"Isn't it peaceful?" Hermione sighed. She and Harry were sitting by Hagrid's cabin, looking out over the forest and taking a rest as they watched the sunrise. Hogwarts was still in bad shape, but all Harry could think about was that he really needed a nap. Still, after the excitement of killing Voldemort, there was no way he could sleep.
"Yeah, peaceful," he echoed with a yawn.
"Oi!" Harry looked up to see Ron coming down the hillside—he was going so fast, he occasionally slid a foot or two and had to pinwheel his arms for balance. By the time he got to the bottom, he was out of breath and very pink. "Did you hear?" he gasped. "Snape's body is gone!"
Harry felt the blood drain from his face. "The Death Eaters!" he croaked. "You might have thought they'd at least leave his corpse alone!"
Hermione placed a hand on his arm. "Maybe that's not it," she said. "Maybe—maybe he'd put a spell on himself, just in case. You know, so no one would have to deal with the body. An incineration spell or something. Perhaps he just didn't want to be a burden."
"Maybe," Harry said reluctantly, but he had a hard time seeing it. Harry had a suspicion Snape would enjoy being a burden. In fact, Harry suspected that if Snape knew he was going to die, he'd have loaded his pockets up with half bricks and lumps of lead, just to make the body more of a pain to move. And then he'd have filled whatever pockets were left with rusty nails, so anyone trying to pick him up would get a nasty surprise.
Hermione seemed to know he was still brooding, because she stood up and brushed herself off in a no-nonsense sort of way. "Well, sitting around moping isn't helping anything," she said. "Let's get back to the castle and help out."
Ron grinned as she began to march back towards Hogwarts, her chin high. "She's pretty amazing, isn't she?" he asked, digging his elbow into Harry's already-sore ribs.
Harry smiled wryly. "Yeah. You both are." He clapped Ron on the back and began to follow his friends back to the castle.
Harry reflected later that his reflexes probably would have been quicker if he hadn't just offed the Dark Lord a few scant hours earlier. Well, he liked to think he would have reacted faster, anyway. But he'd thought everything was taken care of, and didn't expect some crazy blonde woman to snatch hold of him and yank him into the shadows of some shrubbery near the castle wall.
Harry gaped at Narcissa Malfoy. Merlin, the woman moved like an oiled snake!
"Wh—what—" he stuttered, fumbling for his wand.
"Shhh!" she hissed, looking annoyed. "I have something for you."
Harry was completely nonplussed. He didn't have any particular problem with Mrs. Malfoy, and she had saved his life, but she was also as canny as any Slytherin and, Harry felt, a whole lot more dangerous. "You don't have to give me anything," he said warily.
"Don't be a fool," she sneered. She thrust something black and spitting and bristling with a thousand knives right at his chest.
Harry yelped and tried to shove the thing away, but it seemed to be stuck in his shirt.
"For Merlin's sake, that isn't how you hold a cat," Narcissa said contemptuously. She jerked the thing away and tucked it into Harry's arms.
"It's a cat?" Harry said with a gulp. The thing glared up at him, ears flat against its head, feet tucked beneath its body, rendering it weaponless.
"It's Severus Snape," Narcissa said grimly.
"He helped my son," she replied with great dignity. "I owed him. It kept him alive, but I have been unable to return him to his human form."
Harry blinked. He didn't want to say so, but he was deeply impressed. In the space of one day, Narcissa Malfoy had saved two lives and seemed a hell of a lot more competent than her husband or son. Somehow Harry didn't think she'd take that as a compliment though, so he just swallowed and nodded. "Oh. What am I supposed to do with him?"
For a moment, a crack appeared in her perfect, snobbish countenance. After a moment she recovered with a sniff. "Just look after him," she said briskly. "I will have other matters to attend to."
Harry realized she'd probably be going to prison—at any rate, Draco and Lucius were certainly going to be punished. She was going to have her hands full either way. "I can put in a good word for you," he said, "but I—"
"Take him! You owe me," she barked.
Harry backed down. "Right," he muttered. "Yeah, okay." He peered down at the cat, which was still looking at him like a serial killer contemplating its next victim. "Do you think he has any memory of anything?" he wondered aloud. "Do you think he knows who I am?"
Snape let out a long, gut-liquefying growl.
Narcissa smiled thinly. "I think he does," she said.
Harry had to tell someone about Snape, if only because he didn't have the vaguest idea how to get the man back to normal and didn't fancy keeping a homicidal cat for the rest of his life. The logical choice was Hermione, but for some reason, he felt guilty about the idea.
After all, Snape had died for him. Sort of. He knew Snape would be mortified if his students knew he was, for all intents and purposes, a sweet little puss.
Well, perhaps not sweet.
And not especially little, though he was rather sleek.
But either way, Snape did not strike Harry as domesticated animal material. And he knew the man was rabid about his privacy.
In the end, Harry decided that McGonagall would probably be the best person to confide in. After all, she spent at least some time as a cat, and she'd known Snape for years, so she probably had some idea of how to fix things.
Unfortunately, McGonagall wasn't able to help, at least right away.
"Harry, there is much to be done," she'd said.
"Yeah, I know. I hardly know where to start, what with the teeth and claws and everything, but I reckoned you'd know—"
"I meant there is much to be done to stabilize the castle. We are still in the process of retrieving the dead and injured, and I'm afraid an unlikely wall collapsed this morning. Everything is . . . a bit volatile at the moment. We must look to our wounded, we must stabilize the castle grounds, and we must deal with the things that are in the most danger. That is what must be done before we can look to our other responsibilities."
"Well, yes, but, Snape's a cat," Harry noted, feeling the need to drive the point home. "He was sort of right at the centre of things and now he's furry—well, a greasy black fur, I must admit—and he can't talk at all and he's sort of insane. More insane, that is. More bloodthirsty. He bites. And I don't mean that figuratively. I can't do this," Harry went on with perfect sincerity. "I could barely handle him as a bloody-minded Potions master. As a furry cutting instrument that loathes me, I think I have to decline taking care of him. I really mean it. He's completely yahoo and I'm tired, Professor McGonagall."
The professor gave him a wooden stare. "Let me explain it this way, Mr. Potter; Professor—Headmaster Snape is, at this moment, for all intents and purposes, a cat. He bites, he scratches, and perhaps he chooses unusual receptacles as his toilet. Difficult traits, to be sure. On the other hand, the Ministry is looking for Headmaster Snape. They would like to question the one who sneaks and spies and murders ex-headmasters and has a close if undefined relationship with the Dark Lord. That is, they would like to speak with him very much, if only he were alive. Reports thus far are not auspicious in this matter."
Minerva McGonagall took a large enough step back to look down at Harry through her thickish glasses and narrowed eyes.
"The Ministry thinks Severus Snape is dead, Mr. Potter," she hissed. "I suggest we do not enlighten them to the truth until they have buggered off long enough for us to restore our grand home to its former glory; I do hope I don't need to draw you a picture!"
"Oh." Harry didn't need her to draw him a picture. The Ministry was in the way. They did that. McGonagall wanted them gone. And whatever she thought of Snape, she wasn't giving him over to them, at least not without questioning him herself first. And Harry should keep his mouth shut about it and let her get on with things.
"Yes, but Nar—but I was told to take care of . . . the cat, and I don't even know what to feed it," he mumbled.
"Speak with Hagrid. He will acquire some cat food for you." She turned away.
"But he can't stay with me," Harry protested one last time. "I have to go, and I can't fix him. I don't even know exactly where I'm going to end up. You'll have to—"
"Nonsense," she replied in a clipped voice. "We'll need your help rebuilding, obviously."
Harry rubbed the back of his neck. "I suppose I could lend a hand with—"
"And then there's the matter of your education."
Now alarms were going off. "What education?"
"Exactly! You didn't finish yours, and I aim to see you do. You crossed the threshold of Hogwarts with the expectation of leaving with good marks. Voldemort is Voldemort, but now that's done and there's no hanging about in fields for interminable months for you, not anymore. You'll finish your last year, Potter. And I'll expect good marks from you!"
"I was going to stay at the Burrow," Harry muttered, but the complaint didn't have a lot of oomph behind it. Much as he loved the Burrow, he'd started to get worried about Molly Weasley and how controlling she could be. Besides, things were going to be strange with Fred gone, and Harry knew he should give them some space. And he did miss Hogwarts an awful lot over the summer. He'd never known a place could be such a part of him. "I guess maybe I could—"
"That's right," McGonagall replied. "You will stay here, help with the construction, and catch up your grades. If you do well, I imagine there will be a place for you here, as an assistant to one of the professors. You'd be a valuable asset in teaching Defence and make money as well. While you take time to think on what you'd like to do next," she added gently. "And if you happen to develop a soft spot for a very testy old tomcat, I'm sure people will only nod and agree you're the sort who would take in strays."
"Yeah, but . . . " Defence had always been his favourite subject, and a chance to have a real job—even a career out of it! And time to think, and to stay at Hogwarts until it was the bright, shining, outrageous institution he remembered . . .
"You get things done, and . . . the cat will practically look after itself. They are independent creatures. And I'm sure the other teachers will pitch in. Just you concentrate on your NEWTs, sir. I'm sure you can do better now that no one is wishing bloody murder on you."
Harry gave Snape a sceptical look. "Almost no one," he mumbled.
"Want to come and have a rest, Harry? I've not got much, but there's some tea and biscuits," Hagrid offered.
"Um, sure," Harry replied.
"What's tha' yeh got there?"
"It's sort of my cat, for now," Harry replied.
"Looks righ' dangerous," Hagrid observed, seeing Snape's swishing tail and bared teeth.
"He's a little cranky," Harry admitted, privately thinking, Jeez, even Hagrid thinks he looks evil. Hagrid, who likes to cuddle with werewolves and baby fire-breathing dragons. "Here, I'll put him down. I reckon he can pretty much look after himself anyway." He set Snape on the ground, and the cat stalked away. Harry hoped he would find some mice or hippogriffs or something, so he could chase them and take the edge off.
Harry turned to see Ron and Hermione waving at him. He waved back, gesturing them over. "I was just going to have tea with Hagrid," he explained.
Hagrid grinned widely and thumped Ron on the back. "But yer all welcome," he said.
They followed him back to his cabin and relaxed as Hagrid made the tea. "It's been forever since I had a real rest," Harry remarked.
"You should get some sleep," Hermione said, concerned. "It's been more than a day since you've slept."
"You, too," Harry noted. "But you're right. After tea, I'll definitely get my head down."
There was a yelp from outside, and everyone looked up to see Fang gallop past the window, chased by a small black streak.
"Wha' was that?" Hagrid said.
Harry looked outside. "Er. I'm sorry, I think my cat just treed your dog." He sighed. "Fang probably got too friendly and tried to sniff him or something."
Hagrid ran out to retrieve Fang.
Harry went back to Hagrid's sofa and sat, dunking the cement biscuits in the tea, trying to soften them. It didn't help.
"You have a cat?" Ron looked suspicious. "Since when? Yesterday you didn't have a cat, and you've been pretty busy since then."
"I know. It just sort of—turned up," Harry said lamely.
"It might belong to someone," Hermione pointed out.
"I don't think so," Harry said. "It—it's attached to me. I think it likes me," he added, possibly the biggest, most outrageous lie ever spoken aloud. He was half surprised his trousers didn't burst into unquenchable flames.
