...

Harry traced a thick black cross with permanent marker as his fifth day at Grimauld Place drew to a close. It was only when his solitary brooding was interrupted, that he realised that the pressure of his quill was threatening to break through the parchment.

''If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were counting the days til you're leaving again?''

Harry glanced up, stowing his self-made calendar back under his pillow and out of sight.

''That's not true.''

''If you say so, mate.'' There was enough trace of accusation in Ron's voice for Harry to be wary. He closed to door behind him however, and wandered into the room without any particular sense of hostility.

''Its not that I don't want to be here,'' Harry apologised guiltily. He winced as he regarded his friend with an attempted innocent expression, hoping that his ready-packed suitcase by the foot of his bed would go unnoticed. ''It's just... this summer was never going to be a real holiday for us was it? Things will be different once we get back to Hogwarts.''

''Will it?'' Ron did not sound convinced.

Harry attempted a smile, but it shrunk into a grimace and dodged the question. ''I can't relax until this is over-''

''And when is that exactly? When the summer's over? Or when Voldemort's actually dead? You can't live like this -''

''I don't have a choice, Ron!'' Harry snapped, immediately regretting his impatience. It was not Ron's fault he was restless and frustrated.

''What do you reckon's going to happen then?'' Ron asked instead, obviously unwilling to intentionally provoke any further argument. ''After the summer... Are you still going to train with Snape? Or will Dumbledore actually leave you alone next term?''

Harry blinked. He did not like the way that question made him feel. ''I have no idea,'' he answered honestly.

Ron frowned. He sat down on the bed and kicked his shoes off. ''You not taking those anymore then?''

He motioned towards the dreamless sleep on the bedside table, and Harry shook his head.

''Been practicing without.''

''Snape will be so proud,'' Ron muttered, barely concealing his sarcasm.

Harry rolled his eyes, ''Don't be like that.''

He really did want to involve his friends more with his training, but the fact that they were not personally experiencing what he was going through, and could only guess at the depth of attachment he'd developed to Snape, distanced them from him emotionally.

As much as he'd missed his friends throughout the summer, he was noticing Snape's absence with much greater discomfort. He could not even begin to explain why, nor condone it.

''Be like what? Harry mate, I don't know what secret club you and Snape have got going on, but Hermione and I have been with you since the beginning. We're not going anywhere.''

Harry smiled, despite himself. ''I know that.''

He had a sudden thought, and pushed himself further up the bed, back straight.

''Ron... Do me a favour?''

''What?''

''Try and read my mind.''

''Huh?'' Ron blinked, taken aback.

''You've heard of occlumecny, right?''

''Yeah... Course I have,'' Ron answered slowly. ''But I have no idea how to do it. Everyday wizards don't practice that kind of magic, Harry. Most people think its impossible-''

''I know,'' Harry said quickly, waving his hand in the air dismissively, ''but it's just makes trying to practice defending my mind easier if I think someone's actually trying to get in. Please.''

Ron gave him a strange look, but he rolled his eyes after a moment, and turned to face him fully.

Harry crossed his legs and grinned. ''Thanks.''

''What do you want me to do?'' Ron asked, watching Harry as though he was from a different planet entirely.

''Just... try and work out what I'm thinking. And keep eye contact. That's important.''

The thought of potentially having Ron witness the demons of his mind was not nearly as terrifying as the idea of Snape performing occlumency. But the theory was exactly the same, as was his method of creating obstruction.

Harry felt a prickle of nerves as he considered old memories, drawing certain images to the front of his mind. He forced himself to become accustomed to the bleak aurora that surrounded them, before leaving them to the back of his consciousness.

He breathed deeply, and relaxed. He composed all the mental shields he could envision. ''Go on then,'' he challenged, Ron. ''Try it.''

...

Hermione knocked on the door an hour later. She glanced between Ron's bored face and Harry's sweaty, determined one and rolled her eyes.

