DISCLAIMER: Harry Potter and all other characters and locations belong to J. K. Rowling.

Chapter Nine - Hunted

Bewildered hoots echoed through the cold stone tower, the soft cacophony accompanied by the rustle and flutter of dozens of pairs of wings. Several stray feathers drifted slowly to the floor, lost in the sudden chaos caused by the arrival of the individual standing bemused in the doorway. When the dander and snow finally settled, the Owlry was nearly empty, only a handful of birds remaining perched in the uppermost reaches of the tower, their eyes wary and their feet shifting nervously on the narrow stone ledges.

From the archway of the Owlry, Harry stared in stupefied silence at the abandoned alcoves along the wall. Frowning, he stepped into the circular tower, his gaze sweeping the shadows in search of Hedwig. His shoulders slumped with dismay when he found the Snowy Owl perched beside a large Barn Owl, the pair watching him from the highest point of the room. Absently, he bounced the owl treats in his left hand up and down, deciding that three wasn't going to be nearly enough to coax Hedwig from her lofty perch. Shaking his head, he walked into the chamber and carefully set the treats on the lip of the large bird bath, shooting the watchful owls an unhappy glance before pacing toward one of the tall windows.

With a heavy sigh, he placed his hands on the cold stone sill, gazing out at the forest stretched before him. Visiting Hedwig had merely been an attempt to stave off the restlessness he was feeling, that and a chance to escape the pressing confines of the castle. The bitter wind and cold temperatures were keeping the majority of students within the walls of Hogwarts, meaning that all the common areas and halls were filled with shrieking, squealing students hell bent on keeping themselves entertained. For Harry that meant a terrible headache and an extremely irritated wolf that continuously whispered suggestions of a decidedly deadly nature in his ear.

The hurried tap of boots on stone turned his head, his eyes widening perceptibly when Ginny came rushing into the Owlry, a fold of parchment clutched in one gloved hand. She stumbled to a halt when her eyes landed on him, making a small sound in the back of her throat before backpedaling several steps. He stopped her quick retreat with a hand raised in silent entreaty, watching sadly as she nervously glanced around the abandoned chamber. "Hey, Ginny," he said quietly in greeting.

"Harry," Ginny murmured, fingers curling in the heavy cloth of her old cloak. She shuffled her feet on the dirty floor as her gaze darted around the empty Owlry, avoiding the glowing emeralds pinned on her. "I've, ah . . . I was just going to send an owl to Mum." An anxious laugh bubbled up her throat, the sound causing her cheeks to flush as it echoed in the cold winter air. Clearing her throat with a delicate cough, she glanced hopefully around the Owlry in search of an available owl.

Harry's eyes followed the witch's gaze, noting the exact moment she realized the handful of remaining owls belonged to other students. Feeling suddenly gracious, and despite the wolf's mutinous rumbles, he gestured upward, directing Ginny's attention to the Snowy Owl perched high above their heads. "You can use Hedwig if you want," he offered, nearly smirking as the owl ruffled her feathers in disgust. "I'm sure she can use the exercise."

Appearing extremely unnerved by the offer, Ginny shifted her weight back and forth between her right foot and her left. "I suppose I could," she said, uncertainty ringing in her voice. She stared up at the owl doubtfully, frowning as the parchment in her hand crinkled almost tauntingly.

Not really caring whether or not she took him up on the offer, Harry gave a lazy roll of his shoulders and strolled toward the portal. His eyes caught the sudden tensing of the witch's body, the way her shoulders stiffened and her face paled as he moved in her direction. He brushed by Ginny casually, the stench of her fear strong in his nose. When he reached the arching doorway that gave way to the long flight of stairs that spiraled ever downward, he halted, turning back to peer thoughtfully at the witch. "Why are you so afraid of me?" He asked in a calm whisper, reaching out and wrapping his fingers around the stone balustrade behind him.

If it was possible, Ginny grew even more nervous, her heart lunging into a furious gallop within her chest. She turned carefully to face the raven-haired male, swallowing when she saw he stood squarely in the center of the doorway, his solid frame easily filling the narrow archway. Unconsciously, her hands slid over the pockets of her cloak, identifying the comforting length of the wand resting there. "Because you're not afraid of it," she replied simply. At his confused look, she elaborated. "You don't understand what it's capable of doing - what you're capable of doing. You may think you can control it, but that's only because it lets you. Werewolves are driven by instinct and the most powerful instinct of all is survival. If it felt something or someone was threatening its existence, it would destroy them without a second thought. That's why I'm afraid of you, Harry."

