Severus Snape had been the Potions Master at Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry for over ten years and it was a rarity for a child to be so daring as to steal from his personal stock of ingredients. He could think of only one occasion when he hadn't caught the culprit, though he had a good idea who the little twit was, and so he had warded his stores accordingly. Never again would his stores be robbed without his knowledge.
Those wards had alerted him to the intruder's presence late into the night, and so a slightly disorientated Severus awoke with the gleeful desire to catch Potter up at night, past curfew and caught thieving! It took a moment for his brain to catch up and realise that it better not be Harry because he'd be bloody livid.
He kept his steps light as he trod the path through the winding dungeons that would lead him to his store cupboard. He swung the door silently open, completely unprepared to find Moody scouring feverishly searching his stores, still unaware of Severus' presence. He tried not to flinch as ingredients mixed and spilt from the vials that tipped over, taking the opportunity to sneak up on the intruder, levelling his wand at the back of his neck.
"I do not take theft from my stores lightly," he hissed, stepping forward so that the tip of his wand jabbed Moody harder than necessary.
The auror froze where he stood and took his time turning to face Severus. "I'm just doing what I was brought here to do; investigate any traitorous scum lurking in the castle."
Severus doubted that was the case, it certainly hadn't looked that way to him. Unless he was looking for something in particular, his actions didn't seem to be those of a man taking in evidence. He made a mental note to check for anything incriminating that may have been planted in his stores, as well as anything that was missing.
"You're in no position to investigate anyone, and even if your mind wasn't considerably compromised, you would have no need to investigate me. I happen to have the trust of the Headmaster, which is something you're losing faster than your reason. Get out."
He made no attempt to escape, holding his ground. "You're the prime suspect Snape, no self-respecting auror could ignore the evidence in front of their face. I'm going to have you sent to Azkaban, we both know you're guilty and you've been free for far too long." Moody's expression changed from that of a man wistfully dreaming to a face contorted with hatred and still he made no attempt to move away from Severus' wand. It was as if he neither knew nor cared that his words were pushing Severus closer to the limits of patience. How easy it would be to curse this madman, he thought, his wand arm twitching.
"The aurors will be far more interested to hear how a senile ex-auror imperiused students during their Defence Against the Dark Arts class! It's Azkaban for one unforgivable, what do you think it would be for a class of thirty?"
"Lower your wand, Snape. Another attack will only make you look guiltier," he jeered.
"OUT!" he roared, barely holding at bay the anger that now only Moody could so easily provoke. Finally, Moody moved to leave, but he lingered for one final moment in the doorway.
"I'm keeping my eye on you," he said, tapping the side of his sickeningly revolving magical eye. "I've had words with the aurors about you; your past, your hatred of the boy, the fact that you were one of the first on the scene. You're a guilty man Snape and you will be punished."
"You don't have to get my stuff, Dobby!"
He sighed apologetically at the elf's crestfallen expression as he yanked his bag out of Dobby's grasp for the fourth time that day. He knew he was just trying to be helpful but he'd already had enough of the stifling attitude of the teachers and Dobby's well-meaning but overbearing nature.
"You can get mine if you want," Ron offered.
"He's supposed to be protecting Harry, don't distract him," Hermione scolded him in return.
"Mr. Potter, if you're quite finished..." Professor McGonagall was waiting impatiently by the door as the rest of the class prepared to file out. He couldn't wait for the attacker to get caught or at the very least for Dumbledore to decide there was no more danger- he wasn't going to hold his breath though, he knew very well that it was Snape pushing for so much security. The whole school was tired of dealing with the extra security measures and even the Gryffindors were having murmurings against the situation.
"Dobby is sorry, Harry Potter, sir."
"Don't worry about it," he reassured him quickly, hurrying to join the rabble of Gryffindors and hoping that no one mentioned Dobby's occasional lapses of attention to Snape. As grateful as he was for Snape's attempts to keep him safe it was more than a bit over the top. Not even when they thought Sirius was after him was there so much fuss! He thought, considering all the dangerous things they'd done together, that Ron and Hermione would agree.
"If you had seen one of us bleeding on those stairs I don't think you'd think this was over the top. You aren't immortal, you know," Ron shrugged as if he agreed with Hermione's admonishment, which effectively silenced his complaints as they trooped to charms.
"I don't know how we're supposed to find anyone to take to the Yule Ball with all these teachers following us around," Ron grumbled, changing the subject.
Harry could have mentioned that it hadn't stopped Ron from dazedly asking out Fleur Delacour when the Beauxbatons delegation crossed the path of their herbology class, but he decided against it. Ron had been getting his fair share of friendly Gryffindor taunts for the past few days and he felt a bit responsible that so many people had been there to see it. After all, this whole being escorted around rubbish was down to him.
"At least when you ask a girl you don't have to say 'would you like to go to the ball with me and Dobby?'" Harry lowered his voice to a murmur so that Dobby wouldn't overhear.
"You haven't even asked anyone, Harry. In fact, all you've done is turn people down," Hermione commented.
"I didn't even know those girls!" Flattering as it might be for some people, he wasn't about to go to the Yule ball with some girl he'd never even spoken to before.
"Yeah, and that big Slytherin one, she was-" Ron must have seen the look on Hermione's face because he faltered slightly mid-sentence and made what Harry considered a none too convincing save, "-a Slytherin. Harry doesn't want to go with someone who might be plotting to attack him."
"We don't know it was a Slytherin who imperiused Malfoy."
"Who else would it be? Everyone who hates Harry in this castle is a Slytherin."
"We don't know everyone in the castle at the moment. Besides there's been plenty of guests recently; all the foreign students, the judges for the tournament and the other ministry officials."
"I reckon Malfoy and his mates cooked this whole thing up. All he had to do was get Crabbe or Goyle to imperius him and then it looks like he wasn't responsible."
"It's a bit risky, though. Besides, what about it being whoever put me in for the tournament?"
"That could have been a Slytherin. Malfoy's Father would have told him about the tournament during the summer. Everyone who works at the ministry knew about it since the start of summer. That's plenty of time for them to come up with their plan and get your name in the goblet."
"A summer isn't enough time to become so good at magic that you can confuse the goblet of fire."
"It's obviously not impossible because someone's done it! Anyway, there is a Slytherin who's good enough at magic to get around the goblet."