Ron shook his head. "So what's next?" he asked. "Back to the Burrow?"
Harry had been dreading this. "Er, I'm going to stay and help rebuild," he said.
"Harry, you don't have to stay and help," Hermione said patiently.
"Yeah, mate, you did your bit. This isn't your responsibility," Ron added.
"I know it's not," Harry said awkwardly. "Not exactly. But. Um. McGonagall asked me to stay on, and I said yes. She says she'll offer me a post as an assistant teacher, er, you know, in Defence. If I stay," Harry explained.
"Harry, that's wonderful! That might be good for you. And you really are good at teaching," Hermione said. "Everyone in the D.A. said so."
Ron, on the other hand, looked disgruntled. "She offered you a position? As a professor? You didn't even finish school!"
"That's one of the conditions," Harry said, feeling defensive. "If I stay on, I have to finish my schooling. But it's practically a guaranteed job with a salary and everything. Just as an assistant, though," Harry hurried to add as Ron's face darkened.
"You're not qualified," Ron grated. "You're only even being offered because you're a hero."
Harry felt his face go hot. Ron said 'hero' the way most people would say 'petty thief,' or 'spreader of sexually transmitted diseases.'
"But you're a hero, too," Hermione cut in. "Don't be silly. It's just because, well, Harry doesn't have a family to go home to and McGonagall's worried."
"Thanks a lot!" Harry yelled.
"Oh, Harry, I didn't mean it like that."
Harry crossed his arms over his chest and slumped back in his seat, fuming silently. On Hermione's other side, Ron was doing the same.
"You're both being stupid again, you do know that?" Hermione growled, exasperated.
This was echoed by another growl.
"What was that?" Ron looked around, puzzled. Harry drew his wand. He'd already been cornered by Narcissa today; he wasn't letting his guard down again.
"There's your cat," Hermione said. "Isn't he, er, handsome? All black and shiny."
"Bad luck," Ron predicted sourly.
Snape sauntered in and leapt onto the arm of the couch beside Harry, turning round several times before curling into a ball and going to sleep. Harry sighed. Even Snape was a welcome distraction right now, although everything was his fault in the first place. If Snape hadn't gone and gotten felinated or whatever, Harry wouldn't have to lie, and he wouldn't be fighting with his best friends.
"What's his name?" Hermione said with interest.
"Er, I call him Snape."
"Snape? Really?" Ron said.
"It's sort of romantic," Hermione said. "A dead hero and everything."
Ron rolled his eyes. "Snape," he repeated in a scathing voice.
"Believe me, it fits," Harry replied dryly.
"Isn't he sweet?" Hermione said, reaching out.
One of Snape's eyes popped open in a malevolent yellow slit, and his body tensed.
Harry leapt in between them just in time to prevent Hermione losing her hand at the wrist. Unfortunately, it didn't prevent bloodshed—at least, not Harry's bloodshed. "Argh!" Harry yelled as four sets of razor-sharp claws impaled his arm. "Gerroff, damn you!" he screeched, flailing. Snape let go only after Harry tried to beat him against the wall. Of course, with his impeccable cat-sense of timing, Snape let go just in time for Harry to punch the bricks. "Ow! Dammit!"
Snape sauntered off, looking pleased with himself.
Ron and Hermione were speechless.
"Sorry," Harry croaked, flexing his raw fingers and feeling the blood drip down his arm. "I'm afraid he's not very friendly."
"I can see that!" Ron blurted. "Merlin, Harry, why would you keep such a crazy cat?"
Harry scowled. "It beats me," he muttered truthfully.
"Look, I don't know why you'd want to stay here with a bloodthirsty ball of fur, but Hermione and I are going back to the Burrow."
Harry felt suddenly rather alone. "You're both going?"
Hermione cleared her throat and Ron's ears turned red.
"Oh," was all Harry could think to say.
"You can stay here and shove rocks round if you want, but the rest of us know enough to make time for our families." With that, Ron got up and left.
Hermione got up too, but stopped to bend and kiss Harry's cheek.
"I know, I know," Harry ground out, blinking furiously. "I shouldn't take him seriously because he's just jealous."
"It's not just that," Hermione explained carefully. "He wants you to come back with us. You're his family, too, you know."
That did make Harry feel better, but . . . "I can't, Hermione," Harry said. "I have to stay here. Besides, Hogwarts is my home."
Hermione sighed. "Home is more than a place, you realise? It's people who love you. And Ginny is going to be awfully disappointed," she added slyly.
Harry could only shake his head. "I'm sorry, Hermione. I really can't. I wish I could explain it," he added with bitter truthfulness.
Hermione looked dissatisfied. "All right. You know where we are if you change your mind. And you'd better owl us regularly!" she told him. "I'd better catch up with Ron."
Harry watched her go, feeling frustration gnaw at his stomach. Tonight Ron, Hermione and Ginny would all be gathered round the big kitchen table at the Weasleys', eating and grieving and being together. And Harry would be alone, except for a few much older teachers who tended to be stiff and—and—and old. He felt sorry for himself.
Snape wandered back in, looking smug. As the ex-Potions master swept past Harry's ankles, Harry bent to stroke his back, then thought twice.
Snape neatly avoided his outstretched hand, turned and hissed loudly.
Harry threw a cushion at him, taking some petty satisfaction when the cat fled. "Some company you are, anyway," he muttered peevishly.
The halls of Hogwarts were so busy they practically hummed. Harry couldn't imagine why he'd ever thought he'd be lonely—he was surrounded by people. There were teachers, members of the Order, and even some students who no longer had homes to go to. The rebuilding would take time, but they sure had a lot of hands to do it.
Harry tried to concentrate on the wall he was putting back up; he scowled as he tried to ignore the noise around him and get each stone back into the right spot. Unfortunately, quite a few of them were missing or had been turned to rubble, so it was sort of like doing a vertical jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing.
Just as Harry thought this, he realised he had no way of keeping the stones up—not without mortar, and not with so many holes. "Oh, no," he said. He froze, wand trained on the last stone, which was now floating just above the others.
"Something wrong, Harry?" Harry looked up to see Lee Jordan.
"Um." Harry's arm was beginning to ache. "I kind of—I don't know how to—"
Lee looked to where Harry's wand was pointing and laughed. "I get it. Here; Defigo!" He turned and nodded at Harry, his dark eyes twinkling. "You can let go now."
Harry let his hand fall, but the wall stayed up. "Thanks."
Lee slapped him on the back and continued down the hall. "No problem. By the way, you might want to lie low," he said over his shoulder. Harry shot him a puzzled look and Lee grinned. "Skeeter's been looking for you. McGonagall sicced Trelawney on her and that'll probably keep her occupied for a while, but . . .you know. If she catches even a glimpse of you it'll be He Who Sobbed Over the Tragically-Taken Lives. Just a heads up."
"Thanks," Harry said warily. Just what he needed—a psychotic cat in his care and a rabid reporter after him. He'd thought Hermione had taken care of Rita—but perhaps this was just too big a scoop for her to stay away.
He went over to one of the walls that had only been partly rebuilt and sat on the top. What was he going to do? Could he keep Snape a secret? And how long would he have to?
Someone sat down heavily beside Harry and he frowned, glancing over. "Goyle!" Harry shot to his feet. "What—what—" he spluttered, his wand pointed at Goyle's chest. For a moment, Harry thought he was seeing things. After all, Goyle had been a Death Eater. Shouldn't the Ministry have taken him off? But he didn't think Goyle was an illusion—his solid bulk was, well, too solid to be an illusion. Besides, anyone passing stepped around him, so he must really have been there. On the other hand, no one seemed surprised to see him. "What are you doing here?" Harry demanded.
Goyle shrugged, looking neither interested in nor surprised by Harry's shock. "McGonagall," he said.
Harry wasn't sure exactly what that meant. Had McGonagall taken pity on him for some reason and asked him to stay? Or had she felt it better to keep an eye on him?
And it was unnerving, the way Goyle was staring at him, like some sort of very intense cow. Bull. Whatever. He didn't give the impression much that was going on in his head, but whatever it was, it seemed to revolve around Harry. Which was weird, though usually Harry didn't take any interest in Goyle either; he was just one of Draco's accessories, like a really big, ugly handbag.
"Where's Draco?" Harry asked suddenly.
Goyle's eyes shifted. "Ministry," he grunted.
"Oh. Oh." That sort of explained it; Goyle must have been at a loss, with Crabbe dead and Draco being questioned. He might even be, buried somewhere within that mass, kind of lonely. Mind you, it'd be buried deep, Harry reflected, looking at his frame.
Goyle scuffed a shoe on the floor. Harry was a bit surprised it didn't leave a trench. "And Dad," Goyle said.
Shaking himself, Harry looked up. "Huh?"
"The Ministry," Goyle explained, as much as he was capable of doing so.
"Ohhhh," Harry said slowly. Goyle's dad had been taken by the Ministry for Death Eater activities. Which was as it should be, and things would have been better if the Ministry had done that sort of thing before Voldemort had managed to take them over. Still, Harry couldn't help feeling weirdly guilty and a little bit sympathetic. Not much, but a little.
Just then, he caught sight of something a toxic green out of the corner of his eye. "Oh, no," he groaned. Goyle lumbered to his feet as though he were about to leave. Harry didn't blame him. Rita Skeeter, dressed like some sort of shimmering, poisonous undersea monster, was not his idea of a good time either.
"Oh, hello, Harry, dear, it's been so long, hasn't it?" Rita said, beaming. "Hasn't it just been ages? I was wondering if I might ask you a few little questions, just little nothings, really, it's just that our readers have been frightened and confused for so long, and of course you can clear things up and make things so much better, and you want to do that, don't you, dear? Of course you do. Now, in regards to Voldemort, it was you who—"
"Go away," Goyle said abruptly.
Harry and Rita, both startled, swivelled to stare at him.
"Excuse me?" Rita said.
Goyle leaned forward menacingly, and Harry noticed, in fascination, that Goyle was taller than the reporter. "Go. Away," he repeated.
Rita looked from Harry to Goyle and back again. "Well, I—of course I—and you are—" She struggled to get her notepad out of her purse, but Goyle slapped it away. Harry watched in horror as it fluttered to the floor. What a scoop this was going to make. Rita Skeeter, Daily Prophet reporter, assaulted by the child of a Death Eater . . .
"Get out," Goyle said, a variation on theme that quite impressed Harry.
Rita looked at Harry, who shrugged. "I really would, if I were you. I mean, Hermione's quite cunning, but Goyle is pretty straightforward and doesn't muck about. Probably the type of kid who liked to pull the wings off of flies, if you catch my meaning."
Gregory Goyle cracked his knuckles and grinned. "Uh-huh. That was fun."
Skeeter made a face, turned and hurried away.
Harry watched her go with an open mouth. "Wow," he said. He glanced at Goyle. "Er, well done."
Goyle shifted uncomfortably, obviously searching his brain for the right, nuanced response for this suddenly complex situation. "Yeah," he finally said.
Harry smiled a little. Maybe Goyle wasn't completely rotten, after all.
Harry sat beside McGonagall at dinner that evening, which was a bit awkward. He was pretty sure she would end up being the new headmistress; after all, even if Snape ever got de-catted, the whole Death Eater and Sadist thing would probably prevent him from getting another go.