Harry shook his head slowly, denying everything the witch was saying. "You're wrong, Ginny." His voice was rough with emotion as he uncurled his fingers from the balustrade. "Whoever you've been talking to has been filling your head with lies. I control the wolf. Despite what Ron wants you to believe, I'm still the same Harry Potter you've known since your first year. The same Harry Potter who saved your life that same year. And I would never hurt you - or anyone else. If you don't want to believe me than at least talk to Hermione, just stop listening to the bullshit your brother's spewing." Giving his head a hard shake, Harry swung around and began the long climb down the spiraling stairs.

Ron's blatant attempts at sabotaging his friendships were beginning to irk him. It seemed the redhead had done nothing but manufacture malicious stories since their return to Hogwarts, trying to tarnish Harry's character in any way possible. From his childhood to his sexual orientation, Ron had started the rumours winging. And while Harry may have grown accustomed to the hateful hisses of the Slytherins over the past five years, it was an entirely different matter to hear the lies from the lips of Gryffindors.

A rumble reverberated in his throat, the sound startlingly animalistic. Halting abruptly on the well-trodden path between the castle and the Owlry, Harry closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. Almost immediately he felt calmer. He inhaled again and felt the last remnants of his anger fade.

Even the easily agitated wolf grew silent and still, the confrontation that had occurred moments ago with Ginny seemingly forgotten. Eyes flicking open, Harry began a slow glide down the path, his boots noiseless on the snowy trail. Birds bantered cheerfully back and forth overhead, their calls sounding as harmonious as that of church bells. Somewhere within the trees that bordered the path, snow fell heavily from a branch and landed with a soft whomp. And although he scanned the surrounding forest with lazy eyes, the wolf was ever attentive, carefully noting each set of prints that meandered between the trees and the various scents wafting upon the wind.

Deer, the wolf muttered, attention on the dainty heart-shaped prints wending through the oaks. Fleet. Maneuverable. Can feed an entire pack, but impossible to take alone.

Harry barely stopped himself from flinching at the wolf's matter-of-fact attitude. To the beast, such thoughts were reasonable, even logical. Trying to shrug away the grim murmur, Harry tipped his chin upwards, closing his eyes as the sun's rays struck his face for the first time in three days. His cheeks tingled as warmth infused them and he opened his eyes, taking a long indrawn breath - that stopped him abruptly in midstride. His nose fairly twitched and he took another tentative sniff, allowing his brain to sort through the various smells that hung in the air. Mint; a spicy cologne; the faintest whiff of caesar dressing; coffee and vanilla; a hint of smoke with an incredibly acrid taste to it. And the wolf purred to life with an interest Harry recognized.

Emerald orbs closing on a muted groan, he dropped his chin and glared at the path, picking out the freshest prints on the well worn trail. Atop his boot marks and those left by Ginny lay another set, these ones branching off and heading down a secondary path that led around the castle. Heaving an audibly heavy sigh, he jammed his hands into his pockets and followed that third set of tracks.

He found his target minutes later standing on the long bridge that stretched between Hogwarts and the forest beyond, seemingly absorbed in the piece of parchment held loosely between his hands. Seeing the blond's obvious distraction, and perhaps taken just the slightest bit by the wolf's exuberance at finding Draco, Harry allowed his head to drop and his shoulders to rise, taking on the classic stalk posture. Despite the fact that he was upwind of the other male, he crept stealthily forward, his feet unerringly finding the newest boards on the bridge, avoiding those that might creak or groan in protest at any applied weight. His soundless approach halted when the blond turned bored eyes in his direction, one pale brow lifting in a perfect bow-shaped arc.

"Potter," Draco drawled, his amusement read quite easily upon his features.

"Malfoy," Harry returned in the same tone. He straightened and strode casually forward until he reached the blond's side, lazily mirroring Draco's languid lean against the bridge's railing. Settling his weight on his forearms, he gazed down at the jutting and doubtlessly sharp rocks meters below, pondering his chances of survival should the shoddily repaired railing snap and send him swan-diving towards possible death. "Interesting read?" He asked moments later, indicating the blond's letter with a flick of a finger.

