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Cokeworth was just as Harry remembered it being. Dreary and grimy, with the same gauntlet of suspicious neighbors eyeing them as they'd walked past. Very likely the same exact litter filling the gutters and clogging up the sluggish river under the bridge. The same smell of stale piss and spilt alcohol wafting from an ally frequented by vagrants.

Harry could barely hold in his smile as Snape paused them in front of the scuffed black door to Spinner’s End so that he could discreetly tweak the wards from guarding an empty house to one that would soon be occupied. Snape then fished a ring of keys from his trouser pocket and unlocked the door, holding it wide for Harry to duck in first.

It was good to be back.

They had stayed at Hogwarts an extra day, to see to the arrangements for transporting Ximen across multiple international muggle and magical borders. It had been agreed upon that they'd wait until the student body had left the castle, to minimize fuss and potential danger on both sides.

Harry had been mildly surprised that Snape had gone to the gamekeeper straight away for help in the matter. Apparently Hagrid had contacts in the field of dangerously classified magical creatures. The giant man had gotten a little weepy when Snape had explained the situation to him, and Harry was sequentially relieved of any intimidation he'd felt towards the large gamekeeper.

Though he could have done without the firm back pats that had nearly flattened him to the ground.

“Aye, yer parents would’a been so proud of you ‘Arry!” Hagrid had exclaimed, as Harry rubbed at his sore shoulder and took a few subtle steps back. “Such a thoughtful lad! Saving such a magnificent being, and clearin’ my name as well!” The man paused to blow his nose into a bright yellow handkerchief nearly the size of a tablecloth. “An’ ta think, yer did it while bein’ stuck in Slytherin an’ all!”

Harry politely ignored the backhanded compliment, as it was clear that the gamekeeper had not really meant anything by it. A quick glance at Snape showed the Potion Master with an exasperated, but still somewhat fond, look on his face. The man was obviously used to such statements and knew to take them at face value.

Harry hadn't known Hagrid was the one framed for the Chamber being opened the first time, but it was nice to have been able to glean some good out of this year's situation at least.

After a somewhat tearful goodbye of his own to Ximen, the gamekeeper had even invited them to afternoon tea in his hut. The space had been cramped and a bit stuffy, but the tea was nice enough, even if the rock cake he’d taken to be polite had nearly glued Harry teeth together. It was worth it to watch Snape sit stoically sipping his tea while Hagrid’s boarhound Fang did its utmost to drool all over the Potion Master’s robes.

Back at Spinner’s End now though, Harry hurried up the creaking stairs to his room (and when had he started thinking of it as his?) to put away his trunk and things. Jax slithered out from Harry’s satchel on the bed and surveyed the room with a critical purple eye before instructing Harry exactly where he wanted his various warming rocks to be placed. He dutifully did as his friend said, taking a few of his own things out of his resized trunk as well. Mostly books to fill the empty shelves against one wall, but a few clothes into the closet as well. And some ink and parchment for the desk, all of his summer assignments still looming before him.

By the time he was finished, Harry was surprised to find the room looked much more... homey, than it had during the last summer. Also surprising was how little he had hesitated in spreading his things around the space, as if he expected to be there a long time. Like if Harry put enough of himself into it he could truly claim the room as his own. It was a nice thought, which led him to digging out some of the few trinkets and non-essentials he owned and setting them out as well.

A triangular Slytherin pennant he’d picked up at one of the Quidditch matches went up on the wall next to his bed. A muggle Rubik's cube that he couldn’t quite remember the origin of got set on his nightstand. And a few framed photographs of his friends were scattered around the bookcase. The overall effect of the small changes giving that slightly homey feeling from before and turning it up a few good notches into comfortable and undoubtedly his.

There was a knock on the door, making Harry jump, he’d been so distracted trying to dissect his way through the well of unexpected emotions he hadn’t heard the approaching steps.

“Come in.” He managed not to squeak, which was something at least.

Snape entered, he was still wearing the dark wool jumper and trousers he’d had on during their walk up to Spinner’s End, but had removed his shoes, leaving his feet in (black) socks; which no doubt had added to Harry’s lack of hearing the man.

The Potion Master glanced around the sparsely decorated room and Harry suddenly wondered if he should not have put quite so much of himself out into it, it wasn’t as if the room actually belonged to him, not really. But Snape just gave him a short, approving nod that had an unexpected wave of warmth rising up in Harry and he had to duck his head a bit to hide the grin that refused to be smothered completely.

“Dinner is ready.” Snape said, “After which, there is something I wish to discuss with you.”

“Yes, sir.” Harry went to the desk to scoop a grumbling Jax off of one of his rocks and followed the Potion Master down the stairs, curious.

Dinner was spaghetti bolognese that Snape had added a few spicy peppers into, with some still steaming garlic bread and a green salad. It was delicious and Harry was barely resisting the urge to lick his plate and get at the last bit of sauce there.

“There is more, if you so desire.” Snape quirked an eyebrow at him, sipping from his glass of red wine.

Harry quickly stepped over to the stove and loaded up his plate again. He’d nearly forgotten that Snape did not mind him eating his fill. At Hogwarts, he didn’t have to worry about such things, but this was not Hogwarts. It was an annoying tick in his brain that equated a house with hunger and misery. When if he just took a moment to think, Harry would realize that it had never been so at Spinner’s End. He wondered if such instincts would fade over time, or if the Dursleys had messed him up forever.

“Thank you, it’s really good.” Harry told Snape, if only to distract himself from his own thoughts. “I like the peppers.”

“I thought you might.” The man’s voice was amused as he twisted a few noodles onto his own fork.

After the dinner dishes were cleared away, Snape produced a round carton of mint ice cream from the freezer and dished them both up a bowl. The sight of the Potion Master eating anything so undignified as mint chip ice cream was enough to startle Harry into silence, not that they’d been talking much over the meal in any case.

“I wished to speak to you about furthering your practical skills in Occlumency.” Snape murmured, taking a small bite of his dessert.

It was enough to knock some sense into Harry so that he could start in on his own bowl before it became a soupy mess.

“I believe that the incident this year might have been more easily prevented, were you more fully prepared to guard against such intrusions.”

Harry could feel his shoulders hunching up and he took a too large bite of mint chip to stop himself from blurting out more apologies for his failures.

“Given that you held out for as long as you did is a good sign. It means you have a strong foundation set and it should not be difficult to build off of it.”

“But I wasn’t able to keep him out, not really.” Harry sighed, poking at the pale green contents of his bowl. “He had me sleepwalking a lot and completely took me over by the end.”

Harry was grateful he couldn’t really remember that part. Whenever he tried, it was like the impression of a half-forgotten night terror, he did not try often.

“True. But I believe your habit of clearing your mind before bed held him off for longer than he would perhaps admit.”

It was a bittersweet comfort, but Harry was used to such things and he took it to heart anyway.

“So what else do you want to teach me? The barrier thing right? To keep others out of my head?”

“Yes, along with training you to recognize when such a thing occurs. There are some very skilled Legilimens in the world, that if one did not know the signs to look for, could slip in and out of your mind without a hint of their passing.”

Harry shivered, not liking the idea of that one bit.

“Are you one of those people?” It was a blunt question, one he had not really meant to ask, but Snape just inclined his head.

“Indeed. Which was how I was able to enter your mind to confront the shade while you were otherwise... indisposed.”

Harry nodded, glad it had been Snape that had done so and not Dumbledore, which begged the question.

“The Headmaster?” Another nod.

“Very good, Harry. Though I caution spreading such news about, it is a somewhat closely guarded secret.”

“He doesn’t want to give away his dotty old man facade.” Harry snorted.

“Just so.” Snape gave him another little smirk, like they were sharing a private joke, and Harry scooped up the last of his ice cream to hide the smile that wanted to burst forth.

“So when did you want to start?”

“There is no time like the present, go into the sitting room. I shall join you momentarily.”

Harry scooted back from the table as Snape floated the bowls and spoons over to the sink and started the whole pile to washing themselves. Harry and Jax retreated to their usual chair, settling into the warn fabric with another restrained grin. Jax nuzzled at his temple, knocking Harry’s glasses askew.

You are happy.” The snake said as Harry scratched under his chin, “This is good. You should be so far more often.

Harry rolled his eyes and was saved from trying to answer such a statement by the Potion Master stepping into the room and taking the other armchair.

“To begin, I will explain what makes a good mental barrier.” Snape had assumed his lecturing tone, and Harry made sure to pay close attention. “Some picture walls, but I find such things to be unnecessarily vulnerable. Can you tell me why?”

Harry thought about it for a moment, before answering hesitantly. “They can be climbed over? Or dug under? Or broken through?”

“Very good. The problem with picturing a physical barrier is that it will have those selfsame physical limitations and weaknesses. It does not matter if you reinforce your wall with the strongest bricks when the enemy could simply tunnel underneath.”

“What do you use?”

“A fog, paired with a constant buzz of white noise. Somewhat more difficult to maintain than picturing a simple wall, but I have found it to be most effective.”

Harry tried to imagine it, an endless field of rolling fog, where he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. It was harder to keep up than he’d thought, shadows and forms constantly trying to break through the soupy surroundings. It also made him somewhat uncomfortable, not being able to see everything going on around him, as ridiculous as that sounded, it being his own mind. But nevertheless, Harry shoved the attempt away after only a moment.

“I don’t think that’s the one for me, sir.”

“No?” Snape hmm’s, resting his elbows on the arms of the chair and folding his hands together in front of his mouth in a contemplative gesture, his long pointer fingers making a triangle. “Perhaps not. I want you to think on it and tomorrow we shall begin work on whatever you have come up with. For now, I would like to enter your mind once more, so that you might get a feel for what such a thing is like.”

Harry grimace slightly, not liking the sound of that. But he liked the idea of being possessed again a lot worse and so gave a jerky sort of nod and tensed, bracing himself for whatever Snape was about to throw at him.

“Relax, I will not prob as deeply as before. Clear your mind. I want you to attempt to force me out if you are able.”

“Okay.” Harry tried to loosen the grip his hands had on the armchair, reaching for that placid calmness, and met Snape’s black eyes with more daring than he actually truly felt.

Legilimens.” The word was softly murmured, the last thing Harry heard before his vision went dark.

A burst of color and sound followed quickly on the heels of the darkness, a flash of images swirling by before settling on Harry’s library of endless memory-books. He watched in fascination as a random tome flew off the shelf to float before him, the pages ruffling in an imaginary breeze before revealing a scene spread across them. It was from one of his tutoring lessons with Neville, an early one by the looks of it. Harry watched as the Gryffindor nearly dumped in a full tablespoon of powdered doxy wings instead of the required half. Harry had grabbed onto the other boy's wrist to stop him from dousing them in another batch of half-finished potion, before just as quickly letting go. Neville hadn’t yelled at him for grabbing at him, just grinned and thanked him and measured out the correct dosage.

The book slammed shut and Harry suddenly remembered he was supposed to be doing something. He’d been so caught up in watching his old memory that he’d completely forgone the point of the exercise. As the book dropped to the floor and another took its place, Harry tried to feel out Snape’s presence in his head. There was something there, an odd sensation but too slippery to pinpoint.

The new memory being brought forth was not as nice as the last one: primary school, before he’d gotten Jax. Dudley had just shoved him into a mud puddle and was laughing uproariously with all his little friends as Harry struggled to get back to his feet. Only to be tripped up again by his own too big shoes and landing with a big splat back in the mud. Dudley laughed louder.

Embarrassed by the spectacle Harry tried to force the memory away, only for another replace it. His Aunt Marge and her yappy little monster dogs chasing him up a tree. At least Jax had been with him that time, so they could pretend not to be scared together.

Harry pushed again, the memories coming more rapidly, each one seemingly chained to the next, getting worse and worse until it ended with his hands on Quirrell's melting face and Harry screamed. Forcing everything away in a rush of pure energy, he didn’t want to see that. He didn’t want Snape to see, to feel how much Harry had wanted to hurt, to kill the man who was mortally threatening his friends. The only friends he had...

“Harry. Calm down, it’s over.” Snape’s deep, slow voice pulled Harry back from the edges of a panic attack and he took a deep breath followed by another and another, until his heart had calmed down and he was able to look up with dry eyes again.

Jax was huddled close, wrapped around his right arm, and Harry gave the snake a fond stroke before facing Snape once more. The man was much closer than Harry was expecting, kneeling down in front of him with a hard look to his face. Harry sighed.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t do it. I felt you there, but the memories were coming too fast, it was like I couldn’t get a grip on anything.”

“I would have been exceedingly surprised had you managed it in your first try.” Snape soothed, his features softening somewhat, giving Harry the impression that the man was not upset that he had failed, so much by what he had seen. Thankfully, he did not seem to want to talk about it right then, as the man stood to retake his seat without further comment on the matter.

“What you did at the end was good instinct, if a bit extreme and energy draining, a last ditch option if nothing else.”

Harry nodded, he could feel the heaviness in his limbs, as if he’d been running a few laps around the Quidditch pitch.

“Are you up to attempting it again?” Snape’s voice was even, giving the impression that he would not mind Harry’s answer either way, but Harry knew he needed to learn this. No matter how difficult, or painful, it might end up being.

So he took a final deep breath and nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Snape gave him an approving nod, and Harry thought he could detect something like pride in the man’s dark eyes before he murmured the incantation again and everything rushed to blackness.

Chapter Text

Harry laid awake that night, listening to the couple a few houses down have a screaming row, contemplating just what he could use for his Occlumency shield. The indistinct shouting was not as bothersome as Harry might have once found it. It was certainly far and away from the icy, heavy silences that had permeated the cookie cutter couples of Privet Drive. Which was reason enough to dismiss it as background noise while he brooded up at the ceiling.

There were tiny scorch marks up there, scattered over the discolored paint. And Harry could easily imagine a teenage Snape scowling up at the same dull landscape, maybe the marks came from him wanting to make the sight more interesting. Or perhaps he was just shooting at bugs. Either way, it was an amusing enough thought to set Harry snickering quietly.

Jax wriggled against his stomach at the disturbance the quiet laughter made of his living bed. Harry soothed the serpent with an absent hand, running his fingers gently over the smooth scales.

He did not like the idea of Snape’s dense fog, as obscuring as something like that could be. It made Harry feel claustrophobic and twitchy. He considered briefly a complex and twisting hedge maze, filled with dead ends and trick turns that sent one around in circles, before dismissing the idea as overly taxing. The illusion would be hard to keep up, and his own urge to see the end of it might prove more harmful than not.

No, it needed to be something simple, but not weak or vulnerable to easy manipulation. No walls, or mazes or long hallways with too many doors.

But try as he might, Harry couldn’t think of anything that felt right. Every idea he came up with had holes in it or was too abstract a concept for him to keep hold of for long. It was frustrating, and Harry could feel the beginnings of a headache start to pound at this temples. He glared up at the scorched ceiling, as if it were to blame for his lack of creativity or mental fortitude. He just, he couldn’t think of anything. Nothing seemed right... nothing...

Harry let out a surprised huff as the realization hit him.

Nothing.

He closed his eyes against the singed ceiling and imagined it: a vast, empty space. White and filled with nothing for as far as his mind’s eye could see. Blank and endless in all directions, no shadows or flickering light, not even a speck of dirt to discolor the large space. There were no walls to climb, or maze to traverse. No fog to burn through or even any markers to show where the white floor met with an equally bleached horizon. Above him stretched the same sort of blankness, empty and impossible to determine just how high all that white stretched. As if the place existed out of space and time, the only thing distinguishing the ground from the sky was Harry’s own assumption that he would be standing in this place, and therefore there must be a place to set his feet. But he knew if he were to try and walk further, to find an end to this vast nothingness, that there would be just that: nothing. Nothing ahead, nothing behind, nothing above or below. Just whiteness, that stretched on forever. Or perhaps looped back to your starting point. Or maybe tricked you into not moving at all.

Harry opened his eyes, a smirk twisting its way onto his features. Yes, that was the one. He wondered what Snape might think of his solution, if the man would approve. Harry thought he might, it was the sort of cleverness the Potion Master strived to instill in the students of his House.

The couple from down the row had finished their domestic and now the only sounds came from a neighbor’s droning telly turned up too loud for the late hour and the occasional chirp of crickets from the down by the dirty river. Harry relaxed further back into his bed, a sense of satisfaction seeping into him as he began the familiar routine of calming his mind before sleep.

It was good to be back at Spinner’s End. As dingy as the place might be, it was still nice. Not overly crowded with hundreds of students who still stared at him, seeing The-Boy-Who-Lived. Or fearing him to be the Heir of Slytherin and that he might be coming after them next, that his defeat of the Dark Lord had only been a sign of his own inevitable rise towards the same. A ridiculous notion, but one that Harry was all too aware was whispered about the corridors by gossipy and far too impressionable students.

Things had calmed down somewhat, towards the end of the year. Harry just hoped a summer away from everything would help to put the matter behind him. Though given his luck so far, Harry somehow doubted he’d ever be truly left alone to just get on with his education as he wanted. The best he could probably hope for was to try and gain control over things before they overwhelmed him, or ensnared him in their own tangled webs.

Those were worries for another time though. For now, Harry just let the calmness of the Occlumency help him drift to a restful sleep. One free of the nightmares that had plagued him for so long, but also by conjunction, empty of any dreams as well. It was a fair enough compromise, Harry supposed, as sleep finally took him. Things could have been far worse.

~~~~~~~>

“Again, Mr. Potter.” Snape’s voice was stern, but not terribly unkind.

Harry held in a sigh and gripped his wand tighter, taking a slightly shaky breath to try and calm his nerves. It was mid morning and they had been at this for the better part of two hours.

Snape had indeed approved of his idea. Harry thought he even caught a glimmer of something like pride in the man’s black eyes as Harry explained it over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and fried mushrooms. Harry hadn’t dare look too long, in case he was mistaken, and instead tried to tempt Jax with a bit of egg. The snake had flicked a tongue out dubiously, tasting the air before snatching the bite up with a lightning quick snap.

It’s all weird and squishy.” Jax hissed but didn’t turn his snout up at another offering.

After breakfast, Snape had started in on explaining the fundamentals of constructing a good Occlumency shield. What one should do and not do, and how to maintain a strong defense of the mind while not losing your bearings with the world around you. Concentrating too hard on one aspect had the potential of leaving you vulnerable to the other, which could lead to far more disastrous situations than anyone would prefer. Harry had asked Snape to pause in his lecture so he could run up to his room and grab something to take notes with, finding a spare journal in his trunk and a muggle biro in the desk before hurdling back down the stairs.

Snape had quirked an eyebrow at him, but Harry figured the man was more amused than annoyed at the interruption and continued on with his explanation as Harry scribbled away. He also handed over a stack of three books in varying thickness on the subject. Well, two books and what looked like a published journal.

“You are to read those promptly, paying particular attention to the varying symptoms and consequences described in here.” The man taped a long finger on the journal that rested at the top of the pile. “It is a very detailed overview on the different methods of slipping into another’s mind and what damage might be done by those incompetent enough to think they can just barge in like a rampaging hippogriff with no regard to the proper finesse required of Mind magic.”

“I thought I was learning Occlumency, not Legilimency.” Harry said, curious.

“It is much easier to guard against weapons one is familiar with than to try and blindly struggle against the unknown.” Snape had stated, words heavy with the weight of experience in such things. “But you are correct, I will not be teaching you Legilimency. At least not until I feel you have mastered Occlumency to my satisfaction, and certainly not before you come of age. It is a dangerous magic, not only to yourself, but to any you might feel need to use it upon. Defense of one’s own mind is an important and vital endeavor. Offense in the same measure is a completely different matter entirely.”

Harry felt a peculiar twist of warmth at the idea that Snape was apparently planning to still be around guiding Harry so many years into the future. He was nearly thirteen now and wizards came of age at seventeen. That meant at least four more years around the man, and perhaps more, if this promise of Legilimency tutelage was true. The thought was far more comforting than Harry might have liked to admit, but he secreted away the hope in any case.

After the lecture had come more of the practical lessons from the night before. Although this time, Snape had urged him to put forth his shield to try and prevent the invasion. The first attempt had been a bit shaky, the white space holding fast against Snape’s will for a few solid moments before cracks started appearing along the edges, spider webbing all around the mindscape until it looked more like a jagged salt flat than a perfect stretch of nothing. It hadn’t taken long for the Potion Master to push through after that.

“An acceptable first effort.” Snape had murmured, as Harry blinked away the vision of Jax wriggling unhappily in the snow at the park down the way from number four.

“But it didn’t take you long at all to break it.” Harry bit at his lip to stop any more whining words from falling out.

“No, indeed it did not.” Snape agreed, not unkindly but also with a particularly self-satisfied quirk to mouth, “But you must remember, I am a Master in both Occlumency and Legilimency. The method you chose is a solid one that merely needs refining and strengthening. Which can only be achieved through practice, so we shall do so every morning until you are able to keep me out.”

Harry had nodded and squared his shoulders, determined; bringing up his sea of empty white once more. That had been nearly an hour ago and he’d made very little progress in shoring up his defenses, at least as far as he could tell. Snape did not seem surprised at his continued failure, but Harry could not help but feel a bit discouraged at not making more progress.

The man called a halt to the lesson not long after, and Harry gladly took the opportunity to go outside for a walk. His head was aching and he felt drained from the effort of trying to force another away from his mind over and over. He’d cheated a bit on the last one, sending an instinctive Stinging Hex at Snape as the man rifled through his memories too quickly to truly comprehend what he saw. Well, at least Harry hoped that to be the case. He was not exactly proud of the humiliations the Dursleys had shoved upon him and how very much of his mind was taken up with the scenes.

He’d apologized swiftly as Snape rubbed at the red welt that had appeared on his pale wrist, worried he’d surely be punished for such an act. But the Potion Master had just leveled an approving smirk at him.

“Very good, Mr. Potter. One of the easiest ways to force an unwanted presence from your mind is to distract said presence with something else, breaking their concentration. You should always remember that just because they are playing at mind games, you should not limit yourself to such in return. For the purposes of this lesson however, I ask that you concentrate on forcing me away with only your mind. You may be able to catch an unwary opponent off guard once or twice, but one should never rely on that solely. You need to build up your defenses so that such offensive measures are not necessary.”

“Yes, sir.”

Snape had shooed him away then, and Harry had not hesitated in making his escape, scooping Jax up from his spot snoozing in the singular thin strip of sunlight cutting across the floor from the half-covered window.

Outside the air was not exactly fresh, but it was open so Harry was not about to complain. He chatted quietly with Jax about the lessons, which the snake heartily approved of, given the scare Harry had put him through a few months ago.

He had to slither up under Harry’s shirt to wrap around his waist like a living belt when they got to a more populated part of the village. Harry had unconsciously brought them toward the only record shop in Cokeworth, which was as good a place as any to distract himself with.

The building was squat and made of brick, though those bricks were as dirty as the rest of the village seemed to be and covered in band posters and tattered flier for shows long past. There was a gaggle of rough looking older teenagers huddled outside it, smoking and joking around. Harry walked past them without drawing their attention, a skill he’d perfected the summer before, and pushed into the shop. There was music on overhead, some American band with high pitched vocals and lots of intricate electric guitar. Harry made a beeline for the corner that held the newer punk and alternative releases and began to flip through them. There was a new Bad Religion album, it’s cover red with dog-headed men barking up from it, Recipe for Hate.

Harry liked that band, he’d listened to Generator on a loop for hours when he’d picked it up last summer. And Snape never complained when he put Suffer on the turntable in the sitting room. Although given it was the man’s own vinyl, the point was perhaps moot. Harry grabbed an LP and the smaller tape version for himself, wondering if he could slip the album into Snape’s collection without the man noticing. Neither of them were particularly good at receiving gifts, but Harry felt the need to repay the Potion Master in some way for everything he’d done.

He’d just picked up another tape to inspect, the greenness of it catching his eye, when a voice sounded from right next to him.

“Oh, Propagandhi, they’re right wicked. Do you like ‘em?” Harry managed not to jump at the sudden appearance of another boy, if only barely.

The boy was wearing a wrinkled tee shirt with a logo too faded for Harry to make out and denims that had a rip in one knee. They were of a height, which was either a sign that Harry was finally growing or that this boy had also drawn the proverbial short straw. He had a ring through his nose and bright blue hair that was going brown at the roots and spiked to within an inch of its life with product. Unlike Harry’s that seemed to stick up all over the place no matter what he wished. The smile that stretched over his face was boyish and filled with crooked teeth, but far more genuine than many that Harry had seen in a long time.

“Um.” He managed to stutter out after a too long moment of staring. “I’ve never, erm, heard them before.”

The other boy laughed, but it wasn’t a cruel sound or mocking. “Oh, they’re brilliant! Here, jus’ a sec...” He began digging in the pockets of his ratty denims before pulling out the familiar shape of a walkman, taking the battered looking headphones from around his neck and holding them out to Harry. “Here, I was actually listening to them earlier.”

Harry hesitated a moment before sliding the headphones on over his own ears, the boy grinned wider and pressed play. There was a loud staccato of drums, it was obviously in the middle of a song still.

Mark my point of failing. It began where I gave in.
Comfort. Convenience. Placating. Construed to suck me in, to their trap.

Harry felt a smile tugging at his own lips as he listened, it was good. The other boy laughed again, loud enough that Harry could hear it over the cursing in the music. He handed the headphones back when the song finished.

“Thanks.” He said, feeling awkward but pleased at the new discovery, he grabbed a tape from the display, he definitely wanted one now.

“Name’s Liam.” The boy, Liam, said; sticking out a hand. “Haven't seen you 'round here before, did you just move in?”

“Oh no, not really.” Harry replied, taking the hand more on instinct than anything. “I go to a boarding school for most of the year.”

Liam wrinkled his nose at the thought, the ring set through it glinting in the light of the shop.

“Bad luck, mate.”

“It’s not so terrible.” Harry shrugged, “I’m Evan.”

The lie came easy, after so many years.

He and Liam spent a good long while talking about music until the shop owner came over to growl at them about loitering. So Harry was quick to buy his selections and they went down to the corner shop to get a couple fizzy drinks and a bag of crisps to share between them.

Liam, Harry had figured out, was the sort of person to find happiness in everything around him. No matter the dreariness of Cokeworth pressing in around them, or Harry’s own less than stellar casual conversation skills. It reminded him of Mr. Jacobi, a bit, the way the boy always seemed to have a smile ready.

It was refreshing, talking to a kid his own age that held no preconceived notions about him. About how he was a Slytherin, about how he was Harry Potter. As if he were just another regular boy, without any real burdens or scars or expectations, that liked punk music and didn’t mind listening to someone else jabber on for far too long.

Harry returned to Spinner’s End later than he’d planned, but it was with a lighter heart than when he’d left on his walk. Jax slipped out from his hiding spot, teasing Harry a bit about making a new friend. But he could tell the snake was pleased to see him less broody than he’d been the past few weeks.

Snape was nowhere to be seen, so Harry took the opportunity to slip the new album away into the expanded cubby under the turntable and bring the rest of his things upstairs. His headache had dissipated to near nonexistence, so he figured it was as good a time as any to start in on the books Snape had set him. A fresh determination to master this aspect of magic. He never wanted to be as vulnerable as he’d been before. He wanted to be able to feel as carefree as Liam seemed, and knew he’d never even come close when he knew of all the horrors that might befall him at any given moment. The best thing Harry could think to do to lessen that fear was to strengthen his defenses against such threats. Until one day he might not feel the need to keep looking over his shoulder.

So he sat on his bed, cracked open the first of the three books and set to work.

Chapter Text

The apothecary was just as Harry had left it, at least on the main shop floor. The jars of ingredients all neatly lined up and facing out in the shelves. The modest stack of cauldrons only teetering slightly next to the display of different vials and flasks. And the singular bookcase still filled to bursting with exotic and mundane potion titles alike. His apron and green striped bandana were just where he’d left them and Harry had donned them as soon as Snape had dropped him off with a scowl, feeling something settle inside him that had a smile tugging at his mouth despite Harry’s best efforts to remain stoic.

The back office was another matter entirely.

Ezra!

There was a thunk from the front of the shop and the sound of muffled cursing, followed by a hasty apology and the jingle of the door chime a moment later. Harry spent the entirety of the time it took Mr. Jacobi to sheepishly find his way back to the office to stare around the small room in utter horror. There were stacks of papers teetering on every available surface, piles of receipts and invoices and notes about inventory levels, interspersed with scraps of half-finished brewing recipes and old issues of The Prophet. There were cups of tea scattered all over, the dregs starting to form new life in more than a few of them and Harry had to stop Jax from trying to poke his head into a particularly colorful specimen.

“Oh, ah, right.” Mr. Jacobi said from behind him and Harry turned to see the man rubbing at his shaved head with one square-fingered hand and giving Harry a lopsided sort of grin as he eyed the disaster that was his office. “I meant to clean this up before you got here.”

Harry continued to gape, words failing him so that he was only able to flap his hands at the towering piles.

“It’s not that bad, I know where everything is.” Ezra huffed, reaching out to try and neaten a stack, only to have it overbalance and spill out onto the floor. “Oops.”

Harry buried his face in one hand and pointed to the door with the other.

“I’ll er, leave you to it then?” Mr. Jacobi demurred, gingerly stepping away from the mess and retreating back the way he’d come. He looked as if he might say something else but the door chime sounded again, heralding the arrival of another customer and the man took the opportunity to flee.

I think there’s half a ginger newt under here.” Jax hissed with far more excitement than Harry might wish from under the desk, he quickly snatched the snake up before he ate something he really really shouldn’t.

He wasn’t even here for a few months, how did it manage to get like this?” Harry grumbled as he started gathering up all the crockery first.

Oooh, that one smells like that weird grabby moss from the school greenhouse. Remember? It stuck to that mean Parkinson girl’s robes and refused to let go.

Harry smirked a little at the memory, Parkinson had ended up having to ditch her robes entirely. Which she’d complained about nonstop for the rest of the day, until Blaise had made a snide comment about their less than fashionable make that finally got her to shut up about it. Harry was extra careful to not touch the dark, slightly fuzzy substance that covered the bottom of the cup in question.

It took the better part of the afternoon to wrangle the office to rights, or as close as Harry could manage that day.

Ezra, in a blatant show of bribery, had ordered Harry’s favorite lunch from Puri’s. So he supposed he could forgive the man this time.

~~~~~~~>

When he wasn’t at the apothecary or practicing Occlumency, Harry and Jax helped Snape in the garden. The Potion Master even let them into the little greenhouse in the corner, as long as he was also present. The place was magically expanded in the inside, although still not as big as the ones at school. Snape’s held a vast amount of differing plants used in brewing and Harry found himself fascinated despite his less than enthusiastic view of Herbology in general. Jax loved the greenhouse, though Harry suspected it was equal parts the contents and how warm and humid the space was.

On a particularly blazing day about two weeks into the summer holidays, Harry was helping Snape weed the singing violets. They were just starting to push up from the ground, not yet at the stage to even start humming. He was in a tee-shirt and shorts to try and escape some of the heat and eyeing Snape from the corner of his eye as the man pushed long fingered hands into the dark earth and expertly pulled out any unwanted flora, still stubbornly covered completely in spite of the beating sun.

Harry had an inkling of why the man was punishing himself, but didn’t really know if it was his place to say anything.

When they broke for a lunch of chilled gazpacho and ice water, Harry figured it probably couldn’t hurt to ask. And if the Potion Master got offended or angry, Harry and Jax could just go take a walk or something. So, taking a fortifying gulp of almost too cold water, Harry spoke.

“I don’t mind, you know.” He told his bowl of half gone tomato soup, “If you want to roll up your sleeves, it’s pretty hot out today.”

There was silence from the other side of the small table for long enough that Harry dragged his eyes up to see Snape sitting there with a pensive look on his face, the knuckles of the hand holding his spoon were white.

“I... see.” Snape murmured finally, setting his spoon down into his bowl.

He didn’t say anything else and Harry felt a flush rising up the back of his own neck that had nothing to do with being out in the sun for so long.

They finished lunch in awkward silence, but about twenty minutes after returning to the garden Snape did indeed tuck the long sleeves of his shirt up near his elbows. He didn’t look at Harry while he did so, and Harry tried not to stare at the Dark Mark marring the white flesh of the man’s left forearm. The sight of the faded tattoo made something twist in Harry’s gut, but it wasn’t anger or hatred, it was sadness that this man had gone through so much. Made such awful choices that Harry knew he felt he needed to continue to pay for.

Harry hoped Snape would find some semblance of happiness one day. He’d helped Harry find more than he’d ever thought possible, shivering in the dark of his cupboard at number four.

~~~~~~~>

Harry met up with Liam, the blue haired boy from the music shop, a couple times a week during his first month back at Spinner’s End. The other boy always had a smile on his face and a new tape in his walkman that he would share with Harry as they sat on the sidewalk or walked the banks of the dirty river. Harry would return the favor with music of his own, he’d managed to make a copy of each Thestral Sight album and had only hesitated a moment before passing over his own headphones to Liam, feeling a bit rebellious with the act. Muggles sang about magic and fantastical things all the time though, so it wasn’t as if he were compromising their entire society by sharing some music.

“Oh this is awesome!” Liam had grinned, speaking louder than he needed to over the music in his ears. Harry felt a smile slipping over his own face at the other boy’s enthusiasm and the way he started bobbing with the galloping drums.

Liam also liked Jax, which was another big point in his favor. Harry hadn’t meant for them to meet, but Liam had happened upon them as they were wandering around the dilapidated playground a few blocks over from Spinner’s End. Jax was slung across his shoulders and stretched up to see if he could touch the top of the swing set with his snout.

“Hey, Evan! Is that a snake?” Liam had called from halfway across the park, waving both hands frantically, “Wicked!

Harry had jumped and tried to hide Jax for a moment before realizing the futility of the action as Liam was already jogging over, nearly tripping over the loose laces of his tatty black Converse. There was a big grin spreading over his features and he was panting a little by the time he reached Harry, holding up a hand.

“Can I pet it? When did you get a snake? Where did you get a snake? What kind is it? I’ve never seen a green and purple snake before, I didn’t even know they came in purple. It looks so cool.”

Harry blinked at the other boy, startled at the sheer amount of word vomit pouring out of his mouth. Jax was preening at all the attention, rising up and flicking his tongue out at Liam as the boy caught his breath.

“This is Jax,” Harry said eventually, tickling his snake under the chin to stop him looking so smug. “I’ve had him since I was little. I don’t know what breed he is.” Which was true enough, and as far as Harry was willing to go into the matter. Music was one thing, but confirming the existence of real magical beings was another entirely.

“Can I hold him?” Liam held up his hand again, there was chipped black nail polish on his fingers.

Harry glanced at Jax, quirking an eyebrow, and the snake predictably slithered off of Harry and into the enthusiastic embrace of the other boy.

“He’s so smooth, an’ pretty. Yes you are.” Liam was petting Jax with a wonder on his face that Harry had only ever seen on Draco Malfoy. Jax submitted to the treatment with all the grace and regality owed a serpent of his status, Harry magnanimously refrained from rolling his eyes at the display.

~~~~~~~>

It was on a particularly drizzly day that Snape stopped him from leaving to go to the apothecary.

“What are you wearing, Mr. Potter?”

Harry stopped in his tracks, one foot hanging awkwardly in the air before he regained enough momentum to set it back down. Looking over his hunched shoulders, Harry could see Snape setting a heavy book aside and rising from his armchair. There was an unreadable expression on his face as he eyed Harry’s jacket. The one he’d grabbed without a second thought as he’d seen the rain out his window. The one that did not actually belong to him.

Harry could feel the flush rising up in his cheeks, and he turned around fully to face the man, shoulders hunching further into the still over-large dark denim.

“Is that my jacket?” Snape asked, black eyes flicking over the article in question, face still impassive.

“It was in my closet.” Harry blurted, clenching his hands where they hid in the pockets of the jacket. “I lost my hoodie at school.” Which was true enough, even if he’d taken the jacket far before that.

“I see.” Snape stopped before him, “If you require replacement garments, a trip to London can be arranged. There is no need for you to wear cast-offs any longer.”

Harry blinked. Was Snape not upset that he’d nicked the jacket? Just that Harry was wearing a hand-me-down when they both knew full well that he had the money to buy a replacement. Harry thought of their Occlumency lessons, about how Snape had seen what he’d been forced into for years. He felt his shoulders relax somewhat and managed to meet Snape’s eye with less burning guilt.

“I don’t mind.” And he didn’t, not really.

Somehow this was different than wearing his cousin’s way-too-baggy trousers and ratty shirts that dwarfed his frame no matter how he layered them. Maybe because he’d chosen this one, or that it had no connection to his hateful relatives, or something else less fraught with emotion. “I like it.”

He picked at the slightly frayed cuff that still hung over his knuckles slightly, but not nearly as far they had when he’d first absconded with the jacket.

Snape quirked an eyebrow at him, a glimmer of amusement making its way past the blankness of his features.

“Indeed?” The man hmm’d, eyeing Harry a moment longer as he shuffled awkwardly in front of him, before pulling his wand out and tapping it against the dark fabric in a few precise motions. “If you insist upon wearing it, I would rather it fit you properly.”

Harry felt the shoulders of the jacket constrict, settling on his frame in a much snugger manner than before. The sleeves pulling up to no longer engulf his hands. And the overall length shrinking so that when Harry glanced down he saw that he no longer looked as if he were playing dress up but as if the garment had been his size all along.

He shot a quick grin up at Snape, who waved a hand as if to dismiss the kindness, before moving to return to his book.

“Try and be back before nightfall, I believe the moon flowers will blossom tonight and I could use the assistance in harvesting them.”

“Yes, sir.” Harry replied, one hand on the doorknob. “And... thank you.” He darted out of Spinner’s End before giving Snape a chance to reply, turning the collar of his new-old jacket up against the dripping rain.

~~~~~~~>

Letters from his friends were more frequent this summer than they had been during the last. Blaise wrote multiple times a week and Harry felt a warmth spread through him every time he came down the stairs to see a slightly scorched letter waiting for him on the hearth. Draco had written a couple times as well, the missives pleasant enough, though the blonde never hinted at inviting him over to the manor. For which Harry was grateful, he did not think he could stand to face Lord Malfoy just yet, knowing what he’d done, unwitting of the true consequences his spiteful actions had had or not. Draco, at least, seemed to understand that. Harry wanted to ask how he’d managed to explain away a missing Dobby, but he didn’t want to risk getting the blonde in trouble so he just sent back equally pleasant-sounding letters and resigned himself to waiting for those answers.

Neville had sent a few letters as well, the latest of which confirming their plans to meet up in a couple days to celebrate their mutual birthdays. It was about a week before either of their actual birthdays, but apparently Neville’s Gran wanted to take a trip to the continent that was to last a good portion of the rest of their summer. Harry was looking forward to visiting Neville, he had never slept over at a friend’s before, so it would be an interesting experience if nothing else.

Even Millicent had sent a couple short notes, one of which included a moving picture of her cat Maximus knocking over a vial of something that the ended up turning his fur bright green in patches. He’d sent back a photo of Jax chasing a mouse around the garden that managed to dart just out of reach and caused the snake to smash face first into the side of the greenhouse. And although you couldn’t hear it in the photo, Harry still snickered at the loud hissing curses the serpent had thrown at the escaped rodent as he slithered dejectedly back to Harry; who slipped the pouting snake a bit of roasted potato he’d saved from breakfast that morning.

~~~~~~~>

The Occlumency lessons were slowly but surely improving. Harry had managed to push Snape out of his mind on three separate occasions. Although it had taken a large amount of will and concentration to do so, Harry still felt proud of the accomplishment. Snape had even congratulated him on the last time, when he's been able to do it without even a crack forming in his vast nothing-scape.

“Very good, Mr. Potter. I do believe it is time for the next step.” The man had said, tapping his wand against the palm of his hand and sparing Harry a slightly sharp smirk.

“Sir?”

“Now that you are able to push me away, I wish you to do so while keeping your eyes open and answering simple questions as well.”

Harry wasn’t quite sure he could manage that, but gave the Potion Master a nod all the same and squared his shoulders in preparation.

He brought up his shield, the blankness already more difficult to maintain with the additional sensory input.

Legilimens.” The now familiar sense of something other probing at his mind rushed over him and Harry struggled to keep his eyes open instead of immediately closing them, even as he pushed at it.

“How many scarab wings go into a Cooling Solution?” Snape’s low voice broke through his tentative concentration.

“Four.” The answer popped out without much thought, but it was still a distraction enough to create cracks and fissures that Snape had no trouble wriggling through to get at his memories.

Harry slammed his eyes shut and pushed with all his might at the intrusion, not as satisfied as he might have been when the presence was forced out after only rifling through a couple pages of his mental books.

“An acceptable first attempt.” The Potion Master stated, neither praise nor disparagement. “Again.”

And so it went for the rest of the hour. Even though Harry could not see any improvement on his end, the fact that Snape had not halted the lessons immediately and given Harry up for less than useless was a good sign, he supposed. Harry just wished he was better at this, that it came to him as naturally as it seemed to Snape.

At least he was better at this than Charms, Harry snorted to himself later that night.

And even if he was slow in progressing, Harry knew it would be worth it in the end. And that Snape would see him through to it, even if it did take until he was of age to do so. Clicking off his bedside light, Harry cleared his mind in preparation for sleep. At least that act had become second nature, he barely had to think about it to bring about the detached calmness the practice gave him.

He laid a protective hand over Jax’s snoozing form coiled on his chest, and let sleep take him.

Chapter Text

The Longbottom Estate differed from Malfoy Manor in a few distinct ways. While both families obviously came from an obscene amount of money and had most likely resided on their appointed lands for longer than many of the current wizarding families had existed, they were still wholly different from one another. Where Malfoy Manor was cold marble and meticulously kept gardens, the Longbottom Estate tended more towards warm woods and sprawling riotous flower beds at the front of the large mansion and numerous rows of exotic and mundane plants alike in the expansive back grounds. Or at least a good sectioned off portion of them that Neville bashfully toured Harry around after showing him the guest room.

“Gran lets me plant most things, as long as I can keep them alive.” Neville said with a little heard hint of personal pride, “I don't think she quite thought I'd manage this much.”

He spread his arms as if to encompass the entirety of the large garden. It was at least two and half times the size of Snape’s modest plot at Spinner’s End and there were even a couple of squat greenhouses further along the gravel path that bisected the long rows of plants, although the glass panes on one of them seemed to be darkened against the sun so completely that Harry doubted even a sliver of light could find its way through. It must be boiling in there and he really did not want to contemplate what sorts of magical plants called for such conditions.

“How long have you been at this?” Harry’s asked, content enough to have Neville babble on about his passion while he and Jax took in their surroundings.

“Oh, I think I first started playing in the dirt as soon as I could toddle out of the house.” Neville chuckled, leading them on a slow walk around the grounds, stopping now and then to poke or prod at seemingly random foliage. Some of the things seemed to just be starting to poke out of the dark tilled earth, while others were already reaching high towards the warmth of the summer sun; all of them obviously well tended to and loved. It was nice, and Harry found himself with the dubious sensation of being mildly jealous of a bunch of plants.

“Gran hated it of course.” Neville continued with one of his self-deprecating smiles that Harry had been trying to rid the boy of for nearly two full years now. “As I was always making a mess of my nice clothes and dragging in all sorts of dirt and pretty leaves and grass.”

Harry suppressed a wince, remembering how his aunt would shriek whenever he so much as tracked in a speck of dirt after spending all afternoon tending to her roses. Dudley never got yelled at, or slapped, or denied dinner when he left trails of mud from the door, up the stairs and to his main bedroom. Which happened considerably more often than Harry not managing to knock off all the dirt on his shoes before venturing inside.

“I guess she finally just decided to indulge me a little and let me plant a few flowers, probably expected me to lose interest, but here we are.” This was said with a bit of a chuckle and Harry spared his friend a small smile as they wound there way past the garden to the rest of the grounds.

There was an expansive lawn that held a large gazebo made of a warm reddish wood, it had padded benches running along its sides and a metal table at the center with a few chairs circling it. Harry thought it would be a lovely place to have afternoon tea or to relax while reading a book. There was also a pond further along that was almost large enough to be classified a lake, it was flush with cattails and bordered with drooping willow trees. Harry could hear frogs croaking from somewhere and Jax was wriggling to be set loose to go chase them.

Later.” He admonished the snake quietly, as Neville showed them the little dock with its singular rowboat. Jax pouted but settled nonetheless.

“We could go out on the water sometime, if you want. Gran doesn’t like me going by myself after the last time I managed to tip it, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you were along to keep an eye on things.”

Harry had never been in a rowboat before, well other than the one that had taken them across the Black Lake to Hogwarts their first year. But that one had been driven by magic, he did not think it was quite the same.

“Sure.” Harry said, which earned another grin from Neville.

The other boy had the sleeves of his nice button down shirt rolled up to his elbows, revealing skin browned by the sun. Harry suspected Neville had tried to dress up a bit for when Snape dropped Harry off at his doorstep. A nice shirt and pressed trousers and his brown hair combed neatly. It was a bit of a relief as Harry had done the same, unsure what the protocol was for visiting friends for a sleep away. He did not feel so awkward in his tailored robes when it was clear that Neville had put forth the same effort.

It seemed to impress Augusta Longbottom as well, who Harry had been nervous about meeting since he did not know how she might feel about his rejecting her offer at the end of his first year. Well, Dumbledore's request of her to give him shelter. Either way, Harry still felt a twinge of guilt at snubbing it; even if in his heart he knew it to have been the correct decision.

Augusta Longbottom did not seem to harbor any ill will against him, however. Welcoming Harry and Snape in with a stern but not unkind manner. She was a formidable looking witch, tall and thin but with the sort of steel in her gaze that would make any sane person think twice before crossing her. She had instructed Neville to show Harry around the grounds while she had tea with Snape.

Harry had kind of wanted to know what the two were discussing, but at the same time he knew he should not push his luck with the austere woman. No matter the number of vultures she had glaring down at him from her hat.

They were headed back inside now though, with Neville giving him a brief tour of the mansion. It was a large building, like Malfoy Manor. But again, where the Manor was cold and extravagantly decorated, the Longbottom home felt much more lived in. With portraits hanging from the wall that held rolling landscapes and crashing seas as often as long dead family members. Everything seemed to be done in the same deep red wood as the gazebo outside and even if Harry could have done without the mounted heads of various creatures that seemed to dot every room, it still felt more welcoming than the echoing halls in Wiltshire.

“Is it just you and your Gran here?” Harry asked after a stretch of silence between them that was starting to turn the corner towards awkwardness.

“And the house elves.” Neville answered, leading Harry around an impressive library filled with stacks upon stacks of books with tall sweeping windows letting in lots of natural light. “We only have three though, Gran insists on doing a lot of work herself. Great Uncle Algie comes to visit a couple times a year, he threw me out a window once.”

Harry blinked at the other boy, “He what?” Even the Dursleys had never stooped to tossing Harry out of windows. Although that may have had more to do with the neighbors seeing than any objections towards defenestration.

Neville just laughed though.

“It wasn’t anything bad, he didn’t really mean to. You know how I’m not so great at stuff,” Harry opened his mouth to protest but Neville barreled on determinedly before he could get a word in edgewise, “they worried I was a Squib for the longest time and Great Uncle Algie was always trying to scare the magic out of me. He was hanging me out the window when I was about eight I think and got distracted when his wife came to offer him something for tea and he accidentally dropped me.”

Harry gaped at the other boy, but Neville just laughed again, “I was fine, Harry, I bounced. All the way down to the road. Everyone was so excited, I think Gran even cried a bit, if you can believe that.”

Harry gave a hesitant nod, he did not like the story, even if Neville seemed unaffected or even a little proud of finally doing something that made his Gran approve of him so much. You shouldn’t dangle children out of windows, especially if you’re unsure if they have magic or not. What if Neville had been a Squib? It seemed a terrible risk to take, just to see if your nephew fit into the box that you thought he should.

Harry did not think he cared much for Neville’s relatives.

He pushed the dark thoughts away as they headed back towards the sitting room that Augusta Longbottom was holding tea in. Snape was still there, sipping at a sturdy looking china cup on one end of a deep burgundy sofa embroidered with green vines and leaves that would not have been out of place in the jungles of Africa.

“Ah, there you boys are. Sit.” Augusta Longbottom demanded, Harry got the impression she rarely bothered asking for things. Harry could appreciate the briskness, if nothing else. “Be mindful of the saucer Neville.” She poured her grandson a cup of strong looking black tea, foregoing any added sugar before handing it to him.

“Yes, Gran.” Neville’s response seemed to be one he gave by route as he took the offered drink and managed not to clack the crockery together more than once or twice.

“Tea, Mr. Potter?” It did not sound like a request, but Harry nodded in any case, setting into the spot next to Snape. The Potion Master sent him the ghost of a wink as he took a sip of his own cup, Harry could feel himself relaxing a little at the gesture.

“Thank you, ma’am.” He said as she handed over a steaming cup of equally undoctored tea.

“You are quite welcome.”

She waited until he’d taken a sip before speaking again.

“I hear you’ve been very helpful in keeping my Neville on track with his schooling.”

Harry nodded, unsure of how he was supposed to respond.

“I wished to thank you, I know how difficult it can be to get the boy to pay attention, his mind does tend to wander so. I’ve no idea where he gets it from, certainly not from his father. Frank was always such a studious boy.”

Neville had shrunk back in his chair a bit, trying to hide a frown behind his tea. Harry had the feeling his friend was well used to being talked about like he wasn’t even in the room, something Harry himself could greatly sympathize with. He did not think he cared much for Augusta Longbottom, after all.

“Neville is pretty smart.” Harry said, instead of yelling at the old woman like he wanted to. “He doesn’t need all that much help.” The last part was a bit an untruth, but Harry knew the Gryffindor worked his butt off and he deserved to be recognized.

“You were top of our whole year in Herbology, weren’t you Neville?” He asked his friend, already aware of the answer but wanting to force her attention back onto the boy huddled in the chair next to her’s.

“Er, yeah, I suppose. But Hermione was pretty close behind me.” He demurred, as if incapable of accepting any sort of praise just for himself.

Harry rolled his eyes, “Granger was second behind me in Potions, but I still beat her out for the top spot, and so did you.”

Neville blushed and mumbled something, but looked pleased nonetheless.

Augusta Longbottom watched Harry for a long moment with her steely brown eyes before thrusting a plate of tiny jam biscuits at him.

“Take one, Jippy makes the blackcurrant preserve herself, it is quite delightful.”

Harry took one of the small flower-shaped biscuits more out of startlement than anything. She then offered the plate to Snape and finally Neville, who took a biscuit with a bewildered face. Harry could relate. He got the feeling this had been some sort of test, though to what ends he had no clue. Harry had apparently passed it in any case and conversation over tea took a turn towards a more comfortable topic until Snape had finished his and the older witch showed the man to the door.

“Behave yourself, Mr. Potter.” The Potion Master had said before leaving, leveling Harry with a stern look.

“Yes, sir, of course.” Snape gave him a last, sharp nod before following Augusta Longbottom to the door.

“That was odd.” Neville said after it was clear the adults were out of earshot. Harry could only nod. “Want another biscuit?”

“Sure.” Harry took one from the proffered plate, dipping it in the strong tea. Neville hummed a bit while they finished up and Harry felt a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

~~~~~~~>

They did not see Neville’s grandmother for the rest of the afternoon, as she had business to attend to. Harry was not about to complain, the older witch unnerved him a bit in the sense that she was harder to pin down than most adults Harry had come across.

They indeed were allowed to take the rowboat out onto the pond. Jax elected to stay behind so he could chase the frogs through the reeds that shot up around the muddy bank. Harry reminded him to not go after anything too magical, remembering Neville’s pet toad, although he didn’t know if the thing was out here it was better to be safe than sorry.

They were a little uncoordinated in the boat at first, but soon picked up a rhythm that had them gliding smoothly, if not quickly, across the still waters of the pond.

They were both sweating and panting by the time they bumped up to the dock once more, a good stretch of time later. But it had been the sort of mindless fun that Harry did not have a lot of experience with and it left him a bit giddy as he collected a mud-splattered Jax and followed an equally happy Neville back up to the house so they could clean up.

Dinner was served in a warmly lit dining room with a roaring fireplace taking up a good portion of one wall, though the flames were muted in deference to the summer heat. There was a stuffed head of some sort of feathered beast above the mantel, it had a vicious looking beak and a graceful feathered neck, the eyes cut and polished amber. It took a moment to place the creature as a hippogriff, Harry remembered skimming over their passage in Fantastic Beasts as he was looking into things last year. The one over the mantle looked regal and imperious, but Harry still did not think he quite liked the idea of displaying animals in such ways and he chose a seat facing away from the fireplace so he would not have to look at the glaring thing all through the meal.

While his lunch at Malfoy Manor had consisted of a lot of French food and numerous small portions, Augusta Longbottom seemed to hold firm to the ideals of hearty, generous plates of food. A pair of house elves delivered a good sized roast with an array of vegetables along with a green salad tossed with cherry tomatoes and red onions with a light vinegary sort of dressing. The older witch poured herself a glass of deep red wine, while Harry and Neville each had cooled cups of apple cider. Conversation over the meal was slightly stilted, but not the uncomfortable mess Harry had felt the afternoon tea to be.

For dessert there was a blackcurrant tart served with a dollop of clotted cream, it was quite good and Harry was sure to thank the elf that came to collect his plate.

From what little he’d seen of them, these elves did not seem to be mistreated or oppressed at all, just like the Hogwarts elves. It still did not sit right with him, the apparent slavery of it all. But in the research he had managed to do in the last months, Harry could only conclude that house elves were a bit like brownies. In that it was in their nature to want to assist and help, that it tied into their magic or well-being or something like that. But somewhere along the line, things had become twisted and they found themselves unable to leave the service of wizards even if mistreated, unless freed. Harry hoped there were not many out there like the Malfoys that abused what should have been a gift, but knew it to be a naive thought. Maybe when he was older, after he’d left school, Harry could try to do something about their situation. Use his influence for something good rather than let it drag him along in its wake.

He wondered suddenly what Dobby was doing, if he had found new work or was just wandering the world. Harry hoped the crazy elf was happy, wherever he was.

After the meal, Harry and Neville retreated to the other boy’s room to play a few rounds of Exploding Snap. Which ended when Jax lunged at a stray card only to have it explode in the snake’s face leaving behind soot in his snout and making the serpent sneeze five times in a row. Harry tried to hold in his laugh but a giggle sneaked its way out in any case which made Jax glare harder at him and more giggles to burst out until he and Neville were both laughing like crazy people. It wasn’t even that funny, but Harry couldn’t seem to stop laughing, it was as if a huge weighty bubble had finally burst inside him and drained all the residual anxiety and dread away, leaving only lightness and aching sides.

Harry wasn’t about to fool himself into thinking the sensation would last, he knew the darkness would eventually creep back in, the caution and wariness overtake his actions and thoughts. But for now he would enjoy this night for what it was and for once not think about the future and what disasters it might hold.

~~~~~~~>

The next day they planned to celebrate their birthdays by taking a trip to Diagon Alley. Neville’s grandmother had agreed to let them wander about while she took care of some business at the bank and a few other places. They were to meet back up with her for lunch at one of the higher end bistros that lines the upper side of the Alley. Which was convenient, as Harry did not think the witch would approve of the gift he had in mind for her grandson.

“Come on, Neville, this way. I don’t know how long it will take to get your present.”

The Gryffindor looked like he wanted to protest the idea of getting a special gift, but Harry steadfastly steered them up the cobbled street. It was not a particularly busy day, as the Hogwarts letter had yet to be sent out and it was the middle of the week. So it was not long before the dingy facade of the small shop came into view and caused Neville to stop dead in his tracks when it became apparent that it was indeed their destination.

“I’ve already got a wand, Harry.” There was an undercurrent of sorrow to the words and just the barest hint of bitterness, which told Harry that this was the right choice after all.

“Yes.” He agreed, a little concession to ease his next words. “But it’s not your wand.”

Neville huffed, looking a cross between stricken, hurt, and maybe a bit angry.

“Gran says--”

Harry cut the other boy off with a look and Neville managed a fair enough glare right back.

“My dad, he was a great man, I should be proud to use his wand.” The words sounded hollow to Harry, as if Neville were repeating something that had been told to him so many times that it had just about lost all of its meaning.

Harry did not know precisely what had happened to Neville’s parents, if they were dead or worse. But he knew the other boy lived in their shadow just as much, if not more so than Harry did his own. With a grandmother that was constantly measuring him up to her lost son and a reputation for fumbling even the most simple of spells, resulting in ridicule or outright dismissal, it was a lot to endure. Harry could not fix the first thing, but he could do something about the latter, if only Neville would let him help.

Taking a breath, Harry raised a hand and set it on the other boy’s shoulder, looking him dead in the eye no matter how Neville tried to avoid his gaze.

“Your dad would want you to be the best wizard you could, right?”

A hesitant nod, though Neville’s hands were clenched tightly at his sides.

“He would want you to take every opportunity to live up to your family name, to better yourself and your ability to help others?”

Another nod, less shaky than the first.

“How are you meant to do that when not given adequate tools? I’m sure you could continue as you are, working three times as hard as the rest of us and succeed in the end. But why handicap yourself? Why take on this unnecessary burden when I know, I know you could do so much better. So much more, if given half a chance to try.”

“Gran--”

“I don’t care what your grandmother says.” Harry cuts him off again, squeezing the other boy’s shoulder in emphasis. “This is not about her, this is about you and your life. I am sorry that she lost a son, that you lost your parents, I truly am. But this is your life, Neville, and you need to start living it for you.”

The other boy’s chin started to tremble, the motion obvious in his rounded cheeks, but Harry pressed on.

“You stood by me all last year. Even when most of your House though I was evil, you thought the best of me despite it all. Let me do the same for you now.”

The tears that had been slowly brimming in the other boy’s eyes started to overflow then and Harry had barely a moment's warning before he was dragged into a bone crushing hug by the weepy Gryffindor. He awkwardly padded the other boy’s back, Jax sticking his head out of Harry’s collar to nuzzle at the brown hair of Neville’s temple. The serpent had always had a soft spot for Neville, who would answer all of his numerous questions about plants whenever he could get Harry to act as translator. It was easier now that the snake had a pretty firm grasp of English, Harry only had to repeat the question instead of it and the (usually long winded) answer both.

“Hey, it’s okay.” Harry soothed, or tried to at least, he was so terrible these things.

Neville sniffed loudly and managed to pull back after a moment, wiping his reddened eyes on his robe sleeve.

“S-sorry, Harry. You-you’re just such a good friend.”

Harry flushed and kicked at the cobblestones with his boot, unsure how to react to that statement.

“Does that mean you’ll let me get you a wand?” He asked instead, looking over at the dusty shop window so he didn’t have to see all the raw emotion that no doubt was still painted all over Neville’s face.

“Y-yeah.” The other boy stuttered out, though now there was a determination underlying the words. “Don’t tell Gran though, I don’t think she’d like it all that much.”

Harry shot Neville a smirk, “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Inside the shop was just as dim and musty as Harry remembered from when he was eleven. Mr. Ollivander was behind the counter, fiddling with a spool of twine that he set aside as the bell over the door chimed.

“Mr. Potter, how unexpected.” Those over large eyes scraped over him in the same unnerving manner they had two years ago before turning on Neville. “And Mr. Longbottom, I expected you far sooner than now.” The tone was slightly accusatory and accompanied by the waggle of a long bony finger.

“I’m sorry?” Neville looked about as unnerved as Harry felt so he stepped up to the counter in the hopes to hurry this along as much as he could.

“Neville needs a wand.”

“Well of course he does.” Mr. Ollivander said, as if this were a universal truth. “Can’t very well keep using that rowen one of his father’s, not right for him at all. Eight Inches, dragon heartstring, isn’t boy?”

“Um, yes.” Neville’s hand fluttered over his pocket where said wand resided, Ollivander huffed.

“I told Augusta to bring you in here, stubborn old bat, thinks she knows everything about everything.” Ollivander muttered as he rose to go rifle through the shelves, pulling down box after long box. “Mind you, she’s usually right, but not this time! It’s always the ones that are usually right that are hardest to convince they’ve made mistakes. It’s good you came in when you did, boy, I shudder to think what might have happened if you kept wallowing in mediocrity. The wand chooses the wizard!”

Neville had joined Harry up at the counter by then and they shared a look while the old wizard’s back was turned.

Ollivander returned with a teetering stack of boxes and piled them on the counter, selecting one from near the bottom of the mound and nearly causing an avalanche in the process.

“Here, ten inches, unicorn hair, spruce, good for Charmes. Give it a go.”

Neville had barely twitched the wand before it was snatched back and replaced by another. This one nine with phoenix feather and ash, it caused a breeze to run through the shop, rattling boxes in their cubby holes but was taken back all the same.

This went on for quite some time and Harry was reminded of his own visit, how it had taken what seemed like hours before he was given the wand who’s brother had killed his parents and gave him the scar on his forehead. It was not something he liked thinking about overmuch. Jax had buried himself deep in Harry’s robes to try and mitigate all the magic swirling around the shop. But soon enough the serpent had started up his sneezing, wriggling against Harry and nearly causing an involuntary laugh when he hit a sensitive spot.

Mr. Ollivander eyed him as Neville tried out another wand, “Still have that snake, Mr. Potter?”

Jax poked his head out of the robes and glared at the wandmaker, blaming the old wizard completely for his current predicament. Ollivander did not seem phased in the least by the ire.

“Good, snakes are powerful allies. Here, boy, that one is all wrong.” He snatched the wand out of Neville’s hand without even looking and thrust another in its place.

It took ten more minutes before Neville had finally settled on one, the look on his face as his fingers curled around the base one of startled awe.

“Yes. That is what it’s supposed to feel like, Mr. Longbottom.”

“I- I never knew.” Neville waved the wand in a careful circle, “Protego.

A bright blue shield of light sprang into being between them and Neville was so startled he nearly dropped his new wand and the spell fizzled into nothingness leaving the shop dim once more, but for the blinding smile of the Gryffindor's face.

“I did it! I was never able to do that before!”

Harry shared a (much smaller) grin with the other boy, his joy infectious.

Ollivander clapped slowly from behind the counter, “Very good, Mr. Longbottom, very good indeed. Thirteen inches, cherry, with a unicorn hair core, excellent for earth magics and defense.”

Before the man could start spewing off a bunch of cryptic nonsense to ruin the moment, Harry dropped a stack of galleons on the counter and hustled Neville out of the shop. He could hear the old wizard laughing dryly as the door swung closed and rolled his eyes.

They headed down the Alley, with no particular destination in mind. Neville was still clutching at his new wand, a dazed sort of smile on his face that told Harry his present had definitely been the correct choice.

They stopped at Florean Fortescue’s for some ice cream, the man himself completely refusing payment when he realized who Harry was. Harry had tried anyway but that just got him extra sprinkles and a wink, so they settled outside at one of the tables and licked at their treats. It was hard to brood when eating ice cream, but Harry tried all the same, to middling success. Giving up the effort entirely when Jax tried to steal a bite and got brain freeze for his troubles, shaking his wedge head rapidly from side to side and hissing plaintively.

How can you be this affected when you eat more Ice Mice than actual mice?” Harry teased, ticking the serpent under the chin.

The mice go down quicker.” Jax grumbled, glaring at his ice cream. Harry just smirked and booped his nose where there was a sprinkle stuck to it.

After finishing their treats, Neville took the lead and steered them towards a what looked to be a specialty bookshop that was tucked away between a tea house and haberdashery. The other boy rubbed at the back of his neck in apparent embarrassment.

“I know it’s not as good as the gift you got me, but I thought you might like to look around in here. Its got lots of older and obscure books that you can’t really get at Flourish and Blotts. You could pick out a few...”

Harry sent Neville small smile, touched by the thoughtfulness of the idea.

“Thank you, that sounds great. I’ve never been here before.”

“Oh.” Neville grinned, the sheepishness dropping away in the face of Harry’s approval, “Oh, good.”

They spent an enjoyable hour browsing through the shelves. Harry found quite a few things that interested him, but managed to keep his selection down to two books. The first an extensive codex on ancient runes that he could not make heads or tails of at the moment but that he was sure would come in useful in the year to come. And a thick book of wizarding stories, it included all the tales of Beedle the Bard that Harry remembered sneaking into his cupboard to read during the long winter nights, along with others from countries all over the world.

He made sure to thank Neville sincerely for the gifts, which caused the other boy to blush again and shuffle his feet.

They met up with Augusta Longbottom at the bistro with plenty of time to spare, which was a good thing as Harry doubted she was the kind of witch to tolerate tardiness.

“You had a pleasant jaunt, I presume.” She asked, unfolding a napkin over her lap in a practiced manner.

“Yes, Gran.” Neville confirmed, launching into a meandering tale of their morning that both told her what they had been up to and avoided any unpleasant truths at the same time. All those study sessions hanging around Slytherins must really be rubbing off on the other boy, Harry thought, hiding a smirk in his sandwich.

“Good. After lunch, we’ll return home where I believe Severus said he wished to pick you up around four?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Harry managed after swallowing his bite of food. “Thank you for having me over.”

“Of course, dear. You are welcome back anytime, I suspect my grandson feels just the same.”

Neville nodded frantically over his own sandwich, grinning. Harry took another bite of food to avoid having to say anything further.

Snape did indeed pick him up sharply at four, looking as dour as usual but Harry felt a surprising twist of happiness at seeing the man nonetheless. It was ridiculous of course, he knew the Potion Master would not have left him here or forgotten about him, but it was still nice that he showed up when he said he was going to. Harry shouldered his bag and gave Neville a last wave farewell before following Snape down the path to where the wards ended and he could safely Apparate them to Spinner’s End.

“There were no disasters, I trust?” Snape quirked an eyebrow at him as he stepped into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

“No. I had... fun.” The words sounded foreign coming from his mouth, but true nonetheless.

“Indeed. Will wonders never cease.” The man replied dryly, making Harry snort.

He accepted the mug Earl Gray passed to him and settled at the table across from the Potion Master without really having to think about it.

“Yeah. Neville’s a good guy.” He blew on the tea before taking a cautious sip. “But I don’t think I’d enjoy living there. I’m glad you took me instead.” Harry grimaced at the unintended honesty, he hadn’t really meant to say that part out loud.

A peek across the table showed an uncommonly stunned looking Snape, the look did not last long before it was shuttered away behind one of his many masks, but Harry had seen it.

“I find,” The man said after a moment, “that I am content in having done so as well.”

