegant even when blurred. "The living room. Do you realise quite how Mugglish that sounds?"

"I was raised by Muggles," Harry said through gritted teeth.

"Yes, yes, and some of your best friends are Muggles, no doubt," Draco breezed. "It doesn't mean you can't use proper language in a wizarding setting, does it? Now, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, this is the sitting room, sometimes referred to as a parlour. That's a bit of an old-fashioned word these days, though I have heard Severus use it on occasion."

Harry ground his teeth together again; he was getting a bit tired of Draco constantly saying Severus. "Are you giving me a tour or an elocution lesson?"

Draco had the gall to laugh again. "Oh, you didn't have enough of Sonnets that day? But of course I realised afterwards you mustn't have any appreciation for nuance, and rhythm, and metaphor. Your own composition was so appallingly blunt and crude. Heard back from your cousin yet, have you?"

Harry knew a certain satisfaction in drawling back, "Oh, Severus didn't mention? How remiss of him. Dudley's going to come here to live with us for a while."

That certainly wiped the mocking smile off Draco's face. "You're joking."

Harry beamed a smile of his own. "You think? Ask Severus."

"I doubt he'd want you calling him that," Draco sniped. "You haven't known him for ages, though from your behaviour in class I'd certainly hazard a guess that you've hated him for what must seem that long."

Harry kept right on smiling, though it was making his face ache a bit. Actually, he ached all over, but he wasn't going to show a trace of it, not in front of someone he didn't trust. "You're really in your own little world down here, aren't you?" he echoed Malfoy's words from hospital. "I don't hate him at all."

He was expecting Draco to gnash his teeth, at least, but the other boy just shrugged a bit. "Well, you're wising up then. That's worth something. Hatred between allies is not exactly useful, is it?" Draco drew his wand, which made Harry flinch, but all he did was hold it dangling from his hand, the tip pointed at the ground as he headed across the room toward a stone corridor. "Shall we resume?"

The hallway was short, and flanked at the end by doors on both sides. Draco flung them both open using his wand, giving a little flourish with his hand as he explained. "Now, this is Severus' private office. He doesn't keep it locked as you can see, and he doesn't seem to mind me coming in if he's in there, too, but I have it on good authority that I will die a messy, painful death if I step over that threshold when he's not within. I'd imagine the same applies to you." Draco turned and pointed at the other open door. "This one's his bedroom. We're not welcome in there at all. He's got his own bath in wizardspace tucked into that wall, there. Slytherin legend holds that it's fabulous, but of course it's probably not as nobody seems to ever have seen it." Draco smirked. "Besides, Severus just doesn't seem the type to lounge about in the tub, does he? I can't picture that."

Harry was having a hard time even listening to blather about it, but that was nothing to his irritation with the effortless way Malfoy seemed to swing between antagonism and casual ease. "Office, bedroom, living room," he grated. "Got it. Can we move on now, or do you have more commentary about the Professor's bathing habits?"

Draco strode back out into the living room. "There's no kitchen, because of course wizards have far better things to do than cook, Merlin forbid, but here is the fireplace where you can shout your requests over to the house-elves. Take my advice though, and don't ask for anything in a Béarnaise sauce. They simply have no notion how to get it right, though they do make a passable Hollandaise . . ."

"Do you have to try to be such a pretentious git, or does it come naturally?"

"If you mean my aristocratic bearing and sense of culture," Draco smoothly replied, "it's a gift. Now, where was I? Oh, yes." He strode past the fireplace and waved a laconic arm toward a deep alcove containing a large round table surrounded by four wooden, straight backed chairs. "That's where we indulge ourselves with fine food and witty conversation three times a day." Moving slightly to the left, he indicated a closed door to the side of the alcove; this time he made no effort to open it. "Through there is Severus' private potions laboratory, and a couple of storerooms filled with the most delightful ingredients. Really interesting. He hasn't minded me poking about at all, but then, I've a great talent for brewing as you've no doubt noticed."

"Why does the Professor need a lab down here?"

Draco gave him what seemed to be a rather suspicious look. "Oh, I know you're a Gryffindor, but honestly, you can't be as innocent as all that, can you?" When Harry didn't respond, he shrugged and went on, "He was posing as a Death Eater, Potter. Now, what do you suppose they have their friendly neighbourhood Potions Master do for them, hmm? He had to brew up all sorts of nasty stuff, things he couldn't let the children see, see?"

"But he let you?" Harry bit out.

"Gryffindor really is synonymous with imbecile, then," Draco scathed. "No, he didn't let me see! Severus has a brain, Potter! He knew what I was being groomed for; he was hardly going to let me watch as he adulterated the Dark Lord's poisons! I understand the principles involved in potion making, you know. Unlike that complete git he pretended to serve, I would have known why his potions didn't have quite the intended effect, time after time."

"So how do you know he was brewing anything at all, then?"

"Oh, I used to hear my father talk." Draco suddenly drew in a sharp breath and brusquely announced, "Sorry, Potter, I wasn't meaning to mention him. Won't happen again. All right, what's next? Well, that's about it actually, except for our room."

"Our room," Harry echoed faintly, still thrown off balance by Draco's conciliatory comments the moment before.

"Of course," Draco smoothly informed him, all discomfort gone from his voice. "Just how much of his private space did you expect Severus to give up for us? Of course it's been my room for a few days now, so I'm contributing to your well-being too, you understand."

Harry certainly didn't like the idea of rooming with Draco, but was also uncomfortable at the idea of inconveniencing Snape. "The Professor had to change his quarters around?"

"Of course," Draco said again, "He'd hardly expect me . . . oh, or you either, I suppose, to sleep on a couch, Potter. Anyway, my room --oh, our room, right, that'll take some getting used to-- used to be Severus' private library, but he moved his books into his office. They wouldn't have fit, but he spent most of an hour spelling together the most amazing wizardspace, so that's all right, then. And he did a bit of rock magic to shift a storeroom so I could have a bit of a wash without pestering him. Anyway . . ." Draco led the way to a door right next to where he'd been leaning before the tour had started. "Voila."

Harry pushed it open, and stepped into a room that held little more than elaborate twin beds on opposite walls, an antique mahogany wardrobe, and two student trunks. Through an open door he could make out the fuzzy shape of a small but functional bathroom.

"Pitiful, I know," Draco lamented. "Honestly, I've seen cupboards larger than this."

Harry gave him a sharp look, wondering if that was some sort of dig, but Draco appeared to be oblivious, rattling on, "And now I have to share it, too."

Harry thought the room would be splendid if not for that aspect. "Which bed is yours?"

Draco sighed and murmured, "Oh, I could hardly care. Take your pick, Potter."

"I'll pick the one that you haven't been sleeping in, thank you. And so?"

"I transfigured my nice comfortable double bed into separate ones this morning, when Severus said he'd be bringing you down," Draco airily announced.

"You transfigured--" Harry cut himself off. So Malfoy was good at Transfiguration, at all his subjects, actually. Well, he wasn't as good as Hermione. That was worth something.

"Yes. Do you like the colours?" Draco put in. To Harry's ears he sounded snide, as well he might. The bedcovers were, predictably, silver and green. So were the oval rugs lying parallel to each bed, and the curtains half pulled back around each bed.

Really, Harry thought it would be immature to demand his side be made over into Gryffindor colours. He wasn't even sure what Draco was trying to prove. "They're lovely," he said, picking the nearest bed and dropping down onto it. The room sort of spun a bit as he relaxed, and only then did Harry realise how tired he was getting. "You should look into a career in interior design."

"Auror," Draco corrected.

"Oh sure, Draco Malfoy as an Auror," Harry sneered. "Like they'd ever trust you."

"Potter," Draco said, his voice suddenly serious, "someday, even you will trust me."

"I trust you right now!" Harry shouted. "I trust you to run home the moment you learn anything your father's lord and master might find useful!"

"Are you stupid? I can't go home!"

"Yeah, well I can't go home either, can I?" Harry retorted. "Your father ordered my house crushed to smithereens!"

"Oh, don't be a git, Potter," Draco retorted right back. "Hogwarts is your home. You were treated worse than shite in that house. Word gets around."

"Gets around Death Eaters, you mean!"

"Yeah, well I'd have figured out something was up anyway, wouldn't I, from that bizarre letter? You can't possibly give a flip about your cousin, writing him crap like Every time you smell a steak, for the rest of your life, you'll think of your father . . . what were you trying to do, make him burst out crying? You may be the hero of the age and all that, but you're pretty twisted, if you ask me!"

Harry swallowed, and gestured rather incoherently, and something about all that must have given the game away, for Draco suddenly executed a sweeping bow, and drawled, "Oh, why thank you. I should have realised at the time that you had no intention whatsoever of owling that letter. I'm honoured that you went to such great effort to insult me."

When Draco stepped forward, Harry darkly wondered what Snape would have to say if his wild magic came lashing forth and did some real damage to his private quarters.

Draco stopped moving, maybe at the look in his eyes; Harry wasn't sure. "Well, you look done in," he said, his voice all at once perfectly polite and composed. "I have some studying to do, so I'll leave you be. Severus will be gone soon, he's got a class about to start, I think, but if you need anything, you can just let me know."

Yeah, right.

Harry was tired enough that he didn't say it, though. Shrugging off his cloak, he let it fall to the floor as he lay down on his side and pulled the pillow firmly beneath his cheek. He watched listlessly as Draco shook his head and levitated the cloak so that it would hang on a bedpost. Then the Slytherin boy left, closing the door behind him, but not all the way. Harry was beyond caring. He shut his eyes and went to sleep.

-----------------------------------------------------------

The sound of a heavy door thudding closed woke him from his nap. Harry stretched a bit, opening his eyes to see if Draco had come back in, but the whole world had gone not-quite-black, a circumstance that was depressingly familiar.

A moment later, he realised that the loud noise must have been Snape returning; both his voice and Draco's emanated from outside his room. Relieved to know Draco wasn't in there watching him while he couldn't see, Harry sat up on his bed and smoothed his hair down.

"How is Harry?" He heard Snape's deep voice question.

"Sleeping," Draco said.

"Ah," Snape replied.

Harry heard the scraping noise of a chair being pulled out, and realised that the two of them must be back in the dining alcove. It was a bit odd, how acute his hearing had gotten. Harry wondered if it would return to normal when his sight came completely back.

For a few minutes he only heard occasional noises like the clink of a teacup on a saucer. Then Draco was commenting, "Potter seemed surprised to hear I'd sent Pansy to St. Mungo's." When Snape didn't reply, the boy pressed, "Why didn't you tell him?"

"I hardly think it benefits his current state of mind to know in detail just how hazardous your company can be."

"Well she did try to kill me, Severus. And right under your nose, too. You'd think allowances could be made. I'm not the one who should have been punished."

Something slammed closed. Book, maybe. "We have only your vague hunch that she was to blame for the snake."

"Oh, she's to blame," Draco tightly insisted, sounding like he was talking through his teeth. "Pansy knows I hate snakes."

A Slytherin who hated snakes? Harry was irrationally tempted to laugh, but didn't want to admit he was awake. A little niggling conscience told him that eavesdropping was really wrong, on a level with something Malfoy might do, but the practical part of his mind won out. How was he going to figure out Malfoy's schemes if he didn't take any advantage he could get?

"Why did you throw a snake at Potter in that duel, if you hate them so much?" Snape asked, sounding genuinely curious.

"Well, if I hated them, I thought a Gryffindor would have to detest them ten times as much. But no," Draco sneered. "He has to go and be a Parselmouth and get on just fine with snakes!"

"That did rather eclipse your marvellous Serpensortia," Snape murmured, which apparently made Draco see red.

"It was marvellous!" he declared. "I'd like to know what other second-year, or even fourth-year for that matter, could cast that spell. But nobody even noticed that, oh no, not after Potter there decided he'd just chit-chat with the snake and become the talk of Hogwarts for months on end!"

"Hmm," Severus merely returned.

"At any rate, it was Pansy," Draco went back to insisting. "I know you don't know that just on my say-so, but all you have to do is drop a bit of Veritaserum on her tongue and that will be that!"

"Veritaserum is illegal."

"Didn't stop you from using it on me," Draco sneered.

"Your story was more improbable than hers," Snape firmly answered. "That's enough about Miss Parkinson."

Apparently, it wasn't enough for Draco. "Pansy should not be back here, flouncing around to classes again! It's going to make it more difficult for me to influence Slytherin."

"And how is that going?" Snape diverted the conversation.

"Well, it would go a fair sight better if you'd let me actually speak to anyone, you know, Severus."

"Not while tempers are still so hot. I'm tired of arguing this, Draco. You'll have to owl them for now, and that's final. Do you have any more letters for me to send?"

"Three."

A silence ensued, and Harry wondered if Snape was reading the letters to see just what Draco was writing his fellow Slytherins. When the conversation resumed, it took a strange turn that Harry couldn't quite follow.

"Did you tell him?" Snape was asking.

Draco seemed to understand what the question referred to. "No," he said shortly. "I can't think he'd appreciate it very much. To my way of thinking, you're reminder enough. Here, read this."

A moment passed, and then Snape said, "This reference was for my own use, Draco."

"I'm at least a week ahead in every class," Draco drawled. "What do you expect me to do down here all day, file my nails? Hmm, though, they are getting a bit ragged. Limare. There, that's better."

"I know you aren't stupid enough to go into my office," Snape darkly announced. "So how did you get this book?"

"Accio'd it from your desk in there," Draco breezed.

"I do not appreciate being lied to, Draco."

"Oh, fine. You left it out last night. Can I help it if I wonder what you've been poring over for the last few days?" A light shudder caressed his voice. "Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a Muggle book. By Muggles, for Muggles."

"That didn't stop you from reading it, I observe," Snape shot back.

"No." A long pause. "Did you really tell Potter that wizards all have Muggles somewhere in their family trees? No exceptions?"

"Yes," Snape said.

Draco's voice was fainter when he replied. "Oh. That's . . . really rather gross. I actually feel a bit sick. I suppose you'll be offended if I ask if you're sure?"

"I have been in your place," Snape dryly announced. "I know it's disturbing. You'll get used to it, assuming you prefer knowing the truth to believing convenient lies. At any rate, I surmise that you and Harry must have done a bit of talking today?"

"We had a nice fight, as I'm quite sure you heard before you left." Draco merely said. "Good of you to stay out of it. I wouldn't want Potter there thinking I'm so hazardous that you have to rescue him from my evil clutches."

"You're the one who'll need rescuing if you get him angry enough to lose control."

"Hmm, his wild magic is really something," Draco murmured. "Shall I wake him for dinner?"

"Not yet. Are you really a week ahead in all of your classes?"

"Well, except Astronomy, but that's just because I'm waiting for answers to a few questions I owled the professor."

"Good," Snape approved. "You'll need to make sure you stay caught up, which will be harder now that you're to start tutoring Harry."

Draco sighed. "You really should recruit Granger, or somebody else. I can't tutor someone who every second will sit there thinking I'm about to hex him."

"And you wonder why I didn't mention Pansy to him," Snape mocked.

"Well, you saw," Draco insisted. "He lay there like a lump and let me drone on about potions, but he wasn't even listening! Besides, there's this thing with his magic. Wild outbursts aside, he won't even try to spell if I'm anywhere in the vicinity. I saw it in the hospital, Severus. He was practically itching to try out his wand, but he wouldn't do it, not with me there."

"I have great faith in your powers of persuasion," Snape drawled.

"Yeah, I get that," Draco groaned. "What you mean is, don't fuck it all up like you did with Slytherin that night."

"Language," Snape rebuked. "But yes. You should have worked Slytherin from the inside, instead of alienating yourself so thoroughly that even the half-bloods and Muggleborns were terrified to side with you."

Harry's jaw dropped open. What? Half-bloods and Muggleborns in Slytherin? Slytherin? SLYTHERIN?

"Whom do you think I'm owling?" Draco tightly replied.

Draco was owling the half-bloods and Muggleborns in SLYTHERIN?

Harry felt like his head might split open from the shock, and that was before Snape replied, "I know whom you're owling, you idiot child. Keep to the strategy we discussed. Now, let me read."

After that, they lapsed into a long silence. Harry stretched again, and fumbled his way into the bathroom, managing with some difficulty to take care of matters, even blind. All that practice in the hospital wing had helped.

Then, knowing he couldn't put it off forever, he made it back to the door of his room and flung it wide.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"Ah, Harry," Snape noticed him at once. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine," Harry lied, "other than needing the Elixir."

"Let's dose you then," Snape answered, his footsteps coming forward. "Draco, you see to dinner."

Snape took his arm in a firm grip, led him back into his room and sat him down on the bed, his fingers coming up to frame his face. "Ready?"

"Yes." Gritting his teeth, Harry opened his eyes wide and thought of Devon as Snape spread his eyelids apart. It helped. The physical sensation hearkened back to Samhain, but he kept the fear at bay with memories of care and comfort. Because this was care, too. It was just . . . difficult.

Harry blinked. "That's better."

He saw Snape looking down at him with a rather severe expression. "Are you getting on adequately with Mr Malfoy?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess," Harry murmured. He could have complained about some of the things Draco had said, but he didn't want to be some kind of crybaby or something. Besides, Draco had his fair share of complaints about Harry, too. The letter, for one. Snape would not appreciate that at all, Harry thought. Then again, there were things that Harry didn't much appreciate, either. "That was a nasty trick, not telling me he'd be here," Harry grumbled.

Snape laid a hand on his shoulder and lightly squeezed. "Yes, but now you get to hear me say Voldemort, which is apparently worth any sacrifice. Now, onto more important matters. Did Draco warn you not to go into my office?"

"Yeah, and your bedroom's off-limits too, I heard. What about your potions lab?"

"You can enter it if you need to, but don't brew anything unsupervised." Pausing, he incanted a Lumos and looked carefully into Harry's eyes. "The colour's definitely deeper and glossier than it used to be, and the scratches are nearly gone. Have you noticed any improvement in vision, other than the Elixir lasting longer than it did at first?"

Harry shrugged. "Things are getting less blurry. It's like you said, I think. It'll just take some time."

"Ah. Well, I realise you're on a somewhat different schedule than the rest of us after so long in hospital, but Draco and I will be dining momentarily. Do you feel up to joining us?"

"I'm not an invalid, Professor," Harry announced, standing up.

-----------------------------------------------------------

As far as Harry was concerned, dinner became a synonym for insult the minute Draco Malfoy was put in charge of the preparations. They all sat down at the round table, Snape incanting Comiere to tell the house-elves they were ready, and what appeared?

Two lovely china plates full of elegant, obviously refined food, and one rather plain plate bearing a hamburger and chips.

Draco burst out laughing, and reached for his wine, which of course caused Harry to notice that the hamburger had come with juice. It was orange juice though, which was rather interesting.

"Draco!" Snape snapped. "When I asked you to set the menu I never dreamed--- Would you please explain why the two of us have crown roast of lamb in mint sauce with Duchess potatoes, while Harry only has that . . . repulsive looking thing?"

Draco was laughing so hard that he hadn't managed yet to sip his wine, so he certainly couldn't answer.

"It's obvious isn't it, Professor?" Harry grated. "He's making a point. His nasty father told him all about my awful childhood, so Draco's making me feel right at home! Though he really missed the point, I think. I should just wait around and have your scraps, assuming there are any. But then if we were being nostalgic, I'd have cooked as well!"

Harry stopped, because Snape was looking at him with a fair amount of horror in his expression. Meanwhile, Draco had stopped laughing.

"Sweet Merlin above," he drawled, "are you always so vain, Potter? The whole world is organized around you, right down to the catering?" He almost began to cackle again, but this time he swallowed some of his ruby red wine to quell the impulse.

"Well, you explain the menu plan, then!" Harry shouted.

Snape held up a hand for silence. "You told them to serve what suits, didn't you?"

"Yes, of course," Draco huffed, glaring at Harry. "It's not my fault your tastes are utterly plebeian."

"What?!?"

Draco twirled his wine glass in his hand, sipping it again before he spoke. "You have that to eat because you wanted it, Potter! Nothing to do with me."

"So why do you and the Professor have the same," Harry sneered, "if it's just a matter of individualization?"

"Hmm. Maybe it's the way I phrased it. I said, Send Severus and me something that will suit us. Oh, and Harry Potter will be dining as well. Send him whatever he would like."