"Snape!" Harry tried hard not to roll his eyes as Ron went on. "He was a Death Eater, we heard it from Diggory and you heard it from- you know- so it must be true. It all makes sense; Death Eaters would have used the Unforgivable curses all the time during the war-" Hermione was beginning to look like she could be convinced by his train of thought, so Harry decided that it would be a good moment to cut it short.
"He's not the only one who'd know how to cast the imperius curse, Moody knows it well enough."
"He was an auror," Ron replied dismissively.
"But Professor Dumbledore trusts Professor Snape, so much so that he let Harry live with him," Hermione pointed out and Harry nodded gratefully. He realised that his reaction must have looked odd when Hermione caught his eye, puzzled.
"All I'm saying is that Snape fits who they're looking for. He's probably got loads of experience with the Unforgivables, he hates Harry, and he's chummy with the Malfoys who hate Harry just as much."
"He's saved my life how many times?" he couldn't help but interject.
"Maybe he was biding his time until he knew You-Know-Who was going to come back! I don't see why you don't think he's capable of it."
"I didn't say he wasn't, I just think the fact he's saved my life is relevant."
"He's the most likely person we can think of, so you should try and steer clear of him. Maybe we could get joint detentions if he picks on you in potions."
"No! There's no point, he's not going to kill me in detention, everyone would know it was him. Plus, Dobby's going to be with me the whole time."
"We should be considering more than one option anyway, it being Snape is a bit far-fetched," Hermione put in as they made their way to their seats. Harry knew better than to agree, he'd said enough in support of Snape as it was.
If this was anywhere near the frustration that Harry felt whenever Draco was mentioned he'd never criticize his attitude did that lunatic have to do to get fired? He cast unforgivables on students, he robbed the school and he threatened its teachers! And still the Headmaster was listening to his complaints as if Severus had come to him with mere trivialities.
"The man threatened me!" Severus spat but the headmaster merely stared impatiently at him over his half-moon spectacles.
"We've discussed this a number of times already and while I sympathise, I am not inclined to take sides in this conflict between the pair of you."
"This is the first time his threats have been credible. Those foolish aurors are certain to investigate based on what he's told them. I cannot conceive of a good reason why they have not approached me before now."
The Headmaster frowned for a moment and seemed to be coming to some sort of conclusion. Not the one Severus was after, unfortunately.
"I brought him to this castle for a reason."
"He believes that reason is to have me imprisoned. They will question me and if they are not satisfied they will ask for permission to use veritaserum." Severus did not need to try hard to convey that he could not, and would not, consent to that.
He would have no secrets left, no foundation on which to continue spying and Harry would either be taken from him by the ministry or taken by Death Eaters. He would not reveal the truth because some madman wanted him imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit.
"I assure you that I will use my own considerable influence to ensure that you are not a suspect."
"The aurors have their own prejudices and systems, they may have enough respect for you not to circumvent your wishes in this castle but their persistence may well lead them to Spinner's End. I will not take veritaserum."
"I will provide you with an alibi, Severus," the Headmaster reassured him. "It is after all the truth that I was with you mere moments before the attack."
"And that I was with Harry," he ground out bitterly.
"I believe I have sufficient wit to deceive the aurors. I requested your presence during our conversation because you had been assisting my research and you are involved in the investigation into who put his name in the goblet." Severus took a moment to mull the suggestion over and considered that it was most likely the best he could hope to get out of the situation.
"You said you would look into Moody's erratic behaviour...?" he continued his previous line of thought, unwilling to give up the hope that he would banish Moody from the castle.
"He was reacting to what he perceived as an increase in threat from Death Eater activity. In his own way he was trying to ready the students. He is not the ideal teaching candidate and I do not condone his behaviour but I have discussed the matter with him and it is closed."
"The aurors might not consider the matter closed," he replied peevishly.
"I'll need a new home," Severus declared suddenly. "The Dark Lord knows of Spinner's End, the aurors too, no doubt. Even with the layers of spells and protections I would rather Harry not reside there. If the aurors and Death Eaters search for my home outside of Hogwarts and realise that it's now hidden it will appear suspicious to both sides. I can keep up the charade that Spinner's End is my residence outside of Hogwarts and Harry and I will live in another home that is untraceable to myself."
"I may be able to assist you if you are looking for somewhere to move into during the holidays," the Headmaster said, apparently having the sudden desire to be helpful.
"I would rather you assisted me by removing Moody before he makes my situation worse. His presence in the castle is of no benefit to Harry," Severus persisted.
"You know that but Harry's attacker does not. Alastor's reputation may be what keeps this individual from making another bold move."
"His behaviour is getting more and more reckless; he spends the majority of his spare time hounding me, I fail to see how and intelligent threat could be put off by a paranoid ex-auror."
"I would suggest that your animosity is clouding your judgement."
"And I would suggest that the opposite is true," Severus grated, no longer caring that all his communications with the Headmaster would most likely be considered impudent at best and disrespectful at worst.
He hadn't had the opportunity to see Harry since his brief stay in the hospital wing and he'd hardly heard about what had gone on during his conversation with the aurors. He did appreciate that it would have appeared out of place had he sat in instead of McGonagall but his exclusion still rankled. The week since Harry's attack had passed by with interminable slowness. He was counting the days until the Christmas holidays with a fervour that he was certain was unmatched by any witch or wizard in the castle. Even Draco Malfoy, with a horde of gifts awaiting him, couldn't match Severus' eagerness for the holidays to begin and that blissful moment when he no longer had to worry that Harry could be killed at any moment or the aurors would arrive at his door demanding he take veritaserum.
He took the opportunity to take his recent frustrations out on Longbottom who had the gall to look confused as to why his potion had gone wrong when he added heat to a base of salamander blood and doxy wings. Considering the temper he was in, it would have come as no surprise to anyone that Harry was given a detention that lesson for haphazard dissection of doxy wings. Although, those hadn't been the words he'd used, of course.
"You can stay behind and serve your detention now, Potter," he announced as the class cleared up with even more haste than usual. Longbottom was trembling as he raced to the door and almost fell over his own feet in his hurry to exit, something which usually managed to somewhat cheer him but facing the stress of Harry's attack and probable interference in his life by the aurors, he couldn't muster up the effort.
Luckily for Severus the Head Boy and Girl were making rounds to collect the students and take them to the Great Hall for dinner and he wasn't required to traipse across the castle and back with Harry.