Harry smiled into his tea, a bubble of warmth that had nothing to do with the drink spreading through him.

~~~~~~~>

It was a couple days later, as Harry was sitting shoulder to shoulder with Liam listening to his walkman using the splitter he’d gotten for Christmas so they could both hear, and the other boy was trying to convince Harry to let him paint his nails black that Snape came striding up the sidewalk with a thunderous look on his face.

He was not wearing robes, but Harry could easily imagine them billowing behind him as his long legs ate up the cracked cement at an alarming rate.

Harry slid off his headphones, The Ramones poppy staccato rhythm going muted around his neck.

“I think I need to get going, Liam.” He told his friend, eyeing Snape draw closer with apprehension. He hadn’t done anything to earn that look, had he?

Liam looked over, saw the approaching man and removed his own headphones with narrowed eyes.

“That your Da? He looks right chafed.”

Harry shrugged, rising to his feet just as Snape reached them. He surprised Harry by grabbing his shoulders and pulling him forward, patting Harry down as if looking for injuries.

“What--?”

“Evan? You okay?” Liam had gained his own feet and held the walkman in one hand, the cord having been yanked out when Snape grabbed him, the other fingering something in his pocket.

Snape had apparently finished his inspection, though he didn’t let Harry go or even move from his spot nearly pressed to the man’s side. Snape raised a singular eyebrow at the blue haired boy before dismissing him.

“It’s time to go home, say goodbye to your little friend.”

“What happened?” Harry asked, a sense of dread creeping over him, what could possibly have spooked Snape this much?

“I will tell you when we get back. Come.”

He made as if to drag Harry along with him if he didn’t start moving on his own, but Harry dug his feet in.

“Wait, let me get my walkman and say goodbye.” Snape sighed but relented, reluctantly releasing his hold on Harry’s arms, black eyes scanning the neighborhood with a paranoia that even Cokeworth did not quite deserve.

Harry took the couple quick steps over to Liam, he had an awful feeling this was going to be the last he saw the boy.

“Hey, it’s fine, but I need to go.” He tried to reassure his friend, who was eyeing Snape with equal parts suspicion and curiosity, but he handed over the walkman without much protest.

“If you’re sure, I could...”

Snape snorted, not taking his eyes from their task of scanning all around them. “It’s time to go, Evan. And tell your friend that if he ever pulls that little knife in his pocket, he had best be prepared to use it.”

Liam looked affronted and grudgingly impressed, taking an empty hand out of his pocket after a moment.

“I’ll see you then?” He looked hopeful, so Harry just nodded. It might not be until next summer but he would be back eventually, Harry was sure.

Liam shot him a wave as Harry turned to rejoin Snape, the man putting a protective arm over his shoulder and drawing him close once more. What had happened?

They made quick work of the walk back to Spinner’s End and after Snape had shuffled him inside he tapped at the closed door in a pattern Harry had never seen him use before. It made the dark wood pulse a deep red three times like a beating heart before settling back away, leaving behind a buzz of power. He repeated the spell on the door off the kitchen that led to the back garden and again on the fireplace before finally apparently deeming the place secure enough.

“What’s going on?” There was a shake in his voice that Harry tried to suppress with little success. He held Jax close in his arms as he watched Snape pace the length of the room and back, his shoulders tense in a way Harry had very rarely seen.

“Sirius Black has escaped Azkaban.”

Chapter Text

Harry sat at the scuffed up kitchen table idly flipping through a primer on Arithmancy and trying not to let the fact that he had been cooped up in Spinner’s End, forbidden to even go out into the garden for four entire days, get to him. He understood it was for his own safety, that Snape would never lock him up without good reason. But still it grated at him, made Harry’s skin itch and limbs restless. He'd banged his knee on the underside of the table so frequently in the last hour alone that Snape had flicked a cushioning charm at the fixture from his spot in the sitting room paging through a book of his own.

The man hadn't looked up when did so, and Harry would bet even odds that it was to stop the irritating noise as much for Harry’s own comfort.

He flipped another page in the book, glancing between it and the worksheet Snape had set him in an effort to distract Harry away from dark, confining thoughts. Any other time it would have worked fine, Harry found the complex arrangement of numbers across the charts and how they interlocked a fascinating puzzle to try and work out. But given the fact that it was one of the few things he was allowed to do at the moment took some of the shine off.

A shine that had been transferred to every available, scrubbable surface in the entirety of Spinner’s End. Harry had spent the majority of the previous day trying to scour out his frustrations on the decades of neglect that layered the old row house. It had worked for a while, but he'd been more thorough than he'd realized last summer and Harry had run out of menial tasks far sooner than he would have liked.

Snape had scowled him out of the basement lab after his fifth pointless sweep over the spotless and near sparkling concrete floor. Harry knew it irritated the Potion Master when he cleaned things like it was his job to do so, as if it implied Harry might be booted out onto the street if he failed to prove useful.

It was not necessarily an unfounded worry, given his the odd quirks his mind occasionally forced upon him. But Harry had needed something to do after the initial panic of the first day had worn off and the restless claustrophobia had started creeping in on him. So he would weather the glowers and continue to scrub away at the grout in the kitchen or thoroughly dust the towering bookcases in the sitting room, or spend four laborious hours hand washing all the dingy curtains from every room in the house until there was simply nothing left to clean.

Snape had only managed to get Harry to cease by locking away all the various and sundry supplies he'd scrounged up, handing Harry a short paring knife and ordering him to skin the potatoes for dinner. It was a task Harry was familiar with, but that did not seem quite so tedious with the Potion Master stood next to him swiftly and skillfully dicing onions and carrots into neatly uniform pieces.

The man spoke lowly as they prepared the meal together. Explaining why this herb and that vegetable went together, why they complemented each other when paired with this but not that. To be mindful of the temperature so as not to burn the garlic. On and on, as if this were any number of lectures he'd given in class and Harry nearly expected to be assigned an essay on the proper way to deglaze a pan by the time they sat down to eat.

Harry had been cooking for his relatives for longer than he hadn't, so the information was somewhat superfluous. But it worked to distract him nonetheless, which he supposed was rather the point. Besides, it had been more satisfying than he might have imagined working together to make the meal. Harry hoped maybe they could do it again at some point, without the air of imminent doom hanging over them.

That had been yesterday though, today Harry was struggling to push away the jittery, confining feeling of being stuck in the same small space for an untold amount of time. He had grown used to being able to walk around more or less at will and the thought of being so suddenly restricted in his movements was stirring up unpleasant memories of number four that he would much rather stay buried. It did not matter that a summer storm had rolled in not an hour beforehand and was pelting the sparklingly clean window over the sink with fat drops of rain. Harry would take getting soaked to the bone over having to sit at that table flipping uselessly through a magical numbers book a moment longer.

The only thing that kept him from scooping Jax up from his spot by the hearth and making a break for it was the reminder that this was all for a very valid reason. That, once more, somebody was after him with murderous intent. And it would be the height of stupidity to throw away all the precautions and failsafes Snape had put forth for his own good because Harry was feeling a bit anxious about not being able to take a walk around the neighborhood in the pouring rain.

He remembered how unnerved the man had been after plucking Harry off the sidewalk and marching them both back home, the quick and efficient layering of more wards than Harry had seen anywhere baring Hogwarts. The cold anger in his voice as he spoke the words of Sirius Black’s escape from the wizarding prison. A place that was supposed to be impossible to break out of, a feat that not a single person had accomplished before. Although maybe the guards had grown complacent over the years, relying on their own reputation rather than continued good security practices. Or perhaps it was that Sirius Black was unusually wiley and had just been the first to manage what was supposed to be impossible. Harry knew a bit about defying odds, there was little doubt in his mind that his erstwhile godfather was to be considered a formidable threat.

Hearing the name that afternoon had sent an odd shiver up his spine, he hadn’t thought about the man for years. He remembered the goblin at the bank, Bloodclaw, simply dropping the fact that he had a godfather to begin with as if it were common knowledge. He’d used his somewhat limited resources to try and find out more about Black, about why he was in prison and not taking care of Harry. The results had been unsatisfying in their vagueness. While the overall nature of the man’s crime was well known, murder of twelve muggles and one wizard, the details surrounding it were murky at best.

There was a good amount of information on the man’s family available, given it was one of the Most Ancient and Noble Houses. But again, bloodlines and societal bearings did not tell Harry anything about why Black had been chosen as his godfather or what kind of connection he must have had with his parents to be granted such. The only exception being that in the predominantly Slytherin House of Black, Sirius had been placed in Gryffindor, which had caused a mild scandal amongst those who cared about such things. So Harry had set aside his curiosity at the puzzle and moved on to one of the million other fascinating things there was to learn now that he had the money to spend on books.

So, hearing the man’s name after so long paired with the clear agitation in the unflappable Potion Master had been enough to get his heart pounding and a cold sweat to break out despite the warmness of the summer afternoon. Harry had clutched Jax closer still to his chest and stared at Snape with wide, startled eyes; unable to voice any of the questions suddenly swirling around in his mind.

Thankfully, the Head of Slytherin House was well versed at picking up on such things. He stopped his frustrated pacing and stood before Harry with his arms clasped behind his back and a deadly serious look on his pale face.

“Sirius Black is a dangerous individual, hateful and cruel at the best of times. Callously malicious for his own amusement above most things and,” here Snape had paused with a sneer so full of vitriol that Harry was somewhat surprised the air in the room did not simply turn to poison upon being exposed to it, “possessed of an unfortunately high level of intelligence to utilize in dissimulating such tendencies.”

Harry swallowed past the lump in his throat, “Is he a Death Eater?”

Snape was silent for a moment, the shadow of something dark and irritated passing over his face before he spoke in a carefully paced tone, as if plucking each word from the air with mindful precision.

“I confess that until the very night of his crime, neither I nor I suspect anybody who knew Black, expected the depths of the man’s duplicity.”

“I don’t understand.”

Snape took a breath and gestured Harry to sit in his usual armchair before doing the same himself. The Potion Master sat stiffly, hunched forward with his arms resting across his knees and hands clasped tightly together in the space between. The dark curtains of his hair hung forward like a shield against the outside world and Harry did not like the trickle of raw pain that was creeping in around the edges of the man’s black eyes.

“You know of his crime, correct?”

“Yes.” Harry nodded, unconsciously stroking Jax to try and relieve some of the heavy tension in the air. “He killed a bunch of muggles and a wizard.”

Snape gave a shallow jerk of a nod, “Do you know why?”

Harry shook his head, “No, just that it happened the same night my parents...”

He stopped, unwilling or unable to finish the sentence.

“The wizard Black killed was a man named Peter Pettigrew, a sniveling little lackey that trotted around after Black and your father at Hogwarts.” This was said with a certain amount of contempt, though who it was aimed at given the names dropped was anyone's guess.

Harry knew full well that Snape had never cared much for his father and any friends of his were sure to fall into the same category. Sirius Black and James Potter must have been very close friends for him to be named Harry’s godfather, but given what Snape had told him so far of Black’s nature, it did not cast his father in the best of lights. Like attracts like and Harry had been on the receiving end of Gryffindor arrogance enough times in the last year alone to not hold any illusions that James Potter had always been the saint that everyone seemed hellbent on telling him he was.

“I tell you this to be sure that you grasp the scope of Black’s complete disregard for not only human life, but also any perceived loyalty that you may think he might possess. Pettigrew, who for all intents and purposes was one of the man’s closest friends was blown into so many pieces that all anyone was ever able to recover was a single finger.”

“Why? Why did he...?” Harry could feel a tremble start up in his hands and Jax coiled tighter around his arms to try and sooth away the budding panic.

“Harry,” Snape reached across the gap between them and laid a pale hand on his knee, “I am not trying to frighten you with this, but to inform. There are some that would probably prefer that I keep you in ignorance of the larger picture, of what that man’s escape means. But I will not have you taking unnecessary risks simply because you lack the proper context.”

Snape’s face softened minutely for a moment and he gave Harry’s bony knee a firm squeeze, “I would not be best pleased to see you come to harm at the hands of that madman.”

Harry took a few steadying breaths and nodded at Snape to continue, who did so, sitting back after giving Harry’s knee a final firm press.

“By that point I had been acting as double agent for over a year, not once did I suspect that Black was not firmly on the side of the Light.” The words sounded bitter to Harry’s ear, bitter with a deep undercurrent of old, endless guilt. “You are aware that the Dark Lord had targeted your family?” A nod, Harry did not think there was a magical being alive that was not aware of that fact, “They went into hiding, under the Fidelius Charm. An immensely powerful and complex working that is designed to hide a secret in a select person’s soul, said individual is known as the Secret-Keeper. After the charm is set, the only way to learn what has been hidden is for that person to willingly give it up.”

Harry could see where this was going, the answer so glaringly obvious that a blind mountain troll could see it. The words fell out of him in a single harsh breath, anger rising up to burn through the dread and fear.

“He betrayed them. Sirius Black was their Secret-Keeper and he gave them up to the Dark Lord.”

Snape only nodded, but Harry could see a matching fury brewing behind the man’s unblinking gaze.

They sat in silence for a long time. Harry mulling over all of the new information while trying not to let the anger cloud over his every thought. He wanted to hurt Black, to tear into him for taking away the life that should have been Harry’s. For destroying his family, for betraying the people who were supposed to be his friends.

If we ever see him,” Jax hissed in his ear, the sibilant words dripping with promised venom, “I am going to bite into every vulnerable place he has and eat the eyeballs out of his fucking head.

Harry stroked the snake's neck but made no comment one way or the other.

Eventually, Snape rose from his spot and pulled Harry up into a surprisingly soft hug. He twisted his fingers into the back of the man’s shirt and held on like Snape where the only thing keeping him anchored to the earth. For all Harry knew, it could have been true.

Again though, that had been days beforehand, the anger had subsided into a dull buzz in the back of his head making way for the claustrophobia and restless fidgeting.

Harry tried once more to concentrate on the simplified Arithmancy starter, but his thoughts were too scattered to make much sense of it and he finally just pushed the book and sheet away with a sigh.

Snape came into the kitchen not long after to put the kettle on, making up two mugs of fragrant orange spice tea. One of which he set in front of Harry along with a small plate of tiny coconut flavored muggle biscuits, before settling at the table himself. He pulled Harry’s half-completed chart towards himself and made a hmming sound over it, tapping at a particular figure with one long finger.

“A promising start, but you’ve inverted this section, a common mistake but one that can carry on to disastrous effect if not corrected in time.”

Harry pulled the paper back towards himself, seeing the problem himself and how it would tangle things up in increasing waves but that Harry would not have noticed until it was far too convoluted to find the original mistake.

He erased the figure, glad Snape had provided him with a muggle pencil instead of ink and quill for the exercise. The rest of the time it took to finish their tea was spent with Snape alternately watching Harry work, giving suggestions on the proper method of divining the numbers, or pointing out when Harry was about to make another large blunder. He never gave Harry the answers outright but show him how to find them himself.

At some point, Harry had scooted his chair around the table so that they were seated nearly shoulder to shoulder as Snape drew up a more complex chart for Harry to work on and they ended up whiling away a few hours over the magic of numbers and equations. Harry’s leg had stopped bouncing at one point and he wasn’t about to question why.

For dinner that night, Snape surprised him with take away from Puri’s that did much in the way of lifting his spirits, although not as well as the news that followed the clearing away of the meal.

“I have received word back from Signora Zabini that she has graciously offered to allow you to spend the remainder of the summer holidays at her villa in Verona.”

Harry dropped the empty take away cartons in his hands, thankfully he was already over the bin so nothing was splattered all over the freshly cleaned floors.

“She-- you-- what?” Blaise hadn’t mentioned anything about him visiting in the letters they’d exchanged. Harry vaguely remembered an invitation had been sent with his Christmas gift all those months ago, but without any follow up, he’d figured it had just been politeness on Blaise’s mother’s part.

Snape sent him an amused smirk, flicking his wand at the sink to start the few dishes to cleaning themselves.

“I hope you were not laboring under the impression I was going to force you under lock and key in here for the next month, I think we might both go spar at that.”

Harry was still processing the fact that he was going to be able to leave the house and so didn’t notice the small package Snape held out to him until the man cleared his throat pointedly. Harry jumped a bit, taking the box by reflex. It was neatly wrapped in a dark paper and felt heavier than the size of it might suggest.

“What’s this?” He asked, instead of opening it, hefting the package curiously.

“I should think you would recognize a birthday present when presented one by this point.” Snape drawled, voice dry and amused. Harry flushed, he’d completely forgotten about his birthday in all the commotion.

He carefully peeled back the dark wrapping to reveal a box containing an intricately carved metal sphere about the size of a large orange, it was a dull steel color and fit into his palm comfortably. Harry ran a finger along the twisting curve of one of the carved lines and it lit up a clear blue, though it halted when another furrow bisected it, that one glowing a deep orange in contrast.

“It’s beautiful,” Harry said, turning the ball over and over in his hands to see what other colors it might produce. There was a green, a purple, a red, and one line that didn’t light up at all. “What is it?”

Even as he asked Harry realized: a puzzle. He gripped one side of the sphere and gave the other a gentle twist, the whole thing shifting smoothly along some invisible axis, the green line had straightened out somewhat, but the shift had caused the purple one to curve in on itself like a spiral.

Harry frowned and twisted the sphere some more, fiddling with different combinations and degrees of manipulation the ball would allow before forcing him in the other direction.

“As pleased as I am to see that you are enjoying my gift, I do believe there are a number more here for you from your friends.” Snape’s amused voice broke into his concentration and Harry looked up with a blink, as he’d been trying to solve the puzzle Snape had apparently gathered a modest pile of gifts onto the scuffed table.

Harry flushed again, feeling a smile tug at his mouth at the sight. Even if he himself had completely forgotten his own birthday, his friends had not.

“Thank you, sir.” Harry told the man seriously, holding the puzzle sphere close.

Snape spared him a sharp nod and left Harry to his own devices with a parting hand to his shoulder before disappearing up the narrow staircase.

Opening the rest of the gifts did a good job of distracting him. Millicent had sent him a series of novels about a bumbling wizard that somehow accidentally discovered a way to travel between dimensions leading to amusing hijinks. Along with a new larger warming stone for Jax, who immediately coiled upon it like a smug dragon. Draco had sent him a new cloak pin, made of a dark metal in the shape of a stylized eye, the iris of which was a delicately cut amethyst. It was a little creepy looking, but Harry quite liked it. There wasn’t anything from Blaise, but Harry figured that was because he was going to be spending the rest of the summer at his home and that seemed like a pretty great present to him. There were various books and candies from his study group and even a tape from Justin. The last present was a squishy thing, wrapped in crinkling scarlet paper, the tag saying it was from Molly Weasley of all people. Inside was a lumpy sweater in dark green with a large, brighter green H on the front. The accompanying note thanked him again for his part in helping her daughter the previous year. No matter that Harry had very little to do with it and might have even made things slightly worse by not coming forward sooner. But he got the feeling Mrs. Weasley was the sort of person that did not like to listen to those kinds of excuses, so he just shrugged and folded up the jumper neatly to store in his trunk.

Which reminded him that he should probably pack the rest of his things away as well, if he really was meant to stay in Italy for the remainder of the summer.

It took him longer than Harry might have thought to track down all of his stuff. He had sort of spread out over the last few weeks and the remainder of the night was spent tucking everything he owned back into his trunk for safekeeping. Snape came in to check on him towards the end of the evening, knocking on the frame of the open door.

“Try and get to sleep early tonight, I have secured a Portkey for seven fifteen sharp that will take us to Verona, where we shall meet with Signora Zabini.”

Harry nodded, tucking a pair of socks into his trunk. “Are you going to be staying there too?”

Harry could not quite imagine the dower Potion Master enjoying the sun and heat of an Italian summer, he would probably burst into flame if forced to stay too long. Snape seemed to read the thoughts as they passed through Harry’s mind in an amusing rush of images, like a scowling Snape with zinc spread liberally over his hooked nose and a large floppy hat as he glared out over a beach teeming with laughing, happy tourists.

Snape rolled his eyes a little, probably guessing at what had put the amused smirk on Harry’s face.

“No, I am only staying long enough to see you safely ensconced and out of this country. I assume you are aware enough to not go blabbing to any of your other little friends about where you are going to be?”

Harry nodded, he was not an idiot... most of the time.

“You will be returning with Mr. Zabini at the beginning of term.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I will leave you to your packing then.” The man paused a moment in the doorframe, just looking at Harry but didn’t say anything further and soon Harry was alone once more.

Except for Jax, who emerged from under the bed with a stray sock in his mouth that Harry tossed into the truck with its fellows before closing it. If one ignored the fact that Sirius Black had escaped and made his life about a hundred times more complicated, he’d say things were actually starting to look up.

~~~~~~~>

Harry did not like Portkey travel.

After placing a hand on the old kettle that Snape presented him with, and making sure that Jax was pressed against it firmly as well, it felt as if a giant hook was stabbed into his gut and yanking him through a twisting, swirling, windy tunnel of doom that ended with him sprawled over sunbaked cobblestones and puking up the eggs and toast he’d scarfed down for breakfast.

Jax was retching beside him and spitting curses, for once also not a fan of the insane lengths wizards went through to travel vast distances. A slim bottle of water was held in front of his face as Harry managed to pull himself up to his knees. He took it gratefully, swishing the water around before spitting it out and taking a real drink.

“International Portkeys can be a bit jarring.” Snape murmured, vanishing the mess and holding out a hand to help Harry to his feet. His legs were still a little wobbly, but they held up.

Snape passed him another bottle, this one Harry recognized as a potion to settle his stomach and he downed it gratefully.

“Thank you, sir.”

Snape pocketed the empty bottle with a nod as Harry bent down to pick up his still cursing snake. He scratched under Jax’s chin and that seemed to do the trick as he settled down and wriggled up to lay across Harry’s shoulders with only a little bit of huffing.

Snape gave him a final once over before leading them off down the road. They had landed on a quiet narrow street lined in beige colored houses squeezed close together, most of them with terraces overflowing with flowering plants. The air was dry and already warming up steadily despite the early hour of the morning. Harry looked around at everything they passed with fascination, he’d never been away on holiday before. The Dursleys preferring to saddle him on Mrs. Figg while they went off to the Isle of Wight or Majorca or wherever was far away from their freak of a nephew.

They came across a little square with a tinkling fountain that had a smattering of bright coins spread across its basin. There were a number of shops circling the square and at a cafe sipping coffee from a clear glass sat Blaise and a woman who must be his mother. Snape made a beeline for the pair and when Blaise looked up to see Harry trotting along behind the Potion Master, his face broke out into one of the rare open smiles that made his brown eyes shine warmly.

“Harry!” He waved, setting down his drink and standing from his seat. He pulled Harry into a surprise hug as soon as he was within arms reach. Harry’s face ended up squished somewhat into the other boy’s chest because apparently Blaise just did not seem to know how to stop growing.

He let go after a moment, thankfully, though he kept a hand on Harry’s arm as he turned them towards the woman occupying the other seat at the small table. She had also stood and Harry despaired of ever being able to play catch up in the height department as she was even taller than Snape, though only just.

“Harry, I would like you to meet my mother, Signora Zosima Zabini.”

Harry gave her as best a bow as he could manage with Blaise still attached to his arm.

“Thank you for inviting me, Signora.” Blaise’s mother gave him a little smile, though it seemed more of a reflex than anything.

“You are most welcome, Mr. Potter. My Blaise has done naught but sing your praises, I find myself curious to take your measure in turn.” She spoke with a rich voice, the words weighty in ways that made it seem as if she were constantly amused by everything she saw; although not necessarily in a nice way. Harry was vaguely reminded of the haughtiness of Narcissa Malfoy, though Signora Zabini did not seem quite so blatant with it.

She was a tall woman, with skin darker than her son’s but flawless in an almost uncanny way. Her hair was long and sleek, twisted up into elaborate curls to keep it off of her neck. Her eyes were the same shade of brown as Blaise’s, but they somehow did not hold the warmth that his friend’s did. There was no question that she was a beautiful woman, statuesque, and Harry could well imagine her going through any number of husbands. But if Harry were to say anything about Zosima Zabini, it would be that she was intimidating more than anything.

He got the distinct impression that anyone on her bad side did not fare well for very long. So Harry would just endeavor to stay on her good side as much as he was able. He could use a bit of intimidation on his side. Even Sirius Black would think twice before crossing her, Harry bet. Or if not, then he doubted the man would be long for this world.

“What a charming friend you have there, Mr. Potter.” She continued, gesturing with one meticulously manicured hand at Jax. “Snakes are such useful companions, I’ve always thought. Is he very venomous?”

Harry smirked as Jax predictably started to preen, scritching the serpent under the chin.

“Extremely.” Snape cut in, tone thoughtful and amused, “Enough to disrupt the Darkest of magics.”

“Oh, how delightful.”

Snape stayed long enough to have a coffee at the little cafe. Which Harry came to realize was not even supposed to be open yet, but Signora Zabini had just laughed at the notion of business hours and ordered a plate of flakey, sweet pastries for them to nibble on as they drank coffee. The waiter that delivered it had had the reddest face Harry had ever seen outside of an angry Weasley and had not looked away from Blaise’s mother the entire time, which ended in him tripping over an empty chair and sprawling in the dust.

Signora Zabini seemed used to such occurrences and completely ignored the blushing man as he scrambled back into the safety of the cafe.

Blaise snorted into his coffee and rolled his eyes at Harry, causing him to hide a snicker in his own drink. The little table was small enough that they had to sit with their sides nearly pressing together, but it was not as uncomfortable as Harry might have found it with someone else.

Before Snape made to leave, he turned to Harry and put a hand on his shoulder. He’d been doing that a lot lately, although again, Harry found he did not mine overmuch.

“Behave, Harry.” He said, squeezing slightly for emphasis. “I would prefer you not wander about too much, but if you do it would be prudent to assume your Evan persona. At least until this... situation has been resolved.”

Harry nodded, he had figured as much. He was more surprised that Snape was willing to let him out at all. But he supposed the man realized there really was no way that Black could possibly track him here, no matter the strength of his vendetta.

“I shall see you in September, do try not to cause any disasters in the meantime.”

Harry let out a dry huff, “In all fairness, sir, the disasters usually find me.”

Snape rolled his eyes but did not dispute the point and instead turned to bid Blaise’s mother farewell.

“It has been lovely as always, Signora.” He said with a shallow bow that had the woman waving a hand and pulling Snape forward enough to drop a kiss to each of his pale cheeks.

“How many times must I insist, it’s ‘Sima to you Severus.” She said sternly and Harry could finally see a hint of warmth make its way past her cool veneer.

Snape accepted the gesture with far more composure than the waiter had in just delivering their food. He didn’t even blush, though a soft smile had appeared for a moment before disappearing behind the man’s usual stoicism.

“Of course, ‘Sima, how foolish of me to forget.”

“Just be sure that it doesn’t happen again and I may find it in myself to forgive you the slight.”

Blaise made a quiet gagging noise from next to him, whispering, “Ugh, it’s always so weird watching them not-flirt.”

“How does Snape know your mom?” Harry hadn’t known the two had been acquainted beforehand.

“They met years ago at a conference.” Blaise said, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Hadn’t I mentioned? My mother is the predominant potioneer in all of Italy.”

Harry gaped at his friend who only laughed and slung an arm across Harry’s shoulders to pull him into a sort of affronted side-hug. Although he had to be careful of Jax so the arm ended up more around Harry’s waist than anything. He took advantage of their height difference and dug a bony elbow into the softness under Blaise’s rib in retaliation.

Before things could escalate any further, Snape had cleared his throat and Harry looked up to see the particular quirk of eyebrow that spelled out unimpressed and dunderheads, he quickly straightened back up and disengaged from his friend.

“September, Harry.” He said, the firmness of the tone more of a comfort than anything.

“Yes, sir, thank you.”

And with a final nod, Snape turned to stride back the way they’d come, leaving Harry and Jax in the company of the Zabinis for the next month.

Chapter Text

The Zabini villa was a spacious and airy dwelling with a lot of tall open windows letting in the dry breeze to cool the rooms from the oppressive heat of Italy in mid-summer. Signora Zabini seemed to have a taste for physical art, sculptures and pottery, rather than the usual wealth of paintings Harry was used to seeing in large wizarding homes. Not that he had much experience with small wizarding homes. He knew not everyone could live in giant mansions with servants and personal libraries to rival Hogwarts, Spinner’s End being the prime example, but it was somewhat amusing to realize that he had unwittingly attached himself to an unusually high number of stupidly rich kids. Harry knew himself to be technically in the same category, with the majority of the Potter vaults in his sole control, or at least they would be on his seventeenth birthday, but knowing he had money and seeing it were two different things.

Harry had spent too long shoved into a dark corner and tossed scrapes to truly accept that he was in the same sort of bracket as the Longbottoms or Zabinis.

All the thought of money had tripped something in Harry’s brain and he turned to Blaise where the boy was lounging on an expensive looking chaise and idly flipping through a book. They were in the library because as much as Harry wanted to spend time outside, he also did not want to turn into one giant sunburn. So when the sun had started to beat down in earnest, Blaise had led them indoors. Jax was still outside though, Harry could see the serpent sunning himself on the hot tile walkway just past the library’s exit onto the grounds. Jax must have been loving the weather, he did not get much opportunity for such things at chilly Hogwarts or in dreary Cokeworth.

“Is there a branch of Gringotts here that I could visit? I need to check on something.”

Blaise looked up from his book, he was dressed in a fitted button down shirt in a dark plum color with the first few buttons undone and the sleeves carefully rolled to his elbows in deference to the midday heat (although it did not seem to bother the other boy in the slightest, Harry supposed he was used to such temperatures) and dark trousers of what Harry assumed to be a very fashionable cut. His feet were bare though, which had been such an odd sight to Harry that he'd spent an embarrassing amount of time trying not to sneak peaks at the sharp contrast Blaise’s darker complexion made against the pale color of the lounge as he lay there idly flipping through a book while Harry pretended to browse the nearby shelves.

It was just so odd. Harry could count on one hand the number of times he had seen the other boy anything but perfectly put together. It reminded Harry a bit of the first time he’d come down the stairs at Spinner’s End to find Snape frying up eggs and tomatoes while wearing a pair of threadbare black slippers and a tee-shirt under his house robe so faded that it was closer to gray than not. Harry had nearly tripped over his own bare feet at the time, too busy gaping, and Snape had sent him one of his signature looks that told Harry exactly how dunderheaded he was being.

Casual was just not something he tended to associate with either person, but Harry also felt a strange sort of privilege about being allowed to witness such things.

“I suppose we can make time tomorrow, while we're out.” Blaise answered, breaking into Harry’s straying thoughts.

“Out? Are we going somewhere?” Not that Harry was opposed, the last thing he wanted was to feel as trapped as he'd had the last few days, he was just curious.

“Milan.” Blaise smirked in that way he had when amused at a private joke. “For your birthday present.”

“What? You don't have to--” Harry sputtered, startled.

Blaise just sent him a look and Harry huffed, trying not to feel overly foolish... or pleased. Blaise rose from the lounge and padded over on his bare feet, his trousers so perfectly tailored that the cuffs did not even hint at brushing the floor.

“Would you like to see the music room?”

Harry perked up at that and they went to collect Jax from his sun nap.

The villa had two stories and an expansive subterranean level that held a massive wine cellar and more rooms for entertaining guests away from the unforgiving sun. The music room was on the ground floor, in a space much like the library with large sweeping windows letting in a cool breeze and a plethora of tasteful looking loveseats and lounges spread about. Instead of towering bookcases however, there were all manner of instruments.

A grand piano took the center focus, its keys bright white and the wood of the body scrubbed to a shining finish.

To the side was an assortment of harps in various sizes, the largest of which was bigger than Harry himself. There were flutes and clarinets and oboes and other woodwind instruments that Harry couldn’t put a name to if pressed. Brass trumpets and trombones and even a tuba. There were drums of all shapes and sizes. A violin made of a reddish wood was set upon a stool as if somebody had just recently finished playing it and had forgotten to put it back in its proper place. Harry watched as Blaise tutted and did so himself, handling the instrument with delicate, practiced fingers.

“Wow.” Harry managed after a moment, he’d never seen so many different instruments in one place before. Even in primary school they’d only had an overabundance of plastic recorders and one standing piano the was slightly out of tone. “Do you play all these?”

Jax had wriggled his way free of Harry’s hold and was sniffing at one of the harps curiously.

“I was a precocious child.” Blaise smirked, coming back over to join Harry next to the piano. “I’m better at some than others, but I’ve tried everything in here at least once.”

“Will you play me something?” The words had fallen out before Harry could stop them, but Blaise just gave him a bit of a real smile and nodded to the small bench tucked in front of the piano.

They sat shoulder to shoulder as Blaise made a show of cracking his knuckles before setting his fingers to the keys and tinkling out a simple melody that steadily grew more and more complex until he was reaching past Harry’s chest to hit keys on the low end while his other hand drew out complicated rhythms out of the higher notes.

Harry was wide-eyed and holding his breath by the time Blaise let the last tangled melody fade back into simplicity and the room fell silent.

“Wow...” Harry breathed finally, genuinely amazed.

Blaise smirked in a self-satisfied way, knocking their shoulders together.

“Would you like me to teach you some?”

“I could never do that.” Harry waved a vague hand meant to encompass the crazy sweeping song Blaise had just tossed out like it was nothing.

Blaise rolled his eyes and grabbed Harry’s wrists, setting them on the keys, “Well certainly not if you never try. This,” he pressed down on one of Harry’s fingers and a clear note rang out, “is middle C. It’s like the starting point for the scale.”

He did the same again with another key until a full range of letters had been named, Harry doubted he’d be able to remember half of them but let Blaise arrange his hands anyway. He set Harry to tapping out a simple series of cords that didn’t involve too many changes while his own hands moved back into picking out complex patterns from the higher end of the piano. The result of which was a back and forth melody that had them both grinning once Harry got the hang of what he was supposed to be doing with his own hands.

At one point Jax had slithered his way back over and settled across the middle of them so he could raise up and watch both sets of hands as they played, though one with obvious greater skill. Then, apparently not content with being left out of the fun, Jax darted forward and tapped one of the black keys with his snout. The added note did not fit with the song at all but Blaise just laughed and continued while Harry did his best to keep up and Jax tried to hit as many keys as possible.

Harry was laughing too by the end, feeling a lot of the anxiety of the last few days bleed away as he sat pressed next to his friend and just let himself grin.

Blaise was smiling too, his teeth very white against the darkness of his complexion as he gave Jax a good scratch under the chin, the serpent soaked up the attention like he’d been doing the sun all afternoon.

Before Harry could say anything there was the sound of soft clapping from behind them and he turned sharply to see Signora Zabini in the doorway, an odd sort of indulgent smile on her face as she eyed the pair of them.

“Lovely, if a little unorthodox.”

Blaise rose from the bench to go greet his mother, Harry following after taking a moment to regain his composure. He watched as she ran a hand over Blaise’s head in a familiar looking gesture, murmuring something in Italian that was too low for Harry to make out but that Blaise responded to with a put upon “Mama.

She just chuckled softly, the sound deeper than Harry would have expected, before turning to Harry.

“Supper is ready, I expect you’ll want to get an early night. Tomorrow will be a busy day.”

Blaise freed himself from his mother and walked next to Harry as she led the way to the dining room. Another space filled with tall windows, though this one also held elaborate colored glass lanterns that hung above the long table and set flickering multi-hued lights dancing around the room. There was a man that Harry had not met yet already seated and sipping at a glass of dark wine, he was obviously of Italian heritage with thick black hair that fell in loose waves to his shoulders and the shadow of stubble distinct across his square jaw. Harry was a bit worried about having to put up a front for this stranger, but the man seemed to only have eyes for Signora Zabini to the exclusion of all else.

Blaise rolled his own eyes subtly at Harry behind his mother’s back and took his wrist to lead them to seats further along the table.

“That’s just Ronaldo, my mother’s latest beau.”

“Oh.” Harry cut a look back up the table to see the two now engaged in conversation that the man, Ronaldo, seemed to find highly amusing and Signora Zabini entertained enough to let him continue. She had the fingers of one hand curling one of his locks of hair over and over, while she sipped at her own wine.

Harry looked away before he was caught starting, adults were weird.

Dinner was a light, garlicky pasta with bits of fresh tomato and lots of olive oil. There were little toasted breads, thin slices of prosciutto, grapes, and too many different cheeses for Harry to name on a platter set before the two of them. They were also given small glasses of wine, but Harry refrained from finishing his as he did not really care for the bitter taste. Maybe it was something he might like as he grew older, but for now he’d stick to the sparkling water that had also been poured for him by a house elf in a brightly colored toga-like outfit. Harry wondered if it was an actual toga and all the Zabini elves were free, or if it was simply a sheet made to resemble such. It was probably a rude question to ask, so he set it aside for later.

For dessert, a good sized square of tiramisu was placed in front of him along with a steaming cup of coffee. Harry shot a look at Blaise,

“How am I meant to sleep after drinking that?”

The other boy set his own cup down with a smirk, “I suppose I have built up a bit of a tolerance, would you prefer hot chocolate? Or milk?”

Harry flushed, “I don’t want to be a bother, I don’t need anything really. I’ve still got some water.”

Blaise rolled his eyes a bit and tapped the table softly, an elf appeared a moment later.

“What can Mizzy be doing for you, Master Blaise?”

“Can you bring my friend a cup of milk, please?”

“Of course, sir, Mizzy is being right back.”

“There,” Blaise said as the elf returned with a cold cup of milk and took the coffee away, “no bother at all.”

Harry sighed and took a forkful of his dessert, he never liked making a fuss, but he could see a pointless battle and didn’t want to fight with Blaise as that would cause more of a scene; defeating the purpose. The tiramisu was delicious anyway, and the cool milk paired with it perfectly so Harry guessed he could deal with asking for something more every once in a while.

~~~~~~~>

The wizarding quarter of Milan was one of the busiest places Harry had ever seen. It was not the single long alleyway that Diagon was in London, but a sprawling series of streets and shops and markets that must have taken up miles of the surrounding muggle city. Harry suspected extensive use of magical spaces and expansion charms, probably laid into the roads and building themselves. He itched to research how such a large and bustling place could be hidden in the heart of a major metropolis without the muggles being any the wiser to the magic pressing up against their front doors.

But he was far too distracted at the moment by what Blaise had just told him he intended to gift Harry for his birthday.

“An entire wardrobe?” Harry had to struggle to keep his voice low enough not to cause a scene in the very fancy looking tailors the other boy had steered them to as soon as Signora Zabini had Apparated them to the city and let them loose with the expectation that they would meet up for lunch. “That’s too much, I can’t accept that.”

Blaise got that steely look in his eye that usually only came out when the other boy was playing chess against Draco and calculating the quickest and most vicious way to win.

“You can’t lie to me and say that you don’t need new clothes.” He said, tone deceptively even.

Harry tugged self-consciously at the short cuff of his robe sleeve. It was one of his best ones, but Harry had to admit that Blaise was right. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Harry had managed to gain a good few inches. He’d been planning on buying new things that summer before everything got sidetracked because of Black.

Instead of trying to deny the need for new things, Harry tried a different tack.

“You have a point, but I don’t need any new shirts. And I can afford to pay for my own clothes, you don’t need to buy them for me.”

“Your shirts are two years out of date, and they barely qualified as fashionable even when new.” Blaise argued with the air of someone far too passionate about another person’s choice in attire. “I know you did the best you could, given your situation, and it wasn’t all that terrible you have a decent eye. But I’m here now Harry, let me do this for you.”

Harry wanted to dig his heels in, uncomfortable with such a large and obvious act of charity, but Blaise had that earnest look in his brown eyes. And it was clear that this meant a lot to him, even if Harry only had a passing care about such things. He wanted his clothes to fit, to be new (with a couple notable exceptions in the form of things he’d lifted from Snape), in colors that he liked. But styles and cut and updating things more often than every few years because he grew out of the originals were concepts beyond him.

Blaise cared about such things, and it was obvious that in trying to share that he was showing that he cared about Harry. And as oblivious as he usually was in these types of emotional interactions, not even Harry was blind enough to miss that.

He sighed, “How about I let you pick everything out, but I buy them?”

Blaise narrowed his eyes, “A third.”

“Half.”

“Half, but we get accessories as well.”

Harry mulled over it a moment before reluctantly holding out a hand, “Deal.”

They shook on it and Blaise flashed him a bright, sharp smile and wink before turning them further into the shop to get started.

What followed was a number of hours filled with a whirlwind of flying fabrics, spools of thread, shining buttons and measuring tapes getting far more intimate with him than Harry was entirely comfortable with.

Blaise’s tailor was a handsome wizard somewhere between forty and fifty with dark hair graying at the temples and styled in a fashionable undercut, who spoke in rapid Italian almost too quickly for Harry to parse. It was a good thing that his opinion was rarely asked as the man and Blaise spoke quickly and knowledgeably about exactly how they should go about making Harry presentable. His name was Phillip and when Jax heard that he had popped out of his hiding spot in Harry’s set-aside satchel and hissed excitedly. Phillip, to his credit, had barely batted an eye and Harry spent a ridiculous few minutes explaining the story behind why his snake knew about a tailor all the way in Italy.

I shall consider it an honor that my reputation precedes me so far as to reach such unexpected ears.” The man said in smooth Italian, sending Jax a little bow before getting back to business.

In the end, Harry left with more clothes to his name than he’d ever had in his life. Blaise refused to let him coast by on just a few outfits outside of his new Hogwarts uniforms and insisted on far more than Harry thought he’d be able to wear if he tried. The other boy wouldn’t listen when he attempted to persuade him that most of the year was spent in uniform, and pretended to be deep in thought about choosing between a pair of nearly identical silver cufflinks.

Harry gave up after a while and refrained from rolling his eyes at the smug smirk that made its way onto his friend’s face.

After the tailor’s, they stopped for a scoop of gelato and Blaise spent the majority of the time eating it glaring at Harry’s head. Used to such things, he could anticipate what Blaise was thinking and stopped it before the thought could dig in.

“It’s not worth it.” He said between licks of sweet chocolate (Jax had given him a death glare when Harry had chosen that flavor and moved to sling himself over Blaise’s shoulders instead) “It will just grow right back.”

“Really?” Blaise glared harder, as if offended by the mere concept of a head of hair that he could not tame.

“Really, really. Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s got a mind of its own. One of my first bouts of accidental magic was regrowing all of my hair after my aunt shaved everything except my bangs ‘to hide that horrible scar’.” He added in a mocking falsetto.

“What a horrendous bitch.”

Harry laughed, startled by the profanity, “Yeah, she really was.”

Blaise took his free hand and gave it a little squeeze, “I’m glad you never have to see her again.”

Harry squeezed back, “Me too.”

They finished their gelato and started down the street once more, it was a moment before Blaise spoke up.

“Alright, so no haircut. How about your ears?”

Harry lifted a hand to touch one, confused, “What about my ears?”

Blaise rolled his eyes, tapping at his own lobe were a tiny sparkling diamond sat, a matching one on the other side.

Harry blinked, “I’ve never thought about it before. Do you think it would suit me?”

Harry knew it was a little odd in muggle society for men to have pierced ears, but he knew it wasn’t the same for wizards. He’d seen just as many of them with earrings as he’d seen witches, Harry had just never considered it himself.

Blaise nodded, “I’ll even let you pick out the jewelry.” He said magnanimously, “I’m sure they’ll have all manner of amethysts available.”

Harry snorted and shoved at his friend a bit as they walked, Blaise just laughed.

It didn’t hurt, when the smiling witch poked through his earlobe with a shining needle. Or, maybe it did but Harry just had a higher tolerance than most.

There we go dear,” She spoke in lilting Italian, threading the silver stem of the amethyst stud into the new hole. It was coated in a healing solution that would close up the wound in a matter of moments instead of days, which Harry thought was a vast improvement over the muggle method and made it much easier to avoid infections.

Blaise had smirked at him when he’d picked out the purple jewels, but Harry really had liked them. He’d also bought a pair of plain steel rings that were just large enough to hug his lobe and a pair of emerald ones in the shape of tiny teardrops that Jax had liked the look of.

By the time they were finished it was time to meet Blaise’s mother for lunch. She complimented Harry on his new outfit (Blaise had insisted he change into one of them at the shop) and they had a lovely lunch of bright green salad with a sharply tangy vinaigrette and warm breadsticks. After which she disappeared again, citing a need to get her hair done, and that they should meet in a few hours time to head back to the villa.

Blaise, apparently used to his mother disappearing on him, led Harry up a side street to another block of wizarding buildings.

“Gringotts is just up there.” He said needlessly, as the massive bank took up the majority of the upper end of the street. Just as imposing as the one in Diagon Alley, with sweeping columns and goblins guarding the entrance. Oddly enough, the ancient architecture felt more in place here than the more mundanely constructed building that surrounded it. Harry wondered just how old the bank was and wished Professor Binns was more interesting to listen to when he droned on and on about things that should be fascinating but ended up putting most of the class to sleep.

It was not so busy when they walked in past the scowling guards, most people probably away eating lunch or else trying to escape the summer heat in a less hostile environment. Harry didn’t mind the surly goblins, they had never been anything but honest with him, which was more than he could say about most wizards.

Ciao.” Harry greeted the goblin at the high desk in front of him, pleasantly surprised to find he did not have to crane his neck quite so far as when he was eleven. “I was wondering if I could make some changes to my account? It was originally opened in Diagon Alley, but I am unable to go there at present and I’m worried it may be compromised by some recent events.

The goblin peered down at him with beady eyes, nothing of his expression giving away his thoughts.

“Name?” He said in English, Harry flushed a bit, worried he mangled the language so terribly that the goblin simply refused to let him continue. Blaise nudged their shoulders together a bit and gave him a little shake of the head, the goblin was just being surly.

“I would prefer to do this in a private setting, if possible.” He reached a hand up to scratch at his head, giving the goblin a brief glimpse of his scar before letting the hair fall back down to cover it.

A glint entered into the goblin’s eye and he suddenly seemed much more personable, which was good. Harry was worried he might not be as recognizable here as he was back home. Which was great when getting his ears pierced, but less so when trying to manage his accounts.

“Of course, right this way. Will your,” The goblin scowled at Blaise, who was too busy examining his nails to notice, “companion be joining you?”

“Yes, that’s fine.”

They were led through a pair of massive iron doors and down a long hallway much like the one he had been at in London. The goblin settled them into an office about midway down.

“A representative will be with you shortly, Mr. Potter.”

“Thank you.” If the goblin was surprised by the manners, he didn’t show it, but a moment after the door closed behind him a pitcher of chilled pumpkin juice and a plate of biscuits appeared on a small table in the corner.

Blaise drew his wand and murmured a spell over the tray before nodding at Harry and pouring them both a glass.

“What was that?” He asked curiously, taking a sip of the sweet drink.

“Detection spell.” Blaise said with a shrug, pocketing his wand again. Harry wondered if the other boy’s wand was not under the trace, if he’d gotten it outside of the Ministry’s jurisdiction or if it was a case of them being surrounded by other magic users so there was no way to tell who was casting the spell. He’d always thought it was a bit of a raw deal that the muggleborns weren’t allowed to get away with practicing over the summer because of the trace, but children from wizarding families could do what they like without probable consequence.

Harry had tried not to use his own wand while at Spinner’s End, unsure what Snape might feel about him flouting that rule. But he still did from time to time, or he practiced his wandless magic.

“Do you think they would poison us?” He asked, curiously.

“Not poison, no. But I wouldn’t put it past them to slip a bit of veritaserum or something that lowered inhibitions to try and get an edge up over their clients.”

Harry supposed that was not an altogether unfounded bit of reasoning, if not a very nice thought. In his experience, nice thoughts could lead to far more painful circumstances than a drop of reasonable caution.

It was a full ten minutes before the door to the office opened once more and Bloodclaw came striding in with a large folder under one arm and that familiar smirking scowl that Harry remembered from their last meeting.

“Apologies for the delay, Mr. Potter. While I have been expecting a visit due to the recent... events, I confess I did not expect you to be at this branch.” This was said with a hint of approval that Harry had not expected to hear after he’d apparently summoned the goblin from all the way in London.

“The apologies are mine, Master Bloodclaw, I was unaware I would be pulling you away from your usual post.” Before the goblin could get indignant about any other being handing Harry’s affairs with the bank, he continued, “But I must say I am relieved that they did.”

Bloodclaw humphed, tapping at his desk with one clawed hand while opening his file with the other, he was still scowling but Harry thought he saw a bit of goblinish satisfaction to it.

“I assume this is pertaining to the matter of Lord Black?” Bloodclaw stated, Harry nodded.

“You will no doubt be happy to know that the man in question has made no move to access your trust vault, nor any other under you or your family name.”

Harry squinted at the goblin, “Has he accessed other ones since he broke out?”

Bloodclaw tapped at his long pointed nose, giving Harry a smirk full of too many sharp teeth, “Now that would be telling. I am not in that habit of divulging personal information in regards to other clients.”

“Of course, forgive me.”

The goblin chuckled darkly before flipping a few pages in the file.

“I assume you also wish to restrict access to your vault away from Lord Black, should he be of a mind to interfere.”

“Yes. Am I able to do that? I know he can’t take money out, but if he cuts off my ability to draw from my trust I would be... inconvenienced.” He had his separate vault, the one that Harry had been steadily adding into with his wages from the apothecary and scheduled transfers from his trust, but that one was for emergencies and he’d rather not have to resort to dipping into it for school books and tuition.

Bloodclaw hmm’d, examining the file, though Harry suspected it was more for show than anything. After a moment he folded his clawed hands over the pages and spoke.

“Unfortunately, as you are neither of age nor emancipated, that is not an action within your power.” Before Harry could slump in defeat, the goblin held up one gnarled finger. “However, as you have since acquired an additional legal guardian to Lord Black, said guardian could also be set as moderator to your trust vault. He would then have the power to foist Lord Black from his position as such, given that you both agree to the action.”

Harry thought about for a moment, “Would Snape have the same restrictions?”

Bloodclaw nodded.

Harry sighed, frustrated with his age in a way he had not been for a while. He knew Snape would never restrict Harry from spending money on things he needed. But what Harry thought he needed and what Snape did was not something he had ever given much thought to. He used his trust to fund his offerings to the Hogwarts elves, and to buy what was probably an unreasonable amount of books for someone not in Ravenclaw, and to get gifts for his friends on holidays and birthdays, and music.

How much of that would seem like reasonable expenditures?

Harry remembered the man handing over his vault key, unaware that Harry had already gained access, and the demand that he not squander his mother's goodwill. Harry had the feeling that the Potion Master would have a much more active role in monitoring Harry’s accounts than Black had while in Azkaban.

On the other hand, a little restriction from Snape was better than potentially being completely cut off by Black.

“Alright. Do we both need to be here to do that? Or can I just sign something?”

Bloodclaw gave another sharp grin and opened a drawer of the desk, pulling out a sheet of parchment and a familiar looking penknife. Harry wondered if all the desks were stocked the same, or if it was a clever bit of goblin magic that tied the two spaces together, allowing Bloodclaw to access his own things no matter the location.

The goblin wrote something in a blank space near the top before sliding the parchment across to Harry.

“A signature here, granting permission to one Severus Tobias Snape as your current legal guardian to gain access to your trust vault statements and holdings and to enact restrictions thereon, the details of which are explained in full below.”

Harry carefully read the document, not seeing any discrepancies, but allowed Blaise to give it a look over as well. The other boy had been sitting quietly beside him the whole time, petting Jax who was still across his shoulders and doing an admirable job at looking completely uninterested in the conversation going on between Harry and the goblin.

Blaise gave him a nod after a moment, so Harry scribbled his name across the bottom in what was probably a much neatest scrawl than the last document he'd signed at eleven. He then took up the penknife without prompting and pricked this thumb so that a singular drop of blood fell next to it. Bloodclaw seemed pleased at the lack of hesitation, or maybe he just enjoyed watching wizards bleed.

“I shall contact Master Snape about his change in status and your request that Lord Black be removed from his duties. Is there anything else I can help you with today, Mr. Potter?” Bloodclaw said almost pleasantly, or as pleasant as a high ranking Gringotts goblin every got towards their clients, Harry suspected he enjoyed helping wizards mess with each other.

“Would it be possible for you not to notify Black when the change is made?” Harry didn't want to borrow trouble, but what Harry wanted rarely lined up with what said trouble ended up doing.

Bloodclaw tapped the claws of one hand on the desk, the sound sharp in the otherwise quiet room.

“I could be persuaded to lose the letter.” He said with a glint in his beady eye, “Although if Lord Black were to come into the bank and inquire about the situation in person...”

Harry nodded, it was better than nothing.

“How much persuasion are we talking about?”

The goblin gave Harry a pointy grin, “I am sure a resourceful young wizard such as yourself will have no trouble convincing me.”

Harry eyed Bloodclaw for a moment, thinking. He did not want to give too much and lose respect or be thought of as far too gullible, and too little would be just insulting. He also had to weigh the importance he held against Black within the bank. The Potter name was old, but not nearly so steeped in history or old money as the Blacks. Then again, Sirius Black was the last of his line and on the run from the ministry besides, the goblins would not want attention drawn to them because of a simple letter.

Reaching into his coin purse, Harry pulled out forty galleons and set them in four gleaming stacks of ten atop the desk. It was a ridiculous amount of money, but Harry had it to spare even if he sometimes forgot he no longer had to fish for spare pence in the sofa cushions. It was still a bit grating, but Harry tried to think of it as an investment and that helped somewhat.

Bloodclaw gave Harry what must have been the sweetest smile a goblin capable of, it showed hardly any teeth at all, and swept the pile of coins into an open drawer.

“You make a compelling case, Mr. Potter, I thank you. Now if that is all, there is some pressing business in London that I must attend to within the hour.”

Harry rose from his seat with a shake of his head, “That is all Master Bloodclaw.” He told the goblin, giving him a passable bow as Blaise also regained his feet. “Thank you again for coming so far to see me.”

They left the bank a minute later, being led out by the same clerk that had escorted them at the start. When they were about halfway down the street, Blaise leaned over and murmured with a sly smirk, “That was cleverly done, Harry. A lot of wizards are not so smart when dealing with goblins.”

Harry snorted, “That's stupid. They handle your money and manage a fair number of estates, not to mention the extensive records they keep and their tendency to remain neutral in all things.”

Blaise gave him a shrewd glance, “I had noticed he didn't deny Black had been to the bank, or any intent to report such, it was a good precaution to forestall that letter.”

Harry nodded absentmindedly, he did not particularly care for dealing with goblins, but he did not dislike them either. He had met far less friendly beings among his own kind to try throwing stones at others.

~~~~~~~>

The weeks at the villa seemed to pass both quickly and at a snail's pace. Hours could fly by while they spent time in the library or the music room, or out walking the grounds (although Blaise tended to turn his nose up at the last, he still came along). Sometimes Blaise would take them down into the small town where there was an open air market that sold all manner of trinkets and goods. The town was muggle, more or less, though there was a higher population of magical people than Harry suspected was normal for such places.

The open air market, for example, very clearly showed a dividing line from one muggle corner around to its magical equivalent when you crossed over a buzzing threshold of wards. There must have been layers upon layers of Notice-Me-Nots and anti-muggle repellents in place for the bustling market to go unnoticed.

The weather was hot and dry and Harry soon grew a shade darker, though not without a sidestep into stinging red that he’d been able to sooth away with a balm Blaise’s mother had provided him.

Other than that instance and at a smattering of meals, Harry did not see much of Signora Zabini over the month he resided in her home. She seemed wholly uninterested in anything that was not socializing with the upper echelons of Italian wizarding society (Blaise had thanked Harry profusely for providing an excuse for him to miss attending the dull parties alongside his mother), the work she did in her lab, and her son, seemingly in that order. Harry could not shake the feeling that the intimidating woman was just cold, cold and utterly focused on her own goals. He knew she loved her son, it was obvious in the few interactions Harry witnessed between them, but it seemed less a familial thing and more possessive. Blaise was his mother’s son, and she held onto that as fiercely as she would any of her other precious possessions. But it did not make for a very soft relationship between them. Blaise, for his part, seemed to be all too aware of the situation but did not look overly bothered by it. Harry supposed he was used to the treatment, and Harry guessed that being loved so dearly in any way was better than hated or ignored.

Jax seemed to agree with the weather a great deal as he was ready to shed again by the third week at the villa. Harry made sure they were in a reasonably secluded spot outside and away from anything flammable before the hissing curses and sparks started flying. Blaise watched in fascination as Jax slowly wriggled out of his skin, multi-colored specks shooting off like fireworks.

“Is it always this violent?”

“It has been the last few times, he didn’t use to do this. The first time it happened, he accidentally set Snape’s sitting room on fire.”

Blaise laughed, bright and amused.

To show his gratitude to Signora Zabini for letting him stay at her villa, he gave her the entire shedding, explaining what little he knew of Jax’s hodgepodge breed. She accepted the gift with an eager gleam in her eye, bending down from her considerable height to drop a kiss on both of Harry’s cheeks, startling him so much he forgot to blush.

“You are a clever boy, Harry Potter.” She told him in her deep, rolling tone, “I am most pleased with your continued association with my son, I look forward to seeing more of you in the future.”

That was an ominous statement if Harry ever heard one, but he just gave her as smooth of a bow as he could manage while so flustered and tried not to look like he was running away when he left to find Blaise.

Harry’s new course books arrived by owl only a few days before they were meant to leave for Hogwarts. He had been distracted and had nearly forgotten to order them even though his letter had somehow found him all the way out here. He was excited to look through all the new books but was somewhat sidetracked when one of them tried to take a bite out of him.

Jax hissed at the thing threateningly, distracting it so that Harry could sneak up behind and grab its struggling, rabid form.

“Shh, shh, hey calm down.” He felt a bit ridiculous trying to reason with a book, but when he absentmindedly tried to pet it along the spine like he might to soothe an angry Jax the book suddenly grew docile and fell open without complaint. “Oh. Thank you, there’s a good book.” He pet the Monster Book of Monsters again and swore he heard a purr.

Still, when he stowed it away in his trunk Harry put it in the section usually reserved for Jax to lounge in that was full of warm sand and the shredded remains of a box of Ice Mice. The last thing he wanted was for the book to get hungry and decide to resort to the cannibalism of Harry steadily growing personal library. Did the book need to eat? Or was it just a charm? Either way, Harry did not want to take any chances.

~~~~~~~>

It was another trip by International Portkey to arrive at platform 93/4, Harry was able to hold in his breakfast this time around thankfully, though it was a near thing.

The platform was already full to bursting with frantic families and too many rolling trolleys of luggage. They had planned their arrival so that Harry could more easily slip into the crowd unseen, in case Black was staking out the station.

Signora Zabini took a moment to straighten out the already perfect collar of Blaise's shirt and run a hand over his head.

Be clever this year my sweet, and write to me if you have need of anything.” She said in her smooth, rolling Italian.

Yes, Mama.” Blaise answered with a hint of a real smile. Harry suddenly felt like a bit of an intruder on the private moment and hastily looked away, but all around were scenes of the same nature. Parents wishing their children good years, hugs and kisses and last minute gifts being pressed into hands.

Harry tried not to feel the acidic burn of jealousy as he watched, with middling success.

By the time they had made it onto the train it seemed every compartment was full. Harry really did not want to share one but it was looking increasingly likely that they might be forced to. Millicent had found them as they were trudging through the middle sections, Maximus the cat in her arms glaring out from his perch like a king surveying all his lands.

“Hey guys,” She greeted them, “any luck finding a spot?”

“No.” Harry sighed, so they continued on.

By the time they reached the last car, the party had increased by two more in the forms of Neville and Draco, who for once did not seem in the mood to snipe at each other as everyone just wanted to find a place to sit.

Harry peered into the last compartment, it held what looked to be a second year Ravenclaw girl and an older man that was passed out against the window.

“I think this is the best we’re going to find.” Harry told the rest of the group.

Draco looked in past Harry’s shoulder at the girl, who was reading a magazine upside down, and made a face.

“That’s Loony Lovegood.” He groused and Harry sent him an unimpressed look that had Malfoy scrambling to apologize. “Sorry, I mean, she’s just a bit weird is all.”

Harry raised an eyebrow and Draco flushed.

“I suppose she may just be eccentric,” the blonde continued, “I did hear that she is also quite smart, even for a Ravenclaw.”

Harry narrowed his eyes, letting the other boy sweat a bit before allowing the smirk to come out.

“Since she comes so highly recommended by you Draco, I guess this compartment will do just fine.”

Blaise was snickering and Draco looked huffy for all of ten seconds before surprisingly letting it go and rolling his gray eyes and giving Harry a small sort of smile. Harry returned it, inordinately proud of the other boy for learning to take things in stride instead of lashing out when he felt embarrassed.

Harry knocked on the compartment door softly before sliding it open, “Hello, I was wondering if we could join you? Everywhere else is full.”

The girl looked up, she had rather large pale eyes and hair blonde enough to rival Draco’s, but her smile was sweet and she nodded after a moment of staring at the space above Harry’s head.

“That’s fine, you do not seem to be plagued by wrackspurts at the moment, I fear there is a bit of an infestation further down the train.”

Harry, unsure how to answer that, simply stepped into the compartment and took a seat furthest from the sleeping man, the others following him in. Draco, amusingly enough, ended up seated next to Lovegood.

“I’m Harry Potter.” He said after a moment, holding out a hand to the Ravenclaw, “Thank you for letting us share.”

“I know who you are.” She said, but not in the usual pompous or excited way that Harry was used to, just as if she were stating a fact, her hand was cold when she took his. “I’m Luna Lovegood, although some people call me ‘Loony’.”

This was said in that same conversational tone, but Harry glared at Malfoy anyway who at least had the decency to look a bit ashamed.

“It’s nice to meet you, Luna, what are you reading?” He tried to decipher the name of the magazine upside down but it seemed to be written in runes.

“Oh! It’s the latest issue of the Quibbler, my dad writes it you know? It’s the only place to go for real news.”

Harry had never heard of the magazine, but Luna seemed eager enough to talk about it. Although it seemed to Harry to be full of sensational conspiracy theories and tales of encounters with fanciful myths and made up creatures. On the other hand, Harry live in a world that let him travel from Cokeworth to Verona in a matter of seconds and that had nature preserves specifically tailored to house dragons, so he was not about to dismiss the thing out of hand.

“Who do you think he is?” Draco asked, apparently at his limit for listening to Luna talk about the migratory habits of flickering blitz bugs.

Harry glanced over at the man still sleeping with his face pressed up against the window. It must have been cold, because a storm had rolled in at some point and there was a steady pattering of rain against the glass, but he slept on despite it. Harry might suspect him of faking it, but the man looked honestly exhausted. He was thin, with light brown hair in a tangle on his head from sleeping on a train or running nervous hands through it, or both. The clothes he had on were worn down and shabby, hanging off him a bit like a scarecrow, but they were at least clean if a little wrinkled. There were thin silvery scars scattered across his features, as if he’d been mauled by something and hadn’t been able to apply dittany in time to negate them completely.

A glance up at the luggage rack showed an equally shabby looking case, with a plain brass plate reading Professor R. J. Lupin.

“Must be the new Defense teacher.” Blaise said, nodding at the luggage.

“Can’t be worse than the last one.” Millicent snorted, she was the one sitting next Lupin, Maximus had spent the entire ride staring at the man, but cats were always staring at things so Harry hadn’t paid it much mind.

He smells a bit like dog.” Jax commented from his place in Luna’s lap, where he had been since the girl had complimented the pattern of purple scales swirling across his green body. Harry liked Luna, he wasn’t sure why, usually it took a long time for him to warm up to people that already knew who he was, but the odd Ravenclaw just seemed like such a well of calm that he couldn’t help it.

Maybe he has one, are dogs allowed at Hogwarts?

Probably about as much as snakes are.” Jax said with a hissing laugh that had Luna tickling him under his chin, spoiled serpent.

Neville was telling him about devil’s snare that he had managed to procure for his blacked-out greenhouse, apparently his gran was not entirely in the know about the nature of the plant (another sign that the Gryffindor was spending far too much time around Slytherins, or just the right amount) and it was supposedly thriving.

“I’ve tasked one of the house elves to drop a couple rabbits in once a month or so, but it’s mostly self sufficient. I may need to construct another greenhouse for my nocturnal plants, as that one doesn’t really like to share.”

Harry nodded vaguely, a bit worried that Neville’s house elf might get snatched up instead of the rabbit, when the train suddenly started to slow before coming to a screeching halt. Everyone was jolted in there seats a bit and Neville looked out the rain splattered window in confusion.

“We can’t be there yet, it’s much too early.”

Harry was thinking the exact same thing, his hand reaching into his pocket to grab his wand just as the overhead lights flickered and went dark.

Lumos.” was murmured all around in a staggered sort of echo as everyone else reached for their wands as well. Bathing the compartment in blue-white light, but not nearly as bright as it should have been with six wands at work.

It was growing cold too, Harry could see the breath in front of his face and he reached across the aisle to take back Jax but before he could there was a piercing scream.

Not Harry! Not Harry!” The lights from their wands had all been snuffed out and the compartment door slid open to reveal a towering hooded figure in ragged black robes, it was breathing in loud rattling gasps that seemed to suck any remaining warmth from the room.

Harry tried to raise a shield between them and the monster but the screaming was too loud and it his vision was going darker, he could smell something burning and hear the sizzle of flesh bubbling and feel it blistering and cracking under his hands.

Not Harry! Take me instead! Not Harry!

There was a flash of sickly green light and high pitched laughter and burnt garlic and charred flesh and the feeling of being trapped in a too small box with no way out.

No air.

No heat.

No Jax.

Just screaming and green flashes and laughter that was not his own.

“Harry, Harry wake up! It’s gone, wake up, you’re safe.”

Harry gasped, opening his eyes to see everyone crowded around him as he lay on the cold floor of the compartment. Blaise’s hand was warm against his face as the other boy looked down at him with such a worried expression that Harry had the urge to pull in him into a hug to reassure him that he was fine.

Was he fine though? What had happened? Where was Jax?

“What?” Was all he could manage to croak out.

“It was a dementor.” A tired but hard voice said from behind Harry’s prone form. He craned his neck, rolling his head against the floor to see the sleeping man awake and standing in the doorway with his wand drawn and a furious expression on his face.

“It came in,” Neville spoke up, looking shaken and pale, a sheen of cold sweat across his forehead, “and it was like all the happiness and warmth was sucked right out of the air.”

“That’s what they do.” Lupin said, turning back to face them and pulling a bar of candy of all things out of his pocket and handing it down to Harry. “Eat that, you’ll feel better. I need to have a word with the conductor.”

Harry stared at him, confused.

“It’s chocolate, it will help.” And with that, he was gone.

Harry shuddered at the chill still running through him and struggled to sit up against the seats, Millicent helped wordlessly. Blaise sat on his other side, heedless of the dirty floor and clutching at one of Harry’s hands, Harry did not mind that last part in the least.

“What happened?”

“The dementor came in.” Neville said again, voice unsteady but slowly regaining its solidity. “You got all shaky and passed out and then Jax, he spit fire at it and Lupin shot some silvery stuff out of his wand and it kind of shrieked and flew off. Then the lights came back on, and well...” He made a vague sort of gesture.

Harry was stuck on one part of that story in particular, he scanned the car until he saw his snake still in Luna’s arms, Jax slithered out after a moment to come coil in Harry’s lap protectively.

You spit fire?” He asked the serpent incredulously, using his free hand to pet at his friend, though it was made a bit awkward by the candy bar still clenched in his fist.

I didn’t know I could do that...” Jax hissed, as stunned by the act as Harry.

Well, I sure am happy to find out.” He gave a weak chuckle and held the snake close as everyone slowly regained their sense of selves.

Draco looked pale and shaken, something haunted behind his gray eyes and Millicent just looked pissed, but Harry had been around the girl long enough to know when anger translated to hurt in her. Luna seemed to withdraw into herself huddling back into a corner of the compartment and fiddling with the ends of her long hair.

“Did anyone else pass out?” Harry felt like he already knew the answer, but the round of shaking heads confirmed it. Of course.

Lupin returned not long after that and the train started moving again, he eyed them all with an air of weary sympathy and dug out more chocolate bars from his beat up case, passing them around.

“Eat. It will help.”

Harry was too worn out to argue much, though he let Blaise discreetly cast his detection charm over his first before unwrapping it and taking a bite.

Warmth flooded through him, pushing away the numbness that had been threatening to take over his limbs and Harry was quick to finish the bar.

This was not a good start to his school year, but Harry was beginning to suspect he should not expect anything less.

Chapter Text

“Mr. Potter, with me if you please.” Snape’s low voice had no trouble cutting through the chattering crowd of sodden students making their way to the Great Hall.

Harry waved his friends to go on without him and followed the Potion Master down to his office. He was still shaken from the incident on the train, but the hand Snape set on his shoulder as they walked helped to settle his frayed nerves.

The carriage ride up to the castle had been a quiet one, the loudest thing about it being the beat of rain against the small windows. Luna Lovegood had somehow been shuffled along in with Harry’s usual group, but nobody seemed to mind. Not even when she paused to stroke one of the thestrals along its leathery neck with an absently pleasant smile on her face, calling it a pretty thing and promising to bring it a treat sometime. The thestral had nuzzled her blond head and the image might have been sweet if it weren’t still staring out at the rest of them with its unblinking milky eyes.

The new professor had rushed off the train as soon as it had pulled to a more gentle stop at Hogsmeade Station. The man had spent the remainder of the trip watching the landscape roll by outside the window with a sort of weary contemplation that had the mixed effect of both reassuring them the danger had most likely passed and the awkwardness that sharing a compartment with a presumed teacher inherently imbued school children with. Harry was glad when the trip had finally finished.

Snape led them at a brisk pace to his office where he sat Harry in one of the stiff backed chairs and looked him over with a critical eye. But before he could say anything, there was a sharp knock on the door and it was opened to Madam Pomfrey bustled in looking more annoyed than Harry had seen her in a long while. He fought the urge to sink down into his chair.

“Ah, you then is it Mr. Potter? I should have known. Let me get a look at you.”

Harry cut his eyes to Snape, but his Head of House just nodded and stepped to the side to allow the mediwitch space to work.

“Any numbness? Chills?”

Harry mutely shook his head and Snape narrowed his eyes at him over Madam Pomfrey’s shoulder as she poked and prodded at him.

Harry bit his lip before admitting quietly, “My head hurts a little, I might have hit it when I fell.”

Madam Pomfrey clucked angrily but the fingers she ran over his skull were gentle.

“Honestly, having those things near children. I am sure I will never understand the reasoning the Ministry put behind it. Especially given the effect they have on those already in a delicate state.”

Harry was too tired to hold in his scowl, but the mediwitch just tutted at him, pulling down one of his eyelids and having him follow a finger she tracked back and forth across his vision.

“Don't be giving me that look, Mr. Potter. You are far from the first to pass out after an encounter with one of those dreadful creatures. I’ve five more children to check after you,five. Merlin save me from the plans of idiot Ministers.”

“I doubt the Minister has enough acumen to formulate so much as a grocery list, let alone an effective stratagem for apprehending Black.” Snape commented, the flat edge to his voice belied a little by the hard anger Harry could see burning in his dark eyes. “It is little wonder we are forced to consort will all manner of dangerous beings.”

“Severus.” Madam Pomfrey chided, not looking away from the fingers she had pressed to Harry’s wrist, taking his pulse. The comment confused him, as she was clearly against the dementor coming near the students under her care, but the way she had scolded Snape...

“Well, you seem to be fine Mr. Potter. No lingering effects and just a wee bump from your fall. I don’t believe you shall need to stay in the hospital wing overnight, but you should have some chocolate at the very least.” Madam Pomfrey said briskly, startling Harry out of his wandering thoughts.

“I've had some already.” Harry pulled the empty sweets wrapper out of his pocket to show her, “Professor Lupin gave some to all of us.”

Snape made a low noise but Madam Pomfrey just nodded, her stern demeanor softening slightly.

“Well at least we’ve finally got a Defense Professor that knows his remedies. Now, I've other patients to look in on, I expect you to take better care of yourself this year, Mr. Potter.” She wagged a finger at him.

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Thank you, Poppy.” Severus said, showing the mediwitch to the door.

She gave the Potion Master an indecipherable look that was returned with a hint of begrudging acquiesce on Snape's part, thoroughly confusing Harry to the reason for either. Then they were alone in the office and Snape came to stand before him with his arms crossed over his chest and one eyebrow quirked as he leaned back against the edge of his desk.

“I believe I specifically requested that you stay out of trouble.”

Harry managed a thin smirk, feeling himself relax at the familiar dry tone.

“To be fair, sir, it is the first of September. You did specify.”

Snape snorted and Harry felt the last of his anxiety drain away.

Then the man reached forward and took Harry’s chin in hand, turning his head to the left and right.

“What in Merlin’s name have you done to your ears?” Snape’s tone was unreadable as he eyed the steel hoops that hugged Harry’s ears.

Harry shrugged, only then realizing that he should probably have asked his guardian before doing such a thing. But at the same time they were his ears and Harry could do with them what he wanted.

“Blaise suggested it.” he finally said, after a too long pause. “I like them.”

Snape hmm’d but didn't say anything for or against and dropped Harry’s chin without further comment after a moment.

“Do you wish to speak about what occurred on the train?”

Harry’s first instinct was to shake his head violently, but he needed to know why he'd reacted so strongly. Why those things were there in the first place. He reached into his bag where his serpent had elected to hide from the still pouring rain and absently stroked his flank.

“Why did it--” He started, the words halting halfway out of his throat, Harry swallowed and tried again. “Why was I so vulnerable when everyone else managed to keep their senses?”

That was almost the worst part of it all. Anything could have happened to him after he'd blacked out, if his friends weren't there, if Jax hadn't...

Snape’s expression grew tighter around the eyes, a shadow seeming to pass over his face before he spoke.

“Dementors are creatures of hunger above all else. They feed on emotions, specifically positive ones. They will suck and draw and tear them from you until there is little more than an empty husk remaining.” Harry shivered at the flat, almost clinical explanation. Feeling some of the earlier chill return despite the warmth of the office. “The more negative emotions or experiences their victim has, the easier it is to feed off of them. Their very presence makes it so that you are forced to relive trauma, or fixate on the thing that causes you the most pain and suffering as they drain away anything that might alleviate that desolation.”

Snape gave him a significant look, “It stands to reason that a person who has faced deeper wretchedness in their life would be affected by them exponentially as well.”

Harry felt his shoulders hunching in again, a hot flush of shame rushing through him. It wasn’t fair and Harry was frankly getting quite tired of that phrase.

“Why were they allowed on the train? Why are they allowed anywhere near people?”

“Because we have a fool at the head of our Ministry and he has the audacity to believe he can control them.” The words were bit out with a dark edge that nonetheless worked to comfort Harry.

“They search for Black.” The Potion Master continued, a sneer just barely curling the corner of his mouth before the man regained his usual neutral expression. “They are the guards at Azkaban, a prison no wizard or witch had escaped in living memory. It has understandably... agitated them and our esteemed Minister has seen fit to lose them upon the populous in the hopes of ferreting the madman out.”

“That is the most idiotic plan I have ever heard.” Harry gaped, “What’s to stop them from hurting innocent people?”

“What indeed?” Snape inclined his head, long hair swinging forward slightly with the motion. “Although you need not worry about them while you reside within the castle grounds. The Headmaster has prudently forbade them entry, which brings forth another matter that I must speak with you about.”

Harry nodded warily, thoughts still heavy with renewed anxiety. Could Dumbledore really keep the dementors out? Was it just the old wizards words keeping them at bay, or would the wards around Hogwarts protect them as well?

“As you are doubtless aware, students third year and above are permitted to go down to the village on certain weekends, given their guardian’s approval.” Harry could see where this was going and resigned himself to once more feeling the confining ache of being trapped while others were free to roam about. “You understand why I cannot permit this?”

Harry nodded glumly, staring down at his lap and fidgeting with the sleeves if his newly tailored robes. At least Hogwarts was more of a gilded cage than Spinner’s End managed, at least he would be allowed to wander around the grounds. Unless Snape was planning to forbid that as well...

There was a long moment of silence before a steaming cup was thrust under his nose. Harry took the mug on instinct, surprised to find that it was not tea but hot chocolate. He blew across the surface before taking a hesitant sip, it was slightly more bitter than he expected, dark and thick with a hint of cinnamon. It warmed him far more than it should rightfully have done.

“Why does chocolate help?”

Snape gave his own cup a contemplative stare before his mouth quirked up into a rueful smirk.

“There have been many studies and countless hypotheses, but none has yet provided any concrete conclusions. As frustrating as it can be to not understand the why of it, sometimes magic is just that.” He wriggled the long fingers of his free hand in an uncharacteristically whimsical gesture. “Magic.

They sipped at their cups for a few more silent moments while Harry gathered his thoughts together and let the hot chocolate do its work.

“Is there a way to protect against the dementors? Could I use Occlumency to shut them out?”

“An astute supposition, but unfortunately ultimately futile.” Snape murmured, setting his cup down on the desk behind him and folding his arms across his chest once more as he contemplated Harry in much the same way he had the drink. “Occlumency protects the mind from invasion, and those with enough skill in the art can use it to suppress unwanted emotions to a point. For example: against the hypnotizing gaze of a vampire you could use Occlumency to great effect as they would be targeting your ability to think clearly and rationally. A dementor on the other hand is much more insidious, as they target a person’s very soul. No amount of mental fortitude can protect one for long against such an attack.”

Harry clutched at his mug to stop the trembling in his fingers.

“So there isn't a defense?”

“I did not say that.” Snape admonished gently, “Only that Occlumency is not the correct tool to utilize.”

“What is then? Can you teach me?”

The Potion Master went silent again, black eyes distant before they refocused on Harry with their usual piercing sharpness.

“There is a spell. It is very difficult and draining to those learning and even afterwards can be irksome to conjure if one is not in a stable emotional state. Many wizards forego learning it entirely, through lack of will, skill, or innate power.”

Harry thought for a moment, a warm coil of stubbornness rising in him, “Will you teach me?”

Snape smirked, a hint of approval in the expression. “Given your adeptness at picking up Occlumency, I believe given the proper amount of tutelage you could learn it. I had planned to continue our lessons from the summer, I suppose we could make use of some of that time to teach this as well.”

Harry felt a small grin making its way onto his face and hid it in the dregs of his coco.

“Thank you, sir.”

Snape nodded and reached down to pat Harry on the shoulder.

“Now, I believe we have time to catch the end of the welcoming feast, if you feel up to it?”

Harry nodded, setting his mug next to the Potion Master’s on the desk and slinging his satchel over his shoulder. Jax grumbled at the jostling but quieted when Harry gave the bag a couple firm pats.

“And Harry?” Snape stopped them before they reached the door to his office, his arms held firmly behind his back as he peered down at Harry. “I am... satisfied to see you well, I expect the month away did you good.”

Harry had trouble holding back another grin, “Does that mean I might be able to visit Blaise again, even without the imminent danger?”

“Perhaps.” Snape smirked.

“Thank you, sir.” Harry told him quietly, resisting the urge to shuffle his booted feet (Blaise had tried to get him to buy new ones as well, but his were already so well broken in that Harry was loathe to give them up until it was absolutely necessary). “For speaking with me, so candidly I mean.”

If there was anything Harry hated more than being put in constant danger, it was adults treating him like a child. As if keeping him ignorant of uncomfortable truths would protect him from them, when it was more likely to result in the opposite.

Snape gave him a sharp nod, not saying anything but acknowledging the statement with his usual serious manner before opening the door and leading them back up to the Great Hall.

