Author's Note: Hello my beloved readers! Here's the next chapter, another month along...winces I won't apologize any longer though, I'll just hope you enjoy :D

Thanks again to my wonderful beta Cessations!


Chapter 25 - Unsettling Investigations

Severus placed his feathered quill down and stretched, wincing as he heard several of his bones pop loudly. He then slouched in his seat, sullenly looking down at the stack of papers before him. There must have been more than fifty places he'd had to sign, not to mention quite a few pages of annoyingly small fine print to get through. Who knew it was such a hassle to get a single visit into Azkaban, he thought to himself, annoyed. One would've thought it would be so much easier to get in than get out.

Overall, it wasn't too hard. The papers were quite straightforward and the details easy enough to comprehend. The only issue was the sheer number of papers he had to get through, and keep it well enough hidden that no one would comment on it if they saw him shuffling through them during dinner or whatnot. Thank Merlin he was good with appearance-changing glamours (courtesy of his bastard of a father), or otherwise he'd have Albus all over him asking why he wanted to visit Azkaban.

The last thing he needed right now was another questioning from the Headmaster, after all.

Still, it was almost Christmas and he had to get this done before then. With one last flourish, he scrawled his name onto the last page and breathed a heavy sigh. Done. Now to send it to the Ministry and hope the damn idiots there would process it quickly enough to warrant him the designated hour-long visit before the season ended. Luckily for him, it seemed there was a new system for visitation rights to Azkaban, headed by some woman who was the descendant of Saint Mungo or something like that. He gave a mental salute to whoever had accomplished that deed.

A polite knock at his door caused him to jerk his head up in surprise and begin to rapidly put away all of his papers, replacing them with harmless potions notes from a week ago as he called out a short "Enter".

Naturally, it was Albus.

"Hello my dear boy!" the cheerful wizard greeted, his nauseatingly bright clothing as annoying as ever. "Have you seen the snow outside?"

Severus glanced at the charmed window that the very same man had planted there a few months ago, which seemed to solely show a bright sunny day. In response to the inane question, he raised an eyebrow and sneered. "I have no time to go outside, Headmaster," he indicated at the numerous papers detailing his latest experiment strewn across his desk. "Obviously."

"Oh, don't be that way, Severus," Dumbledore insisted. "Come outside with the teachers and me; it seems Aurora has started a snowball fight and it's been quite fun!"

"Albus…" Snape trailed off warningly, glaring, leaving the rest of his unspoken savage reply hanging in the air. Fun was not in Severus's natural vocabulary.

"Please?" the elderly man pleaded with a quirky smile.

"I have a lot of work—"

"Oh posh, dear boy, you can finish that Azkaban paperwork later," the Headmaster waved a gnarled hand in his direction. "Why don't you have some fun for now before heading out?"

"Azkaban?" Snape sneered, mentally gaping and furiously wondering how the man had found out. "Why ever would I want to go there—again?"

Albus smiled passively, his twinkling eyes positively glowing. "Oh, was I incorrect in my assessment then? Well, I still insist that you come on outside. A breath of fresh air would do you good, my dear child!"

Severus was seething inside. That positively Slytherin--! He thought savagely. It would've been a compliment to anyone else, but this was Albus.

"I'll be right up," he muttered grudgingly, glaring.

"Delightful!" Albus beamed, plopping a lemon drop into his mouth. "I shall await you outside then. Oh, and bring some gloves and a scarf! It's very cold outside!"

"Yes, dad," Severus spat, swiveling on one foot and stalking off into his personal rooms hidden behind a clever portrait on the far wall of his office, waving his wand over at his desk as he left in order to make the papers shuffle obediently inside their respective drawers, out of sight.

He left so fast he didn't notice the slight widening of Albus's eyes, and the merry glow his face had as he practically skipped out of the room in happiness.

Meanwhile, Snape was throwing on some thicker robes and wrapping his Slytherin scarf around his neck, having noted that it was below zero outside with a quick remote-tracking temperature spell. As he did this, his mind was reeling with the knowledge that Albus knew of his plans to visit Azkaban—how did that man know everything? He had been sure his charms were perfect, and, as far as he knew, Albus did not possess an all-seeing eye.

The portraits? Severus wondered, and then shook his head. Impossible—even they were not bereft of the effects of his spells. He had never spoken about it aloud outside of his rooms, and even then never to anyone but himself. Perhaps it had been a lucky guess?

