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Word Count - 3128

An End To The Loneliness

Harry was bored. He lounged on his bed, twirling his wand between his fingers. His homework was finished - a week in advance no less - and he was bored. The rain pounding against the windows put him off taking a trip to the Quidditch Pitch, and his friends were all trying to work their way through their workloads.

Since the final battle, and moreover since the Horcrux that resided in his head had been removed, Harry hadn't had any trouble with his school work at all. Spells came easy to him, the theory behind them understandable on first explanation. Even potions made more sense to him.

The single room he occupied, one in a corridor full of them that housed the students that were being classified as eighth years, was comfortable and yet lonely. Harry was so used to being surrounded by people, even when sleeping, that it had taken him a while to get used to having his own space.

Just as he thought that, a knock on his door startled him. Getting up, he opened the door to find Ron and Hermione waiting for him.

"Are you ready to go to lunch, Harry?"

He nodded, shoving his feet into the trainers that sat neatly by the door. Closing and quickly warding his door silently, Harry followed the two of them to the Great Hall, listening to them discuss the latest essay they'd been set for Defence.

Harry hadn't informed his friends of the new ease he felt while learning. He didn't want them to feel bad, or jealous; something he feared from Ron since the two of them had always bonded over their struggles with homework. He also didn't want to take anything away from Hermione - being known as the brains of the trio was something she was proud of, even if she never said as much.

They sat down at the end of the separate table that had been added to the Hall for them, finding a couple of the other eighth years already present. Harry was quickly caught up in conversation with Theo Nott, the Slytherin with which he'd found he shared quite a lot in common with.

"Mr Potter? A word?"

Harry looked up to find Professor McGonagall behind him, a severe look on her face. He nodded, standing from the table and following her from the hall up to her office. He wondered what he could have possibly done. So far this year, nothing even remotely exciting had happened, and he'd kept himself out of trouble.

When they were both seated, McGonagall leant forward on her desk.

"I've noticed, Mr Potter, that you've improved a significant amount on both theory and practical in my lessons, and the other Professors have informed me of similar results in their own classes. Care to explain?"

"I don't know what to tell you, Professor," Harry admitted. "Everything just seems so… easy now. Since… well, you know. Since the final battle. I don't… maybe that… thing, was blocking something inside me?"

She nodded, thoughtfully. "Well, since you are sailing along so easily, I thought it prudent to give you a project to stop you being bored. A bored Harry Potter would be dangerous for everyone, I fear."

Harry laughed at the smirk on her face. "What project, Professor?"

"I rather thought you'd enjoy the challenge of becoming an animagus. It takes work and a lot of focus, but with the way you're sailing through the Newt level material in my class, I believe you will be able to do it with a reasonable time frame.

Grinning, Harry nodded enthusiastically. "That'd be brilliant, Professor, thank you."

She nodded, bending slightly before she hefted two large books onto the desk. "Reading comes first, Mr Potter. Familiarise yourself with these two books and come and see me when you're sure you understand it all. And, if your grades or work should slip in any of your classes while you're doing this, I shall be very disappointed with you. Understood?"

"Understood, Professor, and thanks again."

Harry picked the two books up and left the office, heading straight up to his room to put them on his desk. He knew he'd have to spend some time with Ron and Hermione during the afternoon, but the promise of something new to sink his teeth into was enough to keep him in a chipper mood while listening to Ron complain about the Potions essay.

He tilted his head as he stared at himself in the mirror, taking in the black fur and twitching ears. A tail flicked behind him, probably showing his curiosity as he padded around the room in a circle.

"Congratulations, Mr Potter. Very well done," McGonagall complimented from her place across the room. "To transform back into yourself, simply reverse the process that led to the change. In time, you will get used to changing between the two and will be able to do it instinctively."

Harry concentrated on his human self, and with a small pop, he was back in his human form, crouched down on hands and knees. He got to his feet, running a hand through his hair.

"That, was awesome," he murmured, offering his professor a bright smile.

She nodded, returning his smile with a more reserved one of her own. "I admit myself to being impressed, Mr Potter. Six months is a very short time to have learnt such intricate magic. And now," she brandished a form at him, "to register yourself."

Harry grumbled good naturedly but filled the registration form in quickly, signing his name with a flourish at the bottom.

"I'm slightly surprised that you're a feline form," McGonagall commented after a while. "Although it is indeed a magnificent feline. The panther, otherwise known as a black jaguar or black leopard, has very good senses, and is sneaky and intelligent. It is a beautiful animal."

Harry smiled. "Professor, will I be able to practice out on the grounds in the evenings, as long as I stay out of sight?"

She nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, so long as you make sure not to interact with any of the students and you stay out of the forest, I cannot see a problem with that."

Surprising both of them, Harry reached over and hugged her tightly. "Thank you, Professor. I… just, thank you."