''Really Harry?'' she chastised gently. ''You could have asked me to do that. Ron would not know where to begin...''

Hermione let her sentence drift as Ron scowled at her, but she grinned good-naturedly back and becoked to Harry.

''You better come downstairs, it's dinner time. And we have a visitor.''


Harry followed Ron and Hermione down the stairs, lost in thought. All the concentration he'd exerted in attempting to block Ron's nearly non-exist threats against his mind, had given him a severe headache.

He could tell by the level of commotion, and the twins taunting faces as they bounded past, that there was to be an Order meeting tonight.

His suspicions were heightened as Sirius appeared at the bottom of the stairs. He laid a hand on Harry's shoulder and with a tight smile, steered him into the kitchen.

Harry felt his heart-rate accelerate as he considered the implications if Snape was required to attend. He suddenly felt entirely unprepared to confront his mentor, despite days of contemplating the inevitable.

''Harry,'' Hermione spoke quietly by his ear, pressing a hand to his side and turning him slightly.

''Crap, Snape's here,'' Ron moaned, confirming her observation. ''This is going to be fun...''

''Come on,'' Hermione tugged on Harry's sleeve and they followed Ron to the far end of the table.

''Don't know why mum's making us eat first. Normally they have their little secret meetings before all this,'' Ron grumbled, but Harry was barely listening.

Snape was in deep conversation with Dumbledore by the stove. Harry's eyes raked over the man's thin form, narrowing as Snape winced and shifted his footing, an obvious limp in the leg only Harry knew he'd been bitten.

He looked exactly as he had a week ago, if not much more rested. The bags under his eyes had lessened, his clothes were clean and uncrumpled, and his hair looked a lot less greasy than Harry remembered.

He felt a rush of guilt as he admitted the fact that it was his own fault in demanding Snape care for him during his illness, that had caused the man to become so run down.

It wasn't long before Molly Weasley had ushered them away and insisted they sat down. Harry was all too aware that Sirius had placed himself deliberately at his elbow.

Harry sighed quietly to himself, casting a nervous side-ways glance at his godfather. He and Sirius had been getting on so much better over the last few days, it disheartened him to accept the pressure they'd inevitably suffer again tonight. Sirius reluctance to discuss anything to do with his training, or Severus Snape in general, was definitely going to be put to the test.

Harry felt nervous, his fale paling as he remembered the scenario he'd been left with the last time they'd been confined to a room together.

''Alright, Harry?'' Sirius asked, a warning in his mock-brightness. He ruffled Harry's hair in an unneccasarry affectionate gesture, and picked up his knife and folk.

Harry watched the man's hands shake.

''Sirius-'' he begun, but Dumbledore had already risen to his feet, and he felt his voice stick in his throat.

''Please, eat everyone. When you are finished, I ask that the Order remain. The rest of you, if you wouldn't mind indulging in an early night. That includes everyone under age, I'm afraid.''

Dumbledore smiled warmly in Harry's direction before he sat down, by way of confirmation that Harry was also included in that statement. It was only then that Snape looked at him.

There was a small frown on his face, but other than that, there was no other readable emotion. His dark eyes darted among the contours of Harry's face with avid intensity, before he turned back to Dumbledore and engaged him in conversation.

Harry attempted to smile, but Snape had already looked away. He refused to feel off-put as he was refused a proper greeting. He should not be surprised that Snape had failed to make him aware of his plans, once again. He could have at least told him he was coming.

He stabbed at his food with a little too much vigour, and felt Sirius tense beside him. Harry could have laughed at the sheer awkwardness of the situation, had he not felt so sick.

He wanted to share in some sort of comraderie with Snape. It had felt before as though they had been unified, and everyone else had felt a stranger. It was a feeling Harry had failed to dislodge all week. But the man wasn't even looking at him.

Suddenly, Harry did not feel at all hungry. ''I think i'm just going to go to bed,'' he muttered to Ron and Hermione. ''I don't feel well.''