Well, whatever the cause, Severus was just glad the Headmaster had seemed to drop it when he'd nonchalantly shot the notion away.

He stalked out of his office minutes after, swooping up the stairs and gruffly wondering what sort of idiot had the bright idea to build such a steep staircase. All in all, the trip out of the dungeons did not take long—the air progressively got colder as he climbed, however, as there were no warming charms outside of his rooms. By the time he'd left the castle he was irate and freezing, fingering his wand and wondering if he should just charm his clothes warm and be done with it.

The landscape was beautiful: about a good foot and a half of snow lay twinkling innocently atop of the soil and peppering the trees as if it were Christmas already, the uncovered sun shining like the wrath of Apollo himself. In the distance the young Potions Master could see thick looming clouds of white and grey, which would surely release their load later on that night and pile up even more of the white powder on their heads.

Severus was so deeply mired in this train of thought that he almost did not sense the incoming projectile. He still somehow managed to not-so-gracefully leap out of the way, rolling on the snow and ultimately getting wetter than he would have had he not evaded the small snowball. Giving out an ungrateful squawk as he gathered himself up swiftly, he glared at whoever had dared throw such a thing at him—only to see Minerva giggling behind her thick gloves as she leaned down to get another missile ready.

He had no time to protest her attack however, since Trelawney had seemingly missed her rather large target of Hagrid and had flung her own snowball in Snape's direction. This time, more prepared and aware, Severus merely dodged out of the way as he fluidly cursed the thrice-damned Divinations professor.

"What in the nine hells are you all doing!" he snarled, ducking another shot—this time from the beaming Headmaster. "Argh!"

"Oh don't be so touchy, Severus!" Minerva cried out as she laughingly threw yet another snowball in his general direction. "It's almost Christmas!"

"Must I remind you how old you all are!" Severus glared, brushing some hair out of his face that had fallen from jerking about. "You're all acting like children!"

"Loosen up, Severus!" Sinistra—the Astronomy teacher who had supposedly started this snowball nonsense—crowed, waving from behind a sizable snow barrier that helped her avoid getting hit. "All the children have gone home and there's no one to watch us, anyway!"

His scathing reply was cut short as he had to duck and dodge a barrage of snowballs from Filius, who was using his wand in an effort to overcome his size distinction. All the teachers paused in their attack to watch Severus skillfully evade all the shots, snarling back insults and using his own wand to throw extremely accurate snowballs in Flitwick's direction, causing the dwarf-sized man to have to hop around in order to avoid the brunt of the counterattacks.

"Wow," Pomona commented to Poppy, both witches having decided to stay on the sidelines to avoid getting hit. "I didn't know Severus was so agile."

"You never saw him fight back against James Potter and his gang," Poppy smiled fondly, recalling Severus's younger days. "He gave as good as he got, that boy."

Unaware of those who were watching him, Severus grit his teeth and pounded Filius with yet another barrage, simultaneously Expelliarmus'ing his wand out of reach, all with a silent flick. Flitwick dug himself out while laughing, huffing out gusts of white mist as he congratulated Severus for the win.

"That was amazing!" the small man chirped. "Extraordinary! Merlin boy, if you'd dueled like that in my time, I'd never have become a dueling champion!"

Snape, utterly unused to praise, could not help but turn a bit red. "Lies," he mumbled, helping Flitwick to his feet. Another snowball, this time from Hagrid, cut his words in half again as the fight resumed. Without words, Severus and Filius ganged up together against the half-giant, whom was quickly backed up by Sprout and Pomfrey. Consecutively, all the remaining teachers joined a side and evened out the match, half of them out of breath from laughing so hard.

Not to be deterred, Albus stood in the sidelines, cheering and refereeing, beaming. Severus supposed he thought himself too good for either side; alas, Albus was doing such in order to keep an eye on the spirit that was contentedly sitting on an entrance gargoyle, viewing the spectacle with a large grin.

Quite enjoying the scene, Harry placed his chin on a knee, swinging the other leg absently as he muffled a laugh behind his hand. See Severus, the ghost thought to himself with a small grin. You do know how to have fun!

Eventually, the cold got to them all and the snowball fight stopped, with Severus's team winning as the other group had called the ceasefire first. Turning a brick red from the amount of teasing he was receiving from the other teachers in the form of praise and cheers since he'd pretty much overpowered most of the other team single-handedly, the young Potions Master snarled out something and stalked off with a vague excuse that he had to collect some herbs from the forest. Laughing at his reaction, Harry leapt off the gargoyle and followed, deciding to reveal himself only when they were sufficiently far away from the other teachers as to not arouse suspicion as it would appear to them that Severus was talking to himself.