~~~~~~~>

It was later that night, after all the students were safely tucked away in their dorms (after having eaten far too much food and making far too much noise to be considered entirely proper but that nonetheless only drew twinkle-eyed indulgent smiles from Albus as he dismissed them to pleasant dreams of dancing flowers and singing toads) that saw Severus sat at his desk making last minute adjustments to schedules. It was poor fodder, as distractions went, though the monotony of the task was at least putting him the correct mindset to begin thinking he might actually be able to sleep some time that night.

He had not been able to do so in any sort of consistent manner for weeks since that bastard Black has escaped. Since Albus had finally taken leave of his senses entirely and hired a wolf into the position that should have been his this year.

As if summoned by Severus’ dark thoughts, there was a soft knock at his office door that when he flicked an irritated hand opened to reveal that particular bane in person.

‘What are you doing here, Lupin?” Severus glared, fortifying against his own rapidly building temper with well practiced Occlumency. “It is not nearly so close to the full moon for me to be subjected to your presence.”

“Hello, Severus.” The man said, voice irritatingly calm as he stepped further into the office.

Severus set his quill neatly back into its holder, lest he break the thing in two.

“Is Harry quite alright?” The man had the audacity to ask, standing there with hands in the pockets of his shabby robes, as if questioning about the weather.

“My ward is as healthy and stable as any person might be after such an incident.” Severus ground out, voice low and acidic even to his own ears. “I have taken care of him. Not that it is any concern of yours.” He took a sliver of pleasure at the slight flinch that got out of the other man, cracking that placid facade.

“Of course, Severus, I did not mean to imply you were anything less than exemplary in your duty. I only wished to check up on him.”

He narrowed his eyes at Lupin, “What are you doing here? I do not like repeating myself. If you merely wished an update on the continued good health of the students placed under my care, a trip to the hospital wing would have sufficed. I am sure Poppy would delight in the newest member of our staff taking such a keen interest in the continued wellbeing our charges. More importantly, it will take you away from here and the sleep you are keeping me from.”

Lupin blinked, then in a baffling show of deference, bowed his head towards Severus in a gesture that could only be described as respectful. The move so surprising that Severus found his anger at the wolf’s presence melt away like so much smoke, leaving Severus feeling wrongfooted and off-kilter. It was not a sensation he particularly enjoyed, doubly so when it came from such a source as Remus Bloody Lupin.

“I also wished to thank you, for agreeing to make my potion.” This was said with a wry smile that made the skin around Lupin’s eyes crinkle and accentuated the dark bags that weighed them down. “I know it must be a terribly inconvenient task, that you are no doubt already overburdened with your classes and duties as Head of House. I must confess, it was a great relief when Albus told me you’d said yes.”

“Why? So you might have the satisfaction of knowing you have once again needlessly complicated my life?” The words were bitter and sharp, having fallen out of him before Severus could stop them. It seemed to be a particular talent of Lupin’s to disrupt his self control.

“No, Severus.” Now the amber eyes that peered out at him were wide with what had to be masterfully feigned supplication. “Because you are the most brilliant potioneer I have ever met, and if there was any person in the world I would trust to make the Wolfsbane for me, it would be you.”

“I am not making it for you, Lupin.” Severus scowled, putting particular emphasis on the surname, beyond irked at the man’s presumption in using his given name. “I am making it to ensure the safety and continued good health of all the children entrusted into this castle’s care. I will not allow a single person under my protection to be endangered by the likes of you. Despite what the Headmaster may have told you upon granting the Defense position, know this: if you so much as stick your furry snout out of that godsforsaken shack, no matter how much potion you have guzzled, I will visit such vengeance upon you that what they found of sniveling little Pettigrew will seem an overabundance of remains.”

Severus had stood at some point, his hands laying flat against the surface of the desk as he leaned forward to hiss the words in his most deadly serious tone. Not a threat, a promise as solid and cold as iron.

Lupin only bowed his head again, “I would thank you for it.”

Severus snorted, retaking his seat and wishing fiercely for a tumbler of Ogden’s Best to send burning down his throat.

After a long moment of silently staring at one another, he snorted again and waved a hand in the direction of the door. “Out, Lupin. Before I throw you out. You’ve kept me from my rest long enough.”

“Of course, my apologies again.” The man paused as he was nearly over the threshold, looking back over his shoulder. “Goodnight, Severus, it was good to see you again.”

In answer, Severus flicked his wrist and the door swung shut with a snap, with any luck catching the wolf in the process. Severus buried his face in his hands and resisted the urge to scream, Occluding after an irritating moment of struggle to wrangle his flaring emotions into a semblance of order. Then he rose from his desk, doused the lights and made his silent way to his chambers where he laid in the dark, unsleeping, for the remainder of the night.

Chapter Text

It was still raining the next morning, dark clouds roiling above them as the students made their weary way to the Great Hall and breakfast. Harry watched the sky through the magically transparent ceiling as he poked at a bowl of muesli and tried to clear the fog from his head. He’d slept unusually soundly after doing his Occlumency exercises the night before, waking only as the other boys in his dorm had started to stir. He supposed his body had needed the rest to recover from his encounter with the dementor. Harry was wondering if he should make a trip back to the common room for his cloak, he didn’t want to get completely soaked through if he had classes out there today, when Millicent dropped heavily into the seat beside him and started forking all manner of breakfast meats into her plate.

“Potter.” She grunted, taking a slightly more vicious bite out of a sausage than Harry thought the thing quite deserved. “Snape pass out the timetables yet?”

“Not yet, I’m hoping we don’t have anything out there today.” He nodded up at the murky ceiling, where rain was beating down as if determined to wear away the very stones of the castle before midmorning.

Blaise sighed from across the table, his dark hands wrapped around a large cup of coffee as he glared upwards. No doubt contemplating what a disaster the weather would be for his clothes.

Before much else could be said, however, Snape did indeed come around passing out slips of parchments to the students as he went.

His black eyes lingered on Harry’s barely touched bowl of cereal and Harry was quick to take a, rather larger than intended, bite. Which earned him a barely perceptible nod as his schedule was handed down to him, Harry’s mouth too full of muesli to thank the Potion Master before he was sweeping further along the table.

Harry took a sip of tea to help wash down his food as he looked at the paper, relieved to see that he did not in fact have to venture out into the storm that day. Although they did have History of Magic first thing, which was almost worse, at least the rain would have kept him awake.

He was excited to see that afterwards was one of his new classes, Ancient Runes, so Harry supposed he’d muddle through History. Maybe he’d flip through the book for his new class as Binns droned on about goblins.

Quickly scanning the rest of the scheduled showed that his first Defense lesson wasn’t until Wednesday, which was slightly disappointing as he had the feeling that Lupin might actually know something about the subject. How else would the man have been able to chase off the dementor and know to give them chocolate afterwards? It would be a nice change of pace at least, competency.

Also on the paper written in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after the normal class hours had finished in Snape’s spiky handwriting was the word PRIVATE. Harry supposed that was when he was meant to continue his Occlumency training, and hopefully learn that spell the Potion Master had told him about the previous night. As much as Harry disliked the idea of having to work on Mind Magic after a full day of classes, he guessed it would be better in the long run. If he was not able to defend himself when already tired the skill would be less than useless. Harry highly doubted anyone going after him would wait for him to be fully rested and ready for an attack.

Draco was leaning over to peak at his schedule, tapping at the extra space, “What’s that?”

Harry quirked an eyebrow at the blonde and pointedly folded up the parchment. Draco was undeterred however, his ever present need to know everything overriding any tact he may have gained and he just stared at Harry expectantly until Harry sighed and rolled his eyes.

“Occlumency lessons, Snape’s been teaching me over the summer.”

The blonde mouthed an oh before taking a delicate bite of jam smeared toast.

Before Draco could bombard him with questions about why he wasn’t getting private lessons as well, Harry distracted the other boy by asking about his summer.

“So how did your house elf situation go?”

Draco smirked in a way that said he thought himself pretty clever, “I just played dumb. When father noticed Dobby was missing, which took far longer than it should have, I just claimed ignorance and then asked for a new broom. The Firebolt just came out, it’s supposed to be the fastest broom ever made, it’s the one all the professional Quidditch teams are using now. Or at least the ones that can afford them.”

“Did you get one?” Harry asked, more to keep the boy distracted than out of interest in the latest model racing broom.

Draco scowled and huffed, “No. Father says he’ll get me one if I improve my grades, he doesn’t like that the top of our class is a--” the blonde stopped suddenly, his pale face going a bit green at the edges and he shook his head, refusing to say any more.

Harry could infer, however, and cut a glance across the Hall toward the Gryffindor table where Granger was sat, unsurprised to see the bushy-haired girl with her nose buried in a book. It was true that Granger was top of quite a few of there classes, but Harry had taken the Potions spot and Neville Herbology, so her position was not absolute. What was more interesting, however, was Draco’s reaction to his father’s words. It was a relief to see that the other boy could recognize now when something was off. Lord Malfoy should want his son to succeed because he was his son, not because a muggleborn happened to be doing better than him in a few classes. It wasn’t as if Draco was slacking off, barely skimming by like Crabbe and Goyle. No, he was one of the brightest students in their year, not that Harry would ever tell him that, the blonde’s head was swollen enough as it was.

Still, it was an encouraging development and Harry brushed their shoulders together slightly, in a show of appreciation. Draco stopped glaring at his toast, so he supposed the message got across.

History was predictably dull, but Ancient Runes afterwards was much more interesting. It was a shared class across all the houses, though the majority of students were Ravenclaw and Slytherin with a smattering of Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors. Harry was not surprised in the least to see Granger sat at the very front of the room looking eager to learn. Harry settled a few seats down from her, with Blaise on his left and a buffer of both Millicent and Sue Li between him and the Gryffindor. As smart as Granger was, Harry did not particularly enjoy being next to her in classes, as she tended to get a pinched look on her face when Snape called on him in Potions and Harry was able to give full and concise answers while she sat on the other side of the room with her hand straining in the air. Although she had gotten much better about not blurting out answers after the troll incident in first year, that did not mean Granger did not still try and show off her obvious smarts whenever given the chance.

If Harry were of a more mean spirited mind, he might think the girl malicious or possessed of an overabundance of superior arrogance, but he suspected she just lacked a bit of tact and was more than a little oblivious to the way her actions affected those around her. The Gryffindor was nearly single-minded to a fault, determined to learn everything there was to know about everything. Harry could appreciate the tenacity, he felt the same burn for knowledge, but that did not change the fact that it made the girl a bit unbearable to sit next to during class.

Professor Babbling opened the first lesson with a short overview of the when runes had been most prominent in history and how they had somewhat fallen out of practice in recent centuries. Apparently, runes used to be something of a universal language among wizards but with the advent of translation spells the practice had fallen somewhat by the wayside.

“Not,” She continued, rapping her wand against the desk of a sleepy looking Hufflepuff, making the girl jump and flush, “that is to say, that the language has completely lost its purpose or usefulness. Runes are not just for communication, they can be imbued with magic and set into keystones to help ward building. Hogwarts itself has some of the most masterfully crafted runewards in all of Britain. They can be carved into trees to encourage healthy growth and prosperity of a forest, or to make waystones along leylines for ease of travel. Although that last is also becoming less common, with the popularity of Floo Powder and Portkeys.”

Harry made a face at that, remembering the yanking twist and spewing his guts all over dusty cobblestones.

“But be warned, before any person,” Professor Babbling eyed the blue clad students in particular (Ravenclaws, Harry knew, oftentimes had more brains than sense) with a gaze sharp enough to give Madam Hooch a run for her money, “attempts Rune Craft they must first show a mastery in the language. Or else risk setting an entire forest ablaze rather than protect it from fire. It is far easier to cause irreparable harm than one might think. The Study of Ancient Runes is the name of this class, and I expect each and every one of you to do just that, with determination and the expectation that even a slight error in mistranslation could end in no less than suffering and death.”

She paused to let that sink in before continuing in a much lighter tone, “If you show that you are willing to learn and able to comprehend, you may then be allowed to take my N.E.W.T. level course on Rune Craft and Implementation in your sixth and seventh years. Now then, you all have your copy of Spellman’s Syllabary? Good, you will spend the rest of the class working on this translation so that I may asses each of your individual abilities.”

Harry was eager to prove himself worthy of the higher level class, leaning forward in his seat only to notice his posture mirrored that of Granger’s further down the line, he hoped his own expression wasn’t quite so blatant as hers and sat back a bit. He took the parchment handed to him a moment later and pushed away his stray thoughts to work on it in earnest. He recognized a few of the pictographs from his summer dabbling and set about double checking and figuring out the rest.

He still had a handful of runes left untranslated near the bottom of the parchment by the time Professor Babbling came around to collect their work, but he felt pretty confident that he’d done well on the rest. He’d snuck a peek at Millicent’s page and she’d only made it about two-thirds down, so he didn’t feel too terrible about not finishing the entire sheet.

For homework they were assigned a four foot essay on the ramifications of mistranslated and sloppy runework, Harry suspected it was to further discourage any overly curious minds from attempting such things before being properly trained.

The rest of the day past swiftly until it was time for his lesson with Snape. To Harry’s slight disappointment, they were not working on the new spell, but his Occlumency in truth.

“I believe Fridays would be the optimal time for that.” Snape explained as he conjured a pair of slightly more comfortable seats than the usual hard-backed chairs that adorned his office.”As I said before, it is an immense drain on your magical core and it would be preferable to have a day of rest afterwards to recover.”

Harry could see the logic in it, even through his disappointment and nodded acquiescence.

He was frustrated by the lesson ten minutes in when it became clear that his month away from the daily practice had done him no favors in shoring up his defenses. Harry was able to bring up his blank space easily enough now, but holding it in place against Snape’s barrage was another matter entirely.

He let out a frustrated grunt as he was pulled out of a vision of the time Dudley and his pack of goons had made him eat mud and thank them for the privilege. He wasn’t even embarrassed at the memory, it felt detached, like it had happened to another scrawny whelp of a boy. Harry was just overwhelmingly frustrated that he had slid so far back in his progress.

“Calm yourself, Harry. It is to be expected. That is why I have elected to continue the lessons throughout the year.” Snape murmured, voice low and soothing away Harry’s burning irritation. “You are not doing so poorly as you may think, with consistent lessons I believe you will master this aspect with little trouble.”

Harry rubbed at his aching temple, knocking his glasses slightly askew, “You really think so?”

“I am not of a mind to make idle or untrue assertions, which you know full well.”

Harry allowed a small smile at the dry remark, righting his glasses. “Okay. Can we go again?”

Snape gave him an approving nod and raised his wand, “Legilimens.”

~~~~~~~>

The next day held two more new classes for Harry, Arithmancy and Care of Magical Creatures. The first one was held after Charms and was another universally shared lesson, the size of this one was smaller than Ancient runes had been and consisted once more primarily of Ravenclaws and Slytherins with only three Hufflepuffs (including Justin) and two Gryffindors. One of which was obviously Granger, but the other Harry was happy to see, was Neville. He had spent a good portion of time towards the end of last year trying to convince his friend to take the class, as he had expressed a little interest in it but said his Gran thought it might be too much for him. It had rankled Harry that the older witch was doing so much to dictate how she thought Neville should spend his school time, what he should or should not learn.

There was no question that Arithmancy would help the other boy pursue a career with magical plants and their care, as it helped one see what sort of pattern or order magic exerted on the world and how it affected things; if only you were able to puzzle it out. The skills learned would be endlessly useful when trying to figure out optimal planting times, or how one plant might react just being near another.

Harry knew Neville was smart, that Arithmancy was a lot more about brain power than waving one’s wand around. Neville just needed to realize that for himself. Harry was glad to see him taking a step in the right direction by giving himself a chance to see that.

Millicent had not signed up for this class, as she’d wanted to take Divination instead, so Harry took a seat next to Neville and spared the other boy a small smile. Blaise took the spot on his other side with Draco following, all the Slytherins clustered around the left side of the room and the Ravenclaws the right with the outlying houses acting as a buffer down the middle. Harry found the separation mildly amusing and wondered what might happen if a professor got it into their head to seat them so that nobody was next to a member of their own house. There might very well be riots.

“Hullo, Harry.” Neville greeted, tapping his fingers nervously against his thick copy of Numerology and Grammatica, although it did not diminish the warmth of the smile he gave Harry.

“Hey, Neville. How’s that new wand working out?”

Neville’s grin broadened, “I managed to change the color of my ink in Transfiguration four times! On purpose! And it held for nearly the whole class time. Professor McGonagall was so surprised she gave me ten points!”

“That’s brilliant, Neville.” Harry told him, genuinely happy for the other boy. “I knew you had it in you.”

“Did he tell you he was also the first one in the class to manage the spell?” Granger commented from the other side of Neville, Harry hadn’t even seen her sit down. “Even before me, though just barely.”

Neville blushed, embarrassed, “But you changed it into nine colors.”

Granger huffed, but looked pleased nonetheless.

Harry knocked shoulders with Neville, earning another grin.

There wasn’t time to talk after that as Professor Vector began a meandering lecture that if one paid close attention you could detangle into a properly concise overview of the subject and their overall goals for the year. Harry got the feeling that this was not a class he should doze off in, as there was no telling the amount he might miss. He was also not the only student taking numerous notes. He had heard from older students about how strict this teacher was, and he did not want to be caught unawares no matter how disjointed her lecture may have seemed. By the end of the lesson, Harry thought he might have gotten a feel for how all the pieces fit together, but he’d have to review his notes.

They were assigned a small chart, like the one Snape had drawn up for him when he’d been climbing the walls at Spinner’s End, and told to complete it before the next class. Harry carefully tucked the parchment away in his satchel, giving a sleepy Jax a little stroke. Professor Vector had not shown them how to solve the chart, but Harry supposed it was another skill assessment to see how well they did at problem solving and extrapolation. He had noticed that the blackboard behind Vector had four simple equations neatly chalked up on it, and had copied them down in his notes as well before they were all dismissed for lunch.

“Do you want to work on this together later in the library?” Neville asked, shouldering his own bag, the homework still held in one hand.

“Sure.” Harry agreed, looking over at Blaise and receiving a nod from him as well. “What class do you have next?” He asked as they all made their way to the Great Hall with the rest of the students crowding into the corridors.

“Care of Magical Creatures.” Neville replied with a bit of a rueful laugh, “Though I don’t know how well that will go, as I can even get my book to stop trying to take my arm off.”

“Mine did that too.” Harry said, remembering the rabid book he had quarantined from the rest of his collection. “Have you tried petting the spine? Mine calmed down after that.”

“What, really?” Draco butted in, giving away that he’d been eavesdropping, although Harry supposed it didn’t really count as such since they were talking in a crowded corridor. “I had to have a house elf bind the thing in a belt.”

Harry valiantly held in his snickers as they all separated to go to their own tables, Draco still muttering darkly about deranged books.

Blaise had that particular smirk on his face that said he was taking great pleasure in Draco’s misfortune.

After lunch Harry walked with Millicent and Draco down to the Slytherin dorms to collect their copies of the Monster Book of Monsters. Millicent’s looked a bit worse for wear, as if she’d taken her Beater’s bat to it before wrapping it in a length of strong rope. Theo Nott was there as well, struggling to hold his own bound book and Harry showed them all the trick of it as they made their way back up through the castle and out onto the grounds.

“Cheers, Harry.” Theo thanked him, gesturing with his now purring book.

“No problem,” he told the sandy haired boy, “do you think it’s just a clever charm? Or is the book alive?”

“Nothing clever about it.” Draco scoffed, glaring at his own copy, the thing looked to be trying to nuzzle into the blonde’s chest and Draco was having none of it. “Insane more like. What kind of idiot professor assigns a rabid book?”

Harry rolled his eyes, petting his own book as if it might be offended by Malfoy’s words.

“It’s actually a pretty comprehensive guide to a lot of things I didn’t even know were real, let alone still wandering about. It doesn’t just cover the more famous or docile species either, it has everything and a bit of instruction about how you should act if you come across any of them.”

Draco huffed, holding his book at arm's length with both hands as it tried ever harder to shower the blonde in affection. Harry got the feeling it would calm down if Malfoy just gave it a little, but he wasn’t about to say so.

Eventually they all reached the Gamekeeper’s hut, Hagrid having apparently taken over the position after Professor Kettleburn had retired at the end of the previous year. Harry wondered for a moment how qualified the giant man was to teach a class, but he had handled the transportation and smuggling of Ximen with swift efficiency. And he had lived on the edge of one of the most magically dense forests in the world for literal decades, so Harry was going to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even if he assigned them a slightly rabid textbook.

They were sharing the class with the Gryffindors, apparently it was a popular enough elective to split them up into two groups unlike Arithmancy and Ancient Runes. Harry waved at Neville and the other boy came trotting over, his copy of the Monster Book of Monsters purring happily under his arm.

“Hey, Harry, thanks for the tip about the book, worked great. I told the others and they all thought it was hilarious, a bit like we all have a pet book.”

Harry glanced over at the Gryffindors, who had all managed to soothe their texts, a modest pile of belts, ropes, and one tattered scarf at their feet.

Malfoy scoffed again, but he didn’t have much of a leg to stand on as he had finally given into the demands of the book and was petting it grumpily.

The rest of the Slytherins had caught on to the trick of it without having to be told, with the notable exception of Crabbe and Goyle (Draco had taken pity on them, showing the two), and soon everyone had viable reading materials. Although Parkinson was sneering at hers like it had peed in her favorite shoes, she always looked a bit angry though so Harry ignored her.

Professor Hagrid (Harry was unsure if that was his first name or his last name, but everyone seemed to just call him Hagrid, so Harry would go with it) showed up not long after that, greeting them nervously.

“‘Ello, children, er students. Welcome to Care o’ Magical Creatures, I see yer all got yer books open and such. Good, good.” He chuckled at nothing in particular and they all stared at him, which had Hagrid flushing and flapping his huge hands. “Erm, I got a bit o’ a treat for you. As you’re me first class an’ all. So, follow me and we’ll get started, yeah?”

Draco had a pinched look on his face, like he wanted to say something no doubt cutting and vitriolic but was holding it in with an extreme effort of will. Harry patted him on the shoulder and gave him a small, encouraging nod which washed away some of the tension and the blonde took a deep calming breath, as if he could exhale all of his mean-spirited impulses with the action.

Theo watched the exchange with a keen eye, giving Harry a swift blink of an approving smile. As they followed the massive form of their professor as he skirted the edge of the Forbidden Forest, Theo leaned in, muttering in an undertone that only Harry could catch.

“Well done, I never would have bet anyone could get Draco to pull his head out of his own ass.”

Harry let out a surprised snort, though he managed to keep the rest of his face impassive.

“He’s not bad, not really, just impulsive and possessed of a tendency to speak before he thinks.” Harry murmured back, feeling a bit defensive of the blonde.

Theo winked, “Exactly. It says a lot about you, Harry, that you saw that and worked to fix it instead of vilifying him.”

And with that ambiguous statement, Theo wandered off join the rest of the students as they all gathered around the wooden fence of a paddock that Harry had never noticed before in all his wanderings. Although that was not really surprising, as he and Jax had tended to steer clear of the Gamekeeper’s cabin. Harry claimed a spot by the fence on the invisible dividing line between the two Houses, Neville unsurprisingly taking up the other half.

“Alright students, quiet down now.” Professor Hagrid’s voice had no trouble drowning out all of the curious murmurings around them, the large man was standing in the paddock and holding what looked to be a dead stoat in one hand. “I’m gonna go inta the forest now and get our lesson. Yer to stay right here and not mess about, I’ll be righ’ back.”

The man was not gone long enough for even Ron Weasley to try and pick a fight, not that the redhead had so much as looked in his direction all class. When he returned, Hagrid was leading a massive beast behind him that had all of them gasping and leaning back away from the fence. The creature had the front legs, wings, and head of a giant eagle. Feathers mottled dark gray and black like a moving shadow, with a vicious looking beak and talons long enough to gut a person with ease. The rest of it had the body of a horse, broad and sleek with dark gray hair to match the feathers. It eyed them all suspiciously down its hooked beak, eyes glowing with knowledge that it could kill any one of them with very little effort.

“A hippogriff.” Neville breathed nervously beside him. “They’re supposed to be really dangerous.” Harry suddenly remembered the stuffed head of one that was mounted above the fireplace in the dining room at the other boy’s home.

“This ‘ere is Buckbeak.” Professor Hagrid said with a broad smile, apparently not noticing the petrified state of most his class, patting the beast firmly on the rump. “A hippogriff, there’s a herd of them settled in the forest. Very proud creatures, hippogriffs.”

He then tossed the dead stoat he was still holding up into the air and Buckbeak snatched it with brutal efficiency, swallowing it down near whole. The class took a collective step back.

“Now, who want to pet 'im?” Professor Hagrid seemed to have gained his courage in teaching them, though was also apparently oblivious to their wide-eyed apprehension.

The class took another collective step back, but Harry was a bit slow in it and Hagrid fairly beamed at him, “‘Arry, good show. Come ‘ere, through the gate now, there’s a good lad.”

Millicent, the complete traitor, pushed him forward and Harry reluctantly set his sachet down and made his way into the paddock towards the pair of giant beings, feeling every inch of his substandard height.

Hagrid clapped him soundly on the back when he was close enough, nearly sending him into the dirt.

“Alright, Harry, now Buckbeak here is very proud, as I said. It is important to show hippogriffs proper respect as they don’ abide rudeness and are liable to take offense at any slight. Violent offense, mind.” Professor Hagrid said all this in the happy tone of a proud father eager to show off his kids, Harry took a calming breath. “Firs’ things firs’, you gotta bow to show your respect, and if he bows back then you’ll be free to get close like and pet him a bit. Eye contact is very important.” Hagrid continued, and it was encouraging at least that the man seemed to know what he was talking about, if nothing else. “Don’t blink, or look away, terr’bly rude. You got all that?”

“Bow, eye contact, no blinking.” Harry repeated, somewhat weakly, trying not to look at the wickedly curved talons pawing at the dirt in search of worms.

“Perfect! Now off yer go.” Hagrid gave him a bit of a nudge, which given the man’s size was more of a forceful shove than not., and Harry stumbled forward into slashing range of the hippogriff.

He quickly met the creature’s eye and gave a bow he felt worthy of a Malfoy ball, doing his best not to think about how much he wanted to blink or run away entirely. After an endless, heart pounding moment, Buckbeak bent one of his own feathered knees and returned the gesture, which had Hagrid clapping loudly.

“Good, job ‘Arry! Knew yer could do it. He’ll let you pet ‘im now, go on.”

Harry, unsure if he was allowed to look away yet, took a couple tentative steps forward and slowly lifted a hand to stroke at the hippogriff’s feathered neck. His heart was still beating rapidly, adrenaline spiking through his system and making his hands tremble. This was nothing like confronting a thousand year old basilisk. Harry liked snakes, he could understand snakes and talk to them, reason them away from eating him. Harry could not talk to hippogriffs, or any type of horse, bird, or combination thereof. It was nerve wracking and insane and thrilling in a way he probably should not encourage in himself. Buckbeak looked away after a moment of Harry petting him and he finally allowed himself to blink away the dryness in his eyes. The feathers under his hand were warm and soft and Harry stroked the massive neck with a firmer touch, feeling a grin tugging at his mouth.

“You’re a handsome one, aren’t you Buckbeak.” He murmured nonsensically, but it got the hippogriff to duck his huge head down and nuzzle at Harry’s front in a playful manner, actually surprising a laugh out of him.

“Tha’s brilliant, ‘Arry, jus’ brilliant!” Hagrid exclaimed proudly with another loud clap of his hands. “I think he’ll let you ride ‘im now.”

Before Harry could quite parse that, Hagrid had grabbed him up and set him on the hippogriff’s back like he weighed no more than a sack of turnips and gave Buckbeak a firm slap in the rear. Harry scrambled to get a hold around the hippogriff’s broad neck as he reared up with an ear splitting caw and spread his wings with a snap, taking off into the air. Harry managed to swallow down a frantic scream as the wind whipped around him and they rose higher and higher above the trees.

He took a little peek over the side and saw how far the ground was, his class little more than dark dots, and felt the adrenaline surging through him again, warring with his good sense. Buckbeak tilted then, angling into a long sweeping dive and a string of laughter burst unbidden from Harry at the sheer thrill of it all. He’d never been on a roller coaster before, as the Dursleys always left him with Mrs. Figg whenever they went to such places. And the brooms from their flying lessons in first year were nothing compared to this. Millicent would sometimes let him have a go on her broom, but he’d been so out of it most of the previous year that he hadn’t really done it often. Besides, Harry was under no delusion that he was in any way in control of the situation as they circled the Black Lake before sweeping up again to fly over the towering spires of the castle itself. By the time Buckbeak landed in the paddock again, Harry’s legs were shaking from the effort of holding on and his hair was in an even more tangled mess than usual, but he was grinning broadly and felt lighter than he had in months.

Hagrid was laughing and clapping him on the back, “Perfect, jus’ perfect.”

Harry staggered over to rejoin his friends, who looked varying shades of pale and tentatively excited.

“Alright, Potter?” Millicent asked, eyeing him up and down, Harry just grinned, seemingly unable to do much else at the moment.

Hagrid then brought out a few more hippogriffs from the forest and split them into groups to bow and pet and feed stoats to. He lectured a bit about breeding practices and mating habits, diets, and behavior. And although it was a bit unrehearsed and rough around the edges, it was clear that the man knew what he was talking about even if he wasn’t the most articulate in conveying it. He also didn’t assign them any homework, although Harry suspected that was just an oversight.

It had certainly been one of his more memorable lessons, that was for sure. Even Draco had lost the pinched look entirely when Buckbeak returned his bow and let him stroke the soft feathers of his neck.

~~~~~~~>

Wednesday was finally their first Defense lesson with Professor Lupin. As usual it was just Slytherins and Harry wondered if the classes would merge after N.E.W.T. level, when it became an elective course. The room was not decorated in gilded portraits of the new professor, as it had under Lockhart, nor did it smell overwhelmingly of garlic, like Quirrell’s had. Which were both points in the man’s favor. Instead, there were elaborate diagrams of Dark creatures and defensive spells, with books lining a row of cases against the far wall. The curtains were drawn back from the windows, letting in the afternoon light.

When Professor Lupin walked in and set his tatty briefcase in the desk at the front, he smiled vaguely at them and waved a hand at all of their books and quills and parchments laid out, ready for use.

“You can put all that away, we’ll be having a practical lesson today.” A murmur of excitement went through the class, they’d never had a practical lesson before.

Unless you counted the pixies.

Harry did not count the pixies.

He quickly put his things away, taking a sidelong glance at Lupin as he did so. The professor still looked a bit run down, but not so severely as he had on the train. As if he had managed a few good hours of sleep and some warm meals. Harry knew full well what such simple comforts could do to improve your health and hoped the man got better soon.

They were led down the corridor to an empty classroom where all the desks had been pushed aside to leave a large open space, the only other piece of furniture was a tall wardrobe pressed up against the far wall that shook, rattling loudly as they walked further into the room.

“There’s a boggart in there.” Theo stated, eyeing the wardrobe curiously.

“Precisely, ten points to Slytherin, Mr.--?” Professor Lupin said, a more substantial smile making its way onto his warn face as he took his place at the front of the class, between them and the rattling cabinet.

“Nott. Theo Nott, sir.” Theo said with the self-deprecating air of someone who knew just what sorts of options were formed about him for just knowing his name.

“Ten points, Mr. Nott.” Lupin said, his mild tone not changing even a hair, though there was no way the man did not recognize the name. Another mark in his favor then, Harry suspected he might actually come to like this professor. “Now, who knows what a boggart looks like?”

They were all quiet a moment before Blaise raised his hand, not something the boy was known to do even when he knew the answers.

“Yes, Mr.--?”

“Zabini, Professor.” Blaise was smirking a bit, but Blaise was always smirking a bit. “Nobody knows what a boggart looks like, they are shapeshifters and take on the form of whatever frightens a person the most.”

“Very good, ten points to you as well, Mr. Zabini.” Lupin looked genuinely pleased that they were so well informed. Harry was also surprised at the ease with he was handing out points to Slytherins.

Not that the other teachers were completely biased against them, but there was a noticeable trend towards it. It was something Harry had realized early in his first year, and why he did not mind so much the blatant favoritism that Snape showed his own House with dolling out or taking points. On the other hand, Harry also felt that the whole points system was a bit broken. It was supposed to generate in-House camaraderie and encourage good behavior and participation, but more often than not it caused strife and strengthened the divide between Houses. He’d seen more than one fight break out over it, causing further loss of points and gaining nothing more than detentions and worsening relationships between the Houses.

“Now, boggarts can be formidable foes.” Lupin continued, breaking Harry out of his thoughts, “It is hard to fight what you most fear, but there is a simple defense against them. Any guesses?”

They all looked around at each other, shrugging, Harry thought a moment before raising his own hand.

“Yes, Mr. Potter?” Lupin of course hadn’t needed to ask his name, but Harry had long since grown used to such things.

“Numbers? If the boggart can only focus on one fear at a time, you could overwhelm it.”

“That is certainly an option, and a smart strategy to go with if you have friends with you to help, ten points.” Lupin smiled again, it made his eyes crinkle and seemed to wash away some of the age that lined his face. Harry was startled to realize the man wasn’t as old as he’d assumed, he might have even been at Hogwarts at the same time as Snape, or his parents. “Anything else?”

“Trap it? Lock the thing it’s hiding in and calling someone in Magical Creature Control to come take care of it.” Daphne Greengrass said, forgetting to raise her hand, but Lupin didn’t seem to mind.

“A prudent solution, ten points--?”

“Daphne Greengrass.” She said with a pretty smile that had Harry wondering how long she practiced it for.

Lupin nodded, “All good, very viable solutions. But what if you have no companions? Or are unable to contain the boggart before it attacks?”

“Set it on fire?” Millicent asked, eyeing the wardrobe with a glint in her eye. Lupin let out a quiet chuckle that had the cabinet rattling even louder.

“That might work, if what you fear is exceptionally flammable.” Lupin mused, “But not necessarily the best course, five points--"

“Bulstrode.” She grunted before Lupin could ask.

“Yes, while you might try and defend yourself by straight out attacking it as if the boggart were in actuality whatever form it has taken. And you might even be able to defeat it in such a manner, if you are calm and quick enough to react in such a way. But there is a far simpler solution you can use to incapacitate it.”

Lupin spoke in a mild, even tone that nevertheless had them all listening attentively.

“Laughter is the best defense against a boggart.” The professor told them, face completely straight even as they all looked at him incredulously. “The best way to fight your worst fear is to show it that you are not scared. It will confuse the boggart and make it hesitant, giving you the opportunity to act.”

“Laughter?” Parkinson scoffed, hands on her hips, but Lupin just nodded.

“Yes, laughter.” He demonstrated by facing the wardrobe and letting out another of his quiet chuckles, resulting in the whole thing rocking back and forth on its stubby legs. “There is also a spell, of course. But without the laughter, it becomes much harder to subdue a boggart.”

He turned back to the class, smiling mildly, “Knowing how to defeat a boggart is a skill that is essential for every witch and wizard to know. They like to hide in the dark and surprise their victims, recognizing their presence and acting accordingly could save your life.”

“Now, repeat after me, without wands please: riddikulus.”

Riddikulus.” They dutifully repeated, the wardrobe shook again.

“Good. Again please.”

They recited the spell until Professor Lupin seemed satisfied with their pronunciation.

“Now, the word alone is not enough to deter a boggart, you must also imagine something that might make your fear seem amusing. An example from the class before this being a giant spider on roller skates.” there were a few low chuckles from Crabbe and Goyle at the image, causing yet more rattles. “So I want you all to take a few moments to think of what might make your worst fear something you can laugh in the face of.”

Harry tried, but he was having a hard time even figuring out what his worst fear might be. His first thought had been of Voldemort, but that was a distant, vague thing. He knew he should be more frightened of the man who had murdered his family, had tried to kill him more than once. But it just seemed like too vast of a thing, too circumspect to feel real when he knew the Dark Lord was little more than a shade drifting through the world. Even Riddle had been trapped in a book, only able to get at Harry because he had been stupid enough to try and talk with him.

He was afraid of close spaces, but how would a boggart even implement such a thing?

Then Harry remembered the dementor. How the dark figure had glided in, breath rattling as it sucked out all the warmth and happiness in the train compartment. How the screaming had filled his mind and he’d been able to do little more than pass out to try and escape the torment.

How was he meant to make so evil a being into something to be laughed at? Dress it in hot pink robes? Give it a jaunty hat?

When Lupin had them line up, Harry was a bit relieved to find himself shuffled toward the back, still unsure of how to deal with the imminent arrival of a dementor into their midst.

At the head of the line was Goyle, who Harry suspected had never been first to volunteer for any sort of academic activity.

“Ready?” Lupin asked, standing off to the side, wand raised to release the boggart. Goyle grunted.

Out of the wardrobe came a towering beast of a troll, more than big enough to beat the burly Slytherin into a bloody pulp. But Goyle squared his shoulders and barked out the spell, turning the troll’s massive club into an equally large but much less intimidating sunflower. The suddenness of the transformation startling a wave of laughter from the class, which caused the boggart-troll to stop its slow plod forward and look at them all with a bluntly confused look on its blocky face.

“Very good, again if you please.” Lupin called over the giggles.

Riddikulus.” Goyle grunted out again, giving the troll a rather fetching tutu.

It seemed to shrink before the force of their laughter, until it was small enough to dive back into the cabinet, the doors slamming shut behind it.

“Very well done, fifteen points for being the first to face it and doing so remarkably well, Mr.--?”

“Goyle.” The boy looked more startled to be getting praise from a teacher than the troll had in finding itself clutching a giant yellow flower, and shuffled to the back of the room to make way for Greengrass.

What followed was an amusing exercise in what his classmates found both terrifying and hilarious in equal turns. It was also intriguingly informative about what scared the usually reserved and stoic students of Slytherin house. Parkinson for example, caused a swarm of red-eyed rats to flood the stone floor, gaining a few shrieks before she managed to turn them all too fat to even move, their little legs flailing in the air as they rolled around the floor before Lupin floated them all back into the wardrobe.

There was a bit of a snag when it was Millicent’s turn. A tall, twisted figure climbing out, its features burnt and warped beyond all recognition and wielding a wickedly curved knife that glinted in the dim light of the room.

It was Quirrell. Harry doubted anyone else would realize, but he knew. He felt the phantom twinges of pain in the palms of his hands and his heart started to beat an uncomfortable staccato against his chest. Millicent looked pale and frozen, her wand hand shaking as the figure crept closer with a jerking, sinister gait. Lupin looked about to step in when Millicent suddenly glared fiercely and snarled out the spell so angrily that Harry was not the least bit surprised when the boggart-Quirrell burst into flame. It fell to the floor in a swirl of burning robes, screaming loudly, but not enough to drown out the laughter Millicent was exploding with.

It was not a happy sound, but the boggart fled from it all the same, crawling to the safety of the dark wardrobe.

“Yeah, you better fucking run, you piece of shit!”

The rest of the class backed away as Millicent stomped past, Lupin looked between the slightly smoking cabinet and the retreating girl with such a deeply understanding gaze that Harry wondered what sort of horrors the man had faced to recognize true trauma when presented with it.

“Do you wish to be excused, Miss Bulstrode?” His voice was low, but not patronizing.

“No.” She grunted, shaking out her arms before kicking at one of the abandoned desks, cracking a wooden leg.

Harry abandoned his place in line to step towards her but she shook her head, Harry sighed but he knew what it felt like to be smothered and want nothing less than to be left alone. She would talk to him later or she wouldn't, but Harry was not about to push it in front of their entire class.

Millicent leaned back against a stretch of empty wall, well apart from the students that had gone before, folding her arms across her chest and glaring at the wardrobe.

Professor Lupin gave her a nod, waving Draco to step up and take his turn.

What followed was an existential crisis of a boggart as Lord Malfoy emerged and started berating Draco about how he would never amount to anything, how he was a failure of a wizard, letting mudbloods and children of lesser families step all over him to take what should rightfully be his. That Draco did not deserve the purity of the blood that ran through his veins and that he should count his lucky stars that he had no other son to properly represent the Malfoy name.

Draco was near tears when he managed to stutter out the spell. Nothing happened and Lord Malfoy sneered, stepping closer and raising his snake headed cane as if to strike Draco with it. The blonde said the spell again, firmer.

Lord Malfoy tripped then, robes suddenly too long and not at all the fashionable style they had been, colors clashing and even Harry could see there was no way even a man as put together as Lucius Malfoy could salvage such an outfit. Draco laughed weakly, followed more loudly by Blaise and the rest of the class. The boggart was chased back into the wardrobe once more, but when Draco walked past, Harry could see the hollow emptiness in his eyes. He reached out and laid a hand on the other boy’s arm, giving it a gentle squeeze. Draco managed a watery smile before his usual placid mask fell back into place and he went to stand by Millicent, who didn't push him away.

After Theo conjured a series of dazzling lights to burn away a thick darkness it was Harry's turn. But before he could do so much as step forward, Lupin was in front of him, forcing a shining orb back into the cabinet.

“Sorry everyone, that's all the time we have for today.” His voice was mild enough, but Harry could see a stiffness in his face that belied the words.

Also, a surreptitious glance at his watch showed there were a good ten minutes left to the lesson, more than enough time for Harry to have a go at the boggart.

Lupin congratulated them all on their performance and assigned a few feet of parchment about boggarts to be handed in next Wednesday before dismissing them.

Harry was irritated that the man had not even allowed him to try. Yes, he had fainted on the train, but he hadn't been expecting it then. And a boggart pretending to be a dementor surely would not have been quite as potent as the real thing. Harry hated being thought of as weak, and he very much wanted to know why Lupin had stepped in front of him like that.

So he waited for the rest of the class to disperse before muttering to Blaise that he'd meet him in a minute, Millicent had stomped off as soon as they'd been dismissed but Draco was lingering by the door still.

Blaise gave him a significant look, but he’d seen the same thing Harry had, and he’d been denied his chance at the boggart as well, so he just tugged Draco along with him; leaving Harry alone with the professor.

“Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Potter? Do you have a question about the homework?” Lupin asked, turning around from securing the wardrobe.

Harry shook his head, paused a moment before figuring bluntness was the best course of action here.

“I wanted to know why you stopped me from facing the boggart.”

Lupin sighed quietly, suddenly looking much older once again. But when he spoke, he at least had the decency not to deny it.

“I would have thought that obvious,” he said gently, “I was under the impression your boggart would take the form of Lord Voldemort. I did not want to cause a panic among the students. Not after what Miss Bulstrode faced. There was also an incident in another class, one I should have seen coming and acted on but failed to do so. Although the student in question handled it remarkably well, given the implications. I did not wish a repeat performance.”

Harry wondered what the other student had feared so greatly to cause such a reaction in their entire class, for Professor Lupin to feel as if he should have known it was coming. The explanation soothed Harry’s ruffled feathers at least. He supposed it was a viable excuse, even if it irked him. Also, Lupin had said Voldemort’s name. Harry could count on one hand the number of people he’d heard do so. Even Snape usually referred to him as the Dark Lord.

“It wouldn’t have been him.” Harry said, if only to vindicate himself, “It would have been a dementor.”

“Ah.” Lupin nodded, some of the weariness leaving his face. “How wise of you. It shows that the thing you most fear in this world is fear itself. I apologize for halting the lesson so abruptly, although I suspect a dementor gliding out of that wardrobe would have been equally disastrous.”

Harry could not help but agree, mollified.

“What did the other student see?” Curiosity got the better of him as he bent to retrieve his satchel.

“Now, I am sure if the young man in question wished to share, he would tell you. It is not my place to do so.” Instead of irritating him, the answer set Lupin once more upon the path of adults that Harry might not hate.

“I enjoyed the lesson,” he said instead, “it was probably the best one we’ve ever had in this class.”

That earned him a bright smile that did wonders for dissipating the exhaustion on the man’s face.

“Thank you, Harry, I am glad you enjoyed it. I must go and prepare for my next lesson, now, however. But if you ever wish to talk, my door is always open.”

Harry gave a vague nod and left, falling into step between Blaise and Draco.

“So, what did he say?” Draco asked, waiting a whole three steps before doing so, a new record.

“He thought it would be the Dark Lord, and he didn’t want to give everyone heart attacks.”

“It wouldn’t be?” Draco looked surprised, but Harry shook his head.

“A dementor. He also said there was an incident in an earlier class that caused a bit of a panic, so Lupin was keen to stop a repeat of it.”

“Huh, wonder what it was.”

They did not have to wonder long, as it turned out. Word had spread like wildfire and by dinner it was all anyone was talking about.

The student had been Neville Longbottom.

And his boggart was Bellatrix Lestrange.

The name meant little to Harry, other than he knew the witch was in Azkaban for some terrible crimes. But when they heard, Draco had gone a sickly gray color and hastily excused himself. Neither him nor Neville was at dinner that night, and when Draco finally showed up near curfew he refused to talk to any of them, going straight to bed.

Chapter Text

The next morning, before Harry could even contemplate trying to speak to either Millicent or Draco, both of them had fled the common room with the excuse of early morning Quidditch practice. Which seemed a flimsy thing, as they were barely a week into term, but Harry wasn't about to push. Instead, he let Jax warm himself by the fire and practiced strengthening his Occlumency shield while he waited for Blaise to get up so they could walk to the Great Hall together.

Snape had advised him to practice bringing up his shields and maintaining the space while still being aware of the room around him. It was difficult but not as taxing as also trying to keep another mind out of his own at the same time. Plus, he could do this on his own without much fear of being interrupted or disturbed, especially this early in the Slytherin common room. His Housemates tended towards the quiet type and did not often try and disturb one another when it looked as if they might be contemplating something serious.

Which was what Blaise told him he seemed to be doing when he’d caught Harry at it the other morning. He supposed it was better than looking vacant or slack-jawed as he tried to wrangle his mind into doing what he wanted, how he wanted.

He succeeded enough to not startle when Blaise took a seat next to him on the sofa, if only just. Harry blinked away the bright, endless whiteness, only to be met with a seemingly equally bright flash of teeth as Blaise smiled easily at him, as if sharing joke.

“You’re getting better at that.” The other boy said, flicking his fingers to his own dark temple. “Soon I won’t be able to sneak up on you at all.” The smile morphed into a smirk, “And maybe one day you’ll be able to do it without your nose going all wrinkly.”

Blaise made as if to poke at said nose and Harry batted his hand away, scowling (and no doubt wrinkling his nose even further), Blaise laughed.

“You’re up early.” Harry said, attempting to change the subject and not caring how blatant the maneuver was.

Blaise shrugged, allowing it.

“Couldn’t sleep. I figured I wouldn’t be the only one, and sitting here watching you commune with yourself is better than laying in bed and listening to Crabbe and Goyle attempt to out snore one another.”

He didn’t look at Harry as he said it, using the excuse of bending down to pet Jax.

“Millicent already left.” Harry told him, pretending not to notice the slight hitch in the other boy’s shoulders as he continued to stroke the snake. “Quidditch practice, apparently.”

“Hmm.” Blaise hummed, sounding slightly disgruntled but unsurprised as he sat back against the sofa cushions once more. “I assume that’s where dear Draco is as well?”

Harry nodded.

After a heavy moment of silence in which they both watched the flames dance in the hearth, Blaise spoke up again.

“After contemplating it, I think I’m relieved I didn’t have to face that boggart.”

Harry cut a look at his friend, Blaise was holding one hand loosely over his mouth, as if to stop more words from pouring out; the other taking up a tapping rhythm on the soft fabric of the small space between them. He wasn’t looking at Harry, but he also wasn’t trying to avoid his eye either. Blaise seemed to simply be unable to look away from the fire, Harry doubted he saw the flames at all.

“Would it have been bad? Like Millicent?” Harry was not so good at emotional talks, but for Blaise he could try.

Blaise blinked slowly, “No, not like Millicent. That bastard didn’t hold a knife to my throat, the most he did was ruin a set of my best robes. The tree I hit did more damage, and even that was just a bruise that a bit of paste washed away.” The words were slightly muffled, as he hadn’t moved his hand. And they did not ring fully true to Harry’s ear, but true enough. “No, I think it would have been more akin to Draco’s.”

Harry shuddered, remembering how pale and shaken the blonde was as the boggart facsimile of his own father towered over him, berating him and shaming him in front of their entire class. Harry could well imagine the severe belittling the cold Signora Zabini could bestow upon Blaise, and was grateful as well that he had not had to witness such a thing. As cool and collected as his friend usually was, Harry knew the kind of damage such abuse could wreak on one’s composure, let alone their mental health. And it was definitely not something Blaise would want shouted out at him in front of all their peers.

Hesitating only a moment, Harry took Blaise’s tapping hand in his and gave it a squeeze. It always seemed to help when he did it for Harry, so it was not such a hardship try and return the gesture every once in a while.

Blaise squeezed back, even if he still didn’t look away from the fire. But the hand dropped from his mouth, so Harry would call it a victory nonetheless.

When they made it to the Great Hall, it was expectedly mostly vacant, as early as they’d left the common room. Save the Ravenclaw table, there was only a smattering of other House members taking up their usual places at the four tables. Harry spotted Neville bent over a plate of eggs, just moving them about instead of eating, and hurried over with Blaise on his heels.

“Hey, Neville.” He greeted, making the other boy jump and launch a bit of egg across the Hall to plop into a distracted Ravenclaw’s cup of tea (she kept drinking out of it as she turned pages in her book faster than Harry thought was quite possible that early in the morning). “We missed you at study yesterday.”

“Oh, erm, hey guys.” Neville said, looking guilty, although whether about missing their usual study session or the egg was even odds. “Sorry, I--”

He stopped, flushing, then paling, the effect leaving his rounded cheeks a blotchy wash of misery. Harry waved a hand, taking a seat on the bench next to Neville and awkwardly patting his shoulder. It seemed as if it was going to be a morning for emotional encounters.

“Hey, it’s fine.” He said, “We heard about... we just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Harry shot Blaise a pleading look, but the other boy just waved him on, as if Harry weren’t fuddling this all up.

Neville, instead of pushing him away or trying to escape himself, just gave Harry a bit of a watery smile and a nod.

“Thanks, Harry.” He said in his I don’t want to be a bother voice (which Harry was happy to say was no longer the other boy’s default tone). “It was a little-- jarring, I guess. I needed some time to think, I’m better today.”

“Did you, um, want to... talk, about it?” Harry was a bit proud that he’d forced all those words out but was undeniably relieved when the Gryffindor shook his head. He’d had enough heavily emotional conversations that morning already and it was barely a quarter past seven.

“No, I did enough talking yesterday. I’d rather just move on, ya know?”

Harry nodded, he knew.

“Oi, Fred. Lookie what we got here!”

“A couple snakes in the lion den, George! Whatever shall we do?”

Harry rolled his eyes up at the Weasley twins, who were pretending to shake in fear. This was a situation he could deal with, the antics of the twins far safer ground to navigate than very real human emotions. He smirked up at them and hissed out in Parseltongue: “Would you thank your mother for the lovely jumper she sent me? It’s very warm.

The twins matching eyes gleamed as they shrieked and pretended to faint, making far too much noise for even a reasonable hour, let alone the early morning.

“What did you say?” Neville asked around a mouthful of eggs he was actually eating rather than just pushing about.

“Oh,” Harry smirked, stealing a mandarin from a bowl on the table and beginning to peel it, “just summoning snakes to do my bidding.”

On cue, Jax popped his head out of Harry’s bag and hissed a blue streak at the twins, who collapsed in a bout of cackling at Blaise’s unimpressed feet.

“You’re alright, Potter.” One of them (Fred?) said, wiping a tear from his eye.

Before George could cut in with a comment of his own, Percy Weasley came striding over with a determined look on his freckled face, his Head Boy badge fairly gleaming in the morning light.

“Looks like that’s my cue,” Harry said, abandoning his spot at the Gryffindor table with a clap to Neville’s shoulder. “I’ll see you in class, Neville.”

“Okay, thanks for checking up on me.” The smile he sent Harry was much less wobbly than the one previous.

Harry and Blaise made their way back across the Hall, sharing Harry’s pilfered citrus, to the sound of Percy Weasley berating his brothers for rolling about on the floor like animals.

~~~~~~~>

Friday afternoon was Harry’s first dementor lesson, and he made his way to Snape’s office with a grim determination to master whatever spell it was that could protect him and Jax from those things circling the school. There hadn’t yet been any incidents of a dementor entering the grounds, but Harry was not about to take that for granted. He would much rather be paranoid and prepared than complacent and dead. Or soulless, as apparently a dementor did not want to kill you, but suck the soul from your body; leaving behind nothing but an empty husk that breathed but did not live. Harry thought he might actually prefer death to that.

When he reached Snape’s office, the door opened before Harry’s raised fist could knock against it, almost landing on the chest of a snarling Marcus Flint instead. The older boy shoved roughly past him and stomped down the corridor.

“Inside, Mr. Potter, unless you wish to have this lesson out there for all and sundry to witness?”

Harry tore his curious gaze away from the retreating seventh year and hastily did as told, closing the door firmly behind him. Snape was marking some parchments on his desk with irritated flicks of his quill. Harry sat in the chair that did not look as if it had been roughly pushed back by an angry Flint.

“What--?” Harry started to ask, before smothering the question, it wasn’t his place to go poking around at other student’s issues.

Snape just huffed and stowed his quill, sweeping the mess of papers up into a neat pile with a click of his fingers.

“Mr. Flint is under the mistaken impression that I will allow him to continue as Captain of the Quidditch team while he allows his grades to wallow in the bowels of inadequacy. As much as I enjoy claiming so long a winning streak for my House, I will not allow a student’s education to be compromised in exchange.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, “No matter how stubbornly arrogant said student insists on being.”

Snape sent Harry a sly sort of smirk, “Not that you are aware of any such situations, Mr. Potter.”

“Oh, course not, Professor. I just assumed you were speaking in general terms.” Harry demurred, fighting back his own smirk.

“Just so.”

Snape stood from his desk and motioned Harry to rise as well, he led them back out into the corridor and around a corner.

“For our lesson today, we need a little more space than my office provides and I would also prefer it not be filled with breakable jars and bottles.” Snape explained as he led them to a more deserted corridor, not too far from his office but still out of the way of usual student traffic. “My classroom is similarly undesirable, as there are quite a few N.E.W.T. level potions set to simmering over the weekend that would not benefit from being hit by stray spells.”

Snape stopped them before a blank stretch of stone wall, setting his hand upon the gray surface and suddenly Harry realized where they were. Snape’s quarters, the ones he’d woken up in after the Tom Riddle incident last year.

“I would normally use an empty classroom for such things, but this is a delicate spell and the environment one chooses to learn it in can affect the process nearly as much as the innate difficulty of the spell itself.”

He led them down the short, narrow corridor and into the warmly lit sitting room. A fire was going in the hearth, giving the room a warm glow that matched well with the dark furniture and towering, solid bookcases. Harry wondered if he was meant to take off his boots or not. This place felt different to Spinner’s End, where Harry more or less knew how he should act. Snape’s private quarters at Hogwarts were just that, private. The Potion Master, seemingly ignorant of Harry’s sudden inner turmoil, motioned him to one of the armchairs that were arranged by the fireplace.

Taking a breath to clear his mind and push away the annoying thoughts, Harry did as bid, letting Jax out of his bag to go laze on the warm hearthstones.

Snape sat as well, their positions mirroring a regular Occlumency lesson, which did well in calming Harry’s irrational bout of nerves.

“The spell I am about to teach you is called the Patronus Charm.” Harry refrained from making a face, he was pants at Charms, then again none of the ones in Flitwick’s class seemed as important to his well being as this one, so Harry would just have to power through. “When properly conjured, it takes the form of a translucent, silver animal capable of driving off dementors, lethifolds, and a few other Dark creatures. When conjured without an adequate amount of skill, it produces a thin silver mist that may work well enough to defend yourself for a short time, or drive off a single opponent, but will not hold off an attack for long or a determined enemy.”

“Is that what Professor Lupin used? On the train? Neville said he shot a silver spell and the thing ran off, although that may have been because Jax had set its robes on fire...”

Snape, who had started scowling at the mention of Lupin, stopped and quirked an eyebrow at the serpent innocently sleeping on the hearth.

“Indeed? And when did he gain that particular ability?”

Harry shrugged, “I don’t know, recently I guess. He only did it the once, but we haven't really tried to test it out.”

“I would ask that you do so in a controlled environment,” Snape murmured, an amused glint in his black eyes, “preferably one without anything flammable in it.”

“Yes, sir.” Harry agreed readily, he’d been planning on doing just that in any case, but this was the man practically giving Harry the go ahead and he wasn’t about to throw that away. “So, was that what Professor Lupin used?”

“I would assume, yes. Although it surprises me not one whit that he did not manage a corporeal Patronus against just a singular dementor.” Snape sneered, Harry had the distinct impression that the Potion Master did not like Lupin one bit. Which, as impersonal and abrasive as Snape tended to be, still seemed a little odd to Harry.

Sure, Lupin seemed a little bland and soft spoken, but he was undeniably the best Defense teacher they had had since Harry started Hogwarts. Even if that first lesson had been a little traumatic, the follow up lecture that had happened just that afternoon had been comprehensive and fascinating. The man was clearly competent, and if there was anything that Snape liked in a person, it was competence. There had to be something Harry was missing, maybe Snape knew the man from somewhere else. Maybe Lupin had stolen his favored marionberry jam at breakfast. Whatever it was, Harry was not about to touch it with a ten foot pole and endeavored not to mention the new Professor to Snape again.

“Is it always an animal? Do you get to choose it?”

“Yes, whenever one manages to conjure a corporeal Patronus it is always some form of animal, fish, or insect. Although the latter two are uncommon. One does not choose their own patronus in the same way that one can not control the matters of their own heart.”

It was a curiously poetic thing for the normally dour Potion Master to say, and Harry couldn’t help blurting out, “What form does yours take?”

Snape looked vaguely pained for a fraction of a second before hiding the emotion away and pulling out his wand, swirling it in the opposite direction of the fire, whispering so faintly that Harry had to strain to hear: “Expecto patronum.

A beautiful silver doe burst forth from Snape’s wandpoint to bound around the room on silent hooves, trailing glowing silver mist behind her before disappearing through a wall as suddenly as she’d appeared.

“Wow.” Harry stared at the point in the wall where the doe and phased through. “That was beautiful.”

“Yes. She was.”

The words sounded heavy with meaning that Harry could not begin to parse, so he asked another question instead.

“What was that incantation again? And the wand movement.”

Snape, who had also been staring after the doe, refocused his gaze on Harry, composure regained and back in lecture mode.

Expecto patronum. However, that is only part of the process.” Snape told him, demonstrating the wand movement again, slower. “To conjure a corporeal Patronus, or even an incorporeal mist, one must be utterly focused on a single happy memory. Patroni are the essence of light and positivity, and can only be conjured if you are thinking of such things. They are the antithesis of a dementor in every way, and therefore the only thing capable of truly combating them.”

Harry frowned, suddenly unsure if he would actually be able to do this. Did he have a memory, a positive memory, strong enough to do battle against that sucking darkness he’d felt on the train? Before the dread could crawl up his spine and take root, Harry shoved the doubts away. He would do this, he had to do this.

Harry nodded firmly, pulling his wand from his pocket and gripping it steadily, if a bit too tightly.

“Okay, I’m ready to try.”

Snape eyed him a moment before nodding and raising from his seat, motioning Harry to do the same. He flicked his wand and the armchairs scooted further against the bookcases, leaving a large open space for them to stand in.

“I want you to think of a memory. Nothing fleeting or banal, a truly deep emotion.” He shared a wry smile with Harry, well aware of their mutual trouble with such things. But if Snape could conjure a beautiful doe as easy as breathing, then Harry would find a bloody happy memory among all the trash in his head.

He thought of that summer, of getting gelato with Blaise as they walked through the village near his villa. It had been a bright summer day, with nothing to worry him and or any expectations to uphold, he’d just been himself spending time with a friend. It might seem like a normal occurrence for other people, but it was special to Harry and he held onto it tightly.

“You have one, clear and present?”

Harry nodded and Snape gestured him to begin.

Expecto patronum.” He said, more forcefully than he meant to and feeling the drain on his magic immediately as if he’d been punched square in the chest.

He wheezed and blinked in surprise, but no animal came bursting out of his wand, doe or otherwise. Not even a whisp if silver mist.

Expecto patronum.” He tried again, louder, focusing on the cool taste of pistachio against his tongue and Blaise’s gently mocking smirk as Harry gave himself brain freeze.

Another thump against his magic with nothing to show for it.

“Perhaps a different memory.” Snape suggested before Harry could stubbornly try again.

Harry wracked his brain before settling on the verdict of his Aunt and Uncle’s trial, the one that landed him in Snape’s care. Framing the look of abject fury and hatred on his Aunt’s face as she was dragged away leaving Harry free of her clutches in his mind, Harry swirled his wand through the air once more.

Expecto patronum.” If anything that one was worse, scraping against his insides and making Harry shudder against an imagined chill.

No. That memory was filled with too much righteous vindication to be truly happy. No matter how he treasured it.

He tried the spell perhaps a half dozen more time before Snape had them halt and made Harry drink a cup of tea doctored with an earthy potion meant to relax him without making Harry even more tired than he already was. He had wanted to keep going, thought that maybe there had been a hint of light that last time, but Snape had been firm and unmoving.

“I will not have you collapsing halfway to the Great Hall and your supper.” The Potion Master told him, making it a clear and direct order. “And I should think it goes without saying that you will not practice this outside of these supervised lessons.”

He had both of his hands on Harry’s shoulders and was bent down far enough to stare Harry straight in the eye as he spoke in a deadly serious tone.

“This is a highly complex and difficult undertaking for even a fully grown wizard, let alone an undersized boy of barely thirteen. If I find you have been practicing it without my explicit permission, I will be greatly... displeased.” The last word was murmured in such a way that it left little to the imagination. Harry nodded, fully intending to keep the promise, no matter how frustrating it was to see so little progress in their first lesson.

Snape’s black eyes bored into his, but Harry did not feel the tell-tale touch of another mind against his own, even if it still felt uncomfortably as if Snape could read every thought drifting behind his eyes. He nodded finally, straightening up to his full height once more.

“Very well. Next Friday you may wait for me outside this corridor, and we shall continue the lessons.” He hesitated a moment, before resting a hand atop Harry’s messy head, cupping his skull in a gesture reminiscent of so many Harry had seen parents give their children at the train station as they sent them off that it nearly hurt to endure, in a way that he would never admit to immediately craving more of. “You did well today, Harry. It would not have been so draining if you were not making progress.”

“Thank you.” He managed to choke the words out past the lump that had formed in his throat.

Jax came slithering up to him then, giving Harry an excuse to pull away from the gesture even as every part of him screamed not to, no matter how much it hurt his already bruised insides.

Can we go find Draco?” Jax asked, slithering up happily into Harry arms, “I want Ice Mice.

Harry poked at the snake’s belly, tickling him and pretending not to feel the ache inside himself.

You eat any more Ice Mice and you’ll be as big as Ximen!

What’s wrong with that?” Jax wriggled, trying to escape Harry’s poking finger with middling success.

Then I won’t be able to carry you around, you’d have to carry me around.” Jax gasped in indignation and Harry could pretend enough that things were back to normal to gather his stuff and follow Snape out of his quarters and back into the castle proper.

Chapter Text

Severus Snape was enjoying a quiet cup of tea in the staff lounge, away from overloud children and the threat of constant interruption that trying to take a moment to himself in his own office held. He was flipping through the latest issue of The Bi-Monthly Brewer and scoffing at the sheer amount concentrated idiocy one Gunther McGreen of Leeds could squeeze into a half page of print. As if the time of day in which you shredded trill leaves mattered one whit. It was common knowledge amongst those who bothered to actually research before attempting to alter a recipe or meddle with ingredients that it was the swiftness with which you processed the delicate red plant that made all the difference. And a bronze knife? You may as well render the entire effort inert. Of all the--

“Hello, Severus.” A voice interrupted his musings, an unfortunately familiar and entirely unwelcome voice. “My, but I shudder to think what atrocities are written in there to earn such a vicious scowl.”

Lupin pulled out the seat opposite Severus and sat entirely without permission, placing his own steaming cup of tea before him.

Severus glared.

“Yes, that’s the look exactly.” The wolf had the audacity to chuckle, as if they were sharing a joke instead of him encroaching on Severus’ well earned break.

“Is there something you require?” Severus did nothing to disguise the derision in his voice, but Lupin merely took an infuriatingly placid sip of tea and hummed thoughtfully.

“Require? No. Although there is something I very much wish for.”

“I am not in so altruistic a mood to be granting wishes, wolf. If you’ll excuse me.” Severus pushed away the periodical and made to rise from the table, he would take endless interruptions from panicking N.E.W.T. students over being stuck alone in the staff lounge with Lupin.

“I wish to apologize, Severus.” The flippantness had left the other man's tone, leaving Lupin sounding tired as he gazed up at Severus with such an open expression of remorse and old pain that it halted his upward momentum by the sheer unexpectedness of it.

Severus sat back down, if only to stop looking as shocked as he felt. A sneer was tugging at his mouth and Severus had to spend a precious moment to begin Occluding, muting his emotions so as not to reach across the table and smack that exhausted, pleading look off the wolf's face.

What right did Lupin think he had to mock him?

To play at being kind to poor, greasy, sniveling Severus Snape?

How dare he--!

“It was wrong, what they... what we did to you. It was unnecessarily cruel and mean spirited. You did not deserve any of it and if I had a way to go back and stop myself from being so cowardly that I could not even stand up to my own friends when I knew-- I knew they were acting far out of line, I would do so.” Lupin sighed, running a hand through gray streaked hair.

“I had the power to stop them and I never used it, for that I apologize. I cannot speak for James or Peter or... or Sirius,” his voice cracked on the last name, “but I want you to know that the guilt of our schooldays, of the things I did and failed to do, has plagued me all these years. I was weak and desperate for acceptance and that led to far more suffering on other people's behalf than I would have ever truly wanted.”

Severus pressed his hands flat to the tabletop so that he did not clench them into fists and narrowed a burning, hateful look at Lupin.

“I sincerely hope that you do not expect any sort of forgiveness on my part, Lupin. You will be sorely disappointed.”

The man flinched at the cold words and Severus took what satisfaction he could from it. Lupin had no business coming in here and running his mouth as if he actually meant the words. As if he had not been an integral part of why Severus’ school years had been like crawling through hell.

He hated Lupin. He hates that the man could so easily throw him off kilter. He hated that some minuscule part of himself, pushed to the far corners of his mind and buried beneath years of venom and darkness, wanted the words to be true. For vindication, if nothing else.

But they were not. And Severus would not allow himself to be toyed with in such a manner.

“I am sorry, Severus.” Lupin continued, heedless of the dangerous waters he was treading. “Truly and wholly. I’m not asking your forgiveness, Merlin knows I can’t even forgive myself. I just wanted you to know. I’ve been trying to speak with you all week, but you seem to be a hard man to track down when you don’t want to be found.”

Severus snorted and finally pushed away from the table, “Then you will be unsurprised when you continue to find it as such.”

He strode for the door, pausing only a moment to glare over his shoulder at the wolf slumped over a cup of tea. “I have no desire for olive branches, Lupin. Feel free to expend your efforts elsewhere.”

And with that he swept from the lounge, the door shutting heavily behind him and cutting off any response Lupin may have tried to utter.

~~~~~~~>

Harry fell into the familiar rhythm of classes, homework, and studying quickly. With the addition of three more subjects plus his continued lessons in Occlumency and the Patronus Charm, he found there was far less time for wandering about the grounds and castle. Not that he quite enjoyed going outside much, lately. The dementors that constantly circled the school seemed to have also sucked away any lingering summer warmth and were doing their utmost to rush through autumn entirely. Harry did not mind the cold so much, not like Jax, but now the air always seemed heavier. Dreary in a way that not even Cokeworth could manage.

Harry suspected he was not the only person using their increased workloads to take his mind off the depressing atmosphere. His study group had swelled in size once more, as Justin had dragged along Susan Bones one day. The girl had blond hair done up in bouncy pigtails that somehow did not look ridiculous on her despite being a style primarily employed by girls much younger than her. She was also a fair hand at Arithmancy and seemed to enjoy working together with them to solve the magical equations.

“I met your aunt once.” Harry told her as they bent over a complex swirl of numbers. “Madam Bones. She was very nice, and spoke highly of you.”

Susan smiled brightly, her pigtails bouncing as if attached to strings. “You met Auntie Amelia? She never said! It must have been at work, she never talks about work at home.”

Thankfully the girl did not try and elaborate on the circumstances, her bubbly personality apparently not equipped with the usual gossip mongering such things usually entailed.

Theo had also wandered into the group at some point, slinking quietly into place as if he’d been there the entire time. Harry had been thinking of inviting the other boy in any case, and so did not mind it.

The biggest shift in their group dynamic came when Neville showed up one afternoon with Granger in tow behind him, looking equal parts frizzy haired and indignant. Although under all that hair and fire Harry could see a sliver of hurt that the girl was obviously trying to bury deep under as many books and feet of parchment as she could manage.

“Hey, guys.” Neville said, pulling out a chair for Granger as if this were a thing he did every day, before taking his usual seat across from Malfoy (Harry suspected they did it for ease of sniping at each other, though both would deny that claim profusely if asked). “I thought Hermione might like to study with us today, she’s already finished that paper Lupin set on redcaps, but we both still have the huge chart for Arithmancy to get through.”