She patted his back. "Of course, Mr Potter. And thank you for allowing me the pleasure of teaching someone who was so eager to learn. It was a joy and a privilege."

Harry smiled as he left the room. He had dinner to contend with, and then he'd be out on the grounds, exploring parts of the grounds unfound, and more importantly, learning the new aspect of himself.

Roaming the grounds at night became Harry's favourite daily activity. When his homework was done, and he'd spent some time with his friends, Harry would transform into his animal form and run, free like he'd never felt before.

The only drawback was one that he felt constantly, no matter his form. Loneliness still plagued him.

Running across the grounds at full speed, Harry laughed in his mind. It almost felt like he was flying. He didn't realise he wasn't alone until he was tackled, rolling over and over with another body until they sprawled to a stop.

Harry crouched, looking at the invader through narrowed eyes, his figure barely moving even as he breathed, watching for the next move. In front of him, a panther slightly larger than him, with dark eyes and a twitching tail, watched him curiously.

When the larger panther crept closer, slowly edging forward, Harry tensed. He presumed this was another animagus, both because he was sure there were no real panthers just wandering around the school, and also because he instinctively recognised the scent, although he didn't know from where.

The tail was flicking, and Harry watched it, backing up slightly. The larger panther pounced once more, and Harry rolled away before pushing back up onto all four legs and running. He was given chase, and caught again, though he realised quickly that this panther wasn't aiming to hurt him.

He wanted to play.

As soon as that fact clicked in Harry's mind, he stopped running, turning rapidly and flying into the offensive, though he was careful not to cause damage.

The two big cats played and rolled together until they were exhausted, lying on the damp grass, panting heavily.

Harry couldn't remember ever having so much fun.

As dawn broke over head, the two panthers moved towards the school before parting ways. Making sure nobody was watching, Harry transformed himself back into his usual self and headed up to his room to change for the school day.

Even tired, his classes would surely be a cakewalk.

The rest of the school year passed in a haze of classes, homework, and nights spent running around the grounds with his new friend. Harry had checked the registry for other panthers, but found none. He held no judgement for his friend - his own father hadn't registered his form so who was Harry to judge.

He found himself waiting for the hours spent rolling and playing and lying together in comfortable silence. He'd never felt such a connection to another being, and more and more he wanted nothing more than to meet his panther in human form.

As the N.E.W.T's started, even Harry had to put a bit of effort into his studying, recapping the earlier years rather than the more complicated seventh year material that he was confident with. He'd just finished his Potions review for the following day when Professor McGonagall happened upon him in the library.

"Good evening, Harry."

"Evening, Professor."

She smiled at him, nodding to the books he'd just stacked on the desk, ready to put away.

"Ready for Potions?"

He nodded. "I think so - I've reviewed everything I can think will be on the exam, anyway. Now we'll just have to wait and see."

"Have you been enjoying your nightly wanderings? It must have been nice to have some company," she said, helping him take the books back to the stands.

He frowned slightly, looking up at her. "How'd you know about that, Professor?" he asked.

"I saw you and Severus a few nights ago, as I walked past one of the windows on the seventh floor. You looked to be having a grand old time."

Harry's mind blanked for a moment. Severus. Severus Snape.

"I'm sorry, Professor, I think you must be mistaken. I've no idea who the panther is that joins me on a night time, but it can't be the Headmaster. Headmaster Snape may not hate me now, but I'm quite sure he isn't my friend."

Professor McGonagall chuckled. "Of course it's the Headmaster. It was I who taught him to become an animagus, I'd recognise him anywhere. Besides, it was I that told him about you getting your form so quickly, otherwise, he wouldn't have known to come and join you."

"He knew it was me?" Harry asked, his frown deepening as he placed the last book on its shelf. He could feel anger building up inside him.

How dare Snape play him like that? Harry thought he'd made a genuine friend - perhaps, if he was honest with himself, more than a friend. Now that he knew who it was, he felt betrayed, and hurt.

"Harry, I thought you knew -"

Harry shook his head. "It's fine, Professor. I should get to dinner now. Have a good evening."

He walked away before she could reply and moved straight towards the Headmaster's office. Surprisingly, he didn't even have to try and think up a password, as the Gargoyle stepped aside immediately when he approached. Riding up the steps to the office, Harry knocked on the door, trying his hardest to calm himself.

He wanted to know what Snape's game was, not get himself expelled when he was this close to finishing school.

He was called in, and he entered quietly, closing the door behind himself. Snape looked surprised to see who his guest was as Harry approached the desk.

"Professor McGonagall just informed me that you're the panther that's been joining me at night. I just came to inform you that I don't appreciate you playing nasty games with me, Headmaster, and I don't know what you were planning to gain by doing it, but… just leave me alone, please."

"Potter, I -"

"Please, Sir. I can't… I can't argue or fight or… I don't want to deal with it anymore. I know that you still don't like me, but I'll be away from here soon and you'll never have to deal with me again."