"I know you're there," Severus startled Harry by saying, his back still turned as he continued to trudge through the snow into the forest. "I can feel you."

"Wow," Harry remarked cheerfully, floating beside him now that he'd been spotted. "You're getting rather good at sensing me around."

"Hn," the man murmured contemplatively. "I guess you're right."

"Someone please put that in writing!" Harry crowed. "You actually admitted I'm right!"

"Oh shut up," Snape grumbled, but there was a slight tugging at his upper lip, indicating a very small smirk. "Just don't quote me on that."

"I wouldn't dream of it," the spirit laughed. "So anyway, are you really going off to the forest to look for herbs?"

"I am indeed," Severus nodded briskly. "It was my intention to head out sooner, but I seem to have forgotten to do my errands because of some paperwork. When the Headmaster asked me to come outside, I remembered and I might as well do it now rather than come back out later, when it's colder."

"Oh, I see," Harry nodded slowly. "That makes sense. Still doing your research, then?"

"Of sorts," Severus said, and came to a stop beside a very large tree. They were about a quarter of a mile into the forest, and it was quite dark and less snowy because of the blocking canopy. The Potions Master had long since taken out his wand to light up their path, scaring off a few curious creatures that had decided to follow them. "I believe this is it."

Harry drew closer, breath fogging up about him. "What is it?" He didn't see anything.

"Not that," Severus shook his head, indicating the tree. "But this."

With a gloved hand, the man uncovered a patch of recently shifted dirt and revealed a seemingly delicate sprout that had been making its way to the surface. It was a grotesque shade of green, and it had small needle-sized spikes beginning to grow from its sides.

"What…?"

"Let's test you on your knowledge, Harry," Severus smirked, looking up to his companion as he rested on one knee. "What harmful plant greatly resembles the otherwise harmless Flitterbloom? It likes dark and damp places, making this part of the Forbidden Forest a perfect habitat for it."

"Um…" Harry racked his head—he couldn't for the life of him remember any sort of plant with the name of 'Flitterbloom', let alone one that looked like the ugly little sprout that Severus had uncovered. As for the dark and damp, however, he vaguely recalled Hermione (a twinge of pain ran through his heart at the thought of her) saying something about that…

"I know!" Harry exclaimed suddenly, beaming. How could he have forgotten? "It's Devil's Snare, right?"

Looking somewhat surprised, Severus nodded. "I didn't expect you to know that, considering your self-proclaimed lacking knowledge of potions and their ingredients. But yes, you are correct—this is a budding sprout of Devil's Snare I planted here a week ago. The best season to plant these is the winter, as they are too weak to flower during any other season. It is only until they are about a month old that its vines leave the soil; but when they do, they rise in great amounts—unless you confine their patch of dirt to a small pot, or something of the like. Which is what I will be doing today."

"Oh," Harry slowly, recalling his experience with the little thing in the ground. "Do you need Devil's Snare for a potions experiment?"

"Not really," Severus shook his head. "They aren't particularly useful in most every-day solutions. But Devil's Snare is quite rare on the market since it's difficult to transport, and so I thought it would be a good idea to store a pot of it in a cupboard until I need it. I could seal the entrance and let it grow there, and if I ever needed a bit of it I could just simply get if from the stores. It's the plant's growing season right now, in any case."

"That's smart," the spirit nodded in understanding. "Couldn't you grow it in a simulated room, though? Just make it cold, damp and dark and plant it there."

"Contrary to popular belief," Severus murmured, going into lecture-mode as he magicked a pot out of thin air and began to carefully trace a circle on the ground with his wand. "Most magical plants cannot grow in a simulated environment—rather, they must be collected from the wild. Hogwarts' own greenhouse, however, has been exposed to magic and is close enough to the forest that this does not affect the plants within much. But there is no doubt that the most effective and pure plants must grow in the wild if you want to get the most of their potential."

"I didn't know that," Harry blinked. "They never taught me that in Herbology."

Snape extracted a cylindrical patch of dirt, supposedly with the Devil's Snare seed, root and sprout within, and neatly dumped the entire mess into his magicked pot.

"I guess you learn something new every day then," Severus smirked. "Besides, it doesn't really matter for the common individual's needs. Indeed, even Potions Masters like me don't need to know, since most don't go around planting their own ingredients. However, if one is looking for the best quality…it's good to grow them yourself."