Everyone was staring warily at Granger, with the exception of Sue Li who had her nose too far inside a giant book on Animagi to see much of anything. The Gryffindor sat stiffly in her pulled out chair and fiddled with a chain around her neck that disappeared under her robes. She was giving Draco a not so subtle side eye, but the blonde was pointedly not acknowledging it.

Harry did not know how he felt about Granger joining them. The girl was undeniably intelligent and could be an asset to their efforts, but he also did not want her railroading over all of them like he had seen her do to the Gryffindors that she sometimes managed to beat into actually studying. He also was not about to just kick her out when it was obvious that she was just as wary of them as they were of her, so in the end he just gave Granger a sharp nod and went back to arguing over Rune translations with Theo and Padma.

That seemed to break the ice some and everyone relaxed, even Granger. Although she did keep sending the occasional look over at Draco, mostly she just kept to herself or talked to Neville about Arithmancy in an increasingly fast ramble that grew more excited when it became clear that nobody was telling her to shut up and stop being such a swot.

“Thanks, Harry.” Neville had muttered to him later, as they were leaving for the Great Hall and dinner. “Ron’s been a real prick to her lately, something about her cat chasing his rat around.”

Harry had very rarely heard Neville disparage anyone like that, so Weasley must have really been awful about it.

Good for the cat!” Jax hisses from Harry bag. “I don’t like that rat, it smells weird.

Harry snorted and relaid the message, gaining a laugh from Neville.

After that Granger started showing up more and more. Sometimes she got a little too forceful in explaining things, to the point where she was practically doing the entire assignment for you. But after the first time Theo made a dry comment about taking a nap and waking him when she was finished, Granger became a bit more mindful. Learning to work with them instead of over them.

The oddest thing by far about Granger was how she seemed to always be able to sneak up on them. If she didn’t come in behind Neville, the girl inevitably just kind of appeared at the table when Harry wasn’t looking. It was quite the feat, to be able to get around so unnoticed with that much frizzy hair.

~~~~~~~>

Defense had quickly become one of the favored classes by much of the school. Professor Lupin was undeniably one of the best teachers the subject had had in a fair amount of years. After that first (slightly traumatic) lesson, the man continued to show that he was a knowledgeable and well-rounded teacher. While the third years seemed to be focused on Dark creatures, the upper years studied defensive and offensive spells, proper actions to take if needed, and even wandless and wordless magics. Harry hoped the man was going to be sticking around longer than just the single year, although teachers in the Defense position never appeared to do so.

Millicent seemed to have gotten over her experience with the boggart, at least she was no longer avoiding them. Harry had tried talking to her about it once, it was not an experience he wished to repeat. But he was also pretty sure it probably helped a little, even if she had stomped off halfway through his first hesitant sentence.

Draco was similarly calmed, if with an added glint of determination in his gray eyes.

All in all, things were going well until he returned to the common room one afternoon to see a bunch of his Housemates chatting excitedly over by the notice board.

“Hogsmeade weekend coming up.” Blaise said, peering over the heads of their shorter classmates, though at this rate everyone but Millicent would be shorter than him soon. “Halloween.”

Harry very carefully schooled his features into a mask of indifference. Halloween never boded well for him anyway, why should this year be any different? Maybe he could talk Snape into giving him an extra Patronus lesson? The last one had ended in a bit of mist, and him not feeling entirely wrung out by the effort.

Hogsmeade seemed to be all anyone was talking about for the rest of the week. Excited chatter about all the sweets they would buy at Honeydukes, or getting butterbeer at The Three Broomsticks, or visiting the Shrieking Shack for a bit of a Halloween scare.

Harry, used to disappointment, felt he was doing a fair job at hiding his. Until the morning of the trip in question when Blaise offered to stay behind with him as Harry poked at a steaming bowl of oatmeal, there were little raisins dotted in it and Harry could not quite decide if he liked the addition or not.

“I wouldn’t mind,” Blaise said, sipping his coffee, “it’s not as if I’ve anything important to do down in the village anyway.”

“Don’t you have a date with that Ravenclaw girl?” Daphne Greengrass butted in, her petite nose wrinkling at Blaise.

“Well, yes.” He admitted, shrugging, unbothered by the look she sent him. “But I still wouldn’t mind.”

“You have a date?” Harry asked, more bemused than anything, Blaise hadn’t mentioned a thing about it all week. The other boy shrugged again, taking another drink of coffee.

“With a fourth year, she asked me but I don’t think she’d be too bothered if I canceled.” His expression grew amusedly contemplative. “I think it’s less that she wants to date me as she wants a date period. She had the look of a Ravenclaw embarking on a research binge and I suspect the subject matter to be that of the heart.” He fluttered his lashes at Greengrass, who laughed despite herself and lost the pinched look.

Harry snorted, amused. “Go on your date, I’ll be fine.”

Blaise turned his fluttering lashes on Harry, which earned him a swift kick to the shin, but that only caused Blaise to smirk at him like he’d accomplished what he wanted to in any case.

Millicent made noises about staying behind as well, but Harry just pressed a few coins at her with a list of sweets he’d like from the village and she rolled her eyes but pocketed the money nonetheless.

Harry thought about watching all the students file out of the castle and down the path to relative freedom, but decided he did not need the added resentment to burrow any deeper in him.

So he made his way down to Snape’s office instead, to see if he could wheedle a lesson out of the man.

When the Potion Master answered the knock with a raised eyebrow and thin mouth, Harry was quick to clarify his reason for coming.

“It’s not about Hogsmeade.” Snape’s expression softened a little and he waved Harry inside. “I was just wondering if we could practice the Patronus again? I think I almost had it last time.”

That wasn’t completely true, but Harry knew he’d get there if they kept at it.

“Unfortunately I am indisposed for such things today.” He eyed Harry with slight reprovement. “I would not have done so even if I were not already otherwise occupied, as we just had one yesterday, which you should be using this time to recover from.”

“Yes, sir.” Harry said sullenly, he hadn’t really expected anything else, but he supposed it hadn’t hurt to try. “What are you working on?” He asked instead of pushing the matter.

Snape was wearing his thicker set of robes, the ones he usually reserved for brewing as they offered more protection from sputtering cauldrons.

“Can I help?”

Snape quirked an eyebrow and was silent for a moment but finally just turned and waved Harry to follow him through the hidden door to his private lab. Harry had been there plenty of times before, helping Snape with various potions for the hospital wing or experimenting under the man’s watchful eye during winter breaks.

There was a single cauldron set up over an unlit burner, it was made of a burnished silver and gleamed in the torchlight. One long table was covered in bowls, jars and various dried and fresh ingredients.

Snape handed him a mortar and pestle along with a thumb of peeled, sharp smelling ginger, “A smooth paste, make sure there are absolutely no lumps.”

Harry nodded and set to work at the familiar motion of grinding and scraping and grinding some more.

Jax had poked his head out of Harry’s discarded bag but had quickly retreated at the overwhelming smell of fresh ginger.

“What are you making?” Harry asked again as he watched Snape deftly slice blue salamander skin into impossibly thin strands.

“Why don’t you tell me, Mr. Potter?” The man said as Harry handed over the ginger.

Snape inspected his work before giving him an approving nod and scrapping it into one of the numerous tiny wooden bowls, cleaning the instrument thoroughly, and handing it back to Harry along with some turmeric to make into a fine powder.

Harry looked over the ingredients yet to be processed and the ones clearly ready and thought hard as his fingers turned orange from the spice.

“Well, there are a lot of ingredients,” Harry started, “but most in small doses. Which probably means a lot of steps and at least a full day of brewing.”

“Correct. I expect this particular potion to be ready by mid afternoon at the earliest.” Snape moved on from the salamander skin to swiftly crushing chips of oak bark under a broad silver knife, which had Harry glancing at the cauldron again.

“It probably has something to do with suppression of some sort, or a relief.”

Snape quirked another eyebrow at him, an approving smirk teasing at the corner of his mouth.

“What makes you say that, Harry?”

“The cauldron. It's silver, that’s the same type used for Dreamless Sleep. And oak is for resistance, the salamander too.”

“Correct again.”

Harry flushed a bit at the note of pride in the Potion Master’s voice and nearly dropped the pestle. He handed the whole thing over before any disaster happened that left them both dyed far too brightly from the powder.

He ground a few more things as Snape poured a measure of clean water into the cauldron and lit the brazier underneath with a low flame, beginning to add things and stirring with precise, even motions in alternating patterns.

Harry thought more as Snape handed him a pair of dragonhide gloves and set him to chiffonade a frankly worrying amount of aconite.

“I don’t think this will be a very pleasant potion to take.” Harry commented, eyeing the poisonous leaves.

Snape’s smirk turned a little sharp as if he were darkly amused at something.

“I suspect not, although the alternative would be far worse.”

Harry went silent again as he watched Snape work. He made it look so effortless, a pinch of this, two drops of that, stir clockwise five times and anti thrice. He did not seem to be reading the recipe off of anything, and Harry marveled that the man could know so complicated a process by rote.

“Who is it for?” Harry asked after Snape tipped in his powdered turmeric, resulting in the potion turning a sickly orange for the three seconds it took the man to stir two careful figure eights which melted the color neatly back to a gray-blue.

“If you figure out what exactly the potion is, perhaps I will tell you.” That sharp smirk was back, “Or mayhaps you will figure out who might need such a suppressive potion, and extrapolate what it is from there.”

“Do I get a clue?”

Snape looked pointedly at all the scattered detritus and Harry snorted, going over to his bag to dig out his potion notebook. The one Blaise had given him with it’s expanded pages and lovely cover. Jax was napping, the cooler weather already starting to take its toll on the poor guy. Harry flipped to a clean page and started writing down everything he could think of that might be relevant to the mystery potion as Snape watched on in amused approval.

They broke for lunch after which Snape told him to go do something else, as the next part of the brewing was a lot of waiting and not much more. Harry reluctantly complied, pleased enough that he’d been allowed to help at all. It had been a good distraction from the obvious lack of older students in the castle.

Harry decided to take a walk around, maybe visit that painting of a hydra that had sung acapella to him last year.

That was how he came across Luna Lovegood, dreamily gliding through the corridors and not wearing any shoes.

“Hello, Harry.” She said, with a vaguely pleasant smile, “I like your earrings, like little pieces of heartlight, very fitting.”

Harry touched at the amethyst studs, warmed by the unexpected compliment.

“Thank you, Luna. I, erm, I like yours too.” She was wearing her radishes again, and Harry wondered if she had to change them out or if they were under a preservation charm. “I’ve never seen their like before.”

This was true, but he also thought they did fit the girl. Odd as they were, she was even more so. Harry was fond of odd things.

Luna beamed at him and Harry couldn’t help returning the smile just a little bit.

“Where are your shoes? Aren’t your feet cold?”

“Oh, they’ve run off somewhere.” Luna said with an unconcerned flip of her pale hand. “They’ll come back eventually, they always do.”

Harry lost his smile instantly, a hot stab of unexpected fury cutting through him.

“They ran off, or someone helped them run off?” The words came out low, more harsh than he meant them to, but Luna just shrugged and rocked back and forth on her bare feet as if not bothered in the least.

“It’s nothing to worry over, Harry.” She soothed, touching fingers to his hand he hadn’t even realized was clenched into a fist. “They probably enjoy the outings, it’s not good to keep shoes locked up for too long.”

“It’s not right, Luna. You should tell someone.”

The girl just hummed and smiled, “They’ll come back to me, Harry. And in the meantime, my feet get to have a bit of freedom as well.”

She skipped a graceful circle around him, laughing quietly as she did so, but the anger still burned in him. Harry hated bullies. If he ever found out who was doing this to Luna, they would pay. A great deal.

“Is your pretty snake friend with you?” Luna asked after finishing with a final twirl that flared out her robes like the wings of some exotic bird.

Harry opened his satchel, managing to put aside his bubbling anger for the moment, and showed Luna the still sleeping serpent inside.

“Oh, how sweet.” She cooed softly, and Harry let her distract him from her lack of shoes and his lack of yearmates for the rest of the afternoon.

~~~~~~~>

That night, when everyone was back from Hogsmeade and excitedly anticipating the Halloween feast, Harry once more felt shifted aside. A part of the fringe but not really one of the happy students around him. Halloweens were always like that, doubly so at Hogwarts. Nothing good ever seemed to come of them and Harry was taking no chances this year and staying right where he was: parked on the sofa in front of the common room fire with a book and absolutely zero trolls or bloody messages.

When Blaise slid onto the cushion next to him as the rest of the House started filling out, Harry rolled his eyes and nudged him in the side with his bare toes.

“Go to the feast.”

“Hmm, let me think about it.” He tapped a dark finger against his chin in mock contemplation, “No, I think I’ll stay right here.”

Harry sighed but didn’t really have the energy to argue. Not even when Millicent plopped down on the last remaining cushion, Maximus the cat purring imperiously in her arms.

“You guys are gonna get hungry.” He tried weakly.

“Nonsense.” Millicent grunted, tossing a hefty bag at his chest that Harry had to drop his book to catch.

He opened it curiously, finding it filled to the brim with sweets and bottles of butterbeer that clinked together when he reached in to extract one. Mr. Jacobi sometimes had a bottle or two at the shop, and Harry had quite liked it.

He sighed in defeat and pretended not to see the smug smirk on Blaise’s face.

They spent an enjoyable few hows passing the sack of goods around and decidedly not thinking about anything morose, like dead parents or the general unfairness of the world.

“How was your date?” Harry asked Blaise, who held up a flat hand, teetering it back and forth.

“Fine I suppose, but she was taking note the whole time and seemed to be marking things off on a checklist. Holding hands? Check. Play footsie? Check. Share dessert? Check. One closed mouth kiss at the castle doors? Check.”

Millicent was laughing and Harry felt the giggles trying to bubble up out of him as well as Blaise pantomimed marking a sheet.

“It could have been worse,” Blaise shrugged, “I got to dress up at least.”

“You always dress up.” Harry snorted and Blaise rolled his eyes.

“It’s safe to say I won’t be accepting any more invitations from her though.”

Harry was about to make another comment when the door to the common room burst open and Snape came striding in with his wand drawn and a deadly serious look on his face.

“You three, follow me. Everyone is to go to the Great Hall. Is there anybody else here?”

Harry shook his head, scooping up Jax from his spot by the fire and hugging him close.

“What’s going on?”

Snape scanned the room a final time before motioning them close, he set his free hand firmly between Harry’s shoulder blades protectively, as if to pull him closer still.

“Sirius Black is in the castle. The Headmaster has commanded everyone to convene upstairs while a search is conducted.”

Harry shivered, taking an unconscious step closer to the Potion Master.

Why was it always Halloween?

Chapter Text

The Great Hall was crowded with confused and frightened students. Snape had led them there at a quick trot, his posture tense and wand drawn the entire way as he scanned the corridors; the three of them pressed close at his heels. The House tables had been vanished, leaving everyone to clump together in worried groups as they whispered about what might have happened.

Harry caught bits and pieces as Snape herded them closer to the center of the room where the majority of Harry’s House was huddled.

Was it really Sirius Black?

--heard Azkaban twisted him ‘round the bend.

--completely shredded--

--twelve muggles, I heard, with one curse!

“Stay here, no one is to leave the Hall for any reason excepting immediate mortal danger.” Snape’s stern voice cut through the whispers, addressing the students that had shuffled closer at his appearance among them. The older years were hanging around the edges of the cluster, trying to look as if they weren't as unnerved as everyone else; but that didn't stop them from listening attentively when Snape spoke.

Harry clutched Jax closer to his chest, the serpent has refused to hide away, stating he could better protect him when he wasn't shoved under layers of robes. Harry had not tried too hard to argue the point. If anybody had a problem with Jax, Harry would deal with it.

“Yes, sir.” a few of the Slytherins murmured, but before Harry could ask for more details about what was going on, the Headmaster called for everyone's attention.

The old wizard was standing atop the dais that held the teacher's table, but had forgone use of the podium; standing above them all in bright orange robes with his arms spread as if to embrace the room.

“Quiet please, thank you. Now I know this is a bit unorthodox, but for your own safety I must ask that you all sleep here for the night as your professors and I make a thorough search of the castle.” As he spoke, tone far lighter than Harry suspected the situation warranted (as if they were all just having a cross-House sleepover), Flitwick and McGonagall went around the Hall baring all the doors firmly closed. “I will be leaving the prefects to watch over the exits, the Head Boy and Girl will be in charge. Now, if the teachers could come up here? We can get started.”

Harry had the sudden urge to ask Snape to stay, his hand actually twitching as if to grab for the man’s robe sleeve, but he smothered the impulse and Snape gave them all a significant look before striding away towards the Headmaster.

Millicent snorted incredulously, “He’s leaving the prefects to guard us?”

“That man is mad, I've always thought so. My father--" Draco had sidled up to them, a pinched look on his face as he cut himself off. “I’ve just spoken with Longbottom,” the blonde continued, ignoring his own stumble, “he says the portrait that safeguards the entrance to Gryffindor Tower has been torn to shreds.”

“Was it Sirius Black?” Harry asked, as if it could have been anyone else.

Draco nodded, his face a shade paler than normal.

“Ah yes,” Dumbledore called over the renewed chatter, “you’ll be needing these. Sleep tight now, children.”

A wave of squishy purple sleeping bags materialized all across the hall in a begrudgingly impressive show of magic. Harry wondered if the Headmaster had summoned them from another part of the castle or simply conjured them into being. Either way, it was far from important right then and Harry shoved the speculations to the back of his mind; turning back to Draco (who was sneering down at the bags, as if scandalized to the very depths of his soul to find he was expected to sleep on the floor).

“Why would he go to Gryffindor Tower? That doesn't make any sense.”

Draco shrugged, “Maybe he thought you would be there. Your parents were both Gryffindors, the whole Potter line has been for ages.”

“Even if I was, why do it tonight? When he had no reason to think I wouldn't be at the feast with the rest of the school.”

“The man is clearly cracked.” Blaise said as he toed at his own sleeping bag with faint disgust. “I hope Snape is the one to find him.”

Before any of them could speculate further, Percy Weasley came strutting by ordering everyone into their bags and to stop talking. He eyed Jax for a moment as Harry knelt down, but apparently ultimately decided to not press the issue. Harry figured he was still a bit shaken by the previous year and was willing to let Harry slid a bit here and there. As pompous as the elder Weasley tended to be, Harry was willing to bet deep down that he was alright.

All of that did nothing to negate the fact that he then spent the next hour shuffling through the crowd to berate the chatty students and make sure everyone knew he was the one in charge as he did so. Harry rolled his eyes and decided it was not worth a lecture to try and keep talking.

If he shows his face,” Jax hissed vehemently from his spot coiled atop Harry's chest, “I will spit fire at it. And then bite him. And then spit some more.

Harry placed a hand over his friend, comforted more than he should be by the threats of extreme violence.

Thanks buddy.

He thought back on the afternoon they had tested out Jax's new ability. He had used the opportunity to make good on his word to Draco that he would bring him down to the Chamber of Secrets. Millicent had come along as well, but Blaise had taken one look at the slimy pipe leading down into blackness and declined, even after Millicent had huffed and offered to charm his robes against the dirty slide. Harry and Draco had been quick to take her up on the offer though and soon he was leading them through the rough cut tunnels and into Ximen’s abandoned home.

Harry had wanted to return to the Chamber to explore for a while and the fact that there was plenty of water around to quench any unfortunate misfires by Jax was a bonus. Unfortunately, the rooms behind the massive statue of Salazar Slytherin had been long since raided of anything useful, by Tom Riddle or some other parselmouth in the thousand years since their construction, he couldn’t know. It was disappointing, but not really unexpected.

What was interesting though, was Jax’s capacity to set just about anything on fire.

They set up a few bits and pieces as makeshift targets and let the snake have at it. It took a few tries for anything to happen, but once Draco promised a treat, Jax was soon spitting a glob of purple tinged flames at a hunk of wood that might have once been part of a desk.

It landed with a bit of a sizzle-splat and dripped down like liquid fire to pool on the dark tiled floor. It took flooding the area with water from the nearby pool to put out the flames, and even then the floor was left steaming and pockmarked as if it had been corroded by a strong acid.

“Well that is mildly terrifying." Draco commented, tossing Jax the promised candy.

They had spent a good few hours testing Jax’s range and stamina, how much burning venom he could spit before needing to wait and produce more. They found on average he had about three or four good shots in him before Jax needed a rest. That might not seem like a lot, given what small amount of flaming substance was being utilized (perhaps a little smaller than a galleon in area) and Jax couldn't launch it very far (a bit under a meter max) but the destructive capabilities far outweighed the limited capacity.

The stuff clung to whatever surface it landed on, burning and eating away at it in equal measure. Harry had shuddered to think what that sort of substance might do to a person, given the remains of scorched and eroded stone and tile left on the Chamber floor.

They had used brooms to regain the bathroom, Harry gripping Draco's waist tighter than was probably necessary as they wound higher and higher up the massive pipe.

He would have preferred to be the one steering, but it was Draco's Nimbus and even though he was pretty sure the blonde would have let him if he asked, it seemed a bit rude. So Harry had safely tucked Jax into his bag and climbed on behind Draco, pretending not to see the amused look Millicent sent their way from atop her own broom.

Thinking back on that afternoon brought a calmness to Harry that he would have been hard pressed to find outside of Mind Magic. He stoked a hand over Jax’s tense scales, feeling the serpent relax somewhat. Harry glanced over at the others huddled across the floor of the Great Hall, dark mounds of varying shapes and sizes all breathing the same air and existing in the same place. Harry was not alone here, as separated and alone as he usually felt outside his small circle of friends, they were all still here, in this moment. Experiencing the same bizarre night he was, if not to the same personally emotional level.

Harry let the rhythm of their rustling and breathing and occasional soft murmur aid him in clearing his mind before drifting into the silent darkness of sleep.

~~~~~~~>

It was still dark when Harry next woke, which was odd as his Occlumency usually let him sleep through the night. Although that was when he was tucked safely into his soft dorm with its five other occupants, not surrounded by hundreds of other students on the far less comfortable stone floor of the Great Hall.

He took a surreptitious glance around, doing his best not to move his head more than necessary, and spotted Snape and Dumbledore not far off from where he lay. At least Harry assumed the tall dark blur next to the unrelentingly orange one were them, as he’d taken his glasses off and did not want to risk putting them on to make certain. It proved unnecessary a moment later, as Snape’s unmistakable low murmur carried over the quiet sounds of sleeping students.

“--expressed concern at your choice to appoint--”

“Severus.” the Headmaster cut Snape off, and Harry felt indignant on the Potion Master’s behalf. “I do not believe any member of the staff would assist Sirius Black into this castle.”

“Be that as it may, Headmaster, I must once again remind you--”

“I know what you would tell me, Severus.” Dumbledore cut in again, and Harry wondered just how many times Snape would put up with that before addressing it. “And I will remind you, my boy, that we are not all the same children we once were. People change, Severus, I fear you may never come to understand such truth.”

The words were said in a soft, grandfatherly tone, but to Harry they fairly dripped with condescension. Snape did not seem too impressed either.

“Black proved himself capable of premeditated murder at sixteen, Albus. I hardly think there was far to grow from there. Nor do I believe his compatriot capable of much else.”

There was a sigh from Dumbledore, as if he were disappointed at the statement.

“If you would give Remus more than a passing glower, I think you would be surprised at how false your assumptions may be. For now though, Severus, I must go report to the dementors that the castle is clear.”

Harry had to imagine the angry tilt that must have overtaken Snape’s eyebrows at the curt dismissal without the aid of his glasses, but he had seen the expression often enough directed at fumbling and careless students that it was not hard. He watched as the orange blur made its weaving way out of the tangle of sleeping students but had to slam his eyes shut as Snape turned in his direction.

Harry tried to feign sleep as the soft tread of booted feet drew closer before stopping next to him, but knew if for a lost cause when Snape stated in his driest voice, pitched low, “How much of that did you hear, Mr. Potter?”

Harry cracked open one eye innocently, Snape was standing above him with his hands on his hips looking more resigned than angry at Harry’s eavesdropping.

Figuring he had nothing to lose, Harry asked, “What does Professor Lupin have to do with Black, sir?”

He had noticed the man’s absence from the Hall when they’d all been summoned, but had assumed he was already out searching the castle. And there was really only one teacher that Snape had such an obvious problem with to bring him up on multiple occasions to the Headmaster, no matter that his concerns had been dismissed.

Snape huffed softly and knelt down next to Harry’s shoulder, speaking even more quietly than before.

“Perhaps another time.” He gave a significant look around the crowded room before training his black eyes back on Harry, the man was close enough now that he could see the downturn of his mouth clearly, Snape’s pale face shadowed with frustration and concern in equal measure. Harry was not used to seeing such open emotions on the Potion Master’s face, it was mildly unnerving.

Then, in another surprising display of humanity, Snape laid a hand on Harry’s head, brushing his long fingers through the messy locks.

“Go back to sleep, Harry. All will be well by morning.”

“Really?” He asked if only to prolong the moment.

Snape’s frown tilted in a wry direction, his expression softening, “As well as can be expected. Sleep now, I’ll not have you dozing off in class.”

With a last stroke through Harry’s hair, Snape rose and strode away as swiftly as one could while navigating a sea of sleeping students.

Harry wriggled down further into his sleeping bag, careful not to dislodge a snoozing Jax, and thought idly about if he could use that moment in his Patronus lessons. Or if it was too fraught with bittersweet longing to be of any use.

Snape was his guardian, yes. Appointed by the Wizengamot because Harry’s actual relatives were all dead or imprisoned or extremely unwilling to be saddled with him. Snape was not his father, would not even have been burdened with him if Harry had not insisted in a frantic scramble to gain some sort of control of his own life. It would not do to dwell on what was not. He knew Snape tolerated him in his life, in his home. Even cared for Harry to a degree unprecedented in his life before coming to Hogwarts, he knew. But it was not the same as...

Harry forced the thoughts away before they made the building heat behind his eyes turn into wet tears. He should know better by now to stop wishing for things that could never truly be. Jax was his family, that should be enough. He had friends and a place to go outside of school, with a man that was not his father but still cared enough to feed and cloth and protect him against all manner of evilness. It was enough.

It had to be enough.

Because Harry knew wanting more would just lead to pain and disappointment.

Bringing up his Occlumency shields helped push away the burgeoning breakdown and soon Harry was able to pretend long enough that he did not care to fall back into the blackness of sleep.

~~~~~~~>

When Severus brought Lupin his dose of Wolfsbane, he was satisfied to see just how exhausted the man was. It had been a full moon the night before, the only reason Severus had not already strung the man up and demanded to know exactly how he’d managed to sneak Black in. Tonight would be the final night of transformation, the weakest in the three day cycle, but judging from the state of Lupin that would hardly matter much.

“Ah, Severus, how kind of you to bring that up for me. Many thanks.”

Severus scowled, setting the steaming goblet down on the desk with an audible thunk.

“Kindness has nothing to do with it, Lupin, as you very well know.”

“All the same, I thank you.” Severus watched as the man picked up the goblet and grimaced through the entire dose.

He waiting until every last drop was gone to ask his question.

“How did you get Black into the castle?”

If the wolf was startled by the accusation, he didn’t show it. Only sighed and rubbed at his tired eyes.

“I swear to you, Severus. I do not know how Sirius got in here, or why. I was in the Shack the entire night, as you very well know.”

“Bullshit, Lupin, you know something.” Severus swore, in an infuriating slip of composure. “I will not stand idly by as that madman threatens my ward. You will tell me what you know, or I will force the answers out of you.”

Lupin did not look cowed by the words, on the contrary he was looking up at Severus with an expression of unexpected warmth under his obvious exhaustion.

“You really love him, don’t you Severus?” Lupin declared, apropos of nothing. “That’s wonderful, I am so happy for you both. Harry deserves all the love he can get in this world.”

Severus was too startled by the statement to censor his automatic response, “Of course I love him, and I will not have Black coming anywhere near to taking him away from me!” The words were a low and harsh promise, “I will choke the life out of Black with my bare hands if needs must, wolf, know that I speak truth.”

Lupin nodded gravely, a shake in his hands finally giving away that he was affected by the conversation at all.

“I believe you.”

“Then tell me how he got into this castle before I practice on your neck first.”

Lupin sighed again, “I don’t know Severus. If you wish, I will state the same under Veritaserum.” he eyed the empty goblet still smoking slightly on the desk, “Unless...”

Severus snorted, “I would not risk rendering that potion inert, Lupin.”

“The offer stands then.” He spread his hands and Severus seriously thought about it for a moment before dismissing the idea. It was too near the full moon, the wolf might be able to overcome the potion's effects, or it may interfere with the Wolfsbane; not a risk Severus was willing to take.

“Another time, Lupin. I will hold you to it.”

“Of course.”

Severus turned on his heel, ready to be rid of Lupin’s presence when the man spoke again, “Oh, I almost forgot. I have something for you here.”

He turned back around slowly, wary of anything Lupin may have planned but certainly not expecting him to round the desk and press a colorfully wrapped package into his hands.

“I saw these down in the village, as I was chaperoning the students, I thought you might like them.”

Severus scowled and refused to look down at whatever ridiculousness the wolf thought he might enjoy, let alone accept from him.

“They’re caramels, with cinnamon and star anise and a bit of sea salt.” Lupin was smiling up at him and Severus could only scowl past his own confusion. “I hope you like them. Now I really must get back to grading while I have the time. It was lovely talking with you, Severus. Thank you again for the potion.”

And without actually knowing how it happened, Severus found himself out in the corridor, gripping the box of caramels with white-knuckled hands; the closed door to Lupin’s office behind him. Scowling deeper, he shoved the box into a pocket of his robes, determined to toss them in the nearest bin on his way back to the dungeons.

He had his own work to mark and lessons to plans. There was no time to spare brooding over infuriating wolves.

The little package never made it into a bin and Severus would deny to his grave how much he did enjoy the taste of them (after a thorough battery of screening spells that turned up nothing more than a mild preservation charm likely set by the store they were procured from).

~~~~~~~>

For the next week all anybody could talk about was Sirius Black and how he had managed to slip past the dementors at the gates. The theories thrown around ranged from plausible (sneaking past while the dementors were patrolling elsewhere) to the utterly ridiculous (a secret pact with the giant spiders in the forest to come to his aid). Harry listened to them all but didn’t offer up any opinions of his own. If Sirius Black had been able to escape a prison in the middle of the North Sea that was manned with hundreds of dementors with none of them the wiser about how he’d done it, Harry had no problem believing that man capable of getting into Hogwarts undetected.

The only real question was why he had waited so long to make his move. And on a night when everyone would be at the Halloween feast. That part at least Harry could grasp, if one assumed that Black’s goal was not, in fact, to get at Harry. Black would have had nearly unlimited access to the entire castle that night. But what could his goal have been if not to come after Harry and finish the job his master had failed at?

Maybe he really was cracked.

Whatever the reasons, when nothing further happened everyone seemed to get bored of the subject in favor of the upcoming Quidditch match between Gryffindor and Slytherin. Harry should not have been so surprised at the fleeting attention spans of the student body, especially when nothing more dramatic than a slashed up painting had resulted from the Halloween scare. Harry had come into the beginning of the year dreading the surely lingering resentment from the Chamber of Secrets debacle. But an entire summer away seemed to have washed the whole incident from the majority of the students' minds, at least those not directly involved. It was equal parts a relief and frustrating at how fickle people could be when they had put Harry through so much hell over it the year before.

He didn’t know if it was better or worse that he was more or less back to being The-Boy-Who-Lived for most of them. He supposed there was nothing he could really do about it though, so Harry just kept on and pretended not to be bothered by any of it.

It was mostly true in any case, they did not really know him, so he would not allow himself to be so affected by general opinion again.

One afternoon, a few days before the match, Harry was sitting in the stands with Blaise and Theo watching the Slytherin team practice and ostensibly to work on some Ancient Runes translations as well. Mostly though, Harry was enjoying the fresh air (even if it held a bit of a bite) and listening to Blaise’s scathing commentary on the atrocious cut of the team uniforms.

ostensibly

Theo was snickering behind his Rune dictionary and Harry was having trouble holding in his amusement as well.

Millicent had promised him a go on her broom when the team broke for a rest, and Harry was looking forward to it. He kept meaning to buy one of his own but putting it off as an unnecessary expense. Perhaps he would try out for the team next year, if only for the excuse.

A few minutes later, Millicent landed with a thud on the bench below them, Beater’s Bat twirling in her hand and a rare grin making her rough features almost pretty in the stark afternoon light, color flushing her cheeks a deep red at the top in a way that Harry knew she would not appreciate him pointing out even to compliment. Draco landed next to her in a far more dainty fashion, his blonde hair ruffled out of its usual careful style by the wind and that same excited flush staining his cheeks as well. There was a Snitch struggling in his gloved hand and a satisfied grin tugging at his own mouth.

“Those Gryffindors don’t stand a chance against us this year.” Draco boasted, taking a seat on the bench as if it were a thrown, his pointy nose so high up in the air Harry was surprised it didn’t sprout wings of its own and flow off for the blonde to go catch.

Millicent snorted, plopping down next to him and knocking their shoulders together (a gesture that nearly sent Draco tumbling down the tiered seats), “As if they’ve ever had a chance since Weasley left.”

Harry quirked an eyebrow, “It thought the twins were still playing?”

Draco flapped a hand, a decidedly uncivilized gesture, but Quidditch tended to bring out his more relaxed side when it didn’t manifest as extreme bouts of competitiveness.

“Not those two, Charlie Weasley. He was Captain and Seeker before he graduated, and that was the last time Gryffindor ever won the Quidditch Cup.”

“Or even came close to it.” Millicent added with a snicker, apparently highly amused at the streak of awful games the lions had put forth since.

Harry marveled a bit at their enthusiasm over the game, and how it went so far that Draco may have just accidentally said something complimentary about a Weasley, no matter how backhanded.

Harry wisely decided not to point it out and instead took Millicent’s proffered broom in hand with a grin of his own.

“Fifteen minutes, Potter, then it’s back to work.”

Harry gave her a mocking salute and deposited Jax in Blaise’s lap before swinging up onto the broom. Theo sent some truly impressive puppy eyes at Draco before the blonde sighed and handed over his as well, with a threat attached should anything happen to it.

Theo shot out of the stands with a mad cackle that had Draco scowling, but Harry was too busy following suit to care much.

He always forgot how freeing it was, to zip through the skies at breathtaking speeds, twisting and turning on a whim until he was too dizzy to know up from down. Harry laughed, once, the sound bursting out of him as he weaved in between the goal posts before shooting straight up into the sky only to twist and dive, pulling up at the very last second; the brush of grass against his robes sending a jolt of adrenaline through him powerful enough to set his hands to shaking on the broom handle.

“You’re completely mad, Harry!” Theo shouted over the rush of blood and wind in his ears, pulling up alongside him on his pilfered broom. Harry just bared his teeth in another manic grin and shot forward again, starting a twisting game of chase with the other boy that lasted the rest of his allotted time and ended with them both tumbling onto the grass in a heap of tangled limbs and laughter.

When they finally made it back up to the stands, it was to a scowling Draco and smirking Millicent and far too many glowering Slytherin Quidditch players gathered around as well.

Marcus Flint was looked particularly perturbed when Harry handed Millicent back her broom.

“And what the bloody fuck was that, Potter?” Flint barked, gesturing sharply at the pitch as if to encompass everything he’d just done in one angry flap of his hand.

Harry shrugged, putting his hands in his pockets and hoping it wasn’t obvious he was clutching his wand.

“Just a bit of fun, Millicent said fifteen minutes, did we go over?”

Flint glared harder, sneer twisting his features in an interesting way, Harry hadn’t known a face could look so angrily-flabbergasted.

“Why the bleeding hell did you not try out for the team, Potter?! A bit of fucking fun, Merlin’s saggy balls, kid.”

Harry blinked, startled, that was not where he had thought the conversation was going. A glance around showed Millicent still smirking smugly and Draco with a palm to his face. Theo was grinning too, but that may have just been because he’d gotten away with messing with Draco’s stuff.

Harry shrugged again, out of lack for a better response. “I’ve had a lot on my mind I guess, and I don’t actually have a broom. Or the time. With all my new classes. Maybe next year though.”

Flint spluttered, cursed a few more times, and made a couple vaguely rude gestures before huffing and shouting everyone back into the air. Blaise was sending Harry an amused smirk, stoking at Jax where the snake lay sleeping in his lap despite the noise.

Harry rolled his eyes, “Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything.” Blaise clucked, still smirking. Harry narrowed his gaze at him which only made Blaise’s smirk grow.

“Whatever, I’m gonna go stretch my legs. Watch over Jax for me.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” The teasing smirk had faded a little, but Harry shook his head all the same.

“No, it’s fine, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“If you’re sure.”

Harry nodded, soothed a little by his friend’s concern but really just wanting some time alone. A rarity this year.

Harry made his way down the tall stands to ground level, figuring he would just circle the pitch before heading back up. He didn’t like the idea of being so far from Jax for too long, but the serpent was safe with Blaise and he hadn’t wanted to wake him. His new fire ability seemed to be fortifying him somewhat against the usual winter lethargy, but Jax was still asleep more often than not with the onset of truly cold weather. And Harry always felt bad, disturbing his friend’s rest, so a quick jaunt around the stands should be fine.

It was as he rounded the Ravenclaw section that Harry spotted the dog. It was sitting halfway between the forest edge and the pitch and seemed to be watching the team fly around as if they were a flock of mildly interesting birds. It was a big dog, shaggy with dark fur, but as Harry drew closer he could see how skinny it was. How dirty and tangled the fur had become. His heart ached at the sight and he didn’t hesitate before trying to approach it, calling out in a soft voice once he got close enough.

“Hey boy, are you lost?” The dog startled badly, skittering away a few paces before even looking at Harry. “Shh, hey, it’s okay. I won’t hurt you.” He held out a hand, palm side up as the dog finally saw him.

It whimpered and skittered back again before whining high in its throat.

Harry stopped moving forward, dropping to his knees and holding his hand out steadily.

“I won’t hurt you,” He said again, trying to sound as soothing as possible as the dog slowly crept closer, belly low to the ground and big brown eyes far too full of pain.

Harry continued to murmur quiet nothings until the dog was close enough to nudge at his outstretched hand. Its nose was wet and cold, but he licked Harry’s fingers after a moment and Harry figured that was permission enough to try and pet him.

The dog’s fur was nearly black, but Harry didn’t know if that was from how dirty it was or its natural state. He carefully scritched behind one floppy ear.

“There see, not so bad. You’re a good boy, aren’t you?” He asked the dog, who seemed to have warmed up to him quickly, it licked his face.

Harry let out a startled laugh, ruffling the dog’s furry head and stroking along its side, the sharp protrusion of ribs under all that mess had him frowning again.

“Are you hungry, boy? I’ve got something here.” He pulled a folded cloth from his pocket, it was filled with savory samosas that he’d been planning to share with Blaise and Theo as they watched the practice, but Harry figured they wouldn't mind.

He warmed a pastry between his hands with a bit of magic before offering it up to the dog, who yipped happily and snatched it up with a snap so quick Jax might have been hard pressed to match. He warmed the rest of the treats one after another until the handkerchief was empty, the dog nosing at it with a hopeful sound.

“Sorry, that was everything, I would have brought more if I’d known you were out here.”

The dog gave a dejected whimper before collapsing over Harry lap with a loud huff, an obvious demand for pets.

Harry snicked and relented, scratching behind the dog's ears and along its side, heedless of how dirty the fur was or how smelly the dog might have been. Harry usually didn’t care much for dogs, at least not the vicious little yappy ones that his Aunt Marge raised and always sent biting at his heels. But this one was alright, sweet and lovable, if in need of a few good meals and a bath.

Harry had moved on to rubbing its belly by the time there was a shout from behind them that had the dog jumping to attention and growling, placing his skinny bulk between Harry and the approaching figures.

“Oi, Potter! Can’t we leave you alone for a single second without you making friends with every mangy beast you come across?” Millicent called, a distinct note of exasperated fondness in her voice.

“I suppose we should just be grateful it’s not a fifty foot snake this time.” Blaise commented dryly, Jax awake in his arms and looking annoyed at being left behind.

Draco was eyeing the dog in obvious distaste, with Theo trailing being looking bored.

Harry rested a hand on the dog’s back, feeling the rumble of its low growl.

“Shh, hey, it’s okay, those are my friends.” He tried to reason with the dog, who turned incredulous eyes back on him as if he understood the words but refused to believe them.

For the first time since meeting him, Harry wondered just where the dog had come from. It was obviously intelligent to a degree, as a lot of magical creatures were, and it had to be some sort of magical to make it onto the grounds. Harry was curious just how much it could really understand.

“It’s fine, boy, really. I promise.” The little group had stopped a reasonable distance from them, smart enough to gauge the situation but not too far as to not be able to intervene should the need arise.

The dog swung his head between the four Slytherins and Harry and back before huffing again and making a confused noise in the back of his throat.

“It’s okay.” Harry repeated, which earned him a distracted lick to the face that had both Draco and Blaise grimacing before the dog barked once, loudly, at them and took off for the forest with a ground eating pace. “Hey--” Harry tried to call after it, but the dog was gone, swallowed by the trees.

“I swear, Harry, if I wake up to find that thing in the dorm...” Draco threatened half-heartedly, apparently at a loss for words as he took in the state of Harry’s robes.

Harry rolled his eyes, he doubted he’d see the dog again, with the speed it had taken off at.

You smell.” Jax commented, refusing to leave Blaise’s arms when he went over to reach for him. Harry threw up his hands in defeat.

Chapter Text

The day of the Quidditch match started out drizzly and cold, the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall a rolling mass of slate gray that only got worse as the hours passed. By lunchtime it was pouring down sheets and you could hear the howling of wind even all the way at the back of the room where the Slytherin table resided. Harry eyed Millicent as a crack of lightning flashed across the stormy scape above them.

“Are they even going to allow the game in these conditions?”

She grunted, taking a hearty bite of pork chop and chewing it thoroughly before answering.

“Yeah. They don’t cancel Quidditch for anything less than the literal apocalypse.” Her statement was punctuated by a deep rumble of thunder.

Harry shook his head, he supposed it was for the best that he wasn’t actually on the team, he would not relish having to play through all that.

“Flint tried to get us switched with Hufflepuff.” Draco cut in, the blonde was glaring up at the ceiling as if offended the weather was being rude. “But Madam Hooch was having none of it.”

“Well, good luck. Try not to get struck by lightning.” Blaise smirked at Harry’s comment, hiding the expression not very well behind a steaming mug of coffee.

Despite the inclement weather, when the time came the entirety of the school bundled up in hats and cloaks and scarves baring their House colors and trudged their way happily enough down to the pitch for the first game of the season. Harry settled into a spot in the stands between a Blaise that was scowling at the mud clinging to his shoes and a Theo that was smirking in a way that said he was amused at the ridiculous conditions the teams would have to play through. Jax was safely tucked into Harry’s bag and he suspected the serpent to want to stay there for the duration, giving the chill of the still pouring rain.

Harry pulled his green and silver beanie cap further down over his ear as he squinted out at the open air before them. He could barely see the Hufflepuffs in the stands opposite, just a blurry wash of yellow. Although that may have had to do with all the water obscuring his glasses. He spent a few fruitless moments trying to clean off the rectangular lenses before Blaise took pity on him and charmed them against the rain.

“Thanks.” He flashed his friend a smile that was nearly as quick as the lightning streaking across the sky. Blaise knocked their shoulders together with a small grin of his own.

A whistle cut through the noise of chattering students and howling wind, signaling the start of the match. The Slytherins in their darker colors were harder to see as they weaved and bobbed around the more visible Gryffindors, a fact the Flint had obviously taken into account as soon they were up forty points. Harry clapped loudly every time they scored along with the rest of his House around them, everyone getting caught up in the excitement of the game despite the terrible conditions.

He did wonder if the teachers might cut the match short when it started getting even darker out and the Snitch had still not been caught, surely the students would not be expected to play through the night? He knew in professional games there were no such regulations, but they had classes in the morning, and the storm seemed to be getting worse by the second. A deep chill was starting to crawl up Harry’s spine and he huddled closer under his cloak and tried to ignore the coldness as he attempted to make out the players darting around the pitch before them.

A moment later the screaming started, rolling like a wave through the stands until it reached where Harry sat and he realized it was not the sky getting darker, but his vision. He remembered this awful feeling of dread from the train. The coldness that had nothing to do with wind or rain and everything to do with the sea of black clad figures now swarming the grass below them as all the students around him screamed and panicked and tried to flee all at once.

Not Harry! Not Harry!

Stand aside you stupid girl!

Somebody jostled him from behind, nearly knocking Harry off the bench, only Blaise’s ironclad grip on his arm saving him. He shook the voices away, refusing to let them overcome him and pulled out his wand.

Expecto patronum...” The words were feeble, not even audible to his own ears above all the chaos around them.

Not Harry!

Expecto patronum.” He tried again, louder, thinking of Millicent’s flushed and grinning face that day he’d watched their practice. The darkness receded a little but nothing was coming out of his wand, and he could feel the toll the spell was taking on him already piled on top of the assault from the army of dementors below.

He could smell burning flesh and rancid garlic.

Blaise was tugging on his arm, trying to pull Harry along, away with the rushing crowd of students. He let himself be led, repeating the spell over and over, trying to find better, deeper, happier memories. But all there was was coldness and screams and green flashing in the corner of his eye until all that was left was darkness as he succumbed to the visions and despair, falling to the ground.

~~~~~~~>

Severus Snape sat at Harry Potter’s bedside in the hospital wing and did his utmost not to get up and start pacing the length of the room. Partly because it was far more crowded than usual, due to the complete disaster that afternoon, and partly because he did not wish Harry to wake up alone and scared. Although how much his own presence would help with that, Severus could not fathom.

Still, he sat.

Perhaps it was for his own peace of mind as well, situating himself close to his ward. Far better positioned to protect him against further attack than he had been while sequestered in the teacher’s box when those vile things had swarmed the pitch.

As quick as they were to banish the dementors with a series of bright patroni stampeding down upon them, it was not quick enough for the students to escape completely unscathed.

It had taken far too long for Severus to locate Harry amongst the panicking children of his House, his heart clenching in a far from pleasant manner when he saw the Zabini boy kneeling down beside his ward with a stricken look plastered all too clearly over his features. Severus had scooped Harry into his arms without a second thought and carried the boy all the way to the infirmary, barking orders at any of the students with sense enough to listen to gather any other injured parties and follow suit.

He refused to think about how light the boy felt in his arms, how fragile.

Most of the students that crowded into the hospital wing had been hurt trying to get away from the dementors, rather than due to the creature’s nature. Severus watched as Poopy quickly and efficiently managed scraps and bruises and twisted ankles, it was a less than adequate distraction from the pale, sleeping boy beside him but it was better than nothing at all.

Luckily, Harry began to stir before Severus did anything drastic, like off to help Poppy with her sudden influx of patients.

When Harry groaned and tried to sit up, Severus put a firm hand against his sternum and pushed him back down.

“Not so fast, Mr. Potter.” He admonished as the boy blinked up at him owlishly, one arm patting at the blankets absently until they settled against his serpent coiled tightly against his side. He visibly relaxed at the reassurance of his familiar’s presence and Severus did his best not to acknowledge the utterly ridiculous flash of jealousy that he had not merited a similar, instinctual reaction. Honestly, he was a grown man.

“Can I have my glasses at least?”

“I suppose.” Severus commented dryly, slipping the frames onto the boy’s face himself, and if his fingers lingered a moment neither of them would tell.

“I tried to cast a patronus, but it didn’t work.” The words were edged in bitterness and Severus sighed softly.

“I would expect not, given the sheer number of dementors. It took the combined efforts of many of the staff to drive them back. The Headmaster is still down at the gates I believe. He is exceptionally displeased by this incursion.”

Harry snorted, “I suppose I can’t always disagree with him.”

“Will wonders never cease.” Severus replied sardonically, feeling the wry tug of a smirk that fell away completely at the boy’s next words.

“I heard the screaming again.” The words were quiet, inaudible to anyone except Severus, though he cast a silent muffliato in any case, the sounds around them dampening. Harry seemed to notice the change as he gave Severus a grateful look. “The woman... I think. I think she was my mother.”

A cold jolt of unexpected pain shot through him and Severus could do little more than clench his hands in the blankets covering the bed and blink. He could feel the blood draining from his face, and knew he must look stricken but could do little to hide how much the unexpected words had affected him.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have-- I know you were friends, I just--” Harry’s frantic apologies shook Severus from his stupor and he laid a complacent hand on the boy’s arm.

“I am the one who is sorry.” Severus managed to keep the deep well of sorrow out of his voice, mostly. “You should not have to hear that. It is perhaps a mercy that you passed out.”

The child scowled but it was a shallow expression, one born to hide the hurt beneath.

“I don’t want to pass out. I want to be able to defend myself. What if next time there isn’t a whole box full of professors to drive them away?”

Severus did not offer empty platitudes, did not say that there would always be someone there to protect him. The boy knew full well that such things were never true, nor was it wise to rely too heavily on the assumption that they could be. No matter that Severus would move mountains to protect the child, he was not so foolish to think himself infallible, no matter how infuriating that truth be.

He squeezed Harry arm where he still held it in his grip, “You will be. I have no doubt that you will master the Patronus Charm, or I would not waste my time in teaching it to you.”

The words felt empty, not the comfort he had hoped to impart, but Harry seemed to take them to heart nonetheless and nodded with renewed determination. Severus ached, seeing that same fire in the boy’s eyes as Lily’s had held when she set her mind to a task. The boy had so much of her in him that sometimes it hurt to look upon him.

Then the child would do something so completely Harry, that Severus had no trouble dispelling the illusion. Harry might embody his mother in some aspects, even show signs of his blasted father, but at the end of the day it was exceedingly clear that the boy was his own person; through and through.

~~~~~~~>

Following the dementor incident, the school was plunged into a solemn and quiet atmosphere the likes of which Harry had not seen since the Chamber of Secrets fiasco the previous year. It came as no surprise to him that another Hogsmeade weekend was scheduled to boost morale. As it was getting close to the winter holiday, the students were all excitedly chatting about shopping for presents and doing their best to forget about the Quidditch match altogether.

Once more, his friends had offered to stay behind with him, but Harry had waved them away again. There was no reason that they shouldn’t go enjoy themselves, just because there was a madman after Harry. Plus he had it on good authority that Blaise had acquired another date with a different Ravenclaw, this time a fourth year boy.

Millicent had promised to bring him back some more sweets, and Harry did his best not to look forlorn as he watched the students all trickle out happily to the village.

Maybe he could visit Snape again, he might be brewing another mystery potion. Harry had been steadily working to try and identify the one he had helped with, but having little luck. It was definitely a suppressant, and one that was not very pleasant to take. But what it was meant to bury in a person that could be more harmful than the potion itself, Harry hadn’t the slightest.

He could go out onto the grounds and try to find that dog again. It must be cold and hungry with the weather ever turning to winter’s grasp. But he did not like the idea of wandering the grounds alone but for a sleepy Jax. At least not on a day that a vast majority of the student body would again be absent from the school, it was a stupid risk and Harry was trying to take less of those.

It was as he was heading up towards the library, with the vague notion of doing more research on his mystery potion, that he was ambushed by the Weasley twins.

They bracketed him with matching devilish grins, steering Harry into an empty classroom.

“Why hello there, Potter. And how is our favorite little Slytherin doing?” One of them, Harry was going to hazard a guess and say Fred, asked.

“We heard you weren’t being allowed to go to Hogsmeade,” The other, George, tutted, “and that is just not right. Is it Fred?”

He shot a mock concerned look over Harry’s head at his brother, who returned it just as solemnly.

Harry eyed the Gryffindors suspiciously, unsure quite what they were up to. With the twins it was always best to err on the side of caution.

“Indeed it is not, George, a boy should be free to explore.”

“Deplorable is what it is, keeping you cooped up in here, Potter.” They gave him matching sympathetic looks only slightly marred by the dancing mischief in their eyes.

Harry quirked an eyebrow in response, which had them both cackling. It did not take much to get the twins to cackle, though, so Harry waited; knowing whatever it was they had dragged him in here for would be revealed eventually.

“I think we can fix that problem,” Fred said, with as serious a nod as Harry could ever remember seeing the boy make.

“Indeed we can,” his brother agreed, “it’ll be a wretch giving it up. But we owe you one for Ginny.”

“And we see potential in you, Potter.”

“A bloody sight more than ickle Ronnikins has shown, that’s for sure.”

Harry darted his gaze back and forth between the two, unsure what exactly they were talking about, but his curiosity was getting the better of him once again.

“Give what up?” He asked, which earned a pair of dramatic swooning sighs.

“Only the secret to our success, Potter.”

“The greatest tool an aspiring trickster could ask for while in these blessed halls.”

“A treasure beyond worth to the right owner.”

They went on for a few more moments, extolling virtues and looking mock weepy to be giving up such a remarkable tool.

Harry quirked another eyebrow.

“And you want to give this thing to me? Why?”

“As we said, Potter,” George clapped him on the shoulder, “we owe you one.”

“And if we must pass on a bit of our legacy, you seem the best candidate. Even though you’re a Slytherin.”

“That may even be a plus,” George rubbed his chin contemplatively, “sneaky blighters, Slytherins.”

Then Fred pulled a warn bit of folded parchment from his robes with a flourish and presented it to Harry as if it were the deed to Hogwarts itself.

Harry hesitated a moment before taking it. It was best to be wary of anything a Weasley twin handed you while wearing that sort of grin. Or any grin. Or any expression at all really.

He unfurled the parchment under their eager faces, it was old and creased from being folded over and over for probable years.

It was also blank.

Harry studied it closely, looking for any hint, but there were no markings either on the front or back. Just a solid expanse old parchment and a pair of grinning devils to go with it.

“So what’s the trick?” He finally asked, after his thorough examination.

The twins beamed at him, “I knew we had you pegged right, Potter.”

George pulled out his wand, and with a bit of a twirl set it to the parchment.

I solemnly swear I am up to no good.” He spoke with a grave voice, but his dancing eyes belied the serious tone.

Under the wand tip, ink was spreading at a rapid pace, filling the parchment with lines and dots in a pattern that resolved into what was unmistakably a map. Harry stared at it, seeing what it was almost immediately.

“Hogwarts.”

Fred clapped him on the opposite shoulder that his brother had done, “Correct, little snake. But not just Hogwarts. Look closer.”

Harry had already been doing so, seeing the moving dots that ran over the map like little ants. Ants with labels. He quickly traced his way along the corridors, past dots named Elliot Brown and Basil Peeks, up the Grand Stair to the small room that held four little dots.

Fred Weasley, George Weasley, Harry Potter, Jax.

He looked up at the twins, “This is in real time.”

They nodded, though George tapped at the fourth dot curiously.

“Friend of yours, Potter?”

“Oh, you know me. Always summoning snakes, can’t seem to help myself.” He deflected, which earned another round of laughs as Harry scanned the map hungrily. It really showed everything, all the classrooms and corridors, the younger students left behind in the castle milling about, even a series of secret passages that Harry had yet to discover on his own. Ones that led off the edge of the map and presumably down to the village.

Gryffindor Tower was labeled and fairly detailed inside. Ravenclaw Tower was also there, though less detailed in its layout. Hufflepuff’s entrance and common room were sketched out as well, but the only sign of Slytherin House was the name scrawled across a bare stretch of wall in the dungeons where Harry knew the hidden door to be. It looked as if the creators of the map had never ventured inside, or had been unable to gain access.

His eyes darted to the top of the map, where a curling sweeping script read out:

Messrs. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs
Purveyors of Aids to Magical Mischief-Makers
are proud to present
The Marauder's Map

“Who are the Marauders? And where did you even find this thing?”

“In Filch's confiscated objects drawer, first year. It was a lucky break for us, wasn’t it Fred? Can’t imagine we’d be able to get away with half the stuff we have without it.”

“As for the Marauders?” Fred shrugged, unconcerned. “Geniuses, obviously, to make this. But we’ve had no luck trying to track them down, pseudonyms can be tricky like that. Only rumors of pranks and escapades that put anything we’ve done to shame.”

George sighed forlornly, clasping his hand together like a lovesick damsel.

“Oh what we would give to study at the feet of the masters.”

“Why are you giving this to me then? If it’s so important to you?” Harry could kick himself, but a nagging part in the back of his head could never let things lay.

The twins settled hands on his shoulders again at the same time, making Harry feel a bit crowded but he resisted the urge to shrink away.

“We simply can not bear to see your potential wasted, we have high hopes for you, Potter. The way you got that git Lockhart booted out, sheer genius.”

“And don’t think we haven't noticed you have an in with the elves.” Fred wagged a finger at him.

“So how do you make it blank again?”

“Just give it another tap with your wand and say ‘mischief managed’.” George demonstrated and the parchment was washed blank once more. It was definitely a clever bit of spellwork. Harry carefully folded it back up and tucked the map away in a pocket.

“Now, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, there are a number of passages leading out of the castle. We recommend the one behind that statue right outside this door, leads straight into Honeydukes cellar.”

They grinned down at Harry again, “Don’t go doing anything we wouldn’t do.”

“That doesn’t leave much off the table.” Harry quipped.

“Exactly.” The twins agreed in tandem, before winking and backing out of the room, leaving Harry to his own devices.

He pulled the map out again, murmuring the passphrase and watching the ink spread like spider webs across the old parchment. It seemed an innocent enough tool, but he was hesitant to trust it after the disaster that was Tom Riddle’s diary. Setting the map down on a dusty desk, he opened his bag and poked at Jax until the snake grumbled and allowed himself to be removed from his warm, dark, sleeping spot.

What? Is it time for potatoes?” Jax sleepily hissed, Harry chuckled softly.

No, sorry buddy. I need you to check something for me. Can you give this a sniff?

He showed Jax the map spread out over the desk and Jax flicked his tongue out, tasting the air.

Hmm, doesn’t smell Dark. Or Light, really.” Another flick of forked tongue, “It’s powerful, but I can’t really tell anything else. Where did you get it? Also what is it?

The Weasley twins, and an extremely comprehensive map of Hogwarts. It even shows everybody in the castle and where they’re at. See look, here’s you.” He pointed at the tiny dot labeled Jax, nestled close to his own.

The snake peered down with more interest, before opening his jaw wide in a stretching yawn. Harry rubbed at his scaley head fondly before letting the serpent retreat back into the bag. Harry wiped the map clean again, thinking over what he should do.

He definitely was not going to risk going down into the village, not when there was a madman out for his blood.

He froze, a chill going down his spine.

Sirius Black.

The man had been able to get into and out of the castle without anyone seeing him, had he used one of the hidden tunnels shown on the map? How many were the teachers aware of?

Clutching the map tightly in his hand, Harry hurried from the room. He had to get to Snape, to show him. Even if he already knew about all the tunnels, the map still had real time tracking of everyone in the castle. If Sirius Black showed up again, when he showed up again, they could use the map to find him.

Also, he still did not completely trust in the altruistic nature of the artifact. It seemed too good, too convenient to be completely harmless. Harry was not about to take any more chances with enchanted paper.

Chapter Text

Snape was not brewing his mystery potion when Harry arrived at his office, something he could have guessed given that the map showed the dot labeled Severus Snape unmoving in the space marked. Although the room was named Potion Master’s Office instead of going into specifics over who was the current person in that role. Harry wondered what might happen if a teacher decided to take a different space as their own, would the map self-adjust? Or would it have to be manually altered? How would one even being to go about adding to it?

Pushing aside the questions, Harry rapped sharply on the door.

“Enter.” Came the terse reply.

Harry opened the door to find Snape marking long scrolls with sharp ticks of red ink and that particular sneer he had for being forced to deal with utter incompetence. Although Harry privately suspected the man enjoyed eviscerating the shoddy work of Harry’s less than scholarly classmates.

“Can I help you, Mr. Potter?” Snape did not look up from his marking, but he also did not sound annoyed at the interruption, so Harry closed the door behind him and hurried to stand before the desk; holding up the map.

“I found something that might help catch Sirius Black.”

The Potion Master looked up sharply, dark eyes narrowing to focus on the warn parchment, a drop of red ink falling unbidden onto the essay below.

“I thought I had made it clear that you were to stay as far away from this matter as possible.” The reprimand was acerbic and Harry shrank back from it before squaring his shoulders and gesturing with the map again.

“I was, I mean I am. I didn't go looking, but I know this will help.”

Snape held out a hand and Harry passed the map over, watching the man’s brow rise as unfolded the parchment and realized what held. Snape cleared away the essays on his desk with a flick of his wand and spread out the map, black eyes darting over the corridors and classrooms and secret passageways crawling with labeled dots scurrying to and fro in little groups or singularly.

Then Snape caught sight of the heading across the top of the parchment and his eyebrows pulled together in a severe frown matched by a downward twist of his mouth as he shot a piercing look at Harry.

“Where exactly did you acquire this map, Harry?” One long, stained finger was tapping at the names curling fancifully across the top.

“An acquaintance gave it to me, not ten minutes ago. They, erm, liberated it from one of Mr. Filch’s confiscated item cabinets.” Harry said truthfully enough. He didn't want to get the twins in trouble, but he also did not relish lying to Snape.

“This acquaintance was a student?”

Harry nodded, “They seemed to have had the map for a number of years already.”

“And just arbitrarily decided to bestow it upon you as a gift?” Snape tapped at the map again in emphasis, voice heavy with scepticism. Harry shrugged, resisting the urge to wring his hands, he did not like being on the receiving end of the Potion Master’s disapproving glower or the idea that the man might think Harry an idiot to any degree.

“I thought it was weird too.” He said, even if he could understand the odd motivations of the twins, Harry suspected that it would not be enough for Snape. So he did not even bother trying to defend that point, simply agreeing. “Which is why I brought it straight to you. Well, I had Jax give it a sniff first.”

Snape cocked an eyebrow, “Indeed? What has your familiar determined?”

“He said it wasn’t Dark or Light, just a bit powerful. I think it may just be a what it is, a pretty useful map of Hogwarts, but I was unwilling to just take that on faith. Not after last year.”

The nod Snape gave him was sharp but approving and Harry felt himself straightening from his unconscious withdrawal.

“There are secret passages marked, there see? I thought maybe Black might know about them, and be sneaking in that way.” Harry pointed at the one that led down into the village, supposedly right into the sweet shop cellar.

“Oh, I am quite certain that he does.” Snape’s black eyes narrowed at the header again, before flicking away to scan the rest of the map more thoroughly. “You were wise to bring this to me. There are passages on here that I was admittedly unaware of, though only one or two. While I do not trust that this map is completely neutral, it is an obviously powerful tool towards the search for Black.”

“Do you know who made it? The Marauders?”

Snape snorted derisively, “I do. And they are no concern of yours, do I make myself clear?”

Harry nodded, though his curiosity was piqued.

“I assume you are aware that I cannot allow you to keep this? Not whilst Black is still loose, it may be the key to tracking him down.”

“I had figured as much, sir. I would rather that man be caught swiftly, before he can hurt anyone, than go galavanting off to the village.”

The look Snape gave him at that was an odd mixture of pride, satisfaction, and something darker, sharper that Harry could not name. The expression both warmed Harry in its approval and left him feeling as if he had missed an important part of the conversation. He lacked context, and Harry doubted Snape would be willing to provide it just then.

“I am well pleased to see that your sense of self-preservation has finally started to kick in.” The words were wry, but Harry flushed at the quasi-compliment in any case.

“It seemed a prudent thing to develop,” He managed after a moment, “else Jax might smother me in my sleep out of sheer frustration.”

“Indeed.” Snape was smirking in an amused way, even as his eyes trailed back to the map spread out over his desk. “Now, tell me. What is the trick of this map? I assume your acquaintance informed you of its workings?”

“Oh, yes.” Harry showed Snape, who sneered at the ridiculous nature of the passphrases. “How did you know there was more to it?”

Another snort, “I knew the manufacturers of this little artifact, and not a one of them would leave so valuable a tool unguarded. Which once more begs the question of exactly how it had come to be in Mr. Filch’s office, if indeed that is truly where your acquaintance acquired it.”

“I’m sure it was.” Harry said, watching as Snape once more unlocked the map, ink spreading in spidery lines. “They may be a bit unorthodox in their interpretation of the school rules, but I would never call them malicious or conniving. Maybe a little naive, given that they did not bring this up to a teacher before. I honestly think it may have just never occurred to them.”

Snape hmm’d, tracing a finger along one of the hidden passages, the one that was out on the grounds under the sketch of a swaying willow that had far too vicious a swing for Harry to contemplate trying to reach it. He’d seen that tree take out a number of birds that had dared to fly within reach of its branches, it had not ended well for the fowl. Although maybe if he wore his Cloak? Would the tree be able to sense him even then? Probably, it wasn’t as if the willow had eyes, so what good would being invisible do? Then again, magic had a lot of odd rules and it may very well work out fine. Harry was not about to risk it, not right then, but it was something to think about at least.

Snape caught his eye and rose from his seat, circling the desk to stand before him.

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Harry. I am certain it will be of a great help.” He set a hand on Harry’s shoulder, giving it a firm squeeze and there was that flush or pride going through him again.

Why did gaining approval from the Potion Master affect him so easily, why did Harry crave it like water in a desert? It seemed a weakness. A bad habit to so heavily rely on anyone’s opinion of him, especially an adult’s. Not even Mr. Jacobi held such sway over him, though Harry had known Ezra longer, their relationship did not hold the same connotations. But as always, Snape seemed to be the exception to all of Harry’s carefully placed walls and he was not sure what to do about that. If he even should try.

“I hope so.” He said, instead of blurting out any of the myriad of thoughts swirling around inside him.

Snape escorted him to the door, a hand between his shoulder blades.

“I must finish my marking now, but perhaps our next Occlumency lesson can be shifted to Patronus practice.”

“Really?” Harry felt a smile tugging at his mouth at the idea.

“I may be persuaded to it.” Snape smirked, obviously amused at Harry’s enthusiasm. “Now, off you go. And do try not to get into too much trouble without your little band of miscreants.”

“Yes, sir.” Harry gave a smirk of his own, “I will endeavor to not be caught at anything.”

Snape rolled his eyes and nudged him from the office, closing the door firmly on Harry’s quiet snickers.

~~~~~~~>

Severus turned back to his desk with a scowl aimed at the parchment spread there. Yes, he knew exactly where the thing had originated. And it was beyond irksome that the map held obvious power and skill in its crafting.

Striding quickly to the fireplace tucked into the corner of his office, Severus jotted down a swift note that he then folded and tossed into the flames with a pinch of Floo Powder and a barked destination. He tapped a foot impatiently against the flagstones before forcing himself to cease the motion. A moment later, Lupin’s placidly smiling face appeared in the hearth. Severus’ scowl deepened.

“Hello, Severus. You wished to see me?” There was a playful glint in the man’s eye that infuriated and exasperated him in equal measure.

“Yes. Come through, there is a matter that needs discussing.” He stepped back from the fireplace as Lupin’s head disappeared but not quite quickly enough to avoid the man near trodding on his toes when he stepped out fully from the swirl of green flames.

“Oh, pardon me, Severus.” Lupin said softly, steadying himself on Severus’ shoulder. He pulled sharply away from the touch but that did nothing to wipe the smile from the man’s face. “How can I help?”

“I have something of yours, something I find highly interesting and wish an explanation of.”

“Oh?” Lupin looked around curiously before his eyes landed on the map and they widened, “Oh dear. Yes, I would think so.”

“So you do not deny that it was once yours?” Severus strode back to his desk but did not regain his seat, instead laying his hands flat upon the table so that he could have both map and wolf in his line of sight.

Lupin’s eyes crinkled, as if Severus was sharing a private joke with him rather than biting out accusing words. He had his hands in the pockets of a pair of warn muggle trousers that were patched at one knee and ragged in the hem and he took slow even steps closer to the desk, as if Severus were an animal that might spook if he moved too quickly.

“Of course not, that would be patently ridiculous given my name is splashed across the top there.”

Severus snorted, tapping at said curling epithet, “I should not be surprised at the extreme lack of subtly you Gryffindors so blatantly display. Moony,” He scoffed, “it’s a wonder nobody sussed you out before Black tried to feed me to you.”

Lupin’s eyes lost their crinkle and his face grew solemn and aged, “I am truly sorry about what happened that night, Severus. I have said as much to you on a multitude of occasions, and I do not expect forgiveness or understanding. I just wish you to know that the idea of what might have transpired had James not... it haunts my dreams still.”

“Good.” The word was growled out, vicious in its curtness.

As much as Lupin had been trying to mend long burned bridges since his arrival at Hogwarts, with his little gifts and insisting on sitting next to Severus at mealtimes, filling the time with inane chatter and observations about their coworkers (that Severus did not find unexpectedly amusing at times, no he did not) and an infuriating ability to ignore all attempts at avoidance or intimidation. Still, Severus did not come close to even contemplating returning such gestures in kind. He would make the blasted potion, for the safety of the school. He would refrain from lighting the man afire whenever Lupin presumed to invade his space. But Severus point blank refused to play into whatever game the wolf was playing.

“I don’t think I ever thanked you.” The man continued, in that same somber tone that even Severus’ keen spy senses could detect no deceit in. “For not telling my secret. You had every right, after what Sirius did. I would not have blamed you one bit.”

“Black was not known for any deep wells of forethought or expectation of consequences.” Severus sneered, as if that might make up for any empathy he might be displaying towards the wolf. “Not that he was ever proven wrong in the matter.”

“He should have been expelled.” Lupin agreed, surprising Severus with the bitterness of his tone, it could near rival his own. “I don’t think I ever truly forgave him for betraying me as he did. If you had died, if I had killed you, or bitten you.” The eyes that met his now were free of their usual placid humor, replaced by an anger so deep and wretched that Severus was surprised they were still a warm human brown instead of wolfish amber. If it were closer to the full moon, perhaps that might not have been the case. “But you never told, and for that I owe you a debt greater than you might wish to be burdened with.”

There was something else in Lupin manner that Severus could not quite place, some hidden meaning or goal or emotion that did not cohere well with the rest of that statement. But it was fleeting and gone before he could parse it out. Lupin was looking down at the map now, and Severus found himself relieved to be free of the eye contact.

“I believe you wished to talk about this?” He gestured at the spread of parchment with its little moving dots and shifting staircases, the attention to detail was infuriatingly precise. Although Severus was pleased to see the Slytherin commons and dorms were near absent from the scrutiny.

“Yes. Did you not tell me explicitly that you had no idea how Black was making his way into the castle?” Severus tapped pointedly at one of the hidden passages.

“Ah, yes. I had assumed the Headmaster well aware of all of these.” Lupin frowned, biting at his lower lip as he traced along one of the routes with an absent finger. Severus could not tell if he was lying, and that irked him. “This one here is caved in, and you need a wand to get past this statue guardian even if you know the password.”

“A wand is not such a hardship to come by in this world, even for so wanted a man as Black.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” The words were absentminded, “Where did you say you came by this? I thought James had lost it, years ago. Before we even left Hogwarts.”

“An acquaintance.” Severus answered dryly. He was still undecided on if he wanted to pursue the full truth from Harry, but as the boy had shown remarkable forethought in bringing the map to him straight away, he was willing to give his ward the benefit of the doubt for the moment.

“Was it Harry?” Severus remained silent, but Lupin did not press the issue, “It would be nice for him to have it, in any case. I doubt he has much from his father. Or mother.” Those brown eyes flicked up again, but Severus did not take the bait, merely scowling. Which caused those blasted eyes to crinkle up once more.

“So you claim to wish Black’s swift capture, yet you fail to inform anyone of a suspected breach in the castle’s security? It seems to me as if you do not truly want him caught.”

“If you do not believe me, my offer of Truth Serum still stands.”

“Very well, one moment.” If Lupin was surprised at Severus calling his bluff, he did not show it.

