A/N: Whew! You wouldn't believe what I went through to finally get this chapter done. Between studying for and taking the bar exam, trying to find a new job, and helping to take care of my niece for the last few weeks, I've never been so happy to finish a chapter before in my life!
And for once, I refused to compromise on the length of the chapter. Normally, I'll cut a chapter in half if an update hasn't happened in a while, but I didn't do that this time. Everything I meant to write for Chapter 45 is in there, so I have a nice-sized (but not overwhelming) chapter for you all to read.
There was a sudden gasp in the corridor, and both Snape and Harry turned to see the Transfiguration professor standing several feet away, one hand now resting over her mouth.
"Minerva," Snape greeted grimly, moving closer towards the woman once he was sure that the young Gryffindor had downed the last drop of his calming draught.
"Severus. What happened?"
"I just found them like this," Harry answered softly from behind the two adults. "Just like Mrs. Norris. I couldn't help them. Any of them."
The two professors exchanged a quick glance.
"Mr. Potter and I need to speak to the headmaster," Snape stated then. "Do you think you can manage transporting Mr. Finch-Fletchley to the hospital wing, Minerva?"
"Of course, Severus," McGonagall responded, the worry and concern written all over her face. "I'll alert the rest of the staff, as well."
Snape nodded before turning back to Harry.
"Let's go, Potter."
"Don't forget about Nick," Harry said, staring up at the resident Gryffindor ghost. "He'll be okay, too, won't he? He's already dead. He can't-"
"Only time will tell," Snape interrupted. "Now let's go."
The calming draught was doing a good job of keeping Harry's anxiety in check.
But it was definitely still there, simmering beneath the surface.
Why did this keep happening? And why was it he that kept discovering the victims? Maybe he had something to do with all of this after all. What if Voldemort was taking over his mind, making him do things when he wasn't even aware of it? What if he really was responsible for all these attacks?
He shook his head then, suddenly realizing why Snape must have thought it a good idea to give him the potion.
"Watch where you're going, Potter," Snape snapped, as the distracted Gryffindor walked right into the man's back just as they were arriving at the headmaster's office.
"Sorry, sir," Harry apologized hastily, jumping back in embarrassment.
But just as the professor had opened his mouth to berate the brat further, a big booming voice filled the otherwise silent corridor.
"Arry? Is that you?"
"Hagrid!" Harry cried, turning to see the half-giant lumbering towards them from the opposite end of the corridor. "What are you doing here?"
Hagrid reached the pair in three long strides, and Harry had to duck out of the way to avoid getting hit by whatever it was that was dangling from one of the groundskeeper's massive hands.
"What is that?" Harry asked, pushing his glasses up higher on his nose. Behind him, Snape wore a look of pure disgust.
"Rooster. Somethin' got at the flock," Hagrid answered with a frown.
"Is he petrified?" Harry asked, eying the limp bird with concern.
"He's dead, Mr. Potter," Snape stated bluntly, crossing his arms impatiently. "And, unfortunately, we do not have time to stand and chat. We must see the headmaster."
"Do yeh mind if I join yeh, Pr'fessor?" Hagrid asked, then. "I'm here to see Dumbledore, too. 'Bout the roosters."
"Unfortunately, Rubeus, we have matters of actual importance to discuss," Snape answered scathingly, before muttering the password to the stone gargoyle standing before him. He continued speaking then, as the statue began moving aside.
"Another attack has just been carried out against a student. Don't you think Albus has enough to concern himself with at the moment? If you are unable to construct a simple pen capable of keeping the creatures of the Forbidden Forest away from the flock, surely you could seek assistance from another member of the staff? Most of them are capable of performing protection wards."
And with that, Snape clamped a hand on Harry's shoulder and began steering him up the moving staircase, before the boy even had a chance to react to the sudden look of embarrassment that had crossed Hagrid's face.
But when the pair were finally standing in front of the headmaster's door, Harry found himself glaring up at Snape in annoyance.
"You should be nicer to Hagrid," the boy declared bravely, arms crossed.
"Excuse me?" Snape asked dangerously, his fist freezing in midair barely an inch from the door on which he had been planning to knock.