"Leave," Severus ordered the elf, who had dutifully remained with Potter. He was less than impressed when it took a nod from Potter to convince the elf to actually do so, but he managed to refrain from rebuking the creature. He was, after all, one of the two members of staff that it was supposed to take orders from.
"You're well, I take it? No problems with your scar?" he asked, gesturing for Harry to sit by his desk instead of settling into the same chair he'd previously favoured during his detentions.
"I've been occluding. As much as I can, at least."
"You're competent enough to deal with a distance attack from the Dark Lord with the condition he's in."
"Yeah," Harry agreed, shrugging.
"Have you noticed anyone behaving any differently around you, anything suspicious?" Severus persisted.
"Well, there's Dobby for a start. He's been following me everywhere, literally, Severus. Then there's the teachers-"
"I'll give you a real detention if you'd prefer," he threatened, interrupting Harry's sarcastic rant.
"No, this is alright," he relented. "Come on, you haven't given anyone a chance to do anything."
"Then I'm doing my job, am I not?"
"Yeah, and we'll never figure out who imperiused Malfoy and I'll spend the next three and a half years being followed around by Dobby. There isn't going to be an auror in the castle too, is there?" Harry's face showed the level of distaste he felt at the possibility.
"Knowing you as I do, I'm surprised you feel at liberty to be so ungrateful," Severus commented, choosing to ignore his question completely.
"I am grateful," he insisted. "It's just that I don't think we're ever going to figure out who did this if we don't give them an opportunity to show themselves."
"The answer was no before and it remains so now. You'll just have to control your urges to get yourself killed," Severus commented, his voice heavy with sarcasm. Harry looked like he wanted to disagree but thought better of doing so out loud. They lapsed into a tense silence, Harry making no attempt to speak and Severus using all his efforts trying not to let loose a tirade about idiot Gryffindors not appreciating the measures taken to ensure their safety.
"What's that?" Harry asked after a moment, curiosity overcoming his frustration with Severus. He pulled on a scroll of parchment resting on Severus' desk that had his own name scribbled over the top corner.
"Ah," he erupted, ignoring the part of his mind telling him that he wasn't in the best frame of mind for that particular discussion, and instead, latching onto an outlet for his ire. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded, pulling out the short roll of parchment with the handwriting that Harry had recognised as his own.
"It's not good then?" Harry asked, reaching over to take a look at the offending essay.
"No, it's not good. You no longer have the tournament as an excuse for handing in substandard work."
"Wait a minute," Harry interjected, scanning the parchment quickly, "This isn't my potions essay, this is my end of term charms essay." The accusatory glare he flashed at Severus communicated quite clearly what he thought about his guardian interfering in his other subjects.
"You aren't stupid enough to hand in drivel like that to me any longer. Explain yourself," he commanded, enunciating each syllable darkly.
"I couldn't keep up with school and learn occlumency and prepare for the tournament, so I slacked off in charms," Harry replied, refusing to be cowed but for all that not meeting his eyes.
"You 'slacked off' in all your subjects. This, Harry, is a disgrace."
"I can do all the charms and all the spells in transfiguration, I just don't know the theory."
"'The Glacius charm uses the incantation 'glacius' and makes things icy'," he read aloud, snatching up the parchment. "It also makes hot things cold, e.g. it freezes fire.'" He lingered over each word as if savouring the sheer stupidity. "At this point I assume you decided you'd lingered too long on the glacius spell and you begin your highly intellectual ruminations on the colour changing charm," he continued, his voice filled with contempt.
"Don't read it out," he pleaded, cringing. "I kept up with the spells, I'm not as far behind as that makes me sound."
"This makes you sound like Goyle. You'll catch up over Christmas. Your OWLS are next year, I would rather you passed them or were you planning to live off of your fame and your Father's fortune alone?"
"What, until Voldemort kills me?"
"He's not going to kill you," Severus contradicted harshly. "And the more you learn here, the better you'll be able to defend yourself. If living was so important to you I'd expect you to take your studies seriously."
"I didn't say I wouldn't catch up over the holidays."
"You don't have a choice," Severus snapped, still thoroughly irritated by Harry's attitude.
"There was something I wanted to ask you," Harry blurted suddenly, breaking another of the tense silences that had developed between them. "Ron and Sirius have been asking about Christmas... What should I say?"
"What are you trying to ask?"
"What's going on at Christmas?"
"You can't visit Weasley until later on in the holidays as it needs to appear as if you've spent the majority of time with your relatives. As for Black, you're free to spend the day with him if you wish."
Harry appeared to think that over for a moment, his discomfort clearly increasing. "Well, what do you normally do at Christmas? I mean, do you, uh, most people see, you know, their family, so if it's easier..." he trailed off uncertainly.
"Even a babbling beverage wouldn't explain the nonsense you're spouting," Severus replied scornfully. "You've seen me in the castle every Christmas holiday since you entered Hogwarts. What great plans do you imagine I've made that you cannot be a part of? Bearing in mind the sole reason I cannot spend the season as I usually do is because I've become your guardian." He shook his head despairingly at Harry.
"I'm trying to be polite."
"Do you want to spend the day at home or with Black?" Snape asked impatiently.
"Well, home, but if you don't-"
"Spend Christmas eve or boxing day with Black," Snape interrupted, waving away the rest of Harry's sentence.
"So, we're doing Christmas," he said, his mood finally lightening despite the blackening of Snape's own.
"I do know of the season. Think about what you want, we'll have to buy whatever it is you need to enjoy the season. We may as well get you more winter clothes while we're out and you need to sort out your room. We'll do it all in one go, I have no intention of visiting those muggle establishments more than once in the holidays." His lip curled in disgust at just the thought of having to go shopping in the muggle world once again.
Harry, for his part, winced at the thought of Snape having to get so much on his account.
"What's going on with my room?"
"You haven't made it your own."
That was so not a Snape-ish thing to say that Harry almost laughed.
"It's alright, I'm not that fussed."
"I am, so humour me," Snape said in a tone that brooked no arguments.
"Fine, but I've got jumpers anyway, so you don't have to buy-"
"Enough," he snapped, but despite his short temper Harry couldn't help but persist.