He went to one of his heavily warded cabinets and retrieved the small glass vial with its dropper. The last time he’d used it had been on Auror Shacklebolt back in Harry’s first year, which brought to mind things he would rather not contemplate at the moment. The boy had been so skittish, far too small and untrusting and fragile. His fingers tightened around the vial before Severus forced them to relent, lest he shatter it.

“Three drops, wolf.” He instructed, handing over the potion and watching carefully as Lupin administered it without protest, managing to restopper it before that lassitude took hold and he slumped down into one of the high backed chairs with a vague smile.

Severus was swift to rescue the vial before it wound up shattering against the stone floor due to inattentive hands.

He snapped his fingers in front of Lupin’s face to regain his wandering attention.

“Oh, hello Severus.” The man turned that doopy smile on him, eyes flicking over him far more than necessary given they’d been conversing the past ten minutes. “Those robes are very fetching on you.”

Severus pinched the bridge of his nose and refrained from reacting to that statement any further, he would not be distracted by the wolf’s inane observations, no matter how blatantly ridiculous they might be.

“Why did you not tell anybody about these passages?” He pointed at the map, to make his point clear. Veritaserum, while useful, had its drawbacks in impeding the dosed person’s attention span and sense of urgency. Its effects could be somewhat overcome by implementation of Occlumency, something Severus had personal experience with given it was one of the Dark Lord’s favored methods of weeding out traitors. The trick had been in making sure one maintained the illusion of being under the potion's influence, while also constantly fighting against it. A hard task that he had never relished, but neither had he failed in it. Given that he was still alive to contemplate the experience years later.

Lupin was not employing such methods, either the man lacked the requisite skill set, or he truly wished to gain a measure of Severus’ trust.

Severus was banking on the first option.

“I assumed everyone knew about them.” the man answered in a slow, vague tone. “We had found most of them by second year after all.”

“You know what they say about assuming.”

“Ah yes, Severus. Hmm, speaking of asses--”

“How is Sirius Black getting into the castle?” Severus cut off whatever Lupin was about to say.

“Oh, I’m sure he is just padding in, he is Padfoot after all.” Lupin giggled, as if that were some great joke. Severus growled, frustrated.

“Do you want him to find Harry? To finish the job he started?”

“Of course not, Severus. I want him caught as much as anyone, probably more so than everyone save you. He was my friend once, I loved him and he betrayed me. Then he betrayed everyone else.” Even through the haze of Veritaserum, Severus could hear the pain in the other man’s voice, it did not satisfy him as it might have on another occasion. “Little Harry was just a baby, how could you do that to a baby?”

The all too familiar stab of guilt was making itself known in his heart, but surprisingly it was not nearly as devastating as it might once have been. Perhaps his time spent caring for the boy was helping him heal as well. It was a disconcerting thought and one that he pushed to the back of his mind.

“I am so happy that Harry has you now, Severus. He is such a bright boy, with none of his father’s arrogance. Lily would be so proud of what you’ve done.” Lupin was smiling up at him now and Severus glared, he did not need approval or validation from the wolf; and he was frankly tired of whatever game Lupin thought he was playing.

“Why have you been so determined to ingratiate yourself to me this year?”

“Because I wish to be your friend, Severus.” Lupin answered, as if it were obvious, “Also, I find you remarkably attractive in a number of ways and would very much like to kiss you.” He squinted up at Severus, “Although judging by the look you are giving me, that may be a vain hope.”

Severus could do little more than glare in mute shock at the admission. It was not a scenario he had ever even contemplated could be behind the wolf’s bafflingly irritating actions over that last months. It was so far out of his wheelhouse that it threw every other thought in his head ajumble in an attempt to make sense of the statement.

It couldn’t be true.

But even Severus, as skilled at subterfuge and deceit as he was, could not make himself believe that Lupin had somehow undermined his potion. Not this far out from the full moon, not when he knew the wolf wasn’t employing Mind Magic against the effects.

Lupin was not lying.

But he could not be telling the truth, either.

It was... unconscionable.

“Those robes are very fetching on you, Severus. Have I already said that? I suppose it must be doubly true then.” Lupin laughed softly to himself, slumped down in the stiff wooden chair as if it were the height of comfort.

Severus’ brain was still trying to parse through this new information, looking for any falsehood, or loophole before latching onto a viable objection.

“Is this some form of misplaced gratitude? For the potion? For keeping your secret?” That had to be it, the only reasonable explanation he could see for the wolf’s infatuation.

“No, Severus, no, no.” Lupin frowned up at him, brown eyes going wide as a puppy’s begging for affection. “That’s not it at all.”

“A way to get closer to Harry, then. I expect the boy has no idea how close you were with his father, that must hurt terribly.” It was a cheap shot, vicious. But Severus felt wrong footed and confused, which tended to make him lash out in an attempt to restore some form of balance.

The puppy eyes just grew impossibly wider, the man’s bottom lip trembling as if he were about to start weeping, of all things.

“No. He doesn’t know. I haven't said anything because I’m afraid of what he might think of me. I left him with those awful muggles for all those years. I knew Petunia would never love him, that hateful bitch, but what was I supposed to do about it? They would never let a werewolf keep a child. Let alone that child.”

“Did you know how bad it was there, for him?” Severus’ voice had gone deadly calm, if Lupin had known...

“No. I still don’t, not really. But it must have been bad if he’s been remanded into your care.”

“Why? Am I so unfit a guardian that you would rather he still be languishing in a cupboard under the stairs, being fed scraps and told he’s less than dirt by the people who are supposed to be his family?” His anger was getting away from him, and Severus regretted spilling so many of the boy’s secrets as soon as the words left his mouth.

“I think you are the best possible guardian that Harry could ask for, Severus.” Lupin said, the unrelenting truth provided by the serum feeling like more of a curse than a boon by this point. Severus did not enjoy his bitterness being refuted so irrefutably. “I shudder to think what might have become of him, had you not stepped in. I’m happy he has found a home with you.”

“So it is so that you can get closer to him.”

“No.” Lupin sighed, he had regained his vague smile, though it was slightly lopsided as he peered up at Severus. “Although I will not deny that would be a nice benefit. But I understand if you wish me to stay away from him. It doesn’t change the fact that I would love the chance to have dinner with you, somewhere not surrounded by our coworkers and upwards of a thousand impressionable students.”

Severus pinched his nose so that he did not do worse to Lupin.

“Out, wolf.” He jabbed a finger at the fireplace, “I suggest you avoid all human contact for the next two hours.”

“A rain check then? I’m free most weekends, excepting full moons of course, but you already knew that.”

“Out!”

He waited for the foosh of flames before daring to drop his hand from his nose and glare around his office.

Merlin’s balls, this was not a complication Severus was willing or able to endure. What was Lupin even thinking? How could the wolf... about him?

Ridiculous.

Inconceivable.

Severus flicked an irritated hand at map watching it fold itself neatly back together to lay innocently on his desk.

As if anything those bastards had ever done was innocent.

He bit out the passphrase for blanking the parchment and made the executive decision that he was well past due for a measure of firewhiskey.

Chapter Text

Blaise was staring up at the teacher's table with narrowed eyes, but when Harry looked he didn't see anything that might require such scrutiny.

“What is it?” he asked, nudging the other boy's foot under the table.

Blaise's gaze narrowed further and he took a slow sip of warm pumpkin cider before answering.

“Something happened between Snape and Lupin.”

Harry glanced back at the table, but still couldn't see where Blaise was coming from. It was true that Snape seemed to be scowling a bit more viciously at his roasted vegetables than they perhaps warranted. And Lupin may have been sitting a little stiffly, eating quietly without his usual easygoing smile. But that could very well have meant the man was just feeling under the weather, Harry had noticed the professor seemed to be sick quite often.

“How can you tell?”

Blaise made a gesture with his fork, as if that explained anything, before finally tearing his gaze away with a quiet huff.

“I received a letter from my mother.” He said in lieu of elaborating. “She wishes you well.”

“That's... nice.”

“She also requested I return to the villa for the winter holidays.” The way he emphasized the word made it clear that is was anything but a choice.

“Oh.” Harry tried to mask his disappointment by stuffing a too large piece of treacle tart into his mouth, though he doubted it was very effective.

Blaise nudged his foot under the table, “Maybe next year you can come with me? I'm sure my mother would love to have you over again.”

Harry managed a weak smile. It hadn't been so very long ago that his only friend had been a talking snake. The prospect of spending a few weeks a bit lonely should not seem so daunting. But Millicent had been summoned home as well, and Draco had been chattering nonstop about the fancy party his parents were throwing. Neville wasn't staying either, though he had tried to talk his gran into letting him.

It seemed as if nobody wanted to be spending the hols at the castle, and Harry couldn't really blame them. Dementors did not make for good Christmas cheer. At this rate, it would just be him and Granger left. The frazzled Gryffindor had been excitedly rambling about all the work she would be able to get done with so much free time.

Harry had caught a glimpse of her schedule once, if he didn't practice Occlumency so stridently before bed each night the image might well have given him nightmares.

“How was Hogsmeade?” Not the most subtle of subject changes, but Harry would rather not dwell on the impending break.

Millicent snorted next to him, “I doubt he saw much of it with his face stuck to that Ravenclaw’s the whole afternoon.”

Blaise rolled his eyes at her, but his skin had gone a shade darker and he busied himself with finishing his cup of cider.

“Oh?” Harry couldn't help the teasing tone, “Good date then? Are you going to see him again?”

“If by see you mean snog into next week.” Millicent cut in, Draco snickered from Harry's other side.

Blaise glared at them all and stuck his nose in the air, “Aja was a perfectly adequate date, but I don't really see us becoming anything more serious.”

“Ooh, perfectly adequate.” Draco drawled, quirking a pale eyebrow. “High praise indeed.”

“You're just jealous no one has asked you down to the village.” Blaise sniffed as Draco's expression grew affronted.

Harry tuned out their bickering and concentrated on finishing his dessert. He would miss his friends over the winter break, but for now he contented himself with their presence.

~~~~~~~>

After the last Care of Magical Creatures class of the term (a bonfire crawling with brightly colored salamanders that they spent the majority of class tending to so that the flames never got too low or any of the fiery creatures escaped to wreak havoc on the snow covered grounds) Harry stayed behind to ask after the stray he had come across those weeks ago.

He hadn't seen it again, which was mildly worrisome. The weather had definitely taken a turn for the colder. With snow piling up and the days growing short and windy, it did not make for friendly conditions for any animal wandering about. Especially not one that had looked as bedraggled as that poor dog.

Millicent had hung back with him without question, poking at the fire with a long bit of scorched wood as Harry approached large gamekeeper.

“Professor Hagrid?”

“Oh, ‘ello there Harry!” The man exclaimed loudly, although Harry doubted he know how to do anything quietly. His massive arms were piled with extra logs for the fire, but he grinned down at Harry over them. “Did ya have a question about the lesson?”

“No, um. I was wondering if you’d seen a stray dog wandering about? Dark, shaggy hair, needs a few good meals and probably a bath?”

Hagrid dumped his armful of wood by the bonfire, startling a couple salamanders into scurrying deeper into the blaze. He scratched at his bushy beard for a moment before answering.

“Might have done. We get strays e’ry once in a while. I seem ta remember one hanging ‘round, but I ain’t seen ‘im in a good stretch.”

Harry slumped a little, worry niggling at him.

“Oh, maybe he left when the weather started turning?”

“Prolly, but tell you what? I’ll keep an eye out for ya, let ya know if’in I see the little guy.”

“Thanks, Professor.” Harry managed a small smile, and Hagrid clapped him soundly on the back (which nearly put him in a snow drift, but Harry managed to keep his feet).

“Aye. Yer a good lad, Harry. Kind-hearted jus’ like your parents.”

“Er, right.” He started backing away a bit, before the giant man got too worked up. “Well, I better get going, class.”

“Right, right. Off you go then.”

Harry and Millicent trudged back through the snow and up to the castle, the path made a little easier by the passage of students before them. But the hems of their robes were still soaked by the time they made it into the warmer climate of the building. Harry was extra grateful for his dragonhide boots, as they kept his feet from turning into frozen blocks.

He hoped the dog had found a good place to stay for the winter, Harry hated seeing animals suffering. But it made him feel marginally better, knowing that Hagrid would be keeping an eye out. As rough as the man was, there was little doubt he cared deeply about creatures, no matter what sort.

Millicent scowled down at their dripping robes before casting a drying charm on them that left Harry’s legs feeling slightly toasty. He doubted it was because she cared if they were dirty, but more so that neither of them ended up slipping on the stairs and breaking something.

They made it to Transfiguration with moments to spare, earning an unimpressed look from Professor McGonagall, but no loss of points. So Harry figured it had been worth having to trot up far too many moving staircases.

~~~~~~~>

Severus Snape had taken to checking over the map in his spare moments. When he woke, between classes, while marking in his office, before retiring for the night. It became a habit, and though he had yet to spot even a hint of Black, Severus was nothing if not patient. Besides, the thing gave him a distinct advantage during his shifts on corridor patrol. He had taken more points from dallying students in the past week than the entirety of November combined. The mortification and panic on the faces of the culprits was simply a bonus. Severus suspected his reputation had taken a satisfying increased turn towards the omnipotent.

Still, no amount of skulking students or scans for Black could quite distract him completely from the problem of Remus Lupin.

The man had found him in his office again, later that same night. Scarred face looking sheepish and a bit contrite.

“Hello, Severus. I was wondering if you had a moment?”

He did, but was less than willing to grant it. Scowling, he had allowed the wolf entry in any case, if only to get whatever it was over with in an expedient manner. His thoughts whirled around what Lupin had confessed under the influence of the serum and Severus was still struggling to assimilate the information into his perception of the man before him.

In any other situation, he would have dismissed the claim out of hand as a clumsy attempt to distract from the real issue of finding Black. The irrefutable nature of the statement, however, had thrown that theory to the wind before it could even begin conception.

It was highly irritating, and Severus dearly wished he could take the entire conversation back as if it had never happened.

Lupin seemed to have an unfortunately differing opinion on the matter.

“I wanted to apologize.”

Severus crossed his arms across his chest and quirked an eyebrow.

“Come to your senses, have you?”

Lupin huffed, a self-deprecating smile tugging at his mouth.

“Oh no, I fear it is far too late for that. I only meant that I am sorry for the manner in which I told you.” he rocked back on his heels, a gesture reminiscent of a man much younger than what stood before him. “I had hoped to be a bit more suave in my approach. Preferably after I had mended some of the burnt bridges between us.”

Severus scoffed, “And what made you believe I would be the least bit amicable to such a situation?”

“You can’t blame a man for hoping, Severus.”

He most certainly could. What Lupin purposed was ludicrous in the extreme. Severus would have written off the entire encounter if that blasted potion had not made such a thing impossible. He had no issue rebuffing other such offers in the past, the most recent notable example being that insufferably buoyant Jacobi. No matter that man’s skill with a cauldron, Severus would never stoop so low as to allow so much as a frivolous tumble. The smugness alone might suffocate him. And that was all it would ever have been, all it ever seemed to be for Severus. Anyone who stuck around long enough to actually come to know him never stayed long after. And he was frankly tired of trying.

He was too bitter, too caustic to handle in any sort of long term. And not nearly so attractive to make it worth the effort to try. Severus held no disillusions about himself and refused to play into those of others. He would much rather continue on as he had been than invite further complications into his life. He had enough to be getting on with as it was and no time to nurse the budding fancies of puppy-eyed werewolves.

But, an irritating voice whispered in the back of his mind, he has already seen you at your worst. He knows full well your nature and still he stands there.

Severus pushed the thought away, irritated at the betrayal of his own psyche.

“What exactly is it that you want from me, wolf? I am not a man given to flights of reckless fancy. Nor do I idly entertain the sordid offers of every random man that presents one.” As if it were so common an occurrence, a different, more acerbic voice taunted.

“No, I would not think you to.” Lupin agreed, cocking his head to the side and eyeing Severus in far too scrutinizing a manner. “I meant what I said, I wish to have dinner with you. In the hopes that it may one day lead to more. I suppose a silver lining of this afternoon's embarrassment is that you cannot outright deny that my interest is genuine.”

“Unfortunately.” Severus drawled, “I can, however, deny you.”

Lupin inclined his head, as if he had expected the rebuff and was not bothered overmuch by it.

“That is certainly your right, but I believe I'll give you time to think it over. Enjoy the rest of your evening, Severus.”

And before he could do so much as utter a properly scathing reply, Lupin had vacated his office. Leaving Severus with far too many swirling thoughts and an irritatingly persistent inability to banish the entire notion before even wasting time contemplating it.

He must be going quite mad.

~~~~~~~>

The next few weeks passed in a whirl of students frantically scrambling to finish their assigned works before the holiday and being exceedingly vigilant overseeing any practicals. Severus had been teaching long enough to know when the children’s minds began to shift focus from learning to escape from the confines of homework and lessons.

He had very little patience for such lackadaisical behavior, and took great pleasure in deducting points or assigning last minute essays for the worst offenders.

He still had no luck in scouring the map for a hint of Black, but that was little surprise. The bastard was probably ensconced up in some rank hidey-hole, planning his next move. Or perhaps he had succumbed to the elements and expired quietly, doing them all a favor. Severus doubted it, but it never hurt to wish. He was owed a Christmas miracle by this point in his wretched life, if nothing else.

Then there was the matter of Lupin.

The man had not cornered him in his office again, thank Merlin. But still, Severus could not seem to shake the wolf's presence. He persisted in sitting next to him at meal times and seemed to have an uncanny knack for knowing when Severus was taking a cup of tea in the teacher's lounge.

While Lupin was not so overt to speak of his affections whilst in earshot of others, he still insisted upon filling what should be silent air between them with idle chatter or bits of biting gossip that Severus refused to find amusing on principle. He had also found little boxes of sweets resting innocently among the letters in his inbox on no less than four separate occasions.

They had been unaddressed, but it did not take a Mastery in Divination to deduce their origins. Severus was not in the habit of receiving bribes, as his predecessor had. Nor would he tolerate such behavior in a student of his, no matter their House.

Why, then, did he not put a stop to the wolf's foolishness?

It would not do to seem encouraging, but at the same time it seemed an unnecessary effort to try and confront the man about it. When doing so would admit that the gesture affected him in any way.

It certainly was not that he enjoyed the treats...

All in all, it was not the relief it normally was when it came time to send the majority of the students homeward. Leaving the castle a much calmer place and depriving Severus of a much needed distraction.

~~~~~~~>

Harry was somewhat surprised when Snape agreed to a Patronus lesson without him having to wheedle even a little bit. It was the second day of winter break and Harry was already going a bit spare. He had spent the first day holed up in the library with Granger, an experience he did not think he would recover from for at least a week. Neville had been completely correct in his description of the Gryffindor in a studying frenzy, scarily efficient: emphasis on scary.

It would not have been so bad if the rest of the group had been there to mitigate some of the crazy, but none of the others had elected to stay over. It was nearly as bad as last year, when everyone was afraid of the Heir of Slytherin, meaning few wanted to spend their holiday under constant threat of petrification. This year, Harry suspected the dementors of playing the role of major deterrent. Which he couldn’t very well blame anyone for wanting to avoid.

Still, that did not mean that Harry need subject himself to the bushy whirlwind that was Granger in the throws of an Arithmancy binge.

Snape’s quarters were warm compared to chilly the dungeon corridors and Harry gladly hung up his cloak on a hook before removing his boots and setting them neatly against the wall. He let Jax tumble out of his bag and onto the warm hearthstones, where he coiled up like the world’s largest fuzzy caterpillar.

“Is your familiar wearing a jumper?” Snape asked dryly, an eyebrow quirked at the ridiculous sight.

“Millicent made it for him, he loves it.”

Snape snorted and made no further mention of the absurdity of clothing snakes, instead clearing the floor to make space for their lesson.

“You have been progressing well.” Snape told him, and Harry resisted the urge to preen. “Have you thought of a new memory to try?”

“Yes, I think so.” Harry gripped his wand, bringing up the first time Jax had wriggled himself into the bright green jumper and how he’d flopped around like an uncoordinated noodle. It already had the corner of his mouth twitching up, and Snape nodded approvingly.

“Very well, begin.”

“Expecto patronum.” A bulbous wisp of bright smoke emerged from the end of his wand, but nothing recognizable. He tried again. “Expecto patronum.

More smoke, and a noticeable tug of energy at his core.

“You are getting closer.” Snape murmured, “Perhaps a different memory along the same line.”

Harry thought back further, to Jax chasing frogs by the lake, to the warmth of his coiled form against his chest at night, to the way he had Draco wrapped around his scaly tail.

Each produced more and more wisps, and the shadow of something that might be a shape if he could only concentrate harder. Memories of Jax always pulled the best results, Harry had figured that out weeks ago. But it was finding the right one that was the trouble.

Frustrated, he thought back as far as he could, years and years to when he had been eight and found a mother snake in such distress. Harry did not like thinking back that far, did not like being reminded of the Dursleys or that cookie cutter house with its too small cupboards full of spiders and despair.

But maybe...

He thought of Jax, so small he could fit into Harry’s cupped palms. Without even a name yet, just tiny specks of jewel bright eyes and a burning curiosity about everything around him.

The way he had refused to follow his siblings through the break in the fence, had stayed with Harry.

The moment Harry realized he would no longer be alone.

Expecto patronum!”

Light burst forth from his wand in an unexpectedly intense flash, blinding him for a moment before Harry could blink the spots away. When he could see again, it was to find a small shape flapping around the room in erratic circles before latching itself onto the bottom of a stained glass lantern suspended from the ceiling and hanging from it upside down.

Harry gapped at his patronus, astonishment that he’d managed to finally conjure one waring with building mortification when he realized exactly what he’d conjured.

It was not a bird, as he’d initially thought, but a bat.

Harry glanced from the glowing bat to Snape and back. His face going warm as the implication set in.

“Um, I-- sorry!”

Harry was so flustered that it came as no surprise when the patronus faded from its perch as suddenly as it had appeared. Before Snape had a chance to reply to his fumbling words, Harry had scooped Jax up from the floor and ran from the room; not even pausing long enough to grab his boots or cloak. He just needed to get away, before he did anything else to embarrass himself.

“Harry--!” He didn’t stop as Snape called after him, a lump forming in his throat as he ran in his socked feet all the way to the Slytherin dorms.

He had not realized how personal it would be, how exposing. Even after Snape had thoroughly explained the Charm. He’d thought it would be a snake, if not a facsimile of Jax, then maybe his mother. Or Ximen. Basilisks were protectors, and huge. Ximen would have had no problem scaring off an entire horde of dementors.

What he’d gotten was a bat. Small enough that it could probably perch on his shoulder quite comfortably if it had a mind to.

The connection to Snape was obvious. How many of the students called him the bat of the dungeons? It would be impossible to misinterpret why his spell had chosen that particular form.

Snape had been looking after him for years at this point. Protecting Harry, caring for him. And now he knew how much that meant to him, how stupidly attached he’d become to the idea of the Potion Master always being there.

His breaths were coming fast and too sharp and Jax had wrapped his fuzzy body around his head and neck in an effort to calm him down as Harry collapsed onto his bed and tried to stop hyperventilating.

It was fine, everything would be fine. Snape had said there was no way to control the shape your patronus took. That it was all instinct and the heart. But what did it say about him, that at his center was so obvious a depth of want for something that could never really be his?

Harry knew Snape cared for him, he knew. But that was different than love, than wanting to keep someone and watch over them always.

Shh, Harry. It’s okay, I’m here. I’m here.” Jax hissed soothingly against his ear, squeezing his head in a way that should be painful but wasn’t.

He stoked at what parts of Jax he could reach and tried to steady his breathing, to clear his mind so he could think.

Maybe everything wasn’t as bad as he feared. Maybe Snape would be nice enough to never bring up his patronus again.

Maybe pumpkins would rain from the sky and Gryffindor would win the Quidditch cup.

Harry suddenly wished he hadn’t run, had played it off as no big deal. Now Snape was sure to make him talk about his feelings.

Harry shuddered, anything but that.

~~~~~~~>

Severus watched Harry bolt from the room with extraordinary speed, managing to call after him though he knew it to be futile. If the boy wanted to run, there was little that Severus could do to stop him. Especially as stunned as he was by what had just transpired.

A glance up at the empty lantern had him shaking his head, half in consternation, half pride.

He had known Harry would be able to manage the spell eventually. Although the resulting implications left him feeling oddly off balanced. The bat was him, just as his doe was Lily. As unbelievable as it may seem, Severus had somehow managed to gain enough influence over his boy to affect him in such an unexpected way.

His.

The possessive rang through Severus’ mind like a bell, bouncing off of all of his carefully constructed beliefs and denials. Shattering all of his thin attempts to convince himself otherwise of the truth of his own heart.

That he wanted Harry to be his. Not his ward, or charge, or one of the hundreds of children in his House.

As... as his son.

Collapsing onto one of the pushed aside armchairs, Severus buried his face in his hands. How had he let this happen? How?

Lily was probably laughing at him now, beyond the veil.

Potter would be turning in his grave at the very idea. So, perhaps it was not such a terrible thought after all.

He would need to speak with Harry, figure out a way to approach the situation that did not result in him running off in the dead of winter without even his boots. He would need to file papers with the Ministry, contact Madam Bones for a reference towards approval of an application. Perhaps a letter to Miss Reid would not go amiss.

The rapidity at which he had accepted the idea should have stunned him, but to Severus it merely seemed as if a dislodged part of himself was finally clicking into place. He was not about to question it, lest he sabotage himself.

First of all, he would have to ask Harry what he wanted. Severus had an idea if it, given the shining bat that had been making its home on his ceiling. But caution was ever the word when it came to Harry, and he did not wish to spook the child by bringing it up quite so soon after he had literally run away from proof of the depth of his own emotions.

It would probably be best to give the boy a day or so to cool off.

Time Severus could spend preparing how best to approach the subject to gain the optimal result and least amount of emotional scarring on both their parts.

Chapter Text

At dinner that night, Harry sat further down the table than he normally would have. The four long fixtures had once more been removed in favor of one singular placement. There was no horde of Weasleys making a merry racket this year. Aside from Granger, it was mostly a smattering of industrious O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. students braving the gloomy atmosphere, along with (to Harry's surprised delight) Luna Lovegood. The blonde was humming absentmindedly as she took delicate little bites of her dinner and Harry gladly slid into the free space across from her.

“Hello, Luna.” He greeted, a little startled at how genuine he sounded, as if he hadn't spent a sizable portion of the afternoon panicking over his own feelings. “I didn't know you were staying over.”

The girl looked up at him with her overlarge, unblinking gray eyes and smiled.

“Oh, hello Harry. Yes, daddy had to do a bit of unexpected travel for the Quibbler. Usually I'd go with him, but it sounded as if tracking down the story might take longer than he expected, so here I am.” Her lilting voice held a hint of remorse, but not anything so terrible as abandonment or bitterness at being left behind.

Harry wondered what that kind of solidity felt like. To know that even though you were being told to stay away, that it did not mean you were unwanted.

“Hello to you as well, Jax. Have you caught any red mice? I hear there might be some scurrying around the castle this time of year.” She looked at where Jax was draped over Harry's shoulder like an overprotective scarf, addressing him seriously as if he were another student staying for the holidays.

Harry felt a bare smile trying to make its way forth, Luna seemed possessed of the unique ability to make Harry feel better no matter his mood.

Jax perked up at the mention of this new and exciting form of mouse and demanded details. Harry relayed the request and ended up spending the majority of the meal facilitating their conversation. Apparently red mice had a puff on the end of their tails and may or may not also possess little wings that helped them navigate the many moving staircases and evade capture by fierce predators such as Mrs. Norris.

Harry did not mind playing go-between. It allowed him a convenient excuse to not look down the table at Snape.

~~~~~~~>

The next morning Harry spent working on the rest of his holiday assignments. He had finished a large chunk of them that first frantic day with Granger in the library, but decided to confine himself to the common room this time around. By the time for lunch rolled around, all he had left was a few feet on Grabhand the Fingerless (an ironic name if Harry had ever seen one) for Binns left. He was feeling a bit antsy from his self-inflicted isolation, and figured he could finish it another time as he and Jax headed up for some food.

It was mostly empty when they arrived, but Luna was once more at the table, nibbling on a sandwich that seemed to consist mainly of lettuce and beets.

They shared an enjoyable enough lunch, though Harry refrained from adding any roots to his own sandwich.

Afterwards, they decided on a walk around the grounds, as Harry was still feeling a bit cooped up and Luna wanted to see if she could find any whispering ziptrugs in the snow that had been steadily piling up over the last week.

“What are whispering ziptrugs?” Harry asked as he coxed a sleepy Jax into his bag so he would be protected from the cold.

“Oh, they are mostly made of wind and light, but during the winter you can catch them nesting in the snowbanks. They are great at instilling a sense of peace and harmony to troubled minds.”

Harry figured he could use some of that and followed Luna as she skipped out of the castle, deftly dodging to the side of the mistletoe hanging over the entrance.

“Watch out for nargles, Harry! They will steal your earrings, the little thieves.”

Harry eyed the mistletoe, he didn’t see anything but sidestepped in any case.

Outside was bright and cold, and Harry paused a moment to dig the green and silver striped scarf from his bag. He caught up to Luna, who was crouched by a snowbank at the side of the path.

“Find anything?”

“Hmm, no.” She didn’t sound too disappointed, and they moved off on a meandering walk over the grounds.

Snow crunched under his boots as Harry trudged after Luna, who seemed to be able to traverse the landscape with an ease and grace that reminded Harry of the elves he’d read about in that muggle fantasy book with all the rings and walking. He’d had to smuggle it into his cupboard and read at night when everyone else was asleep, but it had been worth it.

There were happy cries in the distance, as if a few of the students had started up a snowball fight, and by mutual unspoken agreement they both veered away from the sounds.

It was just as they were passing by (at a safe distance) the Whomping Willow, that Harry spotted the scraggly black shape against a sea of white snow.

The dog.

It was pacing a small circle, as if undecided about where it wanted to go. Harry stopped in his tracks, not wanting to startle it. Luna made a soft sort of cooing noise that caught the dog's attention, its shaggy head swinging their way even as it skipped to the side a few steps as if expecting an attack.

“Hey, boy.” Harry called, kneeling down in the wet snow, heedless of how it soaked into his robes, and held out a hand. “Remember me?”

The dog whimpered, sniffed, sidestepped again, before suddenly springing forward with a surprising burst of speed that had him at Harry’s side before he could so much as flinch away. But the dog didn’t go for his throat, instead it crawled up into Harry’s lap and started licking at his face. The weight of the thing, even as skinny as it was, sent them both back into the snow with a loud plop, startling a laugh out of Harry.

“Ooh, how sweet.” Luna cooed from the side as the dog continued to do its utmost to try and burrow under Harry’s cloak and cover as much of him in dirt and dark hair as possible.

Harry didn’t mind so much.

He managed to regain a seated position and move his bag (and Jax) out of the line of fire as scratched the dog behind the ear, which caused his tail to wag furiously enough to sweep away a good portion of snow from the ground.

The next few minutes were a blur of petting, scratching, and murmurs of good boy. Luna had joined him on the ground and was contentedly stroking down the dog’s side with a vaguely pleased smile on her face as if it were no surprise at all to come across overly enthusiastic hounds in the dead of winter on Hogwarts grounds.

“Hey, you hungry? I think I have something here.” He managed to shift the dog off of him enough to reach for his bag and pull out some bread rolls and a couple portions of apple strudel that he’d wrapped up in a napkin for a snack later. Jax poked his head out as well and hissed a displeased noise as the dog wolfed down the food in seconds.

Ugh, it’s that smelly beast. You’re going to need at least three showers to get rid of the stink.

Harry rolled his eyes at the snake, but the dog let out rumbling growl that was as far from friendly as one could get.

“Hey!” Harry snapped, shoving at his crumb covered snout, “None of that. Jax is my friend, no fighting.”

The dog stopped growling, looking up at Harry with betrayed doggy eyes. Harry huffed and fed him another roll.

Jax, who had assumed a threatening stance, relaxed a little; grumbling about stupid dogs before retreating back into the bag where it was warm and dry.

Luna meanwhile had also produced a variety of various treats from her multitude of pockets, which the dog happily relieved her of with more tail wagging, his sad eyes suddenly turned begging and sweet.

“Aren’t you a handsome boy?” Luna said, with more scritches and a handful of roasted nuts that the dog licked up happily.

After the food was gone, he seemed content to curl up in Harry’s lap and allow them to pet him for the next eternity. Though at one point he seemed to take offence at Harry’s scarf, biting it between his teeth and trying to tug it off without giving up his coveted position in Harry’s lap.

“Hey, hey, no, that’s not a toy.” He was able to rescue his scarf with the help of Luna, who had procured a stick from somewhere and started up a game of tug that devolved into an hour or so of fetch before the temperature started dropping too far to be entirely comfortable, even with warming charms.

“Do you have a safe place to sleep, boy?” Harry asked after the dog deposited the stick a final time at his feet. “I think it’s time for us to get going.”

The dog whimpered, ears going back and that pleading look taking over his brown eyes again. Harry's heart clenched and he had a reckless urge to take the dog with him into the castle, but he knew he’d never get away with that and then the dog might end up in a worse situation than the one he was already in.

“You know that hut, over there on the grounds?” He pointed in the general direction of Professor Hagrid’s dwelling. “The man that lives there is really nice to animals, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind you staying. He even has a hound of his own.”

Rather than reassuring him, the news seemed to make the dog more wary. It turned a tight, agitated circle, before barking once and taking off again in the direction of the forest. Harry sighed, but resigned himself to the odd nature of the beast. If he wanted to spend the winter in the forest, then so be it.

“He seemed nice.” Luna commented as they made their way back up to the castle.

Harry was about to agree when Snape came bursting out of the main entrance with his wand drawn and nearly bowled them both over.

“Harry.” The man grabbed at him, pulling Harry close against his side in a way reminiscent of that summer, when he’d first learned the news of Black’s escape. “Inside now. Both of you.”

The Potion Master’s voice was dark and unquestioning as he led them the few feet back into the castle, his dark eyes never leaving the grounds until the door was firmly closed behind them. Harry shot a nervous glance at Luna, who seemed more confused than anything. Then he caught sight of the map poking out of a pocket of Snape’s robes and a chill ran down Harry’s spine even as he took an impossibly closer step towards the man.

“Was he out there? Did you see him?” The words were shaky, and Snape answered with a sharp nod; herding the both of them away from the entrance.

“Miss Lovegood, I think it best if you return to Ravenclaw Tower, I need to speak with Mr. Potter alone.”

“Okay, Professor.” She answered easily enough, sending Harry a little wave as she skipped off, “Bye, Harry.”

He only managed a shallow nod in response, but that did not seem to bother the girl. As soon as she was out of sight, Snape was guiding him at a quick pace down to the dungeons with a firm hand splayed between his shoulder blades the entire way. Surprisingly, Snape bypassed his office entirely and led them to his private quarters instead.

“Sit.” Snape commanded, pointing to one of the armchairs, but neglecting to take one himself. The Potion Master instead standing before the fire with his arms tightly crossed and a thunderous expression on his pale face.

“Black was out there?” Harry asked again, redundantly, but feeling the need to speak all the same.

“He was. On the edge of the forest.”

“I didn’t see anyone, was he coming up to the castle?”

“No.” Snape unfurled his long arms and snatched the map from his pocket once more, dark eyes scanning what Harry could only assume to be the treeline at the edge of the parchment. “He is gone now. He had seemed to be staying put when I happened upon him a moment ago.”

Before, Harry assumed, the man ran out to fetch Harry from the threat at once. The idea warmed him, that Snape was watching over him. Although it harkened back to his embarrassment the day before and Harry did not know what to do with the sudden influx of warring emotions.

“What do you think he was doing out there?”

“Something nefarious, I have no doubt. It was fortunate that the two of you were already near the castle. I do not believe he saw you, or I doubt very much that Black would have quit the grounds so soon.”

Harry wondered just how long Black had been out there, potentially watching them. Plotting. Harry was suddenly grateful for the presence of the dog, if Black had actually seen them, perhaps the large hound’s presence had dissuaded him from acting.

“I’m not going to be allowed outside for the rest of break, am I?”

A wry smirk broke through the severity of the Potion Master’s expression and he shook his head slowly.

Harry slumped a little in his chair, but found himself not as bothered by the prospect as he might normally have been. With proof of Black’s continued presence and knowledge of his vendetta against him, Harry was not in a particular mood to risk his neck for a jaunt out into the snow.

A moment later a warm mug of steaming cider was pressed into his cold hands as Snape finally took a seat of his own. They sipped in silence for a while, until the man quirked an eyebrow at him, seeming to finally take in his appearance.

“Did you spend the afternoon rolling around in the snow?”

Harry flushed, tugging self consciously at his sudden robe sleeves.

Snape snorted and flicked his wand in Harry's general direction, causing a puff of steam to rise from his suddenly dry clothes.

“Thank you.” Harry muttered into his cider.

“Harry.” Snape spoke after a moment, voice oddly hesitant. “There is something I wish to speak with you about.”

Oh no, thought Harry, not this. Not now.

Before he could voice any dissent however, his stomach gave a loud gurgle and he realized just how long ago lunch had been.

Snape sighed, rubbing at his temple, “Perhaps another time, then. I would rather you did not waste away before my eyes.”

Harry latched onto the excuse like a drowning man at driftwood and allowed Snape to escort them both out of his chambers and up to the Great Hall.

~~~~~~~>

Severus Snape spent the next day marking third year essays, that (aside from the usual suspects) the majority of which barely scraped an Acceptable. With the odd exception of Longbottom of all students showing a remarkably improved grasp of concept, no doubt thanks to the continued intervention of Harry into the boy’s study habits. Severus shuddered to think what may have come to pass had Longbottom been left to flounder that first year. Granger's, however, could have used improvement.

Granted, it was technically perfect, for a given definition of the word. And far, far longer than the assigned length. Not necessarily a good thing given the girl’s remarkable talent for squeezing in every last bit of even moderately relevant data. Leaving behind an essay that on the surface seemed impressive, and was for a witch her age, but lacked any sort of real intuition on the subject. Anyone could follow instructions in a book, it was not a difficult thing to research any individual component or reaction. What Granger lacked was the ability to think beyond the pages of established practice and into the realms of theory and exploration.

The girl would make an adequate potioneer, could no doubt brew a perfectly acceptable cauldron of whatever was demanded of her. But Granger's inherent lack of imagination would prevent her from ever gaining a true mastery of the art. Harry, on the other hand...

The boy displayed a remarkable talent, one he most certainly did not inherit from Potter, who could barely stir a cauldron without poking out an eye. Even Lily had not been so gifted, though she was a far sight better than Potter. Good enough to have been drawn into that vile Slug Club, though Severus knew she detested the thing as much as he did. He would never understand why she kept going to it.

Harry was already better than she had been at her age. Severus might even hazard to say the child was nearly comparable to himself at thirteen. The idea of a Potter being so obviously talented in the realm he thought of as his own did not fill him with the scorn or bitterness it might have, had he not been so fully aware of just how much his own person Harry was. Instead, all Severus felt was an overwhelming sense of pride and the urge to nurture such aspects.

The name Severus Snape and the act of nurturing were so incongruous to each other that he could not help letting out a series of wry chuckles that thankfully no one was around to hear.

Still, the urge was there, and he did not feel the compulsion to smother it. He had been indulging the boy in his interest for nearly as long as he’d come to the castle and taken residence in Slytherin House. Which should have been a sign unto itself.

If only Severus were not so blind to such unexpected emotions creeping up on him.

He really needed to have that talk with Harry. Sooner rather than later, preferably. Though given the way the child had nearly bolted at the mere mention of a weighty discussion, Severus knew it would be best to give him more time before broaching the subject.

His eye strayed to where the map was unfolded over the end of the desk. He’d left the thing unlocked so that if Black thought to venture out onto the grounds again, he would see it right away. The bastard had not shown himself as of yet, however.

When Severus had checked the previous late afternoon, he'd nearly had a heart attack when he spotted the small dot labeled Sirius Black skulking at the edge of the forest (and the map itself). He had frantically scanned for Harry and felt his blood turn to ice when he found the boy was out on the grounds as well. It had been an undignified mad dash through the castle then, followed by what felt like the first breath he'd taken since he’d spotted that dot when he was able to pull his-- to pull Harry to his side, to safety.

Severus huffed a frustrated sound, glaring at the wretched map, feeling useless and hating himself for it. Although, self-hatred was at least a comfortably familiar emotion to be getting on with.

Turning back to his work, Severus forced himself to finish slashing through the last of the abysmal essay work. If only to keep his mind off of more fraught matters. The rest of the afternoon was spent brewing bases for the upcoming term, a task not nearly so stimulating as to require any ardent concentration and therefore also failing quite spectacularly in distracting him.

The map he’d set to floating next to the row of cauldrons seemed to mock him with its refusal to produce even a hint of its maker’s whereabouts. Severus flicked his gaze over the parchment to where the little mark that represented Harry sat in the library, huddled close as always to the one labeled for his familiar. He found it mildly fascinating that the serpent showed up at all, and wondered what parameters were set into the artifact to deem a being worth recording. Was it sentience? Or merely a certain level of magicality? Filch's blasted cat could be seen prowling around the upper floors, whereas Hagrid’s drooling monstrosity of a hound was nowhere to be seen.

Severus was unwillingly impressed with the obvious skill and power that had gone into making the map, evidence that once again Potter and his ilk had wanted for nothing in life. Intelligence, power, the endless capacity to connect and be with others as if it were easy as breathing.

Selfishly, privately, for a singular shameful moment, Severus was glad the man was dead in the ground if only to prove that life could not be so overwhelming tilted in one’s direction forever. Soon, Severus would have something that the man had been too weak to keep, to protect as he should have. He would be the father to Harry that the boy deserved and there was not a thing that James Potter could do about it, rotting in the ground as he was. Severus would win in this, for once in his miserable life he would have one over on Potter.

He pushed the poisonous thoughts away, waving an irritated hand at the map to banish it to a corner of the room.

No.

He would not let his bitterness and schoolyard jealousy taint what was meant to be a pure thing. Making Harry his was not about besting James Potter. It was not about proving he was a better provider or father or protector (though he would be all of those in spades). It was about caring for a lost child, about... about love. As foreign a concept as the emotion tended to be for him, Severus found himself fairly clinging to the mere idea.

He loved the boy. Thought of him as his very own. Would burn the world to ash if needed to protect him.

He would not let his own unsavoury nature get in the way of that. To ruin what could be. Severus would simply not allow it.

Finishing the bases and bottling the solutions with mindless force of habit, he cleared away his workspace and retired to his chambers for a cup of (slightly doctored) tea. The map he left wiped clean and folded in his robe pocket as he stared into the dancing flames of the fireplace.

~~~~~~~>

“Mr. Potter.”

Harry stopped mid-step as the low murmur sounded behind him. Feeling silly with one foot dangling in the air, he let his boot drop with a quiet thump against stone and turned to face the Potion Master after schooling his features into as placid a mask as he could manage.

“Yes, sir?”

Snape eyed him a moment before speaking. They were in the Great Hall, having just finished breakfast and Harry had been planning on going back to the library that day. He had found that as long as he steered well away from the frizzy tornado that was Granger, it was actually somewhat entertaining to watch her plow through a frankly ridiculous amount of parchment and tomes bigger than her head (hair included).

“I am brewing this morning, if you wished to assist me once more.”

Harry’s mask fell away instantly as an unexpected smile made itself known. He’d been expecting something far worse than that.

“Of course, Professor. Is it the same potion?”

“Indeed, it is.” The man confirmed as he led them away toward his private lab. “Have you figured out what its intended purpose is?”

“Not yet, but I’m getting closer. I can feel it.” Other than watching Granger, Harry had spent a good portion of the previous day researching into the individual ingredients as they correlated with brew times and the use of silver implements.

It had produced an interesting array of results and he had filled countless pages in his journal with notes and theories and new lines of inquiry that he had planned to follow up on today.

Assisting with brewing the actual potion far outstripped that desire, however.

Not even his lingering embarrassment or the mild suspicion that Snape might use the opportunity to force him into some sort of talk could dampen his spirits.

Much to Harry’s relief, the man did not do so. Instead, they spent the morning doing exactly as promised: brewing. Snape set him to task grinding and slicing and crushing, and with every approving nod he received Harry could feel a responding warmth building within himself. And he strived to do more to earn the praise.

He also took careful notes about each step in the process, comparing them to what he’d observed last time and marking things he thought could prove more relevant in his research. He also asked what was possibly an unrelenting amount of questions, but Snape never ordered him into silence or seemed annoyed at the persistence. In fact, he answered every one as full and completely as if he were teaching a class on the potion and not just indulging Harry with the activity.

It was nice, and Harry relished every second of it.

He hadn’t even noticed how much time had passed when a knock came at the laboratory’s door, swiftly followed by it opening to the smiling form of Professor Lupin carrying a basket covered in checkered cloth.

“Severus? I thought you might like some lunch? I brought it up from the kitchens, the elves assured me that you enjoyed roast chicken, but I can fetch something else if you prefer?”

Harry crept further into the corner, pausing in his plucking of spider lily petals. Lupin apparently hadn’t spotted him yet. Though that was hardly surprising, given the utter focus the man had trained on the Potion Master. Harry watched as Snape’s shoulders tensed for the barest of moments before he relaxed again and turned to face the other man, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“I was unaware you had been relegated to delivery boy, Lupin. Found deciphering children's chicken scratch far too arduous a task, hmm?”

Instead of taking offense, Lupin merely smiled wryly and winked at Snape.

“If I receive another seventeen foot essay in minuscule font from Miss Granger, I may very well at that.” He held up the basket again, and Harry could smell the delicious scent of lemon pepper and roasted fall vegetables even from his corner. “But no, I only wished to thank you. And perhaps convince you to share the meal with me?”

Harry felt his eyes widening as he darted a look from the smiling Lupin to a Snape who was scowling, but not in the way that meant you should run or face the consequences. Then Snape rolled his eyes in a put upon manner which had Lupin grinning wider, as if he’d won some great victory.

Were they... were they flirting?

Where was Blaise when you needed him? Harry could not comprehend what he was seeing with any sort of authority on the matter, but he knew when Snape was truly annoyed at someone and when he was just keeping up appearances. And that right there, that had not been the sort of look he sent at Mr. Jacobi whenever he tried what Lupin was apparently going for. Nor was he blatantly ordering the other man to leave.

Then the context of the words reached through Harry’s confusion and he let out a surprised noise.

“Oh, the potion’s for you, Professor.”

Lupin startled, nearly fumbling the basket and going a distinct shade of blotchy green and white when he finally caught sight of Harry. It was not the reaction he had been expecting, and an apology was on his lips before the man spoke.

“Ah, Harry, I didn’t see you there.” Lupin’s brown eyes had an off sort of glint in them, the torchlight reflecting off them in a way that made the irises seem more amber than anything as he flicked a complicated look at Snape. It was filled with panic and hurt and fear. Which did nothing to assuage Harry’s confusion. “Severus...”

“Mr. Potter has been kind enough to assist me in preparing the potion, as most of his friends have left for the holiday and he wished for something to occupy his time.” Snape said with a sharp sort of jerk of his head that somehow seemed to convey something vital to Lupin, as the hands that had gone white around the wicker of the basket relaxed minutely.

“Yes.” Harry agreed, worried the man might very well collapse if he didn’t say something. “Professor Snape has refused to tell me what it actually is, but I enjoy helping him. Potions is my favorite subject.”

He did not mention that he was actively trying to figure out the purpose of the brew, he had a feeling that Lupin would not take that news well. The haunted look faded away, though the man still seemed too pale and a bit shaky he managed to send Harry an approximation of a smile.

“That’s wonderful, Harry. Severus is remarkably talented, I am sure you will flourish under his tutelage.”

“Indeed.” Snape broke in, stepping over to where Harry had been working on the little red petals. He carefully scooped up the correct portion and sprinkled them into the bubbling silver cauldron before stirring in a figure eight pattern exactly thirteen times. “Now, this needs to simmer for forty three minutes. Which I suppose means we have time to break for a meal.” He cut a look at Lupin, “If you brought enough for three, that is.”

Color bled back into the man’s face and he smiled in a way that did not look like he was breaking up inside any longer.

“Of course, it would be an absolute delight.”

As he and Snape washed their hands and made certain that the potion was simmering as it should, Lupin spread out the food across an empty table. Along with the aforementioned roasted chicken and vegetables, there was also a steaming pitcher of spiced pumpkin cider and warm bread rolls; with what looked to be little chocolate cakes for dessert. There was more than enough for three people, which came as no surprise to Harry who had dealt with house elf ideas of correct portion size for years at that point.

“Thank you, Professor.” Harry said, feeling awkward, he tried to coax Jax out with a bit of fragrant potato as an excuse not to look at the man now that the unexpected dramatics were over, but his serpent stubbornly refused to wake from his nap.

“You are most welcome. I am more than happy for the opportunity to share a meal with you.” He said while offering Harry the small basket of golden rolls, he took one but couldn’t help narrowing his eyes a bit in suspicion.

“Why?”

Snape snorted from his spot to Harry’s left, Lupin was seated in the space between the two of them on the opposite side of the table so that they made the world’s most awkward triangle; or maybe that was just Harry's inherent bias against social gatherings.

Lupin ignored Snape and gave Harry one of his gentle smiles that should have been condescending but somehow never was.

“I knew your parents, they were wonderful people. You take after your father, especially with that hair, but you have your mother’s eyes. ”

Harry’s gaze narrowed further, and his next words were flat, “A lot of people knew my parents. I am not one of them.”

He had not meant to sound so harsh, but Harry was tired of the constant comparisons. Of being told how great and wonderful and perfect James and Lily Potter were, when he was never given the opportunity to find that out for himself. And he hated that everyone seemed to want him to be exactly like them, as if he had no real value of his own aside from what had been passed down to him by two people that died before he ever got the chance to even know them.

Lupin looked startled for half a second before it morphed into the same tired grief that Harry sometimes caught on Snape’s face when he thought Harry wasn’t looking.

“My apologies, you must be frankly exhausted of hearing that. I should have known better. I only meant that I was close with your father in school, James was one of my dearest friends and am glad to see that Severus has done so well in taking care of you in his stead.”

Harry risked a glance at Snape, who was slowly making his way through a chicken breast as he watched the two of them as if it were some interesting nature documentary on the telly. That somehow reassured Harry and he managed to eat a few bites of his own lunch.

“What was he like then?” Harry asked after a moment, if only to break the odd tension in the room.

“Oh yes, Lupin, do tell us how James Potter comported himself as a schoolboy.” Snape’s dry voice held amusement over a hint of bitterness that Harry was used to hearing whenever his father’s name was mentioned in the man’s presence.

“To his friends, he was one of the nicest, most generous souls you could ever meet.”

“And what about the people he did not consider friends?” It took no great leap of logic to see where this was leading, and it was something he had suspected for a long time. But Harry wanted to see if Lupin would admit it, or continue on with the status quo of singing the praises of the dead while ignoring any faults that might be under the surface.

To his credit, Lupin did not try and skirt the issue, “To them he was admittedly less than kind. Far less than what should have ever been allowed,” The man cut a look at Snape, who was scowling bloody murder at his serving of squash, “but he grew up. Matured, and became a much better person for it.”

Snape snorted again and stabbed at the offending vegetables with unnecessary force.

“So he apologized? To the people he hurt?”

“No,” Lupin frowned, the grief making its way back into his worn features, “he never got the chance. Though I truly believe he would have, given the time.”

Harry mused over that as he worked his way through his own mound of vegetables. After a while of nothing but the sounds of cutlery against plates and the occasional sip of cider, a thought occurred to him.

“If you knew my father, then you must have known Sirius Black as well.”

Lupin, who had been taking a drink, choked and sputtering into his goblet, sending drops of cider all over the checkered cloth he’d spread over the table. Harry could see the amused smirk Snape was sporting out of the corner of his eye, but he never looked away from Lupin as the man coughed into his sleeve.

“Ah, yes--” cough, cough, “Sirius. He, he was in the same year as us as well, Gryffindor. We shared a dorm, I knew him.”

“Were you friends with him, too?”

“Yes.” Lupin sighed, looking pained beyond the act of trying to breath spiced cider. “He was, I thought he was a dear friend. But it seems I am forever cursed with a terrible sense for a person’s character.”

“That would indeed explain quite a few things, Lupin.”

“Oh, Severus, if only that were true.” The man shot another wink at Snape, prompting a return of the scowl-that-wasn’t-really-a-scowl.

Harry shook his head and went back to eating as the two bickered at one another, deciding it really wasn’t his business to try and understand what was going on there.

The tiny chocolate cakes were filled with a dark ganache and tasted like nothing he had ever tried before, Harry ate three of them. Which he would have felt guilty about had Professor Lupin not taken five. Snape merely rolled his eyes at both of them as he contented himself with his singular treat, although Harry suspected it was more to prove some point than anything.

Lupin left them not long after, and Harry was tasked with grinding scarab carapace for the next step in the potion. He thought about everything Lupin had told him, about his father, and Sirius Black. His opinion of the professor was skewed slightly by the lunch. He still liked the man, thought he was an excellent teacher for Defense, but he couldn’t help feeling that he was hiding something. At least he had been honest with Harry about his questions, hadn’t tried to sugarcoat the bad parts of his father too deeply. Which was more than he could say for most adults that had forced the subject on Harry without so much as a by your leave.

Also, whatever was going on between him and Snape was not something he ever wanted to think about.

When it came time for a long bout of simmering, Snape dismissed him for the rest of the day. So he went up to the library as he’d planned to earlier, to incorporate all of his new knowledge into his research. Now that he knew who the potion was for (an adult male), more insight into the process, and the added realization that it was most likely being brewed at the same time each month, Harry had a good number of more leads to follow. Given Lupin’s reaction when he thought Harry knew what Snape was making, it had to be something the man was ashamed of having, or needing help to manage.

He’d seen with his own eyes how sickly Lupin got at times, so it was no stretch of the imagination to assume whatever it was had to be chronic, and debilitating enough to need constant monitoring. There could not be that many diseases in the magical world that were so persistent or incurable.

Maybe Harry was going about this in the wrong way, if he could find out what was wrong with Lupin, then it should be simple from there to find the known treatments.

With that in mind, Harry wandered over to the medicinal section of the library and began to browse for anything that might fit his criteria.

~~~~~~~>

Christmas morning dawned with the usual quietness that Harry had come to expect. Though he still found himself startled by the sheer number of presents that awaited him at the foot of his bed. He wondered briefly if he would ever get over such hang ups before shoving the thoughts to the back of his mind so they wouldn’t ruin the moment.

Jax slithered his way down among the assortment of brightly colored packages, tongue flicking out as if he could smell whatever it was they contained; for all Harry knew he could. With that thought in mind, it came as no surprise that the snake started to nose at a primly wrapped box that simply oozed Malfoy from its perfect corners to its color coordinated ribbon and bow placed precisely at the center.

Open this one, first!”

Harry rolled his eyes, but did as asked, revealing the expected huge box of Ice Mice that he had to hold over his head to keep Jax from lunging at immediately.

Aw, gimmie. It’s Christmas, Harry!” Jax wheedled, winding his way up Harry’s raised arms and straining for the treats. Laughing, he relented and brought it down to dig one of the wriggling white candies out for Jax to chase around the empty dorm.

Come here you little shit, I’m gonna swallow you whole...

Snorting, Harry shifted the fancy tissue paper left in the original present to find a medium sized, darkly lacquered box with a silver clasp. Upon opening it, Harry saw that it was in fact a jewelry box with tiered shelves lined in a dark green velvet. More rows than it seemed could actually fit into the box, and far more than Harry thought he would ever need. Although given both Draco and Blaise’s tendencies to throw sparkly trinkets at him, it would probably be more useful than expected. And laying on one of the shelves was another new cloak pin, not a snake this time, but a thorned flower twisted into a delicate knot and made of a shining silver. Harry smiled, it was a lovely piece even if he didn’t know when he’d ever have the occasion to switch between all the cloak pins he’d accumulated over the years already. He set the box aside, making a mental note to transfer all his various bits and bobs into it at some point.

Millicent had sent him another series of wizarding adventure novels, these one dealing with hidden underwater cities and sea serpents. And not one, but five new little jumpers for Jax in a variety of colors. His snake had finally caught his treat and returned to Harry just in time to see him pulling them out of the box. He immediately demanded to be put in the one that ran the entire spectrum, ending up looking like a fuzzy rainbow as he coiled happily in Harry’s lap.

There were sweets from his study group and a new tape from Justin. Neville had sent him a book on alchemy that he was itching to open up and devour. Blaise had sent him a new cloak, even though they had agreed over the summer when Harry was getting his clothes, that he didn’t need one. Apparently, Blaise had taken that to mean he didn’t need one right then, and a few months later meant it was fair game. The letter accompanying the cloak said as much and fairly dripped smugness. Harry rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help smiling either.

Mr. Jacobi had sent him an assortment of nonstandard brewing ingredients, which Harry was eager to test out. Maybe Snape would be free during the break, like last year. It almost felt like a bit of a tradition at this point.

The last thing in the pile was a long package wrapped in plain brown paper and twine, there was no note.

Harry did not like surprise packages.

Especially not where there was a crazy murderer out to get him.

He’d already handled the paper, so if anything was going to happen then it already would have. So he grabbed it carefully in one hand, Jax cradled in his other arm and started out for Snape’s chambers. Only to backtrack when he reached the common room and realized he was still in his sleep clothes and barefoot.

Not wanting to waste time, he hastily shoved his feet into his boots and continued on past the few older students huddled around the fire comparing their own hauls.

Harry trotted quickly through the corridors until he came to the stretch of bare wall that hid Snape’s quarters. He had to do a bit of shuffling to manage a knock on the requisite call stone, but he managed not to drop either Jax (who was sleeping again) or the mysterious package.

Snape appeared after a few moments, wearing his sleeping robe and with his hair still mussed from his pillow. Harry managed to hold in his grin by reminding himself why he was here.

“Yes? What has happened at...” Snape growled out, squinting behind himself, “six in the morning?”

“Sorry.” Harry demurred, gesturing with the too long package. “Just, I got this. And it didn’t have a note, I thought it might be from Black.”

Snape suddenly looked much more awake, moving to the side, “In.”

Harry hurried past, relieved to be able to hand over the package, and took a seat in his usual chair. When Snape came through, he waved an absent hand at the hearth and a fire sprang up as if it had been dancing merrily for hours. The man set the long bundle on the floor before pulling his wand from his robe sleeve and beginning a battery of tests. Harry wondered vaguely if he slept with his wand, it seemed the kind of thing Snape would do.

When none of the spells produced any adverse effects, the man flicked a final command and the paper vanished to reveal a sleek racing broom. It looked to be made of ebony wood with gold lettering across the handle that spelled out Firebolt along with what Harry could only assume was a registration number.

“A broom? Why would anyone send me a broom? I’m not even on the House team.”

“Why, indeed.” Snape murmured, beginning his battery of spells over again, with the same negative results. “Hmm.”

“Do you think it’s from Black?”

“It seems highly likely. I was good of you to bring this to me, there may be enchantments buried deep beneath the surface charms. It will take time to examine further.”

“And if you don’t find anything?” Harry couldn’t help the hint of hope that crept into his voice, it would be so nice to have broom of his own instead of having to beg rides off Millicent or Draco.

Snape huffed, as if he knew exactly what Harry was thinking.

“Then I suppose you will be in possession of one outrageously overpowered broom.”

Harry grinned.

Snape rolled his eyes and floated the Firebolt away into his study, returning a moment later with two warm cups of strong tea. He quirked an eye at Harry’s outfit as he passed his cup over.

“Should I assume your raiding of my adolescent wardrobe has become something of a habit?”

Harry sent a guilty look down at his obviously oversized shirt, it showed a faded motif of Johnny Rotten and was warn soft and gray with age.

“Erm, sorry, I...” He trailed off, not really sure what he could say.

Snape just took another sip of his own tea and waved a dismissive hand. “It’s fine, Harry.”

“Really?” He risked a glance up, Snape nodded, though Harry had the feeling the man found it more amusing than anything. Which was far and away the best response Harry could ask for.

Even if it was still a bit embarrassing to be caught at pinching clothes... again.

They drank their tea in comfortable silence for a while, until Snape flicked his wand once more and a darkly wrapped box floated its way over to Harry, who took it more on instinct than anything.

“I had planned to give it to you at a more reasonable hour, but seeing as you are here now,” Snape gave him a wry smile, “happy Christmas.”

“Oh.” Harry set his empty cup aside, “Thank you.”

Inside the carefully wrapped box was a fancy timer for brewing, where you could set chimes and reminders, it even had a dial for checking phases of the moon and major star positions for potions that were delicate about such things.

“This is amazing! Thank you.” Harry grinned as he fiddled with all the settings and features, eager to try it out. “Can we brew something? If you’re not too busy, I mean? I know you let me help just the other day, but it is Christmas...”

Snape snorted, but there was the ghost of a smile as he looked at Harry and he knew the man would give in.

“Very well, but first,” He held up one long finger, face going serious, “there is something that we need to discuss.”

Harry slumped back in his chair, fiddling with the timer with nervous hands.

“Is it about my patronus?”

“In part, I suppose.” Snape admitted, folding his hands between his knees and leaning toward Harry far enough to cause his hair to swing forward with the motion. “Although in truth, it is something I have been pondering over for a long while. I will concede, however, that it was your display that solidified my thinking and made it quite clear to me what I wished to happen next.”

Harry gulped, feeling a bit faint, did Snape want to get rid of him? Now that he realized just how hard Harry was metaphorically clinging to his robes? He would have to find a new home for the summer. Maybe Blaise would take him in, he had said his mother would not mind Harry visiting again...

Before the panic could really start to build, Snape spoke up again.

“I want to adopt you, Harry.”

“You-- What--?” He took a too large breath, completely blindsided, “You want me?”

“Yes.” Snape was using that deep tone of absolute certainty, the one that brokered no argument or ambivalence.

“You want to... to keep me?” There were tears pricking hotly at the corners of his eyes and Harry could do nothing to stop their progress.

“Very much so.” There was a hitch in the man’s voice and looking at him, Harry realized he was just as affected by the situation as Harry was, though much better at holding his emotions at bay while Harry felt as if he were about to shatter into a thousand tiny pieces any moment. “Harry... I love you and I want you to be my son.”

The words cracked as they came out, but not with insincerity, Harry could spot falsehoods like that at a hundred paces. No, Snape was baring a deep part of himself, something too real and too painful to want to do for any reason.

But here he was and here Harry was.

Tears streaming down his face, Harry launched himself across the divide between them and clung to the front of Snape’s robes. The man wrapped his arms around him without hesitation, pulling him closer into a tight embrace.

Snape wanted him. Wanted to be his father.

The tears kept coming with no reasonable end in sight, but still he held on to Harry, rocking them both back and forth.

It was barely half six in the morning and already the best Christmas of Harry’s life.

Chapter Text

Harry spent the rest of the morning before breakfast in Snape's quarters. Should he still call him Snape? Or...? No, Harry shook his head, it was too soon for that. There was still so much that could go wrong. The man could change his mind, or outside forces could interfere and ruin things. He might have even gone so far as to think the whole conversation was a dream, if Harry didn’t know with such certainty that he never dreamt. Not anymore. So, it was real, it had happened. But Harry was not about to jinx this by building unreasonable expectations just to have everything crash down around him.

So, Snape’s quarters.

Jax had woken while Harry was still clutching at the Potion Master in an awkward hunch, as the man was sitting and bowed over Harry as well. The serpent hissed a worried sound, but when Harry had relayed in slightly hiccupy sibilance what had happened, what Snape had said, Jax had swiftly climbed his way up to join in the awkward embrace. Wrapping himself around the man’s neck and shoulders and refusing to be shifted, even after Harry had finally managed to extricate himself and wipe at his reddened eyes and nose. As Jax was still wearing his new jumper, it looked as if Snape had on a living prismatic scarf. It was, Harry supposed, the most colorful thing the Potion Master had worn in... well, ever.

Harry sniffed, rubbing at his nose again with his wrist. He could feel the grin on his face still, unable to smother it and not really trying, in any case.

“Thank you.” He said as Snape leaned back in his chair once more, one hand at his neck where Jax lay, but not actively attempting to remove the serpent just yet. “I-- Jax and I... we--”

We’ve been on our own for so long. The words were there, but seemed to have become lodged in Harry’s throat. I never thought we’d be allowed to have this.

Snape nodded, though. As if he understood what wasn’t being said, as if he were feeling the same.

Jax took that moment to nudge his face up against the man’s temple affectionately.

I don’t care if you smell like dead plants and metal, I knew you cared!”

Harry snorted and Snape quirked an eyebrow, even as he gave the snake a few somewhat befuddled strokes on the head.

“He says he’s happy, too.”

“Ah. Well, that is a relief to be certain.”

Jax licked his ear at that dry comment, earning a scowl and a huff, but when the serpent settled more firmly across the man’s shoulders, Snape did not make a move to shift him.

“More tea?” He suggested, and Harry nodded, grateful for something to occupy his restless hands.

They sipped at fresh cups for a moment, Harry’s tasted faintly of peppermint this time around, in deference to the holiday he guessed. Snape made a face at his own first sip, muttering darkly about house elves but soldiering on with the cup in any case.

“So how does this work?” Harry asked when he felt as if he could speak without any more embarrassing bursts of emotions, and hopefully in complete sentences as well. “Do I need to sign something, or..?” He trailed off, so much for complete sentences.

“Officially there is a process, yes, and paperwork.” Snape replied, grimacing through another sip of festive tea. “I will need to file an intention of adoption with the ministry, where it will be looked over and either approved or denied.”

“You mean they might might not let you adopt me?” Harry’s hands tightened on his cup, causing a few drops to splash out onto his wrist.

“Unfortunately, there is a slim chance of that possibility.” Snape said, the words quiet and dark. “I was once a Death Eater, and although my name was cleared of all charges or wrongdoings, that alone may not be enough to sway things in our favor. Especially considering that you are the child in question.” He held up a finger, “However, there are things in place that will help. The fact that I have already been given temporary custody of you by the Wizengamot will work in our favor. Along with the length of time you have been in my care, there are also a number of people that may be called upon to put forth positive evidence that I am well suited to this responsibility. Not to mention my many years as Head of Slytherin House. That is a title that holds some sway in many ways. I do not believe that it will be overly difficult to gain approval, time consuming perhaps, but nothing more.”

As sure as the man sounded, Harry could not stop the doubt from creeping in on him.

“But there is still a chance?”

Snape leaned forward, meeting Harry’s worried gaze steadily.

“Listen to me, Harry. All of that is just paperwork. It has no bearing on my feelings towards this matter. Should it come to pass that the stuffed shirts up at the ministry refuse me, that will not change the fact that I wish for you to be my son. If you are amenable to it, then that is what you shall be.”

Harry let out a slow breath and nodded.

“I do. I want... that. Please.”

“Then we are in agreement, and everything else is simply formalities.”

The grin was tugging at his mouth again, and Harry let it.

They shared more tea and a couple Christmas biscuits that had popped in along with the fresh cups. Jax had fallen asleep again, still curled around Snape’s shoulders, and Harry wished he had his little pocket camera to take a picture. But, he reasoned, there would be more Christmases after this one where he would have ample opportunity for that.

Biting the head off of a jolly snowman, a thought occurred to Harry.

“If that broom was from Black, where did he get the money? When I visited the bank over the summer, the goblins said he hadn’t been to my vaults, but I got the feeling they wouldn’t turn him away at the door either.”

Snape hmm’d, nibbling at the antlers of a reindeer, “I doubt he would be so foolish as to try and draw from any of the Potter vaults. I have not received any unusual notices concerning your stipend, but I can send an owl to be certain. It is more likely, however, that Black is dipping into his own family’s vast fortunes.” He tipped his cup at Harry in salute, “You are correct in that the goblins would do very little in the way of hindering Black, they do not concern themselves overmuch with the affairs of wizards past their gold and willingness to settle it in their esteemed care.”

“That makes sense.” Harry agreed, “I hope they catch him soon.”

“As do I.”

Harry had made his way through a Father Christmas and a merrily decorated tree by the time Snape spoke again.

“There is an issue with your trust vault that I have been wondering about.”

“Oh?” Harry grimaced, he had set the man up in that oversight position as a response to the threat of Black, it was only a surprise that this talk was coming so late after the fact. “Is there a problem?”

He had an idea what it might be, but it never hurt to play innocent. Even if the look Snape was leveling on him said he saw right through the act.

“That depends on what your reasoning is, I suppose. Overall, it looks as if you have shown remarkable restraint for a child given access to so much virtually unregulated wealth. The only real issue I have seen is the moderately sized transfer taking place at regular intervals going back near two and a half years.”

He smirked at Harry, “Starting, coincidentally enough, around the time that the Hogwarts letters depart for new students.”

Snape didn’t sound angry or accusing, merely curious. Although, Harry acknowledged, he may have just been holding his true reaction back. Deciding that it would probably be best to be honest, Harry shrugged, managing a wry smile.

“I’d just learned I had all that money and I didn’t want the Dursleys to get their hands on it and take it away. So I started to feed a bit of it into a new vault that was completely under my name, just in case. I guess it just became habit to keep doing it, as a safeguard. I haven’t spent any of it, it’s still all there. Plus my wages from the apothecary.”

Instead of laughing at him, or rolling his eyes, or any number of things that would tell him just how silly Harry had been for doing such a thing; Snape just nodded seriously.

“That was a smart move.” The smirk was back, but it held pride this time, “Very Slytherin. It seems you were always destined for my House.”

“Yeah.” Harry couldn’t help a little smirk of his own, “Mr. Jacobi was always saying that too.”

Snape did snort then, at the mention of Ezra, draining the last of his tea.

“Very well, I see no reason to halt the transactions. Preparedness is not a trait I wish to stymie.”

Snape then set aside his cup and rose from his seat.

“I believe it is nearly the breakfast hour, Harry, and one can not subside on biscuits alone.”

Harry thought that there may be a few of his classmates that might argue that point, but Harry was not one of them. The unexpectedly emotional morning had left him hungry and he was more than willing to follow his stomach’s lead in this instance, setting aside his own empty cup and rising as well. Snape carefully unwound the still sleeping Jax from his neck and transferred him to Harry’s shoulders, the movement ending with him running a hand through Harry’s unruly bedhead; pulling another grin from Harry.

“I am pleased that you are amicable to my proposition.” The words were a bit stiff and formal, but there was a warmth in Snape’s black eyes that Harry had very rarely ever seen before.

Unable to form any sort of verbal response, Harry just stepped forward and attempted another, less awkward and wet, hug. Snape’s arms were firm around him and Harry hid another smile in the man’s dark sleeping robes. If this all fell apart, came crashing down around him, at least Harry would have this moment.

~~~~~~~>

Breakfast was one of the best meals Harry had ever had in his life. He did not know if it was because the house elves had outdone themselves, or if it was because he was just so unusually happy. Whatever it was, Harry found himself eating far more than he normally did and still quite unable to completely vanish his smile.

Luna glided into the seat opposite him a few minutes after Harry arrived. He’d made a sidestop at his dorm to get properly dressed for the day, but had still managed to be one of the first arrivals at the table. Which Harry supposed made sense, as what few students were still at the castle were probably sleeping in or opening presents.

“Happy Christmas, Harry.” Luna greeted, then did an odd sort of bendy move that allowed her to stick one foot up in the air above the tableline, showing off a bright yellow muggle shoe. “Thank you so much for the gift! They are so lovely.” The shoes were canvas hi-tops, and not really appropriate to be wearing mid Scottish winter, but Harry was glad she liked them all the same.

“Oh,” He warmed a little at the enthusiasm, “you’re welcome. I would have given them to you in person, but I hadn’t known you were staying over.”