"So," he said, trying to make conversation. "Lee Jordan tells me you used our ultimate weapon on Rita Skeeter today."
McGonagall arched a brow.
"I heard you tossed a Trelawney grenade at her," Harry added with a grin.
McGonagall sniffed. "Nonsense. I merely explained to Rita that Sybill had been instrumental in defending Hogwarts and suggested she interview the woman." Harry couldn't be sure if it was a trick of the light, but it looked like McGonagall was smiling grimly.
"Did Trelawney tell her future?"
There was a slight, self-satisfied shrug. "The last I saw, Sybill was trying to read her palm. She had a good hold of Rita's wrist, I do know that."
Harry laughed, then sobered a little. "She did get free later," he admitted.
McGonagall gave him a look of concern. "Did she harass you? I should have the woman banned. Interfering with—with rebuilding."
Harry shook his head. "Believe it or not, Goyle chased her off. What is he doing here, anyway?"
McGonagall began to push her food around, something Harry hadn't seen her do before. "The Ministry has requested he stay here while matters are arranged."
"Oh." Harry cleared his throat. "Kind of hard to keep an eye on him with all these people all over the place," he pointed out.
"Mr. Potter, are you volunteering? I believe you have your hands full." She nodded to where Snape was currently shredding Harry's robes up to the knee.
"Stop that!" he hissed, stomping his foot and trying to scare the git off. Snape merely sat and looked at him, unblinking. "Er, no, I wasn't volunteering," he added. "I was just sort of worried."
"Well, you needn't be. Mr. Goyle cannot leave the premises. There is a spell binding him to the castle grounds."
"That's . . . good," Harry said distractedly. Snape had gone back to happily grumbling and growling and trying to rip Harry's clothes off, apparently. "Look, maybe I should get out of here. He's really acting up tonight. I'll just take him upstairs and get some sleep." And maybe stuff him in my trunk until morning, he added silently.
"Upstairs? I'm afraid that's out of the question."
"The stairs are not yet stable," McGonagall explained. "Perhaps by the end of the week you can return to Gryffindor tower. For now, I think it would be best not to risk it."
"Then where am I going to sleep?" Harry asked. It would feel too strange to try sleeping somewhere new, like the Hufflepuff dorms.
"Why don't you use Severus' old rooms? Professor Slughorn chose his own, so they've been empty for a year now."
"Snape's old rooms?" Harry echoed in horror. "I can't sleep there. It's Snape's!"
"What rot! The dungeons were protected from most of the damage, so it's the safest place. Besides," McGonagall added, leaning over and lowering her voice, "it's not as though he'll be returned to form anytime soon. I've been doing a bit of research and it may take a while. So don't worry about inconveniencing him."
"I wasn't," Harry promised. He wouldn't mind inconveniencing Snape with a cricket bat. But McGonagall was obviously missing the point.
"That's good," she said airily, then turned to say something to Flitwick.
Harry sighed heavily, then glared down at Snape again. "Just great," he muttered.
"So . . . these are your rooms," Harry said, entering cautiously with Snape tucked under one arm. "They're not half bad."
There was a lumpy couch and dark little table, bookshelves from floor to ceiling, a small liquor cabinet and the biggest, softest, most inviting bed Harry had ever seen. As he stared at it, half in love, Snape bit him.
"Bastard!" Harry yelped, dropping the cat. As Harry checked to make sure he wasn't bleeding, Snape crossed the room in three leaps and landed in the centre of the bed.
The cat stretched out, eyes closed in bliss, purring like a motorcar.
Harry sucked his finger, scowling. "It's my bedtime too, you right vicious sod. Budge up!"
As Harry approached the bed, Snape tensed and stopped purring.
"What's wrong with you? Move over," Harry said, gesturing. He realised he was still several feet from the bed, and his legs didn't seem to want to carry him any closer. "Go on! Move!"
Snape made a horrible, guttural noise that sounded like a garbage disposal in great distress. Harry knew exactly what the man was trying to say: sleep on my bed and I'll bite your nose off while you're asleep.
"That's not fair!" Harry shouted. "You're smaller than the pillow! I should be the one who gets to sleep in the bed! You can sleep anywhere!"
"I don't care if it's your bed!" Harry retorted. "That's not the point! I killed Voldemort and I died and came back to life and I deserved a sodding rest!"
Snape merely stared at him as if to say, I died too, and you're not the one who got stuck with pointy ears and whiskers.
Harry yanked out his wand and set his jaw. "I'm not going to be bullied by a little pussycat," he said. "You can either budge up or clear out!"
He made a rush at the bed.
Harry ended up sleeping on the lumpy sofa. It wasn't half as comfortable as that wonderful bed looked, but he had scratches up and down his face and arms and had discovered that while there were probably drawbacks to being a cat, they were surprisingly fast and agile and really good at dodging spells.
So in the end, Harry decided to be gracious and let Snape have the bed. And since he was completely exhausted, Harry managed to fall asleep pretty quickly anyhow. He wasn't sure how long he'd been asleep when a weight on his chest woke him. An hour? Two hours?
"Blu—bleth-blplthbbbb," Harry sneezed. He snerked and snorked, then looked up into round yellow eyes only inches away from his nose. "Whad are you doig here?" he managed. The cat looked indifferent, sitting in the middle of Harry's chest as though occupying a plinth.
"Gerrof," Harry said, waving ineffectually at the hairy evil spirit. The evil spirit did not depart, and Harry wasn't about to risk getting a finger gnawed off at the knuckle, or rabies or mad cow or whatever vile malady Snape was currently waiting to afflict on him.
Instead Harry sort of sat up, glaring down at the cat through puffy, sleep-deprived eyes. "Why are you sitting on me?" he demanded. Well, he'd meant it to come out as a demand, but at two in the morning a whine was all he was capable of.
Snape shifted as though shrugging his silky shoulders, and went back to eyeballing Harry in a discomfiting way.
"Why are you ogling my boxers? They're perfectly good boxers. New and everything. And everyone sleeps in them. People do. Muggles and some other people do," Harry tried to explain. He sighed heavily. "I'm justifying my choice of underpants to a cat. I'll tuck this brief shining moment away to cherish later, I'm sure." He groaned and tried to roll over onto his side but that would have, er, unperched Snape. As Harry could feel the tips of Snape's claws resting ever so gently on his bare chest, unperching the cat seemed like a bad idea.
"Look, Snape. Professor. Headmaster. Severus. Git to end all ugly gits, or whatever you prefer to be called. Get off my chest, would you? I don't even know why you're here, but I can't sleep like this and I have a lot to do tomorrow."
Harry tried to roll away but Snape merely allowed himself to slide down Harry's chest onto the sofa. Then he worked his way up until he could stuff himself into a fat black bundle right under Harry's chin. He even purred, which was very disconcerting.
Well, maybe cats had needs even Snape couldn't control.
"Do you want to be petted?" Harry asked cautiously. He reached out one his hands and offered it rather delicately, ready to whip it back once Snape went into maul-mode. But the cat merely sniffed (it was nearly a sneer, really), and tossed his head arrogantly, as if waiting for Harry to do his job.
As though searching for land mines, Harry cautiously skimmed his fingers down Snape's silken back. The volume of the purr increased. He liked being petted? Who knew? Harry warily repeated the move. "You just want a bit of a cuddle?" he said incredulously. "Where are your ulterior motives?"
He stroked harder, then again.
Fine cat hair clung to his hand and began to disperse into the air. "Oh, great. You're really shedding, you know that?"
Snape gave him a look that could only be perceived, behind all those whiskers, as smug.
The next time Harry petted him, a veritable cloud of cat hair arose like wild zombie fur, looking for people with allergies to attack. Harry yelped and began fanning the hair away, but it merely stuck to his hands. And the sofa was covered with it, Harry noticed.
And Harry's eyes were starting to water.
"YOU FIEND!" he choked. "THIS WAS ALL AN AMBUSH! YOU WERE WAITING TO PELT ME WITH HAIR THE MOMENT I SHOWED A SIGN OF WEAKNESS."
Snape miaowed. Harry hadn't heard him do it before, but it sounded a lot like an, "Aaaaand?"
"Oh, get off of me," Harry said. "Go away." He pushed Snape off the sofa and glared as the cat flounced out of the room, tail held high.
And here he'd be banishing individual strands of cat hair for the rest of the night, damn it.
Harry rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.
As Harry was grumping his way to breakfast the next day, Professor McGonagall grabbed him by the arm. "Harry, I thought you told me you repaired the wall just outside the Great Hall," she said.
"What?" They stared at each other for a moment, then Harry tugged his arm away and ran the rest of the way to the Great Hall. There were people standing around a big pile of rubble. The wall Harry had put up had fallen. Even as he watched, another stone tumbled from the pile, sending pebbles cascading over the toe of his shoe.
Harry gaped at his undone work. What had happened? He'd taken all afternoon fixing that wall! He'd had everything up fine, and then Lee had secured it for him. Hadn't he?
Harry thought back to his encounter with Lee, and how he'd laughed, and how his eyes crinkled round the edges as he'd done the holding spell, almost as if he knew some kind of joke he wasn't telling.
Harry's face got hot. "Where's Lee Jordan?" he asked loudly. "Has anyone seen him?"
Someone pointed Harry in the right direction and he stalked off, brushing off questions about the wall. Finally he found Lee gluing a gargoyle's ear back on with some kind of potion. "I need to talk to you," he said.
"Yeah?" Lee looked up. He didn't seem to be laughing anymore, but then Harry was spitting mad. He'd have to be stupid to laugh in the face of the bloke who killed the Dark Lord.
"Not here," Harry said. "In private."
Lee frowned, looking puzzled, but got to his feet and followed Harry. "What's up?"
"It wasn't funny!" Harry burst out.
Lee tilted his head to the side. "What?"
"It wasn't funny! Your stupid little joke with the wall!"
"What are you talking about?"
"I trusted you! The past few weeks have been the hardest weeks of my life, and considering my life so far, that's really saying something! And then you go and pull a prank like that. I worked hard on that wall."
Lee's frown was becoming more serious. "Harry, I don't know what you're talking about. Really."
Instead of making Harry doubtful about Lee's innocence, this somehow only made him angry. "I know you and Fred and George always think that sort of thing is funny, but I worked really hard on that wall. If you wanted to pull a prank, why not set off a stink bomb or something? Why did you have to go and ruin my hard work?"
"You're—the wall fell down? But the spell I used should have worked!"
Harry looked into Lee's eyes and felt betrayed. "I don't believe you."
Now Lee looked angry—very angry. "That's your right," he said in a quiet, cold sort of voice. "But I didn't do anything to that wall. I tried to help you out."
"Well, thanks a lot," Harry said sarcastically.
Lee spun on his heel and walked away. "Same to you," he said.
Harry shut himself up in Snape's rooms later, still angry and kind of embarrassed that people had seen him get angry. Bugger, wasn't it supposed to get easier after Voldemort died? But then why had Lee even done such a stupid thing? Harry had to admit that, under different circumstances, at a time when so many weren't grieving, it might have been funny. But right now, it just seemed … inappropriate.