Harry was still glaring, though by then he was beginning to feel a little bit foolish. "Oh."

"The funny part," Draco laughed again, "is that you could get so offended merely because you were provided what you wanted. Honestly, Potter!" He leaned over a bit, and asked in a puzzled tone, "Why is your pumpkin juice such a bright colour?"

"It's orange juice, Malfoy," Harry shortly answered. "I didn't think the house-elves knew what that was. We never get it here. But how come you get wine? That's not served to students!"

Draco shrugged. "Severus knows I like my meals civilized."

Harry didn't actually like wine, and didn't really want any, but he didn't like Draco getting special privileges, so he challenged Snape, "Can I have wine, too?"

"Oh, right, a nice robust Merlot will really go well with that . . . what is that, some strange Muggle sandwich?" Draco drolled.

"You can have wine when you're through taking potions," Snape announced. "Mixing alcohol with the Elixir could be deleterious."

"Besides," Draco put in with a sneer, "wine like this would be wasted on you. I can't think you would have the palate for it, Potter."

"Shut up, Malfoy!"

"Be quiet, both of you!" Snape roared. "I am not having every meal disrupted by this petty bickering!"

"I didn't ask to come live here," Draco exclaimed.

"Yeah, well neither did I," Harry shot back.

"Nevertheless, you are both here now, and I will not have my home become a battleground, is that clear? I had thought the two of you mature enough to put your differences aside in the interest of a common cause."

Sure, just like Snape had done with Sirius, Harry bitterly reflected.

"What common cause?" he questioned out loud. "I told you, Professor, this is just some weird stunt of his to catch us unawares, or something."

"You ungrateful prat," Draco snarled. "I should have just snapped your wand and brought it to you in pieces!"

"Oh sure, he's on the up and up," Harry mocked, glancing at Snape.

The professor, however, was not amused. "We are going to set some ground rules," he grated, his voice cold and determined. "Harry, you may think what you wish but you will not deride Draco's loyalties out loud to him. Draco, you will not taunt Harry about his wand, or magic, or vision. Is that clear?"

"Yes," Draco murmured.

"Yeah, all right," Harry muttered.

"And you will call each other by your first names," Snape smoothly continued.

"What? Oh no, I won't," Harry grumbled. "It's not like Malfoy there is my friend."

"I really think that Potter suits him better," Draco put forth.

Snape glanced between the two of them, and hissed, "Ten points from Gryffindor; ten points from Slytherin."

"You can't take points from Slytherin!" Draco exclaimed, "You never take points from Slytherin! It's . . . it's . . . well, its un-Slytherin of you!"

"It's also just been done," Snape announced, picking up his wand and waving it. "The counters have been adjusted. In fact, with a little research, I'm sure I could spell my quarters to automatically inform the counters whenever either one of you contravenes my wishes."

"Don't do that," Draco exclaimed. "I guess I can call him Harry." He did rather sneer it, though, Harry noticed.

"Harry?" Snape prompted.

Determined not to be outdone by Malfoy, Harry shrugged. "Draco it is, then. Anyway, we might as well. We're about to have a Muggle houseguest and all this last names business would really make him uncomfortable." He threw an evil grin at Malfoy as he said it, then picked up his hamburger and took a big bite.

-----------------------------------------------------------

After the house-elves had magically whisked away the dirty dishes, Draco excused himself and left Snape and Harry sitting at the table alone.

"Wonder what he's up to now," Harry mused, eyes narrowed. "I don't believe he really needs to wash his hair."

Snape sighed. "He washes it every night. I do wish you could learn to be just a little less suspicious of him, Harry."

"For all I know, he's going through my things right now," Harry insisted, patting his pocket and relieved to feel the letter still in it. "You know, Ron said the other day that Dumbledore had returned my dad's invisibility cloak. I bet it's in the trunk the house-elves sent down here. What if Draco steals it?"

"You are being utterly ridiculous."

"He said you moved some rooms around," Harry mentioned. "Couldn't you do that again and um, get us separate places to sleep? Really, I don't need much space."

"You are afraid he'll hex you," Snape murmured, almost to himself. "Harry, he won't. What would be the point?"

"Well, I'd tell you, but I don't want to give him any smart ideas! Use your imagination, Professor!"

"I thought you'd be a little less irrational about him after you heard him mention the Veritaserum, Harry."

Taken aback, Harry gasped, "You knew I was awake?"

"I suspected our voices would wake you," Snape corrected. "Harry, listen to me. The headmaster and I have more reason to believe him than just his word. When he brought us your wand, we interrogated him using truth serum. Draco does not want to be a Death Eater and he does not approve of what happened to you on Samhain."

"Why didn't you tell me before that you used truth serum on him?"

"There are some things I want Draco to tell you for himself. Just as I could have returned your wand myself, but asked him to do it."

Harry put his head down on the table, groaning. "Serum or no serum, I can't trust him, Professor. It's as simple as that. It's an instinct."

"Maybe you'll feel differently later," Snape merely replied. "He'll be teaching you your subjects; you did gather as much?"

"Yes," Harry admitted.

"You're to let him, Harry. That means trying spells when he says, even if you fail at it."

"Even when I fail at it, you mean," Harry bitterly returned, rolling his face to the side. After a moment more, he sat up. "How am I supposed to catch up to everyone else, when my magic's in such a repressed state that I can't do first-year spells?"

"Practice those too. Try Occluding your mind first; that may help you reach into your dark powers. But above all, and I mean this quite seriously, Harry, be honest with Draco about how your own efforts feel to you. He has great intuitive talent for magic--"

"All that inbreeding," Harry put in.

"Perhaps so, but the talent is there. Will you do as I ask?"

"He has to be nice to Dudley," Harry proposed in exchange. "Really nice."

A voice sounded from behind them. "I've no intention of terrorizing your bereaved cousin," Draco announced, sounding sincere for once, instead of oozing with sarcasm and dark intent. "I have perfect manners when I want to use them. You'll see."

Harry turned, but at that distance, the other boy was just a blur.

"Severus, will you please excuse us?" Draco inquired, perhaps trying to demonstrate some of his perfect manners. "There's something I'd like to show Harry."

"Good night," Snape said, standing up. "No sleeping in tomorrow. You may not be going to classes, but you'll be on a Hogwarts schedule from now on." Reaching into his robes, he drew forth two vials and handed them to Harry. "You recognise these by now, I trust?"

Harry touched each in turn. "Yeah. Painless Sleep and Dreamless Sleep. Um, I thought maybe I could stop taking so much of them."

"As you wish," Snape agreed. "But keep them in case you have need. One swallow only," he warned. With that, he was striding off toward his own bedroom.

"Well, come on, Harry," Draco urged, laying a little bit of sarcastic stress on the name. Not too much, Harry realised. More like he was uncomfortable using it. "I want to see what you think of something." He disappeared back into their shared room.

When Harry followed him through, he was bemused to see that his own bed curtains, rug, and bed coverings had all been transfigured into beautiful, glowing shades of crimson and gold. Draco's side of the room hadn't changed.

"I don't get it," he murmured, looking around. "I mean, before, you wanted to rub my nose in the fact that I'm stuck down in Slytherin territory."

"No, I didn't," Draco returned, walking over to sit on his own bed, facing Harry, who sat down too, then, and stared across the narrow space separating them. "That wasn't it. I just thought . . ." He cleared his throat, and made a show of looking at the wall as though he found it of great interest. "I thought that if I did the whole room in my colours, you'd have to ask me to change them, see? And then that would be something I could do for you. Not much, of course, but I thought it would be a start. To show you that . . . I would do something for you, if you asked."

Harry blinked, considering all that. It seemed a very Slytherin way of going about things.

"But you never asked," Draco said, a note of complaint in his voice.

"You could have offered," Harry pointed out.

"Well, I might have, but by then I wasn't feeling too charitable, as I'd just figured out what that little exercise in correspondence was all about. Dear Dudley," he scoffed. "And people say I'm evil."

"I actually didn't think you would sit there and write it all out like that," Harry exclaimed. "I just wanted you to leave! Didn't I make that perfectly clear? And you wouldn't, so then I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone, you know. Let you know how awful you've been, how much you've hurt people, and get you to finally get out, too!" Harry paused, and then ventured, "Why didn't you leave as soon as the letter turned nasty?"

Draco put his hands on either side of his legs, and leaned forward a little. "Well, at first it was because I didn't want you complaining to Severus that I hadn't helped you after I'd said I would. And then, when you really started to let fly, I suppose I thought you must need to get it all off your chest, and it was better to get it over with, because then maybe you'd calm down and we could . . . ah, get past that."

"It's quite a bit to get past," Harry dryly remarked.

"Well, I got over five-plus years of you taunting and upstaging me, didn't I?"

"I don't know," Harry slowly said, careful not to deride Draco's loyalties even while he made it clear he didn't trust them. "Whatever you've done, you didn't do it out of love for me. You can't convince me that just because I got tortured you had this sudden change of heart. That doesn't make sense, and no offence, but that's not who you are. It's not even close."

Draco abruptly unbuttoned the cuffs on his grey shirt and pulled up his sleeves to show his bare, unmarked forearms. "This is who I am," he quietly asserted. "I'm my own man. I'm not his." And then, when Harry didn't react, he added, "Can you see from there? I'll come show you--"

"I can see you're not marked."

"But it doesn't make a difference to you," Draco bitterly realised. "Oh, that's irony for you. You trust Severus, who is, but not me, who isn't."

Harry just shrugged.

Draco shrugged too, after a moment, and added, "Anyway, about the colours. I thought I'd better just go ahead and change your side to Gryffindor. Otherwise, every time you came in the room you'd probably look at all the green and think dark thoughts about me."

"I didn't care very much about the colours one way or another," Harry admitted.

"So I'll change them back?" Draco asked, his voice lilting a bit.

"No," Harry laughed. "Leave it now."

"Hmm, might as well, as Severus warned me your friends are allowed to come down," Draco groaned in mock agony. Or maybe part of it was authentic. "I'd just hate for them to think I was mistreating you."

Harry set his potions down, and carefully said, "I suppose it would be asking too much for you to demonstrate your perfect manners when they come, too."

"Depends on them," Draco muttered. "I'm not the one always starting things."

That wasn't how Harry saw matters, but he let it go. "Well, there is something else you could do for me, if you would," he ventured, more to gauge Draco's reaction than for any other reason. "If you are going to go and wash your hair, could you finite the lights in here, first? I'm really tired and I'd like to go to sleep, straight away."

Draco nodded, though he said, "You wash up first, all right, and then I'll do the lights."

A few minutes later, after Draco had incanted spells to make the stone walls stop illuminating the room, Harry pulled his bed curtains closed and changed into his pyjamas. He heard the sound of water running, and of all things, Draco singing in the shower. But then the world began to fade away, and Harry drifted into a sleep that was dreamless even though he hadn't taken any potion.

He clutched his mother's ring as he slept.

Chapter Text

"All right, that's enough of that, I think," Draco abruptly announced late the next morning, reaching out and closing the book Harry had been using. "You can only listen to theory for so long before your brain dries out, you know."

"You're just tired of hearing Hermione's dulcet tones," Harry mocked, waving the enchanted quill back and forth.

"Actually, I'd like to get a sense of what you've learned." Draco pulled the book towards him, but didn't open it. His fingers drifted back and forth over the cover as he quizzed Harry. "Explain why you don't need to delimit an area before you cast Alegrarus."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Because the act of choosing a person to charm will keep the spell from spilling past the boundary the wizard intends."

"Good," Draco crisply approved. "Now, name three charms that do require you to delineate boundaries first."

Harry thought back for a second. "Uh . . . Fulminare, Hummos pacta, and Tempestadus."

"You might also have said Loviosa or Helare, or really, treated the weather charms as a class of their own," Draco added. "So, why didn't they teach us to delimit way back in first year when we learned Incendio and Wingardium Leviosa and all that?"

"Because we were always focussed on an object at that stage."

"Well, you certainly have decent listening comprehension," Draco commented. "I wouldn't have believed it."

"There, I knew your perfect manners wouldn't last for long!"

"My, my, you do take things personally," Draco drawled. "All I meant was, I couldn't listen to so much text at once and get as much from it. I can hardly stand lecture for the same reason. I learn better by reading."

Harry flushed slightly, but forgot about it when Draco went on, "Now, I'll want twelve inches on the drawbacks of using walls to delimit charm structures."

"You're my tutor, not my professor," Harry pointed out. "So don't think you can go assigning essays just for me."

"What did I just tell you about taking things personally? It's merely the assignment the rest of us had to do for Chapter Four. Don't you think Professor Flitwick would like you to do the same? Never mind, don't answer that. Severus collected last month's lesson plans for me to use with you, and the essay is clearly noted right here." Draco shoved a bit of parchment across the table at him.

"Very funny, when you know I can't read it," Harry scowled. "And how am I supposed to write an essay, anyway?"

"Well, you could at least try, P-- Harry." Draco smirked. "Here, take a blank sheet and a quill. I know you can't focus your eyes so well--and no, I'm not ridiculing that--but you can probably produce something at least legible."

Harry thought a moment, squished his eyes nearly closed in an effort to focus them, then wrote an opening sentence for his essay. "How's that look?"

Draco sighed. "All right, maybe legible is a stretch. It's worse than your usual scrawl. I suppose you'll have to borrow my spelled quill. We'll just have to explain to the professors why all your work is in my beautiful script."

He returned in a moment and handed Harry a long, tan feather along with a fresh length of parchment. "Just set it upright, and let go, then dictate what you want it to write. It's self-inking."

Harry did as Draco had said, only to see the quill flutter its way back down to the parchment the moment it was let go.

"Now what?"

Draco paused to think before he answered. "I suppose it's reacting to your . . . ah, condition . . ."

"You can say lack of magic, Draco," Harry retorted. "I do know about it, you know."

"Right. Well, let me try." He set the tip of the quill in place, and watched it stay upright as he let go, then said, "Now, you dictate."

The quill slowly moved across the surface of the parchment, scripting out the words Now, you dictate.

"Finite!" Draco exclaimed, snatching the quill up much as if he meant to strangle it. After a moment though, he picked up his wand from where he'd set it on the table, and tapped the feather a few times as he talked to it in soft, whispering Latin. Harry only caught a few words: you, he, not me, talk, and something that sounded suspiciously like a muttered English if you know what's good for you.

"All right," Draco finally announced. "You can't activate it, that does require magic, but once I set it to parchment, it should respond to your voice, now."

When the feather worked as predicted, Harry felt himself rather taken aback. Hermione's talking feather was certainly impressive, but it paled beside a quill that could write out the words it heard. He almost would have thought it was something Draco's father had bought him, just the thing for a spoiled-little-rich-boy away at school, except for the fact that Draco had just adjusted the spells on the fly. Clearly, the magic in the quill was Draco's own, and he could manipulate it to new forms with scarcely a moment's thought.

Draco has a great intuitive grasp of magic, Snape had said, and now, Harry thought he had a sense of what he had meant.

"Thanks," he murmured, and Draco laughed.

"You'd better say undo thanks now," he pointed out, motioning toward the moving quill. "Anything you want scratched out, you say 'undo.' If you actually need the word 'undo' in your essay, say 'undo naught,' assuming you haven't used that word recently. Oh, and stopping the quill requires a Finite, so you'd better just give me a wave. If you try to pick up the pen to stop it, it'll start writing all over your arm and such."

"Undo thanks," Harry said, nodding to show he understood, and after that, he restricted his comments to ruminations on walls and charm delimitations. Draco watched him for a while, raising his eyebrow as Harry hesitated over a few details, but eventually he opened his Potions manual and began studying the ingredients and procedures for some concoction, periodically closing the book and writing out the instructions from memory until he could produce them letter-perfect.

"I'm going to make this, now," he told Harry as he stood up.

Harry nodded again and went on talking about charms.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

That afternoon before dinner, Draco suddenly glanced up from his reading and said, "I think your fan club has arrived."

Harry didn't know what had alerted the Slytherin boy to that.

"It's Granger and Weasley," Draco muttered, slamming his book shut. "Well, what are you waiting for? Go open the door."

But Harry couldn't; it didn't have a handle. A lot of things in Snape's rooms were like that; the simplest task might require magic. Harry didn't much like asking Draco to do things for him all the time, but he supposed it could have been worse. At least the bathroom facilities were spelled so that they'd respond to touch. He didn't need incantations to turn on a tap, or flush the loo. The door, though . . .

"It won't open for me and you know it," Harry said. "And so?"

"Oh, very well," Draco acquiesced.

"Wait!" Harry stopped him as he lifted his wand. "How do you know who's there?"

Draco pointed to a decorative scroll hanging on the wall beside the door. Harry had noticed it, but had only been able to make out an intricate inked border on the parchment; he'd supposed the centre was some artwork executed in lines so thin and fine he couldn't make them out no matter how he squinted. When he walked to it now, however, it was displaying names. In letters so big that even he could read them, the scroll announced Hermione Granger, Ronald Weasley.

"I've heard of enchanted mirrors that show who's outside," Draco commented, "but that parchment is better. It's supposed to list the true identity of anyone on the other side of the wall, so you can catch out impostors on Polyjuice."

Harry supposed that was one of the security measures Snape had mentioned when he'd explained how safe his quarters were. It was kind of comforting to know that the people waiting for him weren't two Slytherins pretending to be his friends. "Okay, let them in."

Instead of waving his wand from where he reclined on the couch, Draco unfolded his lean body and walked to the door, throwing Harry a sly little smile when he got there.

"Draco," Harry warned.

"What?" he asked, all innocence. "I do know how to behave in company. Watch and learn."

With that, he incanted an Abrire, catching the edge of the door as it began to open, and throwing it wide. "Ron, Hermione!" he exclaimed, flashing perfect straight, white teeth as he grinned. "How nice of you to visit our little corner of the dungeons. Please, do come in."

Hermione raised an eyebrow as she stepped inside and glanced around. Ron was more vocal. "Ron!" he echoed in tones of disgust. "Hermione!"

"Oh, we're on a first-names basis down here," Draco smoothly explained, closing the door with another spell. "Severus simply insisted."

"Severus!" Ron sputtered, looking over at Harry.

"I'm so sorry we don't have a house-elf to see to your well-being," Draco prattled right on, motioning the Gryffindors further into the room. "Although considering Hermione's deep and abiding concern for the lesser forms of magical life, that's probably just as well. It wouldn't do to have our guests ill at ease, no indeed. In that spirit, may I take your cloaks? Severus keeps his quarters rather warm and I certainly wouldn't want you to feel the slightest bit uncomfortable."

"Don't pay him any mind," Harry said, glaring. "He doesn't know the difference between mannerly and mocking. Come on, sit down."

"Yes, do take a seat," Draco smoothly invited, pocketing his wand with so much flourish that no one could miss the fact that he'd put it away. "Would you care for something to drink? It's a bit early for an aperitif, but I'd be simply delighted to provide you with something lighter. Tea, perhaps? Ron, I believe your family does a fair bit of drinking; would you be averse to a butterbeer?" His smile grew wider as he turned to face Harry. "Of course, I could just ask the kitchens for whatever suits. Wouldn't that be great fun?"

"Nothing, thank you," Hermione announced as she primly seated herself on a low couch and crossed her ankles. "We'd like to talk to Harry." With that, she stared at Draco in clear challenge.

"That means get out," Ron translated, plopping down onto the sofa.

Draco appeared to hesitate, but then merely said in his composed voice, "I'll leave you to your friends then, shall I, Harry?" Nodding to himself, Draco quirked another smile and said, "Well, it was absolutely lovely to see you both. You must grace us with your presence again sometime soon. Will you please excuse me?"

He strode off to his bedroom and softly shut the door.

"He called you Harry!" Ron complained.

"That entire conversation was just too spooky," Hermione commented, waving a hand parallel to the ground to indicate they should use moderate voices.

"Cast a silencing charm," Harry recommended as he dropped into a chair. "But still be careful what you say. For all I know, Draco spelled a countercharm across the room while my back was turned."

"Draco!"

"Ron, that is really getting old," Hermione chided him as she waved her wand. Harry noticed her delimiting boundaries before she spread the spell across the space surrounding the three of them.

"Plus it's ten points from Gryffindor every time I call him by his last name," Harry added.

"Oh, that is too evil of that Snape," Ron groused. "I bet that's why he dragged you down here, just so he could take points left, right, and centre. How many have we lost so far?"