“I got you a present as well.” She dropped her leg back down to the floor and rummaged in her pockets a moment before producing a small box haphazardly wrapped in a multitude of sparkling papers.

“Thank you.” He hadn’t been expecting anything in return, and the gesture seemed to just further brighten his already uncommonly good mood.

He carefully picked at the paper surrounding the box until he uncovered a new pair of earrings. They were thankfully not made of radishes, Harry did not think he could quite pull off that look. Instead they were what looked to be warm golden hoops, a bit wide but with a radius small enough to fit snugly against his earlobes, and engraved with delicate geometric patterns.

“Thank you,” Harry repeated, running a finger along one rounded edge, “they’re beautiful.”

“I carved the symbols myself.” Luna said with a smile, “They should help keep the wrackspurts away.”

“That should be very helpful then.” Harry still did not quite understand what a wrackspurt might be, or if they were simply a figment of the odd girl’s imagination, but he was willing to hedge his bets in any case and switched out his emerald teardrops for the gold hoops right then.

In a world where a person could travel across the world in seconds, he was willing to believe there were weirder things out there than wrackspurts.

He really did like the earrings in any case. Perhaps that jewelry box of Draco’s would see some use after all.

~~~~~~~>

“Ah, Severus, dear boy, it is so lovely to see you with some holiday spirit!”

Severus, who had been making his way up to the staff lounge for a quiet cup of tea, felt whatever unconscious minuscule smile that had been finding the audacity to grace his features fall into a familiar scowl at the Headmaster’s cheery words.

He had just finished spending a pleasant few hours doing the promised brewing with Harry and had been planning on allotting the rest of the afternoon to quiet seclusion, drafting the appropriate correspondence in order to get the ball rolling on the adoption process.

“Albus.” He greeted, holding back a deep sigh. “I trust the day finds you well.”

“Indeed it does, though once more I find that everyone insists upon sending me books.” The old wizard twinkled at him, “I do hold out eternal hope to one day receive a good pair of socks, instead.”

Severus nodded gravely, a reaction he had perfected for dealing with Albus Dumbledore’s more eccentric tendencies. Which more and more seemed to be the man’s only tendencies. At least, to those not well versed in looking past a well crafted surface facade. Still, Severus had always found it easier to play along with the whims of the Headmaster than to try and struggle unduly against the ridiculous.

“I am sure that day will come. If you will excuse me, I have some letters that need writing.”

“Of course, of course. But do consider keeping a better hold on that smile of yours, my boy, I do believe it becomes you. One should never go through life in eternal misery, I am well pleased to see you finally rising above such notions.”

Severus fought back a darker scowl, irritated at being told how he should feel or choose to conduct himself. He merely allowed another nod at the twinkling Headmaster.

“As you say, Albus. Do enjoy your new books.” He then turned on his heel and abandoned all ideas of tea in the lounge, heading straight down towards the comfortably dark and familiar confines of his office instead.

He had finished drafting a letter to Miss Reid and was making good headway into the correspondence he intended to send to Madam Bones when there was a soft knock on his office door.

“Enter.” Severus absently answered, scratching out a further few lines before looking up to see who was disturbing him this time.

It was Lupin, of course it was Lupin.

The man had made himself comfortable in one of the hard backed chairs and held what looked suspiciously like some sort of gift box in his lap.

“Is there something you needed, wolf? I am very busy at the moment.”

“Only to wish you a happy Christmas, Severus.” The man grinned softly, the words somehow coming across far more genuine than the offhand remarks he’d received from his other coworkers. “And to give you your present, of course.”

He held up the slim box, it was wrapped in a dark paper with a deeply green ribbon.

“I do hope you like it.”

Severus glared at the outstretched parcel, but Lupin merely continued to hold it up with that infuriatingly calm expression on his face. As if he were not acting against all previously established boundaries and expectations. Although the man had been doing just that for the entire year up to this point, and Severus suspected he did not intend to stop and return to the status quo any time soon. Surprisingly, Severus found that he would not wish that, even if it did seem any sort of possibility. He found that he much preferred complacency in the werewolf, rather than the unadulterated animosity he had expected when news of the man’s posting had been sent out. There was far too much for Severus to be dealing with without the added burden of an uncooperative werewolf. Though he was still baffled over Lupin’s reasons for the shift in dynamic.

Baffled, not intrigued. Certainly never that.

Severus took the package, if only to move things along and get back to more important matters.

Under the careful wrapping job and nestled atop a bed of whisper thin crinkled paper, sat a pair of black gloves. Not dragonhide, but still of an obviously well crafted make, and most likely very warm.

“I noticed you didn’t have a pair, or maybe you just never wear them, but it gets pretty cold up here in the winter.” Lupin smiled playfully, “I find myself rather fond of your hands, and would rather they not succumb to frostbite needlessly.”

Severus elected to ignore that last statement, pulling on the gloves. He had been in need of a new pair, the last having had an unfortunate run in with a spilled vial of undiluted bubotuber pus. They fit perfectly, the insides lined with something soft and insulating, the outsides dyed an uncompromising black. The pair must have cost a significant amount of money, and judging by Lupin’s continued warn down state, not really the type of thing the man should be spending it on. The thought left a sour taste in his mouth as he realized he was contemplating the financial well being of a man he was determined not to concern himself with.

Also, Severus did not enjoy feeling as if he owed the man something. He had not anticipated this turn of events, even as thinking back over the last few months, he really should have.

“I did not get you anything.” The words came out more accusing than he had meant them to, but Lupin simply grinned again and waved an unconcerned hand.

“That is perfectly alright, Severus.” The smile turned sly then, “Although I suppose you could make it up to me by agreeing to a dinner?”

Severus resisted the urge to pinch his nose with a newly gloved hand. It was his own fault for walking into that one. There was no question about the man’s persistence, and perhaps if Severus finally agreed then Lupin would realize his mistake and leave Severus blessedly alone thereafter. Mayhaps it was his lingering good mood from that morning, or that he had finally turned the bend into utter insanity brought on by marking far too many dunderheaded essays. But Severus found himself giving the man a singular nod in response.

“Very well. One dinner.” The stunned look on Lupin’s face was nearly an entire Christmas gift unto itself. “I shall meet you at the castle gates tomorrow at six. If you are even a second late, consider the entire affair forfeit and any subsequent advances by you will be met with complete repudiation.”

“Of course, Severus, thank you.” Lupin was grinning again, causing his eyes to crinkle at the corners in a way that Severus refused to find even remotely endearing.

“Yes, yes. Now go, wolf,” he gestured at the door with a scowl he had to put far too much effort into dragging out, “I have work that needs doing.”

Apparently not wanting to risk his chances, Lupin actually did as bade, although he paused in the doorway with another parting smile, “Happy Christmas, Severus. I look forward to tomorrow.”

Then the door was closed, most likely an effort to cut off any attempt to rescind the offer. Shaking his head slowly, Severus removed his new gloves and placed them back in their box. He must have truly gone mad. But the deed was done, one night would not make any sort of difference to him and it might have the added benefit of halting Lupin in his foolish tracks.

Pushing the matter entirely from his mind, Severus went back to crafting his letter to Madam Bones. The sooner he could finalize all of the tedious paperwork and make Harry his in truth, the better. He had not been lying when he’d told the boy that official jurisdiction over the adoption had no bearing over how he felt for him. But it would no doubt prove immensely useful should any factors come up that might try and remove Harry from his care.

Not that Severus would ever allow such a thing to happen, no he would scorch the world to ruin before he let anything like that come to pass. But he was not so ignorant as to ignore a process that would make such actions unnecessary. Severus intended to be clever in this, and leave no room for interference.

Harry was his son now. His. And Severus would protect that gift with every modicum of his being.

Chapter Text

Granger was sleeping in the library. Well, Harry amended, more like passed out with her face smushed inside a book bigger than her head (hair included). Normally Harry would leave a person to what he suspected was some much needed rest, but the girl was snoring loud enough to summon Madam Pince and Merlin knew he did not want to play witness to the Gryffindor being forced from her sanctuary. He did not believe she would survive such a fate.

And as much of a fanatical swot as Granger was, Harry had grown just a bit fond of her since she'd joined his study group and calmed down a fraction. In their last Arithmancy lesson before break, Harry had even managed to answer a question without the girl huffing and puffing as if it physically hurt not to be the one giving an unnecessarily lengthy and in depth explanation like she’d swallowed not only this year's textbook but fourth and fifth’s as well.

So Harry sidled up to the table and cautiously prodded at the girl's shoulder with a spare quill.

“Hey, Granger, wake up.”

She startled in her seat as if struck by lightning, flailing a bit and mumbling something about chocolate frogs and raisins. Harry tried to hold back an amused smirk as she rubbed at the red creases on her pale cheek and blinked blearily up at him.

“Wha--?”

“You were snoring pretty loud, there. I figured you didn't want the wrath of Pince descending on you for drooling all over...” he eyed the dense tome, “Ancient Sand Circles and How They Pertain to Modern Nineteenth Century Magical Masonry. Volume three.”

Sweet Merlin, no wonder the Gryffindor had passed out.

“Oh, um, thank you.” She muttered, flushing, though Harry caught her surreptitiously checking to see if there really were any wet spots on the book.

Harry took a seat at the table and pretended not to notice. He had a stack of medical texts that he wanted to go through and figured Granger was probably sufficiently finished with her school work if she was snoozing into dense architectural books on Boxing Day and so would probably not mind the company.

Or at the very least, Harry felt he was safe from any sort of academical feeding frenzy.

“So, what's the connection between sand circles and old buildings?”

Granger made a pinched sort of face and shook her head a bit, “There isn’t one, not really.”

Harry quirked an eyebrow (he really was getting quite better at that), “And it took them three entire volumes to figure that out?”

“Five, actually.” She looked vaguely irritated, as if unaware that she herself often turned in scrolls nearly twice the thickness of much of class. “What’s that, then? Are you interested in healing magics?”

Harry pulled the first book off his stack, a thinner volume bound in faded blue leather with Persistent Ailments of Wizarding Britain stamped upon the side in a silvery font. Apparently there really wasn't much that couldn't be cured by magic or potions or both.

“Oh, just a bit of a puzzle really. I'm trying to figure out the identity of a complex potion by narrowing down what it might be treating and working backwards.”

Granger's eyes lit up in interest, “Do you know the symptoms? Or how big a dose of potion they need? What kind of ingredients are in it? That might give a clue about what it’s for.”

Harry hesitated. He didn’t want the girl to completely take over his project. He wanted to figure this out himself. See the pride on Snape’s face when he presented his findings. Harry had a feeling that if Granger dug her fingers into his research she would plow through it with a relentless forcefulness to dig out every single secret without regard to the fact that it was his project to puzzle out.

On the other hand, there was no denying that the Gryffindor could be an asset for the more tedious aspects. The other books he’d found were much denser than the first and filled with what seemed to be every disease ever contracted by a witch or wizard and the common and uncommon treatments for each, or lack thereof. If what he was looking for wasn’t in the first book, Harry thought he might stumble across the answer to whatever it was in one of the others. For all he knew, Lupin had a simple problem that had taken a turn for the complex in an unexpected way.

Plus, Granger looked as if she might wilt into the floor if he refused to let her help.

So, he pushed the other volumes across the table and held in most of his smirk as Granger practically tossed the sand circle tome away to make room.

He told her the base symptoms, exhaustion, probable sore muscles, persistent recurrence. He didn’t tell her who it was or anything about the potion really, but Granger did not seem to mind and eagerly dived into the first book; parchment and quill ready at her elbow to take notes.

“Oh, and it may affect eye color, but I’m not completely sure on that one.”

Granger nodded absently, eyes rapidly scanning a page with a determined grin. It was almost as if the lack of information and added challenge made her want to figure out the puzzle all the more. Harry shrugged to himself, turning to his own book. At the end of the day he was sure to have at least some idea of what the potion was treating, especially if Granger across from him scribbling away at her parchment already was any indication.

~~~~~~~>

Severus Snape scowled at his reflection. His hair was still slightly damp from the shower, but he knew once it dried completely it would be free of the heavy potion residue that tended to cling and make it seem more lank and greasy than it truly was. He had forgone donning his severe teaching robes, choosing instead an outfit that he knew favored his slim build. It was something he had not had opportunity or inclination to wear for a number of years, but he well remembered the lingering glances from what few times he had felt the need to put forth effort in such things.

Upon realizing he was that he was indeed putting in that sort of effort, Severus promptly changed clothes into something far less... inviting.

Only to irritability revert back to his original choice a few minutes later. He refused to let Lupin make him second guess himself. And Severus was not about to give the other man the opportunity to claim he was owed another rendezvous on the grounds that Severus was not giving him any real chance.

No, Severus would go along with whatever fanciful notions the wolf had drummed up in his head (within inherent reason), and Lupin would then see the folly in it all and cease this entire ridiculous charade.

He scowled deeper at his reflection, irked that he was even letting the idea of the coming evening affect him. Merlin's beard, he had not been so unsure about such matters since... the scowl dropped into a frown and he turned away from the mirror. Now was not the time to be dredging up memories of the dead. Regulus had been gone longer now than Severus had known him. Another casualty in the long list of those lost to the war. And even so, they had never really had the chance to see if what they had together might work.

Severus had still been far too angry back then, ambitious and volatile. Far too slow to trust in the intentions of pretty-faced, pureblood youths much too good hearted to be mixing with the likes of a cynical, half-blooded, scrawny nobody like Severus Snape. So that in the end, between the chaos of war and his own self-sabotaging nature, they were not granted nearly as much time together as Severus would have perhaps preferred.

Until it was far too late to ever try for more.

Pushing the thoughts away before he became unacceptably maudlin, Severus finished dressing. Besides, the unsurety did not come from uncertainty about Lupin’s intentions (those were unrelentingly clear), but rather in how he himself truly felt about the situation.

Severus loathed lacking conviction in his own actions and thoughts.

It had been easy to just scoff and roll his eyes and glare at first, but Lupin had always had the ability to get under his skin and make Severus pay more attention to him than he aught. That he had even agreed to this dinner showed how much progress the wolf had made in his persistent pursuit of a relationship. A relationship with Severus.

As if that were a normal thing a person should want.

Frustrated at his own self-deprecating turn of thoughts, he pushed those aside as well. He was not an awkward adolescent nervous about a sweetheart. He was a grown man who was going to share dinner with another and that was the end of it. Lupin would realize he had mistakenly placed his affections and they would go back to being merely coworkers.

He ran a brush over now dry hair and swung a cloak over his shoulders to combat the evening winter chill before heading out to their arranged meeting place. He’d only paused a moment before also tugging on his new gloves as well, there was no point in allowing his hands to freeze after all.

Snow had built up along the path with a lack of students to keep it packed down, every step Severus took making a loud crunch as it compacted under his boots. It was the only sound as he traveled the grounds, the world muffled in the way only winter seemed able to bring about. The sun was well on its way to setting, leaving streaks of orange and blood red across the pristine whiteness.

It was still ten minutes before they were set to meet, but as Severus rounded the last bend towards the gates he could see Lupin already huddled next to the mass of wrought iron. Of course.

At the sound of his crunching footsteps Lupin looked up, a large smile breaking out on his features. It nearly made Severus’ pace falter, nobody should be that pleased to see him.

“Hello, Severus.” Lupin greeted, reigning in his expression somewhat as Severus stopped before him. “I was worried you might not come. I'm glad you're here.”

The man looked bashful of all things, and Severus had the preposterous impulse reassure him.

“I do not renege on my word, wolf.” He bit out.

He had considered it briefly, but ultimately reasoned that it would be best to just get the night over with rather than open himself up to more cajoling.

“Of that I am most grateful. Shall we?” He gestured towards the gates with one hand, the other firmly pocketed against the cold.

Severus nodded and they started through. Thankfully the dementors seemed to be patrolling further afield, as he did not feel any creeping inklings of despair (other than the usual that is).

A few paces from the gate, Lupin held out an elbow. “Allow me?”

Severus quirked an eyebrow, “We are not dining in the village?”

“Not that I’ve anything against The Three Broomsticks, mind, but I thought a more private setting might be preferred. There is a lovely Italian place just off of Diagon that should serve us well.” Lupin winked, “That Rosmerta is a terrible gossip, and I suspect you do not wish to be the center of adolescent scuttlebutt.”

“No indeed. Very well.”

He took Lupin’s elbow and they turned in sync with a soft crack, landing firmly in a dim side street and narrowly avoiding a puddle of slushy garbage. Lupin pulled him along into the street proper and Severus allowed it, if only to distance himself from the unpleasant ally. The road they were traversing held a multitude of shops, most closing up for the evening. There were twinkling fairy lights draped across lintels and trees that lined the walkway, the atmosphere one of unrelenting holiday cheer.

His hand was still being held hostage at Lupin’s elbow, forcing them to walk closer to one another than Severus would otherwise have prefered and surely giving a far more intimate impression to those few late shoppers that passed them on the street.

“I’m glad you like the gloves, Severus.” Lupin commented, as if he could sense him about to yank his arm free. The other man gave his covered hand a pat before settling his own more firmly over it, cutting off any chance at an easy extrication.

“Hmm.”

He left his hand where it was, resigning himself to the stroll down the unnecessarily whimsical street. Severus thought he even caught a hint of sting music floating along the wind, no doubt an evening concert at some nearby park. How horridly saccharine.

Thankfully it was not a long way to the restaurant. A warm wave of air enveloping them as Lupin opened the well worn wooden door of Cino’s. His arm was finally released as Lupin motioned Severus through first. Inside was softly lit, air fragrant with garlic and fresh baked bread. Although not exactly spacious, the tables and booths were spread far enough apart to give the illusion of privacy.

A smartly dressed witch greeted them with a smile, “Table for two, then? Right this way, please.”

They were led to a small circular table draped in a deeply burgundy cloth. Severus removed his cloak and laid it over the back of his chair before sitting and tugging the gloves off as well. Lupin had followed suit as the witch laid out menus and lit the squat candle at the center of the table. Severus would have scowled at the implication, if it were not so utterly correct.

“I'll be back in a few moments for your order, can I start you off with something to drink?”

“Wine, red.” If Severus was to spend the evening entertaining the wolf, he was not about to do so completely sober.

“The same for me, thanks.”

“Lovely, coming right up gents.”

Then they were alone at the small table.

Severus picked up his menu, if only for something to look at other than Lupin, who was smiling that soft smile and looking entirely too pleased to be there.

“You look very nice, Severus.” The man said, voice so indomitably genuine. “Thank you again for agreeing to accompany me.”

Severus flicked his gaze up from the multitude of tortellini options to give the wolf a once over as well. Lupin had apparently acquired clothing that did not fray at the edges, nor look faded from overuse. Severus might hazard a guess at them being new. The effect being that Lupin, for once, did not seem quite so run down.

At a loss for how to respond to the compliment, Severus merely nodded. It seemed to be enough for the wolf, who happily began to peruse his own menu.

Their wine arrived a moment later and Severus could barely taste it, as distracted as he was. He ordered some innocuous pasta, wishing the witch had not taken the menu away as she left, if only so that he had something other than Lupin’s softly smiling face to look at.

Why had he agreed to this?

“I saw the paper you published, five or six years ago. The one about thrice concentrated solutions in long term brewing, it was very interesting.”

“I was unaware you followed periodicals in the field.” Severus quirked a surprised eyebrow.

“Oh, I don’t really. It went completely over my head.” Lupin laughed quietly, “But I did a stint at the desk of a private healer’s and there were all sorts of magazines in the waiting room. It was quite the delight to come across, I remember being glad to know you were doing well for yourself.”

“And what have you been doing these past years,” Severus asked, taking another sip of wine, “other than cultivating questionable facial hair?”

The jab had come out unbidden, more habit than a true desire to insult. This was way Severus never went on dates, he was far too caustic to be anyone’s idea of a suitable social interaction.

Lupin did not take offense, however, touching fingertips to said mustache with an expression more vaguely sullen than angry.

“I thought it made me look distinguished, professors are supposed to look distinguished.”

“If by distinguished, you mean aged a decade too far, then congratulations; mission accomplished.” He took another, larger, drink of wine, if only to stop more acerbic words from pouring out. Lupin simply made it too easy.

Once more, instead of taking the insult to heart and perhaps storming away, Lupin just chuckled softly again.

“I suppose it does at that. I was just so excited when Albus contacted me about the open post that it seemed the thing to do.”

Conversation was easier after that, once Severus realized that Lupin did not expect him to hold his tongue or to act in any way different than he had been these past months. He did make something of an effort to curb his more vitriolic comments, the wine helped. Lupin had apparently been hoping from the muggle world to the wizarding and back, taking whatever sort of employment he could until he was forced to move on.

“Most of them, the magical ones at least, are nice enough about it. They never report me or literally run me off, most just don’t want to deal with the liability of a werewolf on staff.” He shrugged unconcernedly as he speared a ravioli on his fork.

“And that doesn’t bother you?” Severus, as much as he’d protested Lupin’s appointment into the Defense position could not help but admit that the man did an admirable job at it.

“It used to, at the start. But I suppose I’ve simply grown used to it. People are frightened of werewolves for good reason, I won’t hold that against them.”

Severus scowled into his wine glass, his second of the night. Indignation welling inside him for Lupin of all people.

“You are harmless, given proper precaution. That should not preclude you from gainful employment.”

Lupin gave him a slightly exasperated look over his own wine, “Severus, before I came to Hogwarts this September, I had not had Wolfsbane at my disposal for a number of years. And even when I could find a reputable supplier, they charged far more than I could reasonably justify paying every single month. So I understand people's hesitance when their employee comes in after taking an unreasonable amount of sick leave looking torn up and worn down all to hell one too many time. It’s just something I’ve learned to deal with.”

Severus huffed, “People are idiots.”

“Alright, I’ll grant you that.” Lupin nodded with a conspiratorial smile. “Though I confess, I find myself a bit surprised that you would take my side in this, given our past.”

“I do not blame you for what happened, Remus.” Severus said after draining the last of his wine, the words more truthful than he would have perhaps been otherwise, “That was entirely at the fault of Black.”

They were quiet for a while after that, finishing their meals in companionable silence. Severus even indulged in ordering dessert, chocolate semifreddo at Lupin’s insistence (it was apparently a house specialty). By the time they left, it had gone well into evening. A light snow had started to fall, the soft flakes illuminated in the streetlights as they made their way back to the secluded ally to Apparate away from London. Severus found himself once more taking Lupin’s elbow, even though he was perfectly capable of returning to Hogwarts under his own power.

He would blame it on the three glasses of wine that he kept the hand there through the walk up to the castle.

“I had a lovely time tonight, Severus.” Lupin murmured into the empty air of the courtyard, puffs of white forming at each exhale. Even in the dim light of the torches interspersed along the path, Severus could see the redness high on the man’s cheeks. Although whether it was from the cold or something else, he could not distinguish.

“It was not entirely an objectionable way to spend an evening.” Severus grudgingly admitted, feeling unduly aware of the way Lupin had a hand once more over his own at his elbow.

“High praise indeed.” The man chuckled softly, halting their progress under a sheltered archway and turning to face Severus with those blasted hopeful puppy eyes, crinkled at the corners. “Does that mean you would not turn away the offer of another night out?”

“I suppose I might be persuaded to such.” Wine. It was definitely the wine.

“Wonderful.”

Lupin was stepping closer, and Severus was far too distracted by the snow dotting over the other man’s hair to realize what was happening until a kiss was being pressed to his mouth by cold lips.

That he reciprocated after a moment, Severus would also blame on the wine and definitely not the warmth the gesture had suffused through him, urging him to pull the wolf closer.

Chapter Text

The rest of the winter holiday passed swiftly. The highlight being a visit from Miss Reid who came bearing a hefty file, her extra pointy shoes, and an indulgent smile for both Harry and Snape.

“I hear congratulations are in order for my two favorite clients.” She greeted, accepting a proffered cup of tea after setting her file on Snape’s desk with an audible thump.

Harry had smiled a bit nervously, he was trying not to think too hard about the adoption. As if that might somehow jinx it into ruin. Snape had just given her a serious nod, a determined set to his shoulders.

“By the sheer mass of that folder, I gather you were able to make some headway into the proceedings?”

“Of course, I started as soon as I received your owl. This,” she motioned at the file with one sharply manicured hand, “is mostly legal precedent I thought you might wish to look over, so as to familiarize yourself with what to expect. I also brought along the official petition forms that need to be presented to the Child Welfare Department at the Ministry. You can just owl it over to me and I'll make sure they find the right official.”

Snape had pulled the weighty folder toward himself and was leafing through its various pages. Harry sipped at his own cup of tea and tried to relax. Miss Reid sent him another soft smile, her bright white teeth were a sharp contrast to her darker skin, but it was not nearly so off putting as Lockhart’s gleaming over-the-top media grins had been. Her’s were far more genuine, at least the ones she aimed at Harry. He had no doubt she held a vast repertoire of appropriate expressions for all occasions, he well remembered the vicious shark's smile from his trial against the Dursleys. It had been reassuring to see that she had been so confident, when Harry had been on the verge of panic nearly the entire time.

“Thank you for the chocolates, Harry, they were lovely. I trust you had an enjoyable Christmas?” Miss Reid asked as Snape continued to glance over parchment.

“It was good, yeah.” He managed after wetting his throat with the last of his tea, that was about as big an understatement as he'd ever uttered. “Thank you for yours as well, I've never had raspberry chocolates before.”

She winked at him before turning back to Snape, “There are also a few testimony forms in there, I’m sure you know the best people to ask of them from for this situation. And who to avoid.”

Snape sent her an amused smirk at her acidic tone and Harry was sure she was talking about the Headmaster. Harry found himself in complete agreement, he did not want that man meddling in his life any longer.

“I have a few ideas, yes. I am sure they will remain discreet as well.”

“Perfect, the last thing we need is a bunch of nosy biddies trying to butt in where they don't belong. You'll have plenty of that to deal with once the news of this does finally leak out, there will be no avoiding that indefinitely I'm afraid. But by then it should be far too late for anything to come of it.”

Harry longed for the day he could use his fame for something worthwhile, rather than it just being a bane to his existence. He was stuck with it Harry knew, as unfair as it was, but one day he hoped to be able to utilize it instead of it looming over him like a malevolent shadow.

Miss Reid stayed for a few hours, going over things with them and sharing a light lunch before she had to return to London. By then, Harry was feeling somewhat more confident that this whole adoption thing might go more smoothly than anticipated. Or at the very least that they had very competent help for when trouble inevitably arrived.

Overall however, Harry was relieved when break ended and the rest of the student body returned. He could use the distraction of classes and his friends to keep his mind off of every little thing that could go wrong.

Ciao, Harry.” Blaise had greeted him upon his return, finding Harry in the boy’s dorm sifting through the comprehensive notes Granger had made for him. They hadn’t found anything concrete yet, but given time Harry was sure he’d be able to crack the mystery. “Thank you for the gift, it’s wonderful.”

Blaise pulled the set of panpipes from his robe pocket with one of the rare, genuinely happy smiles that Harry always felt proud for bringing forth.

“Here, listen. I suspect I spend a good deal of the rest of break figuring them out. Which was better than trailing behind my mother to another boring party, I assure you.”

Blaise made a bit of a show about straightening up his already perfect posture before shooting Harry a wink and setting the pipes to his lips.

The song that came out was simple but haunting. And Harry found himself mesmerized that such a beautiful thing could come out of such a simple looking instrument. He’d picked them up while in Italy, holding onto them until Christmas, and now he wished he’d given them to Blaise the very moment they came into his possession. If that was what he could do with half a break’s worth of practice time, Harry was eager to hear what the other boy could accomplish given even more.

Then a note stuttered and Blaise stopped playing to glare down at the pipes.

“Well, it’s not perfect yet. And I didn’t really have an instructor, so--”

“Blaise, that was wonderful. Did you write that?”

The other boy turned a shade darker but sent Harry one of his more cavalier smiles, “It’s nothing really, just something I was fiddling with, it’s not all that impressive yet. Give me a few months and I’ll show you something far better.”

Harry rolled his eyes but let Blaise deflect all he wanted. He was glad his friend liked the gift, and if it meant he got to hear more of that music from him, Harry would let him play off his obvious skill however much he wanted.

~~~~~~~>

Things quickly fell back into routine, classes and meals and study group. Harry was relieved to be allowed back outside, he had started to feel that trapped itch at the back of his neck. Before he knew it a whole month had passed and he found himself once again helping Snape with Lupin’s potion. He hadn’t been able to quite figure it out just yet, but Harry felt he was getting closer to the truth. He’d had a bit of an epiphany the other day that perhaps it was not a disease after all, but maybe lingering curse damage or something similar to that.

Though what sort of curse would leave Lupin so ashamed of getting hit by, Harry had no idea.

He had exhausted his medical leads, however, so this seemed the logical next step. There were far more books dedicated to curses and hexes than health issues though, so it was taking quite some time to sift through to anything useful. Granger had succumbed back to her insane class schedule and could no longer help him as much, but that was fine with Harry.

“Why is there both powdered moonstone at the beginning, and a whole one slipped in before it’s set to simmer for five hours?”

He had been asking little questions every now and then, to try and glean a bit of information to stitch the puzzle together with.

“Balance.” Was Snape’s curt reply as he twisted the silver stirring rod around the cauldron.

Balance for what? The potion? The recipient?

Asking for clarification never yielded results here as it did when they were brewing under normal circumstances. So Harry jotted the note down, underlining it for good measure. Maybe his next foray into the library would be aimed towards curses that turned the victims out of whack in some lingering fashion. Hopefully what he was looking for wasn't in the restricted section, he doubted Snape would write him a pass to go browsing those books with no legitimate immediate goal in mind.

Lupin did not stop by during the brewing this time around, and Harry wondered if it was because the professor was too busy or that he did not want to risk another exceedingly awkward lunch. Harry had noticed the man was sticking closer to Snape than ever before, always next to the Potion Master at meal time, sitting ever so slightly closer to speak with him over his plate of steak and potatoes. What was surprising was that Snape did not seem to mind the proximity as he once had. Sure he rolled his eyes and glared and made all manner of his usual standoffish posturing, but it was so very obviously hollow to Harry. He knew when Snape was truly annoyed (at least when Harry himself was not on the verge of panic), and what Snape was doing with Lupin was closer to indulgence than hostility.

It was leaving Harry so utterly baffled that he’d turned to Blaise for his opinion.

“Of there is definitely something going on there.” The other boy had smirked, spearing a steaming samosa from the platter between them. “Lupin is panting after Snape like one of those idiots that follow my mother around.”

“And Snape is letting him?”

“Well,” Blaise mused, cutting into the little pastry with a knife and fork as if it weren't hand food, “perhaps he’s one of the ones that manage to become a husband.”

Harry made a face, wondering if he should be worried for the man’s safety, given what tended to happen to Blaise’s stepfathers.

Millicent snorted into her goblet of pumpkin juice, amusement clear.

“Whatever he's doing, it’s making Snape a bit soft. Remember last class? Finnigan dropped that entire jar of scarab wings and only lost twenty points and two days detention? Before Lupin, that would have merited a week at least.”

Harry shrugged, he supposed if it was making Snape... happy? Or at least somewhat less murderous, well, it couldn’t really be all that bad a thing. Weird, yeah. But probably not something Harry needed to overly concern himself with.

~~~~~~~>

That week during Defense it was not Lupin giving the lecture, but Snape.

The Potion Master had come swirling into the room with a dramatic sweep of black just as everyone had started to wonder where the professor was.

“Quiet down.” Snape murmured, somewhat unnecessarily as the entire class had fallen silent the moment the man had appeared. “Professor Lupin is ill, therefore I shall be undertaking this lesson for today.”

Harry hoped the man was not too badly off, he supposed it was fortunate that whatever the potion was treating had fallen on weekends or breaks so far that year. Maybe there was another correlation in there that Harry wasn’t seeing. What if it wasn’t that the potion itself had to be brewed at a certain time, but that Lupin’s condition necessitated the timeframe. He would have to look into that once he had the chance.

What followed was an interesting and very informative lecture on hinkypunks, describing their traits and tendencies to lure unsuspecting travelers into swampy bogs.

While Snape was not as equable as Lupin tended to be, he was nonetheless obviously very knowledgeable in the subject. Harry had already known this in part, given how well he had been teaching Harry in a variety of subjects during the summers and in off hours at the castle. There had always been that rumor floating about that Snape had been coveting the Defense position for years, and Harry could definitely see how well suited the man was to the role. He wondered why Dumbledore had refused him so many times. Surely it would be easier to find a replacement Potion Master than it would be to keep scraping the bottom of the barrel for any sort of person halfway willing to step into the Defense position.

Harry got the feeling they had been lucky with Lupin this year, he was definitely by far the best he’d ever had. And from what he’d heard from older students, the same was true for them as well. But if the man followed in suit with his predecessors and left at the end of the year, what slipshod replacement would be dug up next? Snape had already been teaching at Hogwarts for over a decade, Harry doubted he was about to leave any time soon. So why not let him switch subjects?

Politics, most likely.

Dumbledore had to know that Snape was once a Death Eater. And you couldn’t have that type of person teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, not with the risk that it might turn into a class on the Dark Arts. It was a ludicrous stigma, and Harry found himself highly offended on the Potion Master’s behalf.

~~~~~~~>

That weekend, Snape had summoned him to his office to announce that they were to go to the Ministry that day to meet with the Head of Magical Child Services. It would mean missing the Gryffindor-Ravenclaw Quidditch match, but Harry could not care less about that at the moment.

“Is it... are we signing papers today?” It seemed so sudden, as if it hadn't been over a month since Snape had so inexplicably turned his entire worldview on its head.

“No.” The man frowned as if annoyed at the delay, it made something warm bubble up inside Harry. “This is just an interview, so that they may assess that the permanent placement of you into my care is what is best for you and indeed what you want.”

“Odd, how they suddenly care what is best for me after I spent a decade with the Dursleys.” The words came unbidden, bitter and acidic on the back of his tongue.

Snape’s black eyes flashed with a matching anger and they let the matter drop without further discussion. The less Harry was forced to speak about his early life, the better. At least he had had Jax.

The serpent, as if sensing his tumultuous turn of emotions, poked his head out of Harry’s satchel to lazily lick at his hand. Harry felt a soft smile tugging at his mouth and he rubbed Jax’s speckled snout as his pent up anger melted away.

“I’ll go get changed then. When are we leaving?”

“An hour’s time.”

Harry nodded, trying to tamp down the restless butterflies that had taken up residence in his anger’s absence.

Blaise was in the dorms flipping through a wizarding fashion magazine while Draco chatted Quidditch statistics in his ear. Millicent was there as well, floating a crumpled bit of parchment around the room for Maximus to chase, he doubted it was any sort of accident when it veered close enough to Draco that he got a fluffy black tail to the face more than once.

Harry went to his trunk and picked out one of his nicest robes, hoping against hope that he would be allowed to just slip out without comment.

“That’s a bit fancy for Quidditch, Potter.” Millicent said, dashing all of his hopes. “You got a hot date or something?”

Harry rolled his eyes and shook his head, when would he have even had the time to consider such a thing? What with classes and his potion project and not even being able to go down to the village. He’d leave all that to Blaise.

“I’m not going to the match.” He evaded, pulling out his oxfords and trying to make the words seem casual, as if it were not a big deal that he was dressing up and missing matches. It wasn’t even a Slytherin game, so it’s not as if he was letting his House down by not showing support or anything.

“Oh?” Blaise had dropped his magazine to the bed, looking suddenly far more interested than he had a moment ago with Draco talking his ear off about pass statistics and Snitch regulations.

“I just need to go to the Ministry with Snape, it’s not a big deal. Just a meeting. Maybe we’ll be back in time to catch the end of the match.”

“Why are you going to the Ministry with Uncle Severus?” Draco asked, well, demanded really. As if he were entitled to know every little thing having to do with his godfather.

Harry slumped, hiding his expression in his trunk as he feigned indecision over a pair of slightly different black shirts. He hadn’t wanted to say anything before it actually happened, in case it jinxed him. But at the same time he felt a burning need to tell somebody before the truth burst out of him in a far less convenient place.

“If I tell you, you have to swear not to say anything to anybody about it.” He eyed Draco over his shoulder in particular, the blonde flushed but nodded sheepishly.

“Of course, are you in trouble?” Blaise had a determined twist to his mouth, as if ready to storm the Ministry for him and Harry felt more grounded for it.

“Snape...” Harry turned around fully, settling on the floor with his back to the trunk and fiddling with his hands. “He wants to adopt me, so we have a meeting with Magical Child Services.”

The words came out easier than he expected, even if they made the butterflies in his stomach seem to multiply tenfold.

It was silent in the dorm for a solid three seconds before Millicent let out a snorting laugh, the sound only getting louder as everyone turned to stare at her.

“What? Is this supposed to be a surprise? It’s been obvious for ages that Potter’s Snape’s favorite. He’s already been living with the man for two years, of course he was going to adopt him eventually.”

Draco was gaping like a blonde fish, but Blaise was nodding along as if that made perfect sense.

“That’s wonderful, Harry.” He said with another of those soft smiles. “I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks. I think, I think I’m happy for me too.” It was such an odd concept, but the words felt right, so he wasn’t about to take them back.

Draco finally seemed to get over his shock and bounded across the room to squeeze Harry into a bony hug, “This is great! It’s like we’ll be cousins!”

“Aren’t we already cousins? Distantly, at least?” Harry managed, too startled by the sudden contact to react much more than that.

Draco didn’t seem to care about the semantics but did release him eventually so that Harry could finally go get dressed. Blaise had taken the liberty of assembling his outfit while he was distracted, but Harry figured the other boy probably knew best anyway. Giving him a satisfied nod when he returned for his shoes, even if his hair earned the usual frown. Blaise tried in vain to flatten it a bit but gave up after it became apparent that such a task would take far longer than Harry had to spare. Millicent gave him a good chuck on the arm, which was more reassuring than one would suspect.

Snape was in his office when Harry arrived a few minutes later, but he’d changed clothes into something more formal as well. He gave Harry an approving once over before leading them out towards the castle gates.

Harry was still not that big a fan of Apparition, but it was better than Portkey travel.

The Ministry of Magic was a somewhat quieter place on a Saturday morning than it had been the last time Harry was there. They met Miss Reid once more in the Atrium and made their way through the checkpoint. She was going to show them to the office but the rest of the meeting would be up to them. The elevator ride this time around was shorter and it let them out onto a suspiciously normal looking floor. A blandly carpeted hallway branching off into more corridors, all lined with doors that held shiny nameplates and office numbers. The only thing even remotely magical about it was the occasional fluttering memo zooming past and the fact that the placid landscape painting interspersed along the wall were moving.

Miss Reid led them down to a large corner office with a shiny brass plaque that read: Head of Magical Child Services, Frida Larsen.

At their knock the door came open to reveal a formidable looking older which with dark hair going gray at the temples and serious brown eyes.

“Right on time, wonderful. Thank you, Ivy, you’ve been such a help, I do hope you can stop by for tea later.”

“Of course, Frida, you know how much I love our chats.”

The familiarity did something to soothe his nerves, along with the little wink Miss Reid sent him before she bade them farewell.

Inside the office was lined with towering filing cabinets, but there was also a large window letting in a good portion of natural light. The chairs they sat in were comfortable and in the corner Harry thought he spied a trunk of toys meant for far younger children than him. The office felt much more welcoming than Harry had expected, given the witch’s somewhat stern demeanor.

“It is good to see you again, Mr. Potter, and you as well Master Snape.”

“Thank you.” Harry muttered. He only vaguely remembered her from his trial, but it couldn’t hurt to be polite.

Snape inclined his head as well and that seemed to be enough for Mrs. Larsen.

“When Ivy brought me the petition, I must confess I was somewhat surprised you were still overseeing guardianship of Mr. Potter. I had assumed a suitable family had been found to foster him into, a failing on my part that I did not follow up.”

“It was at Mr. Potter’s request that he stay with me.” Snape answered smoothly, to Harry’s relief. “I believe, given that we are sat in front of you today, that it was the correct course of action.”

She pursed her mouth slightly but nodded in acquiesce.

“That seems true enough. It is always preferable that a child be placed in a home that they are comfortable and willing to stay at. Which is why we are having this meeting today, so that I can determine for certain that that is indeed the case. Firstly, I would like to speak with you privately, Master Snape, and then with Mr. Potter.”

“Very well.”

“Mr. Potter, there is a tea room just down the hall to the left, this should not take longer than twenty minutes or so. I’ll send you a note when I’m ready for you.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Harry was not entirely keen on being separated from Snape just then, but the man gave his shoulder a firm squeeze and Harry found himself able to leave the office without too much difficulty.

The tea room was empty but well stocked, he put too much cream in his Earl Gray but drank it anyway. It wasn’t as if he could taste the stuff in any case. Jax came out for a bit of ginger newt biscuit and they chatted to fill the silence. He had to bite back a startled laugh when the snake suddenly darted out to snatch a fluttering paper plane out of the air. He spit it out onto the table with a triumphant hiss before burrowing back into the satchel, as if his job were done and now it was time for a good nap.

The note was legible, if slightly caustic from venom, he was careful to make sure it was safely thrown away in the bin.

Snape gave him a reassuring nod upon his return before departing himself with another touch to Harry’s shoulder.

“Now, Mr. Potter, I want to be very clear with you. These questions might seem a tad personal, or inappropriate, but it is for your own good that I ask them. It is my job to see to it that you are cared for in the best possible manner, so I need you to be honest with me, alright?”

Harry nodded slowly, suddenly wishing he hadn’t had that cup of tea, as it was roiling around in his stomach mutinously.

Mrs. Larsen had a piece of parchment in front of her and a file on the desk with his and Snape’s names on it. She picked up a quill and the questions started.

“Do you feel safe with Severus Snape?”

“Yes.”

“Are you cared for to decent standards? Food, shelter, clothes?”

“Yes, he’s been much better than where I was before.”

“Good. Why did you request to stay with him instead of allowing yourself to be placed with a more suitable family?” The question was asked in the same mild tone, but Harry felt his hackles rise, Snape was a perfectly suitable guardian. Harry highly doubted he’d have been able to find anything remotely as satisfactory had he let Dumbledore have his way.

Taking a breath, Harry pushed his irritation down and answered in as calm a manner as he could.

“I didn’t want to be shuffled around, I already knew Professor Snape and he had been good to me all year. It was only because of him that I was able to get away from the Dursleys in the first place. If he hadn’t insisted on looking into why I was... the way I was coming into first year, I don’t know what would have happened. So I knew he cared and he was already my guardian, so it seemed worth it to ask.”

Mrs. Larsen nodded, making a note on her parchment.

The questions went on like that, some easier to answer than others. But in the end Harry only really lost his cool at one point, when she asked if Snape had ever hit him.

No.” The word shook with anger and he was on the verge of leaving his seat and storming out, but Mrs. Larsen held up a placating hand.

“I am sorry, Mr. Potter, but I had to ask. I am very pleased to see that the two of you seem well suited to each other, and that there is an obvious mutual affection, but these questions must be asked. I will not let what happened before come to pass again, not just for you, but every child that passes through this office.”

Harry settled back and tried to relax, but couldn’t help wishing that the interview would be over sooner rather than later.

When Snape was allowed to return eventually, Harry felt the relief wash over him.

Mrs. Larsen tucked her piece of parchment into the file before addressing them.

“From what I have gathered today, it seems to me that there should be no trouble in moving to the next step in the process. Especially given the testimonies on your behalf that I received from both Madams Pomfrey and Bones. So I will be forwarding this up into the next cog of Ministry bureaucracy,” at this she gave them a wry smile, “and hopefully it will not take very long at all to get this officially done.”

She rose from her seat to shake both of their hands, but Harry was a little too dizzy to give a proper goodbye.

Snape murmured something along the correct lines however, so Harry figured that was good enough. The sooner they were out of the Ministry altogether the better. It had been a more harrowing day than Harry had expected when he’d woken that morning, but if it got them one step closer then it was worth the experience.

They had a late lunch at the Leaky Cauldron before returning to Hogwarts. Apparently Gryffindor had managed to pull out a victory over Ravenclaw. There were many grumblings of lost bets in the Slytherin common room, Draco being especially vocal.

“They already have two Weasleys on their blasted team, this is an obvious instance of nepotism!”

Blaise rolled his eyes, “She caught the Snitch out from under Chang’s nose fair and square, you’re just scared she might beat you in the next match.”

“As if, what was she flying? A cleansweep five? Not a chance.”

Harry slipped into an empty spot beside Millicent and watched the two bicker.

“It was a good match, then?”

“Yeah, they got that Weasley girl playing Seeker, she’s good too. Draco might have to actually put in some effort at practice.” She sounded as if the thought of that amused her.

All in all, it was a pretty exhausting day and Harry was glad to find his bed at the end of it.

That is, until the next morning when news that Sirius Black had managed to break into the Gryffindor dorms and nearly knifed Ron Weasley spread through the school like wildfire.

Chapter Text

“It just doesn't make any sense. Why would Black try to break into Gryffindor Tower when it’s pretty obvious that you’re in Slytherin?”

“And even if he didn’t realize that at Halloween, it’s been months since then. Black has had plenty of time for reconnaissance.”

“He’s obviously off his bloody rocker, is what. The dementors scrambled his brain in the decade he was in Azkaban.”

That last comment had been Millicent, punctuated with her usual eloquent snort. They were all huddled in an empty corridor, discussing news of the previous night. Harry hadn't said much, letting the other postulate and bicker while he thought about the implications of everything that had happened so far that year.

Blaise and Draco seemed ready enough to accept this explanation. The blonde chiming in with, “The Blacks do have a history of mental breakdowns...”

“You better keep close watch over yourself then.” Blaise smirked causing Draco to scowl, but before things could dissolve into their usual bickering Harry spoke up.

“Maybe he's not after me. Maybe he's after something else and we all just assumed I was his motive.”

“What? You think Black’s after Weasley?” Draco scoffed, Harry shook his head.

“No. But maybe whatever he is after is in the Gryffindor dorms, and Weasley just happened to wake up and get spooked while he was rummaging around.”

“Maybe...” Blaise conceded, “He did try and break in while everyone was at the feast.”

“And the lions were sure to all be dead asleep after that victory party, Merlin knows it's been a fair few seasons since they've had the opportunity for one of those.” Draco added with a snicker that Millicent joined in on.

He’s probably after that smelly rat.” Jax hissed, his little wedge of a head poking out of the corner of Harry’s bag.

Harry snorted in surprised mirth, booping the snake on the snout, “Only you and Granger’s cat seem to have a problem with Weasley’s rat, buddy.”

There was another round of snickers before everyone quieted at the sound of footsteps heading in their direction. Neville Longbottom rounded the corner, looking more worried and nervous than Harry had seen him in nearly a year. The Gryffindor stopped in his tracks with a startled noise at the sight of the group of huddled Slytherins before relaxing slightly when he realized who they were.

“Oh, um, hey guys.” The words were dull and he wasn’t really meeting any of their eyes.

“Hey, Neville.” Harry said cautiously, “You alright?”

The other boy fiddled with his fingers for a moment before just slumping completely into the perfect image of abject misery, bottom lip trembling and face splotchy as if it couldn’t decide whether it wished to be pale or flushed.

“It’s a-all my fault.” The words weren’t shouted out, more a forced exhale as if they could not be contained any longer. “R-Ron could have been killed, all because I’m too s-stupid.”

“You’re not stupid, Neville.” Harry refuted immediately, before the rest of the sentence even registered. “Sirius Black is a madman, why would you think any of that was your fault?”

“He got the password for the tower from me.” Neville’s trembling lip wobbled even more drastically, if possible. “The new portrait they have guarding the tower while the Fat Lady is repaired keeps changing it every day, sometimes two or three times. So I would write them down, but I was doing so well lately at remembering that I left the list on my bedside table. I know I left it there, this is all my fault.”

“Why didn’t you use a journal charmed against spying?” Millicent asked, she probably didn’t mean to sound so accusing, as that was just the blunt way she talked, but Neville looked even more stricken at it.

“I-I never thought of that, Merlin I’m so bloody stupid.”

“Well obviously you never would have thought of that, you practically bleed Gryffindor.” Draco butted in, his face pinched in that way he got when the blonde tried to do things outside of his wheelhouse, like comforting others or wearing casual clothes.

Neville seemed to catch his meaning anyway and that was apparently the straw that broke his wavering composer, as the boy let out a bit of a sob and threw his arms around Draco in a mess of increasingly damp emotions. Harry had seen that inevitability coming a mile away and had been subtly sidestepping to make himself less of a target. Draco had frozen in place, as if hit by a Body-Bind curse as Neville clung to him, his grey eyes wide and slightly panicked.

“I think the real question here,” Blaise commented, not quite holding back his amused smirk at Draco’s predicament, “is how Sirius Black got ahold of that list, if it was locked away in the Tower he was trying to break into in the first place. He must have an accomplice, someone with access to Gryffindor.”

“If he had an accomplice, why wait so long to break in? Why wouldn’t he just have them let him into the Tower?” Harry mused, “None of this makes any sense.”

“Maybe they were Imperioed?” Millicent suggested.

“That still leaves the question of why Black wouldn’t just have them let him in, instead of going to fetch a list of passwords.”

“The man is clearly cracked, maybe he thought that was the better option.”

They debated back and forth for a while, as Neville gradually calmed down. Draco had relented and began to pat the other boy stiffly on the back, which seemed to help somewhat, though his face was still pinched uncomfortably.

By the time it came to head to Transfiguration they had talked themselves around in circles trying to puzzle out Black’s method and motive, with little in the way of results. Neville had pulled himself together by then however, so at least there was that. The Gryffindor looked to be in much if not strictly happier then at least a more stable condition. Even managing a wobbly sort of smile as he wiped his face with a silvery handkerchief that Harry swore was embroidered with DLM in the corner.

“Don’t let the others give you a hard time, alright Neville?” Harry said as they made their way toward the more populated parts of the castle. “This wasn’t your fault, if anything it’s that portrait or Sirius Black. The man spent over a decade in Azkaban, I’m sure he would do far worse than steal a slip of parchment to get what he wants.”

As he said them, Harry realized that the words had sounded far more comforting in his head. But they seemed to galvanize Neville nonetheless, that old determination beginning to shine anew in his eyes.

“Thanks, I’ll try.” and with that, Neville strode off to Charms, silvery handkerchief still clutched in one hand but a purpose in his steps.

~~~~~~~>

A week passed with no further sightings of Black. Then two weeks, three. It was as if the man had once more vanished into the ether. Classes went on, homework was done, studying accomplished. Another Hogsmeade weekend passed where Harry sequestered himself in the library while all his friends ran off to the village. Millicent had promised to bring him back a stockpile of butterbeer and Bertie Bott’s. Blaise had been drafted into another date, this time with another Ravenclaw girl; at this rate Harry wondered how long it would take his friend to go through that entire House.

Pushing the thoughts aside, he focused on his Arithmancy instead, he’d been putting it off in favor of research into The Potion and it was coming back to bite him.

A few days later he was yawning over his Astronomy chart, labeling stars and connecting constellations while trying not to fall asleep over his telescope. It had been a somewhat busy day already, with Care of Magical Creatures involving having to exercise a number of excitable diricawl. Which was more like a frantic game of hide-and-seek while they tried not to lose their colorful (but sometimes invisible) charges than anything. Followed by a pretty exacting double Charms, and a pop quiz in Ancient Runes. Then Harry had helped Snape with Lupin’s potion in the afternoon before heading to his study group.

All which led to the perfectly reasonable amount of yawing his was doing as Harry halfheartedly filled out his star chart. Mostly he was just idly scanning the night sky, it was bright out with the full moon and Harry spent a good few minutes just looking up at it and trying to pick out little details on its vast pocked surface. It was so odd, how the moon could affect their magic given its current phase, or position. That shouldn’t really be possible, as the moon was always still there, it was only in a bit of shadow. No wonder Granger was always going on about how things shouldn’t work this way or that, when magic seemed to bend rules that ought not be bent to fit the whims of schoolchildren.

The moon was pretty though, so at least there was that.

The moon.

Something was niggling at the back of Harry’s sleepy mind, something to do with the moon, full and bright above him.

Casting a furtive glance around his fellow yawning classmates and seeing Professor Sinistra bent over Tracy Davis’ telescope and softly pointing something out, Harry dropped to his knee to dig his potions notebook out of his bag (being careful not to jostle a sleeping Jax). Flipping through his copious amount of notes and scribblings and half-formed theories, Harry checked the dates of each brewing cycle against his moon phase chart and saw them lined up perfectly.

Every single one.

A suspicion was forming, and Harry dug out his Defense text next. Opening it to the appendix and running his finger down the page until he found what he was looking for and turning to page 394. As he quickly scanned the passages that suspicion turned more solid by the second. Then Harry thought back to that very first Defense lesson, with the boggart and how Lupin’s had been a silver disk that the man had swiftly banished into the cupboard. Harry had been too peeved at being left out at the time to really take note, but if that had been a miniature moon...

“I believe that you are in Astronomy, Mr. Potter, not Defense.” A sternly chiding voice said from above him and Harry fumbled his book closed with a flush.

“Sorry, Professor.”

“Hmm. Best get back to work then, Mr. Potter, those stars won’t chart themselves.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Harry shoved his books away and went back to his telescope, but his mind was even further away from the task than it had been before.

He needed to get to the library.

The next morning, Harry dressed as quickly as possible, with little regard to wrinkles in his robes or even an attempt at combing his bird’s nest of a head. He left Slytherin while most of the House was still abed and fairly ran up to the library. It was sparsely populated at that early an hour, mostly frazzled O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. students drifting among the stacks like pale, uncaffeinated ghosts.

Harry swiftly made his way to the Dark Creatures section, pulling out the first volume on werewolves that he saw and sitting down right in the aisle to crack it open. He had read the passage in his Defense book three full times the night before, but it had said very little of treatment or the human side of the curse at all. Focusing almost entirely on the beast, how to differentiate one from an actual wolf, how savage and brutal they were. It had not sounded like placid, slightly shabby Professor Lupin at all.

Flipping through his new book, Harry saw that it was more of the same, the wording archaic and leading him to believe it was not a good option for modern interpretation at all. Pushing it back onto the shelf he scanned for a newer looking volume, spotting a slimmer one bound in red and looking to at least have been published in the last fifty years instead of five hundred. The title was encouraging as well, Man and Beast: The Duality of the Curse.

This one was far more informative, although it seemed to be more of an anonymous autobiography than anything. It told the story of a man bitten by a werewolf and his struggles to contain it and himself in the ensuing years. Many of the entries were bleak and miserable, but some rang faintly of hope or at the very least contentment at the end of things. The man had not had a long life, by wizarding standards at least, but the end had spoken of research a colleague had been doing into a cure. Harry carefully placed the book back in its place and walked the familiar path to the medical section.

The library had filled somewhat since his arrival and Harry suddenly realized he must have missed breakfast entirely, his friends would probably come looking for him soon.

Quickly scanning the shelves, Harry finally spotted a very thin black book near the top of a stack, on its side was printed in minuscule silver lettering Wolfsbane Damocles Belby. The name of the previous book’s colleague, and what Harry assumed to be The Potion. He had to get one of the stepladders to retrieve the slim volume, as he did not trust his accuracy at levitating the book down without taking the rest of the shelf with it.

Opening it to the first page, Harry saw there was a short forward.

To my dear friend,

I am sorry it took so long, and that you did not live to see it. Though I hope others will benefit where you were not able to.

Rest well,
Damocles.

Carefully turning to the next page, Harry saw the by now familiar list of ingredients and knew beyond a doubt that he was right.

Tucking the book under his arm, Harry made a swift exit. He was a little worried Madam Pince might say something about his choice in reading material, but luckily there was a bit of a commotion between two Ravenclaw fifth years fighting over the last copy of some dense looking tome and she hurried him along without a second glance.

Book safely stowed away in his bag, Harry had to jog a bit so as not to be late for History of Magic. He met up with Blaise and Millicent about halfway there, they had indeed been on their way to the library to find him. Blaise had rolled his eyes fondly at Harry’s usual excuse about working on his research, it was true after all. Millicent had passed him a stack of buttered toast with boysenberry preserves spread thickly over top.

“Thanks, Millicent.” Harry said through a mouthful of warm bread, his stomach growling agreement.

“Can’t have you wasting away, Potter.” She snorted.

Harry grinned into his toast.

He was distracted all day, luckily it was not as disastrous as it could have been, though he did accidentally turn one of Professor Flitwick’s shoes a shockingly fluorescent shade of orange with a badly aimed spell that was meant to summon water. The tiny professor had not taken points, thankfully, too distracted by how he had managed to bungle the spell so thoroughly to gain such results to think of punishing it.

At lunch, Harry couldn’t help sending furtive glances up at the teacher’s table. Lupin looked exhausted, it was a wonder the man was even upright, let alone teaching that day. Why hadn’t he had Snape cover for him again? Maybe the Potion Master was too busy with his own classes that day, or it could have been a matter of pride. Still, the bags under the man’s eyes were deep and Harry suspected he’d forgotten to shave that morning, the shadow of stubble only adding to his haggard look.

Lupin still managed to send little smiles at Snape however, as they held a hushed conversation over their plates. If Harry hadn’t been watching so carefully, he might have missed the chocolate truffle Snape slipped to the man and the resulting eye roll at the sappy look it garnered. Although, Harry strongly suspected Lupin made those faces specifically to push Snape’s buttons. He refocused on his own meal, definitely uninterested in witnessing any more of their weird courting habits. Ugh, now it was all Harry could think about...

Taking a breath, Harry cleared his mind and did a serviceable job at convincing himself that it was not an abuse of Mind Magic to use it to banish thoughts out of sheer awkwardness and secondhand embarrassment.

When classes finally let out for the day, Harry valiantly waited an entire two minutes before making his excuses to run off to Snape’s office. Only to be forced to stand in line behind two other students as they waited their turn for whatever reasons. One was a seventh year Ravenclaw, looking a little wild around the eyes and holding far too many scrolls to be any sort of good. The other was another Slytherin, scowling at her feet with an air of someone in trouble and mad about it.

When the Ravenclaw was let in Harry held in a sigh, it would probably take a while. He opened his satchel and pulled out his History text and begin reading what he’d missed in class while pouring over Wolfsbane. The scowling Slytherin was let in after a while, the Ravenclaw looking much calmer as he hauled his overabundance of scrolls back down the corridor. She left much sooner, looking less mutinous and far more abashed then when she’d gone in. Harry stowed his History text and hurried through the door, closing it firmly behind himself.

Snape was pinching his nose and looking slightly pained, but quickly dropped the hand at his entrance.

“Yes, Mr. Potter, is there something you needed?” Snape sounded tired, which was understandable, and he very nearly backed out of the office again out of sheer want to not make a fuss. But his curiosity and thirst for approval had overridden his usual endeavor to go unnoticed.

He opened his satchel again and pulled out the slim black book, holding it up so that the cover was clearly visible.

“Professor Lupin’s a werewolf, isn’t he?”

Chapter Text

Severus very carefully did not react in any overt manner to the statement that had just been uttered. Carefully folding his hands atop the desk, he gave Harry a sweeping assessment. The boy was holding up the slim volume of Wolfsbane as if to serve the dual purpose of providing both proof and to shield himself from any negative repercussion if he happened to be wrong. Or, Severus supposed, that he knew himself to be irrefutable correct and was well aware that such knowledge was a dangerous thing to be admitting cognizance of.

There was also a glint in those green eyes, a burning for approval, acknowledgement for solving the puzzle that Severus had set before him those many months before. Before, when circumstances had been different. Before Lupin had somehow slipped beneath all of his walls and inserted himself quite firmly within Severus’ good graces.

Among other things.

Which was assuredly not what he should be thinking on at the moment. Harry was starting to fidget as the silence stretched, the grip on his book going a bit white knuckled, yet the determination on his face unwavering in the least.

“Congratulations, Mr. Potter, I had every confidence you would ascertain the purpose of the potion.” Severus spoke carefully, watching the boy. Harry blinked, color rising in his features at the praise. “The question now, is what you plan to do with that knowledge.”

Harry blinked again and Severus could fairly see the gears turning behind those rectangular-framed glasses.

“I’m... I’m not sure.” He said eventually, fingers beginning an absent minded tap against the book in their possession. “I don’t want to tell anyone else, it’s not my secret to tell. Professor Lupin has been the best Defense teacher we’ve had, if this got out I don’t think he’d be able to keep the post.”

Severus tipped his head in acknowledgement, as frustrating as it was for him to have been overlooked again at the start of the year, he could not deny that Lupin was doing an admirable job at not being a completely abysmal alternative. If the wolf were to stay past the customary singular year, Severus found he would not mind the continued proximity. He refused to think further along that line at the moment, instead focusing on the shrewdly sharp look that Harry was now sending him.

“Why did you let me figure this out? I know that you and Professor Lupin are, erm, close now. But at the beginning of the year I got the impression you didn’t much like him. Which is perfectly understandable, if he was friends with my father and I know how much you two hated each other...” Severus had cocked an eyebrow, effectively cutting off the boy’s rambling before he immured them both in far too many tangled paths of emotion. “Just-- was it to be cruel? Or...”

Severus rubbed a finger over his lip, contemplating the best way to answer. How fully truthfully he should be. Severus detested indecision, admitting fault or miscalculation. It would be far worse, however, to establish a pattern of deceit for the sake of pride. Not with this boy who was to be his son, who had lived nothing but lies for far too long. Severus had had his reasons for setting Harry on the path that had led them here, some perfectly valid whilst others undeniably selfish and petty.

He sighed softly and gestured Harry into a seat, tapping his wand against his desk to summon a strong black tea for them both.

After a fortifying drink he finally answered.

“I have been forbidden by the Headmaster to directly reveal Lupin’s condition. However, given the dangerous nature of it and his undeniable connection to Black, I believed it prudent that you be aware of the potential threat.”

“That’s not all though, is it?” Green eyes watched him from behind the rim of a steaming mug, the words tentative as if he did not quite believe himself worthy of asking for clarification. It was one of the more vile of the habits ingrained into the boy’s psyche, but one that Severus had been slowly chipping away at. Inquisitiveness was not a thing Severus wished to stifle, a good Slytherin should always seek to find deeper meaning or hidden agenda.

Such habits could save your life.

“No, not all.” He took another sip of his own drink, the liquid too hot and scolding his throat as he swallowed despite it. “I will confess a certain amount of vindictiveness in the act. As I have stated previously, I am not a nice man. Nor am I prone to relinquishing hold over past grudges without reason.”

It was a character flaw that Severus was all too aware of. The acrid bitterness he carried around his person like a second cloak was difficult in the extreme to shrug off. In point of fact, before Harry had crept so unexpectedly into his life, Severus had quite forgotten what it was like to feel something other than the drudgery of his job, the persistent unfathomable guilt that had always seemed to buzz around the back of his mind, and the bone deep propinquity of long held antipathy.

Having Harry in his care these past years, finding within himself an unexpected well of paternity and very little urge to shy away from it, had soothed away layers of his rough edges without him being fully cognizant of it happening. Until, of course, Severus had been fairly hit over the head with the realities of his own subconscious wants. Leaving him far more receptive to other arguably benevolent circumstances than he would otherwise think himself vulnerable towards, such as accepting invitations to dinner from scruffy werewolves.

Or in continuing said liaison.

Severus was not customized to nice things. And it was a nice thing, as farcical as he may have considered the mere idea at the onset, there was no denying that Severus found himself somewhat attached to it now. Remus Lupin had always had the infuriating ability to get under his skin, now it just so happened that Severus was welcoming the contact rather than fighting tooth and nail against it.

He must be going quite mad.

Harry was quiet across the desk as he contemplated Severus’ words, a faint frown tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“You have reason now though, don’t you? You and Professor Lupin are...” The boy cut himself off, a hint of red creeping over his ears. Severus held back his reactionary smirk, now was not the time to tease the child, given that he himself was still a bit thrown by the very notion and how it had come about. “I just mean, you don’t think he’s a danger anymore?”

“Remus Lupin is most assuredly a highly dangerous being,” Severus countered, without the venom that the statement may have once held, “he will always be so and under no circumstances are you to think otherwise during times in which he is not himself. Wolfsbane potion or no. But you are correct in that I no longer think him a direct threat to yourself on the behalf of Black or otherwise.”

“Should I tell him that I know?”

“That is entirely up to you. Though I suspect he may wish to remain ignorant of the fact that his condition has been found out, I also believe that the man can be unreasonably stubborn on the issue of his own self-worth in conjunction to it.” Merlin preserve them when Severus was the less maudlin of the pair.

“It’s not his fault though, he shouldn’t feel ashamed of something he can’t control. Of what he happens to be.”

Severus quirked an eyebrow once more and the boy ducked his head, scowling at the obvious similarities between Lupin’s idiosyncrasies and his own latent issues. Perhaps it would be beneficial for them to speak on the matter after all, Lupin may be able to more easily squirm his way under the thorny walls that surrounded the boy’s own problems in a way that Severus had been struggling to do. Even if the thought that Severus was not enough himself to heal all of Harry’s vast hurts abraded at him like coarse sandpaper against tender skin, he would not turn away the opportunity for his son to find whatever solace he could.

They finished their tea in relative silence, and a second cup with a plate of biscuits when it became apparent that Harry was not quite ready to leave the office just yet. The boy’s familiar emerged as the scent of fresh ginger newts permitted the office. Severus pulled a stack of fifth year quizzes that needed marking closer and began working on that as Harry had a quiet, hissing conversation with the serpent, breaking bits of biscuit off to feed him.

What tension that had been in the room slowly dissipated and Severus found he did not mind the quiet company overmuch.

~~~~~~~>

It was a week later when Harry was summoned to Snape’s office. He hadn’t decided yet whether he was going to talk to Lupin about what he’d found out. Jax had taken the revelation in stride, merely commenting about how it made sense now that the man always smelled a bit of dog when there was never any sign that Lupin owned a pet.

He smells better than that mangy beast that you insist on rolling around in the dirt with.

Harry had rolled his eyes, he hadn’t seen the great shaggy dog in weeks and was somewhat worried. But if he had survived this long out there, Harry was sure he was fine. Still, maybe he could talk a few more walks around the grounds. The weather had turned from snowy to rainy, melting away all the pristine white to make way for new plant growth and the coming spring. Millicent and Draco were often seen coming back from Quidditch practice mud splattered and dripping, it was one of the few time that Harry ever saw the blonde less than fastidiously put together. It seemed Quidditch was the singular exception to that rule.

When the summons had come, Harry had waved his friends off and headed out of the common room with Jax napping across his shoulders under Harry’s robes to achieve maximum warmth and comfort in the drafty dungeons.

Snape was not alone in his office, Miss Reid was there as well, shooting Harry a bright flash of teeth as he took the last remaining seat.

“Hello Harry dear, so lovely to see you.”

“Hello.” He returned the greeting tentatively, casting a questioning look at Snape. “Is something wrong? Has there been a problem?”

“Quite the opposite,” She smiled again, clasping her viciously manicured hands before her, the nails sharp and varnished an exacting shade of deep blue. “I’ve just received word that everything has been approved and that you two can come down to the Ministry to sign the final documents at your leisure.”

A loud buzzing had started up in his head, a tingling sensation skipping over his skin and down to the tips of his fingers and toes.

It was happening? They’d been approved? He-- Harry would have a family again?

“R-really?” He shot a look between the grinning Miss Reid and Snape who had a smile of his own, small and so very rare to see and Harry know it had to be true. Snape never smiled like that.

“Indeed.” The Potion Master’s voice was deeper than usual, thick with what had to be the same tumultuous cascade of emotions that Harry himself was feeling.

He gripped the arms of his chair, needing to feel grounded so that he did not simply float away on the tide of unexpected sensation.

“When?” Single word sentences seemed to be the only thing he could manage, but Harry was proud of himself for even that much, given that his heart had decided to take up residence in his throat.

“Tomorrow,” Snape replied, still with that uptick of a smile, “if you are willing to give up a Saturday of messing about with your friends, that is.”

“Yes! I mean, erm, that’s fine, I don’t mind at all.” Harry could feel the heat on his face but couldn’t find it in himself to care.

He was going to be adopted.

He was going to have a father.

“Excellent. I shall meet both of you in London tomorrow, then.” Miss Reid clapped her hands, rising from her seat. She reaching across the desk to shake hands with Snape before offering Harry the same courtesy. Harry had responded automatically, mind still to scattered to be as polite as he should have, she didn’t seem to mind in any case. Shooting him a wink before taking her leave.

Snape escorted her to the door of his office and then came to stand next to him, a comforting looming presence as he laid a hand on Harry’s shoulder and pulled him forward into a tight embrace. Harry managed to gain his feet enough to make the hug less of an awkward mess even as he clung to the back of the man’s robes with white knuckled fists.

~~~~~~~>

Severus scowled at the bustling Ministry workers that seemed to be constantly striding back and forth around them. He and Harry were sat on a row of creaky chairs pressed up against the long wall of a corridor, awaiting their appointed time. He wished the day to be over and done with, to take his son home and be finally finished with the seemingly ceaseless bureaucracy behind establishing legally what was already true. It had been a long slog consisting of reams of paperwork and far too many invasive meetings to establish Severus’ worthiness to take care of a child. That child. His child.

As if some pencil pushing clerk should have any say in Severus’ merit.

He was thankful at least that Harry had only been subjected to the singular meeting, whilst Severus himself had been through no less than six. One of which had taken place at Spinner’s End, to see that he had a home suitable for raising a child in. It had been the most nerve wracking of them all, given the absolute shite his own adolescence in that place had been. But aside from a few frowns at the surrounding neighborhood and reassurances that the wards on his greenhouse and potion’s lab were firmly in place along with the ones masking the less mundane aspects of the row house from the local muggles, that meeting had gone much smoother than he had expected.

He’d spend a few moments, after the ministry official had left, just looking around Spinner’s End with newly opened eyes. It was no longer the dark and suffocating prison it had once been. Filled with the shadow of his own father and soaked in misery and spite. The walls had been scrubbed clean of years of neglect, the curtains drawn open to let in what little light Cokeworth got at that time of year. There were traces of Harry’s presence in nearly every room, memories that more often were good and content rather than bitter and fraught.

And while the place would never be anything other than shabby and rundown, Spinner’s End no longer felt like the self-flagellating punishment Severus had condemned himself to. It felt like a home. Or what he presumed a home was supposed to feel like, given his own lack of experience in the subject.

A hand on his knee broke through his scowling reverie. Lupin was sat next to him, a well of placid calm against the nerves that Severus refused to admit were crawling up and down his spine.

They had needed witnesses for the signatures. Poppy couldn’t very well be absent from the school for any great length of time and Minerva was unaware so far of Severus’ intent to adopt. He had not even considered Albus, the meddling old wizard was more likely to be a detriment to the process than an aid. Which was why Severus had not gone to him with one of the forms as he had Poppy and Madam Bones. He was not looking forward to when the Headmaster found out about the adoption, but by then it would be far too late for any of the man’s machinations.

Which had left Lupin.

Severus had stopped by the man’s quarters the night before with his request, the words somewhat stilted with held back emotions. The situation still seemed too fragile, a disaster waiting around the corner to tear everything he had worked for down in a heap of flames.

Lupin had smiled widely, the corners of his eyes crinkling and pulled Severus into a kiss.

“I would be honored, thank you.”

Severus had scowled against the man’s lips but Lupin had smoothed the expression away and Severus had not returned to his own quarters until far into the evening.

“Everything will be fine, Severus.” The wolf squeezed his knee softly. “This is just a formality.”

Comforted against his will, Severus gave a jerky sort of nod. He didn’t push the hand away.

Next to him, Harry was chatting quietly with that insufferable Jacobi, the boy’s choice of witness. The man had not stopped grinning since he’d met up with them in the Atrium. He had swept Harry up into a far too rough hug and ruffled the boy’s hair into even more of a mess than its usual state. Severus had sneered at the man, but Harry just smiled and so he let the matter drop. Lupin had held out a hand with his usual congenial expression.