"I don't need-"
Snape actually leaned forward across his desk to snarl at him. "I am a potions master at one of the most prestigious institutes of wizarding education in the world. My financial situation may not be the equal of yours but I can afford to clothe you and buy a damned tree. Do not argue with me about money, are we clear?"
"I'm not saying you can't afford it," Harry replied, mortified.
"Don't say anything."
"Sir, you er, are you alright?" Harry asked. Snape wasn't the only one who could read someone's mood. He may not be some master of legilimency or occlusion, but he could certainly tell when Snape was more agitated than usual. He was on the verge of asking if this was a real detention after all because he'd spent the majority of the last few minutes berating him at every opportunity, but he decided that provoking the man wasn't the best way to handle the situation.
He got nothing more than a raised eyebrow in response. "How is it with Malfoy?" he tried.
"It's fine, Harry. I don't think you truly want to discuss it and neither do I for that matter." He gave in to Harry's interest a moment later. "Draco's rather frustrated that he won't be attending the Yule Ball, I've heard of little else from him for the last few days."
Harry found himself disappointed that irritated as Snape was with him, Malfoy wasn't the source of Snape's obvious agitation. Then again, it took more than a whiny little snot like Malfoy to unsettle Snape.
"Hang on, if it's too dangerous for him then surely it must be too dangerous for me."
"I doubt your young lady will thank you for attempting to get out of the Ball," Snape replied with a smirk, which widened minutely after a moment. "Ah."
"It's not funny," Harry insisted, crossing his arms. Snape obviously disagreed as for a moment his expression lightened to one of amusement. "I was a bit busy learning occlumency and preparing for the tournament- I wasn't thinking about the ball. Oh!" he exclaimed suddenly. "And how come you never told me champions had to dance?! And in front of everyone as well!"
"Forgive me for having more than your social calendar on my mind. Alternatively, you could be grateful that I saved you from a fate far more terrible than the Dark Lord's clutches. Dancing," he drawled, rolling his eyes.
"Sorry, I know you were busy making my potion and helping me get ready for the tournament. It's just- I don't dance, I can't."
"If I understand correctly, you do not wish to dance and yet you're upset that you do not have a partner with whom to do so."
"I didn't say I wanted to dance with her," Harry returned without thinking. "I didn't mean that!" He could feel his face flushing red with embarrassment. "Can we stop talking about girls? Please?" he begged.
"Certainly, you can tell me about your discussion with the aurors."
"You weren't there," Harry stated accusingly.
"I wasn't permitted. I would have been there if I could."
"I'll tell you about it if you tell me about Malfoy's," he bargained.
"You'll tell me about it either way," Snape replied, but he seemed more amused by the attempt at negotiation than irritated.
Harry yielded and described the conversation to Snape's satisfaction, but he couldn't help wondering what had put Snape out so much that he was so visibly irritated. He seemed even more stressed than when Harry's name was put in the goblet. He felt a bit guilty for wishing that it had been Draco's presence in his quarters that was driving the man into such a foul temper.
"Behave yourself," Snape commanded as he got up to leave, and Harry shrugged.
He'd planned to talk to Snape about loads of things when he eventually got the chance to speak to him, but seeing the mood he was in, he wasn't inclined to bring anything up that might annoy Snape even more. Leaving his office, accompanied once more by Dobby, he felt dissatisfied by the conversation, still irked that while he couldn't talk to Snape, the potions master would go back to his quarters and spend the evening with Malfoy, who had his own bloody family to talk to.
The presence of aurors in the castle while irksome at best would have reassured him that there was some serious action being taken to find Harry's attacker - outside of his own fruitless search, of course. His own search consisted of considering ever likely suspect and slowly crossing each person off of his list of suspects until he realised that he had run out and then starting all over again. Instead of feeling reassured, he found himself constantly under the impression that he was being watched, and not only by that disconcerting electric blue orb, but by those two incompetent ministry drones.
Their attempts at following him were anything but subtle and the manner with which they questioned his students left him in no doubt that they intended him to realise their suspicions and they wanted to watch his reaction. Severus gave them nothing more than a contemptuous glance as he continued his routine. At times, he was, in fact, more than a little amused as the aurors decided to focus their investigative skill on Longbottom. If he managed to inspire a look that was remotely akin to the expression of terror the boy was currently sporting then he failed to see why he wasn't being hailed as a comedic genius.
The moment had to come, however, when they followed all their investigative instincts that had been drilled into them through the years of intense and strenuous training that had led them to the highly coveted position of 'auror' in the ministry of magic. With no evidence at all and only the opinion of a deranged ex-auror to go on, they decided to approach him.
"We'd like you to come with us. We have some questions concerning the recent attack on Mr. Potter," they said, swooping down on him just as he dropped his sixth year potions class off at their transfiguration session. The fiendish looks on the children's faces ensured that this story would be spread far and wide by dinner, with the majority of students insisting that Severus had been taken in by force.
"I have no classes for an hour. Follow me to my office," he commanded, smirking as he turned at the disgruntled look on Savage's face.
He led the way at his usual pace, enjoying the hurried clatter of heels behind him as Proudfoot struggled to keep up. He sat himself down behind his desk and settled an ominous glare upon the two aurors as they filed in behind him and took the two chairs he reserved for his students who needed a thorough dressing down.
"Professor Snape, this is a highly serious matter, were it not for Professor Dumbledore's more recent testimony in your favour we would have had to insist that you accompany us back to the ministry." Severus noticed the allusion to the Headmaster's previous testimony and his fingers tightened minutely on the arms of his chair.
"Am I to infer that you are considering me as a suspect?"
"If you would allow us to ask the questions, Professor."
Severus responded with a sarcastic sweeping gesture that said 'be my guest'.
"We're given to understand that you and Mr. Potter have a less than positive student-teacher relationship."
"That was not a question but I presume you're asking whether I would consider that statement to be true. Yes, we have a less than pleasant rapport."
"What is it about Mr. Potter that you find so objectionable?" Proudfoot asked, tapping that irritating muggle pen against her cheek. The question was loaded with condemnation, as if just disliking Harry should be enough to have you locked up for a very long time.
"His attitude to learning," Severus began. "His disregard of school rules, evidence for which you can find in his school record-"
"So you deny that your dislike of him is personal in nature?"
"It is his personality that causes him to behave in that manner, is it not?"
"So it has nothing whatsoever to do with your well-known hatred of James Potter?" The smugness of Proudfoot and Savage's face irked Severus more than the question.