"You should be nicer to Hagrid," Harry repeated. "He does a lot for the school. He takes care of the grounds and-"
"His chickens?" Snape asked scathingly. "Yes, he seems to be doing quite a remarkable job of it, too."
"You're not being fair," Harry complained. "Hagrid's a friend of mine."
"Oh, well. If he's your friend, Mr. Potter, that changes everything," Snape responded, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Harry huffed in annoyance as Snape finally rapped on the door, but the calming draught kept him from getting too upset.
And a moment later, the door swung open, and the pair entered the headmaster's office.
"So what did Dumbledore have to say?" Ron asked, as he, Harry and Hermione sat in the middle of Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, the bubbling cauldron of Polyjuice between them.
"Not much," Harry answered, pulling a book closer to him from the stack Hermione had checked out from the library. "He asked me if there was anything I needed to tell him, which there wasn't. Then he and Snape talked for a bit while I had to wait outside."
"He doesn't think you had anything to do with the attack, does he? Snape didn't try to pin it on you?" the redhead sounded alarmed.
Harry shook his head vigorously at the suggestion. "No. He said he knew it wasn't me."
"You don't sound too convinced yourself," Hermione pointed out, looking up from the heavy volume she had open in her lap.
Harry shrugged as he absently flipped through some pages of his book. "I dunno. What if Voldemort really can control my mind, and I just don't remember any of it?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Harry!" Hermione scolded. "You've had absolutely nothing to do with these attacks! And after the holidays, we're going to use the Polyjuice to figure out who the real Heir of Slytherin is."
"Yeah, about that…" Ron cut in. "Are we any closer to figuring out what to do about preserving the potion over Christmas? Because none of these…" he pointed at the library books strewn across the floor, "…seem to be helping any."
"I think I'm getting close," Hermione answered. "If I could just get back into the Restricted Section-"
"Well, that shouldn't be too difficult," Ron interrupted. "Just shower Lockhart with compliments and stick the permission slip under his nose."
Hermione rolled her eyes as she shut her own book with a snap. "Do you ever get tired of making the same jokes over and over again, Ronald?"
"Who's joking?" Ron countered. "I thought it sounded like a foolproof plan."
But before Hermione could respond, Harry cut in. "What's this, Hermione?" he pointed to the page he had been skimming through.
Hermione moved closer to where Harry was sitting and looked down at the book.
"Concealer spells?" she questioned, reading the heading at the top of the page.
Harry nodded, pointing to a section towards the bottom of the page, which was labeled "Alternative Concealer Options."
"It mentions Polyjuice, but it doesn't really elaborate," Harry explained.
Hermione quickly read through the relevant paragraph before answering. "Yes, I read about that in Moste Potente Potions. If you use some of your own hair in the potion, you'll be able to turn into the most 'permanent form of yourself.'"
"What does that mean?" Ron asked.
"Well, say you walk into a door and get a black eye," Hermione explained. "The black eye is only temporary. So if you took Polyjuice Potion to essentially turn into yourself, the black eye is not a permanent part of your appearance, and so would disappear, just as it would if you were to use a regular old concealer charm."
Ron made a face. "I think a concealer charm sounds more pleasant."
Hermione nodded. "It is. Which is why you rarely ever hear of anyone resorting to Polyjuice to conceal their blemishes."
Harry frowned as he stared intently at the bubbling cauldron.
"Harry? Are you okay?" Ron asked, eyebrows raised.
Harry quickly shook himself from his thoughts and looked towards his friend. "Yeah, I'm fine."
A moment later then, Hermione was pushing herself up off the floor and brushing off her robes. "I better get to the library, then. Would either of you care to join me?"
Harry and Ron exchanged looks, but said nothing.
"Suit yourselves," Hermione sighed, just as Moaning Myrtle let out a cry of despair from one of the bathroom stalls at the other end of the room.
"We'll see you at dinner, okay?" Ron answered with a grin. "We'll even save you a seat."
"How generous of you," Hermione muttered, as she made her way to the door.
Harry fell to his hands and knees hard, panting desperately for air.