"Just ten," Harry said, his voice tightening. "But he took ten from Slytherin as well, so I hardly think his motive for taking me in was anything to do with house standing, Ron."

Ron's eyes almost bugged out. "Snape took points from Slytherin?"

"Yeah, to make Draco call me Harry, so don't give me any more grief about names, okay? Anyway, I'm glad you guys came. I'd like to know what you were told about me living here."

"McGonagall came and Accio'd everything into your trunk," Hermione said. "She had the house-elves move it, but she didn't really explain."

"She just stood in the middle of the common room," Ron reported, "and announced in a real snooty voice, For reasons passing understanding, Mr Potter has been assigned to live in Professor Snape's private quarters until further notice. He will not be attending classes. If you wish to visit him, I will escort you down."

"Did she come down with you?" Harry asked. The scroll hadn't mentioned anyone else.

"Yes, she told us to stand in a particular spot and just wait. It looked like a blank wall to us, but after we'd been there a couple of minutes a door appeared and Malfoy opened it," Hermione explained.

"Is that ten more points now, since she called him Malfoy?" Ron wondered. "Or twenty points, counting me, too?"

"I don't think Snape's little rules apply to you," Harry murmured.

Ron nodded, while Hermione gestured toward the closed door and said, "What was all that exaggerated courtesy about?"

"I think that was his idea of a preview," Harry answered, shuddering a bit. "My cousin's supposed to come see me, and Draco said he'd be polite. I'm really kind of worried about the whole thing."

"Your cousin," Ron said in tones of extreme doubt. "Visiting. Er, this is the cousin who liked to sit on you when you were little, then decided using you as a punching bag was more fun?"

"Yeah, but we've been getting on better than that, lately," Harry said, and explained a bit about recent events. Not too much though. He couldn't forget for an instant that Draco was probably listening. "Anyway, he's my only family left," he finished, shrugging as he decided not to mention anything about warding. If Snape hadn't told the Slytherin boy the whole plan, Harry sure wasn't going to.

Hermione was equally doubtful, but for other reasons. "I didn't think Muggles could come here."

"Snape's working on that end, that's all I know."

Ron frowned. "What do you suppose McGonagall meant with that for reasons passing understanding remark? It was really strange."

"Oh Ron, isn't it obvious?" Hermione pulled her hair back into a ponytail as she spoke. "Harry's a Gryffindor; she's Head of Gryffindor. If he needs extra protection from all the nasty Slytherins, she should be the one to take him in. I'd say she mentioned as much to Dumbledore and was firmly rebuffed."

"Yeah, in favour of Snape," Ron growled. "Ick, yuck. I know you're brave and all, Harry, but honestly, Snape and Draco both? How can you stand it?"

"Snape's not that bad," Harry felt compelled to say. "It's decent of him to let me stay in the one place the Slytherins won't attack."

"Yes, it is," Hermione agreed, with a warning look at Ron. "Though I have my concerns about how healthy it is for you to be isolated with the very person who--"

"Who saved my life yet again," Harry finished, his glance daring her to contradict him. "That's what it was. That's what he did."

"All right, I understand you see it that way," Hermione sighed. "But how are you going to get caught up for your N.E.W.T.s down here?"

"Oh," Harry suddenly felt very uncomfortable. "Um, Draco's tutoring me."

Hermione dropped her hair. "Is that going all right?"

Now Harry was really embarrassed, but since he didn't want to lie to his friends, he admitted, "Um, we just started this morning but yeah, I think it is, actually. He knows a lot, and he's been sort of helpful."

Ron snorted. "He'll probably teach you everything all backwards just to mess you up."

"I'm using the same textbooks as you, Ron," Harry drawled.

"Why can't Hermione tutor you?" Ron shot back. "She gets way better marks than Malfoy."

"Maybe because Hermione has to be in class all day, and Draco and I are stuck down here together, anyway? We might as well use the time for something."

Ron hung his head in his hands. "I can tell where this is going. Pretty soon it's going to be Draco's not that bad," he mimicked Harry's voice.

"No, Draco is that bad," Harry assured his friend. "I just haven't figured out quite what he thinks to gain from pretending to turn on Voldemort."

A crashing noise ensued from the bedroom Draco and Harry shared.

"Well, that certainly answers the question of whether he's listening," Harry announced, deliberately raising his voice. "I guess he doesn't know that perfect manners don't usually include eavesdropping."

"Isn't it awfully strange he'd give the game away like that, though?" Hermione wondered, her own tones still pitched low.

Harry laughed. "I have it on good authority he has a problem with impulse control, so I'd say it's par for the course."

"Par for the course?" Ron queried.

"Muggle expression," Harry answered, and he and Hermione both laughed. "Means it's typical."

"It's a bit of a worry, you thinking you know what's typical for Malfoy," Ron pointed out.

"Yeah," Harry agreed. "But just to warn you, it'll probably get even worse. We're rooming together down here."

"Poor Harry," Hermione sympathized, reaching out to pat his hands. Halfway there, though, she reconsidered and pulled her own back. "Um, Harry? Are you getting better?"

"I see better every day, but my vision still fades off after a while."

"No, I meant, er . . . are you less jumpy?"

"No, I think Draco lurking around makes me more so," Harry answered, and listened for another crash. That time there wasn't one. "But I feel really comfortable around Snape, so that sort of balances things out."

"Comfortable around Snape," Ron groaned.

"Yes." Harry dug around in his pocket and pulled out the letter he'd dictated but never sent. Afraid that Draco might steal it and show it to Snape, he'd been keeping it on him practically every second. "I need you to read this, Hermione, okay? Out loud, but in the quietest voice you can manage."

She did, and it was written out exactly as he'd said it, right down to the last insult.

"Wow," Ron breathed when it was over. "I take it back, Harry. That's some letter."

"Yeah," Harry answered, somehow feeling less than proud about the whole incident, now. He saw Hermione looking at it curiously, and knew she'd recognised the writing, but she didn't comment. "Um, I can't send it, though. It'd hurt Dudley too much, so I was hoping one of you would Incendio it for me."

"Oh. Still having trouble with the old wand," Ron commiserated. "I'm sorry. Here, I'll do it." He took the letter and set it in the hearth, then set it ablaze.

Hermione was frowning. "I've just realised how hard it must be for you in here without magic. I didn't think about it before, probably because you're Muggle raised like me; you know how to light a fire with matches. But Professor Snape wouldn't have any matches."

"Or light switches," Harry agreed. "It's sort of tough. I found out this morning I can't even order from the kitchens unless somebody else tosses the Floo powder in. It won't work for me, though the house-elves can hear me well enough once a wizard establishes the connection."

"Oh, Harry. You're a wizard."

"Well, working on it," Harry only said as Ron came back, wiping his slightly sooty hands. "So, um . . . this'll probably strike you as very weird, but do you want me to ask Snape if you can stay down here and eat with us? I bet he'll say it's all right. I mean, after he's done trying to scare you off. That part's probably not optional."

"Uh no, no thanks, Harry," Ron quickly said. "Is he due back soon? Because, no offence, but today in class he gave me another detention with Filch, and I just can't take seeing him."

"We really do need to be going," Hermione added, a bit more diplomatically. "Okay, Harry? We'll come back again soon."

Harry saw them to the door, but of course he couldn't even open it. Hermione tried three spells, but then she found the one that worked. After they were gone, Harry fell onto the couch and lay full length, a sinking feeling in his heart. He had a feeling that his idea of soon and theirs were bound to be different.

"Gone so soon?" Draco came out and jibed in the next moment, almost as if he'd read Harry's mind.

"Shut up," Harry said, and turned on his side to face away from Draco.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Their days fell roughly into a pattern. Breakfast with Snape, lessons all day interrupted only by lunch, which the two boys usually took alone, then dinner, which was often, though not always eaten with the Professor. Evenings were usually occupied by Snape grading papers while he listened to Draco quizzing Harry on the day's lessons. Snape would occasionally interrupt to ask Draco about his own studies, or to question his progress with Slytherin House. Harry didn't understand all of those conversations; he remembered that Draco had been told no more intrigues were wanted, but it sounded to him that the letters Draco were owling out all the time were nothing but. And yet Snape seemed to approve. It was all beyond Harry.

Too Slytherin.

Harry was getting caught up in all his subjects, at least when it came to the theory he'd missed, but he continued to be frustrated by his efforts to actually invoke any magic.

Draco had seemed to have roughly the same idea as Remus on how to proceed. "Let's have you do some practical magic today," he suggested after a few days of sticking strictly to book work. "How about starting with Lumos? That shouldn't put too much strain on . . . well, whatever is going on inside you."

Harry didn't want to, didn't even want to pick up his wand again in Draco's presence, but he wasn't going to get his magic back without trying, was he? Besides, they'd studied Transfiguration for hours that morning and Harry was really ready for a change from thinking about Protoplasmotic qualities. Even a depressing change.

He fished his wand out of his pocket, held it loosely in his fist, and muttered, "Lumos."

Nothing. Well, of course. Harry was pretty well used to that by then.

Draco frowned. "You know, Harry, it's not just the Unforgivables you have to mean. That was pretty feeble incanting. Did you even want any light?"

"No," Harry admitted. "Why would I? Snape keeps this place pretty brightly lit for a dungeon."

"Enough said," Draco drawled, pulling out his own wand and arcing it about the room incanting Finite along with some other spells. One by one the walls dimmed and then went out, until they were plunged into complete darkness. This wasn't the not-quite-black of Harry's periodic blind spells, but rather a blacker-than-black that was so engulfing it absolutely unnerved him.

"That's not funny," Harry complained. "Spell the lights back on!"

"It's not supposed to be funny. You spell a light on."

Harry sighed. "Lumos. See? Nothing!"

"You don't want it, yet," Draco's voice came from closer alongside him. Harry couldn't help but shiver. Draco Malfoy, armed with a wand, sneaking up on him in the dark . . . not a scenario Harry was likely to appreciate. "You're still focusing on being angry that I made it dark, instead of pouring your will into getting yourself out of it."

"Get away from me," Harry hissed, striking out blindly. But there was nothing there to hit.

"I can't say it didn't cross my mind to scare you into wanting some light," Draco drawled from the direction of the couch, "but I heard what you did that night in the hospital wing. So, I think perhaps I'd just better wait until the dark gets so utterly banal and boring that you want to end it."

With that, the lightless room fell into a silence broken only by Harry's harsh breathing.

It took him perhaps a full five minutes to calm down, and then he tried again. Lumos. Nothing. And again, and again, and again, until he was shouting the word, demanding his wand do his bidding.

Nothing.

Draco came up behind him at one point, saying in a quiet voice, "Don't panic. I'm not here to hex you. Switch your wand to your other hand and take mine, all right? Just to see."

But Draco's wand didn't work for Harry any more than Sirius' old school wand had.

"All right," Draco finally said, taking back his wand and incanting his own Lumos. "This is obviously not the way through to your magic." A few words from him, and the room returned to its former level of brightness.

Harry sat down in an easy chair, exhausted, and glared balefully at Draco. "Did you enjoy that?"

"Oh, certainly. It's a hobby of mine, sitting about in the complete dark, bored out of my mind, listening to spells that don't work," Draco languidly returned, sarcasm dripping from every word as he stood, one hand leaning on the round table they ate at.

"Seeing me fail," Harry spat. "That's what you enjoy."

"If I'd wanted to see it, I'd have left the lights on," Draco replied in the same bored tone. "Rather strange I extinguished them, don't you think?"

"Ha, very funny!"

"Oh yes, it's hilarious," Draco grated, irritation beginning to win out over the scorn in his voice. "I'm convulsing with laughter, can't you tell? Nothing is so funny to me as knowing my life is in your hands and you can't even do a Lumos. In case you hadn't noticed, I've thrown my lot in with yours, so I hardly find it amusing to see you struggling with spells the Dark Lord mastered sixty years ago!"

"That's ten points from Slytherin!" Harry shouted. "You aren't supposed to deride my magic!"

"I'm deriding your idiocy," Draco scathed. "You need your magic back under your control, and I do not enjoy watching you struggle to accomplish that. But you know what occurs to me? This is all very much simpler than you make it out to be. You won't be getting your magic back until you actually want it back."

"Are you mental? I do want it back!"

"No, you don't. You're like Longbottom, now. He's got everything it takes to be a great wizard, including the bloodline, but he's too scared to grasp hold of it. And no wonder, with what happened to his parents--"

"You know about--"

"Death Eater gossip," Draco admitted, starting to pace back and forth in Harry's line of vision.

"Neville hates Voldemort and would love nothing more than to avenge his parents!"

"At one level yes, I'm sure that's so. But at another level, he knows full well that it's only strong, confident wizards who've ever dared to tangle with the Dark Lord. His parents, your parents, you. He doesn't want to die or be tortured into insanity, so he's decided not to be a strong, confident wizard. You've apparently decided the same."

Harry sat up straighter. "That's not true! I've been trying as hard as I can! For weeks and weeks! You know nothing about it!"

Draco gave him a twisted grin. "It's not like I'm judging you, Harry. I'm sure you're sick of all this shite, a madman trying to lure you places to kill you, then too stupid to actually do it when he's got you at last! So you escape and it starts all over again. I'd be ready to quit too, if I were you."

"Oh, so you think Voldemort should have killed me!"

"That is not what I said," Draco stated, clenching his hands. He stopped pacing, and pulled over a wooden chair to face Harry, then sat in it, his whole frame tense. "What I think is that he spent hours watching needles get poked into you when he could have just had your head lopped off, so of course he's stupid!" Draco sat back, shaking his head. "But that's not the point. Here's what is. If you want your magic back, you have to get over this inappropriate desire to stay clear of the war."

"I don't desire to stay clear of the war," Harry sneered.

"Well, now you're just in denial," Draco pronounced.

"Denial!" Harry objected. "Where are you getting this crap?"

"From Severus' text on Muggle psychology."

Harry didn't normally feel completely out of his depth with Draco, but that answer was so unexpected that he simply said, "Huh?"

"You heard me. Adolescent Trauma: The Road to Recovery, it's called. He left it out one day, and I read it cover to cover."

Harry drew in a breath. Snape had got a hold of a Muggle book about helping children recover from traumatic experiences? This must be the book Snape had been upset about Draco reading, the one Draco had said Snape was poring over every night. Nobody had ever gone to that much trouble for Harry before, had they? It made him feel warm inside.

That, however, didn't mean he appreciated Draco sticking his nose into Harry's trauma.

"So, based on one day's reading, you consider yourself some sort of expert?" Harry scoffed.

Draco gave a wave toward the table, where they'd spent days studying together. "You know I do a fairly good job with remembering and synthesizing what I read. Now, listen, because I have it all figured out. According to the book, it's perfectly normal for you to try to withdraw from anything that might pull you back toward the same kind of trauma that hurt you in the first place. In your case, that means magic. You don't want to face the Dark Lord, ever again, so you're holding yourself back from even the simplest spell."

Draco's silver eyes looked determined, which took Harry aback. The Slytherin obviously did believe what he was saying, though it was completely erroneous. "You have it figured out wrong," he argued. "I lost touch with my magic before Voldemort ordered me kidnapped and tortured. This is not a response to trauma."

"Didn't your problems with your magic start just after the trauma of subjecting yourself to Muggle medicine?"

"I had an operation, Mal--" Harry started over. "I had my bone marrow tampered with, which turns out to be not such a good idea. Anyway, the cause of all my troubles is physical, not mental, okay?"

"You were afraid of needles and you had to deal with one," Draco countered. "A big one. I think that was the real trauma. What my . . . what happened later just made it worse."

"Well, stuff this little fact into your weird theory," Harry scathed, starting to feel offended. He wasn't a coward running away from a fight! "So my wand is useless to me, so what? It doesn't exactly gain me any benefit to be this way. Voldemort is still going to do his best to hunt me down and kill me. Why would I want to make myself an easier target?"

"How's your scar been feeling lately?" Draco suddenly questioned.

So dormant I haven't given it a thought, Harry suddenly realised.

"Hasn't twinged at all, has it? Don't you think that's strange? The Dark Lord had you just where he wanted you, he was about to burn you to a crisp, the way I hear it, and you just up and vanish right from under his nose. Don't you think he'd be furious and ready to lash out at you? Shouldn't he be making that scar blaze day and night? But he hasn't. He knows your magic's gone, he couldn't care less about you, now. And you know that, too, subconsciously, so you've decided to hide in some fantasy world where you can't get your magic back no matter how you try!"

"That doesn't make sense," Harry pointed out. "He saw me unleash wild magic. He'd count me a greater threat than ever, seeing that much raw power."

"How does he know it was you? Maybe he believes the headmaster broke through his wards. I bet he thinks Severus had something do to with it, working from the inside to disrupt the meeting."

"Well, speaking of Severus, isn't it strange that his mark hasn't been burning too, in that case? I'm sure Voldemort wants to kill him for helping me escape, so wouldn't he be calling him all the time just to torment him? But he's not. So maybe my blast of wild magic disrupted some part of Voldemort's powers, and he can't reach out any longer. Not to me, or the Professor."

"Nice theory, except for one problem. Severus' mark has been burning."

"Well, he sure doesn't let on!"

"Yeah, but don't ask him how he manages that. It's pretty personal and if he wants you to know I'm sure he'll tell you."

"But you know, do you?"

"I helped him with it," Draco flatly explained. "But I won't say any more about it, and I seriously don't recommend you ask him. Believe me, the conversation won't go well. My point is merely that the Dark Lord's powers are the same as ever. I think this book is right. You won't get better until you want to."

"That book is full of it," Harry exclaimed. "Listen to yourself; it's Muggle psychology! I'm not a Muggle."

"But you were raised by Muggles, as you were so quick to point out to me. I'm sure some of their tendencies must have rubbed off. Actually, I know they have. You're definitely in denial."

Harry threw up his hands. "The book is wrong, okay? Wrong!"

"Well, it's wrong about at least one thing," Draco admitted. "You're supposed to shove Severus away with both hands, even if he did help you, because he's a reminder of the trauma."

"See? The book doesn't apply. It's only for Muggles."

"Maybe," Draco murmured, tapping a finger against his cheek. "Or, your newfound affection for Severus, of all people, might just be a case of you overcompensating."

"Oh, stop using words you don't even understand!" Harry barked, more than a little unnerved to hear his feelings described that way. Affection? He hadn't thought of it in those terms, himself. Actually, he'd resisted the impulse to think about it much. He just knew that Snape was all right, these days. Both with him, and in general.

"Overcompensation," Draco effortlessly quoted the text. "The exertion of effort beyond what is needed to offset a psychological defect. Alternately, an extreme neurotic striving for approval because of a feeling of insecurity."

Harry glared. "I didn't say you couldn't memorize huge chunks of whatever. But a definition isn't like some list of instructions you can follow, you know. Tell me honestly, do you have even half a clue what that really means?"

"Honestly?" Draco mocked. "No. I need to read the book again, but Severus has been careful to keep it to himself since that one day."

"Well, that should tell you that he doesn't want you trying to pick me apart like this."

"You think? They why'd he leave it out that one day? Do you have even half a clue what kind of person Severus is? Every last thing he does is calculated for effect. He doesn't make careless mistakes."

"You think?" Harry imitated Draco. "He spilled a potion when he was worried about me!"

"When your screams startled the living shite out of us both, you mean!"

"You were awake that night?"

"I don't think anybody in Slytherin was asleep after your caterwauling came through the Floo!" After a moment, though, Draco amended that. "No, we could probably only hear you in here, but still . . ." He shivered. "Listen, Harry. The mere fact that you're having nightmares that fierce is proof in of itself that you have some . . . issues to work out."

"I am not a nutter!"

"Nobody's saying you are!" Draco exclaimed. "Maybe you should read the book for yourself. Or listen to it, for now. Ask Severus for it."

"Well, maybe I will," Harry retorted, but he didn't have any intention of mentioning it to Snape. He didn't even want to admit he knew about the book. The whole thing made him feel unsettled. Why should it, though? It only meant that Snape actually did care about him, whether he could say so out loud or not. That was good, wasn't it, having someone who really did care? He'd only ever had Sirius and Remus, but their whole reason for loving Harry had a lot to do with his dad, and not so very much with him. Snape certainly didn't have that problem. Besides, even when Sirius had been alive, Harry hadn't ever got to see much of him. Snape, on the other hand, was here, and with classes and all, would stay part of his daily routine even after Harry got to go back to the Tower to live.