Giving an inelegant snort, Draco folded the parchment in half and dragged his fingers roughly down the crease, the gesture more telling than the expression on his pale face. "Interesting visit?" He countered, shooting a knowing look at the dark-haired wizard from beneath his bangs.

Harry shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly, a soft sound of noncommital falling from his mouth. He tapped his fingers lightly together, glancing in the direction of the castle as a spattering of loud conversation reached his ears, the sharp cries undoubtedly carried by the cool wind. Beside him, Draco began to shred the letter, tearing the parchment meticulously into long strips that he then released to flutter down to the waiting rocks beneath them. "About as enjoyable as your letter, apparently," he finally said, watching the shredded parchment swirl and spin in the breeze.

Draco smiled ruefully, silver orbs locked on the last strip of parchment fluttering helplessly between two of his fingers. "A note from my favourite bootmaker kindly informing me that there was a complication with my transaction and they had to cancel my entire order." Slender digits parted, freeing the final piece of parchment to dance wildly upon the wind.

Harry stared blankly at the blond for several seconds, trying to think of an appropriately sympathetic response to the other wizard's plight. For a moment he considered asking the Slytherin if he really needed another pair of boots, but he quickly discarded the question after imagining its icy reception. "That's . . . terrible," he finally managed, brows drawing down when Draco shot him a wry look.

Giving his head a slight shake at the dark-haired wizard's naive reply, Draco reached into the pocket of his cloak and withdrew a packet of letters tied together with a mauve ribbon. He offered the package silently to Harry, staring thoughtfully at the forest as the other male leafed through the stack of letters. "My father cut me off, Potter. Financially disowned me as it were." To his ears the admission sounded like a guilty confession, as if he found his sudden descent into poverty incredibly mortifying. "It wasn't at all unexpected, of course. Merely a matter of time, really." He rallied quickly, ignoring the sharp stab of pain he felt at his father's financial abandonment and the true meaning behind it.

"I'm so sorry, Draco." Harry whispered, staring down at a letter from a notoriously expensive tailor. He turned his head and looked at the blond, noting the deceptive burn in the other male's silvery spheres that belied the note of indifference in his voice.

"Don't be." Draco bit out. "I've been withdrawing the maximum amount I'm allowed from the Manor's accounts for the last few months. Hocked a handful of Lucius's rare dark artifacts. Parted with a few priceless family heirlooms left in my possession. I even sold some rather sensitive information to the highest bidder I could find." The tone in which he stated his recent activities was completely casual, as if they were merely discussing the weather or Quidditch.

Harry stared at the blond in open-mouthed shock, unsure once again of the appropriate response - or even if there was one. He finally convinced his jaw muscles to work, closing his mouth with an audible click of teeth that had Draco turning to look at him Harry stared at the blond in open-mouthed shock, unsure once again of the appropriate response - or even if there was one. He finally convinced his jaw muscles to work, closing his mouth with an audible click of teeth that had Draco turning to look at him. "That's . . . interesting," he managed in a hoarse whisper. He grinned wryly when Draco burst into laughter at his reply, giving an embarrassed wag of his head as he watched the Slytherin snicker. When the blond had quieted, Harry changed the subject, deciding it was best to move onto a different topic before the other wizard confessed to something of a more sinister nature.

"So, I ran into Ginny in the Owlry," he began, pushing away from the railing and walking to the opposite side of the bridge. "And she had gall to call me a monster." He didn't know why he felt the need to discuss his conversation with the witch with Draco, only that it seemed fair after the blond's admission. He propped a shoulder against one of the thick support posts and tucked his hands into the deep pockets of his robes for warmth, eyeing the snow laden branches of the trees just beyond the grounds of Hogwarts. Breathing deeply, he followed the path of a large scruffy raven with his eyes, watching as the bird winged from tree to tree, its cry extremely raucous.

Draco moved to stand alongside Harry, his attention likewise going to the raven creating a very loud commotion across the ravine. "A monster, Potter? Please, you're about as dangerous as a bunny rabbit." His eyes narrowed when the black bird gave a particularly loud squawk, its continued presence causing him to shift closer to Harry, a growl of warning trickling unheeded over his lips.