"I fail to see how this is relevant to your investigation. I dislike the boy, however, I have never tried to kill him. If you've spoken to the headmaster then you would know that I have saved his life on more than one occasion."
"We are aware of all relevant facts, Professor Snape," Savage nodded and Severus suppressed a snort of derision. "Of course the situation has changed in the last year. Black has escaped Azkaban and perhaps other members of your group have seen that as a beacon of hope."
"My group?" Severus repeated in a dark tone, and he leaned forward in his seat. "The Dark Lord has not returned, we would know if that was the case." He brandished the remains of the ugly mark on his arm as evidence. "Any Death Eater who managed to avoid Azkaban would not be foolish enough to assume Black's escape to mean anything, nor would they risk the positions and trust they have spent the last thirteen years earning."
"That includes you?"
"I'm no Death Eater."
"If you could tell us where you were and what you were doing at the time of the attack?"
"I was in a classroom on the first floor with the Headmaster and Potter. The Headmaster left and I remained to discuss Potter's poor performance in his potions work. He exited the room before I did, therefore I wasn't present at the moment of the attack, but I was near enough to come to his aid."
"Why did you need to be present during the conversation between Mr. Potter and the Headmaster?"
"I was somewhat involved in the Headmaster's attempts to free him from the tournament and I am also one of the members of staff most involved in the search for whoever put his name in the goblet. The Headmaster felt my presence was necessary."
"You've been unsuccessful so far in your search for the culprit?" It was phrased as a question but all Severus heard was the accusation.
"As have you," he replied coldly.
"We've been informed that Mr. Malfoy is residing with you at the moment," Savage said, changing tack. He stared silently back until either of them saw fit to form an actual question. "Would you say that you have a close relationship with the Malfoy family?"
"No, I would say that I am a trusted acquaintance."
"Young Mr. Malfoy is in regular contact with you, he would think nothing of it if-"
"My voice would not have been the one in his head. It is far from forgettable and I have been his head of house for more than three years. Even under the imperius curse he would recall it with ease."
"Mr. Malfoy is not the first student you've taken in of late, how would you say you and Mr. Potter got on during the summer?"
"It was a trying experience as I'm sure you can imagine. This has no relevance to your investigation. It is not a crime to dislike Harry Potter, though you may well wish it to be. I am a busy man, unless you have any pertinent questions?"
"We would like to eliminate you from our enquiries-"
"You have yet to tell me what it is you suspect me of doing."
"We are investigating both the attack on Mr. Potter and the alleged imperius of Mr. Malfoy. We have been given information that leads us to believe you are involved."
"The only way I could be involved is if you believe that I cast the imperius curse on Draco. I was under the impression that you still suspect that he's lying."
"We're pursuing all possibilities, Mr. Snape. It would be easier for our office and yourself if you would submit to an interrogation under the influence of veritaserum."
"I can think of few things that I would rather do less," Severus hissed, refusing to maintain the polite façade. He was a Professor and he'd be referred to by the title he'd earned! "I'm certain you can muster up enough intellect between the pair of you to find the door."
"We expected a good deal more cooperation from you."
"I expected competent investigators to be sent."
"We know where to find you if we need you again."
He waved his wand to slam the door behind the aurors inadvertently sending it crashing into Igor Karkaroff's fist as he made to knock.
"No, I need a word with you. In private," he answered, healing his hand with some difficulty.
He was tempted to turn him away. The aurors had turned back to watch the exchange between the two ex-Death Eaters and meeting with Igor hardly made him look any more innocent. He opened the door just enough for Karkaroff to enter, hoping that this discussion was going to be worth his while.
Half an hour later, he waved his wand to bang the door shut so hard that that it ricocheted out of its frame. Karkaroff was an utter waste of oxygen, he feared the return of the Dark Lord and these attacks did nothing more than increase his anxiety. He was obsessed with his mark and whether or not the Dark Lord was on the verge of returning. He didn't get anything that was even remotely useful from him. The only thing that Severus had succeeded in doing was to waste thirty minutes of his time and increase the aurors suspicions by fraternising with another ex-Death-eater.
He was tempted to curse Karkaroff as the man fled his office.
"They're saying the aurors had to conjure shackles!"
"I heard he's gone to Azkaban..."
"... going to be sacked at least."
"Do you think we still have to do that potions essay?" Ron asked with an excited grin, buoyed by the chatter of all the other students.
"What?" Harry said automatically, irritated at the interruption as he tried to eavesdrop on the surrounding chatter. "I'm going to get ready upstairs."
"Yeah, now," he replied, realising how odd he looked being the only boy rushing to get changed two hours before the ball.
He let out a deep breath, relaxing minutely as he shut the dormitory door behind him and called Dobby. As soon as the elf appeared with his usual 'crack' he asked quickly, "can you do me a favour?"
"Dobby would be doing anything-"
"Yeah, thanks," he interrupted, not wanting any of the other boys to burst in before he'd finished. "Go to the dungeons and find out what's going on with Snape."
"You is wanting me to spy on Professor Snape?" he asked with innocent incomprehension.
"No, you can ask him outright. Just find out what happened with the aurors today."
"Hey, mate. You alright?" Ron said, his head appearing round the dormitory door just as Dobby disapparated, casting Harry a last doubtful look. "Where's your bodyguard off to?"
"Probably to report to Dumbledore," Harry lied quickly.
"So, lets see those dress robes you were moaning about," Ron asked, evidently deciding to stick around now that he'd come up.
He pulled them out of his trunk with distaste and shook them out.
"Um, why did you get them in Slytherin colours?"
"I didn't do it on purpose. It wouldn't be so bad if it didn't have all the silver bits but I can't change the colour," he said despairingly.
"Mine are still worse," Ron replied, tugging a lacy monstrosity out from his own trunk. He was right. The best that could be said about them was that they had previously been worse. Ron had evidently been trying to improve his robes by taking off the worst of the ruffles.
"I don't know a lot about dress robes or wizard fashion but I'm guessing they're not good."
"We probably do need some time to make these wearable. I've been trying to get this lace off for ages."
"Harry Potter, Sir!" Dobby said, reappearing loudly at Harry's elbow.
"Hold on-" Harry said, raising his arms as if he could stop Dobby from delivering his message.