So thoroughly aggravated that he couldn't take any morework (or at least, anymore work around people), Harry had retreated to the privacy of Snape's rooms. The only problem with that was that there was bugger all to do in Snape's rooms. Even Snape was out, probably jumping out and biting random people's legs.
Finally Harry's eyes fell on one of the bookshelves and he selected an especially old book to pore over. The language was wonky—it was that old—but Snape's sarcastic remarks were present, jotted in the margins.
Feeling a little bit of triumph, Harry huddled up in Snape's bed—oh, Merlin the linens are so cool and the mattress is so soft—must be eiderdown, he thought, sinking into heaven. He only hoped Snape wouldn't come back too soon—he'd have kittens if he found Harry in his bed. Once entirely cosy, with the blankets pulled up round his ears and the pillow settled just right, Harry began to read.
And laugh. Snape's comments were really pretty funny—lots of: Did this nitwit even attempt this potion? Note to self; recall when adding wormwood to aqua vitae and leaves of felwort, you get Idiot Juice. Crushed pearls? Really? Why not add in a few gold rings while we're at it? How about a couple of rubies? You could raid my grandmother's jewelry box, but it won't do you any good. You'll die anyway. You'll probably die sooner if my grandmother catches you. Immortality potion! Balls!
Harry laughed aloud. Balls! He couldn't even imagine Snape saying it. Even thinking about it brought an awkward heat to his face. Funny, that.
He flipped through a few more pages. In the margin beside a spell titled, Validessus Incendi Sphaerae, Snape had sarcastically scribbled, Oh, yes. And your penis will magically expand like a telescope, as well. You know what Healer Prince prescribes? Go and get a good lay and perhaps you'll stop wanting weapons you can't carry with both arms.
Harry guffawed. "Wow, Snape," he said. "You don't need claws at all—your quill is sharp enough."
Feeling a prickle at the back of his neck, Harry rolled over to find Snape sitting like a Sphinx, staring at him inscrutably.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I took the bed. It's only, what, gone six? Don't tell me you want a catnap now."
But instead of attacking Harry for his impertinence, Snape merely sauntered off.
"Whatever," Harry said, going back to his book.
Harry could hear cries of alarm upstairs and a sudden tide of people flowed around him. He looked up from the wall he was rebuilding yet again. "What's going on?" he said.
"Run!" was all the explanation he got.
Harry dropped the brick he'd been holding and ran—against the tide.
The stairs had crumbled and there were a handful of people on the second floor, looking down between the marble banisters with horror on their faces.
"What happened?" he called up.
Neville waved a hand. "I'm not sure!" he yelled back. "I was setting the last handrail in place when we heard this . . ." he trailed off.
"It was like stone grating against stone!" another, rather squeakier voice added. "Then the whole thing crumbled!"
Harry could see tiny Dennis Creevey, his head stuck through the banister. "Can you get down?"
"Can't Apparate on school grounds!" Neville reminded him. "You could do a cushioning charm and we could try jumping."
"Why don't we try levitation?" Harry countered.
"Dennis hasn't got the concentration for that yet," Neville said. "What if he drops himself?"
"I'll take Dennis, the rest of you worry about yourselves," Harry suggested. It wasn't easy, but eventually they all made it down, Dennis with his eyes gleaming.
"Wow!" Dennis said. "Thanks!"
Harry grinned. "Least I could do." It felt good to do something so active and useful. It was a lot better than sitting and levitating bricks one by one.
Neville was frowning at the rubble. "I could have sworn there wasn't a crack there," he said, prodding a chunk of marble with his toe. "I wouldn't have used it if it had a crack in it."
Harry flung an arm over Neville's shoulders. "Face it Neville, there was a crack in it," he said.
Sighing, Neville nodded. "Must have been. You're right; I'm sorry. I screwed up."
"No harm done," Harry assured him. "Let's go get something to eat, yeah? It's . . . it's already one forty-five."
"You go on," Neville said. "I want to make sure no one trips over this mess."
"All right," Harry replied. He took Dennis instead, leaving Neville standing by the pile of rubble—and frowning.
When Harry finally returned to his chambers—Snape's chambers, he mentally corrected—it was well after ten. It had been a good evening, full of camaraderie and laughter. Neville and his grandmother stayed to dinner, and Flitwick regaled them all with tales of his wild youth. Hogwarts was starting to feel whole again.
Harry opened the door to Snape's darkened room, took two steps, tripped over something and fell headlong, crashing into an end table.
"DAMN YOU, YOU GREASY FUZZBALL!" Harry roared. "I KNOW YOU DID THAT ON PURPOSE!" Snape didn't answer, so Harry whipped out his wand. "Lumos!"
Snape lolled in the doorway on his back, his tongue hanging out and his eyes a little bit crossed.
"What's wrong with you?" Harry demanded. "You look like an idiot." A sudden suspicion dawned. "That's your impression of me, isn't it?" he said, outraged. He shot a bolt of electricity at Snape, who barely managed to roll out of the way.
Snape got to his feet and sort of staggered around in a circle, still looking demented.
Staring, Harry got down on one knee. "Are you all right?"
Snape gave him a dirty look. Then he sort of fell over and began rolling around on the floor, twisting his body into strange shapes.
"Oh, shit," Harry said. "Something's really wrong with you!" He grabbed Snape off the floor, but the man didn't seem bothered by Harry touching him. In fact, he was purring and butting his hand against Harry's hand, demanding to be petted. "Come on," Harry said. "I'm taking you to McGonagall."
"Well—he was acting like an idiot not ten minutes ago," Harry insisted. Now Snape seemed perfectly normal. Harry wondered if the man was only trying to make a fool out of him.
McGonagall, on whose lap Snape was curled, scratched the man behind one pointed ear. Snape continued to sleep. "What was he doing?"
"Rolling around on the floor, pulling faces, acting like he was daft, really."
"Catnip," McGonagall replied.
"It doesn't affect me at all," she said, sounding just a little rueful. "Some cats just don't respond. But with others . . ."
"You mean he was high? I'm off doing hard labour and getting the place back into shape and he's off his box and he's got a monkey up his chimney? That berk! I was worried!"
Scratching her head, McGonagall said, "I believe you mean to say Professor Snape has a monkey on his back. To have a monkey up one's chimney meant, in the1890's, to have a mortgage on one's house. Though I must firmly state that the situation is devoid of monkeys of any idiom, and one slightly psychopathic housecat is more than we can handle."
"Whatever! He's a raving addict! People on drugs go crazy and get paranoid and go into violent rages," Harry pointed out.
McGonagall smiled. "It's closer to sexual arousal, actually," she said.
Harry's jaw dropped in horror. Luckily his brain promptly locked away this knowledge where it would be unable to further traumatise him.
"It's a member of the mint family, I believe. Probably a toy or something. It wears off after a few minutes."
"Oh," Harry said. "Well, thanks anyway. Sorry to disturb you."
He carried Snape back to their chambers, muttering under his breath. Where would he get a cat toy? he wondered. McGonagall said they didn't affect her, so she wouldn't have one. Some of the other students probably had cats, and Snape had been on his own most of the day. Harry supposed it wasn't a great leap to think the man had raided the students' chambers until he found what he was looking for. What a git.
Snape was still boneless, all sleepy and blissed-out. Harry put him gently on the bed, where the man curled up into a tight little ball and went to sleep. Harry stroked him, sensing he'd probably keep all his fingers this time. Snape relaxed, his fur soft beneath Harry's hand. Harry smiled; Snape was actually tolerable when he was fast asleep.
Harry let out a long breath, which apparently tickled Snape's ear, which twitched. "'Night, vermin-breath," he muttered.
Then he went back to the door and got down on his hands and knees. Harry began crawling along the floor, looking intently at the rug. Eventually he found what he was looking for and sat up. It wasn't a toy at all—it was a little green twig. It looked as though it had been chewed on. There was also a big, dirty glove under the dresser. Harry didn't know what the hell that was about—it probably hadn't been used in a hundred years.
Harry twirled it around in his fingers. Catnip, huh? he thought. He knew Snape didn't keep any in the student supply cupboards. It was possible it had come from the man's own private cabinets, but those were locked—he probably knew where the key was, but Harry doubted that even someone as smart as Snape was could work the key without opposable thumbs or a wand.
So where had the catnip come from?
Frowning, Harry got to his feet and tucked the catnip away in a drawer. No more aphrodisiac for Snape. A randy-cat-Snape was more than he felt able to deal with.
Harry sat next to Slughorn the next morning, watching with fascination as the man buttered himself twelve pieces of toast.
"I wonder where you'd get catnip," Harry mused.
"Greenhouse two," Slughorn replied.
"Hardly a toxic substance," the man chuckled. "Not a mind-altering drug unless you happen to be feline. No need to lock it up."
Harry felt stupid. Of course Snape could get into the greenhouses quite easily.
"So, my boy, I hear you might be joining our illustrious ranks next year."
"Yes. Maybe. If Professor McGonagall lets me," Harry said.
"Have you given any thought to which study you will devote yourself?"
Harry blinked, a spoonful of hot oatmeal halfway to his mouth. "I thought Defence?" he said. He wasn't sure why it came out sounding like a question.
"Naturally, naturally," Slughorn said with a chuckle.
Harry continued to sit and blink. He could do Defence—he'd assumed he would. But he didn't have to, if he didn't want to. He didn't even know who the next Defence teacher would be. And he could just as easily help out in Charms—he was good at Charms—or even Potions. He'd improved a lot in Potions since he'd got Snape's old book. In fact, it had even been sort of fun. "Of course, there's no reason I couldn't branch out and try something new," he said reasonably.
"Of course, of course," Slughorn said. He wasn't really listening. He seemed to be trying to make a sandwich with an apple Danish, some bacon, and two slices of toast.
Harry wondered if he should ask Flitwick whether he could advise him on what it was like teaching Charms. He looked around, but he didn't see the tiny teacher. Or McGonagall, either. In fact, a lot of people seemed to be missing. The Great Hall was pretty empty. "Where is everyone?"
"Oh, some sort of trouble," Slughorn said airily. "Outside the staff room."
"What kind of trouble?" Harry exclaimed. "What are we doing here if there's trouble?"
"Oh, it's not, er, bad trouble, as such," Slughorn said. "And anyway, it's good to have our defences spread out, just in case."
"What you're trying to say is that you're a coward who'd rather hide behind his waffles," Harry said coldly.
Slughorn mopped his face. "Er, waffles? Didn't see any of those . . ." he said.
Harry dropped his spoon and went running upstairs.
There was a little group of people in the hallway, talking in low voices. "What happened?" he queried loudly.
"Just a bit of high spirits, I'm sure," Professor McGonagall replied in a clipped voice.
"High spirits! I like that," a crusty old voice said. "Chop my head off and it's high spirits! And what would you call it if they'd blown me up? A bit of cheek?"
The group parted enough that Harry could see a gargoyle, its body crouched outside the staff room, its head on the floor.
"Well, did you see who did it?" Professor McGonagall asked.
"It was dark, wasn't it?" the gargoyle said. "Didn't get a good look. I just heard a noise, and when I went to investigate, BANG, my head goes and falls off! I'm going to lodge a complaint, see if I don't! I pay my taxes!"
McGonagall patted his stump vaguely. "There, there," she said. "I'll have Mr. Filch glue you back together."