Harry froze at the soft rumble, his eyes darting worriedly to the blond. "Is everything okay?" He asked in a wary voice. He was surprised when Draco turned to look at him, his silvery orbs glittering unnaturally in the afternoon sunlight. "I think I'm going to head in now. Hermione's probably waiting for me in library," he murmured, taking a small step back. He stiffened when the other wizard extended a graceful hand, the cold digits brushing lightly along his cheek before being withdrawn.

"I'll catch up with you later," Draco murmured softly, his focus still on the raven. He fluttered a hand as if dismissing the raven-haired wizard and swung around, beginning a gliding prowl down the long length of the wooden bridge.

Shaking his head at the dismissal, Harry turned and walked toward the castle, pondering everything he'd just learned. Werewolf creeds and the true definition of monster, Draco was being extremely forthright today - how unusual. Sighing, he tromped on in the direction of Hogwarts, the wolf whispering quietly in his head.


Harry ducked back inside the castle and tugged the heavy door closed behind him, a small frown creasing his brow at the dull thud that seemed to echo the length of the long hallway. Shrugging the sound away, he stomped the clinging snow from his boots and pushed his winter cloak back over his shoulders, loosening the ties with numb fingers as he paced quietly down the corridor. His strides shortened when the wolf whispered along the fringes of his conscious, its words those of caution and care. Brow furrowing, he glanced appraisingly around, searching the shadowed length of hallway for whatever had disturbed the wolf. Gliding his tongue across his lips, he set his eyes on the hallway ahead and resumed his course, deciding it was probably best not to linger in the empty corridor.

It wasn't until he was almost upon the first intersecting hallway that his ears picked up the soft murmur of lowered voices, the furtive hisses accompanied by the scuff of boots and rustle of robes. He stilled immediately, his winter cloak swinging gently back and forth with its continued momentum until it finally settled against his legs. His heart pounded in his ears as his chest rose and fell slowly, his entire being focusing on the adjoining hallway that lay ahead. The whispering voices quieted, throwing the corridor into silence once more.

Ambush, the wolf warned.

Nonsense, Harry replied, though he began to share the wolf's growing sense of unease. It was probably just some third years set on pranking whoever happened across their path, nothing to get all paranoid about. Besides, they were safe within the walls of Hogwarts. Giving a firm nod of his head at the reassuring thought, he lifted a foot to continue down the corridor and froze instead, eyes locked on the familiar head of red-hair peeping around the corner. The wolf rose to the surface with a furious howl, the sound almost slipping over his lips. Weasley.

Realizing he'd been spotted, Ron walked out into the center of the passage, his blue eyes narrowed with hatred. "Potter," he fairly spat, hands curling into balls against his thighs. The smug smirk he wore grew as the group he'd gathered followed him out into the hallway, forming a loose semicircle around him that quite effectively cut off the raven-haired male's easiest route of escape.

Drawing a slow breath, Harry arched a single dark brow in silent query, his eyes sliding over the assembled group. Terry Boot, Michael Corner, Ernie Macmillan, and Justin Finch-Fletchley. That wasn't the final headcount, though. The group was rounded out by his fellow Gryffindors - Seamus, Dean, Neville, and Colin Creevey. His chest tightened at the sight, grief momentarily overwhelming him. His friends, those he'd once laughed and lived with, gathered against him. "Ron." The redhead's name was laced with a loathing so thick that the entire group actually flinched.

"We need to talk," Ron blustered, chin jutting upwards and arms crossed defensively across his chest. The brash statement was accompanied by much head bobbing by his companions, their unquestioning loyalty giving him the courage to continue. "About you and Malfoy."

Just perfect, Harry thought sourly, this was exactly what he needed. "Me and Malfoy?" He asked aloud, sweeping the group with a bored look. This impromptu intervention had the ability to turn ugly quickly. Although, considering the isolated location Ron had chosen for it, that's probably what the redhead intended. If Harry fucked up again, no matter what the reason, he'd be back at Grimmauld Place with a collar around his neck, and they both knew it.

"Show him, Colin," Ron snapped, shoving the other wizard forward.

Harry didn't like the gleeful look on the redhead's face. Emerald orbs narrowing, he shifted his gaze to Creevey, watching the younger wizard shuffle fearfully forward. He lowered his gaze when the fifth-year Gryffindor thrust a hand toward him, the sheaf of papers he held practically flapping with his nervousness. Not papers, Harry realized, fingers closing around the stack, pictures. His mouth went dry and he swallowed loudly, his eyes jerking up to meet Ron's triumphant gaze. Gritting his teeth, he turned his attention to the first picture, the glossy image causing dread to slowly churn his stomach.

