A/N: Hello again! Yes, I know it's been quite a while since my last update. Sorry about that. But as I'm sure most of you are aware by now, my life is super busy, though I always promise to write whenever I get the chance.
To those who have expressed concerns that this story may be abandoned, don't worry. I've invested far too much time and effort into this tale to simply walk away from it now. I have so much fun writing it, too! :)
But anyways, on with the chapter. We last left off with the revelation that Hogwarts will be closed for Christmas...
Within seconds, Harry was on his feet, rushing over to the notice board to verify this new information for himself.
Because there had to be a mistake. Why would they send everybody home for Christmas? They hadn't done so last year. Why should this year be any different?
The boy's eyes quickly scanned the messages tacked up on the wall, but it didn't take long to spot the one he was looking for. It was posted right in the center of the board, next to the Quidditch match schedule and a list of meeting times for the newly-formed Wizard's Chess Club.
Due to the Ministry's Desire to Strengthen Security Measures Around the School, Hogwarts will be CLOSED Over the Winter Holidays. ALL Students Will Be Required to Vacate the Premises During That Time. Letters Will Be Sent Out to Notify All Families of This Development.
Any Questions Regarding This Matter Shall Be Directed to Your Head of House.
We Apologize for Any Inconvenience This May Cause You or Your Family This Holiday Season.
Harry couldn't help but to let out a humorless laugh as he read that last statement. An inconvenience? Is that what they thought this was? A minor annoyance, perhaps, but ultimately not a big deal?
He slowly began to shake his head as the reality sank in. No, this wasn't an inconvenience.
This was a disaster.
"No," he finally said out loud. "That can't be."
"Don't worry," Ron answered. "Hermione will figure out a way to preserve the potion until we get the chance to use it."
"If we could just finish the potion, we wouldn't have to worry about preserving it," Hermione put in. "But that's going to be trickier to do now. We're going to need to get ahold of a little bit of the people we intend to turn int—"
"No, you don't understand!" Harry suddenly interrupted. He didn't care about the stupid Polyjuice Potion anymore. It didn't matter! In fact, he had half a mind to march down to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom just then to pour the whole concoction down the toilet.
"What is it, Harry?" Hermione suddenly sounded concerned.
There was silence for several seconds then. And at the worried looks on his friends' faces, Harry couldn't take it anymore. He needed to get out of there.
"Nothing," he finally managed to answer. "I'm just going to go study in my dorm for a while."
"It's almost dinnerti—" Ron started to say.
"I'm not hungry," was the quick reply, Harry already halfway up the stone staircase that led to the dormitories.
And a moment later, Ron and Hermione were alone.
"What was that about?" Ron asked.
Hermione frowned as she slowly shook her head. "I think he's just disappointed. He really enjoyed Christmas at Hogwarts last year, didn't he?"
Ron nodded. "Yeah. I've never seen anyone get so excited over a Christmas present before. His relatives must not do much for the holidays."
Hermione sighed, thinking. "He needs to eat something."
"So do I," Ron responded, turning to head for the exit.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Do you ever think of anyone but yourself?"
"Of course I do," Ron answered. "I'll bring back a plate of food for Harry if he decides not to show up."
"You'll eat it all before it makes it to the common room," Hermione pointed out.
"Will not," Ron defended himself. "I'll make sure to leave at least half for Harry.
"Oh, how generous," Hermione replied sarcastically, finally turning away from the stairs to follow Ron out of the common room.
"Yes, I know," the redhead returned with a grin.
Hermione just sighed and shook her head in exasperation.
Harry sat on the floor of his dormitory, staring longingly down at the picture of his mother clutched firmly in his hands.
"What do I do, Mum?" he whispered quietly to the young, smiling girl. "I can't go back to the Dursleys. They don't want me, anymore. Where do I go?"
The silence that followed was deafening, and Harry soon found himself blinking back tears as the quiet pressed in on him, almost suffocating in its intensity. He had never felt so alone in his entire life. And that included all those times he had been locked away in the cupboard under the stairs for hours or even days at a time. Because at least then, he knew the Dursleys would be there eventually to let him out.
Now there was no one.
He had known he would have to deal with this problem eventually, of course. He just hadn't expected it to creep up on him so soon. He thought he would have until the end of the school year to work something out. Maybe by then he could have come up with a really good argument for why the headmaster should allow him to stay at the school over the summer.
But apparently it wasn't to be. He was now completely alone in the world.
And he had no idea what to do about it.
Severus scowled as he glanced once more at the clock on the dungeon wall.
"Twenty minutes late," he practically growled, pushing his chair away from his desk and abruptly getting to his feet. He then swept towards the classroom entrance. "That brat better be at death's door," he continued, flinging the door wide open.
And just then, pounding footsteps could be heard echoing off the stone walls just moments before a young Gryffindor boy with wildly unruly hair skidded to a halt in front of the professor.
But one look at the expression on the man's face was enough to make Harry quickly take a step back and duck his head in fear. Because Severus Snape looked absolutely livid.
And Harry had no good reason for being late.