"Goes to show why you're the youngest, smartest and most successful Potions Master, eh?" Harry laughed, praising Severus and patting him on the back.

"I am the youngest," Severus acknowledged, and shrugged. "But I am definitely not the most successful."

"Yet," Harry wagged a finger in his face. "The world just has to wait till you show 'em all how badass you are."

Raising an eyebrow, Snape's lips twitched until he could hold it no longer and burst out laughing. "Only you, Harry," the Potions Master chuckled, running a hand through his hair. "Only you."

Motioning for him to follow, the pair walked out of the forest and trudged through the increasing pile of snow into the castle, their breath fogging around them. They bumped into Filch on the way to the dungeons, but he was quickly taken care of with a brisk nod of Snape's head and off they went without another remark. For a moment of panic, Harry thought he'd been spotted as much younger Ms Norris began to mewl and follow him for a few seconds, before Severus shooed her off with a glare and she returned to her master.

Once they were safely ensconced in Severus's quarters, Harry let out an explosive sigh and floated onto the couch, collapsing on it. "Stupid cat," he muttered huffily. "I almost had a heart attack back there!"

Severus glanced at Harry, pausing only to gently stuff the potted Devil's Snare into a spare cupboard and ward it shut. "You do seem to look more physical lately," he noted quietly, sitting at the edge of the couch, a few inches from Harry's head. Using a hand, he ran through Harry's hair and lifted the lengthening strands. Harry watched him quietly, staring at Snape's long fingers.

"I could see your breath outside," Snape continued. "And you patted my back and I felt it. Do you feel a tugging yet?" He let Harry's stands of hair fall back down and rested his hand on his head instead.

"No," Harry said quietly. "Not really. Do you?"

"No," Severus sighed, and leaned back against the couch, absentmindedly massaging Harry's scalp in slow, soothing strokes. "Merlin, I've got so much paperwork to do and not enough time to do it."

"Rest for now," Harry suggested, closing his eye. "Take a nap. When you wake up, you'll finish it in no time."

"Hn," Severus agreed.

"Should we talk any more?" Harry murmured.

"Not if you have anything stupid to say." Severus snorted, closing his own eyes.

"Haha, very funny."

They did not say much after that.

x°x x°x x°x

In the depths of the sixth level of Azkaban a prisoner stirred, savage and insane eyes blinking open as a smile spread across his face. Ice began to crawl up around his chin to his lips as uncontrollable shivers consumed his body. A crowd of three wandering Dementors paused by his cell—Sixty-Five—and began to wail, sending shudders up the prisoner's frame. Contrary to any outsider's suspicions though, it was not of fear or cold, but of excitement.

"I've seen what you do," the prisoner whispered fiercely, crawling forward to the front of his cell to stare up at the hooded creatures that shrieked just a few inches from him. "And I want to become you."

Reaching forward, he stood and sent his wayward arms through the bars, clutching at a Dementor's skinny, bone-like hand.

"Take me," he growled, insane eyes wide with pleasure. "Take me and let me become you."

With keening cries, the Dementors flung themselves at the cell and seeminglyslid by the bars, crowding around the prisoner's body as they toppled over him, covering him, consuming him. When the increased crowd of four left a few minutes later, there was nothing left of their voluntary victim but an empty shell of a person with a creepy, dead smile.

x°x x°x x°x

Gawain Robards was not pleased.

Ever since he had arrived at Azkaban two months ago, nothing seemed to be in order. He was required to serve three months of Azkaban duty since he was of higher rank than the regular Auror, and he understood the necessity of it, but this didn't mean he was happy about it.

Still, this was not the source of his displeasure.

No, in fact, what was ticking him off was the amount of Dementors crawling about. This post's predecessor—some chap going by the queer first name of 'Williamson'—had reported the dwindling amount of Dementors, citing that they seemed to be reckless and departing Azkaban at an alarming rate. He assured the Headquarters that they would disappear into the mist but there were no reports of Dementor sightings beyond Azkaban, which he then concluded was because they were most probably perishing out at sea.

None of the fools at the Ministry had been able to say if this was good or bad news, what with the whole concept of Azkaban centering on the fact that Dementors were there to make people miserable, but the entire mess had now turned on its head and become worse. Because the Dementors that had left were not the ones increasing the population—no, it now seemed as if the Dementors were, for lack of a better word, consuming the prisoners. Rather than simply Kissing the stupid inmates that got too close to the creatures, they were eating their souls and then spitting them back out to produce another soul-sucking fiend.