Snape glanced up as Harry got to his feet, his lips thinning as he acknowledged the boy's full plate and lack of appetite. His gaze flickered to Sirius, and he remained silent.

''I'll come and see you in a minute,'' Sirius said, looking almost relieved.

Harry pushed his chair back and almost heard Snape's teeth grit across the table.

''Sit down,'' he said quietly, though with enough demand that Harry froze.

''I've had enough,'' Harry argued, meeting Snape's disapproving gaze and deciding to test his luck.

Snape's eyes widened slightly and for a moment, he appeared extremely uncomfortable. His gaze flickered and he merely appeared bored, once again.

''Sit. Down,'' he repeated slowly. He stared at Harry, exasperation creeping into his calm composure. He had barely raised his voice, but he'd managed to gain the attention of the entire table, however unwillingly.

Harry knew that the man was fully aware of why he was upset, and it did not make him feel any better.

''I had hardly train a corpse, can I Potter? Eat.''

Harry felt heat rise to his face, and ignored the fact they had an audience. ''Yeah... because of my training. Stupid of me... Thought there for a minute that you actually cared whether I ate or not-''

Sirius and Snape cut across him in almost exact unison, before he could finish his sentence. Both men rose to their feet and Harry closed his eyes in dismay as the strained tension finally broke.

''I would appreciate it, if you didn't try to parent my godson, Snape,'' Sirius warned. ''He is my responsibility and he can eat however much he likes.''

Snape snorted softly, looking between the two of them with unhidden distaste. There was a deep anger darkening his face that Harry knew only too well.

''Such a ridiculous notion has returned him to the exact weight with which I found him at his relatives, Black. It took three weeks of increased diet for that boy to put on any weight, and you have reduced him to the same wreck- ''

''And I suppose pushing him to within an inch of his life was acceptable!'' Sirius snapped back, much less inept than Snape at controlling the volume of his accusations. ''Sending him home with a fever was very responsible of you.''

Harry ignored the fact that they were discussing such a personal matter in front of a room full of people, and with a despairing glance at Dumbledore, put his head in his hands. This was his fault. All he'd wanted to do was escape, and he'd ended up making things worse.

''I'll sit back down,'' he relented wearily. ''It's not a big deal-''

''No, Harry. If you've had enough, you can go upstairs,'' Sirius snapped irritably. He watched Harry wince and made a conscious effort to lower his voice. ''It's not for Snape to decide either way. Your under my roof and my rules. I am your guardian, Harry. You are not in the classroom at the moment, are you? He has no say in what you do. And certainly not what you eat!''

Harry swallowed and nodded. To his sheer gratification, Dumbledore cleared his throat and chose to intervene.

''Enough theatrics, boys,'' he said calmly. ''You are not the only ones dining here tonight. Let's save any arguments for later on and a little privacy, for Harry's sake. Shall we?''

Harry met Remus' sympathetic gaze across the table. Torn in his decision, he glanced at Snape and the man raised an eyebrow. Harry found himself sinking back onto his chair without another word, and reclaimed his cutlery.

Snape followed, pushing a curtain of sweaty hair out of his face and adverting his gaze from all those at the table.

''This is bloody ridiculous,'' Sirius shook his head, staring between Snape and Harry in disbelief. ''A complete joke.''

He left the room before anyone could argue, leaving the table in a strained silence as they listened to his footsteps disappear up the stairs.

Harry glanced at Ron and Hermione, willing the deep blush in his cheeks to disappear. He pressed one cheek to his hand and ignored the stares from around the table.

''Why don't you tell me how you concocted such a delicious recipe?'' Dumbledore asked loudly, turning to Mrs. Weasley on his left and pointedly ignoring the lack of appetite that had fallen among their guests.

''Well...'' she begun awkwardly, shooting Harry a furtive glance before helping Dumbledore to restore some normality to their mealtime.

Harry was almost grateful Sirius had left. The tense atmosphere gradually evaporated as people discussed their own interests and problems.