Harry turned away and headed for the door, ignoring the protest of "Potter, for the love of Merlin, would you just listen to me for once!"

He had no room in his life for games, he'd played enough of them with Voldemort. He also couldn't deny that he'd hoped he'd made a new friend in his fellow panther.

Now that he knew he hadn't the evenings he'd cherished so much felt… tainted.

That night, Harry remained stubbornly in his room, staring at the ceiling. He didn't sleep much.

The exams were over. Harry let out a sigh of relief along with his classmates, and enjoyed the rowdy conversations at the table over dinner.

They had a week to wait now, a week of relaxing until they found out if they'd scored well enough to continue on with their life plans.

Harry was planning to go to Merlin University, though he hadn't yet chosen a mastery. He was interested in a few subjects, and wondered if he could manage the workload of taking on more than one.

Stretching his arms over his head, he looked out onto the darkening grounds. He hadn't been out since his confrontation with the Headmaster, and he was itching to get out of his skin for a while, to just run and be free once more.

Deciding that Snape probably wouldn't be out there, Harry put his trainers on and headed out, waving goodbye to Ron and Hermione before they could ask him where he was going. His transformation was easy, and in minutes he was running across the grass.

This was exactly the release he needed after a week of exams.

And yet… after an hour passed, he found himself missing his friend. Flopping down by the side of the lake, he let his head fall to rest on his paws.

He lay in the moonlight for a while, until a crack caught his attention. Tensing up, he turned his head slowly.

A familiar figure walked cautiously towards him, head hanging down slightly in a sign that Harry instinctively took as submission. Harry growled a warning but didn't move.

Snape lay down in front of Harry, his own head on his paws as a mirror image. He whined quietly.

Harry wasn't sure what to make of it. If only Panthers could talk. He thought for a moment about turning himself back into a human, but found himself reluctant.

Snape edged forward until the very tips of their paws were touching. There was a pause, and then he licked at Harry's jaw once.

Harry blinked, confused by the action for a moment.

Had he really had it so wrong? His head lifted off his paws, tilting slightly. Snape mirrored him again, before leaning forward to gently bump his head against Harry's.

Apparently he had.

Hesitantly, he repeated Snape's action, bumping their heads. Snape's eyes lit up.

They stood at the same time, circling one another closely, their bodies rubbing, before Snape stepped away, padding off across the grounds towards the school. He looked over his shoulder impatiently when Harry didn't follow immediately.

Harry snorted, following behind as he was led up to the main doors. When Snape slipped inside, still in his panther form, Harry did the same, sliding slightly on the polished floor.

They walked all the way up to the Headmasters office, and only when they'd gone through the office to the private chambers behind, did Snape turn back into a human.

Harry didn't follow.

He walked cautiously forward, nudging Snape's hand with his head. Snape took the hint immediately, sitting down in an armchair and stroking his hand through Harry's fur gently.

"I was never playing a game," the man said quietly. "And I always intended to tell you who I was - after you finished being my student. I… it was a novelty at first, having another big cat around. Company, after the life I've led, is a novel concept, and oddly enough, your company was exactly what I craved.

"I never intended to hurt you, certainly," he added.

Harry listened carefully, feeling like a fool to jump to assumptions as he had. He let out a low whine of apology, making Severus chuckle.

"I understand why you were hurt, Harry. Had it been the other way around, I surely would have thought the same, or likely worse of your intentions."

Harry stepped back from under than hand tickling his ear, and in moments, was standing as his human self, watching the Headmaster cautiously.

"I'm sorry I accused you of trying to play games," he said after a moment. "I… overreacted because I thought the panther… you… was my friend and I was hurt."

Snape nodded, standing up.

"Please, don't worry about it. You understand now, yes?" he asked, as he neared. There was barely any space between them when he stopped.

Harry looked up into the dark familiar eyes, wondering now how he hadn't known instantly that those eyes belonged to his panther, and vice versa. Although, those eyes had never before looked at him with such warmth.

With such affection.

"I think I'm starting to," Harry replied, leaning into the hand that cupped his cheek.

Their lips joined in the sweetest of kisses, and Harry's arm automatically raised to rest against Severus chest as Severus' other hand laid gently against his hip.

When Severus pulled away, he smiled. "We shouldn't… nothing more can happen while you still attend Hogwarts. But… I hoped… you would join me by the fire?"

With that, he stepped back and transformed, circling the small carpet twice before he lay down, dark eyes on Harry.

Harry took the hint immediately and joined him, flopping down beside him, his head resting heavily against Severus' heaving stomach.

Severus let out a noise of contentment, and Harry closed his eyes, letting the heats of the fire bathe over him.

It would be interesting, he thought, to see what would come of this. He fell asleep that way, leaning against Severus' stomach, suddenly optimistic that his loneliness had come to an end.