And a few seconds later, a small potion bottle appeared in front of his nose.
Groaning, Harry attempted to push the bottle away and scramble to his feet on shaky legs. But a hand on his shoulder kept him in place.
"Drink before you attempt to stand, you foolish brat," Snape snapped.
"I'm fine," the boy insisted, even as he took the potion and quickly gulped it down.
"I really don't understand why you always feel the need to be difficult," Snape drawled, allowing the Gryffindor to use his arm for support as he finally rose to his feet.
"I'm not difficult," Harry contradicted.
"Sit," Snape commanded, pointing to the nearest stool in the Potions classroom.
Harry obeyed without complaint, dropping onto the seat and leaning heavily against the desk.
It was quiet then, for one long moment.
"I'm sorry, sir," Harry finally whispered into the silence.
Snape sighed. "For what, Potter?"
"I'm just not getting any better at Occlumency. No matter how many times we do these lessons."
"You are too distracted," Snape said simply. "Otherwise, I believe you would be making improvements."
It was Harry's turn to sigh. "I'm sorry," he repeated.
"Enough with the incessant apologizing, Potter," Snape growled. "Do you still have the coin I gave you?"
Harry nodded, reaching into his pocket to feel the object resting against his mother's photograph.
"Good. Do not lose that. I expect you to practice clearing your mind over the Christmas break, is that understood?"
Harry nodded again as he stared down at the table. "Yes, sir."
"Perhaps getting away from the castle will do you some good," Snape added. "There should be less nonsense to clutter your mind, anyway. You may actually start to see some progress."
Harry knew the "nonsense" Snape must be referring to was the Heir of Slytherin stuff. But if the man thought a couple weeks with the Dursleys is what he needed to start clearing his mind properly, the professor was going to be sorely disappointed.
And that was assuming that the Dursleys were even willing to let him back in the house. Because that remained to be seen. Harry still very much doubted that any of them were even going to show up at the train station. And he still had no idea what he was going to do about that.
"I believe we have done enough for one night, Potter," Snape stated then, when the silence had filled the room for several long seconds. "I suggest you go get some rest."
"Should I come back tomorrow night to brew potions, sir?" Harry asked hopefully.
"I think you should consider going to bed early tomorrow evening, Mr. Potter. You'll need to be up early to catch the train the following morning."
"Not too early," Harry pointed out.
"Do not argue with me, Potter," Snape warned. "Besides, I won't be brewing tomorrow evening. I will be cleaning out my private storeroom."
"I can help," Harry said quickly.
"My private storeroom is just that, Potter. Private," Snape growled. "There are dangerous potions in there, and I rather think Madam Pomfrey is tired of seeing you."
Harry sighed as he stood up from his stool and slowly made his way to the exit. "Yes, sir."
"Practice your Occlumency tonight, Potter," Snape instructed.
"I will," Harry answered quietly. "Goodnight, sir."
Harry was out of the classroom then. He had nearly closed the door behind him. But something made him pause and open the door wide again.
"What is it, Potter?" Snape asked, voice sounding slightly annoyed as he looked up from the parchment he had just started reading.
And Harry froze, his voice caught in his throat. For a moment, he had thought he could do it. But now the words escaped him. He just couldn't say it.
"I do not have all night, Potter. Out with it," Snape snapped.
Harry bit his lip as he tried to think of something else to say.
"Potter," Snape growled.
"I hope you enjoy your holiday, sir," Harry invented quickly.
And not a moment later, the boy was gone, hurrying away down the long dungeon corridor, leaving one very confused potions master behind.
The last day of term brought with it a certain level of energy in the air as the snow swirled against the windowpanes of the Great Hall. All of the students buzzed with excitement at breakfast in anticipation of the coming holiday.
All except for one second year Gryffindor.
"Come on, Harry. Eat something! The food is amazing today!" Ron said happily, taking a large bite of a warm breakfast pastry.
Harry sighed and continued to push the food around on his plate. But before Ron could comment on Harry's lack of enthusiasm at the breakfast spread, Hermione was dropping into a seat on the opposite side of the table, a huge smile spread across her face.