“Hello, I’m not sure we’ve met, Remus Lupin.”

“Ezra Jacobi, you were a few years above me at school I think. Same year as sweet Severus here?” Jacobi had winked then, and Severus very dearly wished to set him on fire.

Lupin had huffed out a laugh, turning a teasing look up at him, “I don’t think sweet is the right descriptor, perhaps bittersweet like a nice dark chocolate.”

Jacobi had feigned a look of great hurt then, gaze darting dramatically between the pair of them.

“I am devastated, Severus. After all those hours working together over the same cauldron, so many late nights. Only to find my hopes dashed across the floor, however shall I go on?”

“I am sure you will find the strength.” Severus deadpanned as Harry snickered from off to the side.

Ivy Reid had appeared then, saving Severus from further dramatics. She had led them to their current position which they had been occupying for a small eternity.

“Severus Snape?” A voice sounded from an opened door, a thin older man appearing a moment later to gesture their party inside. Lupin gave his hand a gentle squeeze as they made their way forward and Severus took the comfort with little protest.

~~~~~~~>

There were not enough individual chairs in the office for everyone, but Ezra conjured a pair of seats for himself and Lupin, as Snape, Harry, and Miss Reid took the three in front of a desk scattered with paperwork.

There was a thick file settled prominently atop the space labeled with both of their names which the ministry worker flipped through momentarily before pulling out a single sheet. Harry resisted the urge to fidget, his knee jumping a few times before he forced himself to settle down. He briefly considered Occluding, but he didn’t want to mute this. It was too important to be dulled down, even if his nerves were wreaking havoc on his insides.

“I am Herbert Wright, it is a pleasure to meet you both and to be able to facilitate this happy occasion.” The words, while nice enough, seemed to have been spoken by route. As if this man didn’t know how much they had gone through to get to this point, as if he were so used to creating families by this point in his career that it had lost its novelty.

Harry did not know if that was better or worse than if he had been more overtly enthusiastic.

“Now, before we can sign everything and make this official, there is just one last detail that needs establishing.”

Harry slumped in his chair a bit, of course there was something, there was always something.

“I was under the impression that I had completed everything to the Ministry’s satisfaction.” Snape murmured in his dangerous sort of voice that foretold massive point losses and a number of detentions to be handed out.

“Yes, yes. It’s all been covered, no need to worry about that.” Mr. Wright flapped a hand, seemingly immune to Snape’s tone. Harry wondered if it were possible to learn such a power. “It’s simply the matter of the name. Does Mr. Potter here wish to change his name or not?”

Harry startled slightly in his chair, his eyes widening. He’d never even thought about that aspect of the adoption. Did he want to be Harry Potter? Had he ever wanted to be Harry Potter? How often had he told strangers that his name was Evan, just to avoid the implications? And now here was a means to change that, to become somebody else in truth. No, that was the wrong way to think about it. He would always be Harry Potter, no matter what a slip of paper in a ministry filing cabinet said. There was no escaping that. But, he could be more than just Harry Potter. And, looking over at Snape and the way his own black eyes had widened slightly, Harry realized that he did want that. Not because it would let him escape the burden of his birth name, his unwanted legacy. But because he wanted to be Snape’s son, he wanted hold irrefutable claim to that title. To be family. To belong.

“Harry--” The man started to say something, but Harry cut him off, something he had very rarely dared to do in all the years he’d know him.

“Yes. Yes, I want that.”

Harry.” Snape said again, this time the word halfway between disbelief and caution, as if Snape wanted it just as much as he did but was unwilling to allowing himself the possibility.

“Please.” He looked up into the man’s black eyes, pleading.

“If... If you are completely certain.”

“I am.”

“Very well.” Snape gave Mr. Wright a decisive nod and the man made a note on the paper before turning it towards them.

“Then all there is left to do is sign here, here, and here.” He pointed at the blank spaces and Harry hesitated with the quill poised over the parchment.

“Am I meant to use my old name or?”

“For this form, yes, anything afterwards you may use your new one.”

Harry signed on the indicated spaces, the letters only slightly shaky from nerves. Snape followed suit, his familiar spiky handwriting firmly pressed into the parchment next to Harry’s own. Then Lupin’s more rounded signature joined next to Ezra’s untidy scrawl in the witness spaces. Until suddenly it became quite clear to him that Harry was now no longer alone, adrift in the world with nothing but his snake and the friendships he’d managed to cultivate. This was different, his little family of Jax and himself against the world had been expanded in so concrete a manner that Harry could hardly breathe for the sheer weight of it all.

“Congratulations Master Snape, I wish you and your son many happy years.” Mr. Wright took the innocent looking paper that held so much power over him now and tapped it with his wand, duplicating it and handing the extra to Miss Reid.

Harry was too caught up on being referred to as Snape’s son to notice that they were being shuffled out of the office and into the brightly lit corridor. There was a hand on his shoulder, steering him away from the more crowded hallways to a secluded tea room. It was Snape’s arm, his father’s, and Harry had a hard time containing his grin.

“Are you alright, Harry?” He asked as the others made themselves busy making tea and pretending not to listen in.

“Yes. I-- yes.” He hugged Snape, as it seemed the thing to do at the moment, grinning harder when the man pulled him close in turn and murmured into the top of his hair, too quiet for the other to hear.

“I love you, my son.”

It was all too much and Harry burst into a frankly unnecessary bought of tears which everyone was kind enough not to mention.

After a calming cup of tea Ezra suggested they all go to Puri’s for lunch, and Harry thought that if a dementor were to glide into the room right then he might have summoned an entire swarm of bats.

Chapter Text

On their return to Hogwarts, Harry trailed behind Snape in a bit of a haze. He was still trying to acclimatize to the idea that it had actually happened, that he’d been adopted. Wanted, brought into a familial contract for the express purpose of being loved and embraced. The entire concept just seemed too foreign. He hadn't let himself really believe it would ever truly come to pass. Only it had, and now Harry had to take time to reconcile with his new reality. So he was a bit hazy as he walked behind Snape and Lupin through the grounds and up to the castle.

The professors were striding close enough together for their shoulders to brush occasionally and to provide a convenient barrier between Harry and the rest if the castle’s populace as he was lost in thought.

They paused outside of what had to be Lupin’s quarters (a regular enough looking wooden door that did not feel the need to pretend at being a wall, like Snape’s) and the man turned one of his soft smiles on Harry.

“Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this, Harry.” Lupin said, a warmth in his brown eyes that spoke strongly of sincerity. “I know you will be a happy family together.”

“Er, thanks, Professor.” Harry mumbled at his shoes, there was a warmth bubbling in his stomach and he didn’t know if he wanted to smile or vomit all over the flagstones.

Lupin seemed to sense his dilemma, as he did not try to interact with Harry further and instead turned his attentions on Snape. Touching the Potion Master’s elbow with one hand and casting a sly look around the empty corridor before leaning up to place a swift kiss against the man’s cheek. Snape scowled but didn’t push Lupin away, though if he returned the affection Harry had no idea because he was too busy flushing and looking anywhere else at the moment.

“I’ll see you at dinner then? I’m sure you two would like to spend some time together.”

Then it was just him and Snape as they continued down to the dungeons.

When they reached the blank bit of wall that hid the entrance to Snape’s quarters, instead of leading them directly inside, the man had Harry place his hand over the callstone as Snape tapped it with his wand, the surface grew warm under Harry’s palm.

“You may now enter of your own volition, though I would prefer that you not bring others inside without first informing me of such.”

“Oh.” Harry blinked, following the Potion Master inside at last, he hadn’t expected to be granted such free reign into the man’s personal space. “Thank you, um... sir.”

The words felt awkward and clumsy and Harry was adrift in the uncertainty of this new dynamic.

What was he even meant to call Snape? Father? Dad? Severus? It felt odd referring to the man as Snape when Harry himself was now a Snape. And that thought itself threatened to overwhelm him as well. He didn’t feel like a new person, but he didn’t feel like Harry Potter anymore either. Everything was just so confusing.

Thankfully, Snape seemed to pick up on his distress as there where suddenly hands firmly gripping his shoulders, the contact grounding him.

“Harry, son, you are welcome here whenever you need it. I would not add you to the permissions if I did not completely approve of the decision.”

Harry nodded, taking a few even breaths. Snape’s black eyes were scanning him in that familiar way that always made Harry feel as if he were being x-rayed.

“I just, it’s all so much.” Harry managed to force out, unconsciously leaning into the touch. “What-- what should I call you?”

It was better to ask, right? Than to let the anxiety of the situation overtake him completely. The thought might have never crossed his mind even a year ago, when he was stuffing every little thing down and still suffering under the latent impulse to not ask questions.

The hands on his shoulders gave a firm squeeze and Snape seemed momentarily stumped by the query as well. They were both so out of their depth that it made Harry actually feel better about the whole thing. At least he wasn’t the only one having difficulties here.

“In more informal settings I would not be opposed to a paternal moniker.” Snape answered somewhat stiffly after a moment, “Though I suppose if it is easier, Severus will do as well.”

“Um, okay.” Harry fidgeted with this fingers, he could not bring himself to try any of it right then. The idea of calling his teacher by their first name was so odd a concept, but then again the Potion Master was not just his professor anymore. Hadn’t been for a long while.

And besides, it wasn’t as if he was the only one allowed such liberties. Draco still slipped up sometimes and called him Uncle Severus when sleep deprived or distracted, for which the blonde was teased good-naturedly by his friends.

They had settled in the sitting room with tea and biscuits by the time Harry could bring himself to speak up again. Jax was coiled in his lap and taking sneaky tastes from his cup and Harry stroked down his warm scaly sides absently.

“Should I tell people about this?”

“Do you wish to?” Snape, Severus? Snape. Asked evenly over the rim of his own cup, long potion-stained fingers firm around the delicate china. He did not give away much of his own thoughts through inflection, or lack thereof, giving the impression that he would be fine with whatever Harry decided.

Which was not as much of a help as the man probably thought.

“I don’t know.” Harry admitted, trying not to feel ashamed and failing. “It will bring a lot of attention, and make a lot of people want to know how this situation even came about. I don’t want everyone finding out about the Dursleys or prying into places they shouldn’t just because they think they have a right to know everything about me.”

Snape nodded as Harry’s unexpected tirade halted, he hadn’t meant to sound so bitter or whine like little kid. But at the same time it felt good to get it off his chest, he was tired of being the center of so much attention, of the constant reminders of what he had never known enough to even begin to fathom what had been lost.

Jax licked his wrist and Harry scritched under the serpent’s chin.

“It’s not that I don’t want people to know, it’s just the inevitable fallout of it.” He chanced a glance up at Snape, but the man’s face was just as impassive as it normally was. “I don’t regret changing my name, I wanted to. I-- I want this, so much. It’s just a lot all at once.”

There, that was about as much articulation as Harry could stand to force out.

“Completely understandable. I confess that I am also not looking forward to the backlash, but I believe the benefits outweigh the risks here.” He sent Harry a warm sort of look that had a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth despite Harry’s lingering anxiety. “We can of course keep things quiet for a time, as we both settle. This is after all a private matter and there is nothing wrong with wanting to keep it as such.”

Harry relaxed, glad that Snape understood that he wasn’t trying to reject his claim or anything.

They drank their tea and by the end of his second cup, Harry was feeling much calmer and ready to face other people. As the Potion Master escorted him to the door, Harry hesitated before opening it, looking up at the man and managing a wobbly sort of smile.

“Thank you, for-- for everything...” He took a breath, and another, and a third after that before finishing the sentence, “Dad.”

He bolted through the door before Snape had time to react. There was a burning in his chest that refused to go away and Harry couldn’t stop the epithet from bouncing around in his skull like a particularly antsy Snitch. The word had been odd and foreign coming out of his mouth, but it hadn’t felt entirely out of place.

When he reached the common room, it was to find Blaise and Draco in the middle of an intense looking game of chess while Millicent lounged in an armchair reading one of her trashy wizarding novels with Maximus the cat purring loudly on her chest. There were a good amount of other Slytherins milling about, so Harry just settled next to Blaise and tried to absorb some of the other boy’s constant well of calm into himself.

Ciao, Harry. Where have you been all day?” Blaise smirked as he maneuvered a rook into a position that had Draco scowling darkly at the board.

“I had to go into London, with Snape.” Harry murmured quietly, eyeing the older students surreptitiously, though it looked as if none of them were paying the little cluster of third years any mind.

Blaise turned a sharp eye on him, abandoning the game for a moment to give Harry a significant look. Harry only hesitated a moment before nodding minutely, he could feel the corner of his mouth upticking once more and struggled to keep his face impassive. It was alright to tell Blaise and the other two, they already knew what was going on. And he might just explode if he didn’t say something to someone.

Blaise put an arm around him and pulled Harry in close, the hug lopsided and awkward but not nearly as unwelcome as he might have expected. It seemed a day for hugging.

“What did I miss?” Draco’s voice floated over.

“Harry just got back from London.” Blaise answered for him, raising his brows at Draco. “To finish up that business.”

The blonde’s gray eyes widened and a bright smile broke out over his pointy features before he upended the chess board in his haste to tackle Harry from the other side (to the loud complaints of various little figures now rolling around the floor).

Cousin.” Draco murmured quietly into the hug, surprisingly discrete for once. Jax wriggled free from where he had been hiding in Harry’s robes, cursing about being squished.

Millicent rolled her eyes at the display, but there was a hint of a smile gracing her blunt features as she turned a page in her book, Maximus had leapt from his perch to chase the rolling chessmen across the floor.

“Don’t think I don’t know you knocked that over on purpose, Draco.” Blaise teased when Harry was finally released from the embrace.

“I haven't the slightest idea what you’re talking about.” Draco sniffed, tapping the board with his wand so that all the various pieces came tumbling back to settle into fresh ranks (although a white bishop had to be rescued from Maximus).

“I’m sure you don’t.” Blaise rolled his eyes at Harry and he felt himself finally start to feel at ease.

~~~~~~~>

Things did not change too overtly for him in the following weeks. The teachers all still referred to him as Mr. Potter and Harry did not correct them, it was enough that he knew the truth. Even if sometimes it still did not feel real. In an effort to better acclimatize himself to the idea, Harry took to spending time in Snape’s, Severus’ quarters after Occlumency or Patronus lessons (it was getting easier to summon his shining bat with every try). Sharing tea with the man, or working on schoolwork in front of the warm fire. Apparently there was a turntable tucked away in a corner that Harry had never noticed before and sometimes they would listen to music together.

He pestered Snape about potion theory and listened to long lectures on the subject with rapt attention.

Slowly, very slowly, Harry began to get used to the idea that Snape wanted him around just as much as Harry wanted to be around. He never would have thought he’d be able to have this. And now that he did, Harry was loathe to ever let it go.

Jax was just as enthusiastic about it as he was, oftentimes choosing to lay across the back of Snape’s chair and accepting the occasional scratch under the jaw from the somewhat bemusedly indulgent Potion Master.

The only real snag came along the first time Harry went to Snape’s quarters in the early morning. He’d left a book there the day before that had his Charms essay in it and Harry had paced the empty common room for a few minutes before deciding to just go and pick it up. He’d been given permission after all. So he should be able to just pop in and grab his book, even if Severus wasn’t expecting him. The man was probably still asleep as it wasn’t even six yet. So he wouldn’t even know Harry had been there.

Right. Perfect.

Only, just as Harry had crept across the darkened sitting room and grabbed his wayward book the sound of soft footsteps had him looking up.

Professor Lupin was walking in from the little hallway that led to Snape’s bedroom, he was yawning widely and wearing nothing but a pair of rather too small briefs and an open robe that Harry was fairly certain belonged to Snape as it was far too long in the arms for Lupin. Harry made a startled squeaking sort of noise and held his book up as if to shield himself from the utter embarrassment now flooding through him.

Lupin jumped as he finally caught sight of him and clutched the robe closed over his bare chest, the dark fabric bunched tightly in his fists.

“Oh dear.”

“Sorry! Um, I-- book...”

“Of course, ah, yes yes.” Lupin was wide-eyed as they stood frozen, staring at one another until Harry was finally able to make his legs start backing away.

“I’ll just be... going then.”

Lupin nodded but Harry fled before he could say anything else, his face burning bright red.

He’s a lot hairier than I expected.” Jax commented from his place across his shoulders, “Do you think it’s because he’s a werewolf?”

Harry made a strangled sort of noise and didn’t answer. He did not want to think about his professor shirtless, or why he had been so in his father’s quarters. He would just wait until a safer hour next time he forgot something there and avoid any chance at a repeat encounter.

~~~~~~~>

Severus growled darkly as Remus made far too much of a disturbance getting back into bed.

“Severus.” The wolf hissed, poking at his where his bare shoulder had slipped from under the blanket. “Severus, Harry was just here.”

Grumbling louder into his pillow, he batted the hand away, “Is he still here?”

“No. But--” the wolf let out a surprised huff of air as Severus grabbed him around the middle and pulled Remus down until he was tucked firmly against his front and unable to keep making so much of a bloody disturbance, throwing a leg over the man for good measure. He considered also smothering him with the bedding but Severus did not have the energy for body disposal at the moment, so the wolf was spared this time.

Besides, it was chilly in the dungeons and Lupin ran hot like a furnace, so there was a certain advantage to keeping the man alive for the moment.

“Severus--”

Unless of course he insisted on continuing to make noise.

“Quiet. Sleep. Now.” He pinched Lupin’s side for emphasis, which made him huff and squirm but he settled back after a moment and Severus was able to drift back into the welcoming darkness of unconsciousness.

~~~~~~~>

 

“Ah, Severus my boy, I was wondering if we could have a bit of a chat.” Albus accosted him on the way to the staff room for his afternoon cup of tea.

Severus had just finished a particularly harrowing double lesson comprised of second year Gryffindors and Slytherins that had ended in three melted cauldrons, two scorched tables, five students sent to the hospital wing, a frankly devastating number of points lost, and no few tears. He was not in the mood to deal with the Headmaster’s whimsy.

“Apologies Albus, I am busy at the moment. Perhaps another time.”

“It won't take but a moment, Severus. I am sure you can spare that much to speak we me about a most intriguing rumor I’ve heard concerning Mr. Potter.” The old wizard’s voice was as blithe as usual, but one look behind those half-moon spectacles had Severus drawing tightly into himself and resisting the urge to sigh heavily.

He knew the Headmaster would have words for him, knew that even if the man had approved of Harry’s initial temporary placement under his care he would certainly not feel the same if that were to become a permanent standing as it had. Severus was merely mildly surprised it had taken Albus a full three weeks to approach him about it. Either he had been unsure of how to address the situation (unlikely) or his network of little spies that constantly came chirping in his ear with interesting tidbits had been slow to discover what had happened (also unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibilities given the reticence of most parties involved in the entire process).

“Very well, Headmaster.” Severus nodded, his neck stiff from how tightly he was holding himself and he forced a false calm over his outward appearance, he refused to be intimidated in this matter. “Shall we speak in your office then?”

“Wonderful.” Albus leads the way, his robes of dazzling sequined mauve a frankly unnecessary spot of color in the gray of the corridors.

“Tea, Severus?” The man asks as they settle in their respective spots inside the large circular office.

“No thank you, Headmaster. What was this rumor you so direly needed to speak to me about?”

Albus hummed and spent a long minute fixing himself a cup of tea before turning a twinkling look on Severus.

“You have grown quite fond of young Harry, have you not, Severus? I confess I was a tad worried when the boy was sorted into your House, but you have taken to the task of watching over him most admirably.”

Severus nodded, crossing one leg over the other, folding his hands together atop his knee and waited. Albus would say what he meant eventually, that did not mean that Severus had to play along.

“Of course I had known your devotion to Lily’s memory would influence your treatment of the boy, and you have done a marvelous job so far in keeping him safe. But Severus,” the Headmaster peered at him over the top of his half-moon spectacles as Severus resisted scowling darkly at the mention of Lily. “this rumor. A little bird tells me that you have gone a step further and adopted Harry.”

“I have.” It was satisfying to see that infuriating twinkle disappear from the older man’s eye, if nothing else about this conversation was anything he wanted to do with.

“You know what he must do, Severus. You know what burdens have been placed upon him. You, of all people, must understand the bigger picture.” Albus’ airy tone had taken a turn towards grave, as if Severus were a misbehaving child not doing what was expected of him. “Distractions such as this will have far reaching consequences.”

“Distractions, Albus?” Severus, were he not Occluding so stringently, would have been consumed by furious anger. As it was, the flames merely licked at the edges of his words, turning them quiet and deadly. Not that Albus Dumbledore had ever been inclined towards intimidation at his hands. “I have given the boy a home and vastly superior protection than what he had been graced with under your purview.”

“I only did what I believed was best by putting him with his last remaining relatives.”

“Best for Harry, or best for your war, Albus?”

Instead of reacting to the callout, the Headmaster simply took a drink of his tea and stroked his long beard as he regarded Severus for long moments.

Inside he was seething. How dare this man try and question him on what was best for his son. When Albus had left Harry to rot with those muggles.

And now what? He was trying to convince Severus that he should not care for him? That he should not love and protect Harry to the best of his own shriveled and bitter heart’s capacity?

All because of that blasted prophecy? Because of one old man’s notions of the greater good?

As pragmatic as Severus usually held himself, this was not a thing that he would allow to pass. If, if, Harry was indeed forced into a deadly confrontation with the Dark Lord, Severus would be at his side. There was no reason to believe the entire burden should rest solely on his skinny shoulders alone, no matter what the Headmaster might think on the matter. He would not abandon his son, he would not be intimidated into caring less for him than he did. And he would not let Albus Dumbledore manipulate him back into the caustic and poisonous mire he had been struggling to pull himself free from since almost the moment Harry had reappeared in his life.

“Or is it that you are disappointed to be bereft a spy, Headmaster?” Severus spoke into the thickening air, deflection from the more volatile subject of Harry.

“That is a concern, yes.” At least Albus had the decency to not deny it. “You are remarkably talented in that aspect, as you are most things, my boy.”

Severus snorted, condescending flattery was something he could entirely do without.

“I do not wish to upset you, Severus.” Bullshit. “I merely wished to make sure that you are completely aware of how this action you have taken will affect the wizarding world at large.”

“I do not care for the wizarding world at large, Albus.” He bit out, utter truth. “I care about my son, and keeping him safe.” He stood from his seat and gave the Headmaster a shallow nod.

“Now, if you will excuse me, I have a classroom that needs scouring and detentions to oversee.”

“Of course, my boy, I had not meant to keep you from your duties.” That damnable twinkle was back, but Severus swept from the room feeling he had been the more triumphant in any case.

Fuck Albus Dumbledore’s idea of the greater good.

~~~~~~~>

Harry was on his way to the owlery to send a letter to Ezra when he heard the shouting.

“-- THAT MONSTER ATE HIM!”

“He did not, Crookshanks just chased him around a bit. He’s a cat, that’s what cats do.”

“There’s blood, Granger! BLOOD!”

Harry turned a corner to find Ron Weasley shaking what looked like a wrinkled bed sheet at Hermione Granger, face as red as his hair and there were tears in his eyes as he shouted at her.

She didn't look much better, with heavy dark circles under her own eyes and hair more frazzled than unusual. There was a mountain of ginger fur in her arms that Harry suspected might be a cat, if you squinted. It had a squashed in face as if it had run headlong into a wall one too many times and was looking at Weasley with a smugly superior regard as it licked a paw.

“Hey, calm down. What happened?” Harry was not usually one for getting into the middle of things, but the Gryffindors looked about ready to start throwing hexes and he would rather that not happen.

Weasley wheeled on him, looking about ready to start shouting again when he saw who it was interrupting and sort of deflated, clutching at his sheet (that Harry could indeed see spots of red on) and sniffing miserably.

“Her demon of a cat ate Scabbers is what.” Weasley glared at said cat, it started to purr. “He’s been after Scabbers all year and Granger’s done nothing about it.”

“That’s not true!” She protested, “I lock Crookshanks in my dorm every day and he just keeps getting out. I’m sorry, Ron.” Tears were welling in her eyes now too, but they seemed more out of exhausted frustration than anything.

“Are you sure the cat ate him? Maybe he just got a good swipe in.” Harry tried diplomatically.

“I can’t find Scabbers anywhere. He’s been sick, he wouldn’t have been able to fight off that beast.”

A glance at Crookshanks showed the cat looking even more smug, if possible.

“Hang on, let me see if Jax can find out and then we’ll know for sure, okay?” Harry opened up his satchel where his snake was burrowed at the very bottom under a crumpled tunic in anticipation for hiding as best he could from all the terrifying owls. “Hey buddy, come out here for a sec alright? I need your help with something.

What? It better not be about those fucking birds. Why are there so many of them here?

Harry snorted, “No birds. But there is a cat and some possible raticide.

Oooh, a murder mystery.” Jax slithered his way up Harry’s arm and onto his shoulders, forked tongue flicking out to taste the air as he looked around at the two Gryffindors and the squashed-faced cat.

Weasley had gone a bit pale in the face by then, but wasn’t glaring or accusing Harry of being evil incarnate, so perhaps he had mostly gotten over his misapprehensions.

“Can he... can he talk to cats then?” Weasley asked, Granger also looked intrigued despite everything.

“Kind of. Not like I can talk to him, or anything. More impressions or vague motivations. He should be able to find something out at least.”

Weasley sniffled again, nodding.

Jax hissed at Crookshanks in a way that wasn’t really words that Harry could interpret, the cat yawned and licked its paw and purred louder.

He didn’t eat the smelly rat.” Jax says eventually, sounding mildly disappointed. “Apparently the little shit managed to slip away, which he’s quite grumpy about. Not that I blame him.

Harry relaid the message, more or less, and Weasley’s face lit up.

“Scabbers is alive?”

Granger looked relieved as well, letting go of some of the tension that had her wound so tightly.

Then Weasley’s face fell again, “How’m I ‘sposed find him? He’s sick. And injured. Even if that cat didn’t eat him, something else is bound to.”

“I bet Jax can track him.” Harry offered without thinking. Weasley had never been his biggest fan, but that didn’t mean he deserved to have his pet killed.

Aw, do I have to?” Jax complained, rubbing his head petulantly against Harry’s temple.

“Really? You’d do that for me? After, after everything I said last year?”

“You were scared, we all were.” Harry shrugged, even if he was still a bit angry about most of the school shunning him he could look past that if Weasley was willing to as well. “We’ll call it even.”

“So, so you can track him? Scabbers I mean?”

Harry turned his head to look at Jax, who flicked his purple tongue out again and gave a dramatic sighing hiss of compliance.

“Yeah, he has a weird sort of smell, we should be able to find him if we start looking now.” Harry said diplomatically as Jax hissed his own thoughts on the matter of that rat’s stench.

“As long as Granger and her cat keep far away.” Weasley glared at Crookshanks, but Granger just nodded and tried to give the other boy a relieved smile.

“Of course, I won’t let him near, I promise.”

Weasley humphed and Harry rolled his eye a little behind his back for Granger’s benefit before they set off down the corridor, following Jax’s hissed instructions.

The grounds were sort of muddy, with spring well on its way and Jax happily slithered down to lead them on a meandering route around the greenhouses and down towards the lake until finally turning back up and veering more in the direction of the gates that led down into the village. Harry hoped Scabbers hadn’t slipped out of the grounds entirely, as they wouldn’t be able to track him past the boundaries.

There was a shout as they were passing the Quidditch pitch and Draco suddenly appeared next to him, dressed in his Seeker robes and looking windswept.

“Hey, Harry, what are you doing out here with,” He cast a snooty sort of glance at Harry’s companion, “Weasley?”

Harry rolled his eyes, it was a bit of a step up that Draco hadn’t called him Weasel, but Harry did not think the two would ever be on the best of terms. Judging by the scowl the Gryffindor was now sporting, he seemed to agree.

“We’re helping find his pet rat.” Harry nodded at Jax, who was snapping at a bug and looking happy to be outside even if he had to track down a stinky rat. “What about you?”

“Oh, just getting in some extra practice before the game tomorrow.” Draco drawled, “Slytherin is sure to get the Cup again this year.”

Weasley snorted and rolled his eyes, fiddling with the balled up sheet still in his hands.

Before things could escalate, Jax made an excited noise.

It’s close, I can smell the little bastard.” And he slithered off at speed through the grass, Harry and Weasley following close on his trail and Draco apparently deciding to join in the hunt.

Jax brought them across the grounds and they had nearly reached the Whomping Willow when Harry caught sight of movement in the grass. Weasley seemed to see it at the same time and let out a happy cry.

“Scabbers!” The Gryffindor lunged forward, dropping the sheet, but the rat seemed to startle at the sudden appearance of his owner and dodged away from Weasleys grasping hands.

Unfortunately that led him straight into Jax’s path and the serpent wrapped the struggling rodent up in his coils with the ease of having caught many a prey.

Urgh, he smells so gross. Harry come get him so I can go find some mud to roll around in.

Harry sniggered and freed the struggling rat from Jax’s clutches, it was squeaking loudly and refused to calm down. There were tufts of hair missing all over its gray body and Harry could feel ribs poking out where once he’d been quite a fat thing. Weasley gratefully took the rat, even as it continued to struggle against capture, squeaking madly.

“Shh, Scabbers. It’s okay, it’s just me, Ron. You’re safe now, I won’t let that nasty cat anywhere near you again.”

But even as he said so, Draco was tugging on Harry’s sleeve and pointing.

“What in Merlin’s name is that?”

A ginger blur was bounding across the grounds straight at them with Granger hot on its heels, yelling frantically.

“No, Crookshanks!”

But it was too late, the cat had reached them and barreled full-force into Weasley’s shins. The redhead managed to keep his feet, but Crookshanks just gave out a loud yowl and started climbing the gangly boy like a tree.

“Argh! Geroff you mangy beast!”

Harry reached for his wand just as Granger finally caught up, Draco looked to be trying very hard to hold in his laughter.

“Crookshanks, no! Bad kitty!” Granger stepped in front of Harry, blocking any spell he might have tried and grabbed at her monster of a cat.

“Ow! He’s got his bleeding claws in me!”

“Sorry, sorry! Crookshanks let go.”

Harry was about to cast something regardless when there was a loud rumbling growl from the side.

Harry looked over just in time to see the dog, looking far more wild and angry than Harry had ever seen him, charging at them from the direction of the forest. Draco let out a surprised shout and scrambled back, tripping over his own feet and landing hard on the ground. But the dog ignored him, taking a flying leap at Weasley and latching into his leg with a vicious bite and jerking hard.

“Hey!” Harry yelled, training his wand on the dog, he’d never been so aggressive before, but there was a madness in its eyes now that frightened him.

Weasley had finally lost his footing, hitting the ground with a thump as he let out a scream and kicked at the dog now dragging him towards the swinging branches of the Willow. Scabbers was still tightly clutched in his hands but seemed to have redoubled his efforts to escape. Crookshanks let out another yowl and jumped off the Gryffindor to run ahead under the vicious branches of the tree.

Immobulus!” Harry’s spell missed the dog by inches and he was dragging Weasley away at a pace that was hard to imagine such an emaciated beast could manage.

Granger was crying now, moving forward with her own wand drawn, but they were too close to the tree and a branch nearly hit her over her bushy head.

“Help! Leggo! Arrgh!” Weasley cried out as the dog gave his leg another vicious shake.

Then Crookshanks had reached the trunk of the tree and pressed a paw against a knot and all the swinging, agitated branches froze. The dog drug Weasley to the base of the tree where Harry could see an opening, he suddenly remembered that there was a secret passage under the Whomping Willow, he’d seen it on the Map before handing it over to Snape.

A loud, sickening crack rent the air as the dog forced Weasley down into the tunnel, breaking the leg he’d tried to use to brace himself against the pull.

Oh shit.” Jax hissed, as Crookshanks let go of the knot on the tree and darted down into the tunnel after the dog.

“Oh shit.” Draco echoed, from his place on the ground, wide-eyed. “What just happened?”

“I don’t know,” Harry replied, clutching his wand in his fist, “but I’m going after him. Jax, can you reach that spot on the tree?

“You can’t go after him! That dog will tear you to ribbons!” Draco cried, struggling to his feet even as Jax slithered his way across the grass.

“He’ll do the same to Weasley, we can’t just let him die.”

“I don’t care about Weasley, I care about you.”

Harry blinked, but now was not the time to be evaluating friendships and measuring them against human life. Weasley had just been drug away and if he hurried, Harry might be able to do something about it.

“Crookshanks, he just... he...” Granger was muttering, a hand over her mouth and her tired eyes wide and leaking tears still.

“I’m going in there.” Harry said again, as Jax reached the Willow and pressed his snout against the knot. “Go up to the castle and get Snape.”

“Not bloody likely.” Draco poked him hard in the chest with one fastidiously manicured finger. “I’m coming with you.”

Harry rolled his eyes but didn’t waste time arguing, turning to the remaining Gryffindor instead. “Granger, go find Snape, or any teacher and tell them what’s happening.”

But she was shaking her head too, wiping at her eyes and glaring. “I’m coming too, this is all my fault. Crookshanks...”

Harry threw his hands up, “Fine, let's all just be idiots then.” And started stomping towards the opening under the frozen branches of the tree.

It was dark in the tunnel and there was only room enough to walk single file.

Lumos.” Harry muttered, the end of his wand lighting the dirt path in front of them, he heard the others echo the spell behind him and the passage was lit further. Jax had slithered his way up to Harry’s shoulders after releasing the Willow and was tensely peering ahead of them, forked tongue constantly flicking out to taste the air.

Harry was short enough that he didn’t have to duck much to avoid the dirt ceiling but a glance behind him showed a scowling Draco hunched uncomfortably as he followed along. Harry never thought he’d be grateful for his deficient height, but given that the tunnel seemed to have no end in sight he at least would not have an aching back by the time it did let out.

Of course there were bigger problems in store for them at the other end of the passage.

“I think this goes all the way down into Hogsmeade.” Granger commented a few minutes later as they rounded yet another bend. “We just past the school wards, did you feel it?”

Harry nodded, “I wonder where it lets out.”

“I told you that dog was bad news, Harry.” Draco muttered.

“You think anything that hasn’t had a bath is bad news.”

“Yes, you point being?”

I agree with Draco.” Jax added, “Smelly dog, smelly rat, we should stay away from them all.

Harry rolled his eyes and refused to comment.

Eventually the tunnel ended in a patch of light from a small opening.

Nox.” Harry extinguished his wand and went through, emerging into a room filled with broken furniture and boarded up windows. There were great gouges in the walls and floorboards as if some monstrous beast had ransacked the place.

“Is this... the Shrieking Shack?” Draco whispered as he joined Harry, looking around the destroyed room.

“I think it might be.” Granger agreed, “What happened here? Ghosts couldn’t have done this.”

Harry had heard of the place from the other students, it was supposed to be the most haunted place in Britain. Harry had always thought that suspect, give the sheer number of ghosts floating around Hogwarts on a daily basis, how would a shack hold more than that? But something had clearly been going on in here to give the impression.

A wounded cry sounded from upstairs.

“Ron!” Granger made to step forward, but Harry took the lead, wand outstretched as they crept up the creaking steps. How had a dog managed to drag Weasley up such a long flight?

There was only one open door on the landing, light spilling into the hallway, Harry could hear pained noises coming from it.

He didn’t like the idea of just bursting in, it seemed foolhardy in the extreme, but so was following a rabid dog and a crazy cat under a murderous tree. He wished he had his Invisibility Cloak, but it was safely tucked away in his trunk at the moment and of no use.

There was nothing for it then, he held up a hand, three fingers, two. When the last one dropped he rushed through the doorway, the others on his heel, wand at the ready.

He couldn’t see the dog anywhere, but Weasley was sprawled over a broken bed with Crookshanks on his chest purring loudly and Scabbers still struggling to free himself, though the rat must be near exhaustion by this point.

“Potter! Behind you!” Weasley gasped, “Not a dog... Animagus.”

Harry whirled around.

Leaning against the far wall, fingering Weasley’s wand with a curious, hungry look on his gaunt face was Sirius Black.

“Oh shit.” Harry breathed.

Chapter Text

Sirius Black.

Sirius Black was right there. In front of Harry.

The man just as responsible for him losing his birth parents as the Dark Lord himself.

All year he had been a looming, malevolent shadow. Ever present at the back of Harry’s mind, showing up to terrify the populous of the school just often enough to keep the threat alive and real.

Sirius Black who stood before him, dressed in rags that barely clung to his withered frame. Dark hair long and matted, gray eyes bright with madness in his sunken features.

“Hello, Harry.” His voice was a croaking rasp, as if he hadn’t used it in years. Or had spent that time screaming his throat to shreds. “My, how you’ve grown.”

Harry’s wand shook in his hand, anger warring with fear and making it near impossible to do anything more than stare wide-eyed and trembling.

Expelliarmus!” came a high-pitched, slightly panicky shout from Harry’s left. Well at least Draco was able to do more than gape like a frozen codfish.

Unfortunately, Sirius Black easily deflected the spell with a sharp flick of Weasley’s wand. The man barked out a harsh laugh and grinned madly at Draco.

“Nice try little snake.” He gave Draco a jittery once over and his grin grew even madder, if possible. “Oh, you must be Cissy’s little boy, how delightful. What would dear old daddy think of you acting protector to Harry Potter, cousin?”

A swift glance showed Draco had gone deathly pale, his own slight frame shaking just as much as Harry’s. There was fear in his eyes, but he wasn’t backing down either. It galvanized something in Harry and he suddenly found himself able to move again.

“Leave him alone.” Harry didn’t shout, brought up his flagging Occlumency shields to try and give himself room to think past the rising panic and anger, and leveled his wand more firmly at Black. “He’s not the one you’re after.”

Jax rose up on his shoulder and hissed expletives that only Harry could really understand for emphasis, but Black seemed to get the gist. He let out another of those barking laughs and turned his attention back on Harry.

“No indeed. There is only one soul in this room I intend to murder, and it is not dearest Cissy’s spawn.”

Let me at him.” Jax hissed, purple eyes glinting hatefully at Black and fangs fully bared, “I’ll bite his stinking, lying, not-dog face off!”

No! He could hurt you, Jax.

Then I’ll set his greasy hair on fire!” he reared back as if preparing to lob a shot of molten venom.

No! We’re in a wooden house, you’ll burn it down around us!”

Jax spit another string of expletives but settled back from shooting stance. Black had watched the hissing exchange with an ever increasing pained expression as he swayed eerily from side to side, as if unable to keep completely still.

Why wasn’t he attacking? Sure, they had him outnumbered, but he’d already proven himself well skilled even using a wand not his own.

“You’re not after me, are you?” He asked the man, making sure to track his swaying movements carefully. “You could have killed me ten times over by now, if you wanted to. And you never tried to break into Slytherin, only Gryffindor Tower.”

“Clever, Harry.” Black rasped, “Get that from your mum, I expect. James was never one for puzzling things out, always left that part up to me and Moony. Stop right there, girl!”

That last part was directed at Granger, who had been slowly sidling closer to the broken bed and Weasley. She froze but managed to glare instead of cower.

“What are you after then? If it’s not to finish the job you started?”

“Oh, I am most certainly here to finish it, Harry. Be sure of that.” There was a fury in Black’s sunken eyes that was darker than anything Harry had ever seen before, and given his own personal experiences that was saying quite a bit.

But the man’s gaze was not trained on him, but over his shoulder, at Weasley, the loudly purring Crookshanks, and the even louder squeaking Scabbers.

Expelliarmus!” Harry yelled, and he wasn’t the only one. Both Draco and Granger had seen the opening and reacted in near tandem to him.

Black may have been able to deflect one spell before, but three from differing angles was too much and Weasley’s wand went clattering to the dusty floor as Black was thrown back against the wall with a dull thump.

Harry just looked at the scarecrow of a man sprawled there for a few eternal seconds before his warbling Occlumency shields could no longer hold back his anger and he forgot all about magic or restraint or any other good Slytherin tactic and simply fell upon Black to try and punch as much of the man as hard and fast as his skinny arms could manage.

“Why did you do it?! Why? They were your friends and you betrayed them!”

He didn’t care that Black wasn’t after him. He didn’t care how the man had escaped Azkaban and spent nearly an entire year terrorizing the school. He didn’t care that he was a tiny, thirteen year old kid who had never won a fist fight in his life and Black was a fully grown and trained wizard. Harry just wanted to hurt him, like he had hurt Harry.

But Black wasn’t fighting back. Even when Jax had maneuvered himself around the man’s wasted throat and started to squeeze, he only laid there and let Harry hit him. Let him scream and cry and bloody his fist on the man’s nose. The only sign of resistance were a few boney fingers pressed between Jax and his throat and the utter shame and despair overclouding the madness in his eyes.

Harry hesitated with his next punch, knuckles throbbing and dripping blood (his or Black’s he couldn’t tell) as he stared down at the man under him.

“Going to kill me, Harry?” Black coughed, his yellow teeth stained red.

Harry could. He should. It was all Black’s fault he had gone so long without any parents. That he had suffered under the Dursleys guardianship. Been starved and abused and alone. Black wasn’t even struggling, he would let him...

“No, he will not.” A dark voice sounded from behind them, “Though I very well may.”

Snape was in the doorway, looking thunderous as he leveled his wand at Black.

~~~~~~~>

Severus had just pulled out the Map to do a quick scan of the castle and grounds when there was a soft knock on his office door and Lupin entered with an equally soft smile.

Though in actuality looking over the Map was more of an arbitrary excuse at this point, as he was mostly wanting to check up on Harry. Ever since the adoption, the little dot representing his son had been flickering back and forth as if it could not decide whether to label him Potter or Snape.

Severus wondered if it was a latent fault in the Map itself (or perhaps intentional sabotage, given its creators), or simply Harry’s own struggle to accept his new identity.

It was causing Severus no small amount of anxiety, contemplating Harry having regrets about their change in dynamic. Although as the weeks passed and the little dot more frequently spelled out Snape, that uneasiness had dwindled somewhat. In the quiet of his own mind Severus could admit, if reluctantly, that seeing it there did more to reassure him that he had made the correct decision than any amount of plain logic.

“Evening, Severus.” Lupin greeted, circling the desk to peer down at the Map’s ink lines flowing out across the parchment (and taking advantage of the position to lean against him in a most unsubtle fashion).

“Lupin.” he didn't take his eyes off the Map, but the wolf's warmth against his shoulder was making it a tad difficult to concentrate.

Not that he would ever let on as such, Lupin would be unbearably smug.

“Anything interesting on there?” There was a teasing cant to the other man’s tone as fingers fiddled with the high collar of his robes. “Or do you think you'll be able to turn in early tonight?”

“Hmm.” Severus hummed noncommittally, though his own hand had betrayed him by settling on the wolf's hip without his express permission.

What had happened to him? Weeks, months ago, this causal touch would have been incomprehensible. He had never been one for overt signs of affection, even when presented the rare opportunity to display such. It should not feel so simple to pull the other man closer, to allow the brush of fingers under his hair and over the back of his neck.

Leave it to Remus Bloody Lupin to make him so complacent, so vulnerable.

He should not so easily have fallen into this pattern, when not so very long ago Severus would never have even considered peacefully sharing a castle with the other man, let alone his bed.

And perhaps, frighteningly, even more intimate things than that...

But no, there was his hand again, tightening over the ridiculous tweed covered hip and himself tilting his own chin up in far too obvious an invitation. The kiss was light as a whisper, but still Severus felt it pulse through him. A dangerously addictive feeling that he should not indulge in, but nevertheless found himself doing with unthinkable frequency.

“Mmm, I think we should-- Severus!” Lupin cut himself off, words morphing from softly encouraging to a frantic bark.

Severus didn't startle, but his hand reached unconsciously for the wand up his sleeve, eyes darting sharply around the office before he realized Remus was pointing at the Map. His brown eyes widened impossibly far and filled with a terrible, devastating, emotion.

Heart clenching, he quickly scanned the parchment, catching sight almost at once on the isolated dots of Ronald Weasley, Draco Malfoy, Jax, and Harry Snape out on the grounds. The usual satisfying well of pleasure he got at seeing his son embracing his name was smothered under a cold wash of horror at the other label scrawled across the Map mere meters away.

Peter Pettigrew.

“No.” Severus breathed, as if denying it would make it truth. “No. He died. Black left him a smear on a ruined street.”

Remus had a hand clamped over his mouth, the words muffled as he forced them out past trembling fingers.

“They switched. Oh,sweet Merlin, they switched and they never told me and Sirius-- he--"

By the time the children had converged on Pettigrew another had joined them, the Granger girl. But Severus was already on his feet, shoving back from the desk and its damning Map. Whatever may or may not have happened was irrelevant, he needed to get to his son and godson.

A strangled gasp from behind him had Severus pausing at the door, Remus was clutching at the edges of the desk as if he might fall over otherwise.

“Sirius, he’s there. We have to--” Severus didn’t hear any more, as he was already halfway down the corridor and gaining speed. There was an echo of footsteps behind him, but Severus was of a singular purpose and refused to slow even a moment to let the wolf catch up.

The castle was mostly barren as Severus rushed through the halls, it was getting well into evening when all sensible students should have been safely back in their dorms, not gallivanting around the grounds with maniacs and men who should be dead. The area around the Willow was empty save for a dirty bed sheet crumpled on the grass and a clear trail of something heavy being dragged along to the base of the violent foliage.

“They must have gone to the Shack.” Remus panted, Severus growled in frustration.

A quick scan of the ground found a viable stone that he could direct to the knot on the tree before he was rushing forwards once more. Every second wasted was another that the children were in danger. He would not have his son ripped from so soon, Severus refused to even allow the possibility to fester inside of him.

The tunnel was narrower than he remembered, though just as dark and smelling of soil and petrichor from the recent spring rains. He concentrated on how irritating it was to have to duck and shuffle along at a far slower pace than he would have preferred rather than the sense memory of having fallen into a trap with a monstrous beast rushing towards him with bloodlust contorting its every feature as it snarled and lunged and howled with blackest rage as he was yanked free of its path by his most hated enemy.

No. This time the wolf was behind him, pressing close at his back. But Severus could not bring himself to fear, not now.

The Shack was suffused with dust and shattered detritus, an air of past hysterical violence sunk deep into the warped floorboards. There was little evidence of Lupin’s more tame sojourns, though given the sheer brutality of his untamed alter ego, that was not surprising.

There was a loud thump from above them, dust raining down as shouting could be heard. Severus took the stairs three at a time.

The scene he came upon was not quite what he had been expecting, but he would not deny a moment of petty pleasure at seeing his son beating the living daylights out of a shriveled and contemptuous looking Black. Then the man had to ruin it by asking that question, putting that look of fractured indecision on Harry's face.

Severus watching for a long, endless, second as Harry’s bloodied fist trembled in the air. So thin and breakable. But there was no fragility in the boy’s eyes, full of rage and sorrow and a mounting conviction to do what no thirteen year old should even have reason to contemplate, let alone be in the position to exact.

Not again.

Severus would not allow it.

Black had done enough damage already. If what Remus postulated was true or not, Black had abandoned the boy either way and Severus would see him accounted for it. And everything else the wretched disgrace of a human being had wrought with his arrogance.

~~~~~~~>

Harry froze above Black, Severus was in the doorway, his words cutting through the anger and giving Harry space to breath and think and realize what he was doing. What he had been about to do.

With a strangled cry he shoved off of Black, scuttling back across the dirty floor and hissing at Jax to follow. There was a sickness building in him, overtaking his blind rage and making Harry’s stomach twist itself into knots that he feared may never come undone. Jax was reluctant to follow, but obeyed with a last vicious hiss in Black’s face before he finally uncoiled from the man’s thin neck and retook his protective position across Harry’s shoulders.

There were darkening bruises rising up past the grime on Black’s skin, blood oozing thickly out of the man’s nose and down his chin to further stain the rags hanging off his scarecrow body. Jax had left a thick band across his neck, he was lucky the serpent hadn’t bitten him.

Although Black did not seem overly concerned about his physical condition as he turned a surprised sneer up at the looming shadow in the doorway, it pulled at a cut on his lip and more blood stained his yellowed teeth.

Snivellus? What the fuck are you doing here?”

The Potion Master’s countering sneer could have striped varnish but it was not him who answered.

“He’s a teacher at the school, Sirius.” Lupin had emerged from behind Severus, looking as pale and shaky as if it were a full moon, although Harry knew that was at least two full weeks away.

There was a touch at his shoulder, Draco, his expression one of relief at the arrival of the professors mixed with something wild and... and frightened as he looked over Harry. Gray eyes hitching from his bloodied knuckles to whatever horrifying emotions must be splashed all over his face. He didn’t say anything though, just helped Harry to his feet and backed them further away as Black let out another barking laugh from his place on the floor.

“A teacher? Morgana’s tits, those poor students.” Then the mad playfulness left his tone and he trained suddenly, frighteningly sober eyes on Lupin. “Moony, old friend, you need to listen to me. You need to know--”

“Were you ever going to tell me, Sirius?” The man cut him off, stepping further into the room and looking far more intimidating than his warn down tweed and gray streaked hair should have allowed. “Did you think so little of me? Of what we had that you would believe so easily that I could turncoat on my friends? My family?”

Remus,” Black pleaded, struggling up from his prone form but only making it into a sitting position before the threat of multiple wands trained on him seemed to make some sort of dent into what common sense remained in him. “Remus, it was war. There was so much going on, it was impossible to know who to trust anymore.”

“I trusted you, Sirius.” Lupin’s words were weighted and deadly, as if he might have been taking lessons from Snape. “Me. Who had every reason not to. I trusted you and look what happened!”

“Moony, you don’t understand!”

“I saw the Map, Sirius! I saw him.” Lupin closed the distance between them, his next words had lost their hard edges, full instead with weariness and tired heartbreak. “I saw him, I understand.”

Harry was not the only one making surprised noises when Lupin reached down and pulled Black to his feet, hugging him close.

“What the heeell?” Weasley’s faint voice sounded over the diminished squeaking of his rat (Harry suspected the rodent did not have much energy left in him to keep up the frenetic struggles). Granger had finally made it to his side and removed a smug Crookshanks from his chest. Harry tried not to look at the very wrong angle the Gryffindor’s leg was pointed, his freckles were standing out even more than usual against the pained whiteness of his skin.

“Language, Weasley.” Snape murmured from the doorway, looking extremely cross as the embrace between Lupin and Black lingered.

“S-sorry, Professor.”

“Is someone going to explain what’s going on?” Draco demanded, still close at Harry's elbow, some of the familiar imperiousness creeping back into his voice.

“An explanation would do wonders in keeping your skin attached to your body, Black.” Snape growled, long fingers tight against his wand as Lupin finally released Black onto his own two feet.

“I’m sure you can extrapolate, Severus.” Lupin said, there was a suspicious wetness at the wrinkled corners of his eyes. Harry had no idea what was going on anymore, the rage that had burned through him so hotly mere minutes ago had left him feeling hollow and twisted up inside and he just wanted this to be over. To go to Severus’ quarters and drink a calming cup of tea and pretend like none of this had ever happened.

“Nothing good comes from assuming, Remus. I would hear it from his own godsforsaken mouth.”

That got a reaction out of Black, who was sneering again and pointing one ragged finger at the Potion Master and rasping out harshly, “I don’t owe you shit, Snape. And where do you get off calling Moony by his first name, huh?”

That brought a smug, vicious sort of smirk out of Snape as he sent a narrow, heated looked at Lupin, “Oh, I get off on Remus quite often, Black. Would you like a detailed summation or would the bare and naked facts do?”

Black gaped, the accusatory finger hanging in the air as his pale eyes darted between the self-satisfied Severus and a Lupin who had covered half of his face with one palm that did little to hide his exasperated sigh.

What the heeell.” Weasley blurted out again, looking even more ill if possible. Snape did not chide him again however, too busy watching Black’s reaction Harry supposed.

“Moony? What...”

“Now is not the time for this discussion, Padfoot.” Lupin sighed, shooting an annoyed look at Snape who just continued to smirk triumphantly.

Harry’s sluggish thoughts had finally caught up on something though, and he cut off whatever Black was about to say.

“Wait. ‘Moony’, ‘Padfoot’? Like the Map?”

Everyone turned to look at him and Harry pressed minutely closer to Draco at the sudden scrutiny.

“The Marauder's Map. It had those names.”

Black was ginning again now, but it wasn’t a mad grin, on someone less bloody and bedraggled it might have even been warm and boyishly excited.

“Of course they’re on there, Harry. Given we’re the ones that wrote it.” Black gestured between him and Lupin, who was looking less exasperated and more like Weasley still sickly pale on the broken bed. “Me, Padfoot. Remus was Moony.”

“And James?” Harry was not an idiot, he could see where this was going, they had all been great friends in school after all. Black’s smile fell away, only lingering in the shine of his eyes.

“Prongs. Your dad was Prongs.” Prongs. Harry stowed the knowledge away. He knew so little about his birth parents, other than that they had died protecting him, that his mother had been Severus’ best friend until their falling out, and that James Potter had been a bit of a prat and bully to those not considered his friends. This was something new, something other.

“Was he an Animagus too?”

What?” Snape cut in, all smugness wiped away in place of cold inquiry.

Now it was Black’s turn to smirk, “Oh, Moony didn’t tell you that did he? Maybe you’re not as close as you think, Snivellus.”

“Don’t call him that!” Harry, Lupin, and Draco all snapped at the same time. Black reeled back knocking against the wall in surprise, Snape just sneered, not taking his eyes off Lupin.

“Severus, I...” The man took a breath, a visible shudder passing through him before he squared his shoulders and met the Potion Master’s eye. “I should have told you. I should have told Dumbledore the moment Sirius escaped.”

“And why did you not?” Snape’s voice was too even, too controlled, Harry knew there had to be more going on under the surface that the Potion Master’s far superior skill at Mind Magic was holding at bay.

“Shame. Mostly. They had done it for me, in school. I had never had friends before, never even dreamed I’d be able to attend Hogwarts like the other children. And when Dumbledore let me in, trusted me, I was too afraid to admit how much I’d betrayed that. We were young and stupid and I fear I have not grown past that as much as I would like to tell myself.” The eyes he turned on Snape were filled with sorrow and guilt and remorse, Harry had the insane urge to give the man hug if only to make him stop looking so achingly morose.

“You should have told me.” Snape’s black eyes glinted with refracted hurt, betrayal. “You knew what was at stake. You should have told me.”

“Severus... Severus, you’re right. I--I have no excuse. Every time I thought about doing so, all I could imagine was the look on your face as you pushed me away forever, that look there, right now. I... I didn’t want to lose you once you realized I’d omitted such a huge secret.”

“And what would have happened if Black had truly been out for Harry, Lupin? What then? I would have lost him.” Anger was seeping through now, and Harry had taken two steps forward before he knew what he was doing, “My son, Lupin. My son.” The words cracked, and Harry rushed the distance between them, past the wide-eyed Black and shrinking Lupin to press himself into Severus’ side, inhaling the familiar scent of potion fumes and the myriad of spices pressed too deeply into the fabric over years of use for even house elves to fully rid them of.

His father pulled him close and Harry squeezed his eyes shut, wishing they were back in his quarters, or the lab brewing, or just anywhere but a dirty broken down shack filled with too many highly volatile people.

Jax was hissing soothing nothings, but for once it was not helping, there was too much.

“Remus?” Black’s voice cut through everything, as weak and shaky as Harry himself felt. “Remus, what is he saying? Harry’s not-- he can’t be...”

“Sirius, not now.” Lupin’s voice brokered no argument, “We’ve unfinished business, remember?”

Harry managed to pull himself together enough to face the room again. Severus’ arm was still tight around his shoulders, Lupin and Black were engaged in a heated staring contest that ended only when Draco broke the silence once more.

“Can we get back to explaining what in Merlin’s sparkly pants is going on here? Why is him being an Animagus a big deal, other than the obvious fact of it being unregistered. And why wouldn’t Professor Lupin have been able to go to school? Also, why are we all in this disgusting rundown shack chumming it up with my insane murderous cousin?” That last part was a little hysterical, but Harry could understand.

“Ah, well, you see...” Lupin trailed off awkwardly.

“He’s a werewolf.” Granger spoke up from next to Weasley, Harry had nearly forgotten she was there. Lupin paled, but the only ones surprised by the statement were Draco and Weasley, who gave matching gasps and boggled at the man.

“Very good, Miss Granger.” Lupin sounded a bit strangled, but mostly weary, “How long have you known?”

“Um, a while.” She answered, then began reciting proofs as if they were in class, “Your boggart was the full moon, and you’re always sick at the same time each month, and I read ahead to the chapter on werewolves ages ago. I didn’t tell anybody,” she hastily added, “and when I realized what Harry was researching I stopped helping him. Erm, sorry, Harry.”

“That’s alright.” Harry replied weakly, feeling a bit slow that it had taken him as long as it had when she set all the facts out like that. “I didn’t tell you either.”

“Did everybody know our Defense Professor was a bleeding werewolf, except me?” Weasley hissed as Crookshanks jumped back onto the bed, jostling his leg. “Nevermind, I don’t care. Can somebody just fix my leg? I don’t want to be here with you crazy people anymore, I’m out.”

He made to get up but both Black and Lupin shouted, “Stop!”

Weasley froze, Scabbers squeaking feebly in his hands as he squeezed too tightly.

“Let me kill him, Remus.” Black was back to sounding crazed as he eyed Weasley, taking a shuffling step forward.

What!?” The Gryffindor tried to scrabble back, but his bad leg impeded his movement.

“Wait, Sirius, he has to understand why.” Lupin had grabbed Black by the arm and jerked his head in Harry’s direction.

“I did my waiting!” Black shouted, sounding broken and so full of righteous anger, “Twelve years of waiting. In AZKABAN!”

“I know, Sirius. I know. But Harry needs to know why, you owe him that.”

When Black turned his attentions back on him, Severus pushed Harry behind him and leveled his wand at the man. Harry, tired of being confused and wanting everything to just be over, slipped out from behind his father and glared at Black.

“What is it? What have you been after all year? It’s not me and it can’t be Ron Weasley, so what?”

“Peter Pettigrew.” Black spat, pointing at the bed.

“Pettigrew’s dead.” Draco scoffed, “You killed him along with a street load of muggles.”

“No, little cousin, though not for lack of trying. Peter killed those muggles, as a cover for faking his own death and setting me up for the fall. He knew he’d never beat me in a fair fight, the coward.”

“I don’t understand, what’s Pettigrew got to do with anything?” Harry demanded, “You were the Secret Keeper, you betrayed them to the Dark Lord.”

Black’s gaunt, bloody face looked stricken with the weight of old guilt.

“I as good as betrayed them. I convinced James and Lily to switch us at the last minute, thought it would be more secure. Nobody would suspect poor little Peter Pettigrew of being their Secret Keeper. Instead, I ended up handing them straight into his hands. I’m the reason James and Lily are dead, but I’ll be fucked if I let that sniveling little traitor go another day on this earth.”

“If that’s true,” Harry said, more confused than ever, “why didn’t you just say so at your trial? Use pensieve memories, or veritaserum to prove it wasn’t you?”

Black scoffed bitterly, “You think I got a trial? No, they tossed me to the dementors as soon as they could get their hands on me.”

“What?” Harry could feel the indignation rising, “You didn’t get a trial? How is that legal? What evidence was there? Do you even have a Dark Mark?”

Black blinked, as if he hadn’t been expecting such a response, but he tugged up the tattered sleeve of his left arm to show bare (if dirty) skin.

“I don’t have a Dark Mark because I’m not a fucking Death Eater. I never was.” Harry did not miss the way he glared at Severus over Harry’s shoulder, but elected to ignore it for now.

“Where’s Pettigrew then?”

Black pointed at Weasley again, or more specifically, at the rat in his hands.

“Another Animagus?”

Black nodded, and Jax gave a triumphant hiss on Harry’s shoulder.

I told you he was after that rat! I was right this whole time, and nobody would listen to me!”

Harry rolled his eyes and scratched under Jax’s chin, “Yes, yes, you’re a very clever snake. I’ll make Draco give you as many Ice Mice as you want later.

Jax was going to be unbearably smug for the next eternity, but Harry couldn’t really find it in himself to mind all that much.

“You’re off your rocker,” Weasley protested, hugging his rat closer even as it gave a renewed effort to escape. “Scabbers isn’t an Animagus, he just a rat. He’s been in our family for ages.”

“Really now? About how long? Twelve years? Bit of a long life for a common rat, I’d say.” Black was watching Scabbers with hungry eyes.

“We take care of him...”

“Doesn’t look very well to me.”

“It’s that damn cat of Granger’s! He’s been terrorizing him all year!”

Crookshanks had sidled up to Black and was rubbing against his filthy pant leg and purring loudly. Granger looked mildly embarrassed.

“There is an easy solution here, Mr. Weasley.” Lupin cut in before things could escalate further. “There is a spell to reveal if an animal is truly what it seems or a wizard in disguise. It will not hurt your rat, but it will put this matter to rest.”

Weasley did not look like he wanted Lupin to be casting any spells at him or Scabbers, but was too tired and hurt to put up much more of a fight and eventually just nodded and held the wriggling rodent up while leaning the rest of himself away as best he could.

Lupin took careful aim, there was a bright flash of blue-white light, and suddenly Scabbers was bubbling and bulging and growing. Weasley dropped him with a surprised shout and tried to roll away as a short, pudgy man with balding wheat blond hair and pinched ratty features was suddenly sprawled on the dusty floor before them.

Granger let out a little shriek that was echoed by Draco, but Black only went deathly still.

“Hello, Peter.”

“Ah, Sirius, my friend. What... what are you doing here?” The man squeaked, as if he had spent so long as a rat that he did not know how else to articulate. “And Remus. How, how lovely to see you both.”

“Admit to it, Peter. Tell them.”

“Sirius. Sirius, I had no choice.” Pettigrew went up on his knees, hands clasps in supplication (there was a finger missing on one of them), beady eyes darting over all of the faces in the room. “He would have killed me, I had no choice.”

“Then you should have died, Peter. Rather than betray your friends. Just as we would have died for you.”

Pettigrew squeaked again, tuning his pleading gaze on Lupin, who just sneered viciously enough to match Snape.

“You spied for him, Peter. You fed him secrets and information and you didn’t do it because you feared for your life. You did it because he was the biggest, meanest thing around and you just love to surround yourself with powerful friends. In school it was us,” Lupin gestured between him and Black, “ during the war...” With a sharp flick of his wand, Pettigrew’s left sleeve had been neatly severed at the elbow, revealing the faded familiar shape of a grinning skull and snake.

That seemed to silence him for a moment, aside from the panicked breathing.

“Is that enough, Moony?” Black asked, inching ever closer to Pettigrew, the skeletal fingers of his hands flexing with dark intentions. “Can we kill him now?”

“I think so, Padfoot.”

Pettigrew burst into loud tears.

But then Harry was stepping forward, out of Severus’ reach, “Wait! You can’t kill him.”

Lupin and Black sent him incredulous looks and even Draco was giving him a side eye. Granger and Weasley had both turned away, and Snape was far too quiet behind him. It was as if none of them were even thinking.

“Harry.” Lupin demurred, “He’s the reason you’re parents were killed.”

Voldemort is the reason they’re dead.” Harry bit out, glaring. “Pettigrew is the reason an innocent man spent twelve years in Azkaban. What do you think is going to happen if you execute Pettigrew here, like this? Sure, pensieve evidence could be put forth of his confession, but there is still the fact that this is premeditated murder of an unarmed man.” He looked pointedly at Black, “They’ll throw you right back into Azkaban, is that what you want?”

“I want him dead.”

“More than you want to be free?”

Black growled, the sound reminiscent of the large dog he’d pretended to be for so long.

“Harry...”

But he could see the logic breaking through, and after lashing out with a single vicious kick at the sobbing Pettigrew he retreated to the far corner of the room. Lupin conjured ropes, not meeting Harry’s eye as he did so. Was he ashamed of wanting revenge for his friends? He shouldn’t be, but there was a bigger picture here.

A hand on his shoulder had him looking up at his father, Severus gave him a sharp nod and Harry knew he’d done the right thing.

Pettigrew’s sobs were getting louder, so Snape conjured a gag for which even Black sent him a grateful look. Lupin magicked up a stretcher for Weasley, who seemed to have gone mute from shock and they all gratefully started down the stairs.

“Do not even think of trying anything, Peter.” Black was murmuring to the bound wizard as they reached the ground floor, Pettigrew nodded vigorously. Harry didn’t believe him for a second.

Which was all it took for the man to fake a trip, jostling Weasley’s stretcher and making the Gryffindor cry out in pain, the diversion giving Pettigrew just enough time to shrink down into rat form and slip his bonds. There was utter chaos for a moment before Jax let out a vicious hiss and lobbed a burring glob of venom into the rat’s path, making it change course only to find his new direction blocked by another fire hazard, driving him right into a Freezing Charm cast by Snape. Who then conjured a small box to stuff the immobilized rat into with a smirk.

But in those scant few moments, Jax’s fires had spread insanely quickly over the wooden floor and old broken furniture of the Shrieking Shack. Thick smoke was filling the room and Harry coughed into his sleeve, holding Jax close to his chest.

“This way!” Lupin yelled, followed by a loud crash as a giant hole was blasted into the side of the building.

Everybody rushed out, coughing and watery-eyed. Granger’s robes were scorched, as was her cat’s bottlebrush tail, but nobody seemed to be seriously injured. Except for Weasley and his leg, the redhead was gaping up at the burning building from his stretcher.

“My wand... it was still up there.”

“I’ll buy you a new one, kid.” Black laughed, slapping Weasley on the back lightly, the boy did not look reassured.

Sorry,” Jax hissed, hiding his face in Harry’s collar. “That was my bad.

It’s fine, Jax. You saved the day.

I did, didn’t I?” Harry tickled his tail and they all began the long walk back up to the castle.

They had to go down a bit first, before reaching the proper path up to the gates, but Harry didn’t mind the extra walking so much. It would give him time to think. So much had happened in so little time, it was nearly unfathomable.

He shivered against the night air, had they really been out so long? It shouldn't be this dark yet, and he could see his breath now. When had it gotten so cold?

No.

Just as the realization dawned, Severus had grabbed onto his arm with his free hand and shouted, “Dementors! Coming up the path. Remus, get the children to the castle. Black, take this.” He shoved the box into the man’s suddenly shaking hands and Harry at Lupin, before pulling his wand and facing behind them at the incoming mass of blackness. “Run!”

Harry didn’t want to leave him, he could see the tide of hooded figures now, there were too many, but Lupin was dragging him away; herding the others up the path. Harry watched his father conjure the beautiful, shining doe and send it charging at the pack of dementors, scattering them.

“Move, Harry. Severus can handle this. We need to get the others to safety.” Lupin ordered, and Harry finally looked away, the others, his friends, his godfather.

Harry pulled his own wand as they rushed up the path, there was darkness creeping in on his vision. He saw Black stumble but manage to keep his footing. A buzzing was sounding in the back of his mind and Harry knew the screaming would start soon. He would black out and they would get him and this whole night would have been for naught.

But then Lupin had summoned a patronus as well, a huge, hulking wolf that leapt down the path to join the doe in its efforts and Harry suddenly remembered he was not helpless. There was a shriek from ahead of them and Granger came stumbling back, pointing a shaking finger at the group of dementors that had apparently decided to circle around.

Harry brought up his wand, images of Jax and his love for him filling his every corner, even as the darkness and screams threatened to overtake him.

Expecto patronum.” Blue light shone from his wand, but no bat emerged. It was so much more difficult when faced with an actual dementor instead of the cozy sitting room of Severus’ quarters. Severus, his father, who loved him. Harry added the adoption and all the messy feelings it had drug out of him into the mix of swirling emotions and tried again. “Expecto patronum!”

A bat, small and awkward burst out of his wand to flap into the path the dementors. Ridiculous in the face of such evil. But amazingly they scattered, shrieking, from its presence.

“Excellent, Harry!” Lupin praised, as his little bat continued to circle around their group in a weird bobbing flight. “Severus will be so proud.”

Harry blushed, his patronus only seeming to get brighter at the thought, which made him flush harder.

The gates were in sight then, but they didn’t pause even after reaching them. Harry well remembered how the dementors had stormed the Quidditch match earlier that year. In fact, they didn’t stop fleeing until they had passed into the castle proper and closed the heavy doors behind them.

“What about Severus?” Harry asked, the guilt at leaving him behind to fight off the majority of the hoard creeping in. His bat dissolved in a poof of white light.

“He will be fine, Harry. I promise you.” Lupin soothed, herding everyone further into the entryway and away from the door.

“How do you know?”

“If I know a single thing about Severus Snape, it’s that he’s a survivor.”

Harry was about to move back towards the door in any case when it opened just far enough to let the Potion Master slip through before falling closed again, a large wooden bar appearing out of thin air to secure it further still.

Harry rushed forward, “Are you okay?”

Severus didn’t look injured, but he was paler than usual and there was a slight tremor to his hands as he pulled Harry close.

They stood like that for a long moment before a voice behind them chimed in an airy sort of tone, “Oh dearie me, whatever have you lot been up to? And with Sirius Black no less, might it have something to do with the little fire down at the village? This is sure to be an interesting story.”

Albus Dumbledore was coming down the grand stairs, taking in their various dishevelled forms with a twinkling eye. Harry scowled.

Chapter Text

“Headmaster,” Lupin said, a nervous hitch in his voice that was mostly overridden by plain weariness, “there is an explanation for all of this.”

Dumbledore smiled genially down at them all, even Black, and Harry had the sudden burning urge to jinx the condescending expression off the man’s face. He held back, if only from sheer self-preservation. Though why that particular trait was so slow in emerging that day, Harry couldn’t begin to fathom. If he’d managed it earlier, he probably wouldn’t have gone charging after an obviously rabid dog and ended up burning down an entire building.

“Of that I am quite sure there is, Remus.” The old man twinkled, “Even if only judging by the simple fact that Severus has not already rendered our guest duly restrained. Why don’t we all take this to my office and you can regale me with all the details.”

“I believe the hospital wing would be more prudent, Headmaster.” Snape cut in, “Weasley’s leg needs looking over and I am certain that the rest of the children could all do with some Calming Draughts at the very least.”

“Of course, of course. You are entirely correct, Severus. Let us all go pay Madam Pomfrey a nighttime visit, shall we?”

Harry watched carefully as their bedraggled group rustled themselves together enough to begin the trek up the stairs. Dumbledore took over the floating of Weasley’s stretcher, who looked on the verge of giving up the ghost entirely. Granger held her great lump of a cat in her arms and followed behind as if on autopilot. Professor Lupin was hovering close to Black, who was clutching the box in his hands so tightly that his skeletal fingers had gone white. Draco hung back to bring up the rear with Harry and Snape, the latter of which pulled the blonde to his other side much in the same way he had Harry.

“Are you hurt, Dragon?” The Potion Master murmured as they followed behind the rest of the group.

Draco just shook his head, though he was paler than Harry had ever seen him and his fancy Quidditch robes looked a little scorched at the edges. Harry was surprised at the other boy’s reticence, usually Draco basked in personal attention, especially when it came from his godfather. Perhaps the night had affected him more than he’d let on. Harry himself was still reeling from everything that had happened, he had not expected any of it when offering to track down Weasley’s wayward rat.

The hospital wing was empty when they arrived, thankfully.

Lupin when to fetch Madam Pomfrey from what Harry assumed to be her quarters through a door at the back of the room as Dumbledore directed Weasley’s stretcher on to one of the many free beds, vanishing it with a flick of his wand after the Gryffindor was safely settled.

When Pomfrey arrived, she was dressed in her nightgown and mediwitch cap, her hair up in rollers underneath, but she seemed perfectly awake as she bustled straight over to Weasley. Only doing the quickest of double-takes at the sight of Sirius Black in her domain, looking bloody-faced and no less crazy than his wanted posters as he stood awkwardly clutching his box in the center of the room. Although she apparently deemed a student’s welfare more important than getting an explanation for the escaped prisoner in her hospital wing.

Even though Harry strongly disliked having to undergo examinations of any sort, he did like Madam Pomfrey. Especially when it was not him that she was clucking over.

“What on earth have you done to your leg, Weasley? Broken for sure, and is this a bite mark?”

Weasley mumbled something but mostly just sat there as Pomfrey did something tricky with her wand which made his leg jerk a bit into the correct orientation with an unpleasant sounding noise, which seemed to be the last straw as the Gryffindor fell back in a dead faint.

“Probably for the best.” Pomfrey huffed, doing some more complicated wand movements over the leg and summoning a vile of something from the large cabinet against the far wall. She tipped it carefully down Weasley’s throat before tucking the boy into the bed with firm, experienced movements.

She then turned her formidable gaze upon the rest of them (not diminished in the least by the rollers under her cap or the prancing kittens on her nightgown). “Alright you lot, which of you is next?”

Before Harry could so much as make a move backwards, Severus was nudging him forwards with a solid hand between his shoulder blades.

“His hand, Poppy,” the Potion Master told her and Harry only then realized just how much it was throbbing.

“Let me see,” She took Harry by the arm near his elbow and pushed back the dirtied sleeve of his robe, tutting at the bloody and swollen digits. “You’ve certainly made a mess of things, haven't you. Scourgify.” The blood and dirt vanished, but that did not make it seem much better. “Episkey.”

Harry’s hand went suddenly very warm and then cool, the pain faded to a barely there hum and the majority of the swelling went down immediately. Pomfrey then summoned a jar of bruise paste and rubbed it into his hand and wrist with steady fingers, leaving behind a strong scent of mint and astringent.

“There, now don’t go beating down any more walls or we will be having words. And leave that on there for at least an hour.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Harry mumbled, cradling his wrist. Jax flicked his forked tongue out, scenting the paste and giving a rapid shake of his head in disgust a moment later.

Harry watched as Madam Pomfrey systematically went through the rest of them, checking over everybody (even the teachers). Making them all drink measures of Calming Draught and fixing various bumps and scrapes. By the time she reached Black, Lupin and Severus had filled Dumbledore in on everything that had transpired and the Headmaster was once more stroking his beard with a deeply contemplative look.

Black hadn’t said much, if anything at all, the entire time. Just stood rooted to his spot, holding the box like a lifeline and not moving except to sway on his feet as if caught in a swirling breeze nobody else could feel. Harry vaguely wondered how long his father’s Freezing Charm would last, as it did not look like he’d elected to include air holes. Though he was sure they would probably hear the squeaking, once Pettigrew recovered.

Black flinched when Madam Pomfrey raised her wand to him and she rolled her eyes, a hand fisted at the hip of her dressing gown. “No, no, I’m fine.” he rasped, sounding exactly the opposite of it.

“You listen to me, Sirius Black,” Pomfrey growled, jabbing her wand in his direction sharply, “you will sit on that bed and allow me to examine you, or so help me I will make you.”

Black sat.

Draco let out a quiet snigger and Severus was smirking, but Harry was watching the way Black trembled in his ragged clothes that hung off his too-thin frame in tatters. When the blood and grime had been cleared away, it had taken multiple applications of scourgify, what was left behind was sallow skin stretched gaunt over the high cheekbones of a face that might have been handsome once but that had been ravaged by time and hardship. Black’s eyes constantly darted around the room, stark white and framed by deep bruising. Harry felt a frisson of guilt as his hand gave a phantom twinge. Pomfrey tutted and huffed and fixed what she could of the surface problems, but made him down a plethora of different potions whilst muttering darkly to herself. The potions had taken a bit of convincing, as Black had not wanted to relinquish his hold on the box and refused to let himself be hand fed. Eventually, Lupin was able to gently prise the container from the man’s hands, though Black did not take his eyes off of it even then.

The pop of a house elf arriving was what finally tore Harry’s gaze away from his godfather. It was Fitzy, looking irritated and dressed in his usual pristine tea towel.

“Master Dumbledore, sir, the Minister for Magic is being at the castle door making such a ruckus. He is demanding to be let in sir, but Fitzy is telling him no. The Minister is having dementors with him, sir, and Fitzy knows Master Dumbledore is not wanting them in the castle.”

Harry blood went cold and there was a strangled noise from Black but a firm hand on his shoulder from the mediwitch kept him seated.

“Thank you, Fitzy.” The Headmaster said, looking a bit irritated himself. Which must have meant the man was extremely annoyed, to even let that much show. “You have done exactly right. You may return to the Minister and let him know that I shall be down momentarily.”

The elf bowed low and disappeared with another pop as Dumbledore turned to face them.

“I must go have what I suspect will be a lengthy conversation with our dear Minister.” He gave Black a look, “I would suggest a bit of discretion in the meanwhile, as I believe he will not leave until he is thoroughly convinced that no escaped convicts are within these walls.”

“The dementors--” Lupin started, but Dumbledore gave him a very firm shake of the head.

“No dementor will step foot in this castle so long as I am Headmaster.” And with a sweep of sparkling blue robes, the man was gone.

Harry turned back to look at Black but he had already transformed into the large shaggy dog (that at least had gotten a startled reaction out of Madam Pomfrey, who jumped back from the bed before swatting at the dog with a roll of bandages she’d pulled from somewhere). Black circled atop the covers of the bed a few times before burrowing underneath them, leaving behind a large lump in the center of the linens as the only indicator that he was there.

Snape nudged Harry to a different bed and he reluctantly crawled in after tugging off his muddied boots and dirtied robes. Jax seemed perfectly content to slither under the starched hospital wing beddings and coil up, it had been a rather exciting day for him after all, but Harry still felt too jittery to even think about trying to sleep.

Snape pulled the covers higher over him, not so subtly applying pressure to make Harry lay flat. There was a deep frown on the man's face, but he did not think it was due to anything Harry had done. Well, at least not yet. He knew there would be a reckoning for his unthinking behavior once everything had settled down. But oddly enough, that thought did not panic him as it once might have.

The hand that Severus ran through his hair as he removed Harry's glasses a moment later also helped.

The others had been shuffled into beds also, with Madam Pomfrey muttering about smoke inhalation and overnight observation.

There was a clattering at the door not long after and Dumbledore strolled back inside trailed by a flustered looking portly man in pinstriped robes who was clutching a line green bowler hat between his hands, Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic.

“--they swear Black was here, and I am not inclined to disbelieve them!”

“You may, of course, choose to believe what you wish, Minister, but as you can clearly see we do not have Sirius Black lurking about this evening.” Dumbledore said blithely, “I can give you a full tour of the castle if you desire. It may take quite some time, but to assuage your worried mind it
would be no trouble at all.”

“I don't have time for tours, Dumbledore!” Fudge spluttered, spinning his hat nervously in his hands, “Black was here. I expect he's responsible for the fire too!”

“Oh? Has there been a fire? I do hope nobody was hurt.”

Fudge flapped a dismissive hand, “Just the Shrieking Shack. But still, it was a very important landmark for the village, there will need to be consequences for its destruction.”

“And you are quite certain that it was Black responsible? Seems a bit attention drawing for a man on the run.”

“He's obviously gone mad, Dumbledore. I can’t even begin to try and puzzle out what that psycho is trying to do! And now this? The dementors are in a tizzy, and I've nothing to show them!”

“You know quite clearly my opinion on dementors, Cornelius.” The Headmaster's tone had cooled considerably, “Now, if you are sure that you do not wish a tour of the castle and grounds, then how about a cup of tea in my office? I've just acquired a delightful new selection of sour candies that I am sure you will enjoy.”

The Minister spluttered and grumbled and spun his ridiculous hat but was unable to stop Dumbledore from steering him out of the hospital wing and away.

Snape snorted softly at their departure, “Idiot.”

Harry smirked into his pillow.