It was insanity.

Gawain was not exactly sure what to do. Though the increasing lack of Dementors had been a cause of concern before, this new situation was ridiculous. Despite wanting to punish the murderers and Death Eaters that were enclosed within Azkaban, he was not pleased with the fact that now these inmates were getting Kissed without expressive Ministry permission and were being turned into Dementors themselves, to spread the plague. Although he'd been handing out bottled Patroni and other assortment of magical protective knickknacks to his aurors as a defense measurement lest they, too, get turned into Dementors, it wasn't enough.

And the Ministry was far too busy with the Right's people knocking on their door to pay any attention to his reports. The only reply he'd gotten was the equivalent of a pat on the head and a dismissal that "the situation couldn't possibly be as bad as he made it out to be".

Gawain Robards loved his job. He truly did. And he whole-heartedly believed in the Ministry's ideals. But this was beyond rationality—it was pure, reckless stupidity!

He desperately wished Benjy were here. Though his friend was of lower standing, he was nonetheless a fine auror and a great companion. Surely with him by his side, he would be able to figure out how to deal with this dilemma.

Don't be selfish, Robards, he berated himself, frowning. Benjy had left several weeks ago, his yearly Azkaban duty done, and it would be plainly cruel to ask for him to return just to have someone rational to talk to.

But still, he had to do something, and soon.

"Gawain?" the resident Azkaban nurse called to him, popping her head through the door and seeking him. "Hello? Is anyone there?"

"Ah," his head snapped up and he waved to her from his desk, behind a clutter of pens, cups and ink. "Madam Bonham, please come in. What is it?"

Matlida Bonham had somehow willingly become Azkaban's much-needed doctor, and visited the island on a weekly basis to check up on prisoners. At times she would bring one or two companions with her, to make the load quicker, but she usually came alone. It still amazed Gawain that she was returning voluntarily, with genuine concern for the prisoners under his care. He was grateful for her persistent company, nonetheless. What with familiar faces of fellow aurors going away with every two weeks, it was difficult to adjust.

"I just finished my rounds on the first floor for the week, and I was just reporting in to say that I'm heading back to Saint Mungo's in about an hour, once the ferry comes by."

"That's wonderful," Robards smiled. "Thank you very much for coming, you have no idea how grateful I am to have you here. I wish you the safest journey home."

"Thank you," Madam Bonham said, and then paused. "Excuse me for prying, but you look a bit pale. Have you taken the chocolate I prescribed today?"

Gawain's smile became rather tight. "I have indeed, madam, it was very good. But I am no less pale than yesterday—must be because of all the lack of sunlight. I'll be fine, don't worry about me."

Frowning, Matilda came in and stalked over to him, causing the auror to jerk back in surprise.

"Madam…?"

"You are very pale, sir," she insisted. "I might even say at a glance that you've got a fever."

"I have no such thing," Gawain waved a nonchalant hand. "I'm simply tired and pale from work and stress."

"Hm," she eyed him carefully. "Do you mind if I stay for another day, then? I just want to make sure. There is an extra bed in the female auror's quarters—I've checked."

"Madam, you need not—"

"I've decided already," Matilda huffed. "Sheesh, you men with your pride. Don't worry, I am merely going to check you quickly tomorrow morning and then I will be on my way. Is that all right?"

"Do as you wish," the man sighed. "Just be careful if you make another round about. Make sure to have an escort at all times—the Dementors are spawning everywhere, and it's no longer safe to wander about alone."

She nodded briskly and, stealing another worried glance at his palour, left the room and disappeared down the corridor.

"That woman is going to be the death of me," Gawain rubbed his temples. Now that he thought about it though, he did feel a bit sick. He could not abandon his post on sick-leave for something as measly as the flu, however, and would have to brave it out until the end of the month.

It was a bit of a shame, really. Though he had no family at home, it would've been nice to spend Christmas and New Years Eve somewhere far away from Azkaban. And to think he and his companions would have to somehow round up all the Dementors and coral them somewhere as a present for the inmates on both Christmas and New Years…how they'd managed that all these years remained a mystery to him.

A few more days till Christmas, and it would be a day off for all of them. Sighing yet again, he reclined in his chair and resolved to drink another cup of chocolate. The added calories were better than fainting from the ever-present presence of the spawning Dementors.


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