So Snape caring enough to wade through a Muggle book in an effort to help Harry through his problems . . . that was somehow both more profound, and more threatening, than anything Sirius or Remus had ever done.

Maybe that's why I feel unsettled, Harry thought. I'm afraid it might not last. Nothing good ever lasts, not for me. I lost Sirius twice, first to his need to stay one step ahead of the Ministry, and then to the Veil. And I thought I was close to Remus, but when I lost him to Snape's spite, I didn't see him again for over a year. People who care about me never stick around for long. One way or another, they leave me.

He came to himself with a start, realizing that Draco was waving a hand back and forth before his eyes. "Are you all right? Do you need more Elixir or something? We've been pretty lucky so far, timing things so that Severus is around to put it in."

"No, I can still see," Harry answered. "I was just thinking. Um, the Professor mentioned something I might try to help me with my magic--"

"Occlumency," Draco agreed, proving that Snape had obviously discussed the matter with him. That sort of bothered Harry, but Draco's next comment took the sting out of it. "Would you rather I stay and watch, tell you if I notice anything significant, or leave you to try that on your own?"

"Uh, on my own, I think," Harry murmured, a little startled by the offer.

"All right." Draco gracefully unfolded his body from the chair. "I'll be in our room, writing some letters."

Occlumency, Harry found to his dismay, made no difference at all. He still couldn't do a Lumos.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"So," Harry said one evening at dinner, "have you figured out a way to get Dudley safely here?"

Snape paused, then resumed cutting his portion of Chicken Kiev into neat slices. "The headmaster and I are still working on it."

"You say that every night."

"It's true every night."

"Yeah, but after a whole week, you'd think the two of you could cobble together some sort of a plan," Harry complained.

Draco poured himself a second glass of white wine, and sipped it as he listened.

"Not even Albus' private library has any references to Muggles gaining access to Hogwarts," Snape pointed out with some impatience. "But we are endeavouring to find a solution."

"The problem is that he won't be able to see things correctly, isn't it?" Draco put in. "He'll only see a ruin? Why don't we have someone Stupefy him, Apparate him through the platform to the train, and Mobilicorpus him on in. We could Ennervate him once he's in here. I doubt these rooms are spelled to look like a ruin from the inside."

"That is a thought," Snape murmured.

"Not it's not!" Harry objected. "Dudley will end up stark, barking mad if we do something like that to him!"

"Well, it's not like you love him, is it?" Draco challenged. "Weasley made it sound like you spent your whole childhood getting sat on!"

Harry glared at Draco, then turned to his teacher. "Perhaps you could explain to Mr Manners here that eavesdropping is not very nice!"

"Speaking of manners," Snape calmly returned, "Perhaps you could consider that unlike you, Draco can't have visitors. Perhaps you could include him when yours come by." He neatly speared a halved Brussels sprout with his fork.

"Look, back to your cousin," Draco pressed after giving Snape a look that seemed a mix of pleading and exasperation. "Maybe too much magic will induce lifelong paranoid delusions or schizophrenic manic-depressive tendencies--"

"Stop playing psychiatrist!" Harry shouted. "I swear, you're sounding just like Hermione!"

Draco looked rather startled at that pronouncement. "Oh, well then, I will stop. Merlin forbid. My point is that it doesn't matter if your cousin loses his mind. You only need him for the warding, anyway!"

Harry slammed his knife down to the table and rounded on Snape. "You told him about the warding, too? Why don't you just shout all our plans from the ramparts? There just might be some Death Eaters who don't know the whole of them, yet!"

"Ten points from Gryffindor," Snape announced, laying aside his utensils so that he could wave his wand to enforce it. "I told you not to deride Draco's loyalties to his face."

"I'm deriding them to your face!"

"What do you want, Potter?" Draco snarled. "You want me to go under Veritaserum again and let you ask the questions this time around? Yeah, I know Severus told you about my interrogation. So, see? I'm not the only one he tells things to!"

"Since you obviously have a way to trick the serum, no, I don't want that!" Harry shouted. "And how about points from Slytherin, now? He called me Potter."

"Very well," Snape agreed, waving his wand again as he shook his head. "You two are really being extremely childish. Now, as for Harry's cousin, his sanity actually is something we ought to take under consideration--"

"Gee, thanks!"

"--because," Snape went on with a glare towards Harry, "young Mr Dursley can't participate in any warding if he loses what little mind he ever possessed. We need him able to give consent. Harry, do you think your cousin could handle being moved here as Draco suggests if the whole process is explained to him in advance?"

"No," Harry decided. "That would just scare him worse."

"What we need, then," Snape mused, "is some sort of warding for him, but not the typical protection against attack. Warding him so that he can tolerate the presence of sorcery, so that he can see it . . ."

"Warding away his inherent Mugglishness," Draco put in.

"That's not even a word," Harry complained, but Draco and Snape both ignored him.

"Have you considered the Isedral Charm?"

"That only works on squibs," Snape answered.

"Sakenhaim's second principle?"

"Do you happen to have a Turkish half-vampire bound to your will, not to mention a shield of ill-repute?"

"Well, no. Hmm." Draco tapped his magically manicured fingernails against the lacquered surface of the table. "What about reciprocal magic? Harry's mother and his aunt could be the focal points."

"A Muggleborn and a Muggle," Snape sneered. "Be serious. The headmaster and I have been at this for a week. Do you think a sixth-year student is going to notice something we've overlooked?"

"You still have something against Muggleborns?" Harry challenged, a strange, taut feeling constricting his chest. He was only one generation removed from a Muggleborn, himself.

Draco rolled his eyes. "If he did, do you think he'd go on and on to me about Granger's marks in every class proving that blood isn't everything?"

"Then why are you sneering about Muggleborns?" Harry pressed, wishing that Snape would answer instead of Draco.

"I was sneering at Draco's sudden poor command of spell dynamics," Snape explained in a tone not far removed from yet another sneer. "And since I'm going to all this bother to arrange for a Muggle to come here to my private residence, I'd think you could be appreciative instead of insolent!" He turned to Draco and spoke more moderately. "Reciprocal magic was invoked by the relatives themselves, who also served as the focal points. Moreover, it requires pure blood, with a squib as the recipient, so it really doesn't apply at all."

"Those aren't requirements," Draco insisted. "Not in the sense you mean. They're just . . . happenstance."

Snape shook his head, though he did say, "Explain your reasoning."

"Well, the spells were only useful to pureblood families, if you think about it. Who else would have bothered with it, especially way back then?" Draco briefly turned to Harry. "This is all very archaic, hasn't been used in centuries, I think."

"I suppose it might be possible," Snape mused.

Draco drank the rest of his wine without pause, which was rather unusual. He normally sipped it quite slowly. "Well. If you really believe what you told Harry," he added in an uncomfortable tone, "then it's more than possible. Because . . ." he sighed, clearly reluctant, and avoided looking at Harry as he went on, "How can pure-bloodedness truly be a requirement if by your own reasoning, there's actually no such thing?"

Snape looked up at that, his black eyes narrowed. "You believe that now, do you?"

Draco shrugged, and didn't meet his eyes, either. "Let's just say that for the purposes of this spell, I don't think it matters. Anyway, about the reciprocal magic." He rushed back to a less threatening topic. "All the elements are there, aren't they? Same degree of relationship bounded by . . . we need five opposites, but that shouldn't be too hard. Let's see . . . Harry's aunt was a Muggle; Dudley's aunt was a witch . . . " Draco began counting on his fingers and talking to himself, then said, "I only need one more. Harry, I'm sure you can come up with at least one."

"I don't even know what you're doing!" Harry objected.

"We're going to invoke reciprocal magic on your cousin, but we need one more element, so think."

Harry shoved his plate away and turned to Snape.

"It's an old spell to let family squibs temporarily see protected magic," he explained. "Think of a way in which your aunt and mothers were opposites."

"Uh . . ." Harry thought, but had to say, "I never really knew my mother."

"You don't have some memories from when you were little?" Draco inquired, lifting his eyebrows.

"What do you remember from when you were one year old?" Harry shot back, defensive.

"Latin lessons," Draco smugly announced.

"This isn't the time for levity," Snape rebuked him. "Do you truly remember nothing, Harry?"

Harry's voice was emotionless. "I remember her screams from the night she was killed."

Snape sat back and steepled his hands, sadly murmuring, "And you only remember that because the Dementors drew it out of you. I'm sorry, Harry."

"Yeah, me too," Harry said, his voice still flat. Then, in more suspicious tones, "Did Remus tell you that?"

"No, you did, when you rambled after your operation."

"Oh, okay."

"I can't say this isn't fascinating," Draco drawled, "but we still do need one more element to complete the star."

Harry closed his eyes, and shakily ventured, "My mother died in agony, my aunt died in her sleep?"

He felt a hand reach out to cover his, warm long fingers squeezing slightly as if in sympathy. It helped, even if the faint odour of some Potion wafted up and really put him off his food. Not that he was hungry any longer, anyway.

"It needs to be an element that involves you and your cousin," Snape quietly remarked.

Draco cleared his throat. When Harry opened his eyes, he saw the other boy staring at the way Snape was holding Harry's hand. Draco didn't comment on that, though. "Well, we'll keep working on the last element."

"We'll need a symbol, in any case," Snape pointed out. He looked expectantly towards Harry. "I believe you have something that can represent your mother?"

Harry nodded. "I've a few photos."

"The spell will bind much better to something personal."

Oh, he meant the ring. Harry pulled it out from beneath his shirt, holding it in his cupped hand. "I . . . uh, will I get it back? I mean, you don't have to dissolve it in a Potion or something, do you?"

Snape laughed, and let go of his hand. "Dudley will need to wear it en route and while he's here, but yes, Harry, you'll get it back."

"Oh, okay,"

Harry made to take it off, but Snape said. "Keep it for now. It will take Draco and me some time to adjust the incantations. I think we should be prepared by tomorrow evening to invoke the spell."

Draco uttered a small groan. "All this effort so that we can have a Muggle over for tea."

"More than tea," Harry pointed out, dropping the ring back down his shirt. He liked the feel of it against his skin. "Dudley has to stay here a few days."

"Days?" Draco echoed. "Days means nights, I hope you realise. Where's he going to sleep, I'd like to know? Severus, I don't suppose you'd let me share your bed for the duration?"

Snape gave him a hard, black look. "I don't believe I would, no."

"I don't snore--" Draco wheedled.

"Yes, you do," Harry put in.

"Well you talk all night in your sleep!" Draco shot back. "Oh, you don't believe me? Last night it was something about Granger turning into a cat---I suppose you're going to tell me she can change form as well as Apparate, now?" he mocked. "Oh, and is the Shrieking Shack really haunted by werewolves? That's actually quite strange."

"Miss Granger can Apparate?" Snape asked with some concern.

"No, and she's not an unregistered Animagus, either," Harry groused. He didn't like the idea that he talked in his sleep, and decided he'd have to go back to using Dreamless Sleep, after all. He wondered what he'd said that Malfoy hadn't mentioned. "It's just dreams. You know, they don't have anything to do with anything."

"Your dreams of late have been rather significant," Snape insisted.

"I haven't had any divining dreams for a while."

"What are you, the new Trelawney?" Draco jibed.

"Why do you think they've stopped?" Harry pressed on. He'd been relieved about that, so he hadn't given it much thought, but it was a bit odd, wasn't it?

"Maybe you know all you need to, for the moment."

Draco glanced between the two of them, and gnashed his teeth. "Oh, great. You're actually serious! Didn't you have enough talents before, talking to snakes and warding off Dementors, and throwing off Imperius like it's nothing more than a blanket? Now you get to be a seer, too? Do you even know how bloody irritating all this is? Well, what are you waiting for? Let's have it, let's hear what the future holds!"

Harry wasn't about to answer that, but he didn't have to, since Snape gave Draco a fearsome look.

After Draco looked away, humming, the professor Accio'd some parchment, ink, and quill to him, impatiently muttering spells to vanish everything else off the table, and began to sketch out a large oval with a ten-pointed star occupying the centre of it. As Snape began to adorn each point of the star with Latin phrases, Draco forgot about dreams and began discussing the incantations with him.

Harry left them to it, and sat down on the couch to listen to Hermione's feather teach him more about Transfiguration.

Chapter Text

"Oh, Harreeeee," Draco trilled out. "I do believe the door's for you."

When Harry peered closely he saw that the parchment by the door this time read, Ronald Weasley, Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom.

"About time," Harry muttered. His friends had visited almost constantly while he was in hospital, so he certainly hadn't been prepared for them to act like he'd dropped off the edge of the earth just because he was living in Slytherin land. "Um, Draco, would you?"

"Certainly," Draco airily replied. "Do allow me. Abrire."

Harry braced himself for a repeat of last time's obviously false courtesy, but as Draco opened the door, all he said was, "Hallo, there. Come on in."

Ron and Hermione took up their previous places on the living room furniture, but Neville was still at the door, leaning in, worried eyes peering around. "Er . . . Professor Snape's not here just now, is he?"

Before Harry could reply, Draco calmly stated, "No, he's not. Come in, Longbottom. Have a seat."

"What happened to Ron, Hermione, so very delighted to see you?" Ron sneered.

"Severus mentioned it might be politic if I didn't lie straight to your faces," Draco returned. The words could have been snide, but Draco delivered them with an air of simply stating facts. "And I think the first-names rule is more a thing for just Harry and me. Severus doesn't want to feel like he's living in a war zone. Not that Harry and I get along, but he'd probably appreciate it if we'd at least try."

Neville had sat down by then, and Harry too, and Draco was standing over them, hovering. Uncomfortable with that, and remembering Snape's strong rebuke on the subject of visitors, Harry murmured, "Um, Draco--"

"Right, fine," the Slytherin interrupted, whirling on a heel. "I'll get out of your way."

Harry bit his lip, ashamed to say it, especially in front of Ron, but even more ashamed not to say it. "No, I was going to ask if you'd like to join us?" he ventured.

Draco froze mid-stride. When he turned, one eyebrow distinctly raised toward his hairline, he wore an expression Harry couldn't really interpret. Part amusement, part fascination, and part cunning. Harry braced himself for some sarcastic rejoinder like Why, Harry, I didn't know you cared . . . but Draco merely said, "Sure," and dropped into a chair.

"Harry," Hermione said in a warning tone. "We . . . er, might want to talk over some Gryffindor House matters--"

Ron, surprisingly, made no objection, although it wasn't exactly polite of him to turn to Hermione and point out, "Yeah, well he'll hear us either way, won't he? At least this way, none of us will forget he's listening."

Draco looked between Ron and Hermione, his silver eyes calculating something, but he didn't say a word.

"So, what took you so long?" Harry changed the subject. "I never thought I'd have to wait over a week between visits." He didn't mean to sound so accusing . . . or maybe he had. It hadn't been any fun waiting around for his friends to remember him. He'd almost owled them several times, but if they were his friends, he shouldn't have to beg. Besides, what with using Draco's spelled quill, the letters wouldn't be as private as he would like. It was bad enough that Draco had probably heard his letters to Remus. Harry had written them while the other boy was in the shower, but he didn't rely on that to mean anything. Draco was nothing if not tricky. He was a Slytherin . . . enough said.

"Oh, that's McGonagall's fault," Ron griped. "She said she'd walk us down, remember? And then the next day we asked again, and it was Mr Potter has far more to attend to than his social calendar . . . and the next day it was I rather think Professor Snape would prefer not to have his quarters constantly deluged by Gryffindors . . . and then the next day it was Are you prepared for your Transfiguration test, Mr Weasley? Surely your free time would be more appropriately devoted to that enterprise . . . and then, Harry, honestly, the next time we asked she scheduled a Prefect's meeting just to keep us from coming!"

Well, that certainly explained a lot, although not everything. "You could have just come down without her," Harry pointed out.

"We tried three times," Neville exclaimed. "Hermione was sure she knew the way . . . I can't tell you how many different patches of wall we just stood and stared at!"

Harry remembered walking down himself; it wasn't that complicated.

"The corridors change themselves around," Draco put in. "You get a feel for them if you live down here."

"Well, that explains a great deal," Hermione murmured.

"No, it doesn't," Harry objected. "Why didn't you owl me?"

"We thought he might read your letters," Ron sneered, jerking a thumb towards Draco. "Well, anyway, McGonagall saw fit to walk us down, today, so here we are."

"What do you think her problem is?" Harry asked, but nobody had an answer.

"Oh, honestly, and I thought Granger was supposed to be so smart," Draco smirked. "Isn't it obvious? Severus told her to keep you away."

"Snape wouldn't do that," Harry objected, kind of upset at the mere suggestion. "He said I could have my friends down."

"I know," Draco agreed. "But he wants us to learn to get along, don't you think? He doesn't want them down here every day." He turned to Hermione. "I'm surprised you didn't try a simple Point me spell."

"It made her wand spin around in circles," Neville admitted.

"Ah, well it appears Severus had thought of that," Draco shrugged. "I don't have any other ideas that might help. Sorry. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some correspondence to take care of." With that, he elegantly rose to his feet and went into his room, closing the door with a slight click.

Hermione leaned forward to speak quietly to Harry. "That was even spookier than last time."

Ron guffawed. "Oh, he probably knew Point me was useless before he suggested it. No way was he really trying to help. It not like he wants us find our way down here."

"I think he really was trying to help," Harry put in. "Me, that is. He's actually been really helpful this past week."

"I knew it," Ron groaned. "Didn't I tell you this would happen? Draco's not so bad, that's what you're trying to say!"

"All I'm saying is he could have been a whole lot worse," Harry evenly returned. "Neville, you look sort of sick. What's wrong?"

"I . . . I think we should be going, Harry," the other boy wheezed. "S- S- Snape'll probably be coming home soon--"

"Oh, no you don't," Harry rebuked. "If my mates are going to go days and days without a visit, well then they can just stay a good long while. Past dinner this time. I mean it. You're all staying."

Hermione cleared her throat. "Ah, don't you really have to check with Professor Snape first, Harry?"

She was probably right, Harry thought, but he felt on pretty safe ground declaring, "No. I live here, and he already said I could have my friends down. I'm inviting you, not him. And you're accepting."

Neville shook a bit. "Really, Harry, you'd better ask permission. Snape's been a bit . . . er . . ."

"Bigger bastard than usual," Ron supplied. "I get detention every week now, the git."

"What are you doing to earn detentions?" Harry asked.

"Well, I like that!" Ron exclaimed. "You may be fast friends with him now, Harry, but I'm sure you remember what class with him is like! All I have to do is look at him wrong, or breathe too loudly, I swear--"

"Please do not swear in my home, Mr Weasley," a dark sardonic voice requested as Snape came in and shut the door. His black gaze rapidly assessed the group. "Miss Granger, Mr Longbottom." Then, in even darker tones to Harry, he added, "A pity Draco couldn't join you."

"Oh, he did for a while," Harry assured his teacher.

"Hmm."

"My friends want to stay for dinner," Harry said, not caring that he was vastly overstating the case. "But, um, they said I should ask you. It's okay, isn't it?"

"I can think of nothing more delightful than having your friends for dinner," Snape drawled, his robes billowing as he stalked down the corridor toward his private domain.

"See?" Harry said, smiling.

"He means he'd like to see us served as the dinner, Harry," Hermione exclaimed.

"Oh, yeah, I know that," Harry laughed. "He can't just say yes, can he? You are Gryffindors."

"So are you," Ron put in.

"I know, Ron," Harry replied, rolling his eyes. "Look, we'll do something really fun for dinner. Did you know the house-elves will whip up whatever you'd most like, without you even telling them? It's really interesting. I don't know why they don't ever let us personalize meals in the Great Hall."

Hermione was frowning, no doubt over the poor overworked house-elves. Harry noticed, however, that when Draco came out later to throw in the Floo powder so they could all order, Hermione said "whatever suits" just like everybody else. She ended up with lasagna, apparently another Muggle dish Draco had never heard of before. Surprisingly, though, he didn't say anything rude about it as he ate his own way through lobster in wine sauce.