He didn't dare glance at Snape again. His food already tasted like cardboard in his mouth and was almost unbearable to swallow.

He hated upsetting Sirius. The past few days had been some of the best they'd spent together. The last thing he wanted was to ruin one of the only relationships with an adult that he was certain of. Sirius may be unreasonable, but Harry knew he had his best interests at heart.

He gave a sigh of relief as they were finally dismissed for the Order meeting to begin. He did not look at Snape as he left the room with Ron and Hermione.

''Blimey, Harry,'' Ron muttered as he closed the bedroom door behind them. ''I don't think I've ever seen Snape that angry. He looked like he was going to kill Sirius.''

Hermione clicked her tongue. ''Don't be ridiculous, Ron. He was just trying to make sure Harry ate. It's a parental instinct.'' She sat down beside Harry and smiled encouragingly at him. ''Don't feel guilty. Please don't let it get to you, Harry. You've gone so pale again. Whatever issues those two have, it's for them to sort out.''

''I should probably go and see, Sirius,'' Harry said tiredly, though he made no physical move to do so. His bones felt far too heavy and he could not muster the energy for another argument.

...

It was over an hour later that Mrs. Weasley knocked on the door and let herself in. Harry had already changed into his pyjamas and relented to playing a game of chess with Ron.

''Harry? Can you come downstairs for a moment? The meeting's over. Professor Snape would like a word before he leaves.''

Harry hid his surprise and grabbed a jumper, setting his hair into chaos as he dragged it over his head with unnecessary speed.

''I'm sorry for what happened at dinner, Mrs. Weasley,'' he apologised hastily, wishing that her loving smile warmed him more than it did. ''I shouldn't have made a fuss-''

''Oh, don't be ridiculous, Harry dear. Those two were bickering long before you were born. They're as bad as each other.'' Mrs. Weasley pressed a hand to his shoulder as he forced a smile, unspoken sympathy radiating from her as she moved on to Ginny's room. She sent Sirius' locked bedroom door a dark glance as she passed it.

Harry pulled his sleeves over his hands and shivered as he descended the stairs. He half-expected Snape to have disappeared, so he was surprised when the saw the man stood impatiently by the front door, hands behind his back and rigidly tense.

''A word, Potter?''

Harry flinched, resentful at Snape's calm exterior. As soon as he mastered occlumency he was going to learn how to read minds. And Snape's head would be the first on his list to open up.

''Stop it,'' Snape warned lightly, reading Harry's accusing expression with narrowed eyes. He pointed the boy into the recently vacated kitchen.

''Everyone's left then?'' Harry asked dully.

Snape closed the door behind them, ignoring the question and in two strides he was towering above Harry. He had an unreadable expression on his face. It was not one Harry remembered seeing before.

Harry heard the lock click behind him and wondered just how much trouble he was in. He edged half a step back, taking a defensive stance. He swallowed awkwardly, feeling suddenly emotionally drained.

He was completely unprepared for Snape to give a dismissive snort in response to his obvious fear, clench his shoulders, and pull him forwards.

Harry bit back his surpise at the unexpected gesture. He breathed in the sudden pressure of cotton against his face, the familiar musty smell of Snape's robes uncoiling the anxiety that had been brewing all day.

''One of these days, I shall be responsible for the dismembering of that godfather of yours, Potter,'' he muttered, fingers digging into the back of Harry's t-shirt.

Harry did not answer. He could not bring himself to move. It felt as though immeasurable tension was ebbing its way out of his hyperactive mind as he basked in the simple offer of comfort. It was relief more than anything that caused a grin to spread across his face.

''You did miss me then?'' he asked finally. Such a simple idea should not have meant so much to him, but with the giant weight currently being lifted from his shoulders, he could not deny how much it pleased him to know that he had not been forgotten.

Snape exhaled deeply. ''What was your first clue, Potter?''

Harry pushed reluctantly at Snape's front and took a step back. He took a deep breath and stared enquiringly up at the man's sour face.