"I've done it!" she hissed excitedly. "I found the preservation spell we need!"
"How?" Ron asked.
"I looked in the Restricted Section," Hermione answered.
"Who signed the permission slip?" the redhead questioned.
"Lockhart," Hermione said simply.
"How'd you manage that?"
Hermione shrugged. "I showered him with compliments and stuck the permission slip under his nose."
"Very fun-," Ron started to say, before being interrupted by a huge ball of feathers careening into the juice jug placed directly in front of his plate.
"Ugh!" Ron exclaimed, his face now dripping with pumpkin juice. "Errol!"
The room erupted in laughter as the redhead wiped his face and reached over to extract the letter from the Weasley family owl's talon.
Hermione snickered as she moved to help the poor creature right himself. "Poor thing," she said sympathetically.
"Him? What about me?" Ron asked indignantly. "That bird is nothing but a menace!"
"Oh, just read your letter!" Hermione returned, as the noise level in the room returned to normal.
Huffing, Ron slid his finger under the envelope's seal and opened the message from home.
"And how are you this morning, Harry?" Hermione finally turned to look at her other friend.
"Just fine," Harry said quietly, not even looking up from his untouched plate of food.
"You certainly sound it," Hermione said sarcastically.
Harry shrugged. "I'm just tired."
"Oh, no!" Ron groaned, having scanned the contents of the letter.
"What's wrong?" Hermione asked.
"We're visiting family for Christmas," Ron whined, tossing the letter back on the table.
"Oh no, are you serious?" came the voice of Fred Weasley, who had only just strolled into the Great Hall with George. He scooped the letter up off the table and sighed heavily as he read it.
"What's wrong with that?" Hermione demanded. "Christmas is a time for family. You should be grateful you have a family. Because some people don't."
"You've never met our Aunt Muriel," Ron pointed out. Behind him, the twins nodded in agreement.
"Anyway, I'm sorry, Harry," Ron continued. "I was hoping maybe you could come visit us over the holiday. But it doesn't look like that's going to be possible now. Mum said maybe this summer."
Harry looked surprised. "You asked your parents if I could stay with you?"
Ron nodded. "Yeah. I know your family doesn't do much for Christmas. Sorry it didn't work out."
Harry sighed, his stomach in knots. "That's okay. I wouldn't want to intrude anyway."
"Oh, you wouldn't be intruding," George insisted.
"But we would never want to subject you to the torture that is our extended family," Ron put in.
"They can't be that bad," Hermione stated. "I think you're being ungrateful for what you have."
Ron rolled his eyes as he looked straight at Harry. "Trust me. You're being spared from a terrible fate here."
Both Fred and George laughed, while Hermione huffed in annoyance.
And though he didn't say so, Harry found himself secretly agreeing completely with Hermione.
"Need some help, Harry?" the Weasley twins asked in unison, coming up behind the second year as he prepared to board the train.
And without waiting for a response, the pair took hold of Harry's trunk and stepped onto the locomotive.
"Hey, where's Hedwig?" Ron asked, pointing to the empty cage under Harry's arm as they followed the twins down the corridor.
"Out hunting," Harry said simply. He didn't think it necessary to also explain that he had told his owl to stay away until after the Christmas holiday, and not to go looking for him at the Dursleys. Who knew what they would do to her if she showed up? Especially if Harry wasn't there to stop them.
Because he honestly didn't believe that the Dursleys were going to pick him up at the station. Which meant he was probably going to be spending the next couple weeks on the streets of London. If he could just find his way to the Leaky Cauldron…
"Harry, are you okay?" Hermione was asking him.
"Huh? Yeah," Harry answered, quickly shaking away his thoughts and sitting down on one of the seats in the compartment they had just entered.
"Anyone want to play a game of Exploding Snap?" Ron asked, digging around in his trunk for the deck of cards just as the train whistle sounded and they began to move away from Hogsmeade station.
The twins, Ginny, and even Hermione agreed.
But Harry wasn't in the mood for games. He slowly drew his knees up to his chest and simply stared out the window at the landscape flying past.
And though the other members of the compartment all noticed Harry's odd demeanor and exchanged worried glances, none of them decided to comment on it.