~~~~~~~>

Harry woke to the sound of whimpering. It had grown darker in the hospital wing, the torches muted and the curtains drawn over the tall windows. Harry couldn’t remember having fallen asleep, and strongly suspected Pompey of spiking their Calming Draughts with something a bit stronger. He fumbled for his glasses and looked around for the source of the noise.

Black had unearthed himself from his nest of blankets and was curled tightly atop his bed, still in dog form. He was twitching and whining in a high pitched frequency that pulled at Harry's heart in an uncomfortable way.

Before he could think better of it, Harry was slipping out of bed and shuffling across the cold stone floor on socked feet. At the first tentative brush of his fingers against the dog’s trembling flank, Black jolted awake. Harry snatched his hand away out of biting range, but Black only stared up at him with some hurt emotion made deeper by his current guise. Harry was glad when he gave a full body shudder and retook his human shape.

He did not look well rested, hair still dirty and lank around his shoulder and eyes sunken in, but at least Black no longer bared evidence of Harry's anger.

They stared at each other for a heavy moment before Harry felt compelled to speak.

“Erm, I apologize for punching you... a lot. Lord Black.” the words felt clunky and overly ceremonial, but Harry felt so out of his depth here that he'd just fallen back on the stiff formalities of his first year.

Black seemed to feel the same as he made a face and groaned softly, rubbing a hand over his gaunt features tiredly.

“Merlin, kid, don’t start with that Lord shite. Call me Sirius, or Padfoot if you like, hell I'll even take Snuffles over that.”

Harry nodded, sticking his hands in the pockets of his trousers to stop them from twisting together and giving away just how nervous he was.

“I am sorry, though, you didn't deserve that.”

Black let out a soft bark of a laugh, humorless and dry.

“Oh, I don't know, if I hadn't switched with that rat thinking I was being clever none of this would have happened.”

Harry scowled, irritated at martyrdom that colored the man's words.

“If we're going by that logic, then it should be my fault entirely because the Dark Lord was after me in the first place. If I hadn't been born, they would still be alive.”

Black looked stricken at that, his sallow face paling to the color of curdled milk in the low torchlight.

No, Harry. No, no, no, don't ever think that. That maniac targeted you because he was crazy, don't ever think that is on you.”

Harry gave Black a pointed look, and the man sighed ruefully, raking a hand through his tangled hair, or at least attempting to as the fingers got stuck not far into the endeavor.

“I see your point.” Black did not sound relieved by the logic trap, but Harry knew these things could take time. He, himself, was still suffering somewhat under the conditioning of the Dursleys. He’d overcome much of it, but things still cropped up every once in a while like an irritating rash that refused to be completely eradicated.

They lapsed into another awkward, heavy, silence before Black spoke again.

“So, Slytherin, huh? I would have thought Gryffindor.” the words weren't accusatory, but rather sad, as if it were just another thing weighing down the man's already burdened spirits.

“Why?” Harry narrowed his eyes, “Because my parents were Gryffindors? I am not them, Mr. Black. I never knew them, or had a chance to be influenced by them. So if you are expecting me to be a carbon copy of James Potter, you will be disappointed.”

Black winced, “I didn’t... I just... I know you’re not James. I know. I only thought it would be good if you had the chance to experience some of the same things he did, even if you never... never got to know him.”

Harry sighed, he hadn’t meant to be so harsh with the man. It was obvious he was hurting, and Harry had come over with the express purpose of trying to help. He let the bubbling resentment die.

“Close friends are not exclusive to Gryffindors, but if it makes you feel better I have a very good one in that House. Along with a few from the others as well.” Harry thought of his study group, still somewhat amazed that he’d managed such a wide variety of acquaintances. Eight year old Harry would have been mind-blown at the thought of so many other children willingly spending time with him.

“Good. That’s... good, Harry. You should have friends.” Another too long pause, “I was worried when they dragged that pair of muggles into the prison. Not often you get muggles in Azkaban. I thought maybe, maybe something terrible had happened to you.”

Something had, Harry thought but didn’t say, instead just quirking a surprised eyebrow.

“You saw Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon?” Were they suffering? Had Vernon withered away from the walrus of a man he’d been to a shrunken skeleton like Black? Was Petunia still kicking and spitting futility against the consequences of her actions?

Harry hoped so. A not so small and vengeful part of him hoped so very much indeed.

“Oh yeah, never seen so spiteful and self-righteous a woman come screaming in there since dear cousin Bella. The bloke didn’t last long, you can always tell when they aren't cut out to survive. Her though, she’ll probably finish the entire stint out of pure spite.”

“Sounds like her.” Harry snorted, he tried to drum up any sort of sympathy for Vernon, but unsurprisingly found himself quite unable to. He still bore scars across his back. Still refused to change in front of the other boys in his dorm, or shower when he knew someone else was in the bathroom as well.

Just because the man had died did not automatically entitle him to any sort of forgiveness or pity on Harry’s part.

He did wonder vaguely if Dudley knew, if he’d ever been allowed to see his parents after they’d been carted away by the Aurors.

“You know Harry, once Peter is turned in, I’ll be a free man.” Black cut into his musings, and a trickling foreboding began to tickle along his spine. He didn’t let it show in his face, but Harry could see where the man was going with that non-sequitur. “I don’t know if anyone told you, but I’m your godfather.”

“I know.” Harry said flatly, the hands in his pockets turning to fists.

Black did not seem to register his reticence, instead giving Harry what he supposed might have been considered a warm and welcoming smile on a face less filled with yellowed teeth and haunted gray eyes.

“Once I’m free, you could, you could come live with me. Like your parents wanted. Like it should have been from the start.”

“I have a home.” Harry tried to soften the words, but they were firm and absolute nonetheless. Sirius Black might be his godfather, but Harry had an actual father now. One he had known for years, that he trusted and... and loved. He would not let Black take that away from him, no matter how tragic his own life had been in comparison. “I live with Severus, have since the end of first year.”

The tentative smile fell from Black’s face and he scowled. “Him? You can’t trust him, Harry. He’s a greasy, lying, bigoted--”

“He is my father.” Harry cut off Black’s tirade, glaring full out now, one of his hands had escaped and was jabbing a furious finger at the man. “He has cared for me and protected me for years. He took me in when I had nowhere to go. He is the reason the Dursleys were sent to Azkaban. He was the one who noticed there was something wrong with where I had come from nearly the moment I first set foot in this castle. He adopted me, when he did not have to. You will not insult him in front of me.”

Black gaped, but seemed to rally after a moment, his next words a harsh pleading rasp. “You are not safe with him, Harry. He’s a Death Eater.”

“He was a Death Eater. Not anymore.” Harry countered, unsurprised to see the shock on Black’s face at Harry’s complete non-reaction to something that should have been a nail in the proverbial coffin. “He told me all about that, and I believe him. I will not deny that Severus made mistakes, bad ones, but he has more than made up for them.”

Black was not mollified, desperation creeping into his voice. “Snape is a murderer, Harry. He’s killed people.”

“So have I.” The words came out easier than he’d expected, though they left a dark heaviness at the back of his throat.

Black blinked, the anger washing away to be replaced by a nauseating amount of soft pity.

“No, Harry. No. You were just a baby. That was not your fault, don’t ever think that’s on you.”

“I’m not talking about Voldemort.” Harry spat, irrationally annoyed at the way the man flinched at the name. “In first year there was a professor that dragged me and my two friends into the forest to kill us. I killed him instead.”

A sense memory of burnt garlic and charred blackened skin washed over Harry and he shuddered, but did not look away from Sirius Black. Who seemed to have finally been struck dumb, though at least the pity had been washed away. Harry could feel himself hunching up. He had not talked about Quirrell since Millicent’s boggart, and even longer before that. It was not something he liked to dwell on.

“Harry... Harry, that was self-defence, nobody would blame you.” Black’s words were soft again, as if Harry were a skittish animal.

“Maybe.” Harry shrugged, wishing the stench of rancid garlic would leave his nose. “But even when I knew I’d beaten him, that he wouldn’t be able to hurt me or my friends anymore, I still kept on. Until he finally stopped moving and I saw the light go out in his eyes and I knew he was dead.”

Instead of the expected disgust and hatred, Harry saw tears build up in Black’s eyes and the man reached out and pulled Harry into a fierce hug. His arms were boney and Harry could feel ribs under the tattered fragments of his clothes, but there was unmistakable warmth and acceptance and protectiveness in the embrace.

Harry was so shocked that he just stood there stiffly and let the man hold him, cup the back of his head and weep silent tears into his tunic.

“Oh, Harry. I am so sorry. I should have been there.”

Harry patted Black awkwardly on the back, completely flummoxed. This was not the sort of reaction one usually got after admitting to serious felonies.

“Severus was there.” He said finally, hoping the words might prompt Black into loosening his grip. “After. After it happened, he found us and got rid of the... the evidence. Nobody else ever found out, they just think Quirrell up and ran off, if they cared at all. He wasn’t a very good teacher.”

The last part was meant as a joke, but it felt weak even to his own ears.

Black did let him go though, and Harry struggled not to immediately take a few good steps backward.

Harry shot a worried glance around the room, suddenly aware that he’d been speaking of highly sensitive subject matter in a room full of people. But Weasley was still snoring loudly at the end of the row, and Granger was sleeping with a large amount of ginger cat on her head, fighting for pillow space with her voluminous hair. Draco had that pinched look on his pale face that said he was dreaming of something mildly unpleasant, like shoes that didn’t match the rest of his outfit, or a Hufflepuff victory in Quidditch. Lupin was passed out on an uncomfortable looking chair, his head tilted back at what was sure to be an unpleasant angle, the conjured box held loosely in his lap (air holes had been added).

But Severus was awake. He sat in another chair, one positioned close to Harry’s bedside. The Potion Master’s eyes were closed, and his posture loose for the most part. But Harry could tell he was feigning sleep. The set out his shoulders maybe, or the not quite deep enough breaths. Whatever it was, Harry knew he’d been listening in. The idea did not bother him as much as it might have on other occasions. It was more a comfort than anything.

He turned back to Black.

“Sirius.” He softened his own words, used the man’s given name in concession even if he wasn’t all that comfortable with the informality just yet. “I have a home, a father. But that does not mean I wish to cut you out completely. I would like to get to know you.” It surprised him how true the words felt, and Harry wondered if it was selfish to want more family in his life, after he’d already been given a second chance at a parent.

“I want that too, Harry. So much.” The wetness was threatening to spill over in Black’s eyes again, but Harry pushed forward resolutely with what he needed to say.

“Then you will have to accept that Severus will be a part of that. I will not tolerate you bad-mouthing him, or calling him juvenile names, or trying to take me away from him.”

Black looked pained but he nodded after a moment.

“You need help, Sirius. Rehabilitation and retribution, I would like to help you with that. I know a fantastic lawyer, she will make certain that Pettigrew never sees the light of another day. But you also need to recover, get your head back on straight and to eat more than a few good meals.” Harry took a breath, he did not like talking about the Dursleys, but if it helped put things in perspective he would. “When I ran away, at the beginning of first year. I was pretty messed up too, I still am a bit, I didn’t like people touching me or being in big crowds and I snuck food from meals to stockpile in my trunk; just in case. I had recurring night terrors so bad that Severus prescribed me Dreamless Sleep up until the beginning of second year, by which time the fledgling Occlumency he had begun teaching me allowed me to finally get a consistent restful sleep schedule. The point, Sirius,” Harry sighed, “is that I had a lot of problems and I got help for them.”

The man had slumped back against the wall, boney fingers twisting at the duvet under him, gray eyes flicking around the room at anything but Harry.

“It’s...” Black swallowed, “that’s... that shouldn’t have happened. You shouldn’t have gone through that.”

“No.” Harry shrugged, “But it did. And I survived. And so will you, if you let yourself heal.”

There was deep guilt on the man’s face, plain across his gaunt features. Harry had seen that same fathomless well in his father, though he suspected Black would not appreciate the comparison.

Sirius Black was tattered and skeletal and beaten down, twisted nearly past the point of endurance and in need of a very thorough bath. But Harry did not think him completely broken, nor past the point of recovery. It would take time, but he would have that in spades once Pettigrew was dealt with. And Harry was not lying when he’d said he’d like to get to know him, once the dust settled.

As long as he stopped insulting Severus with every other word.

The two might never see eye to eye, of that Harry was certain. But perhaps with time they could come to an armistice, at the very least.

Harry went back to bed not long after, but he didn’t really sleep, just closed his eyes and curled next to Jax; listening to the sounds of the other’s doing what he found himself unable to. After a number of minutes, he felt fingers brushing through his messy hair. His father’s steady hand, soothing away the heaviness weighing Harry’s thoughts.

Chapter Text

Severus Snape had not slept in nearly thirty hours, unwilling to drop his guard around Black. Who, after his son returned to his own bed, proceeded to pass out cold and had not woken again since. No matter that it was going on mid-morning and there were things that needed doing. Urgent and time-sensitive matters that did not account for beauty sleep. Curtains had been drawn around Black’s bed, as the man had not even had the courtesy to return to his mangy mutt form.

And did that not just rankle?

That Black and his cronies had not only managed an extremely dangerous and highly controlled branch of magic, but had done it at fifteen, with no one else the wiser. Not even Severus himself, who had wasted an unconscionable amount of time and effort into ferreting out any useful information about his adolescent tormentors.

Severus narrowed his eyes at the pulled curtains, old familiar irritation prickling along his skin. There was a headache brewing at his temple, lack of sleep paired with a frankly unnecessarily numerous reunion of deplorable former classmates. He was contemplating liberating a Headache Cure from the infirmary stores, and perhaps a dash of Wake Up (a potion sternly regulated by Poppy to be handed out only to N.E.W.T. students in limited quantities, though Severus was well aware of the vast black market that cycled around the school during exam times. He never put much effort into stymieing the trade, if a student was clever enough to brew and supply the finicky potion, he was not one to stand in the way of enterprise) to clear away the fog creeping in.

Before he could shift from his position however, a steaming cup of tea smelling strongly of bergamot was being held out to him.

“Here, you look as if you need this.”

Severus glared at Lupin, not taking the cup. The wolf looked just as rumpled as the rest of them, a light dusting of stubble overtaking his jaw and the bags under his eyes just a shade darker than usual. He was looking up at Severus with a meekness in his brown eyes that did not become him and further fed into the irritation and betrayal that Severus felt coiling in a dark, acidic mass dangerously close to his heart.

“I had the elves put a bit of lavender in it.” The words were so soft, repentant. They twisted at him and Severus fucking loathed the man for how much he was unable to hate him. To brush Remus aside forever as just one more terrible life decision to add to the pile of ill thought out choices he had made over the years.

Lavender. As if bringing the exact perfect thing that he could wish to drink at that moment would make up for anything.

As if Severus could so easily be plied.

“I brought a couple scones as well, I know you haven’t eaten.” He produced a folded cloth from a pocket, “They’re cranberry and lemon.”

Damn him. Damn Remus Lupin to burning hell and back. Damn his earnest face and shabby clothes and the absolutely obscene amount of knowledge he had of Severus’ favorite things.

He took the tea.

“I am still furious with you.” He glared over the unfairly perfect cup.

“I know.” The wolf nodded, at least having the decency to not smile, even if he could not completely contain the satisfaction in his eyes.

Severus took the napkin of scones as well, “I’m not sharing these, either.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Severus snorted and moved from his vigil against the wall across from Black’s cordoned off bed and over to where Harry was eating his own breakfast with the recently arrived Zabini and Bulstrode (the latter of which was sneaking bites of bacon to his son’s serpent). If Lupin was trailing after him, Severus was paying the man no further mind.

Harry smiled at him when he approached, a small thing, more in the eyes than anything. Still, there was a warmth of affection for the boy that flushed out a good portion of the negativity swirling about Severus’ insides. That this child had such power over him... well, Severus had long resigned himself to that fate.

“Mr. Zabini, Miss Bulstrode.” He nodded at the pair of them before taking another deep drink of the tea that tasted just as much of groveling as it did Earl Gray.

“Professor.” the pair chimed back, before returning their full attentions on Harry.

Zabini in particular looked contrite at finding his friend in the hospital wing rather than any other, far more reasonable place.

Severus settled in the abandoned chair by the bedside, nibbling on the scones and watching with some amusement the game of eyebrows and significant looks that passed between the pair of them before Harry simply huffed loudly and fell back against his pillows in defeat.

“It’s not as if I meant to end up here.” Harry protested, “I’m not even the one that broke a leg!”

Zabini’s eyes narrowed.

“That mangled limbs were even a possibility should have told you enough to know to avoid whatever situation brought you here.”

Harry rolled his eyes but did not seem to have a response for that, or at least not one that wouldn’t dig his hole further. Severus took another bite of scone, fighting back a smirk.

“So are you going to tell us what did happen?” Bulstrode asked, apparently tired of watching the staring contest that had arisen between the two boys. Harry cut his gaze to Severus, the question clear.

The news would spread quickly enough, once Black had the inclination to finally rise for the day and they could move this entire tasteless affair along. Still, caution was never something one should dismiss out of hand.

He cast a muffliato before giving Harry a nod. There was no one aside from the still snoring Weasley and a Ganger frantically scribbling across parchment across the wing, but anybody could arrive with little notice. His godson seemed to have disappeared into the privy at the back of the room some time ago and had not reappeared since. No doubt taking advantage of what meager facilities were on offer. Though if any one of them was in need of a good scrubbing, it was definitely not that scion of the House of Black.

Finishing off his tea, Severus watched as Bulstrode’s brows slowly climbed higher whilst Zabini’s drew down in contrast as Harry explained the night’s events to them.

“They were both animagus?” Zabini questioned at the end, “Unregistered, of course. But why? Why keep it a secret so long? Pettigrew at least could half come forward after Black was locked up and lied his way through any explanation, saying he was hiding out of fear for his life. Being an unregistered animagus was nothing compared to what the ministry was dealing with back then, they wouldn’t have cared.”

“And he could have informed them about Black as well, making certain he never had the possibility to escape like he did.” Bulstrode added.

Severus did so enjoy when his snakes were clever.

“Peter was never one for critical thinking.” Lupin sighed, and Severus pointedly continued to ignore his presence, picking delicately at the final scone instead. “Or for doing more work than was strictly necessary. It probably seemed a decent enough exchange, getting to laze about with a wizarding family and not have to do much of anything except eat and sleep and remain as he was in rat form.”

All three children had matching grimaces of disgust on their faces at this, and Severus was not far off from one of his own.

“That still doesn’t explain why they were animagus in the first place,” Zabini persisted, “if Pettigrew was so lazy, there was no way he’d put that sort of effort into anything without a good reason.”

Lupin went a shade pale but did not shrink back as Severus might have expected. He folded his hands over a knee to stop the traitorous digits from reaching out to the man, comfort was not something Severus was willing to extend at the moment.

He should not even feel the urge.

Should have burned every last ounce of erroneous affection from his system.

Still, irrationally, he found himself unable to do so.

“I expect the news may spread whether I wish it or not.” Lupin began, only to be interrupted by a scowling Harry.

“I wouldn’t tell anybody.”

“No,” The man said softly, “I don’t believe you would. But you are not the only person aware of the truth.”

“Granger’s been keeping her mouth shut too. And we can talk to Weasley, I’m sure he can be convinced. You did save him last night too.”

Lupin sighed. Severus could see he was only humoring Harry when he nodded, that he believed the wolf well and truly out of the bag no matter what measures they tried to take. Severus was not so sure about that, even if rumors were to spread, they could be easily squashed as the schoolyard gossip of bored teenagers. If Pettigrew attempted to bargain by spouting off about it, there were few that would believe the rat after learning what lies and lengths he went through to save his own wretched hide.

Severus scowled out the window, he should not be thinking of ways to protect Lupin. He should be letting his anger and betrayal fester and grow enough to allow him the strength to push the man away completely.

But Severus knew he wouldn’t.

He was so tired of being bitter and lonely and any number of other bleak and painful states of being that he had spent so much of his life wrapping himself in, like a hated, oily, second skin that burned and ate away at everything it touched.

So busy was he fighting with his own mind, that Severus very nearly missed Lupin letting the two Slytherins in on his secret.

“They became animagi because they were friends with me in school and I am a werewolf.” The words were just about as tired and bitter as Severus’ current thoughts.

Bulstrode’s eyes bulged but she did not say anything, Zabini in contrast looked to be holding in a bout of incredulous laughter.

“Wait,” The boy said, pointing a finger at Lupin, “your name is Remus Lupin and you’re a werewolf?”

Lupin grimaced, rubbing the back of his neck, “An unfortunate coincidence, but yes.” He sent the boy a speculative look, “Though not many wizards are familiar with that story, Mr. Zabini.”

Dio mio,” Zabini rolled his eyes, “I’m Italian.”

“Ah, yes of course. My apologies.” Lupin sounded amused more than contrite, which was better than horridly maudlin.

Severus was reserving that particular emotion for himself.

~~~~~~~>

Harry picked at his breakfast, not really feeling up to eating as the others talked quietly around him. But judging by the looks Severus, Blaise, and Millicent kept collectively shooting him, he would not be given the luxury of forgoing a meal under their watch. So he shoveled another spoonful of porridge into his mouth and soldiered on.

Draco appeared a moment later, looking entirely put out that he’d had to resort to donning his dirtied Quidditch things again after his shower. His pale face pinched in that particular way that spelled out that Harry would not be hearing the end of it for quite some time.

The blonde was thankfully headed off however by Millicent, who snorted and stomped over to him.

“There you are, the game is going to start soon. Unless you want us to have to use the reserve Seeker.” If possible, Draco looked even more affronted than before.

“Over my dead body, Bulstrode.”

Draco seemed about ready to charge off right then but stopped before taking more than two steps, looking over at Harry and the others gathered around his bed.

“Should I stay? Do you need me to stay?” Harry felt a ridiculous wave of affection for the other boy.

Draco looked so earnest in that moment, completely willing to throw the most important game of the season (something Harry would have never considered remotely possible given the other boy’s obsession with the wizarding sport). He had grown so much from the pretentious bully he’d once been and Harry was so relieved to see that.

“You may go.” Severus waved a permissive hand, “In fact, I believe it probably best that all of you attend the game.”

“But--” Harry protested, darting a glance over to the curtained off bed.

“It will be handled, Harry.” The Potion Master murmured, taking his empty tray and giving him a look that brokered no arguments. “You have done enough for now, go and enjoy the match.”

Harry would have much rather stayed to make completely sure that Black was being taken care of properly, but he knew there was no chance of convincing the man when he had that particular glint in his black eyes. So Harry reluctantly got out of bed and slipped on his boots, forgoing the dirty robe.

“He should get cleaned up.” Harry said as he laced up the dragonhide boots. “And someone needs to contact Miss Reid. And someone should make sure Weasley doesn’t go blabbing about Professor Lupin. And--”

Harry.” Severus cut off his rambling, placing a firm hand on his shoulder. “It will be handled. Go, enjoy the match.”

As if to emphasize his point, Ivy Reid came strolling through the door to the hospital wing a second later. Her pointed heels making sharp clicking sounds with every step and dressed in her usual immaculate way.

“You already owled her?” Harry looked up at Severus, who scowled.

“I wish this to be over in as expedient a fashion as possible.” The Potion Master sniffed, “I had a house elf send a letter off early this morning.”

Harry couldn’t hold in his smile, “Thank you.”

The hand on his shoulder squeezed tighter for the briefest moment before the man was pushing him in the direction of the door.

“We will speak later.”

Harry nodded, sending one last glance at where Black was hidden away.

~~~~~~~>

Severus watched carefully as the children left, some more reluctantly than others. Ivy Reid gave his son a friendly nod as they passed but thankfully did not halt the boy’s progress out of the hospital wing.

“You had best wake Black.” He told Lupin without looking at the man and going to greet Miss Reid himself.

“Severus, how wonderful to see you.” She held out a hand, her grip just as firm as he remembered. “I hear you have a delightfully juicy case for me.”

Severus resisted the urge to snort derisively and merely nodded.

“I think it best that any details be discussed behind closed doors.” At his words, the mangy mutt that was Black nosed his way past the curtained off bed and trotted after Lupin in the direction of the hospital wing’s facilities. Hopefully to wash off some of the swirling miasma of grease and despair that clung to his wasted form, if only for the sake of the rest of their noses if nothing else. “I shall see if we may avail Poppy of her office for the morning.”

He motioned Ivy to follow and soon had her settled with a cup of tea (and another, slightly less perfect than the one before, for himself that he drained far too quickly).

“I do hope young Mr. Snape has not gotten himself into more trouble.” She prodded gently, taking a delicate sip of her own cup.

The use of the surname, its connotations and apparent ease of use by the woman was a sly manipulation to perhaps catch Severus off guard so that he might reveal more. Or maybe just an attempt to set him at ease, given his unfortunately obvious tension. Either way, he found himself relaxing from the drawn up pose he’d been unconsciously been stiffening into since her arrival.

“After a fashion,” He murmured, taking a slower drink of his third cup of the morning, “but no, he is only an accessory in this matter. Your client is someone of a more... iniquitous nature.”

“Oh?” She raised a sleek eyebrow, intrigued. “How interesting. Should we be expecting their arrival soon?”

Severus did snort then, given the layers of filth Black had managed to collect about his person, he highly doubted a quick rinse would do him much good.

“It may be a moment. Would you like something aside from tea while we wait?”

She smiled, “That would be lovely, Severus. Thank you.”

He summoned a plate of delicate macarons from the kitchens, something he remembered Ivy having a particular fondness for.

“If you will excuse me. I must take care of a small matter. I shall be back momentarily.”

“Of course, of course. Take your time.” She said before biting into one of the treats and making a pleased sound. “Ooh, these are divine.”

Back in the hospital wing proper Severus could see Miss Granger still furiously scribbling away at her parchment, a thick Rune dictionary open on the bed beside her and ink spots dotting the duvet in increasing numbers as she continued to work at a frankly worrying pace. He turned towards the other occupant in the room, Mr. Weasley had at last woken and relieved them all of the thunderous sonance of his snores.

Poppy was fussing over him, prodding at the recently mended limb and checking for signs of smoke related problems as she’d done with the rest of them earlier.

“Everything looks to be in order, Mr. Weasley.” The mediwitch clucked, “Stand up for me a moment, anything still sore? Any grinding? Throbbing? Hot spots?”

The boy shook his head and she bustled him back onto the bed.

“Good, good. Here, eat.” She tapped the bedside table with her wand and a large tray of breakfast foods appeared, “You may leave once you’ve finished.”

She leveled Weasley with a stern glare as the boy wasted no time in shoving strips of bacon into his mouth. “You are to return here immediately if anything twinges.”

“Y’s, Mad’m Po’fry.” He managed around his bacon, Severus sneered at the appalling manners.

Poppy nodded briskly and went over to bully Miss Granger into eating her own untouched meal.

Severus stepped up to the boy’s bedside and cast another muffliato. He expected Weasley to be beset by various Gryffindors soon enough, and he needed to make the situation exceedingly clear before that happened. He suspected the only reason that Weasley had not yet been surrounded by a number of other redheads was the imminent Quidditch game and the distractions such things caused.

A small mercy amongst the absolute fiasco of everything else that had happened.

“One usually endeavors to chew their food before attempting to swallow it, Mr. Weasley.” He said dryly, unsurprised at the way the boy immediately choked and broke down into a coughing fit that left him watery eyed but otherwise intact. Severus could feel the sneer pulling at his features, but was not inclined to muffle the expression.

“Professor Snape!” Weasley gaped up at him, thankfully without any half-chewed food in his mouth. “What happened? Did you get Scabbers-- er, I mean Pettigrew? What’s--”

Severus held up a palm in a sharp gesture, commanding silence.

“The situation is being handled, Mr. Weasley. I merely wish to impart upon you the extreme importance of discretion in this matter.” He leveled the boy with a narrow-eyed glare, satisfied when he immediately shrank back and nodded. “You are not to go spreading rumors about anything you may have seen last night. Not about Black. Not about your erstwhile rat. And more assuredly nothing concerning Professor Lupin’s condition.”

“But- but he’s a werewolf, sir.” Weasley squeaked, looking appalled at his own daring.

“A fact that every member of this staff is fully aware of. Including Headmaster Dumbledore, the man in charge of hiring him. You will keep your silence in this matter, do I make myself clear Mr. Weasley?”

Sufficiently cowed, the boy nodded again, muttering, “Don’t really want anybody knowing I had some random bloke sleeping on my pillow anyway.”

“Indeed not.”

He left Weasley to inhale the remainders of his breakfast and returned to the office to await the arrival of Black and Lupin.

As furious as he was with the wolf, Severus had not been about to let such loose ends muck things up. Where all this blasted sentimentality had come from, he would be hard pressed to realize. Thankfully he was saved from such self-actualizing contemplations by the arrival of the brunt of much of his internal upheaval.

Lupin had managed to shave whilst sequestered away with Black, though it did not do much to improve his rumpled appearance.

“Ah, hello Miss Reid, lovely to see you again.” The wolf offered Ivy a tired, infuriatingly genuine, smile.

“Ivy, please.” She requested, rising smoothly from her seat and offering her hand. “Are you the one I’m here for?”

“Oh, no. Not me, I’m afraid.” He shuffled a to the side far enough for Black to nose his way into the room, dripping water across the stone floor with every loping step. Severus sneered at the dog and flicked his wand so that the office door shut with a sharp click.

Ivy quirked an eyebrow at the newest addition to the room but did not have time to say anything before Black was giving a rapid shiver (flicking yet more water around the office) and retaking his human form. The prison rags had been done away with, replaced by what Severus knew to be a set of Lupin’s spare clothes. While not as ragged as his previous attire, the warn garments still hung off Black’s skeletal frame like some muggle scarecrow. Severus also found himself irrationally irked that Lupin had chosen to clothe him in his own things, surely the hospital wing had robes to spare enough to make such a gesture completely unnecessary.

Black’s hair had not been cut, still a tangled mass reaching down past his shoulders, but at the very least he no longer reeked.

“Huh.” Ivy Reid smirked, “This should be an interesting story, then.”

It took upwards of an hour to explain. Much of that time Severus spent alternating between glaring at Black, avoiding Lupin’s searching gaze, and drinking copious amounts of very strong tea.

As he suspected, Miss Reid had the case well in hand with very few foreseeable complications. Pettigrew’s box was sitting on the desk, it had started squeaking about ten minutes into the discussion, and Severus had wasted no time in shooting another Freezing Charm through one of the holes Lupin had conjured into its side. He itched to send something more painful through, but refrained.

Black rasped out his tale, words bitter and caustic as anything Severus himself might have said. Pausing only to wet his throat with tea that did nothing to improve his speaking voice, and to answer questions posed by Ivy as she took pages and pages of notes with a viciously sharp looking quill in her equally sharp-nailed hand.

The only interruption was that of Albus arriving towards the end of the hour.

“Hello everyone, I do hope I haven't missed the entire meeting. The morning has quite gotten away from me I am afraid.” He twinkled, conjuring a squishy chair to sit on, further overcrowding the office.

Severus resisted the urge to sigh heavily, he had not told the Headmaster about the meeting. It was not that Severus did not trust the man, it was that he did not trust the man with Harry. And he had a sinking suspicion that the Headmaster would do his absolute best to restore Black’s dubious good name, if only to try and gain inroads with Severus’ son. A foolish notion, as he doubted there was a single person on this earth that Harry wanted less to do with than Albus Dumbledore. And Severus could not help echoing that sentiment somewhat, given events of the last few years.

He would always owe a debt to Albus, for taking him into his trust and allowing him to turn spy. But somehow he suspected it was not as weighted a scale as it might once have been. Things had changed, and he found himself less willing to play the obedient pawn in the old man’s game.

Ivy ignored the Headmaster’s arrival, though Lupin did pass him over a cup of tea (reaching across Severus to do so and pressing far too firmly into his space).

“I think that I have just about enough to get things rolling right away.” Ivy said, shuffling her various parchment paged into a neat stack and stowing them away in her briefcase. “It should be safe enough now to release Pettigrew into the hand of competent Aurors, stressing that he is to be kept in a cell impossible for his rat form to escape from. I have the feeling the Ministry will want to expedite this process as much as possible so as to incur as little damage to their reputation as possible.”

Black barked out a laugh, “They’ll have a time of it trying to sweep this under the rug.”

Ivy smirked, it was a sharp, poisonous expression, “Oh yes, I intend to make that quite difficult for them indeed. You are owed vast reparations here, Lord Black. I will not let a few fragile egos stand in the way of that sort of justice.”

“I am sure there are a few cages I can rattle in your favor, Sirius.” Albus butted in, eyes a-twinkle. “Have no worries at all about this, we’ll get everything sorted.”

Severus hid his own smirk behind his cup as Ivy leveled an exceedingly unimpressed look at the Headmaster.

“You will do no such thing, Albus Dumbledore. In fact, you should count your lucky stars that my client has not chosen to bring you up on charges as well, given this horrendous miscarriage of justice at your hand.”

“What?” Black blinked, startled.

“I am afraid I don’t quite know what you mean, Ivy, dear.” Albus demurred, though his blue eyes had gone from their ubiquitous twinkle to steely rather quickly.

A hand suddenly gripped tightly over his knee and Severus did not have the presence of mind to shove Lupin away as he should have done, too busy watching the exchange before him.

“That’s Miss Reid to you, Headmaster Dumbledore, and I’ll thank you to remember it. Are you denying then, that you were in fact Head of the Wizengamot when Lord Black was denied a fair trial?”

“Wait,” Black rasped, still blinking at the sudden tension in the room that he found himself in the middle of, “that was Barty Crouch, wasn’t it? He’s the one that locked me away.”

“No,” Ivy cut in before Albus could respond, “Bartemius Crouch was Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Which gave him a frightening amount of oversight during the war, oversight he would not have had without the backing of the Wizengamot and its Head. Approval for such actions had to come from somewhere, Lord Black. And you are looking at the source right now.”

The fingers dug painfully into his leg, but still Severus could not look away. He remembered when Crouch had attempted to have him sent to Azkaban, how Dumbledore had stepped in and given testimony and had him acquitted. It was inconceivable that the man would not have been just as involved in whatever farce of a trial Black was to be given. Before the previous night, Severus had assumed just such had happened. A facsimile of justice before Black was tossed to the dementors to be devoured slowly for the rest of his twice-cursed life. Severus himself had been far too deep in his own grief by then to look further past the fact that Black was caught and suffering. Not caring to know any more details past that.

Ivy was entirely correct, however. And Albus knew it, judging by the sudden softening of his gaze as he looked over at Black who’s sallow skin had gone pale, gray eyes wide and heavy with the knowledge of yet another betrayal.

“Sirius, my boy, you know I would never have allowed that had I known. It was such chaos after that night, and regretfully there were things that slipped past my notice. I am eternally sorry that you were one of those things.”

Bullshit, Severus thought, the fingers gripping his knees seemed to clench in agreement. Albus would never have left a single facet of that circumstance outside of his purview. Not given how immensely relevant it was to his war and that blasted prophecy that had forced the Potters into hiding in the first place.

Black did not seem to be buying it either, as he gazed over at the Headmaster with deadened eyes.

“I think...” He rasped, “I think it would be best if you left now.”

“Of course, Sirius, if that is what you wish. I’ll just go send a message off to the Aurors, I believe Kingsley and Sturgis will be more than up to the task. ” Albus rose easily enough, knowing when to retreat from a losing battle. “You are, of course, welcome to stay at Hogwarts for as long as you need to recover.” He offered magnanimously, “I am certain Harry would relish the opportunity to get to know you at last.”

Severus could feel his own hackles rising along with Black’s as the man silently watched the Headmaster exit, closing the door softly behind himself.

Ivy was the one to break the silence with a snarling huff that's sounded more akin to a wrathful dragon than any human noise.

“I can not stand that man. Not when I was in school, and even less so now that I am out of it.”

Severus allowed himself a commiserating glance as he finally set down his barren cup.

“Was he always like that?” Black asked, still glaring at the closed door, there was a tremble rattling over his shoulders under the borrowed clothes, though if it originated from his heightened emotions or the number of other issues he was currently suffering under, Severus couldn't tell. “I don't remember Dumbledore being anything so spiderish before.”

Severus snorted, answering in his driest voice, “Remind me Black, how many detentions were you given for attempting to murder me?”

The hand that had relaxed against his leg suddenly tightened again, and Severus would have felt guilty about it if he was not still so very, very angry.

Black flinched, glared, opened his mouth to spew whatever vitriol was ever-ready to spit at him before closing it again without comment and slumping back in his chair, the epitome of miserable defeat.

Ivy quirked an eyebrow, “That will have to be a story for another time, lads. If Dumbledore has indeed gone to alert the Aurors then I have a very busy day ahead of me.”

She flicked out two sharp fingers at Black, a business card appearing between them in amid a wash of neon sparks.

“Do not talk to any Aurors without me present, or Dumbledore for that matter. You know what? Just lay low and don't speak to anybody without my say so.”

Black took the card mechanically, raking his free hand through his unruly mane that had finally dried enough to cease dripping all over.

“I've managed that for a year, I suppose a few more days won't be that hard.”

“That's the spirit!” Ivy patted him on the arm before offering her goodbyes to Severus and Lupin as well. “Give Harry my best, I'd better be off if we're to get well ahead of this.”

Severus stood to escort her out of the office and through the hospital wing, partly out of politeness, partly to relieve himself of Lupin's hand upon his person.

As he opened the door to the office, Granger's beast of a cat came through in a streak of ginger fur to leap into Black’s lap. The man startled badly but took the invasion with little other reaction, petting the loudly rumbling animal with absent strokes. Severus resisted the urge to roll his eyes and shut the door with a snap. He had absolutely no desire to spend more time than strictly necessary in Black’s presence, less if at all possible.

Lupin could be in charge of wrangling the man, given they were so close. He’d already clothed the mongrel. Severus would not be surprised to find he had personally scrubbed the dirt from his back...

He cut off that train of thought before it could drag him even further into a pool of bitter anger and supremely unwarranted possessiveness towards the wolf. Lupin could do as he wished, Severus would not stop him.

“Bee in your bonnet, Severus?” Ivy quipped, a teasing tilt to the smirk she aimed up at him as they walked the corridors. He had not meant to escort her quite so far, but the thought of turning back left an acrid taste in his mouth.

“Perpetually.” He deadpanned, only half-joking.

“Well, if it’s the juxtaposition of the recent adoption and a soon to be declared innocent godfather, you have both the moral and legal high ground. It was you caring for that child for years, and there are mountains of evidence towards you for continuing to be the preferred caregiver. Black might have been named godfather by the boy's birth parents, but he is in no position to care for so much as a goldfish at the moment.”

Severus remained silent, but he could not deny that a weight had been lifted somewhere inside him. He’d listened to the conversation between his son and Black the previous night, knew that Harry would not easily forsake his place with him. Nor tolerate machinations towards such an end. But that did little to sooth the part of himself that would forever be braced against abandonment and the self-loathing that encased it, feeding into the darkness built up over a lifetime of rejection and loss.

That place was smaller than it once had been, but there nonetheless. A constant reminder to always be prepared for the worst. To avoid attachments. To not leave himself vulnerable.

That was perhaps the root to why Lupin’s actions, omissions, had left Severus so livid. Aside from the very real danger such actions had put his son in, Severus had trusted Lupin. Against his better judgment he had let the other man in close, far too close apparently. Given that Severus had allowed himself to be so blinded by... by affection.

He should shut the wolf out completely, should make it exceedingly clear that Severus would not be laid so bare again. Made so weak.

And yet.

And yet, he found the very idea of cutting the man so cruelly away left Severus aching and bereft in a manner equally as painful as the betrayal itself.

It was like a virus inside him, eating away.

Damn Remus Lupin.

Just. Just damn him.

Chapter Text

“It was a fluke! A whim of chance! Perhaps even sabotage, I wouldn't put it past those devil twins!”

Harry patted Draco consolingly on the back, very firmly keeping his amusement at the blonde’s theatrics to himself.

It had been a very close match. The Gryffindors (led by a nearly rabid Oliver Wood) had fought hard against Slytherin. Giving back just as viciously as they got, leading to a large number of fouls on both sides. Millicent had wound up with a bloodied nose at one point, but it only seemed to anger her and make any Bludger that came across her path that much more deadly accurate.

In the end however, Ginny Weasley had managed to pull off an impressive bit of flying and outmaneuvered Draco to catch the Snitch by mere inches.

“I was performing at a disadvantage!” The boy continued, throwing his arms in the air and slumping down on one of the long benches that ran through the Slytherin changing room. Harry and Blaise had headed down at once, knowing there was sure to be some damage control needed. “Those hospital wing beds are hardly conducive to a proper night’s sleep.”

Blaise was leaning against the wall and not hiding his smirk at all.

The older players had already left by that point, no doubt unwilling to listen to Draco whining and bemoaning their loss of the Cup when they could be drowning their own sorrows with whatever contraband they thought Snape didn't know about.

Millicent was the only other player that stayed back and as she walked by to stow her gear she bumped Draco hard enough to make him stop complaining about Quidditch and start sputtering indignantly instead. To which Millicent replied by hooking him around the neck and giving the blonde one of the roughest noogies Harry had ever witnessed.

Blaise was snickering openly now, but it was hard to hear over the squawking.

Jax slithered over then, apparently finished with his exploration of the locker room. The serpent gave the struggling Draco an unimpressed look before climbing his way back up to Harry’s shoulders.

This place smells like sweaty humans, let’s go somewhere nicer.

Harry scritched under the snake’s chin and nodded, even Harry with his less sensitive nose would rather not have to endure the atmosphere much longer. The only surprise being that Blaise wasn’t the first to raise a complaint, too busy snickering at Draco’s expense he supposed.

After Millicent finally relinquished her hold on the blonde, Harry convinced them to go back up to the hospital wing. To get Millicent’s nose looked at properly and also so that he could check on the other situation. But when they got there, Madame Pomfrey was the only person present.

She fixed up Millicent’s nose with a tut before shuffling them all out and refusing to answer any of Harry’s questions.

“I’m going down to Snape’s.” He told the others, “I want to know what happened while we were at the game.”

“I’ll come with you.” Blaise said.

Millicent looked ready to declare the same but Draco put his foot down.

“Showers, Bulstrode. We can catch up with them after.”

She rolled her eyes but followed Draco gamely enough when it came time to part paths in the dungeons.

Severus was not in his office, however. Harry only hesitated a moment before turning them towards the Potion Master’s private quarters. He had requested to be informed before Harry brought anybody else in there, but if the man wasn’t home they could just leave right away.

Severus was there however, sitting in one of the chairs in front of the fire and seemed to be fueling it with the power of his glower alone.

Harry stopped short of entering the room proper, unsure. But Severus seemed to sense his presence in any case and waved a hand without looking away from the dancing flames.

“Do cease hovering, it interferes with my brooding.”

Harry let out a choked snort and a corner of the Potion Master’s mouth curled ever so slightly upwards before falling back into its usual frown.

“Erm, Blaise is here too.” Harry said, most likely unnecessarily, and made his way forward to take his usual seat.

“Mr. Zabini.” Severus flicked a look at Blaise but did not seem overly put out at the other boy's presence.

Blaise, on the other hand, was looking around the sitting room with interest, taking in the many towering shelves of books, warm lighting, and large patterned rug that covered much of the stone floor softening the space considerably.

“You have lovely quarters, Professor.” He said, taking the last remaining armchair and patting the dark leather approvingly.

“I think it well past the time for flattery, Mr. Zabini.” Severus said dryly.

Blaise smirked his smarmiest expression, “Oh, I think there’s always time for flattery, sir.”

That got an amused snort out of the Potion Master, “Well, you are your mother’s son.”

Blaise shot a tiny wink at Harry, looking pleased with himself. Although that was usually how Blaise looked, so...

“What happened with Miss Reid?” Harry asked, before things could dissolve into anything more ridiculous.

“She is as competent and driven as expected.” Severus said, finally breaking his gaze from the fire, there were dark circles weighing down his eyes and Harry doubted the man had slept at all since the previous day. A wash of guilt ran through him at keeping Severus from his rest even further. “I do believe she will be exceedingly tenacious in this case, so you may rest assured that your godfather will be free and clear with all due haste.”

Severus had said godfather as if it were the vilest curse, but Harry didn't call him on it. He knew Black and his father had been at odds since their school days. Along with James Potter, who Severus had never made a secret of loathing. He was still helping Black, despite everything. Harry could hardly ask for more than that when he barely knew the other man himself.

“What about Professor Lupin, did someone talk to Ron Weasley?”

“I had a conversation with him. He should not be a problem.” The darkly amused smirk that flickered momentarily on the man’s face had Harry suspecting Weasley may be in need of new pants along with a wand and rat.

Harry thought he ought to talk with the Gryffindor too, an apology for this whole fiasco couldn't hurt. It wasn't Weasley’s fault he’d gotten so tangled in it and come out the worst of everyone except perhaps Pettigrew.

Ask about the rat.” Jax demanded, tickling Harry's ear with his flicking tongue. “I knew there was something wrong with that little fucker from the first time I smelt him on the train, remember?

Harry did, thinking back. He wondered how things might have turned out if he'd stayed in that compartment instead of running out and finding Millicent instead.

“Did the Aurors come for Pettigrew?”

“Kingsley, in fact. So I trust he will be handled professionally.”

“Oh, good.” Harry had liked Kingsley, the man had been willing to put himself at the mercy of an extremely skeptical and wary eleven year old, just to put Harry more at ease.

The Potion Master had just summoned some tea for them and was passing out cups when a chime sounded throughout the room. He quirked an eyebrow at Harry who grimaced slightly.

“That's probably Draco. Fair warning, we lost the game.”

Severus sighed, “The day just keeps on giving, doesn't it? Minerva is sure to not let me hear the end of this for a good long while.”

Blaise snickered as Severus left to answer the door, muttering about lost galleons. Harry held his cup up for Jax to take a flicking taste as Blaise rose to go inspect the nearest bookcase with a mildly bored expression that really meant he was quite fascinated by what he saw.

Harry couldn't blame him, he’d been equally entranced by the collection himself and often spent time here after his private lessons reading one volume or another. Although, just as at Spinner’s End, there was a section warded against anyone besides the Potion Master himself. Harry would be lying if he said he wasn't curious about what might be found in such highly guarded tomes.

Severus returned a moment later, trailed by a moodily griping Draco and a much quieter but equally as grumpy looking Millicent. Though Millicent tended to always look a bit grouchy, so it was sometimes hard to tell when she was truly upset. Harry gave it even odds that her mood was due to having to listen to Draco endlessly bemoan as the loss of the Quidditch Cup itself.

Draco usurped Blaise's abandoned chair with an ease that said he'd been in Severus’ private quarters before. It wasn't so unlikely a supposition, given that he was Draco’s godfather.

Millicent joined Blaise over by the bookcase but chose to lean against the corner rather than peruse the spines.

“I mean really, there should be a limit on the number of gingers allowed on a team.” Draco said petulantly, taking a chocolate chip hippogriff from the tea tray and biting its head off with unnecessary viciousness.

Jax abandoned his perch on Harry's shoulder and slithered over to the blonde, coiling up in his lap and looking at Draco with expectant purple eyes. Draco dug a wriggling candy mouse from a pocket of his robes and let the snake snap it up from his fingers without pausing in his dark muttering. Harry rolled his eyes at the smug serpent, who had settled down to accept his due pets and scritches.

Harry did not mind the complaining so much just then, it took his mind off of everything that had happened in the last day. His father seemed to be of a similar thought, as he didn’t dissuade Draco from prattling on; merely summoning more tea and biscuits before settling heavily back into his seat.

It was a bit odd, having so many people in a place he considered to be so private a setting. The only other person he had seen in the Potion Master’s quarters had been Lupin, and the less he thought about that embarrassing situation the better. He knew his father to be an exceedingly private person, and that he would allow so many bodies to invade his sanctuary said a lot about how exhausted the man must be. Or, perhaps, his willingness to put Harry’s wants and needs above his own. Either way, it caused guilt to bubble acidicly up the back of his throat and Harry cut Draco’s tirade short not long after. Managing to urge the blonde out of his chair and towards the door.

“Come on, it’s almost time for dinner, let’s go before the Gryffindors claim all the food as spoils of war.”

“Not an altogether unprecedented fear.” Severus drawled. He sent Harry a look that said he knew exactly what he was doing, but Harry could also see that the gesture was appreciated nonetheless.

The man might be willing to put up with any number of inconveniences for Harry, but that did not mean that Harry wanted him to. He might have prefered to stay and spend the evening alone with his father, to reassure himself that he was still wanted even now that an opportunity to give Harry away to be someone else’s problem had arisen. But he wasn’t about to make the Potion Master needlessly suffer on account of Harry’s own insecurities. There would be time to talk later, after things had settled.

~~~~~~~>

 

The next week was one of the most harrowing of Severus’ life. Not only were the O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s fast approaching, meaning an increase in frantic students haranguing him at every opportunity (the looming spectre of standardized tests temporarily curing many of their fear of the Potion Master). He had also been burdened with supervision of a number of Minerva’s detentions, consequences of the lost Quidditch bet, as if the significant lightening of his coin purse was not enough. Then there were the three long meetings he had attended with Ivy Reid, Lupin, and Black. Severus was not strictly required to attend them, but he was not about to be shut out of anything that might have to do with his son, however peripherally.

Pettigrew’s trial was set for the following week, proving Ivy correct in her assessment that the Ministry wanted the entire fiasco over with as quickly and quietly as possible. Although Severus expected the news of it to break any day now. Just that morning the Daily Prophet had splashed out loudly that the dementors were being recalled to Azkaban, that the search for Black had been cancelled by direct order of the Minister for Magic himself. Fudge had not given public reason as to why he was calling off the search, which would only lead to an avalanche of backlash as soon as the full truth came to light. It would have been far better to have come entirely clean all at once, Severus thought, like ripping off a muggle plaster. This was not a situation that one could easily mitigate, and definitely not one in which you wanted to appear as if to be hiding something of vital importance from the public eye.

Perhaps a silver lining could be found in that their idiot of a Minister would be hard pressed to keep his political standing after this. The next election cycle was sure to see some real competition for the job.

Then there was Lupin.

Lupin who took every opportunity to stare at him with those blasted, morose brown eyes when he thought Severus was not looking. So obviously miserable and full of irritatingly genuine remorse. He still sat next to Severus at meals but did not encroach upon his personal space as he once had. There were no amusingly biting comments about their co-workers or hands resting on his leg under the table. In fact, Lupin hardly seemed to be eating at all, just pushing his roasted vegetables around his plate and barely touching the steak the elves made rare especially for the wolf. Severus had even witnessed the man refuse dessert altogether. Chocolate. A day that Remus Lupin passed on eating chocolate was a sure sign of dire circumstances.

It should have given Severus a thrill of vindictive pleasure to know that Lupin was suffering just as much as he was. It did not. In fact, it had the opposite effect in simply making Severus’ own mood that much darker.

Something needed to be done, he could not deal with this ache inside himself for much longer. It was ridiculous, he should be well accustomed to misery and betrayal. They were old friends after all, Severus had known suffering far longer than anything else in his life.

That did not mean however that he should have to endure it to such extremes any further. Having tasted happiness, Severus was loath to give it up. What Lupin had done was idiotic, cowardly, and perfidious in equal measure. But perhaps not entirely unforgivable.

Severus Snape was not a person inclined to giving people second chances, that was Albus Dumbledore’s forte, but neither could he deny that he wished things to return to as they had been. He had grown disgustingly attached to the wolf, accustomed to spending evenings together (and nights, and mornings). The other man was intelligent, if far too modest to admit as much even as they spent hours discussing obscure topics with equal passion and drive. He was willing to put up with Severus’ short temper and prickly exterior, managing more often than not to sooth away whatever idiocy had raised his ire and doing his utmost to make Severus forget he was ever irritated in the first place. He had lost count of the number of mornings they had nearly been late to breakfast, or stayed up far longer into the night than was entirely feasible given the sheer amount of dunderheaded students they had to deal with the following day.

Severus had never been so acutely aware of how cold the other side of his bed was, until it had become bereft of the wolf’s presence for the past week. A ridiculous notion, as Severus had gone thirteen years with it in that state and never once had such a problem. Lupin had not even stayed down in the dungeons with him every night before then, three or four times a week, yes, but it was insane to suggest that that had such an impact on the space as to make it entirely too difficult for him to find any sort of meaningful rest now. Severus tossed and turned, casting warming charms and cushioning spells, but nothing seemed to work.

At least nothing aside from tossing his own pillow across the room in a fit of pique and curling around the one that smelled of Remus.

He was pathetic.

Severus should be full to bursting with righteous anger, not wallowing in misery like a pubescent girl.

He refused to let this drag at him any longer. Lupin had not attempted to corner him yet, perhaps distracted by Black (it rankled like an invisible itch under his skin to know the man was staying in Remus’ quarters for the duration of the trial, if not longer), or too afraid to confront Severus directly about his mistake. Instead, trying to soften him up by leaving little packages for Severus in his inbox, reminiscent of the months the wolf had spent trying to persuade Severus into a date. Lupin had also offered to take on the extra detentions, but Severus had flatly refused, he needed something on which to vent his frustrations and misbehaving students were so convenient a target (as much as he’d complained to Minerva about having to deal with them).

The gifts did nothing to lighten his mood. In fact, they seemed to have the opposite effect and Severus found himself binning the no doubt overpriced sweets more often than not. He did not want placations, or implied apologies, or those damned eyes staring up at him whilst their owner refused to eat. He wanted the ache in his chest gone. He wanted Black nowhere near his son. He wanted Remus to not have lied, by omission or otherwise. He wanted so many impossible things.

Which was why he found himself striding in the direction of the wolf’s office, determined to resolve something. Be it a definite end or to begin an attempt to mend what was broken, Severus was through with waiting for Lupin to make a determined move. He would not prolong his own suffering simply because the man was too tentative to come to him himself.

There was a small line of fifth and seventh year students gathered around Lupin's office door, all of them looking exhausted and besieged by the imminent exams, but they scattered before his glower easily enough; which was mildly satisfying if nothing else.

He gave the door to the office a sharp rap before entering, not bothering to wait for permission. Inside Lupin was consoling a weepy looking Hufflepuff whose hands seemed more ink than skin and looked to be missing not a few strands of hair from habitual nervous tugging.

“Ah, hello Severus.” Lupin smiled tiredly up at him, as if not at all surprised by his unsolicited appearance. “Just a moment, please.”

Severus folded his arms and narrowed his eyes at an empty tank taking up much of a side table. The recent dwelling of a bogkip, judging by the ring of iridescent residue left along what would have been the waterline. Devious little amphibians, they secreted a virulent hallucination out of their pores that smelled of fresh flowers and sweet air, tempting unwitting victims to pet them and absorb the toxins through their skin to their kaleidoscopic demise. Probably diluted, however, the substance was a versatile ingredient in many potions (legal and otherwise).

“Now, Alec, there is no need to worry so much. You have shown nothing but exemplary work in my class. I am going to write you a note to take up to Madam Pomfrey, she'll get you a nice Calming Draught, alright?”

“Y-yes, Professor.”

The boy clutched at the strip of parchment as if it were a lifeline and sidled out past Severus as if afraid he might reach out and snatch it from him.

“Am I to presume you scared off any other lingering students?” Lupin asked once they were alone.

Severus snorted, “Whatever inquiries they might have had must not have been of dire importance, the way they fled.”

Lupin chuckled, amused where another might have been chiding. Something throbbed in his chest and Severus resisted the urge to rub at it.

The wolf stood and circled his desk, leaning against the edge of it with his hands in the pockets of his shabby robes. The smile had faded and those heavy, morose, eyes were back, staring up at Severus like a kicked puppy.

It infuriated him.

“Stop looking at me like that!” He hissed, equal parts relieved and annoyed when the other man instantly dropped his gaze.

“Severus...”

“No. I am angry. You do not get to look like that when I am angry. When I have every right to be furious.”

“Severus, I--"

Severus shot out a hand in a cutting gesture and Lupin fell silent, hunched in his warn and patched robes, looking far smaller and downtrodden than he had any right to be.

“I trusted you, Remus.” The wolf flinched, “You understand how rare of a thing that is for me, correct? Especially given our... past.”

“I know. I'm sorry, Severus. You must know how sorry I am. How much I regret not telling you. How much I hate myself for still being so cowardly, so afraid to lose the people-- person, I held closest.”

Severus did know. He knew far too well the urge to keep secrets for fear of their reprisals. Which was why he was here, why he was even contemplating giving the wolf a second chance. As much as it incensed him, as much as he wished he did not grasp the magnitude of such deeply inset tendencies, as much as he wished he could just hate the wolf, toss him away and be done with it; Severus did understand.

He knew the omission was not malicious in nature. As difficult as it was to admit to himself that somebody might care for him, Severus would not allow his own insecurities to mask reality, or compound the already painful, aching tumult into something worse. As much as he had spent the past week emulating one in private, Severus was not in point of fact a teenage girl, and he refused to permit the continuation of this downward spiral simply because it was the more familiar path.

That did not mean however that he intended to make it easy on Lupin.

“You endangered my son.” The words were cold, hard-edged. It was undoubtedly the most grievous consequence and the wolf gave a satisfyingly painful flinch, hunching still smaller before him.

“I did.” Lupin's response was as brittle as Severus’ accusation had been damning. He at least had the decency not to deny it. “I don't... I don't expect forgiveness, nor do I deserve it. I was so focused on what I stood to lose that I fooled myself into thinking it was not such a big lie. I thought‘he has the Map, surely that is enough’. I promised myself I would tell you exactly what Sirius was the next time you asked how he was getting into the castle, but you never did. So I selfishly kept it to myself, far past the time it would have been prudent to come forward. And then it had been too long, and I was afraid of how much you would hate me for each day added to it that I remained silent.”

Lupin's voice had gone thick and there was a wetness to the eyes that looked up at him, despite Severus’ earlier insistence that the man cease.

“I never intended that Harry be hurt, I would never...” But he had.

“And since when have intentions ever mattered when bodies start falling, Remus?”

The man flinched again, running a shaking hand through his gray streaked hair.

Never.” He whispered.

“Never.” Severus repeated.

He let the wolf chew on that for a long, heavy moment before he spoke again.

“I understand why you did it. What I wish to know is how you plan to remedy the situation.”

“I-- what?” Lupin blinked, surprise momentarily outweighing the anguish.

Severus rolled his eyes, “Sweets secreted into my inbox and endless dejected puppy eyes will not gain you much favor. I can not be bought so easily. So I ask again: how do you plan to earn my forgiveness?”

“You... you’re giving me a second chance?”

“Obviously.” Severus huffed, “Against my better judgement I find myself,” he mulled a moment for an appropriate word, “disinclined to ending this relationship.”

Severus had never vocalized that he considered what had been happening between him and Lupin so concrete a construct. As if to acknowledge it as such would mean the other man had won some imaginary contest, had bested Severus in a test of wills. It was absurd, of course, but so much of the entire situation up until that point had been as well. Never in his lifetime would Severus have thought to consider the wolf as anything more than a horrifying, unwanted reminder of his ill-spent youth. Only drug forth when confronted by his snarling, rabid boggart or on rare nights when he had a touch too much firewhisky to stop himself becoming maudlinly reminiscent. Until Lupin had shown up quite unasked in his life once more and managed to completely blindside him into a frankly revolting amount of sentiment.

Lupin let out a choked sort of noise before pushing off the desk with such force that it slid back a few noisy inches, giving Severus precious little time to brace himself against the impact of the other man against his front. Remus clung to him tight enough to make his ribs creak in protest, no doubt wrinkling his robes beyond reason.

Severus let him, if only for a moment.

Suppressing the shudder that wanted to wrack through him at the feel of the Remus’ face pressed into the curve of his neck, the smell of fresh earth and old books that clung to him (that had nearly faded from the pillow still laying solitarily upon Severus’ bed).

“Severus.” The wolf breathed into his skin, “Severus, I am so sorry.”

Severus pushed him back, out of his space to arm's length so that he did not give in to the urge to embrace Remus in return.

“Then prove it.”

“Anything.” Lupin pressed against the hands braced on his shoulders but did not try to step closer. “Whatever you want. Just tell me and I’ll do it.”

The rush of emotion that flew through him at that pleading statement was heady and left a burning trail of possessive, vindictive, power tingling along his insides. Remus really would do whatever he asked in that moment. He could demand the man never see Sirius Black again, to prove once and for all that Severus was the one to command the wolf’s attention. That Black held no claim at all to the man before him.

It was a vile compulsion and Severus knew it. It would breed resentment and hate and eventually Severus would be alone again with no one to blame save himself.

As much as he detested the thought of Black holding any sort of sway over Remus, of the mutt languishing even now in the man’s private quarters (perhaps even his bed), he could not demand that Remus shun Black completely.

“You will not lie to me again.” He said instead.

“Of course, yes.” Lupin agreed readily, a hand coming up to encircle one of his wrists, as if afraid Severus might attempt to escape.

“If I find you have done so, there will be no third chance.” Severus did not care how much such a thought gutted him, or what dark abyss he would surely fall into should the wolf prove an unfitting partner. Severus would tear his own heart out of his chest and crush it beneath his boot heel before allowing the man to make a fool of him thrice. Lupin nodded mutely, the scared fingers around his wrist tightening enough to make the bones shift.

“You will make sure Black keeps a civil tongue. I will not tolerate his disrespect nor any attempts on his part to prejudice my own son against me.” Harry had already made his stance quite clear to the mutt, but Severus had a feeling the message would take quite a few reiterations to fully sink into his arrogant skull.

“I’ll speak with him. I won’t be complacent again.” A tentative smile made its way past the mix of earnestness and budding hope framing the wolf’s miserable expression, the thumb of the hand holding Severus’ wrist hostage brushing along the inside in an appallingly sweet gesture. “I won’t allow Sirius to insult the man I love.”

Oh, that was not fair. Severus narrowed his gaze at Remus, fighting hard against the torrent of warmth that suffused him, centering at his suddenly racing heart. A thunderous staccato no doubt easily felt by the thumb pressed so firmly to the inside of his wrist. Severus tugged his hand free with a jerk but found himself unable to move further away, rooted to the spot by what Remus had just had the audacity to say.

How dare he?

Severus was supposed to be furious with the man! How was he meant to sustain his righteous anger when presented with such an admittance? How was he meant to fight against the painful throb of blood in his veins, pumped far too quickly from his illogical, damnable heart. Severus had the sickening suspicion that he was blushing, if the wretched heat prickling along his face was any indication.

He scowled at Remus Lupin whilst clutching his own wrist and feeling the echo of the tattoo beating there. He scowled, glared, took a looming stride forward as the man’s own eyes went wide and he opened his mouth to no doubt spew forth more damning words.

“Severus--”

Severus did not give Remus an opportunity to speak more than that, fisting the front of the wolf’s shabby robes he pulled the man into a bruising, possessive, hungry kiss that lasted nearly a full minute before roughly thrusting the panting, shaking man away from him with a growl.

Lupin caught himself on the edge of the desk, else he might have ended up on the floor. His brown eyes were almost completely lost in a sea of black pupil, his scarred face flushed darkly as he licked at swollen lips.

“This does not mean you are forgiven.” Severus tugged smartly at his own robes, straightening out creases and smoothing away lines as an excuse to not have to look at the utter disaster Remus was presenting, sprawled and still breathing heavily against his desk.

“O-of course not.”

Severus nodded sharply, “I shall see you at dinner then.” He gave the bedraggled wolf a final, thorough once over. “Enjoy the remainder of your office hours.”

He swept from the office with deliberate aplomb, startling the flock of fifth and seventh years that had regrouped outside the door. One especially flighty looking Ravenclaw dropping a torrent of scrolls all down her front to roll across the length of the corridor. Severus paid them little heed, already making lengthy strides down to the familiar, cooled, depths of the dungeons. The lower temperature a blessing against his still-warm skin.

Things were not completely at ease, he was still cross with Remus, genuine apology and heart wrenching declaration notwithstanding. But it was a start. The heavy cloud that seemed to have been following Severus around for the past week had dissipated by a good margin, enough to perhaps see a hint of light on the horizon.