"Professor Snape was not happy, no, sir, not happy at all. But Professor Snape is not arrested and is still in the dungeons, if that's what Harry Potter wants to know."
He cleared his throat awkwardly, turning to look at Ron. "I didn't... Uh...I thought I should check out whether it was him or not. You know, like you said. Thanks, Dobby, you should probably go."
"You sent Dobby to spy on Snape?!" Ron said, aghast. "And he knows?!"
"The worst he can do is try and kill me."
"He would actually kill you."
"Prophecy," Harry reminded him. "Anyway, now we know it's not him, so I think I'm safe."
"We don't know it's not him," Ron replied as Harry threw on his dress robes over his muggle clothes. "All we know is that he wasn't arrested. He'd kill you just for sending Dobby to spy on him!"
"We've got bigger problems than Snape, I look like a Slytherin mascot!"
Ron's deepening look of horror as he took in his robes did nothing to make him feel better. Snape was not funny, he was a right arse sometimes. Green and silver sodding dress robes!
"Do you think Hermione can get the silver off?" None of the charms he tried did anything and he was getting desperate. He'd actually contemplated using his ink on the silver edges, no matter how stupid it looked.
"Dunno, she hasn't been any help getting all the lace off mine."
"This is going to be a riot," he said gloomily as they headed down the stairs to the common room.
"Where's Hermione?" Harry asked Parvati as soon as he spotted her chatting to Lavender by the portrait. She looked a little put out but said that she'd gotten ready and left ages ago.
"Are your dress robes supposed to be a joke or ironic or...?"
"No," he replied shortly. "You look nice," he offered, partly just to make up for snapping at her in the first place.
"We're meeting Padma outside the great hall," she told Ron, obviously deciding it was best not to comment on Ron's robes at all.
Harry doubted Dobby was having any trouble keeping an eye on him, seeing as he refused to get up from the table he and Ron had chosen near the food and drink. In his own way it was his favour to the elf after making him brave Snape's anger. Harry tuned out Parvati and Padma's gossip about how different Hermione looked and who had turned up with who with difficulty. Ron seemed just as disinterested but for a vastly different reason; his mood had taken a nose dive the instant Hermione entered the hall on Krum's arm. He'd scowled through the champion's opening dance and sent dark looks at the Quidditch player when he held onto Hermione's hand long after the first song ended. Harry soon stopped attempting to draw him into conversation and settled for folding his sleeves back to cover the worst of the silver.
Up at the top table Snape looked like he was having about as much fun as Harry was. He noted with irritation that the man wasn't even wearing dress robes, he was the only person in the room wearing the same black robes he always wore. He seemed to be quite abruptly shutting off all attempts to engage him in conversation and Harry noticed after a moment that he and Ron had done the same with their dates, both of whom were being successfully chatted up by some boys from Beauxbatons. He found that he didn't even care that he was being conversationally outperformed by two boys who didn't even have full command of the English language.
Ron didn't bat an eyelid when Padma and Parvati left the table, still far too busy staring at Hermione and Krum dancing. Harry's own evening began to look up the moment Parvati left and he realised he wouldn't actually have to dance with anybody, but seeing as Ron wasn't able to glare at Krum and hold a conversation, Harry was just trying not to stare too obviously at Cho Chang as she danced with Cedric Diggory.
"I don't know what she sees in him," Ron muttered, scowling darkly.
"Krum. Just because he's some rich, famous quidditch player- look at him."
"I've already seen him," Harry replied, not finding Hermione's choice of date quite as enthralling as Ron obviously did.
"Where're Padma and Parvati?" Hermione gasped, suddenly appearing at their table.
"Dunno," Harry shrugged.
"You two aren't dancing?"
"Yeah, no. I'm not going to do that," he replied pulling his drink in front of himself defensively. Ron just stared back stonily.
Krum appeared at her side brandishing drinks. Hermione caught Ron's eye, put them straight down on the table and pulled Krum back onto the dance floor.
"I think you glaring at her so much is just making her dance with him more," Harry commented lightly, slightly worried that Ron might burst a vein testing his death glare on the twirling dancers.
"He might have been the one who Imperiused Malfoy for all we know! He's from Durmstrang! Don't you think it's a bit suspicious that he's here with Hermione?"
Harry shrugged, he had a feeling Ron's problem was more that he was Hermione's date, not that he was potentially dangerous.
"You never said when you're coming over at Christmas, you are coming right?" Ron asked abruptly, finally taking his eyes off Hermione.
"Um. I have to go back to the Dursleys' for the holidays but hopefully I'll be able to come to yours for a bit," he replied uncomfortably, picking at the edge of his sleeve.
"You know you're not a great liar, right?" Ron commented, watching him with a sad look. It just had to be this that Ron found more interesting than glaring at Krum! That was just Harry's luck!
"I'm not lying," he denied automatically but without heart.
"Come on, Harry. You've been keeping something from us and it's not what you told us about the other day. Hermione didn't want me to say anything but after you told us about the- you know- well, if you can tell us about that then why are you hiding something else?"
"I don't know why you think I'm hiding something. Maybe I just don't want to talk about Christmas."
"Don't worry, I'm not going to go off on one, but we've been best friends for years mate, I know when you're not being yourself."
"If I've not told you guys about it then I obviously can't." His eyes guiltily sought out Snape as if he could hear and would find out that Harry was such a terrible liar.
"Because I can't," he insisted. "Look, I want to tell you but I just can't."
"Is it about Sirius?" Ron asked, lowering his voice even further.
"Don't try and guess. Look, it's not that I'm not allowed to tell you. I'm not, but if it was just that then I'd do it in a second, to hell with the rules. Just trust me that when I can, I'll tell you."
"Alright," Ron reluctantly agreed. "But only because I owe you and as long as you're not being threatened or anything?"
"No, it's not anything bad. Don't get Hermione all worked up and don't let her try and work it out either."
"I'm not sure I could stop her if she set her mind on it."
"Then don't set her mind on it!"
The evening passed by slowly even if Ron managed to cheer up enough to have an actual conversation.
"It's got to be someone in here," he said returning to the table with pumpkin juice and some snacks. "I had to push through two snogging Slytherin couples to get those," he added, nodding at the cakes.
"Thanks. Who else other than Snape?" Harry asked.
"All the other Slytherins and Krum," Ron replied, picking his cake apart with more violence than was necessary. "Oh yeah, and Karkaroff, he's dodgy too."