Snape was . . . well, Snape. He was hardly going to be happy eating dinner with five teenagers. He insisted that Neville transfigure two easy chairs into proper straight-backed wooden chairs to use at table, and sneered that the results were barely tolerable, when in fact they were quite good. He quizzed Hermione on Potions, asking her questions up through seventh year, then mockingly pointed out that she still had a great deal to learn. He told Ron that he'd keep getting detentions just as long as he believed class time was an appropriate venue for glaring, and mockingly remarked that since there was no such thing as a Gryffindor Death Glare, he might as well just give it up.

Then, just as if they didn't have guests at all, he focussed his attention on Harry and Draco and went over with them in detail every lesson they'd studied that day.

When it was all over, and Harry was under the covers, about to go to sleep, he knew he had to say something. After all, Dudley was due to arrive the next day, and Harry didn't want Draco going back to his mocking, sarcastic version of manners. Dudley wouldn't know how to deal with a sneering Draco, he just wouldn't.

"Um, you were all right with my friends," he admitted as he lay on the bed, staring at the dark shadows shifting on the ceiling.

"What's that?" Draco called, emerging from the bathroom with wet hair. "I didn't hear you."

"Yes, you did."

Draco laughed, a low sound wicked with delight. "I did? Hmm, I suppose so. Well, I don't know why you're so surprised. I did tell you I had manners."

"Yeah, but you actually used them," Harry murmured. He heard Draco Finite the lights in the bathroom, and slide into his bed across the room. "You even talked Quidditch with Ron."

"Pity he suspected I only wanted an inside scoop on Gryffindor strategy," Draco drawled, adding, "You know, if he'd been less guarded, I might have learned something of use."

Harry laughed slightly. "You miss it, huh? I hadn't realised until tonight, that you were off your team just like I'm off mine."

"You'll see better than ever by the time Severus is through with you," Draco muttered, a shade of bitterness creeping into his tone. "There's no Elixir to get me back in Slytherin. So don't crow about Quidditch to me, Potter. You'll get back onto your team."

"Don't call me Potter," Harry said.

"Going to tell Severus and get me in trouble?" Draco sniped.

"No." Harry yawned, then, and reaching out, took his nightly sip of Dreamless Sleep. "Good night."

He was almost asleep before he heard Draco answering, "Yes. Good night."

-----------------------------------------------------------

It was a couple of hours past lunch the next day when the door parchment suddenly read, Albus Dumbledore and pet. Draco choked back a laugh. "Harry. I don't think reciprocal magic takes care of everything. Come look at this."

Harry was less than amused. "Pet?" he exclaimed. "That's rude."

"Well, it's not my fault!" Draco said, still laughing. "The scroll's not spelled to interpret anyone but wizards, that's all. Well then, shall I do the honours?"

The door swung open to reveal the headmaster in robes that were, for him, extremely subdued. That wasn't the biggest shock, however. Dudley stood there in robes himself. Student robes, embroidered with a Hufflepuff crest. His face was even thinner than it had been last time, and it looked nervous.

He wasn't the only one who felt that way. Harry was all but squirming with worry over which persona Draco was about to adopt: normal student, aristocratic pureblood snob, or a sneering parody of courtesy.

The headmaster didn't give Draco time to be much of anything, though, at least not right at first. The moment the door opened, he stepped straight in without being invited and said, "So, here we are then, arrived safe and sound. You know Harry, of course, and the other boy is Draco Malfoy. I'm sure you'll meet Professor Snape later. These are his rooms, but he's been kind enough to share with a couple of boys in need."

"Uh, hallo there," Dudley said, looking warily at Draco. Well, no great wonder there. Even when he wasn't particularly trying, Draco all but oozed an aura of wealth and privilege. Harry managed to deal with it by telling himself that Draco wasn't the only one with a vault stuffed full of gold. Dudley couldn't tell himself that.

"Hallo," Draco serenely replied. He wasn't smiling, but he wasn't sneering, either. That had to be worth something.

Dudley held out his hand, and Draco stared at it like he wasn't at all sure he was prepared to touch a Muggle, of all things. With both Harry and the headmaster expectantly looking on, though, he did do it.

"So," Harry invited, relieved that Draco hadn't proceeded to wipe his hand on his shirt, or something, "have a seat, Dudley, Headmaster."

Dudley moved to sit on the couch, Draco wincing slightly as it lurched under the great weight. The headmaster, however, was shaking his head. "I have other matters to attend to," he explained, peering over his half-moon spectacles. "And I imagine you and your cousin have a fair bit of talking to do."

"Oh, okay," Harry agreed, walking him back to the door. It wasn't far, certainly not far enough for him to figure out what to say and how to word it. "Uh, Headmaster?"

"Yes, Harry." The door open already, one hand on it, Albus simply waited.

"Um, I said some awful things to you and I wanted to apologize," Harry whispered. "I just . . ." He glanced over toward Dudley, aware it wouldn't be considerate to say too much about it. "It's hard, knowing you were aware of . . . certain things, and didn't help me."

Albus slowly shook his head, his ancient beard swaying. "Harry, the thing I was most aware of, every day, was that in that house you were alive. I wanted you to remain so. It was the best help I knew how to give."

"I know," Harry sighed. "Well, thanks for meeting Dudley in Hogsmeade."

A gentle smile. "You are most welcome." He spelled the door to shut itself behind him as he left.

-----------------------------------------------------------

When Harry turned back into the room, he saw that Draco had sunk into a chair as well. He still wore an expression Harry was coming to recognise as careful, controlled neutrality. He wasn't letting on what he thought to be sitting there with a Muggle.

Probably just as well, Harry decided as he took his own seat. "So, it's good to see you, Dudley," Harry began. Really, he felt incredibly awkward, and not just because Draco was sitting there watching the scene unfold. He'd never had any sort of relationship with Dudley, and a couple of phone conversations didn't really make for one, but there was nothing for it but to plunge right ahead. "Um, why don't you relax, take off your robe? Draco and I don't usually dress formally down here, although Professor Snape tends to."

When Dudley stood up and set the robe aside, Harry couldn't help himself. He stared at his cousin in shock. "Wow, Dudley, that's incredible. You have lost so much more weight! Good for you!"

Draco made a noise that started as an astonished guffaw, but rapidly transformed itself into a coughing fit. "Sorry," he said, the word half-strangled as Harry glared. It was perfectly clear to him what that was all about. Despite all the weight he'd lost, Dudley was still grossly fat; Draco was having a hard time believing the boy had been even more spherical before. "Er, think I need a drink," Draco said, still trying to cover his gaffe. "What would you like, ah . . . Dudley?"

Dudley had blushed, and Harry didn't know if he was embarrassed by Harry's own comment or if he'd understood Draco's little display. Probably the former, Harry told himself. Dudley never had been one to pick up on subtle insults, when his own family was so appallingly blunt with words. "Diet Coke," he quietly answered.

Draco looked to Harry for help.

"Um, I'm not sure we have any of that here," Harry admitted. "The house-el . . . um, the servants here can get you pretty much anything natural you want, but they might not know so much about Muggle products."

"Oh, okay," Dudley said, thinking that over. "Water with lime."

"Harry?" Draco prompted.

"Uh, the same, I guess," Harry said. What he wanted was a butterbeer, but he didn't think it would be very polite to drink one when Dudley was only having water.

Draco rose and strode toward the hearth, his hand reaching up toward the bowl of Floo powder on the mantle. "Wait," Harry called, and leaning forward, said, "We tend to do magic all the time down here. Is that going to bother you?"

Dudley shook his head. "Mrs. Figg and I talked about it. Do you know she grew up in a m- m- magic family but without any herself? And then that nice Mr Lupin who came to hospital with you, he spoke with me, too. Plus Marsha. I think . . . well, it might be nice to find out more about what you're really like, Harry. So it's okay."

"Are you sure?" Harry pressed. "A lot of things will seem really strange to you--"

"Oh, for Merlin's sake," Draco broke in. "Are you going to make me stand here all day dropping Floo powder on Severus' hearth rug? He said it's fine! Besides, he survived the walk down, didn't he? How many ghosts do you think he saw?"

"Ghosts?" Dudley gasped, his eyes going wide with alarm.

"Gee, thanks, Draco," Harry drawled. "Yeah, we have ghosts, but they don't hurt you or anything."

"Unless you count being bored to death by them endlessly telling the same stories," Draco mocked. Without further ado, he tossed in the Floo powder and called for the kitchens. Dudley reared back into the cushions when a house-elf's face popped out of the flames and asked how it might be of service. "Two waters with lime and a butterbeer," he ordered. "No ice."

Not ten seconds later, a wooden tray inlaid with ebony triangles popped into existence on the low table between them.

Dudley sucked a whistling breath in through his teeth, and shook his head sort of frantically when Harry tried to hand him his drink. "Uh, no. Not so thirsty anymore."

"Dudley, it's just water. It won't hurt you."

"Give him a chance to settle in, why don't you, Harry?" Draco suggested, the sneer back in his voice, but only in a muted way. It vanished when he addressed Dudley. "You've had a long journey. Did you enjoy the train?"

"Yeah, how did you get onto the platform?" Harry wanted to know.

"Mr Lupin took me through," Dudley said, shivering a bit. "I was standing on the platform, the regular one, at King's Cross, and he took my arm and said to close my eyes--have you ever noticed what a soothing, kind voice he has?--and then he said it wouldn't hurt but I might feel a bit sick, and then it felt like I was melting or something. And when I opened my eyes I was on a different platform."

"I don't like Apparating either," Harry commiserated. "Makes me sick to my stomach."

"Mr Lupin," Draco mused, his voice thrumming with contemplation. "You said he was with Harry at the hospital?"

"Yeah, but you know, he didn't seem as nice that time."

"I would imagine not," Draco returned, looking straight at Harry. "He probably didn't seem the same at all. I'd say, he wasn't even himself."

Harry shrugged. Trust Draco to figure a few things out. It was probably inevitable. "So, Mr Lupin put you on the train, but didn't come himself?" Harry pressed.

"He said he couldn't," Dudley said. "He said it was almost time for his monthly retreat, and he couldn't miss it, and you would understand."

Giving up on handing Dudley his water, Harry set it down and began drinking his own.

"So, tell us about the train," Draco prompted.

"You've both been on it," Dudley remarked, looking from one to the other. "Harry, I . . . I need to ask you something." His large eyes began to swim with tears. "Um, this is really hard. I . . . I know you didn't have it so easy, growing up, and you wouldn't be normal if you didn't have some awfully hard feelings about it all, b- b- but when Mum was buried, you came. I thought I'd see you at Dad's, too. Not for him . . . for me."

Harry clenched his hands together. Some part of his mind registered that in the middle of Dudley's speech, Draco had quietly exited the room, leaving them to hash out family business alone. "I'm sorry. I . . . I would have. I couldn't."

Dudley's quietly challenging gaze made Harry realise he'd have to say more. "It's complicated," he began. "The evil wizards who destroyed your house--"

Dudley made a choking noise.

"Sorry," Harry rushed to say. "I . . . I don't know if I should tell you. What happened to me is all tied in with what happened to you. Is it better not to think about it?"

"Yeah," Dudley admitted. "No, that's not true. It's just easier. I know Marsha would tell me that it's better to face it down. You . . . oh, just go on." Forgetting perhaps how the water had arrived on the table, Dudley grabbed his glass then, and began to steadily nurse it as he listened.

Harry didn't tell him everything, just what he thought would make sense to someone like Dudley. The evil wizard who had tried to kill him when he was a baby had tried again. Harry had been injured. Blinded, in fact, and almost comatose for over a week, but all that was getting much better. Professor Snape had rescued him and taken care of him, and Harry had to live with him now because the evil wizard just didn't know when to quit. Harry was still in danger, but he'd be in less danger if Dudley would help the professor with some protection spells.

"Oh, yeah, Mr Lupin mentioned those, too," Dudley remembered. Then he said with a strange expression, "I thought my things would be here by now. I didn't pack much. I don't have much, just a few things Mrs. Figg bought me."

"Uh, I sort of thought you might go live with Aunt Marge," Harry remarked, grimacing.

"Marsha thought I'd better not, not if I wanted to get on better with you."

Hmm, Mrs. Figg had probably told the therapist about the exploding-aunt incident, Harry figured. Aunt Marge had been obliviated, of course, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that she was probably just as wizard-averse as her brother. "Well, you're seventeen, I suppose you can do as you like, even get a job and all that, right? Have you thought of what you'd like to do?"

"No idea," Dudley admitted.

"Well, you have time to think it over."

"Do I?" Dudley finished his water and began to suck on the wedge of lime. Harry was profoundly grateful then that Draco had left. The other boy would probably have made a gagging noise, then faked another coughing fit to cover it. "I can't stay with Mrs. Figg forever."

"No, but you'll figure it out," Harry assured him.

"I suppose. Um, do you know how much longer until they bring my things? Your headmaster said to leave them on the platform and they'd be brought up straight away."

"I'm sure they're in the bedroom already. The house-elves--those are creatures like the one you saw talk to us through the fire--don't tend to fetch and carry so much as pop things in and out of rooms directly."

"Oh, like the drinks," Dudley murmured, nodding. Harry thought he looked slightly more at ease. "Okay. Can we go see? Because Mr Lupin sent you something, and he told me to make sure you got it as soon as possible."

The door was closed, so Harry knocked and Draco called for them to come in. He was propped up on his bed, reading a seventh-year Transfiguration text. When he closed it, it transfigured itself into a small stone. Dudley stared, his own belongings forgotten, and Draco shrugged. "Some stupid writer decided to make the students practice their wandwork every time they want to crack the book to study," he explained, a mock grimace on his face.

"You . . . you can change it back?" Dudley gasped.

"Sure," Draco easily replied. "Watch. Libris veni." A swirl and a tap of his wand, and the book appeared once more.

"Wow," Dudley said, the sound layered with less fear and more admiration. Harry figured he really was getting used to magic. "Can you do anything?"

"Sure," Draco quipped, his neutral expression beginning to crack a little. A hint of smile. Well, that figured. Draco Malfoy liked showing off, and you could hardly ask for an audience easier to astonish. "Well, within limits."

"So, this must be your stuff," Harry said with a warning glance at Draco. "Um, why don't you get settled in, unpack whatever you want. You can have my bed, Dudley. I thought I'd sleep on the couch."

"No, no," Draco interrupted. "That won't do. I'm sure you have all sorts of cousinly things to discuss. What better time than the dead of night? Anyway, Severus and I decided already that I'll take the couch."

"When did you and Severus discuss this?" Harry questioned, his brows drawn.

"Oh, you'd be surprised what we get to talking about over a Potion or two," Draco let out.

"And you're okay with that? Draco Malfoy, sleeping on a couch? What kind of bribe did that take?"

"Well, it's not going to be a couch for long," Draco sneered. "Dudley here can see something a bit more impressive than stone to book, if he cares to watch. And it didn't take a bribe at all, Potter! I don't suppose it crossed your mind that I might be capable of an ounce of consideration for someone else? Of course it didn't! I'm a Slytherin!"

"Slytherin's nothing to do with it," Harry retorted. "I happen to like one certain Slytherin, don't forget!"

"Yeah, like I could, when just like a Gryffindor, you practically ooze with it!"

"Who's Severus?" Dudley broke in.

Harry took a deep breath. "Um, that's the professor's first name."

Dudley's brow furrowed. "Why don't you call him that, if Draco does?"

"Well, because he's my teacher," Harry explained. "I don't know. The other seems a liberty. Inappropriate."

"He's my teacher, too," Draco smirked. "But he's also my friend."

"He's not your friend, too?" Dudley questioned.

"Oh, he is . . . um, maybe you'll understand when you meet him," Harry muttered, frustrated. "I just can't imagine calling him Severus to his face."

"Never bothered me in the slightest," Draco breezed, his nose in the air.

"Shut up, Malfoy."

"I thought you two were friends," Dudley said, confused.

Draco burst out laughing, which for some reason really irked Harry.

"We have a history," he said tightly, and when that comment just made Draco laugh harder, he lost his temper. "Draco's father is the one who tried to kill me and blinded me and put me in the hospital for days and days," Harry spat. "And he looks just like him, so you'll pardon me if he's not my favourite person to be around!"

Dudley had drawn a box out of his nylon duffle bag. Holding it loosely in his hands, he said in a quavering voice, "Well, my father was never very nice to you, either. I . . . I didn't think you were like this, Harry, judging people by their fathers."

"I'm not!"

"Oh, sure you're not," Draco sneered.

"Well, I'm sorry!" Harry shouted. "All this just because I didn't think you'd be willing to take the couch? Well, sorry again! It just didn't seem much like you to go along with a plan like that. Or did Snape insist?"

"Potter, you don't know what's me and what's not," Draco heavily announced. "Because you won't bother yourself to find out! And no, for your information, Severus did not insist. We discussed it and decided it was probably the best arrangement."

"Because you're so concerned that I have time alone with my cousin. Right," Harry drawled.

"Because we were concerned you wouldn't sleep for a week if I was in a room alone with your cousin, you absolute arse!" Draco shouted, his face going pink with anger. "Severus knows you don't trust me! And he was concerned for you, as usual, I might add! You might think about accepting a gracious offer in the spirit it's given! If you have any manners of your own, that is!"

"Maybe I should sleep on the couch," Dudley tentatively offered.

"Ha!" Draco erupted. "The Muggle has better manners than you do!"

"Don't call him Muggle like that," Harry grated.

Draco threw his hands in the air.

"Here, Harry," Dudley broke in, thrusting the box into his hands, his intent obviously to divert attention from the rapidly escalating fight. As their fingers brushed, Harry flinched back.

"Sorry," he muttered. "It's not you. I can't stand much contact, ever since . . . it was pretty bad, what happened to me a few weeks back." He made an effort to stand straighter and strengthen his voice. "So, this is from Remus? Er, Mr Lupin?" He quickly tore the wrappings off to reveal a wooden box with holes in it. Harry peered through one. "Sals!" he exclaimed.

There was a note pinned to the top of the box. Harry hurriedly tore it loose and opened it, instinctively turning toward the wall to have a bit of privacy as he read.

Dear Harry,

Thank you for your letters. I am fully recovered, yes, and just in time to face the moon yet again. I do hope to see you soon. I have owled Severus several times about it, and received one word replies consisting variously of "No," or "Later." I have thought of appealing directly to Albus but considering your living arrangements, I think that would truly anger Severus. It was so good to see the two of you learning to get along, Harry. I have no wish to cause trouble between you.

Your little snake seems fully recovered from the mishap with the Floo. Would you please explain to her that she needs to find another warm place to rest? I failed miserably to get the concept across, and have found her in the fireplace several times. I was concerned that Apparating onto the platform might affect her badly, so I have taken the liberty of putting her into a trance. A simple enervation spell will wake her up. Severus will do it for you, I'm sure, if you are still having difficulties with your wand.

I will continue to ask Severus when he will permit a visit. Don't be angry with him, Harry, not over me. He's a good man, and yes, he is still making the Wolfsbane for me. I know he thinks he is doing what is best for you. I have to respect him for that even if I disagree with his reasoning.

At any rate, Harry, I really am very sorry about everything you have gone through on my account. Your own letters make it clear you do not blame me, and while I appreciate that deeply, I do hold myself responsible. Severus is not wrong to criticize me.

I wish you all the best and hope to see you soon,

Remus Lupin

Harry blinked, and took the lid off the box to lift out Sals. She was smaller than he had remembered, and very limp. Harry gently tickled the top of her head with a finger, but she gave no reaction.

Sighing, he turned around, intending to ask if Draco could perform an Ennervate. It rankled to ask for anything right after their row, but he was worried enough about Sals that he'd do it, anyway. This limpness reminded him too much of Sals in the tunnel, barely able to move. And yet Sals had moved, had made it all the way upstairs and found a way to warn Remus that Harry was in trouble. Harry could hardly credit it, but he knew he owed Sals a lot, and he couldn't stand to not know for sure if his snake was all right.

Draco wasn't in the room when he turned, but Dudley was.

"Oh, ick!" Dudley screamed, and jumped back a yard. Maybe two, Harry reflected. "Help!"

Draco was back in the room instantly, his silver gaze assessing the situation. "What?" And then, "Oh, that. Ick is right. What are you doing with a snake?"

"Remus sent her," Harry explained, remembering then what he'd overheard. Draco was afraid of snakes. But this was just Sals. She wouldn't hurt anybody. "This is Sals. She's my pet."