''So unsettled...'' Snape murmured disapprovingly. ''Do not tell me you have been this tense for the entire week, Potter?''

''No.''

When Snape continued to appear unsatisfied, Harry rolled his eyes. ''Why do you always have to try and understand me?'' he said tiredly, breaking eye contact.

''Perhaps I have a death wish,'' Snape responded, without humour and took half a step backwards. ''Very defensive this evening, aren't we Potter?''

Harry frowned, his growing curiosity hindering his patience with the man. ''Why didn't you write back? I sent Hedwig-''

Snape tutted loudly and grabbed Harry's chin, tilting it upwards so that he could examine the boy's face.

''Your illness...'' he murmured in questioning, ignoring Harry's restlessness.

''It's gone.'' Harry dislodged Snape's hand and rubbed at his face irritably. ''I told you it would. Can't you answer just one of my questions?''

Snape looked very much like he wanted to sigh, but he followed Harry to the table and sat down opposite the boy.

''My questions shall be answered first,'' he said firmly. He indulged the boy's consistent tampering with the stitches in his sleeve for a generous moment, before he winced in irritation and reached across the table to distil the movement with his own hand. ''How well have you been eating?''

''I...''

''Do not test my patience,'' Snape warned, an edge of danger in his voice. ''Your as thin as a rake, Potter.''

''I have been eating,'' Harry insisted, exasperated by how Snape never dropped the subject of his nutrition. ''Mrs. Weasley cooks every night. It's just my metabolism... And...''

''And?'' Snape pressed.

''And I haven't had much apetite, alright? I've been doing what you said and sorting through my... memories. And practicing occlumency.''

Snape raised his eyebrows, surprised, though not entirely displeased that Harry had taken his advice so seriously.

''With whom?''

Harry narrowed his eyes, daring Snape to mock him. ''Ron.''

Snape snorted, unimpressed. ''That boy is about as thick as a troll, Potter,'' he stated blandly. ''He cannot help you.''

''He's my friend, Snape,'' Harry argued irritably, marvelling at just how fast the man's attitude could change. It was never that way with Sirius. Or Remus. Not before Snape entered the picture and disrupted every other friendship he'd ever had.

The fact that Snape had rather harshly proven to Harry, just how little his peers and relatives truly knew him, with how much of his past and present horrors that he'd failed to share, had the negative effect of making Harry feel incredibly lonely. It bound him to Snape with a bond of trust and understanding that he wasn't able to share with anyone else.

Snape shook his head, as though dumfounded by Harry's choice in companions, but chose not to push the subject.

''Proffessor, Snape,'' he corrected, ignoring the second roll of Harry's eyes, and added more positively, ''You are not crying or shouting. I take it therefore, your mind is becoming easier to control?''

He smirked slightly when Harry glared at him, but he kept any malice from his voice so that the boy may take the insult in a light-hearted fashion.

''And there have been no other of your previous sympthoms? Headaches? Nausea?''

''I'm getting a headache again now,'' Harry frowned, growing impatient. ''It's always business with you, isn't it? If your so interested in all of this, why didn't you just check up on me in your own time? Or answer my letters? If I actually was sick again, there wouldn't be much you could have done about it.''

Harry watched Snape pinch the bridge of his nose and almost felt sorry for the man. He could appreciate Snape was trying to be equally as patient with him, but he had developed too many grudges to let them go unanswered. He needed to know just how deep this side of Snape that seemed to care about him, really was.

It was not fair that Snape allowed himself to move the boundaries of their relationship backwards and forwards, whenever it suited him, and expect Harry to keep up.

''Potter, remind me, where have you been staying the past week?''

Harry frowned. ''Grimauld Place. Order Headquaters.''

''Precicely. You have been surrounded by capable witches and wizards, who are are your beck and call, Potter. Not to mention your godfather. You were not my responsibility this week. I had no need to check up on you.''