King's Cross was packed with so many people that it was difficult to move more than a couple of steps in any direction. Harry fought his way through the crowd, dragging his trunk behind him. He had just said his goodbyes to Hermione and the Weasleys. Their parents had been waiting for them just as soon as they exited the train. Mrs. Weasley had even given him a hug and wished him a happy holiday.
It had felt so strange to Harry. Mrs. Weasley didn't even know him. And yet she seemed to care more for him than the Dursleys ever had.
Speaking of which, there was absolutely no sign of Aunt Petunia or Uncle Vernon anywhere. Harry wondered how long he should wait before giving up and leaving the station on his own. Maybe he shouldn't bother waiting at all.
But just as he had resolved to follow a throng of people towards the station exit, he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder.
"Just where do you think you're going, Potter?"
Harry froze in shock before whirling around to look up at the potions master.
"Professor? What are you doing here?"
"You didn't answer my question," Snape replied sternly. "What are you doing?"
"Just looking for my relatives, sir."
"You can wait for them here," the man snapped, indicating that Harry should sit down on a nearby bench that was surprisingly empty. "You'll never find them wandering around in this crowd. They can come to you."
"Yes, sir," Harry answered, his heart suddenly pounding in his chest. What if Snape realized that the Dursleys weren't actually coming?
"Why are you here, sir?" Harry repeated, sitting down nervously.
Snape huffed as he crossed his arms and dropped onto the opposite end of the bench.
"Albus," he grumbled, though more to himself than to Harry.
"Professor Dumbledore sent you?"
"Yes," the man stated scathingly. "To ensure all the little miscreants and dunderheads are properly reunited with their mummies and daddies before disappearing into the London evening."
"Oh," Harry answered, trying to remember if he had seen any teachers at the station at the end of last term.
Snape glared at all the passersby as they walked past. You could tell who the Hogwarts students were by the wide berth they gave the professor as soon as they caught sight of him. Or maybe they were steering clear because of Harry. Many of them still believed he was the Heir of Slytherin, after all.
But either way, Harry really didn't care at the moment. Because he failed to see a way out of this situation without Snape finding out he had been abandoned. The man clearly planned to stick around until everyone found their families, anyway.
And it would seem that he didn't have one.
"Um, professor?" Harry asked quietly, after several long moments had passed.
"Miss Bulstrode, put that away!" Snape snapped as the Slytherin girl passed, her wand clutched firmly in hand.
Blushing, Millicent stuffed the wand up the sleeve of her jacket before skipping off to meet her parents several feet away.
"What is it, Potter?" Snape asked then, eyes still focused on the crowd before him,
Just tell him. There's no point in stalling anymore.
"There you are!" a loud voice suddenly interrupted.
Harry whirled around in shock. "Uncle Vernon?"
The man lumbered forward, latching onto the handle of Harry's trunk. "I've been looking everywhere for you! Come on. Your aunt's waiting in the car."
Harry swallowed hard before glancing over at Snape. The professor's face was mostly passive, but Harry thought he could detect a certain level of disgust in his eyes as he glared at the massive man before him.
"Was there something else you needed, Potter?" the man drawled, not taking his eyes off of Uncle Vernon.
Harry hesitated. Part of him wanted to tell Snape that he didn't want to go with Uncle Vernon. He wanted to beg Snape to take him somewhere, anywhere, else. Just as long as it was far, far away from the Dursleys.
But he knew he couldn't.
"No, sir," he answered quietly, finally standing up from the bench. "Goodbye."
The potions master inclined his head slightly, his eyes meeting Harry's for only the briefest of moments.
And then Uncle Vernon clamped a hand on his shoulder and began steering him towards the exit, dragging Harry's trunk behind him.
A few seconds passed. Harry looked back over his shoulder as Uncle Vernon continued to drag him through the station.
But there were too many people blocking his view. He could no longer see the bench or Snape.
He was now alone with Uncle Vernon.
And he was terrified.
A/N: Thank you for all of the wonderful reviews you've been leaving me, everyone! I love them so much! And, as always, thank you so much for reading!
September 10, 2018