"A snake for a pet," Draco groaned. "A snake in my room."

"She's a sweet little snake," Harry insisted. "But Remus put her to sleep for the journey. Um, I'm sorry to have to ask, but would you please enervate her for me?"

Dudley was up against the wall by then. "Enervate," he gasped. "What's that?"

"It'll wake her up," Harry explained.

Draco crossed his arms. He hadn't stepped any closer since he'd seen the snake, Harry realised. From a distance of several feet, he announced, "If you have to have a snake in here, I really think I prefer a stupefied one, so no."

"Draco," Harry said in a warning tone.

"Harry," Draco mimicked back. "What part of no did you find confusing? It's a fairly simple word."

"Come on," Harry cajoled. "Listen, Sals here won't hurt you. There's no reason to be afraid--"

"I," Draco glacially interrupted, "am not afraid. I simply think that snakes are rather gross."

"You're a Slytherin!"

"Thank you, for pointing out the obvious. I suspect you wouldn't want a lion in here, either, so that argument's hardly relevant."

Harry knew this was ridiculous, and he could just wait for Snape to help him later. By then, though, he was feeling fairly desperate to see Sals awake and moving. Desperate enough to say, "Draco. You told me you'd do something for me if I asked--"

"Oh, and don't I?" Draco smoothly put in. "The lights. The meals. Interrupting the headmaster's conference with Severus when you simply had to have a word with him. My quill. Accioing you every last thing you say you want--"

"All right, you've been nice!" Harry admitted. "Is that what you need to hear?"

Draco's lips curved in a slow, calculating smile. "Well, well. You really do want your little snake awake. Hmm, as you said, I am a Slytherin, which means I need a moment to figure out what might be in it for me . . . Oh, I know. How about Draco, I apologize for my rude behaviour earlier."

"You're kidding," Harry gasped, torn between outrage and laughter.

"Am I?" Draco lifted a hand and casually studied his fingernails.

"Snape will just do it for me later, you know."

"Yes, I know," Draco stressed. "Severus knows what I think of snakes, but he will no doubt, once again, put your interests above mine. Why not? You're the hero who will save us all! You could take this as a chance to admit you're not so effing perfect despite all that, you know. But no, you'll just lord it over me instead, and wait for Severus--"

"Draco, I apologize for my rude behaviour earlier," Harry sighed.

"I apologize too," Draco said, stunning him. He drew his wand and softly whispered the spell, then backed away when Sals began to stir.

"Hi there," Harry murmured down into his palm, his finger stroking along Sals' head and back. "Remember me? I missed you a lot."

Dudley's jaw dropped. "Wh- what is he doing?"

"Oh, that's parseltongue," Draco remarked, shuddering. "Snake-language. Harry there can talk to snakes. Disgusting, isn't it?"

"It's . . . awful," Dudley moaned. "Oh, I feel sick, it sounds so . . . it's like a great long ugly hiss . . ."

Sals lifted her head and swayed it from side to side, finding her bearings. Delighted, Harry bent further over his palm and dropped a little kiss on her head.

"Oh, my God!" Dudley exclaimed, just as Draco groaned, "Dear Merlin."

Harry grinned, and looked up from Sals, his gaze studying the way both Draco and Dudley were keeping to the far side of the room. "Looks like you two have something in common," he said, and laughed.

Chapter Text

Harry was sitting with Sals curled around his neck as he watched Draco showing Dudley magic tricks. Dudley was nothing short of fascinated, his fear of magic continuing to diminish, but then again, Draco wasn't demonstrating anything terribly threatening. It had started off with floating feathers, and rapidly proceeded to Draco making some Every Flavor Beans waltz across the tabletop. Now he was seeing how many pairs he could make spin at once.

He'd even seen fit to warn Dudley that every flavour meant exactly that, and not to be surprised if the dark brown one ended up tasting like dirt--or worse--instead of chocolate.

Dudley had just shaken his head and said he was off sweets, anyway.

"So what about you, Harry?" Dudley asked when Draco finally let the beans fall. Harry noticed a greenish one that was sort of panting from exertion. He almost laughed.

"Me?"

"Yeah. What tricks can you do?"

"Magic isn't about silly tricks, Dudley," Harry sighed. "Remember the Dementors? For me, it's about survival."

"What he means to say," Draco lightly sneered, tossing jelly beans into his mouth in between words, "is that he's chicken. He can do all the silly tricks he likes, but they might mean someone expects him to do something real. And it's so much easier just to hide in here and let Severus protect him--"

"You stop talking about Harry that way!" Dudley shouted, lurching to his feet. "He's not chicken, he's not! Don't you know it takes a whole lot more guts sometimes to do nothing? Harry could have hexed me a whole bunch of times, and I'd've deserved it, too, but he was brave enough to restrain himself so he wouldn't get expelled from school! And then to protect me from those demon things, he did do some hex or something, and he almost did get expelled! And that was brave, it was!"

"I didn't think you knew about me getting in big trouble for that," Harry murmured, a little shocked by the impassioned defence.

"Mrs. Figg told me. When I said you must not l- l- love me after all, 'cause you didn't show after Dad died, and never even called me, but she said you almost got kicked out of school for me! And I know how year after year school is all you had to look forward to," Dudley cried, wiping his eyes. After a moment of blubbering, he rounded on Draco again, actually stepping forward and jabbing a pudgy finger into the Slytherin boy's chest. "So don't you dare call Harry a coward! Don't you dare, ever! He's not! He's just not!"

Horrified, Harry surged to his feet, yanked Dudley away from Draco, and planted himself between them. "Don't curse him!" he yelled.

Draco could say more with an eyebrow, Harry thought, than most people could say with an entire face. "Curse your cousin?" he scoffed. "When he's the only way of warding this place properly? You're either really stupid to assume I'd do a thing like that, or you truly do think I'm evil. In which case, I'd like to point out, you have to believe Severus is stupid for trusting me. And if you think Severus is stupid, then you definitely are."

"Don't you call Harry stupid!" Dudley shouted out, just as Harry was furiously erupting, "What are you angling for, Draco? It's like you're trying to provoke Dudley!"

"I'm trying to provoke you, you twit!" Draco grated, shoving Harry away with one hand. "Why do you think Severus insults his students? He's giving them a chance to prove him wrong!"

Harry stumbled, then righted himself and glared. "So you thought if you called me a coward, and in front of Dudley, too, I'd suddenly realise I could do magic after all?"

"I thought it was worth a try," Draco sneered. "Well, at least we know why the headmaster sorted your cousin into Hufflepuff. Loyalty personified. But if he hadn't jumped to your defence, you just might be hexing me by now!"

"And you were just going to stand there and let yourself get hexed!"

"Yes, I was!" Draco shouted, planting his feet more firmly.

"Really?" Harry blinked. It felt like the world had just flipped upside-down. Black is white, war is peace, enemies are friends . . .

"I think I can stand a little jelly-legs if it would help you get your confidence back," Draco stated, sounding completely sincere. "And anyway, I doubt you'd let me suffer for long, what with your cousin watching. But Harry . . ." He gave a deep sigh. "You didn't even think of magic. You jumped up and put yourself between us. A Muggle response."

"Well, you shoved me," Harry retorted. "What sort of response is that?"

"A restrained one," Draco pointed out. "I won't hex you even when I'm irritated as hell. But you, not even realizing magic is an option . . . it's very worrisome. Your instinct should be to go straight for your wand."

"It all happened so fast--"

"What about your snake then?" Draco inquired, his gaze going to Harry's neck where Sals still sat wrapped. He shook his head. "You needed an enervation spell, were obviously desperate for one. Did you even think once of trying one, yourself?"

"I knew it wouldn't work," Harry murmured.

"As long as you know that, it won't work, Harry," Draco insisted. "But the magic is still inside you. It's itching to get out, that's what all that wild magic is about, I think. And you're repressing it."

"Don't go psychological on me again," Harry told him, but there was no real heat in the words. He just felt tired. Tired of battling his magic, himself, Draco, even Snape. Everybody wanted things from him, expected things, and sometimes, Harry just wanted out.

But there was no out, he knew that. Not until Voldemort was dead and gone, hopefully for good this time. Until then, Harry was stuck, whether he liked it or not.

"Ask Severus for the book, Harry," Draco said, and then leaning sideways, said, "Everything okay there, Dudley? You aren't still mad? I didn't really mean those things about Harry. See, he got sick lately and it messed up his magic, and I just thought that I could maybe goad him back to normal."

Dudley twisted his lips into a fat pout. "That's not very nice."

"Oh, I know," Draco admitted. "Sit down and I'll explain. See, Harry there's a Gryffindor, and you're an honorary Hufflepuff. I'll get to those later. But me--" His voice rang with pride. "I'm a Slytherin . . ."

---------------------------------------------------------------------

As soon as Dudley understood that Harry was missing class and Draco was supposed to be tutoring him to make up for it, he insisted on letting the other two boys study.

"After all, Harry," he said as he looked up from the deck of wizard cards he was looking through, "catching up to your classmates will probably help your magic come back. You work on your studies. I'll be fine over here."

Harry could have told him that there was a world of difference between dull, dry theory and actually using magic, but he didn't want Draco to start spouting words like avoidance and denial. Again. He went to sit at the dining table with Draco, and they began to go over the in-depth study of dragons that Hagrid was presenting to the sixth-years. From time to time Harry would glance at Dudley. It looked like he was trying to play a game of Patience, but was getting frustrated by the way the cards behaved. One face card--Harry couldn't tell which although by that time his vision was getting fairly good--kept jumping up and running around in circles, wailing that it didn't like its neighbours.

"Harry," Draco chided, so he returned his attention to the breeding patterns of Norwegian Ridgebacks, and gradually tuned out the noise of the cards who were by then beginning to argue amongst themselves.

His concentration was broken, however, when Dudley suddenly yelped out loud. Thinking a card had bitten him--they did that sometimes when you kept moving them to places they didn't want to be--Harry turned. What he saw, though, was Snape gliding through the door, and Dudley rearing back as far as he could into the edge of the couch, his eyes wide with terror, his fat jowls quivering with it.

"Dudley," Harry spoke calmly, going to his side and kneeling down next to him. "It's okay, Dudley. That's just Professor Snape. He lives here."

"H-- h-- h--" Incoherent with fright, Dudley couldn't even talk.

Harry gritted his teeth until they positively ached, and somehow, managed to lay a hand on top of Dudley's shaking shoulder. He squeezed gently, remembering as he did it how much sheer comfort Snape had given him in just this way. "Shh, it's okay. He helped me, Dudley. He saved me from the bad wizards who wanted me dead."

Dudley lifted a quaking arm, pointing, and screeched, "He's a vampire!"

Draco burst out laughing, but cut it short when Snape made a chopping motion with his hand. Without a word, the professor stepped past the terrified boy on the couch, and strode toward his own bedroom.

"Oh, of course he's not a vampire, Dudley," Harry was saying. With Dudley so horribly scared, it only seemed right to fold him into a hug and sort of rub his back. It seemed right, but it was awfully hard to do. Harry felt like needles were piercing him all over, but the sensation faded somewhat as he hung on, rocking his cousin. "We've seen him walk around in the daylight, okay? He eats regular food. He's . . . um . . ."

"I would have thought you could list three characteristics of the common vampire, Mr Potter," Snape drawled from behind him. "I believe the next point in your proof might be, He can endure the sight of a crucifix."

"Oh yeah, crucifix," Harry mumbled, pulling back from his cousin. He saw that Snape was holding one out, a large one wrought in delicate silver. Harry took it, and handed it to Dudley, who, eyes still wide, held it up before him as though to ward Snape off. Snape just stood there looking down at it, dark eyes unblinking.

After a moment Dudley gave it back to Harry. Still shuddering horribly, he said, "Ha-- Harry said there were g- g- ghosts here--"

Snape narrowed his eyes at Harry. "I'd think you'd use a bit better judgment about what you see fit to mention!"

Harry could have told him that Draco had actually been the one to bring up ghosts, but it seemed a pretty petty thing to mention.

"And there was this horrible creature in the fire, all green and wrinkledy-looking," Dudley was going on, wringing his fat hands as though he thought he was in trouble, "and . . . and . . . I didn't hear you come in, and then I looked up and you were just hovering there all black and m- m- m--"

"Menacing?" Snape inquired, his eyes glittering with sardonic light. Harry could tell, he liked the description. Well, all except the vampire part of it. "I'm afraid the students do find me so. But you needn't. I quite assure you, there are no vampires here at Hogwarts."

"I'm s- s- sorry."

"No, none of that. Perfectly understandable mistake," Snape told the quaking boy. He stepped forward quite slowly and extended a hand. "My name is Severus Snape."

"Dudley Dursley," the Muggle boy mumbled, obviously still deeply embarrassed as he pushed to his feet and shook the professor's hand.

"We've been looking forward to your visit, Mr Dursley," Snape replied softly, his whole attitude reminding Harry of Hagrid's gentle way with frightened creatures.

Dudley was in no shape to appreciate it. He promptly burst into tears. Not knowing what else to do, Harry folded him back into a hug as his cousin blubbered, "Mr Dursley was my f- f- father!"

"It's okay, Dudley," Harry whispered. "He didn't mean anything."

Dudley wiped at his face, pudgy fists furiously trying to erase all evidence of grief. "Stupid," Harry heard him say.

"No, it's not," Harry told him. Looking up, he realised that Snape and Draco had left. Thinking they were probably in the Potions lab, Harry urged Dudley to his feet and got him moving. "Come on and wash your face. And then we'll go introduce you properly, okay?"

"I can't believe I thought he was a vampire," Dudley was gasping. "Gah! Stupid, stupid!"

"No, it's not!" Harry said again. "Listen, we actually did have a teacher who was a werewolf once, Dudley, and we still have one who's a ghost, so it's not stupid at all." He wet a washcloth and handed it to him. "This place is really, really strange, and as if that isn't bad enough, you've been told for years how awful magic is, so of course you're jumping at shadows. Besides, Snape startled you! I'd have thought he was a vampire, too!"

"Dresses like Dracula," Dudley muttered. "Spooky. And his face is sort of scary, too. Well, mostly the eyes. Like he's giving you the evil eye."

"Yeah, imagine having him yell at you when you mess up in class," Harry joked. "It's sort of nerve-wracking. But it's true what I told you. He got me away from the evil wizard who was trying to kill me. Well, actually, he's saved my life a bunch of times, Dudley. He isn't going to hurt you."

And when Dudley still looked too scared to go meet Snape properly, Harry did the only thing he could think of to do. He told a story, about nice Professor Lupin, whom Dudley of course knew, and a boggart in a cabinet, and Professor Snape wearing old lady's clothes. He left out, though, any reference to Lupin actually being the werewolf Harry had mentioned earlier. By the time Harry had finished, Dudley was shaking with laughter instead of fear.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Snape had been entirely himself during his dinner with the visiting Gryffindors, which was to say that he hadn't put himself out to be any less unpleasant than usual. Of course, he had probably figured that the students were perfectly capable of dealing with him on his own terms. In a way, it was an offhand compliment to them, Harry supposed.

The Potions Master definitely wasn't paying the same compliment to Dudley. There wasn't a trace of dark sarcasm or veiled insult as he dealt with Harry's cousin. Harry figured that after Dudley had assumed him a vampire and burst out crying--very Hufflepuff, that--within seconds of meeting him, Snape had decided that Dudley Dursley couldn't handle much more strain. And probably, Snape was right, though it made for an odd evening, watching the Potions Master speak so gently and patiently with a stuttering young Muggle.

Draco was amused by the whole thing, Harry could tell. But of course even Draco was playing into it, treating Dudley like a child much younger than himself when the Muggle boy was in fact a year older. Draco wasn't condescending about it, though. Just . . . carefully friendly and casual. If he was disgusted to be eating alongside a Muggle, he sure didn't let on.

After Harry had finished eating, Sals came slithering out of his shirt pocket and wound herself around his upper arm. Draco didn't hide his disgust at that. He actually pushed his food away, his perfect manners breaking beneath the distinctive gagging sound made. Harry just grinned, and urged Sals down toward his wrist so that he could play a little game he'd grown used to in Grimmauld Place. The snake began winding herself through his fingers, in and out, looping over and around them. It always gave Harry a shivery sensation he really liked. Draco grimaced and looked away.

"Harry," Snape chastised, shaking his head.

"But it gives Draco and Dudley something to talk about," Harry protested. "They both have a thing about snakes."

Draco gave him a sharp look at that, as though he suspected some hidden meaning. Just like a Slytherin, always suspecting a plot. To Harry's surprise, however, Draco appeared to have concluded not only that Harry was trying to tell him something, but also that he should listen. The blond boy turned to the pudgy one, who was eyeing the snake warily but was still eating the large salad he'd requested.

"So, Dudley," Draco smoothly began, "why do you dislike Harry's little pet?"

Uh-oh. Harry hardly wanted Dudley to become a source of endless information on one Harry Potter. "Oh, Dudley doesn't want to discuss snakes," he hurriedly put in.

"Oh, it's okay, Harry," Dudley countered that. "I forgave you a long time ago, you know."

No, Harry didn't know, but at that moment, neither did he care. Before he could figure out a way around it, though, Dudley was recounting, "I used to think snakes were pretty neat. Until Harry set a big ugly one on me, that is."

Draco's voice went deep with interest. "Oh, really? Do tell."

"We were at the zoo for my birthday, and Harry here made a boa constrictor nearly bite off my leg--"

"It only nipped at your heels as it slithered past!" Harry objected.

"Piers always did swear that he saw you talking to it. I guess you were, huh? Is that why it attacked me?"

"Harry," Draco drawled, "that was very, very naughty. I'm surprised at you."

"Harry made the glass front of its pen disappear, and it escaped," Dudley added, shuddering. He stabbed at a bit of radish, the action almost vicious. "He had to stay locked in his cupboard until summer, that time."

"Locked in his cupboard," Draco repeated with an assessing gaze toward Harry.

"Oh yeah," Dudley babbled on. "I used to think he was getting his just deserts. Serve him right, cause he'd make the strangest things happen even though he knew Mum and Dad couldn't stand magic. Did you know one time the engine disappeared from the car?" Suddenly remembering more of that incident, Dudley gave Harry an apologetic look. "I feel really bad now that I didn't at least sneak you some food when they would lock you in for days and days. You must have got really hungry in there, sometimes."

Harry felt himself flushing. "It's okay," he muttered. "Er, water under the bridge."

Draco had put his brass goblet of mead down and looked as though he were trying to figure out something to say. Actually, he looked a bit as though he regretted starting Dudley talking. Then he put in, "Harry, if you could make parts of the car vanish, why couldn't you make food appear in your . . . er, cupboard?"

Either he was a pretty good actor, Harry thought, or Lucius Malfoy hadn't told his son all he'd learned from Legilimizing Uncle Vernon. "It's called accidental magic for a reason," Harry pointed out. "Besides, I didn't even know I was doing it! I didn't know I was a wizard, remember?"

Snape's brows went up at that. "When did you tell Draco that much?"

"Oh, it was in the letter to Dudley," Draco absently murmured.

"I didn't get any letter," Dudley protested, while Harry exclaimed in dismay, "Draco!"

Draco gave a slow smile, and in one heart-stopping moment, Harry realised with horror that the other boy might know how to spell a burned letter back together using Reconstitutio. He did know some pretty advanced magic, in part due to intensive private tutoring he got every summer. Nothing but the best for Lucius Malfoy's son, Harry had thought when Draco had let on about it.

The smile, though, didn't end up meaning Draco was about to whip out the letter and hand it over. It just meant he was being a Slytherin and figuring out how to play the scene.

"Oh yeah, Harry wrote you a letter," Draco drawled. "Actually, that was back when he was completely blind, so he dictated it to me and I wrote it out. And I meant to send it, too, but then I realised I'd written it out in disappearing ink! Harry was so mad. I'm surprised he didn't set a boa constrictor on me. And . . . and then he got sicker for a while so there was no question of rewriting it, er, and . . . oh yeah, by the time he was well enough he knew you were coming to visit anyway, so . . ."

Pretty transparent set of lies, Harry thought, though he didn't much like the idea that Draco was a bad liar. He'd called him that once, back in the hospital wing, but he hadn't really meant it. Now it seemed like it might actually be accurate, and that had implications Harry just didn't want to consider. At all.