"Who put my name in the goblet or imperiused Malfoy?"
"We should rule out Crabbe and Goyle, they're too thick to do any of that."
"Well, they're not the brains behind anything but they might have helped."
"Potter," Moody nodded, stumping past their table on the way to grab a drink. "You want to keep an eye on your elf guard."
"Huh?" Harry replied without thinking, suddenly realising that he couldn't see the elf at all. "Thanks, Sir," he called. "Come on, we need to go find him." He didn't want to draw attention to the fact that he couldn't find Dobby. For one thing, if Snape found out that he wasn't quite as attentive as he expected he might not let Harry finish term without a troll guard and for another, it was probably a bad idea to point it out to anyone planning another attack.
"Do you think someone's tried to get rid of him?" Ron asked, hopping around the table and skirting past a gaggle of giggling witches.
"I hope not," Harry said, beginning to get worried. He weaved quickly through the crowd, his gaze low, searching for Dobby. "I can't see him in here," he muttered in a low voice.
"Neither can I. Call him."
"Not here, there's too many people," he said, heading for the exit and getting caught in the linked hands of the dancing couples.
"Whoa!" Brought up short, he almost collided with Snape at the doors of the Great Hall.
"Going somewhere?" he asked menacingly, barring the doorway.
"Outside for a second, Sir," Harry replied.
"Harry, hold on, he's here. Oh!" Ron yelped, his eyes bugging out of his head as he caught sight of Snape.
"The Yule Ball ends in an hour, you will leave with the rest of your house led by your prefects. Twenty points from Gryffindor for attempting to circumvent rules put in place for your safety." His voice oozed satisfaction at the loss of points for Gryffindor and Harry didn't doubt that if he gave him an opportunity he would take more points- guardian or not. "Another fifty for your elf's presence in my quarters this afternoon."
Harry opened his mouth to argue when McGonagall appeared alongside Snape.
"Is there a problem here?" she asked, turning a stern gaze on Snape as well as Harry and Ron.
"No, ma'am," Harry denied, hoping to avoid losing even more points.
"Seventy points!" Harry raged as soon as they were out of earshot, the loss driving Moody's odd comment straight out of his mind.
"I don't understand why they're coming again," Draco complained, which was a regular occurrence, even after the Yule Ball had come and gone. He reasoned that this was because he was usually surrounded by elves devoted to his every whim and having heaven and Earth moved to make him happy. Knowing that didn't make his whining easier to tolerate.
"I don't believe they'll do more than ask the same questions as last time. I wouldn't be concerned."
"I'm not concerned. My Father is hardly going to let them exclude me, he pays their wages."
Severus was hard pressed not to roll his eyes. He had taken to pacing the living room in his stress. Those aurors were not seeking to get into his quarters merely to speak to Draco again. It was an indirect attempt to press him, he was sure of it.
"Conduct yourself as a Slytherin and you will be fine."
"Is it likely these two will lift this ridiculous restriction? I've already missed the ball because of Potter..."
"You missed the ball because of your Father. The aurors have banned you from attending the same classes as Potter, which is a kindness. If only we could all be so lucky."
"I couldn't go to the ball because Potter didn't smash his head hard enough when he fell down those stairs," he griped maliciously.
"Put on your uniform," Severus snarled, stalking over to where Draco was fixing his hair with a conjured mirror and proceeding to yank it roughly out of his grasp. "You may well find yourself with a far worse fate than exclusion if you utter anything like that again."
"I wouldn't say it in front of the aurors, Severus," Draco grumbled, making himself scarce as Severus continued to pace the living room. He was looking forward to the end of term when he would no longer need to put up with those comments in his home. They certainly put into perspective the things Harry needed to say to vent his spleen against the other boy.
Harry was summoned to the Headmaster's office the day before term ended. He reassured his friends that no, he had no idea what it was about and with Dobby chirpily stalking his steps, and the Head Boy leading, he was taken up to the stone gargoyle that guarded the spiral staircase to the Headmaster's office. Thankfully, he was abandoned there at Dumbledore's request.
"Harry! How are you?" Sirius almost bellowed, welcoming him with open arms as he opened the door.
"Sirius, hi!" he replied, smiling in surprise. "I just wrote to you, did you get my letter?" he asked, feeling a little guilty. He'd waited ages before sending a reply, he hadn't wanted to tell Sirius that he wasn't going to spend Christmas with him. Over a week had gone by of pure procrastination before he'd finally got his letter written and sent.
"I did, I got it yesterday. I'm sorry I haven't been in to see you since your fall. Albus made me wait, he said it wouldn't be possible to arrange anything until term ended and seeing as you were healed by the time I was even told about it..."
"Oh yeah, because of the security," Harry nodded. "You can't do anything in secret here, I've only seen Snape once since the hospital wing." He had a thought. "Wouldn't it have been easier to see me at home- at Snape's?" Harry corrected himself guiltily.
"I wanted to see you sooner rather than later, and without Snape breathing down my neck." Apart from a slight wince Sirius managed not to comment on Harry's wording.
"What's this about Christmas then?"
"What do you mean?" Harry said fidgeting.
"Christmas eve or boxing day, you said?"
"Uh, yeah." Harry was saved from saying any more by a knock on the door. Sirius instinctively took refuge in his dog form as Harry turned to see the door swing open. He sighed in relief, seeing that it was only Snape. He didn't expect the same response from Sirius, who growled and promptly returned to human form.
"Black," Snape nodded.
"You get him for every holiday and you want Christmas." Was his only reply.
"I've earned Christmas with the boy," Snape answered, speaking as if Harry wasn't there.
He turned to Harry, holding out a paperclip. "The portkey should activate fifteen minutes after the train arrives into Kings Cross. Be discreet," he ordered. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow," Harry replied, still irked about the seventy points that Snape took.
"He's got me being followed around everywhere since the attack," Harry complained. He needed to vent his frustrations to someone about Snape, even though he'd promised himself he wouldn't say anything bad about Snape to Sirius. "You'd have thought I was completely helpless!"
"No one thinks that."
"He does. And he took seventy points from me the other day! Seventy," he said, settling into one of Dumbledore's chairs. Sirius looked pleasantly surprised that Harry was doing something other than praising Snape and seemed to be basking in the negativity. Harry was also pleasantly surprised that Sirius didn't take the opportunity to bad-mouth Snape as well. He was probably soaking up everything he was saying with so much enthusiasm that he didn't want to interrupt in case Harry stopped.