He looked genuinely unhinged that Harry would even care about such a thing, which only made Harry feel even worse.

''Then why did you just... hug me?'' Harry asked, confused, daring himself to ask despite the discomfort it would cause. ''If I'm supposedly getting so much attention here...''

Snape blinked, and to his credit, appeared as though he were searching for an honest answer. The power the boy had to stretch his limits was unique. ''Impulse. It is not only Gryffindor's who have the power to follow their instincts, Potter.''

Harry sighed, willing Snape, if not to understand his position, then to at least empathise with it.

''Sir... Has it not occurred to you that I might have been led to believe that on a... personal level, you might have had an interest in my well being? And that it might have been nice to hear from you?''

''On a number of occasions,'' Snape answered slowly, silently warning Harry with his lack of enthuasism with the subject, that he did not wish to be pushed.

''But you chose not to-''

''Oh, Potter. Stop it,'' Snape snapped irritably. ''Indeed, I chose not to indulge you. Not for lack of want, or motivation, but due to an obviously unfounded belief that you may be able to cope for a few mere days without my presence!''

Harry felt his face redden and berated himself for, once again, allowing his imagination to run riot. He should have had more faith in the man. He hated to admit he was behaving immaturely but he could not deny his need for constant reassurance of Snape's affection towards him.

Snape sighed deeply, almost wishing that he had simply left and not engaged the boy in conversation tonight. He knew that Harry was right, and that his behaviour, to such an outwardly emotional Gryffindor, would be considered confusing, but the boy was not a child, and refused to treat him as such.

If Harry did not know by now how much emotion was required to draw such patience and dedication from him, then perhaps they were more misunderstood than he thought.

He never embraced his students. It was almost unthinkable. If Harry could not work out the implications of his actions, then he would not spell it out for him.

''So...'' Harry said awkwardly, wincing under the anger building on Snape's face and attempting to change the subject. ''Your leaving again now? Are you going back to the Manor?''

''I am,'' Snape nodded curly. He watched Harry's face drop even further, and wondered, not for the first time, how he'd come to have such an effort on the boy.

He'd known Harry would notice his absence, as ridiculous as it seemed, but he was beginning to understand why Dumbledore had warned him against allowing the boy to lean so heavily on him.

He frowned down at Harry's miserable form, swamped in far too big pyjamas and green eyes that could project more expression than anyone he'd ever known.

The sudden wave of affection for the boy caused a verbal hiss to express his frustration. The familiarity this emotion was creating within him, was only making it terrifyingly much easier to contend with.

His next question had materialised, before he'd even consciously considered it. It went against all that he'd promised himself but he only had to consider Sirius' less than acceptable treatment of Harry's obvious condition, to heavily sway his opinion.

Perhaps he had been wrong to consider himself such an unworthy carer in comparison to someone who could unreservedly fulfil his childish desire for constant outward affection. He at least would ensure the boy's emotional peace of mind and force some weight upon him.

''Did you want to accompany me?''

''What?'' Harry glanced up, eyes widening. ''But I still have two days left. Dumbledore said I was spending a week-''

''You wish to stay here?''

Harry contemplated the idea and shook his head almost immediately, barely concealing his grimace. ''No... Not really. Nobody understands me here. They all keep trying to help... and they just cant. I just want to finish my training.''

Snape looked almost proud as he acknowledged Harry's determination. He forced himself to concentrate on the hollow of the boy's cheeks and the irrational warmth that had invaded his stomach as he had embraced him, as he confirmed his intentions.

''Then pack your bags,'' he said simply.

''But how?'' Harry asked, confused by Snape's sudden desire to leave. ''I'm not allowed to just go with you am I? You're not...'' He blinked uncertainly as Snape raised an eyebrow, but forced himself to continue regardless. ''You're not my guardian or anything. You can't take me unless Professor Dumbledore says so.''