"What did the letter say?" Dudley asked, his jowls quivering a bit.

"Just that I was really, really sorry about your Dad," Harry murmured.

"Yeah," Dudley mumbled, blinking a few times. It seemed like he was trying to get his mind off it when he turned to Draco and said, "Um, so how come you don't much like Sals, either?"

Harry didn't really expect the other boy to answer that, figured Draco would fob Dudley off with something vague like I just don't, or She's ugly, Gryffindor colours, you know . . .

Instead, he offered a quiet, "I had a relative of mine set a snake on me, too. I couldn't learn a spell that conjured one. Think I was about oh, nine or ten, and my tutor had complained about it. I had to stand in a full body bind while a cobra crawled all over me. You know what they say, familiarity breeds contempt. Anyway, after that I did learn the spell." Draco stood, then, his hands shaking slightly. "If you'll excuse me, I have some things to take care of." He went into his bedroom and closed the door; a moment later, Harry heard the shower begin running.

"Perhaps you shouldn't taunt him quite so much," Snape broke the silence to say.

Harry nodded, feeling pretty bad by then. He quickly slipped Sals into his pocket.

"You don't have to be an orphan to face a trying childhood," his teacher went on.

"Yeah, okay, I got it," Harry told him.

"Have you? Lucius punished him like that more than once."

"Yeah, well Lucius likes to go for the jugular," Harry muttered, thinking of the needles. It only made sense. Malfoy was an evil, evil man. Whatever your weakness was, that's what he'd use against you, and not even his own son was exempt. It surprised Harry, as he'd always thought Draco was so spoiled. Well, he was, no doubt about it, but Harry figured that he'd also had his share of problems. "Can we not discuss Lucius?"

"Certainly." Snape stood, and said the usual, "I'll be in my office if you need me."

Dudley turned and watched him go. "He's really not much like a vampire at all. Still looks like one, though."

Harry nodded, sighing as Sals shifted in his pocket. How was he to know that Draco had such a good reason to be afraid of snakes?

Dudley finished his salad then, while Harry thought in silence. After a few moments, he went into the bedroom. The shower was still running, but he didn't think he was ready to talk to Draco in any case. He got the wooden box Remus had shipped Sals in, and slipped the little snake inside, then took it back out to the living room and put it on a table in an out-of-the-way corner.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Later that night, Draco seemed recovered. He was showing off for Dudley again, this time demonstrating how to transfigure the couch into a bed. Dudley was rapt and full of amazement, which of course only made Draco get more and more extravagant with his wandwork and incantations.

"Now, if we want a canopy," Draco was saying, "we really ought to first change the wood to something a bit more stout."

"Oak," Dudley suggested, oohing and aahing as the dark wood faded to a golden hue.

Seeing that the other boys would likely keep busy for quite a while, Harry took his chance to go talk to Snape alone. Although Snape had, almost every night, issued that casual invitation for Harry to join him in his office, he'd never gone before. Sometimes he'd wanted to talk, but the idea of seeing Snape behind a desk had always put him off. It was like . . . Snape would go back to being his teacher if he went in there. Of course Snape still was his teacher, but he was something more now, too. Something Harry didn't really even know how to name. Or maybe he did, but he was choosing not to. He felt shaky and vulnerable just thinking about it, afraid that if he looked too closely, it would go away.

But tonight, he needed to talk enough to fight his way past the feeling.

He stopped at the open door of the office and looked in to see Snape bent over parchments, a quill scratching out comments in red ink as he read. When the man didn't notice him, he tentatively reached inside the room to rap his knuckles against the door.

"Come in, Harry," Snape beckoned, waving him into one of the two chairs that faced his desk. "Your cousin seems to be settling in well. Better than I would have expected."

Harry nodded. "I'm starting to think that he's not really afraid of magic. It was drummed into him, but it was never something that came from inside himself, if that makes sense."

"Quite possibly," Snape agreed.

They fell into a silence then, broken only by the crackling of the fire dancing in the small hearth that kept the office warm. Finally, Snape spoke again. "Did you need me for something in particular?"

"No . . . yes . . ." Feeling utterly defeated, Harry hung his head in his hands and rubbed his temples. "Maybe a headache potion."

"Certainly," Snape said, reaching into a drawer for a small phial. "Drink it all."

Harry downed it, then wondered, "You keep potions in your office, too? Are you ever without?"

"I try not to be," Snape told him in all seriousness, then allowed a smirk to soften his features. "I often mark student work in here, and so I stock my desk with, at a minimum, Headache Calming Draught and Boredom Balm."

"That bad?" Harry asked.

"You tell me." Snape passed him the topmost essay, something from a second-year. Harry didn't really read it; he didn't care what Holly Hornbrown had to say about yeast spores. Snape's comments were what interested him. Is this an essay or a rumination on bread and muffins? his teacher had written. If you are hungry, adjourn to the Great Hall and then resume your homework.

"Draco says you insult the students to prod them into working harder," Harry remarked, looking up. "Is that true?"

Snape set his quill aside and leaned both his arms on the desk as he blandly met Harry's gaze. "In some measure. I haven't given the matter extensive thought, but I did notice early in my career here that a well-placed insult often had a salutary effect."

"But you don't insult the Slytherins," Harry pointed out. "Don't you want them to work as hard as the rest of us?"

Snape's gaze hardened perceptively. "I don't insult them publicly, certainly. There is such a thing as house loyalty. And too, Slytherins don't respond well to being shamed. You might consider that in your dealings with Draco."

When Harry didn't reply, the Potions Master shuffled the parchments meaningfully. "Well. If all you needed was to rid yourself of a headache and critique my instruction, I think we've covered that, so if you don't mind--"

"I didn't have a headache," Harry interrupted. "Well, not enough of one to need help. And I didn't come in here to criticize."

Snape stared at him. "No?"

"No. I just . . . I don't know. I wanted to talk to you."

Snape waited for him to go on, but Harry didn't really know what to say. He didn't even know why he'd come in, really. He'd just known he needed to talk, but not about anything in particular. His mind felt stuffed with conflicting needs and impressions.

"For someone who wishes to talk, you aren't saying much," Snape finally pointed out. Harry nodded wearily and got up to go, but Snape waved him back into his chair, and after a moment longer, softly inquired, "Have I done something to upset you?"

Harry glanced up from his contemplation of his hands. "No, it's just . . . well, maybe you have, actually. Did you tell Professor McGonagall to not let my friends down here very often?"

"It seemed prudent, as they have been known in the past to provoke Draco."

"He's the one who provokes them!"

"I don't believe it was Draco who tried to hex another student into eating slugs," Snape quietly returned, his fingers lightly tapping on his desk.

"He called Hermione a Mudblood!"

"Has he used the word since Samhain?"

"Not that I've heard," Harry grudgingly admitted. "But it's not just my friends from the Tower. You won't let me see Remus, either."

Snape's voice went cold. "He should be strangled for what he did to you."

"No, Lucius Malfoy should!" Harry retorted. "But instead, you arrange things so I have play nice with his son!"

Snape abruptly surged to his feet, the door slamming closed as he waved his wand. "It's warded now," he announced. "What happened to decorum, Harry? Draco is just down the hall!"

Harry felt his lip curl. "That's why I can't talk to you any longer," he cried, jumping up from his chair. "Everything ends up being about Draco!"

"Do not be absurd," Snape rebuked. "I have known him all his life, and I understand the pressure he is under as few can, but he is not my sole concern."

"Could've fooled me," Harry muttered.

Snape shook his head. "Harry. This childishness ill becomes you. I care about you both."

Harry abruptly dropped back into his chair and stared at his teacher with wide eyes.

Sighing, Snape walked from behind his desk and took the chair facing Harry, pulling it so close that their knees almost touched. "Harry. You cannot tell me you didn't realise this. Do you think it my practice to invite Gryffindors to live with me?"

"No, but that was circumstance," Harry murmured. "And duty too, considering that stuff Trelawney blathered out about me."

"The prophecy makes you significant," Snape levelly agreed. "It is not, however, what makes you important to me. I was not thinking of duty when I opened my home to you."

"No?" Harry knew it was bad of him to fish for more, but he felt scrubbed raw inside. He needed more, needed to hear it.

"I am pleased to help you," Snape elaborated, tilting his head to study the boy. "You look . . . distressed that I would say as much."

More silence, Harry hanging his head again, rubbing his temples even though the splendid potion had erased all trace of pain. Snape drew in a deep breath and reached for Harry's hands, pulling them away from his skull to clasp them loosely. "Harry, talk. I still don't even know why you came in tonight. You trusted me at Samhain, can you not trust me with this, too? Whatever it is?"

"I don't know what it is," Harry groaned, clenching his eyes. "I just . . . wanted to see you, without Draco listening to my every word."

"I have wanted that too," Snape returned. "And now we have it. So what is troubling you?"

Harry just shrugged.

"Then I will tell you what begins to trouble me," Snape pronounced, squeezing his hands lightly and then letting go. "You, looking so . . . upset, ever since I mentioned caring."

Harry realised then that just as when he hadn't jumped at the chance to live here, he was in danger of hurting Snape. And Harry didn't want that, even if he didn't really understand how he felt inside himself. "I'm not upset, I don't think," he tried to explain, biting his lips in agitation. "It's more . . . I don't trust it. Oh, not because I don't trust you," he rushed to say. "I don't trust adults, that's more what I meant. I mean, adults who are supposed to care for you. Because . . . well, too many times they just don't."

"Your relatives would certainly bear that out," Snape said, his tones disgusted. Then his voice became more meditative. "But Harry. Black loved you dearly, through all those years of Azkaban, and right up until his death."

"He was never around very much," Harry sighed. "I don't blame him, but the fact remains. And Remus was even worse, in a way. He wasn't on the run, forced to hide. I thought he really cared about me, you know, really cared, not just like I was some promising student or his best friend's son, but cared about me. But I never heard from him, not once through that whole horrid year when I had to compete in that awful tournament."

Snape's dark eyes went even darker than usual. "Lupin really does care about you, idiot though he is, running off for ice cream like that."

Harry had a feeling it had cost Snape something to say that. "I know he cares, but he's not as dependable as . . ." He looked away, changing what he had been going to say. "As I'd like."

"You've never had an adult be dependable for you," Snape murmured. "Or, at least you don't believe you've ever had that. The headmaster cares about you too, you know. Last year he had his reasons for pulling away--"

"Well, that's just it then, isn't it?" Harry crossly erupted. "There are always reasons! Either you're a little freak nobody could love, or your godfather's in Azkaban, or there's Order business that just has to be seen to, or Voldemort might surge up inside you and hurt somebody! All that means is I've learned the hard way not to depend on anybody!" He didn't say the rest, though it was fairly clear by then.

Even you.

Harry waved a hand, wanting to get away from that. "Anyway, I guess I'm so used to having to take care of myself that it's a little unnerving living here like this, with you in charge. And . . . well, I know you don't appreciate my attitude with Draco, and I guess I wonder if sooner or later you'll get fed up with me and decide you can't stand me, after all. Not that I think you'd make me go live in the Tower if it wasn't safe, but . . . listen, I didn't set that snake on Dudley on purpose, okay? And I didn't know that Sals bothered Draco all that much."

Aware that he was rambling, Harry shut his mouth.

"You seem to be under the misapprehension that I merely tolerate your presence here and am eager to be rid of it," Snape quietly said. "Perhaps I gave you that impression when I said Albus had insisted you live with me. But Harry, it was my suggestion in the first place. He was insisting on the plan to Minerva, who did not approve."

"What's her problem?" Harry had to ask.

"Apart from her fear that you and Draco would kill each other inside of a day," Snape explained, "and her mistaken conviction that I still viewed you as another James, she took offence at the idea that House Gryffindor could not take care of its own. I told her the Sorting Hat had wanted you in Slytherin," he added conversationally.

Harry laughed. "Oh, no. Maybe that's why she was so snooty to Ron and Hermione." Another thought chased his smile away. "You don't think she'll tell my friends about that, do you?"

Snape narrowed his eyes. "You are ashamed?"

"No, I just don't think they'd understand." Shaking his head to clear it, Harry went back to their earlier topic. "Um, well I didn't know what I wanted to talk about when I came in; I just felt like I wanted to talk to you. But now I'm wondering if I wasn't realizing I ought to tell you that, um, even with Draco here and all, living here hasn't been er . . . half-bad, though I am starting to go a little stir crazy, I think. Isn't there any way you could let me outside for a while? Oh, but that's not what I wanted to tell you. I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate how you've been."

"Ah, your thanking-people thing," Snape mused. He didn't seem offended, though he did remind Harry, "I don't need to be thanked, or desire it."

"I know, but you've been good about everything, and you've been taking really good care of me--"

"By feeding you and not locking you in a cupboard, I presume you mean?" Snape softly snarled, though the anger wasn't directed at Harry. "I don't know what Albus thought he was doing, leaving you to grow up like that."

"Well, I might have had it bad in a wizarding family too," Harry tried to pass it off. "Like Draco, his father punishing him that way."

Snape gave him a sharp look, as though he suspected sarcasm, but relaxed when he found none. "In some ways," he revealed, "Draco has had worse to deal with than even you. Your relatives expected virtually nothing of you, I suspect, which is wounding in its own way, but he has always been expected to excel beyond what is possible. Serpensortia, not taught here until the upper levels, and for good reason, but he was forced to learn it years before he came. His great animosity for Granger isn't so much because she is a Muggleborn--"

"Oh, yes it is!" Harry hotly disputed.

"He has Muggleborn friends in Slytherin, Harry. Or did, until they feared for their lives if they associated with him. But let me finish. His great animosity for Granger is primarily rooted in the way she outperforms him on test after test. Draco has gone home at the end of each term only to be reviled when his marks weren't first in his year. I believe Lucius has had rather a lot to say on the subject of his son and heir not even measuring up to a Muggleborn, and a girl at that."

"That's just some story he made up," Harry disagreed. "It's ridiculous. How would Lucius Malfoy even know what marks Hermione got?"

"Sitting on the Board of Governors does have its perquisites."

"Doesn't mean it's not a lie."

Snape gave him a hard look. "Draco never has been able to lie well. Disappearing ink, Harry? I don't know what the truth about that letter is, nor do I wish to know, but I am positive Draco did not do something as idiotic as use disappearing ink!"

"Uh, no," Harry quietly admitted.

"Draco has his faults, I will not dispute that," Snape admitted. "He has antagonized you for years, and particularly in the last year, done things that may well be unforgivable. I am not ignorant of his failings. But you do not know as much about him as you think, Harry. He called Miss Granger Mudblood so frequently because he hoped that embroiling her in emotion would make her perform less well in class."

"Still wasn't a nice thing to do."

"No, but he was facing a wizard's wrath if he didn't find some way to rein her in." Snape clenched his fingers into fists. "I don't know all Lucius may have done to punish him, but knowing him as I do, I seriously doubt the cobra was the worst of it."

Harry let out a breath he'd been holding and met Snape's eyes. "Aren't you breaking his confidence, telling me these things? I mean, if his biggest problem with Hermione is his grades, why doesn't he just say so himself?"

"Draco knows you are more likely to listen to me than him." Snape shrugged. "He told me to proceed accordingly."

"Why would he want my trust that badly?"

"You really aren't arrogant in the least, if you have to ask that," Snape sighed. "He's in an enormous amount of danger, Harry. He's been marked for death, which is no small matter in the circles in which he was raised, but he's thrown himself into our camp. He sees you as the leader of the light, perhaps not in a tactical or literal sense, but--"

"He called me the vanguard," Harry remembered.

"Ah. Yes, the vanguard. He is quite literally terrified, I think, that if you do not come to believe in his sincerity, he could summarily find himself thrown back to the lions."

Harry scoffed, "You wouldn't do that to him."

"Of course not, but he is nothing if not a Slytherin. He is looking ahead to a day when your influence with Albus may outrank mine. In all honesty, I think he believes such a day may come quite soon."

"Do you?"

Snape softly laughed. "No. Draco cannot possibly appreciate how very young the both of you seem to Albus. The idea is absurd." He gave Harry a wry look. "I see what you mean. The conversation has wound its way back to Draco as you predicted. Was there anything else on your mind?"

Harry wrinkled his forehead. "Well, it's no big deal, but I was a little surprised you had a crucifix."

"Do not mention this to your cousin," Snape sternly instructed, "but there have been vampire sightings in the Forbidden Forest from time to time. When I used to answer the Dark Mark's call, it was prudent to travel prepared."

The Dark Mark . . . Harry grimaced. Draco had said not to ask, but he felt like he had to. "Do you still get those calls? My own scar hasn't been burning at all."

Snape stiffened and sat back in his chair. "I think your scar will behave as always once your magical abilities have sorted themselves out. As for me, I have found a way to deal with the call. You don't need to worry yourself about it."

"But . . ." Harry hesitated. "Um, are you in a lot of pain?"

"Do I seem so?" Snape haughtily inquired, looking down his nose at Harry.

"No," Harry admitted.

"Then whatever the case may be, I am managing adequately," Snape pronounced. "You are sixteen, Harry, and have spent these past years assuming burdens no one your age should have to bear. This one is mine. I do not wish to inflict it on you."

"All right," Harry slowly said, not because he didn't want to be burdened, but because Snape obviously wished to dismiss the topic. "Um, one more thing."

Snape merely waited while Harry hesitated.

"Draco said you had a book I should read," Harry finally admitted.

"About anything in particular?" And then when Harry looked away, Snape murmured, "Ah, that book."

"He thinks you left it out on purpose," Harry blurted, "so he'd read it and could kind of . . . I don't know, beat me over the head with words like denial and overcompensation and guilt complex. Not that I think he knows what he's talking about, but . . . did you mean for him to read it?"

"No. I was simply tired and laid it to the side without thinking, late one evening." Snape shook his head. "If you spend enough time with Draco, you will quickly understand that he sees plots literally everywhere. A consequence of his upbringing, I suspect."

"Uh, okay," Harry said. He'd have to think about that one, later. "So, can I borrow it?"

Snape assessed him for a long moment, then wordlessly rose and fetched it from a drawer in his desk. Harry turned it over in his hands, feeling more insecure than ever.

"Um, do you think I'm . . ." Harry cleared his throat. "Sort of mental, after Samhain?"

"No. That's not what the book is about, Harry. If Draco has implied as much--"

"No, he didn't," Harry admitted. "He acts like he really wants to help."

"My impression as well. As for the effect Samhain had on you, I would say you're coping admirably." A small smile curled his lips. "Ah, but I remember. You don't read between the lines quite like a Slytherin would. You need to hear me say well done, as I recall. It was good to see you able to embrace your cousin, Harry. That was well done, indeed."

"You were really great with Dudley, too," Harry murmured. "He'll never believe me that you yell in class, I don't think."

"I do not yell. I lecture," Snape elucidated in a carefully bland tone. "And, I will admit, I try to guarantee that students with no facility for Potions are thoroughly discouraged from dabbling on their own. I am thinking purely of their future safety, of course."

"Oh, of course," Harry agreed, just as blandly. "Well, I'll leave you to mark your essays, I think. Thank you, Professor."

Snape stood up when he did, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "You are always welcome to come talk with me, I hope you know. It is a bit awkward at times, with Draco, but the office door does ward itself with silencing spells the moment it closes. We can speak of anything, in here."

Harry nodded, and tried to pull open the door, only to find that it needed magic to open. Thinking of Draco's complaints, he pulled out his own wand and tried, before appealing to Snape.

"It will all come back, Harry," his teacher assured him as he performed the required spell.

The hall and living room were dark as Harry sneaked through them, past the ostentatious four-poster that had replaced the couch. He slipped into his own room, and found his pyjamas in the dark, slipping into bed a moment later. He'd thought Dudley was asleep, but the other boy murmured, "That you, Harry?"

"Yeah."

"Do the ghosts come out at night?" Dudley sounded worried, Harry realised.

"They won't come in here at all," Harry assured his cousin. "Professor Snape's a really great wizard. He has protection spells all over his rooms. They can't cross them."

"Glad you're in here, then," Dudley murmured, rolling over to go back to sleep.

Yeah, so am I, Harry thought.