Harry pulled her aside. "That was the gargoyle Lee Jordan was working on."
McGonagall shook her head. "Just high spirits," she insisted.
"Right," Harry said, still dissatisfied. Was Lee going around destroying things? And if so—why?
Harry was exhausted. Working with Hagrid was insane—Hagrid always thought Harry could do anything—and bless him, Harry loved Hagrid's unwavering faith in him—carrying burnt trees in the Forbidden forest required a team, and not just Hagrid heaving the roots over his shoulders and Harry desperately trying to keep one or two branches off the ground at the other end.
"I'm afraid I'm not much help," Harry gasped when they'd finished the first few.
"Nonsense!" Hagrid declared. "Why, I couldn't hardly lift 'em a' all, without you there." Harry let the man stroke his head as gently as he could manage, knowing that Hagrid was doing everything in his power to make Harry feel strong and handy to have around, even though Harry suspected he was useless.
"Rather have you than a dozen fool students who don't bother trying to figure the forest out," Hagrid noted. "A little bit of respect goes a long way," he added.
Harry leaned against the half-giant, utterly exhausted. Hagrid was his oldest friend, and in many small ways, the closest he had to a parent these days. Someone who believed in him no matter what. Someone he couldn't seem to lie to. Someone who fought hell and high water and always made it back to give Harry a thump on the back that could bring him to his knees. "Yeah," he said, thumping Hagrid's back, which didn't have the same effect. "A little respect goes a long way."
Hagrid beamed. It was all murky territory to Harry. The Dursleys weren't family. He'd wanted Sirius to be family. His own family was dead and gone. The Weasleys were great, but complicated by Ginny and Fred and Molly's insistence on taking care of everyone long after they'd needed to take care of themselves. Hagrid had Grawp, but that whole thing had been the definition of dysfunctional.
Hagrid wasn't always bright, but he loved Harry. He'd carried Harry's poor dead body back, crying over it. Hagrid didn't always understand, but he tried hard and you could count on him. You really could. Hagrid had been the first person to understand him. He was the one who got angry about the Dursleys; even Dumbledore hadn't seemed to care that much. Hagrid had been the big, ugly, hairy angel who rescued Harry from his horrible life and had loved Harry every moment since—Harry never had a moment of doubt about that. Harry thumped him on the back again and gave him a smile. "A little respect goes a long way," he repeated.
"Goyle? Why are you here?"
"Lost." Greg seemed to mull that over for a moment. He stood in the doorway, a look of confusion on his face. That wasn't too unusual; Goyle almost always seemed a little lost when he wasn't hexing someone. Snape was crouched atop a dresser, his hair standing on end. He didn't seem to like Goyle in his territory, but then hell, he barely tolerated Harry.
Greg's eyebrows lowered dangerously and his head swung back and forth, a desperate attempt at communication. "Lost. My glove," he finally said.
"Here?" Harry rooted around in the dresser. "This glove?" Harry said. "Is this the one you lost?
Greg seemed to be trying to delve through the two whole layers of his mind for the answer when Snape let out a bloodcurdling caterwaul.
"Would you please refrain?" Harry asked. He shoved the glove into Greg's hands as Snape continued to vocally protest. "I'm SORRY HE STOLE YOUR GLOVE!" he added as Greg lumbered off, fingers in his ears.
Harry spun on his heel and glowered at the cat. "First you steal his gloves, then you serenade him with 'five tunes to make you spork yourself in the eardrums'? What's wrong with you?"
Snape let out a frustrated shriek that had Harry clamping his hands over his ears as well. "NEVER MIND!" he bellowed. "I DON'T WANT TO KNOW! NOW JUST SHUT UP AND GET ON WITH THINGS, WOULD YOU?"
Snape gave Harry a withering look and shot through the door after Goyle.
"Yeah? Well, I don't think much of your company, either," Harry said when Snape was out of earshot.
Harry sat uncomfortably in the circle of teachers. He'd never been alone with them before—not with just the teachers, anyway. Not in the staff room.
"What's this all about, Minerva?" Slughorn demanded. "I've got a bottle of firewhisky waiting for me downstairs. Bloody inconvenient to be called into a meeting just after we get everything fixed.
"Not quite everything is fixed," McGonagall replied.
"Well, yes, the Room of Requirement, but why split hairs? Everything else is patched up and that room will probably take years to restore."
"There is also fire damage in the hallway outside the room," McGonagall said, shuffling some papers.
"Oh, all right, there's that as well," Slughorn sighed.
"The fire damage I'm discussing is somewhat more recent, I'm afraid."
"It appears to be from last night."
"Last night? Are you sure?" Flitwick asked.
"Yes. Testing indicates there was an accelerant used."
"Accelerant?" Harry repeated, his heart sinking.
"Stolen from Professor Snape's private supplies," the woman added.
"Possibly a vial of combustion concoction. The walls are scorched very deeply."
Professor Trelawney gasped. "I foresee—"
"We know perfectly well what you foresee," McGonagall replied tartly.
"If you don't think my contributions are worthwhile—"
"I could take a guess," Harry offered. "Harry Potter is going to die, right? Big black dogs, tealeaves, banshees wailing in the night—whatever. Look, Professor," he said, turning to McGonagall while Trelawney huffed and hunched and fluttered indignantly in her nest of coloured scarves. "Didn't I tell you that gargoyle was no accident?"
"I apologise, Mr. Potter. It seems you were right."
"What are we going to do about it?"
"I have wards up."
"Wards? Someone practically burned down the building and you put up wards?" Harry was livid. After all he'd done for Hogwarts, he wanted to know it would be safe.
McGonagall gave him a look over the rims of her glasses. "If I need further assistance, I shall let you know, Mr. Potter," she said coldly.
That shut even Trelawney up.
But Harry wasn't going to accept it. McGonagall might have her wards, but he'd keep an eye on things, too.
"Harry, come home." Ginny looked up at him, winsome and pretty.
Harry felt like an absolute berk. "Um. You see—"
"I know you want to stay here, but I want more than an occasional boyfriend."
Harry shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He wasn't sure what to say. "McGonagall wants—"
"I don't care what McGonagall wants! And you shouldn't, either. I've been patient and I tried to give you the room to save the world. But Harry, I think it's time to think about what I want."
"Well—yes—I understand," Harry said. "And I think it's time to take time for what I want."
Ginny smiled. "So we agree, finally?"
Harry rubbed the back of his neck. "Not exactly. You have to understand; I've spent a long time doing whatever needs to be done. I'm not looking at being a professor's assistant as some kind of problem. I'm looking at it like—like an opportunity. Ginny, I want to do this. And I'm not sure I'm ready for the responsibility of a full-time girlfriend."
Ginny looked shocked. "I've stood by you through everything!"
"And I appreciate that," Harry said, and added, as gently as he could, "but I didn't ask you to."
Ginny's face twisted and Harry felt awful. He wasn't sure if she was going to cry or slap him, and he wasn't sure which would be worse. He knew he sort of deserved both. But at the same time, he realised he was telling the truth; with everything that had happened, he wanted some time to be his own man. He didn't even want to be part of the golden trio anymore. He wanted to try being just Harry Potter for a little while, and see if he could figure out who Harry Potter was. And whether Harry Potter was anyone, anything, without the cloud of Voldemort looming over him and defining him.
"Well. I suppose that's all we have to say to each other for now," Ginny said in a clipped voice.
"I—suppose it is."
Ginny stood up abruptly. "Well, I think you're just—" she broke off as Snape appeared. He had something dangling from his mouth. "What's that?"
"No!" Harry yelled. "Bad cat! Drop that! Sorry—my cat—he's just—sort of evil," Harry explained.
"What's he got?" Ginny asked, squinting.
Snape, looking smug, dropped a dead doxy on her foot like a gift.
Ginny turned sort of green.
"I'm sorry about that," Harry said quickly, using his thumb and index finger to fastidiously pick the thing up by its one remaining leg.
Ginny backed away. "It's no problem," she said. "I should go."
"I really have to go." She turned and hurried out of the room, looking like she might be sick.
Harry glared at Snape. "Thanks a lot!" he snapped. "I would have liked to at least be friends!"
Snape sat on his haunches and gave Harry a look that proclaimed he was deeply unimpressed.
Harry felt a great swell of gloom wash over him. "I should have told her that a long time ago," he muttered.
Snape miaowed in agreement.
"No catty remarks from you," Harry said darkly. He went and threw himself down on Snape's sofa, sulking. He had a crazy cat, a saboteur on the loose and now, he'd lost his girlfriend. He knew the girlfriend thing was mostly his own fault, but that didn't make him feel any better. What if he'd made a mistake? What if he was meant to be with Ginny?
After twenty minutes of feeling sorry for himself, Harry went and raided Snape's liquor cabinet. He found a bottle of orange liqueur and crawled into Snape's big, downy bed, where he proceeded to drink most of the bottle.
And feel even sorrier for himself.
Several hours later, he woke to something scratchy on his chin. "Ow," he said. He partially sat up to find Snape licking him. "Knock it off," he grumbled.
Snape swished his tail.
Harry collapsed back on the pillows. "Did I do something unbearably stupid?" he asked. "I mean, Ginny really liked me. What if no one ever likes me that much again?"
Snape made a disgusted noise.
Smiling crookedly, Harry stroked his back. "You think I'm worth something?" he asked shyly.
Snape gagged again.
"Should have known better than to ask," Harry said with a sigh.
Snape coughed up a hairball. It landed square in the middle of Harry's chest.
"Gee, thanks loads. Here I thought you were being a sympathetic audience," Harry remarked dryly. He snagged his wand off the dresser and banished the mess. Harry expected Snape to leave then, his job of hurling on Harry done.
But Snape settled on Harry's stomach, his paws kneading the blankets in contentment.
Harry tickled Snape's fuzzy little black head. "Thanks," he muttered.
Snape pushed his jaw against Harry's knuckles, purring throatily.
Harry chuckled. "You're kind of cute, you know that?"
Snape looked up sharply.
Harry laughed. "I know—not the usual compliment, yeah? I'm sure you get called smart, and probably witty, but not cute or cuddly. But you are. You're a woozie woozie woozums," Harry added. He laughed again. "I think I might be a little bit drunk." He rubbed Snape's—momentarily—cute little nose. "A super-snuggly woozie woozums," he added.
Looking offended, Snape tried to pull away.
Harry grabbed the man with both hands, pinning him to Harry's chest. "Aw, come on. Don't be a sourpuss. Take it in the spirit in which it was meant," Harry suggested. He buried his face in Snape's thick fur. "And don't leave yet. I really need a friend."
After a tense moment that could have gone sweet and lovely, or horrifying and full of evisceration, Snape eventually relaxed.
Harry massaged Snape just behind the ear—right where he liked being petted most. After several minutes, Snape turned to jelly and began to purr loudly.
"I like petting you, too," Harry said.
"What happened?" Harry stared, dismayed, at the door off its hinges and the bricks all bubbled and smoking around the frame.
"Someone broke into the Room of Requirement." Flitwick sounded worried, and this worried Harry. He'd never heard Flitwick sound worried before.
"Who do you think did it?"
"Can't imagine, but he went through the headmistress' wards like a hot knife through butter."
"Someone powerful, then?"