Snape just glared down at the top of the boy's head, arms crossed and eyebrows raised.
"What time was your detention scheduled for, Mr. Potter?" Snape finally asked, that silky voice sending shivers down Harry's spine.
Harry bit his lip, a lump forming quickly in his throat. "A-after dinner, sir," he finally managed to say.
"And how long ago did dinner end?" the man continued.
"I'm sorry," Harry whispered, still staring at the floor.
Snape reached forward then to grip Harry's chin and force the boy to look at him. He was surprised to note the redness around the boy's eyes, but decided not to comment on it just then.
"You didn't answer the question," the man pointed out.
"I lost track of time," Harry tried to explain. "I'm sorry."
"I see," Snape stated, finally releasing the child's chin. "Well, perhaps you would have had a better idea of when dinner was over if you had actually attended that meal, Mr. Potter."
"I wasn't hungry," Harry answered automatically, immediately averting his gaze.
"I do not care," Snape snapped. "From now on you will not skip any meals, Potter, or I will have Madam Pomfrey reinstate your suspension from the Gryffindor quidditch team."
"But you can't—"
"Try me," the man practically snarled.
Harry immediately fell silent, once again staring down at his shoes.
"Do we have an understanding, Mr. Potter?" Snape prompted then.
"Yes, sir," Harry answered quietly.
"Then get to work," the potions master stated, stepping aside to allow Harry access to the classroom. "And after you've finished brewing your swelling solution, you will be scrubbing cauldrons to make up for your tardiness."
Harry let out a sigh as he stepped into the classroom. Well, he supposed it could have been worse. Scrubbing cauldrons seemed like a fairly light punishment for being late to a detention with Snape. In fact, the boy wasn't entirely convinced that there wouldn't be more to come. But maybe if he just kept silent and worked quickly, the professor wouldn't keep him too long.
And so, rolling up his sleeves, he resolved to do just that.
There was something wrong with Potter. That much was obvious to Severus.
For one thing, the boy was completely silent as he worked, which was a clear sign that something was bothering the boy. Usually, the brat just loved to break the peaceful quiet in the dungeons by asking a million questions or prattling on about meaningless nonsense.
But today, there was nothing. And the explanation couldn't be that the brat was simply focusing on getting his potion right. Because Severus could see that the boy had already made a few mistakes.
"Potter, how many times are you supposed to stir the potion?" the man asked, watching the young Gryffindor work from his desk.
Startled from his thoughts, Harry's eyes snapped over to the professor. "Fifteen, sir," he answered, after a slight moment's hesitation.
"And how many times have you stirred your potion already?"
Harry bit his lip as he felt his face redden.
"Mr. Potter?" Snape prompted impatiently.
"I lost count, sir," Harry finally admitted, dropping his gaze to his cauldron, and ceasing his stirring motion. The potion should have been a light blue color at this point. Instead, it was more of a murky green.
Snape stood from his desk and swept over to where the boy stood, frozen and unsure of what to do.
"And in which direction should you be stirring?" the man asked then, raising an eyebrow as he looked down into the ruined solution.
With his stomach now in knots, Harry looked at his hand, still gripping the stirrer tightly. "Clockwise," he nearly whispered, as the realization hit him that he had been stirring in the opposite direction.
Barely more than a second later then, Snape had his wand out and the contents of Harry's cauldron were vanished from sight.
Sighing, Harry just hung his head in shame in the silence that followed.
And then the potions master let out a sigh of his own, as he pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Alright, Potter. Out with it."
"What's wrong, Potter?" the professor emphasized. "Something is clearly upsetting you and affecting your concentration."
"Potter," the man growled impatiently.
"It's nothing, sir," Harry nearly whispered, his gaze completely focused on the empty cauldron in front of him.
"You know how I feel about lying," Snape responded. "Try again."
"I don't want to talk about it," the boy eventually answered.
"Look at me, Potter," Snape's icy voice intoned.
And reluctantly, the boy obeyed.
"You have two choices, Mr. Potter. Either tell me what is bothering you, or receive a failing grade for your swelling solution."
Harry sighed and ducked his head.
"So be it," Snape said sternly, then. "I believe our brewing sessions are now at an end."
Harry's eyes immediately shot upwards to meet the professor's. "What?" he asked in disbelief.
"I agreed to this arrangement, Potter, on the condition that none of your work would receive less than an Exceeds Expectations. You now have a failing score."
Harry suddenly felt sick. "Please don't," he stated weakly, the words barely able to get past his lips.
"Brewing potions while distracted is an exceedingly dangerous undertaking, Mr. Potter. If you refuse to address the problem, then there is little more for us to discuss."
Harry closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He needed to save this. Because he just couldn't lose his brewing sessions with Snape. Not now.
He just needed to come up with a story. Something plausible, perhaps sprinkled with a little truth.
"I'm worried about the Christmas holiday," the boy finally stated.
Snape once again folded his arms across his chest. "Care to elaborate?" the man questioned.