Standing side by side, he and Draco stood on the rocky shore of the lake, their body language appearing quite amicable. Palms growing damp, he slid the picture to the bottom of the pile, quickly noting that the next image was no better than the first. He and Draco in the library, sitting cozily in a shadowed alcove. Dread growing, he shuffled through the remaining pictures until he reached the last one. This one, he thought, this one was the most damning of all. He and Draco on the bridge mere minutes ago, their chests nearly pressed together, one of the blond's hands resting lightly against his cheek. Shuffling the pictures into a neat pile, he slowly lifted his head, wondering what the redhead had planned.

"Ah, Malfoy and I," Harry murmured softly. He swept the group with a contemptuous glance before returning his gaze to Ron and rolling one shoulder in a lazy shrug. "Coincidence," he suggested smoothly, tapping the pictures against the palm of his left hand. He watched Ron's face redden at the blatant lie, satisfaction causing his lips to pull up at the corners.

"Coincidence!" Ron screeched shrilly. The redhead pointed a finger at the photos Harry held, the digit appearing to shake with his apparent rage. "Eight pictures of you and Malfoy together is not coincidence - it's proof." He gave a forceful nod of his head, daring the raven-haired wizard to argue with him.

"I see," Harry said agreeably. Lips pursed, he tossed a quick peek down the corridor behind him, eyeing the door that remained unguarded at his back. He could leave right now if he really wanted too. Turn tail and run, enter the castle through the front door where there was sure to be a crowd of students. Of course, that wouldn't really solve the problem. No, this encounter would simply occur on another day in a similar location. With a barely audible sigh, he returned his attention to Ron, lifting a brow curiously. "Proof of what exactly?"

Ron's mouth opened and then closed, his eyes narrowing into slits. "Of your fraternizing with the enemy," he said in a hiss.

Harry's brows both shot up at the accusation and he was unable to contain a snort of amused derision. "Fraternizing, Ron? Is that what I've been doing? All these pictures prove is that Malfoy and I sometimes turn up in the same place at the same time. And since we both live and attend class here, they're easily explainable and completely worthless." His gaze moved past the redhead to the pack of wizards that stood behind him, reading their expressions carefully.

"That's bullshit!" Ron yelled, the bellow ringing loudly in the empty hallway. "And we all know it, Potter."

"You do sit next to him in class sometimes," Neville mumbled quietly. The tall wizard glanced nervously back and forth between Harry and Ron, not liking the look on either of their faces or the tension building in the air. When blazing emeralds were turned on him, he swallowed and dropped his gaze to the toes of his boots, saying softly, "Only when there's nowhere else to sit, though."

"There, you see," Harry purred, pouncing on Neville's mumbled words. "Coincidence. Now, unless you have some actual 'proof' of me cavorting with Malfoy, I'm going to go to the kitchens and get some hot chocolate." He took one step forward and stilled, narrowed orbs locked on the wand held level with his sternum. Inside his skull the wolf stirred, its presence rolling through him like a ripple in a pool.

A harsh laugh filled the corridor, its tenor vibrating with vindictiveness. "I don't think so, Harry," Ron sneered, giving a threatening flick of his wand. "You see, we all saw you on the bridge with Malfoy. Saw him touch your face - like a lover might."

The thought nearly made Harry smile. "So now Malfoy and I are secret lovers, is that it? My, you've certainly outdone yourself this time, Ron." There was a deadly undercurrent to the sarcastic purr, a burgeoning tension that had Ron's companions retreating several cautious steps. The wolf whispered for action, a quick demonstration that would have the group fleeing for their lives. He ignored the angry grumble, choosing instead to favour the redhead with a toothy grin. "Perhaps you're just jealous," he murmured suggestively.

Ron's face turned a fiery shade of red and he flicked his wrist sharply, his shouted spell sending Harry tumbling backwards into the wall. When the raven-haired wizard dropped to the floor, he glided victoriously forward, halting to stand gloatingly over the other male. "You're a dead man, Potter," he sneered.