Flitwick shook his head. "Someone with access to greenhouse three, is all." He pointed at the brickwork. "See that? See the dark red substance deep inside the scoring?"
Harry knelt and looked closely. "Yeah! I see what you mean. What is it? It smells . . . familiar."
"That's the Stinksap. Stinksap, when added to an exploding elixir, can penetrate even walls with protective spells, such as the headmistress put on these."
"Wow," Harry said. "And anyone could have done it?" He frowned. It had been done last night. He'd have probably have caught the person himself, if he hadn't been too busy cuddling with Snape.
"Anyone with a good knowledge of potions, and most anyone who followed Voldemort, I should imagine," Flitwick acknowledged. "I'm sure it was the sort of thing the Carrows would have passed on, and it's hardly a difficult potion, merely forbidden. If—"
Harry frowned. "Wait a second. You said 'headmistress' twice. With, you know, McGonagall. Does that mean Professor McGonagall will be the new headmistress?"
Flitwick's tiny face was wreathed in smiles. "Yes! Yes, starting next year, she'll be the headmistress of Hogwarts, and I'm sure it's just what the old place needs."
"Wow!" Harry exclaimed again, this time with rather more enthusiasm. "That's great! And, um, she has the authority to . . . to . . ." he trailed off, unsure how to finish the sentence.
Luckily, Flitwick seemed to understand. "To make you an assistant?" he chirped. "Absolutely! And a fine idea, if I do say so myself. I think you'll add a great deal to this old institution. New blood!" he said with enthusiasm. "Tell me, my boy, did you think of giving me a hand in Charms? I could always use a little extra help," he added. "I'm not getting any younger, you know!"
Harry, who knew Flitwick considered himself in his prime and, for a wizard, probably was, only laughed. "Maybe I'll spread myself around," he said. "And learn a few things in the process."
"Good idea!" Flitwick told him. "We'd all be better off if only we learned not to limit ourselves!"
"Yeah," Harry said. "Er, and thanks for the offer. I'd be glad to help whenever you want. You'd be a great teacher to work with," he added sincerely.
Flitwick smiled and reached up to pat Harry on the shoulder. "And now let's go and see Minerva, shall we? I'll take the first watch."
"Watch?" Harry repeated.
"Oh, yes. It's quite obvious that someone is trying to destroy the castle. As a former duelling champion, it's my duty to see that they're thwarted at every step."
"Oh . . . right," Harry said numbly. Hogwarts was home. It had everything he needed, from cheerful Charms professors to stern headmistresses to cranky old cats. And now it had a saboteur, as well.
Harry smiled grimly as he rolled up his sleeves and followed Flitwick.
Really, he thought, the only thing it'd been missing was a challenge.
"Flitwick thinks it's something serious." Harry was sitting cross-legged on Snape's rug, and Snape was settled on his haunches, listening intently.
Snape made a sharp noise.
"Yeah, I think so too."
Harry could feel Snape's yellow-eyed gaze boring into his forehead, asking what he intended to do. "They told me to stay out of it," he confided, disgruntled. "They said I wasn't fully trained and I'd already done too much." He toyed with a loose thread in the rug until it came off. He expected Snape to turn into a raging hellcat at this wanton destruction of property, but the man made no comment. "They said . . . to let them take care of it," Harry explained.
"Exactly." Harry patted him on the head—not a babying cuddle but a genuine gesture of agreement and affection. "And they can't keep me away," he added. "I can keep an eye on things on my own. Surreptitious, like. It's not as though I haven't done it before."
Snape shifted from paw to paw uncomfortably.
"Anyway, I was out with Sprout planting and re-potting various malevolent flora today, so I'm kind of tuckered out."
The sound Snape made could best be described as hmph.
Harry snorted. "You sure don't have a problem communicating even without a voice, do you? Anyway, let's stay in. Just for tonight," Harry begged. "I know I'm not the most wildly interesting bloke in the world, but I could keep you entertained."
Snape looked doubtful.
Harry went to the nightstand, where he'd tucked away something that might or might not come in handy. He'd been hesitant to try, but now seemed like the perfect time. "Look!" he said cheerfully, brandishing his treasure.
The look on Snape's face as the string dangled before his nose was one of utter contempt.
"I thought it'd be fun," Harry said diffidently. "Get us both a bit of exercise and play time? Come on, there's nothing to it." He shook the string, but Snape turned his head away.
Harry let the string fall still, just inches from Snape's nose. When Harry jerked the thing, Snape's head whipped around. "Ha!" Harry said.
Harry dragged the string over the carpet. Snape crouched ever lower, his eyes riveted on the serpentine movement. Harry had to hide a grin as Snape's tail began to thrash back and forth. His little black bum wiggled, and Harry gave up even trying not to smile. Suddenly Snape pounced, and Harry yanked the string away.
Snape clambered after it madly, both paws batting and clutching.
Battling an urge to laugh wildly, Harry shook the bit of string, making it jump and jiggle just out of Snape's reach. Snape rose up on his hind legs, the instincts of his body overriding whatever his Potions master's mind was trying to tell him.
Harry dipped his hand, watching, mesmerised, as Snape weaved and lunged and danced. "You're really agile!" he exclaimed.
Snape pirouetted, jaws snapping.
"Missed!" Harry said cheerfully.
Snape ignored him, his entire focus on the flicker of the string.
Harry rested his chin on his fist, snapping the string out of reach whenever Snape got too near. It was amazing how graceful the man was, his lean body contorting and contracting rhythmically. Harry wondered if Snape—the real Snape—ever danced. Harry'd never thought about it before. Snape usually stomped and stormed. On the other hand, he stormed sort of gracefully. Harry could picture him sweeping someone around a dance floor, dipping them and spinning them, his tall, slender body right at home in a dark suit or set of dress robes . . .
Snape caught the string and began chewing it triumphantly.
Harry stared at him, not taking it in. Snape would look good like that. Snape would be hot. Snape might just possibly be, in some strange abstract way, fucking sexy as hell.
Harry dropped the string and went to get a drink.
"Harry, I need to talk to you about . . . your pet."
Harry groaned. "What'd he do now?" On Saturday the Weasleys had come to visit. The whole thing was okay, or had been up until Snape threw up in Ginny's shoe.
"I'm afraid I'm receiving reports of Severus biting the students," McGonagall said. "He's been napping near the Room of Requirement, and more than one student has been . . . nipped."
"Did they try to pet him?" Harry asked.
"Well, yes, but—"
"Did they wake him out of a dead sleep?"
"Perhaps, but I—"
"He dreams about Voldemort. Has nightmares. I can tell," Harry said. "He really can't help it," he argued earnestly. "Wouldn't you bite some strange person touching you if you were having a dream like that?"
The headmistress looked surprised. "Be that as it may, I can't have a feral cat mauling passersby."
"It's not his fault!" Harry protested loudly. "And that isn't fair! He sacrificed himself for you! For all of us!"
"I am not suggesting he be hunted down and kept in a crate, Harry," McGonagall said, exasperated. "I merely wish you to keep him elsewhere when he is likely to experience the trauma of sleep-induced, violent psychosis."
"Snape doesn't need sleep for violent psychosis."
"All right, all right."
Harry eventually found Snape curled in a deceptive little fuzzy ball right at the door of the Room of Requirement, which had only recently been put back on its hinges. "Hey, you," Harry said, kneeling down—but not within claw's reach. "What are you doing?"
Snape made a long, complicated miaow.
"Didn't quite get that," Harry said. "But you've got a reason for it?"
Snape miaowed again, this time in the affirmative.
"I believe you. Only I'm catching hell for you being here and trying to eat random people who walk past."
"ROWR!" Snape replied.
"I need a Feline to English dictionary," Harry sighed. "Are you looking out for the saboteur?"
Snape yowled again.
"Okay. I get that. But he—or she—only shows up at night. Anyway, you can't watch it all the time. And nothing's happened for almost a week now."
Snape shifted, like he was reluctantly coming around.
"You fall asleep out here, and then when someone says, 'Oh, was a cute puss!' and pets you, you freak out and try to take a chunk out of their ear. And that's . . . um, impolite," Harry said. "I know you've got a lot going on and I understand you have bad dreams. But you're not sinking your fangs into Voldemort, you're sinking your fangs into innocent people, and that's got to stop."
Snape gave Harry a stubborn look, as if to say that anyone who called him a cute puss could not in any way be considered innately innocent.
"Look, please let me take you downstairs?" Harry suggested. "I've got a tin of crabmeat I've been saving. Prime stuff, too."
Snape's ears perked right up.
"Okay?" Harry gingerly reached out, but didn't try to pick Snape up. They'd come to an Arrangement when it came to picking Snape up, and the Arrangement was that Harry didn't do it. Instead he just held out his arms and Snape leapt into them or he didn't. After a few moments, Snape did. Harry felt better. "Glad you're being sensible, for once."
Snape yowled in his ear.
"Yes, thanks for that," Harry grumbled. Snape wriggled until he found a comfortable position.
They got halfway back to Snape's rooms when they ran into Goyle. Snape hissed loudly.
"Sorry," Harry said.
"Hate cats," Goyle grumbled. "Like to throw rocks at 'em, though," he added as an afterthought.
Harry's arms tightened round Snape, who hissed again in renewed fury. "Well, you won't be throwing any rocks at this one," Harry said firmly. "Because this one is mine. And if I find out you've been throwing rocks at him, you'll find boulders aimed at you."
Goyle only looked blank.
"So don't do it," Harry said, then walked away when Goyle didn't answer. He wasn't entirely sure Goyle did get it, but Harry wasn't going to stand there all day. "Did he throw rocks at you?" he asked Snape when they were out of earshot.
"Yow!" Snape replied.
"And here I thought it was just a personality conflict," Harry growled. He roughly massaged Snape behind the ears. "That bastard. Wait until I'm advanced enough at Transfigurations. He can try being a cat for a while. Maybe the kind of cat that gets tin cans tied to his tail," he added darkly.
Snape miaowed again, and Harry opened the door.
"Right, the crab," Harry said. He went and got the tin and put it in Snape's food bowl.
While Snape ate greedily, Harry absently stroked his back a couple of times. "Now you just have your snack and take a catnap, would you? I'll keep an eye out for problems."
By the next day, the door to the Room of Requirement was cracked right down the middle. McGonagall tried to put the hallway off limits, but people kept coming by anyway, huddling in small groups, whispering and staring.
"Do you think Voldemort's come back?" Dennis Creevey asked, sounding worried.
"No," Harry told him.
"Well, at least I'm cleared," Lee Jordan said with a bitter smile. "I was with Flitwick and Sprout last night, trying to figure out how a big heap of dragon dung got up and walked away."
Harry looked at Lee blankly for several moments before he understood. His face began to burn when he realised it—the saboteur had been the one to knock down the wall Harry had worked on. "Oh, no," Harry said. "Lee, I'm really sorry. I thought you were playing a joke."
Lee shrugged. "Not very funny, was it?"
"Sometimes the twins' jokes weren't. But you were friends with them and I . . . ." Harry stared at his feet. "I shouldn't have accused you," he mumbled. "That was really stupid. And I know what it's like to be blamed for something without any proof," he added, thinking of second year.
Lee's shoulders relaxed a little. "I guess you do," he said. Then he offered Harry his hand, which Harry shook gratefully.