''Is that right?'' Snape almost appeared amused as he regarded Harry. ''And all these... less than subtle hints you've been inflicting me with, with regarrds to your... guardianship... they were just a careless ideas, Potter? You do not wish for me to play a more active role in your development?''

Harry's eyes widened even further. Snape had never spoken of this subject so openly before.

''Sir, are you being serious? If your that angry with Sirius, then don't be. He's not always like that-''

''Potter, it would be obvious to the blind that you have a mental condition,'' Snape interrupted impatiently. The fact that Harry was standing up for his godfather caused a constriction in his throat that he did not like. ''It was explained to that fool that your emotional barriers had been weakened. And he has not made one attempted to aid you into recovery. He did not ensure you consumed the dreamless sleep I concocted, nor has he ensured your nutritional welfare.''

''And you can, sir?'' Harry asked doubtfully, throwing caution to the wind. ''You can give me everything I need from a parental figure?''

''I can try,'' Snape retorted before he could bite his tongue. His eyes widened with the implications of all he'd admitted. It was not a comforting thought to accept that his desire to teach Harry, not just of magic and self-defence, but of the world in general, was one that had been slowly suffocating.

He did not want to feel guilt each time nature propelled him to care for the boy when he was sick, or when he demanded answers for one of his endless questions... Why should he be chastised as a teacher for attaching unnecessary sentimentality where the boy was concerned, and place such harsh limitations upon himself?

The fact that Harry was so clueless to the true wonders of the world, and was so able to be taught, only made him that more appealing.

''I am leaving tonight, Potter. If you so wish that I am to take more of a personal responsibility for your welfare... And if you are suggesting that I take a role in the general continuation of your development, then I can assure you, you shall not starve!''

Harry stared at him in disbelief.

''But I've just annoyed you. Again! Why would you want me with you? We were just arguing and-''

''I am aware by now that living with you, Potter is not a perfect scenrario. I am fully aware of what I am condemning myself to. Though I appreciate your concern.'' He smirked and rose to his feet, securing his cloak more tightly to himself and pulling his wand from his pocket.

''I am offering, in short, to take you under my wing, Potter. It... suffers me to see that your godfather is lacking in his role...''

''Don't say that about, Sirius,'' Harry argued, focusing on any anger he could draw out of Snape's responses, rather than seriously considering such a terrifying offer.

Snape was freely admitting that he wanted to keep him, and it was more than Harry could comprehend in the limited time he was being given.

''Gryffindors...'' Snape muttered to himself, without any particular malice. He almost managed a smile as they walked to the door, glancing down at Harry and wondering just how he'd allowed things to get this far.

He watched Harry hesitate and his disappointment was transparent. ''Forget this conversation. I shall collect you in two days. And Potter, do try to relax. ''

Harry watched the door shut behind Snape and could almost hear his heart thumping through his chest.

It was unfair for him to suggest that Sirius was a bad guardian. He loved the man dearly. But what was he offering? A simple comfort and affection that did not penetrate to the deeper levels of Harry's inner conflicts. Sirius had proved how immature he could be... His hatred for Snape seemed far more important than his relationship with Harry.

He was sick of trying to fill his father's shoes. He was not James. If all he was going to be to Sirius was a disappointment, Harry could not bare to remain for the day when realisation finally dawned. And Sirius understood that he had never really got his best friend back.

Harry shook his head to himself, an ugly look on his face. He'd always thought it was Snape who had seen him only as his father, and now their roles had been reversed.

There was only one man that would get him ready to face Voldemort.

...

Snape had his hand on the front door handle as he heard Harry shout his name.

He raised an eyebrow in genuine surprise as the boy frowned up at him, intense eyes searching Snape's face for any sort of joke at his expense.

When the man stared steadily back, Harry nodded his head and blew out an unsteady breath.

''I'll get my suitcase,'' he said shakily, and jogged back up the stairs.

Snape watched him go with a wary expression, unhinged by the fact the boy had conceded to change his mind.