Chapter Text

It only took Dudley three days to decide he wanted to try some magic for himself. Harry watched gobsmacked as Draco lent the Muggle boy his wand and talked him through a simple swish-and-flick. Of course, nothing happened; Dudley wasn't going to really learn any spells, but he seemed to enjoy the fantasy of trying. When he was tired of it, he gave the wand back to Draco and turning to Harry, admitted, "Well, I can sort of see why my mum hated yours so very much, I think. It would be pretty easy to get jealous, wouldn't it?"

Harry blinked, realizing he'd never really thought of it in those terms. Something inside him didn't want to, either. "Aunt Petunia wouldn't ever have seen much magic," he protested. "I mean, my mum wouldn't have done any when she was home on school vacations."

"Yeah, well Mum didn't like to talk about it, but she dropped a few hints over the years. She saw enough," Dudley merely said. "I'd probably be jealous of you, you know, if Marsha hadn't talked to me about it, about how people are all different, and that's just how it is."

"Jealous of me," Harry scoffed. "I can't do any more magic than you, right now, unless you count talking to Sals, and I somehow don't think you mean that."

"Defeatist," Draco murmured as he strolled past.

Harry ignored him, but Dudley didn't. "He's right, you know. Or at least, he says the sorts of things I can really see Marsha saying. You probably should have a more positive outlook about your magic. It's like my diet. I couldn't lose weight until I decided to, simple as that."

Draco turned around and beamed. "See, there now! You'll listen to your cousin, won't you? He's been seeing a professional therapist for . . . how long, Dudley?"

"Almost a year."

"Almost an entire year," Draco stressed. "And even he thinks you're doing this to yourself."

"Oh, that's rich," Harry scoffed. "You're taking a Muggle's word for what's wrong with a wizard?"

"Why Harry," Draco remarked, his smile sly. "You sound as though you have something against Muggles. I'd watch how I phrase things, if I were you."

"I don't have a problem with Muggles and you know it," Harry retorted. "Why don't you watch what you say?"

"I have been," Draco flatly announced. "If you tell me you haven't even noticed, I'll tear my hair out. Just think what a mood I'll be in, then."

Sensing that he'd really upset Draco, Harry murmured, "No, I noticed. I just can't tell how serious you are, about anything." He cleared his throat. "Listen, I heard you talking to Snape when I first got here, and you said it made you practically throw up even to think about having Muggles in your precious pure wizarding bloodline. But then you're actually nice to Dudley here, and he's as Muggle as they come. So which one is the real you?"

"I am actually listening to all of this," Dudley put in.

"Oh, sorry," Harry realised, chagrined. "I don't mean anything, Dudley. It's just that some wizards have a thing against Muggles. Not me."

"You do?" Dudley asked Draco, the question sounding so very hurt that Harry was tempted to go hug Dudley again. He resisted the impulse, but not just because behind the temptation was a wailing sort of mental pain warning him away. It was also the fact that Dudley wouldn't appreciate it. The other time had been different; Dudley had been deep in shock and crying.

Draco sighed. "I can't help it, after sixteen years of indoctrination on the subject. You're actually the first Muggle I've ever spent any amount of time with."

Dudley sighed and lay back on the couch, which Draco re-transfigured each morning.

"It's not so different from Harry's aunt and uncle hating him just because he had wizarding bloodlines, you know," Draco defended himself. He appeared to be talking to the room in general, but Dudley took him up on it.

"Sure it is," the Muggle boy insisted, staring at the ceiling. "They were scared of what Harry could do to them, though now it all seems sort of stupid, the way they went about things. Marsha and I talked about it. Mum and Dad really should have given you the nicest room and all that, and made sure you never had cause to curse them, if you ask me. But anyway, they were scared." Turning on his side, he cast a glare in Draco's direction. "But your kind, what do you have to fear from us?" Dudley made a scoffing sound. "Seems to me you hate us just because we exist, not because we're any kind of threat."

"Have you ever heard of the Middle Ages?" Draco icily inquired. "Witch burning was all the rage."

"Oh, come on!" Harry erupted. "We learned all about that from Binns. The Muggles were burning each other. Mass hysteria, remember? And when they did get a wizard, he'd just use a flame-freezing charm--"

"You need the to study the unedited version of the Middle Ages," Draco retorted. "You think they're going to teach the sweet, innocent little children at the school an ugly truth that just might drive young, impressionable wizards into the Dark Lord's camp? I don't think so, not as long as Albus Dumbledore heads up Hogwarts. There were real wizards burned to death, and plenty of them. Where do you think the contempt for Muggles came from?"

"A real wizard would just Apparate!" Harry shouted. "Or are you going to tell me that the Muggles cast anti-Apparition charms across the burning places?"

"Some wizards aren't so skilled at Apparition, as I'm sure you know," Draco heavily returned. "And there were other factors at work, but if you think I'm going to discuss them in front of a Muggle, you're not thinking much at all. Anyway, it's not just witch-burning that could happen to us these days. At least the killing curse just kills one at a time. We don't have weapons that can level whole cities, killing everybody at once, Muggles and Wizards alike."

"So what's your point?" Harry pressed, narrowing his eyes. "That you were right to be such a hate-filled little shite?"

"That there are real reasons why the Dark Lord's philosophy appeals to purebloods!"

"Even though he's a half-blood himself," Harry scoffed.

"Well, that's the thing about hate," Draco pointed out, his voice markedly quieter. "It's irrational."

"That's true," Dudley put in. "If anybody ought to hate Muggles, it would be you, Harry. How come you don't?"

Harry stared at his cousin, his green eyes shadowed. "I . . . I don't really know. Maybe because I learned so early on what it's like to be hated for something you are, something you can't help being."

"Oh." Draco paused a moment, then asked rather diffidently, "Did you get the book from Severus? Because it covers emotional abuse too."

"Maybe you should read it," Harry retorted. "I mean, for your own benefit."

"I did," Draco admitted, then turned away. "Dudley, do you play any chess? No? Hmm. Well, let me show you wizards' chess anyway. I think you'll like it."

Sighing slightly, Harry got the book from under his pillow and found his place.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Ever since that talk in Snape's office, Harry had settled into a new routine. Most nights, after dinner, he'd spend a few minutes, sometimes longer, chatting with Snape. The first night when he went back, things still seemed awkward, but after he realised that his teacher really didn't mind being interrupted, Harry realised he didn't have to have to bring some earthshaking problem into the man's office. It was all right to go in there just for company. To talk about nothing, it seemed. Sometimes, even, just to sit and read while Snape marked essays.

By then, his vision was largely recovered; he no longer needed any help reading and writing. He didn't even need the Elixir except once each morning. Sometimes when he woke up in the night needing to go to the loo, he thought he was blind again, but since he didn't have a light to see by in any case, he couldn't be sure.

"Book not keeping your interest?" Snape casually inquired one evening in his office.

Harry realised that he'd been staring into space for a while. He wondered how long ago Snape had noticed. Disconcerted, he dragged his gaze away from his teacher's piercing black eyes. "It's the book," he murmured, finally gaining enough presence of mind to look down at the passage that had sent him into a blue funk. One finger indicating a passage, he flipped the book around and leaned forward to push it across Snape's desk.

Snape raised an eyebrow and read out loud, "Dreams reveal the focal points within us, showing in concrete images our hopes, dreams, loves, and fears."

"I was wondering how much of the dreaming stuff in this book even applies to me," Harry admitted, "considering . . . um, how much did Remus tell you about my seer dreams?"

Snape set down his quill and capped the bottle of red ink he'd been using. "Enough."

Harry looked up, his eyes haunted. "The only thing that kept me sane on Samhain was believing that my dreams had to be right, Professor. They'd said I'd live past it, no matter what Lucius Malfoy did to me. I clung to that with all my strength."

"Excellent stratagem, in the circumstances."

"Yeah, but now I don't want the rest of the dreams coming true."

"Harry. I am certain that your friendship with Mr Weasley can withstand a bit of fisticuffs."

Harry sighed. "Remus really did tell you everything, I guess. But see . . . just the day before yesterday, I almost did hit Ron. Thanks for letting my friends come down more often, by the way."

Snape inclined his head slightly.

"Anyway," Harry rambled, "that was great of you, but sometimes I just can't believe how stupid and immature Ron can be. Almost the first thing he said to Dudley was, How's the tongue? which is just really cruel. It goes back to a joke the twins played on Dudley one time; they got him to eat some candy that made his tongue grow really long. Ten feet! Anyway, I just could not believe he would say that! I almost slugged him right there on the spot!"

"But you didn't."

"No. And see, I wonder if that was just it, then. That was my chance to punch Ron, and I passed on it. Would the future be that simple to change?"

"Quite possibly." Snape steepled his fingers together. "Divination isn't like Potions. I can't advise you with exactitude."

"Yeah, well I'm not asking Trelawney."

"No," Snape agreed. "Don't."

Harry nodded, and resumed his reading.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"This letters business is getting really old," Draco complained over dinner a few nights later. "Honestly, Severus, I need to talk to some of these people!"

"No," Snape replied, shaking his head for extra measure. "The mood in Slytherin is still too dire. Someone will provoke you, Draco. We don't need that."

"Look, I lost it with Pansy. I admit it. Shouldn't have hexed her so hard she flew into the wall and cracked her head open. What do you want, a gold-plated apology? It won't happen again!"

"A cranial contusion was the least of what you did to her," Snape asserted as he calmly set his spoon down beside his half-finished bowl of vichyssoise. "Lucius trained you for battle, I know. But this isn't battle, Draco, it is war. Sometimes the most substantive results come from working behind the scenes."

"And you don't trust my impulse control," Draco sniped, slamming his own spoon down so hard that Dudley flinched.

Severus raised an eyebrow. "When you have just dented my antique mahogany table? No, I don't."

Draco snatched his wand out of his pocket and repaired the damage. "You say I have to stay here until there's no more danger, but the danger won't lessen until you let me out, Severus. I used to have a lot of sway in Slytherin, you know. I could get it back if you'd let me apply my charismatic charm to the problem. I could convince people that Potter here's not so bad."

"Call him Harry," Snape instructed, reaching for his wand. "Ten points from--"

"I'm just saying it how I'll have to say it to them," Draco stressed.

Snape didn't finish the command to the house counters.

"We're never going to get out of here at this rate," the Slytherin boy continued. "You have to let me do something--"

"Mr Malfoy," Snape icily broke in, "You are labouring under a misapprehension. I do not have to let you do anything. You have to abide by my requests if you wish to continue living here. That decision is yours since, as you well know, you have been emancipated from all parental authority."

"I appreciate what you did, Severus--"

"Thank the headmaster. He is the one whose influence overcame your father's strident objections."

"I appreciate everything you're doing, Severus," Draco went on, raising his voice. "It's just . . . I want to do my part, too! Like I said I would! And I can't, not so long as I'm penned up in here."

Snape rose to his feet. "For now, your part consists of doing what I say, Draco. Write your letters. Keep up with your studies, and see to it that Harry gets caught up. I will know when the time is ripe for more direct action." Without another word, he strode toward his office.

Harry finished his grilled cheese sandwich and drank some milk. He wasn't sure what to say, especially not with Draco still fuming. Besides, he was getting a little desperate for some fresh air and sunshine, too. He could understand Draco wanting out.

"Christmas isn't too far off, you know," he finally thought to offer. "You know how most students go home for the holidays? Well, maybe the professor will let us out a little bit, then."

"Thank you," Draco sourly returned, "for pointing out that I no longer have a home to go to, for holidays or anything else. And what makes you think Severus wants to be stuck here?"

"Hey, Harry never got to come home at Christmas, either!" Dudley began, but Harry waved for him to fall silent.

"I didn't mean it that way."

"Well you wouldn't, would you? No offence, but the way this one talks," he hitched a thumb toward Dudley, "it sounds to me like you've never had a home at all. Some of us don't relish being stuck in the dungeons all through vacation."

"My point was that maybe we won't be."

"Yeah, sure," Draco muttered.

"Now who's being defeatist?" Harry lightly jeered, though Draco had given him something to think about, he really had.

Later, when Draco was reading and Dudley was moving wizard chess pieces and watching them smash each other, Harry went and knocked on Snape's open office door.

His professor shook his head at him. "I've told you before; you needn't knock."

Harry closed the door after he went in, which made Snape's brows rise up a tad. "Problem?" he inquired with deceptive mildness.

"Not really." Harry sat down in his usual chair and gravely regarded his teacher. "Just thinking. You're actually related to Draco, aren't you?"

"I'm sure I could ascertain the exact degree given an extensive family tree and several hours with which to peruse it," Snape dryly admitted. "But yes. How did you come to this stunning bit of knowledge?"

"Sirius told me that all the pure-blooded families are interwoven."

"As indeed we are. The Potters included."

"Right," Harry agreed. "But see . . ." He leaned forward. "I was thinking about Christmas, actually. I've always stayed at Hogwarts for the holidays. Much better than going to the Dursleys, not that they ever wanted me to, of course. But . . . er . . ." Harry took a breath, then plunged ahead. "Well, I was thinking that you shouldn't be stuck here on my account, and Draco's bound to get pretty depressed when it really hits him that he can't be at his usual family whatever, besides which he's already depressed being down here so long with just me for company all day long."

"This reminds me of your more garbled answers in Potions class," Snape observed. "What in Merlin's name is your point?"

Harry swallowed, nervous because he knew he was intruding into areas where he had no business. He hadn't seen much about Snape's family in that pensieve the year before, but what he had seen hadn't been pleasant. Still, decades had elapsed since those memories had been forged.

"Harry?" Snape sharply questioned.

"Sorry," he quickly came back. "Um, well I just wondered what your usual Christmas routine was, because whatever it is, I think you should follow it and take Draco with you, that's all."

"Follow it," Snape blankly repeated.

"Yeah," Harry urged, surprised that he would have to explain. "You know, get away from Hogwarts, see your Mum and Dad, or . . . um, whoever it is you usually see. You must have some family, I'm thinking."

Snape leaned back in his chair and crossed his hands across his chest. "You are proposing I should leave you here alone? Your cousin will be gone by then, I hope you understand."

"Uh, yeah, I understand that," Harry murmured. He'd sort of got used to having Dudley around, he realised.

"Do you have any concept how daft a notion your suggestion is?" Snape inquired, his eyes beginning to glare. "You, in the Slytherin dungeons, completely alone!"

"Well, they should be warded with the blood sacrifice by then--"

"You can't even Floo for meals without a wizard's assistance!"

"I thought we could just arrange for Dobby to pop in each morning and night and see what I need--"

"I did not think you were finding my company so intolerable," Snape glacially remarked.

"It's not that," Harry protested. "I mean, I don't! It's just . . . I just realised you would probably have plans if I wasn't in the way, and I don't want to wreck your Christmas, that's all!"

Snape's hands sought the arms of his chair, and gripped them. "You aren't in the way."

"I . . . " Harry didn't know what to reply. He didn't actually know why he'd said that. Or said it like that. It sounded stupid when he heard it repeated back out loud, though it made perfect sense inside his own head.

"As a matter of fact," Snape casually volunteered, "I do have holiday plans. I plan to spend the Yule season with you and Draco, if that's quite all right with you?"

"Um, yeah." Harry smiled, a little bit chagrined.

"Have you any other suggestions for my social calendar?" Snape snidely went on. There was a hint of a smile about his mouth as he said it, though, so Harry didn't figure the man was really all that angry.

"Well, I don't know that it needs to be in your calendar," Harry put in, "but I still think Draco could use a change of scenery."

"Just Draco?"

"I already told you that I'm going stir-crazy," Harry reminded him. "But I think it bothers Draco more. I mean, he can't even have his friends come down! Um, does he have any friends left?" When Snape didn't answer, Harry exclaimed, "Oh, just sneak him out onto the Quidditch pitch or something, would you? Let him go flying! You can borrow my invisibility cloak if it'll help."

"I'll take it under advisement," Snape dryly remarked. Then, with a strange glint in his eye, he offered, "As I recall, your spelling is adequate for your age. Now that your vision has returned in force, would you be willing to assist me with this endless pile of essays? You could check over the first years' efforts, correcting their atrocious spelling."

"Sure, all right," Harry said, though he had to add, "you know, the pile is only endless because you assign your students way too much work."

"Ah yes, I had forgotten you considered yourself the foremost authority on instructing adolescents."

"I'm just saying, there's more to life than Potions."

"There is," Snape agreed, shooting him a wry smile. He quickly sorted though the parchments and drew out a set for Harry to use. "But where would your beloved werewolf be if some of us weren't devoted to pursuing excellence in the field of Potions and promoting it in others?"

"Touché," Harry murmured. "Hey, speaking of Remus, you said yourself my vision's no longer much of an issue. When can I see him?"

"Determined to surround me with Gryffindors, Potter?"

"Hey, I'm the one who's outnumbered here," Harry protested, taking the quill and ink his teacher pushed across the desk. He noticed the way Snape had sidestepped his question, but decided not to push things. Not just yet, anyway. Scooting his chair up closer to the desk, Harry frowned down at the first essay. "You can't be serious. It's almost Christmas and this girl still spells Potions with s-h-u-n-s?"

"Leona Ellingsworth," Snape said without glancing Harry's direction. "Hufflepuff. What can you expect?"

Surprised at Snape's ready answer, Harry pressed, "Oh yeah? Well, what little quirks do my essays tend to have?"

The Potions Master smirked slightly, even as he continued writing commentary on a seventh-year's paper. "You've yet to use a transition, you ramble on for three paragraphs before deigning to mention your thesis, and for some reason you believe that Quidditch analogies will shed some light on the topic. Allow me to enlighten you: they don't."

Harry laughed, remembering a few . . . no, a few dozen, comments to that effect. "What about Ron?"

"Apart from the fact he thinks that ten inches equals a foot?"

"And Hermione?"

"Addicted to the words therefore, insofar, and of all things, hitherto." Snape lightly shuddered.

One more, Harry told himself. Then he'd stop.

"What's wrong with Draco's essays?"

Snape stared at him for a moment, then levelly admitted, "Generally nothing but that ridiculous calligraphic script he favours."

"He cheats, you know," Harry offered. "He's got a spelled quill to do that fancy script for him."

"That is not cheating. It's being--"

"Slytherin," Harry finished, just as Snape also said the word.

"Mmm," Snape agreed. "Though it would be better for his work to look less like a work of art. Harry. It is good to talk with you, but I really do need to mark these, now."

"All right, Professor." Harry grinned, and corrected spelling without much comment from then on.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"Blood," Dudley blankly repeated late one night.

"Yes," Snape patiently explained, just as if he hadn't just gone through the whole thing twice already. "The spells for the warding involve specific demands of the participants. You must have a nearly continuous physical presence here for the magic to remain active. Your blood integrated into the spells will achieve this."

"I'm absolutely positive my Mum wouldn't have agreed to er . . . any hocus-pocus like this. I mean, it sounds like . . ." Dudley shivered, and gripped the edge of the dining table. "Voodoo."

A muscle twitched in Snape's jaw, but he was doing an admirable job of repressing his yell-at-imbecilic-student response. Dudley wasn't his student, and they needed him, so terrorizing him was out of the question. Too bad Neville couldn't fall into that category, Harry reflected.

"Transferative warding wouldn't have been required at Number Four Privet Drive, as the proxy for Lily Potter's blood actually did reside there," Snape began, but Draco cut him off.

"It's like this," he explained, leaning over the table. "Your Mum really lived there, see? Her just being around would make the spells work, so all she had to do was take Harry in. This is a little different. You don't live here, so you have to leave a little bit of yourself behind, or the magic'll fall apart. Does that make sense?"

Dudley opened his mouth, a long "oh" sound coming out. Then, he asked, a little diffidently, "Why blood, though? I could just clip a fingernail, couldn't I?"

Draco answered that one before Snape could start in with big words for bigger concepts. "Blood's actually better. It's a powerful magical force, which explains why what Harry's mum did for him is called a blood-sacrifice, see? Besides, all we need is a couple of drops."

Dudley measurably relaxed. "Oh, all right. Why didn't he say so? I can do that."

"Good," Draco approved, beaming an encouraging smile. Perfect teeth, Harry thought, then immediately discounted that as more Slytherin cheating. Magic braces, something like that. "So, are you ready then? We won't need the blood for a few minutes. First Severus has to do the incantations and draw power from the air and stuff like that. Then he'll ask you some questions, and then, we'll seal the warding with your blood, and voilà, it'll be done."

"Questions?"

"Yeah, they're sort of like vows. You have to agree to a