"Thanks for not being a berk right back at me," Harry said.
Harry walked Dennis to the Great Hall. Not that Dennis was especially frightened—in Harry's experience, Creeveys lacked common sense sometimes, but never bravery—but Harry didn't like the idea of Dennis running around alone when there was someone trying to detonate doors hanging about. Particularly since Creeveys were deficient on common sense but had an overabundance of bravery.
"You're really sure it isn't Voldemort?" Dennis asked.
"Pretty sure," Harry said.
"Who else would do something like that? Will they try again?"
"Probably," Harry admitted. He hurried to add, "But we're keeping an eye on things. The only reason the saboteur had the nerve to try it yesterday is because no one was watching, but Snape's usually on guard, so you don't have to worry."
However, Dennis looked really worried at this idea. "Snape? Isn't Snape—is—is he a ghost? I haven't seen him."
Harry mentally kicked himself. "I meant, in spirit. And, erm, we're using some protections and some—some—um—spying techniques he perfected," he added, congratulating himself on some deft brainwork.
"Oh. I'm still sort of surprised he was one of—you know—one of the good guys," Dennis said.
"He was one of the best good guys," Harry countered, surprising himself with his own vehemence. "He just couldn't show it." And probably wouldn't have wanted to, Harry had to admit. Snape may have been working for Dumbledore and the good of the wizarding world, but he was still a morally ambiguous bastard who didn't mind putting the bite on anyone, quite literally sometimes.
"You liked him," Dennis observed with some surprise.
"Well, I like him now," Harry corrected. "Sort of."
Dennis grinned. "It's good. He always seemed a bit lonely to me. He was okay, wasn't he?"
Harry felt unaccountably relieved. He couldn't imagine having the same conversation with Ron and Hermione. Unfortunately, he was going to have to at some point, because he'd need to reveal everything eventually. He was steeling himself to say, 'By the way, Snape isn't dead and even though he's still a git I kind of like him, even when he bites me.'
Merlin, that came out all wrong.
Oh, yes, he bites me, certainly, but only because he likes me, Harry found himself thinking. And anyway, he lets me put collars on him and brush his hair. If one of us is fucked in the head, then I think you'll have to accept that we both are.
They arrived at the Great Hall, where Snape sat regally beside Harry's plate, awaiting his kippers with impatience. "Hey," Harry said, ruffling Snape's fur.
Snape nipped him, but gently, almost affectionately even.
Neither Snape nor Dennis seemed to understand why Harry found this completely hilarious.
Friday evening Harry went to the headmistress' office and nodded to the gargoyle on duty. "McGonagall sent for me," he told it, and it gestured for him to go on up. "Hello," he said, standing awkwardly in front of Dumbledore's old desk. As much as he liked McGonagall, it didn't seem right to have someone else sitting there. "You wanted to see me?"
"Yes, Harry. Please, take a seat. Professor Slughorn let slip that you and Professor Snape 'kept him company' on watch last night. I know you mean well, but I would appreciate it if you didn't do that sort of thing again. It's very dangerous to distract the person on watch.
"But I want to help!" Harry all but shouted. "And so does Snape!"
"I understand that, but you're very young, and I worry that the saboteur may become violent if interrupted," McGonagall said.
"So? You think I'm not up to the task?" Harry demanded. "Haven't I proven myself often enough for you?"
The woman smiled, her strictness softening just a little. "I know you are 'up' for just about anything," she said wryly. "But I would very much like to have an idea of what we're facing before you rush in to save the day again. Apart from that, Severus could be in danger as well. I've noticed he follows you everywhere."
"Yeah, well," Harry said doubtfully. "Snape can take care of himself."
Apart from that, he didn't relish the idea of having to tell the man he wasn't allowed to do something. Even convincing him to stay in for the evening was like, well, herding cats and usually involved extravagant seafood offerings. Which reminded Harry—he should take Snape into the Forbidden Forest during the weekend and let him chase Centaurs and get some exercise. Snape was getting to be too much of a fat cat.
"Can he, Mr. Potter?" the headmistress queried. "To be sure, he is a very resourceful . . . creature. He also weighs something like nine pounds and, strong-willed though he is, has shown no signs of being able to command wandless magic in his current condition."
Harry felt his stomach churn. "He hasn't, has he? He hasn't shown any magic at all." He couldn't help but think of Goyle hurling rocks at poor little Snape, who was defenceless. Except for the claws and teeth and sheer, unadulterated bloody-mindedness, but still—relatively defenceless, anyway.
"Mr. Potter, I would greatly appreciate it if you kept Snape indoors—that is to say, in his chambers—for the next few nights, at least. I think I may have a solution to his problems with his current physical form, and I will work on it in the evenings."
"Oh!" Harry said. "That's good news! But, er, oughtn't Snape stay with you for the, uh, duration, then? If you're going to have to perform magic on him and everything?"
"I assure you, that won't be necessary. The spell can be worked from a distance and in any case, there is no guarantee it will work."
"Oh. Okay," Harry said. He was embarrassed at how relieved he was that Snape would be allowed to stay with him.
"In a change of subject, Professor Flitwick tells me you're progressing in your studies nicely despite the lack of time you have to devote to them."
Harry shrugged. "Snape's books," he explained.
"They're very advanced reading," McGonagall said.
"Yes, but he does notations in the margins. It's pretty understandable, actually. Snape's a good teacher, when he's not actually trying to teach," he added.
McGonagall smiled. "You will keep him in, won't you?"
"Sure. I don't want something to happen to him any more than you do," Harry pointed out. I'm probably more worried about him than you are, he thought. I'm the one who sneaked into Hogsmeade a week ago and bought two balls of yarn, a couple of ostrich feathers and a squeaky mouse we call Mr. Nipps. None of which would be so disturbing if I didn't think I was also developing a crush on him. Snape, that is, not the mouse.
Harry realised McGonagall had been talking to him and made an effort to pull himself out of his mental haze. "What? He's smart," Harry said defensively. "And funny. And believe it or not, he likes a good cuddle and he loves to be strok—petted," Harry said.
"I see. I do hope you're not spoiling him too much," McGonagall replied. "I have noticed him wearing a selection of collars with brass studs, spikes, and the occasional rhinestone."
"Those were emeralds," Harry replied. "I think he's allergic to inferior stones."
McGonagall only stared.
"Or at any rate he scratched a lot when I put the others on and he's got this look he gives you when he doesn't like something," Harry explained lamely.
"To be sure. And to think I only have one simple tartan pattern collar."
Harry had the grace to be embarrassed. "He's a bit of a glamour puss, to tell the truth. Anyway, I'm sure he's not spoiled. He's just sort of –er—high maintenance. And we get on pretty well, considering." Harry couldn't seem to shut up. "I mean, sure, I've got scratches all up and down my arms and love bites on my fingers, but it's nothing much. Snape's okay. He likes me." Sure, Snape would take scraps from the other teachers, and he was known to nap on Flitwick's papers. But for some reason, when it came to maiming and bloodletting, Snape thought of no one but Harry. That was a sort of loyalty, right?
"I'm glad the two of you are getting on so well." Was it just Harry, or did the woman sound slightly amused?
"Anyway. Um. I should probably get back. It's almost six and Snape expects his sardines on his plate on the hour, or he raises an unholy fuss."
"Is that what that racket was the other night? I'd thought Peeves was taunting a banshee. At any rate, I'm glad we had this little talk."
"Me, too," Harry lied.
"And no more nighttime adventures?" McGonagall prompted.
Harry forced a smile. "I promise I'll be good," he replied.
"Good," McGonagall said firmly.
Harry told himself it wasn't a lie at all. After all, catching the saboteur counted as 'good,' didn't it?
It wasn't a catnip treat Harry mixed in with Snape's salmon that night, but a rather different potion. It didn't kick in right away. Harry had time to stay and nervously bite his quill and try to do a crossword puzzle while Snape lounged in his lap, mewing plaintively (and piercingly) to be petted, getting drowsier and drowsier.
"Maybe you are spoiled," Harry said. "My arm's getting tired, do you know that?"
Snape didn't reply. When Harry looked closely, he could see that the man had fallen deeply asleep.
"Looks like the potion worked, then," Harry observed softly. "I really am sorry. I know you're going to be a hellcat in the morning, but I can't have you following me. It's too dangerous."
He carefully moved Snape out of his lap and set him in the middle of the bed. Then he bent and kissed Snape's little fluffy head, secure in the knowledge that the man would not wake up and shred him into little bloody bits. "I'll see you in the morning," he whispered into Snape's ear, which flicked.
Harry went and got his old cloak out from where he'd hidden it in the back of Snape's wardrobe. He crept slowly to the door and turned back for one last look. Seeing Snape's body sprawled inertly on the bed seemed a very bad omen indeed.
Still, Snape was safe, and that was what mattered. Harry eased the door closed behind him, careful not to make a sound.
Then he swept the cloak over his head and went out to find the saboteur.
It was Professor Trelawney on watch, leaning against the wall and peering up and down the hall through her absurdly thick spectacles. She didn't look particularly happy to be there, and Harry recalled that she didn't often come down from her tower. He wondered if she had a touch of agoraphobia. She certainly seemed ill at ease in the long, dim, echoing hall.
He watched her tugging at the fringe on her scarf for a few moments, then stepped behind a suit of armour to whip his cloak off.
"Hey!" he said, stepping out into the hall, and felt a little guilty at her startle.
"I—ah, Mr. Potter. Of course. I foresaw that you would join me this evening."
"Right, right," Harry said. "McGonagall told me to take over for you. But you already knew that."
"Indeed, indeed. Though it's considered very rude in clairvoyant circles to interrupt people to tell them what you know they're going to tell you before they tell you. The inner eye—"
"Did you hear something?"
It was a nasty thing to do, Harry knew, but he didn't want another lecture on the inner eye and how he would inevitably die a horrible death of some kind. Especially now that Voldemort was gone—Trelawney had taken to telling him about some graphic future fall off a tower or how she was nearly certain he should avoid red lorries.
"Hear something?" Trelawney's oversized eyes darted back and forth.
"It was nothing," Harry said. "Maybe just a fleeting touch of clairaudience. Probably from standing near you and picking up, er, your extra, very strong powers," he added. Trelawney looked quite pleased with the idea. "Anyway, you can go now if you want," Harry continued. "I'll just keep an eye out for crazed saboteurs who might just be violent and could be former Death Eaters."
"Yes, I should go." Trelawney briefly put a hand on Harry's shoulder. "But beware; I have a vision of a rune-covered knife flashing in the night and—death!"
"Yeah, how did I know you were going to say something like that? Clairvoyance?" Harry mumbled.
"I said, thanks for your timely warning," Harry replied more loudly.
He watched Trelawney totter off back to her rooms, her scarves fluttering behind her.
Then he went and got his cloak and put it on, leaned back against the door to the Room of Requirement and settled in to wait for something to happen.
The next thing Harry knew, the moonlight on the floor was coming from a slightly different angle, Harry's neck was stiff, and the door to the Room of Requirement was wide open.
Harry shot to his feet, his robe sliding to the floor with a shiff. He'd fallen asleep! He'd probably fallen over and someone had stepped right over him and they'd got right in and—
"Who's there?" a voice demanded.
There was a long silence as Harry worked out the fact that the voice wasn't actually his.