Harry lay on the ground, his arms and legs bound tightly to his sides. A furious snarl rolled up his throat, the sound abruptly cut off when the toe of a boot connected soundly with his ribs. He turned glowing orbs on Ron and curled his lips back from his teeth, unable to contain his rage. He hadn't believed the redhead would actually attack him. Had assumed Ron would be too concerned with the consequences to take the risk. But from his place on the cold stone floor, he could see the redhead's conviction, see the resolve burning in his blue eyes. And as the other male lifted a heavy boot and slammed it into his side, he realized he'd been lying to himself.

He'd known it would come down to this.

As the boot fell again, causing stars to dance behind his eyes, the wolf exploded within him. It rose in a dark wave, spiraling ever closer to the surface, consuming him completely and sending him tumbling into unconsciousness.

When he resurfaced moments later, it was to find himself pinned against one of the corridor's walls. Scrambling to get his bearings, he felt the wolf withdrawing slowly, slinking submissively back to its place within him. He took a cautious breath and felt the body pressed against him shift, the arm banding his throat tighten momentarily before loosening. He tugged weakly at his hands, trying to free them from where they were held at the small of his back. Finally, realizing he couldn't slip the hold of the individual keeping him on his feet, he stopped struggling, allowing his forehead to rest lightly against the stone wall before him.

"Feeling better, Harry?" A cool voice drawled into his ear, the individual's tone laced with an amusement easily recognizable.

"Draco," Harry mumbled, closing his eyes briefly. He reopened them when the arm around his throat vanished and his hands were released. Carefully, he turned over, keeping his shoulders pressed tightly against the wall at his back, and immediately wished he hadn't. The hall was littered with bodies. Blood pooled on the floor and arced up the walls, and he stood untouched in the midst of all that carnage. Draco moved in his peripheral vision, circling around before him to drop into a crouch next to Neville's still body.

Turning pale eyes toward the raven-haired male, Draco rose fluidly, wiping the blood from his fingers onto his robes. "Well, you've done it now, Potter." He muttered, casting his eyes around the corridor. He moved back to Harry's side, reaching out and grabbing the dark-haired male's chin, forcing him to meet his gaze. "We can't stay here anymore."

It took a moment for Harry to realize what the blond meant, understanding dawning slowly. There was no way Dumbledore would allow him to remain at Hogwarts after this. He'd be sent back to Grimmauld Place as soon as Remus could come and retrieve him. Giving a sharp nod of his head, he met Draco's patient gaze, and asked, "What do we do?"

Draco released Harry's chin and stepped back. "Go and pack a bag. We'll meet in fifteen minutes inside the Forbidden Forest near the Owlry. And Harry, don't stop, not for anyone or anything. If someone finds this mess before we're gone, you'll be put in a cage before you can say 'Saviour of the Wizarding World'."

"Fifteen minutes," Harry said in a rasp. He took a step away from the wall and felt his knees tremble. "Fifteen minutes," he repeated with more force. Clearing his throat, he gave a nod of understanding and started down the hallway, stepping over Ron's inert form as he went. He paused at the junction of the corridors, glancing back down the hallway in time to see Draco slip out the door he'd originally entered. For a moment he wondered where the blond was going but quickly dismissed the thought, fifteen minutes wasn't really that long in the scheme of things.

The urge to run to his rooms was strong, but the wolf whispered its first warning since the incident, telling him to appear calm and collected in the corridors. It was an admonishment that was hard to adhere to; the knowledge that the clock was running down causing sweat to dampen his forehead. Still, he took the wolf's advice, walking carefully back to his suite where he quickly began to toss things randomly into his book bag.

He paused in the middle of shoving his charms text into the bag, eyes darting to the clock on the mantle, the memory of promising Hermione to meet her in the library flitting through his mind. "Fuck," he hissed, flipping the top of the satchel closed and buckling the strap. By his calculation, he had maybe six minutes of the fifteen allotted remaining. Draco's words rang through his head, but he brushed them aside thoughtlessly, fully intending on keeping his promise to Hermione. With one last look around the room, he walked out the portal without a backwards glance.

The library was surprisingly busy when he arrived. However, it only took a handful of seconds for him to locate the witch seated among the dusty stacks. The look she gave him when he dropped into the chair beside her would have made him feel guilty in the past, today, it merely brought a sad smile to his lips. He would miss that look, he thought. He allowed the witch to lecture him about promptness for a minute before leaning forward and placing a hand on her shoulder, the gentle touch causing her to halt in mid-sentence.