He knew it was selfish not to give Harry more time to think about the decision he was making. Leaving Grimauld Place with him without prior arrangement, was an unspoken statement to the rest of the house that he could not take back.

Snape wound his hands behind his back and tightened his lips. He had a burning desire to hurt Sirius Black, and more so for the treatment he'd allowed the boy to suffer over the past few days.

He was Head of Slytherin House. It was not in his nature to be selfless. To take Harry from his friends and family in such a fashion... to manipulate the boy into making a rash decision, was a sin he could bare if it meant he had Harry under close observation.

He was not used to having to deal with anger and emotion when it was on behalf of another, and taking a leaf out of Harry's book, was acting on impulse rather than reason.

Snape almost winced as he watched Harry struggle down the stairs with his case, Ron and Hermione's confused faces not far behind.

''I'll be back after the summer,'' he assured them. ''I'll write to you. I doubt he'll let you visit-''

''Harry... what about Sirius?'' Hermione asked, pale faced and flustered. ''He'll be devastated if you leave without saying goodbye.''

''I've had enough of Sirius slamming doors on me,'' Harry said darkly, casting a glance back up the stairs and refusing the hurt to show on his face. ''He's never going to understand me if he doesn't at least try. If he wants to have a grown-up conversation, he knows where to find me.''

Ron grabbed his arm as Harry turned away. ''Harry, you can't be serious. Snape's just going to turn you into a robot-''

Snape snorted loudly. ''And where would the interest lie then, Weasley?''

''Shut up, Snape,'' he snapped, having the grace to look sheepish, but his anger was over-riding his obedience. He knew he'd pay for his cheek with the return of the school term, but he was being reminded, rather forcefully, that Snape was a man, and not just a teacher.

''Your not his father,'' he added unkindly. ''Stop trying to control him.''

A reddish tinge coloured Snape's pale cheeks and his eyes widened, but Harry placed himself between the two before either could give in to temper.

''Oh let him go, Ron!'' Hermione insisted, before they could argue any further. She looked just as bewildered, but she shrugged her shoulders and helped Harry down the last few steps with his case. ''Harry has to do this his own way. We have to trust him.''

Harry smiled at her thankfully and pulled her into a firm hug. ''I'll see you at Hogwarts.''

Ron crossed his arms over his chest, face red and tense, but Harry was feeling reckless and boldly embraced him, ignoring the other boy's attempts to wriggle away from him.

''I'm not fighting with you as well, Ron. I'm not losing my best friend and my godfather.''

He forced Ron to look at him, a strong wave of nostalgia passing over him as he studied the other boys bright hair and freckles. ''You don't understand. It's because I want to be able to relax and enjoy my time with you guys that I have to do this. I need to be ready to fight him, Ron. And professor Snape... He's the only person that can teach me.''

Ron shook his head, but his anger was failing to be replaced with a far heavier weight of disappointment. He frowned deeply as he turned back to Snape. ''If you hurt him... You'll regret it.''

Snape rolled his eyes at the dramatic display and beckoned Harry forwards impatiently. ''Terrifying, Weasley. Come on, Potter.''

Harry cast them a final, fearful glance and stepped out onto the pavement into the cold night air. After the commotion of within the house, the silence that instantly fell upon them was thick, and Harry felt himself shiver.

Snape pulled his wand from his pocket, prepared to apparate and hesitated.

''I get the distinct impression that I may have just kidnapped you, Potter,'' he murmured finally, into the darkness, unable to make out the boy's face on the doorstep, but could sense the intensity of his shaking.

He raised his wand and cast quiet a 'lumos' over the boy. He looked even smaller in the shadows, still wearing his pyjamas, wracked with an equal measure of nerves and determination.

''There is always a choice, Potter,'' he said slowly, and with as much conviction as he could muster. ''Always.''

''I know,'' agreed Harry quietly. He pulled his own wand carefully out of his pocket and moved to stand at Snape's side. It was the most outlandish, albeit easiest decisions he had ever made. ''And I'm choosing to go with you.''