"Depends. Who's—er—there?" Harry asked, feeling stupid. When no one answered right away, Harry realised it'd probably be best if he could see who it was. "Lumos!" he hissed.
Goyle's broad face appeared as if by magic.
Harry was so surprised that he took a step back. "What—what are you doing?"
Goyle didn't answer. He had a large container under his left arm and a long metal pipe in his right hand.
Harry felt his hands curl into fists—he knew perfectly well what Goyle was doing. Goyle was the saboteur. "What have you got?" he demanded, nodding to the container.
"Stuff," Goyle replied flatly.
"From the potions lab. Stinksap. Dragon manure. Nitro—nitrosomething."
"Nitroglycerine?" Harry yelped.
Goyle nodded and smiled. In the light from Harry's wand, it was an especially evil smile. "Yup. Everything on the list."
It must have been for some kind of potion. Holy shit, Harry thought. Nitroglycerine and dragon dung? The thing would go off like . . . a . . . bomb. Harry gulped. "Where'd you get the list?" he asked. He wanted to keep Goyle talking.
"In the Carrows' old chambers."
"Shit. We should have cleaned that out first."
Out of the corner of his eye, Harry spotted something glinting. "Oh, no," he breathed. Apparently, Snape had gotten the same idea about trapping the saboteur as Harry and had followed him. "Stupid little copycat!" Harry muttered. He couldn't let Snape get involved.
Goyle was coming toward Harry now, big and implacable. Harry slipped to the side, trying to sidle away, trying to keep some distance between them. He held up his wand, ready to curse. "Why are you doing this?"
An arm that big shouldn't have been able to move so fast. It should have swung slowly, gathering momentum as it went.
Instead, Harry didn't even see it.
One minute he was looking at Goyle, the next minute he was looking at the stones on the floor. They were kind of blurry, and Harry realised his glasses were gone. He spotted them nearby, shattered. His arm screamed in pain and he tried to sit up. "What? What…?" Harry gasped.
"It killed Crabbe," Goyle repeated dully. "The room killed Crabbe, so I'll kill the room. I'll kill the whole castle."
"It didn't kill Crabbe, you idiot! Crabbe killed Crabbe!"
Greg raised the pipe again and Harry rolled away. It was a good move, in that the pipe missed him, but a bad one, in that another sickening jolt of pain shot up his arm. He was pretty sure it was broken. He hoped it was still there. He didn't really have time to look.
Instead, he rolled again as he spotted movement from the corner of his eye, and Goyle missed again.
"You're fast," Goyle observed, impressed. "Guess that's why you're a Seeker."
Harry, panting, couldn't answer this. There was blood on the floor and he was horribly, terribly certain it was his.
Goyle stepped forward again.
Snape went wild, running round the room and howling all the way. Fur flew, Goyle bellowed, and cat hair was everywhere. Harry had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on. All he could tell was that Hurricane Snape had struck in all his bloodcurdling glory.
Harry did his best to put his hands over his ears; he wasn't so much afraid, it was only that Snape was now hitting notes that would not only shatter glass, they'd ring at just the right note to fracture bone, as well. Harry was certain he felt his skull begin to cave. "Stop it, Snape! Stop it!" he yelled over the horrible noise.
It seemed impossible but Gregory was still coming after Harry; he stood above him, arms raised, a length of metal pipe in his fist.
Still recovering from Snape's sonic assault, Harry could only blink and shake his head. It felt like his whole body echoed with Snape's howls.
Goyle brought the pipe down in a mighty arc; it should have killed Harry. But before contact was made, Snape was back, still howling and scratching. He was atop Goyle's broad shoulders, his claws impaled.
Now Greg was screaming, too.
Harry was stunned, watching Greg dance around the room, trying to get the cat off his back. Like most large men, he had difficulty reaching certain spots behind him, and Snape had taken full advantage. And he was still wailing like a misbegotten police siren, as well.
Harry stood up. He should hit one of them, if he could. If they'd just shut up, he could think clearly. But even as he looked round for a weapon, things began to change. Snape was shedding again, still howling, and growing larger, and trying to stay on Goyle's back without the use of his claws. He was upside down, one lower leg wrapped round Goyle's throat, his arms clinging to Goyle's knees. With the other leg, he was still trying to kick anything worth kicking within kicking distance, while Harry tried to ensure that didn't include him.
And Snape was also nude.
Buck-naked, clinging to Goyle's back, still howling at the top of his lungs, and noticeably human, since cats didn't have big pink . . . well, the less said the better, although it was very interesting, and Harry wouldn't have said no to a bit of closer observation.
Unfortunately, this was neither the time nor the place. Greg was still holding that big, wobbly container of whatever, and Snape was in trouble.
Desperately, Harry searched about for his wand. It was several feet away, and he had to pick it up with his left hand, because his right arm still throbbed violently and wouldn't move.
He tried his hardest to aim. "Petrificus Totalus!" he screamed.
Greg's feet were planted far apart, so he didn't even fall over. Harry was just beginning to congratulate himself on a close call when the potion, still inexorably sloshing from the inertia of the fight, surged over the edge of the container in a big, gloopy wave.
Harry got one last look at Snape's rather gloriously naked body before their eyes met in horror and the world exploded.
"Well, look what the cat dragged in," Snape said. He was a little pale and bruised, but sitting up in his bed in the hospital wing, and seemed in good spirits.
Harry looked around for a chair, didn't see one, and plopped himself down beside Snape.
"Well? Cat got your tongue?" Snape prompted.
"I wish!" Harry said with a leer. "I've missed you."
Snape blinked. "Coyness really isn't your forte, is it?" he mused.
"Said the bloke who attacked the saboteur while buck-naked and yowling at the top of his lungs," Harry joked.
"That's entirely your fault for failing to point out I was no longer a cat," Snape replied, disgruntled. "Had I known, my yowling would have at least consisted of a few choice insults."
"Not my fault McGonagall has impeccable timing. Still would have been naked, though?" Harry asked with a crooked grin.
"I can honestly say it gave me no qualms," Snape told him with great dignity.
"I'm glad you're okay," Harry said.
"Just a little singed," Snape replied. "I'm grateful Goyle was an inept imbecile and only managed a small fireball. Though that kind of thing is no picnic when you happen to be standing less than three feet away and completely naked. And you're unhurt?" he added in the most forced offhand tone Harry had ever heard.
"I'm great," Harry said. "Madam Pomfrey had my arm fixed and my scull fracture mended in less than half an hour." He was really, really grateful to Madam Pomfrey, less for the treatment of his own wounds than her attention to Snape's third-degree burns.
"And so many visitors, I hear."
"Yeah." Harry grinned. "When they'd heard there was another attack on Hogwarts, the entire Weasley family descended on the place en masse in about ten minutes. I've made up with both Ron and Ginny. Nothing like having people think you might have been killed to get them to forgive you," he added smugly.
"Ah. I'm happy for Miss Weasley and yourself," Snape said in a stiff voice.
"We didn't make up that much!" Harry hurried to assure him. "And I did say 'made up,' not 'made out.' I think we can sort of be friends, but no more, er, romantic stuff. So you needn't throw up in her shoes anymore," Harry added, unable to quash a mischievous smile.
"I'll be the judge of whether or not to vomit in Miss Weasley's shoes," Snape replied.
Harry laughed, then grew serious. "Did you know Goyle was the saboteur?"
"Of course I knew! I was his head of house once. I knew the only thing keeping him from glorious heights of malevolence was his limited intellect. And while a few of the things he managed were a bit cleverer than I'd expect, nothing was too clever."
Harry thought this over. "I guess not. Blowing things up—or trying—isn't very clever," he acknowledged. "He did sneak up on the gargoyle, though."
"A gargoyle was about the only thing he could be expected to sneak up on," Snape grumped. "Their hearing is not exceptional and their movements are rather slow. And there was other evidence, if you'd cared to look for it. You weren't the only one to try drugging me, you know."
Harry's jaw dropped. "You mean—the catnip?"
"You accused me of stealing his damn glove," Snape growled. "And then the Room of Requirement's door was cracked just after we passed him in the hall. That didn't cause any synapses to fire?"
"Sorry," Harry said. "I guess I'm even more stupid than he is."
"Well. You did manage to put me out for a good couple of hours," Snape admitted. "And if you ever try something like that again, I'll wring your idiotic neck!"
"I won't," Harry promised. "You made a good detective, even in feline form. And you made a good cat, too," he said honestly.
"I have to admit, I'll miss certain aspects."
"What, with my own saliva?"
Harry forwent observing that this was not exactly a step down from Snape's usual routine, which seemed to consist of combing his hair with grease. Instead he merely said, "I meant me brushing you and telling you how gorgeous you were and buying you sparkly collars," Harry said.
"That I won't miss," Snape replied. "I'm sure I'm perfectly capable of obtaining my own glittery accessories, should the mood strike, which I'm nearly certain it won't."
"Ah." Harry felt a stab of disappointment. Not that he wanted to see Snape in shimmering evening gowns or tiaras or anything—the mind rebelled, in fact—but he was a bit sad that Snape wouldn't miss—well—Harry.
"Having my every whim catered to was enjoyable, though," Snape added.
Harry smiled shyly. "I liked—I liked cuddling," he confessed. "Hermione says cats are very therapeutic that way. Very good for you, psychologically."
Snape looked at him for a long moment. "It was therapeutic, at that. For the first time in memory, I was able to fully express my displeasure, holding nothing back," Snape said dreamily.
Harry started. "You threw a jar of cockroaches at my head back in fifth year!" he accused. "That was holding back?"
"Yes," Snape replied. "It was nothing to what I would have liked to do to you." The look on Snape's face changed to a sort of leer. "I did like ripping your clothes off."
"Oh, yes, and what would you have done with me if you could have got me naked?" Harry challenged.
"A bridge to be crossed when I got there."
"Yeah?" Harry looked down at his hands. "I didn't realise you, er, fancied me."
"I should think not. I am the epitome of discretion. You, on the other hand, couldn't be more obvious if you tried."
Harry flushed. "Really?"
"A squeaky mouse toy? When Harry Potter goes a-wooing, he does not do things halfway," Snape said.
Harry coughed a little. "Yes, well. Chocolates would have made you ill," he pointed out reasonably.
They stared at each other. "Look, since I'm going to be staying on—" Harry began at the same moment Snape said, "If you haven't made up your mind on which subject—"
"Sorry," Harry said. "You first."
Snape cleared his throat. "I merely wanted to say that if you wished to assist me, in whatever capacity, I would be amenable. I cannot promise you I will be teaching Defence, but you'd be a welcome assistant whatever the subject. If you can stand the occasional jar of cockroaches launched at your head," he said as an afterthought.
Harry felt his cheeks warm in a pleasant sort of way. "I think I can live with it," he said. "I don't even mind it when you bite. In fact, I sort of like it," he added cheekily.
"I see," Snape said. "Well, I'm quite happy to continue to abuse your person," he purred.
"I always said you were just a soppy old thing," Harry said. "When are you getting out of the hospital ward?"
"Good," Harry said. "That gives me time to clean your chambers a bit. Dinner tomorrow night? I'll cook."
"Lobster Newburg?" Snape suggested.
"Very well," Snape said. And he smiled like the cat that swallowed the canary.