"I'm still horrible at Occlumency," Harry explained, thinking quickly. "I've been trying so hard, but I just can't get it. What if something were to happen while I'm away from the school for Christmas? What if I hear that voice again? My relatives aren't going to know how to deal with that. Wouldn't it be better if I just stayed here?"
It was silent for a few moments as the potions master considered the young boy before him. "You've been working yourself up into a panic over this, haven't you?"
Harry slowly nodded, but did not make eye contact with the professor.
And then the man was moving back to his desk. "Staying at the school over the holiday would not be possible," he stated. "No one can be here while the Ministry is strengthening the wards. The magic is toxic until it is settled."
"And as for the Occlumency," the man pressed on, "I expect you to continue practicing, Mr. Potter. You know how important this is. I will not allow you to simply give up."
All Harry could manage was a weak nod.
"A verbal response, please," Snape prompted, then.
"Yes, sir," Harry responded dejectedly. So that was it then. There was no chance that he would be able to stay at the school over Christmas.
Snape nodded his approval then as he suddenly opened a drawer in his desk and rummaged around for a moment, looking for something.
"Now, that being said," the man went on, finally withdrawing a clenched fist from the open desk drawer, "I believe it would be wise to prepare for the worst."
Harry watched warily then as the potions professor once again moved towards him.
"Hold out your hand," the man instructed. And Harry immediately obeyed.
The professor dropped something into the boy's palm then, what looked to be a very old and very worn coin with strange markings on either side.
Harry studied the coin for a moment, rubbing a finger along its edge. "What is it, sir?" he finally asked curiously.
"A mechanism for communication," Snape replied brusquely. "In the event that you hear that voice over the winter holiday, you may use this to call for help. I suggest you begin keeping it on you at all times, Mr. Potter."
Harry's eyes widened. "Yes, sir. But how does it work?"
"If you find yourself in a dangerous situation, simply grasp the coin in your hand, and state very clearly that you need help."
Harry nodded his understanding, before very carefully slipping the coin into his pocket.
"Let me be clear," Snape suddenly spoke, in his most severe voice. "This does not give you an excuse to slack off when it comes to learning Occlumency, Mr. Potter. This coin is simply being provided to you for use in emergency situations. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," Harry answered quickly. "I'll still practice."
"You better. Now, if there is nothing else, shall we give the swelling solution one final attempt?"
Harry suppressed the urge to sigh. Because his biggest problem, and the real reason he had been so distracted from his potion in the first place, had yet to be resolved.
He still had nowhere to go for the Christmas holiday.
But he knew that that was a problem the professor wouldn't be able to help him with.
And so rather than voice his thoughts aloud, Harry simply nodded and turned the page of his textbook back to where the directions for the Swelling Solution started.
"Yes, sir," was his only reply.
The evening was calm and peaceful, though the air was filled with tension. No sounds could be heard throughout the house save for the low, droning voice of the weatherman, speaking through the television set. There was hardly any movement. Everything was still.
Until a loud scream suddenly broke the silence.
And then several things seemed to happen at once.
The scream was followed by the shattering of glass against the hard kitchen floor as the dinnerplate she had only just finished washing slipped right through Petunia Dursley's fingers.
Barely a second later, then, Vernon was crashing into the room, looking wildly around for whatever it was that had caused his wife's terrified scream.
"What—?" he began to ask. But then he caught sight of the creature and fell silent, if only for a moment.
"Out!" the man roared, moving forward to take a swat at the barn owl perched in the open window, just above the sink.
But the bird's response was only to fly further into the house and land on the kitchen counter on the opposite side of the room, where it promptly set down the letter it had been clutching in its beak.
"Alright, you've delivered your message. Now leave!" Petunia practically screeched.
But the owl didn't move.
His face quickly turning a deeper shade of purple, Vernon Dursley lumbered forward, fully intent on throttling the stupid thing. But again, the bird easily avoided the man's clutches as it took off and flew through the kitchen, this time landing on top of the refrigerator, far out of reach.
Huffing angrily, Petunia stormed across the room, snatched up the letter, and practically tore the thing open. She quickly scanned the message then, her mood only worsening with each line she read.
"What is it? What do they want?" Vernon demanded.
In response, Petunia simply thrust the letter into her husband's hand, and waited for him to read it for himself.
"No," the man stated firmly a moment later, handing the letter back to his wife, already having skimmed its contents. "He's not our problem, anymore. We made that perfectly clear to him last summer."
"I agree. But how are we to get out of it? It says they'll have someone drop him off if we can't make it to the train station. It's not going to be as simple as just not showing up."
"Well, then as soon as he arrives on the doorstep, we turn him out into the cold," Vernon growled.
"But what if they're watching us?" Petunia asked, her eyes moving across the room.
Vernon followed her gaze to the barn owl, still perched atop the refrigerator, and watching them both intently.
Petunia could tell that the rage welling up inside her husband was very close to boiling over. After all, they had all been under a lot of stress lately. And this was the absolute last thing they needed.
Petunia looked back down at the letter, suddenly deep in thought.
Yes, she decided a moment later. That just might be the answer.
A/N: Thanks for reading everyone! As always, I would love to know what you think! :)
March 2, 2018