"I need you to listen to me, Hermione," he said softly. Casting a cautious look at the surrounding students, he dropped his voice to a quiet murmur and met her curious gaze. "I'm leaving Hogwarts. There was an . . . accident."

"But Harry-" Hermione began, closing her mouth when the raven-haired wizard shook his head.

"There's no time," Harry explained, glancing in the direction of the doorway. "I promised you I'd say good-bye before I left, that's the only reason I'm here. I want you to take care of yourself, Hermione. I'll write to you if I can . . . when I can." He rose abruptly, his hand falling away from her shoulder. He didn't have time to answer any of her questions - his fifteen minutes had run out. Giving the witch one last apologetic look, he turned and fled, leaving her staring after him in stunned silence.

He slipped from the library and made his way toward the nearest exit, tensing when the wolf rumbled in warning. The harried tattoo of boot heels on stone had him stilling with a hand on the heavy door, glancing worriedly over his left shoulder. His eyes widened at the sight of Professors' McGonagall and Snape bearing down on him, their expressions grim. He jerked the door open and ducked quickly outside, fleeing down the stone stairs.

Quicker, urged the wolf.

Harry took the advice to heart, breaking into a light jog that carried him toward the forest. McGonagall called his name loudly and he sped up, nearly tripping in his haste to reach the safety of the forest. The spell that whipped by him caused his heart to leap into his throat and his strides to lengthen. When the hair on the back of his neck lifted, he dove to the snow covered ground, barely avoiding the ball of purple magic that would have connected with his shoulders.

Up, the wolf commanded, its attention on the tauntingly waving branches of the trees that stood just ahead.

Scrambling in the snow, Harry regained his feet and looked back at his pursuers, surprised to find them so close. Gasping for breath, he tripped closer to safety, the wolf's voice ringing in his head. His heart pounded in his ears, and after what seemed like an eternity, he reached the welcoming shadows of the Forbidden Forest. He stumbled over logs buried in snow and branches that clutched and clung mercilessly. And then the forest opened up before him, the path that led to salvation unbarred. He'd taken no more than six steps on the worn trail when Snape appeared before him, wand raised and lips already moving.

"Petrificus totalus," the Potions Master said calmly.

And it was all over. Harry lay gasping in the snow, limbs once again bound against his heaving sides, staring hatefully at the wizard walking triumphantly toward him. He could practically smell the excitement wafting off Snape, see his glee at having caught the famous Harry Potter red-handed. But then the shadows behind the tall wizard blurred and a shape took form, a pair of gleaming sapphire orbs appearing amidst the darkness. His eyes must have widened in recognition, because Snape spun around with his wand lifted. Unfortunately, the Professor was too slow. In a lightning quick move, the male lunged forward and struck Snape squarely in the chest with upraised palms, the force of the blow sending the older wizard flying into the trees.

Appearing completely unconcerned about whether or not the Potions Master was still conscious, the werewolf named Steve walked to where Harry lay motionless and withdrew a wand. A slight flick of his wrist had Harry's invisible bonds loosening. For a second he simply stared down at the younger werewolf, his expression unreadable, and then he reached his other hand down, the gesture strangely surprising. "It's time to go, Harry," he said in an urgent voice, but he made no move to grab the other male, waiting patiently for him to make the decision for himself.

Drawing a deep breath, Harry reached up and slipped his hand into Steve's, giving a barely noticeable dip of his chin. The familiar tug below his navel was the next thing he felt, the sensation followed by a moment of weightlessness before he was slammed back down into a bank of snow. He was subsequently hauled to his feet and the clinging snow brushed from his robes. It was hard to believe it was all over. Gentle hands urged him down the narrow trail worn between the naked trees, their destination becoming apparent when they rounded a bend in the path and the crumbling farmhouse came into view. Halting in the clearing below the house, Harry stared at the trio standing on the crooked porch. This was it, his new home.

"Welcome back, Harry Potter," Jaime called from between Draco and Andrej. The young werewolf was practically bouncing up and down with excitement, his hazel eyes shining.

It was quite possibly the most depressing greeting Harry had ever received. With a soft sigh, he picked his way toward the dilapidated house, knowing his life had just been irrevocably changed, and not knowing if he'd be able to survive it.

A/n: Thanks to everyone who took the time to read and review.