Harry made a point not to ask about Remus, who he'd heard from even less than Sirius, and he was certain Remus had regular access to quill and parchment. He might not always like how much fuss Severus made over his safety but it really showed up how little Remus cared that he'd hadn't asked after him in the last couple of weeks.
Sirius claimed to be looking forward to spending the holidays somewhere other than the caves near Hogwarts and refused to listen to Harry's pleas to find somewhere more comfortable further away. He'd taken Harry's last attack as further evidence that he needed to be ready at all times in case he was needed.
Even though Harry knew he was due to see him over Christmas, he was sad to leave Sirius to go back down to his dormitory and finish packing for the pointless train journey the next day.
Snow was falling heavily as the students dashed from the carriages to the train, dragging or hovering their trunks, owls, and cats as fast as they could to avoid going numb from the cold.
"Warming charm!" Ron suggested, using wingardium leviosa to shove his trunk into the overhead rack.
"Or that blue fire thing," Harry agreed. He had resorted to rubbing his hands together to keep warm and it wasn't really doing the trick.
"Or one of you could do it," Hermione said, even as she conjured the fire between the three of them.
"You're the best at it though."
They spent a couple of hours talking about what they were going to do over Christmas, with Ron looking a bit dubious at Hermione's family' plans. Harry didn't offer any suggestions of what he'd be doing and neither Ron nor Hermione pressed him, for which he was grateful. In all that time no Slytherins came past to taunt them, in fact, the corridor was quiet. there were no first years running between carriages and the trolley had yet to go past- a fact that Ron and Harry had noticed for the past hour.
"There's three teachers on the train. I'm dying for a cauldron cake, do you reckon I can get around Sinistra?" Harry asked, hanging out of their carriage. "It's not worth getting the cloak out for cake is it?"
"Yes. Get me some chocolate frogs as well," Ron asked, rooting around his cloak pockets for sickles and knuts.
"Honestly, you two, just wait until the trolley gets down here. We're only allowed in here alone as long as we stay together. If you go out, you'll come back with Professor Sinistra."
"Hey, ask Dobby to get us something."
"I'm not supposed to send him on errands and I'm not calling him out onto the train unless we actually need him. Wait a minute- Neville! Neville! Are you going down to the trolley?"
"Uh, no," he replied, coming to a stop outside their compartment. "I was looking for you, actually. I overheard some of the Slytherin's talking at the Yule ball and it sounded like they were going to try something when you get off the train. They're all pretty mad that Malfoy could get expelled."
"Well, then I definitely shouldn't get cake from the trolley down their end of the train."
"The Gryffindors are all getting off the train together, we thought we'd all back you up this time."
"Ah," Harry replied with a slight wince. "Actually, um, that's really nice of you guys but I don't want everyone to get in trouble on my account..."
"They won't try anything if we're all there, so we won't get into trouble. Everyone's really keen on showing solidarity, we've been planning this for a couple of days. Loads of us were there when you fell."
"Yeah but...I'm going back to the, uh, Dursleys," he said uncomfortably. "You guys can't all be there when I meet them."
"Oh. Sorry, Harry."
"Look, if you can't stop them just get them to agree to leave me with the Weasleys, alright?" Harry begged. He was either going to disappear from the midst of all the Gryffindors or miss his portkey at this rate.
"Is Neville getting us stuff from the trolley?" Ron immediately asked when Harry slipped back into the compartment and shut the door behind them.
"No. I need to tell you something." Harry explained about the portkey and the Gryffindors' plans to protect him as they get off the train.
"So you want us to help you use a portkey but you won't tell us where it'll take you."
"It'll take me to the Dursleys."
"We know you aren't going to the Dursleys or you would have just said that in the first place," Hermione said, sharing a look with Ron.
"I'm telling you about the portkey and I'm not supposed to. I can't tell you everything," he exclaimed, looking over to Ron as well.
"So you're doing something over Christmas that you can't tell anyone about..."
"Hermione, don't try and work it out. Please."
"Why can't you tell us?" Hermione asked, watching him closely.
"Because it's not just my secret. Look, when I can tell you I will."
"So you're not going back to the Dursleys over Christmas?"
"Everyone has to think I am," he conceded. "It's really important."
"You can trust us, with this and whatever it is you won't tell us," she said vehemently and Ron nodded.
"I know that. I will tell you, as soon as I can. Are you going to help me out or not?"
They didn't look happy about it, but they agreed that if Harry was certain it was a good idea then they would help him discreetly use his portkey. Hermione told him to hide his invisibility cloak on him, ready to use when he'd said his goodbyes to the other Gryffindors, who now surrounded his compartment, waiting as the train began to slow down and pull into Kings Cross.
"Those Slytherins'll have a time of it getting through all of us!" Seamus shouted out as they trooped off the train like some sort of honour guard with Harry, Ron and Hermione caught in their midst. It wasn't a smooth disembarking by any means; there were so many Gryffindors trying to be helpful that half the time they were tripping over each other trying to get through the small gap of the train doors.
Harry caught sight of a rather vicious group of Slytherins of all different years sending the group irritated looks as they walked along the platform.
"Them?" he asked Neville with a nod, recognising at least half of the Slytherin quidditch team as well as Nott and Zabini who were still eyeing them all warily and making no attempt to find their families amongst the crowds.
"And them," he answered, pointing to another group of Slytherins who hadn't been able to make it down to their half of the train in time. They all looked rather watery eyed and dazed, this time dragging their own luggage with them.
"We put sneezing powder in their compartment when we saw they'd left their luggage behind," Fred said with a grin. "George is doing their compartments now," he said nodding to the first group.
"Ha," Harry laughed. That was incredibly tame for the Weasley twins but he figured that they were trying to respect that he didn't want them all to get into trouble on his account.
The atmosphere at the station was one of confusion as a large portion of the students avoided meeting their parents to deliver Harry safely to the Weasleys and to stare down any straggling Slytherins. It was all a bit overwhelming and thoroughly unnecessary but Harry appreciated the gesture after the events of the previous term.
"Thanks for this, guys. Have a good Christmas-" he managed to get out before being crushed into a hug by Mrs Weasley.
"Oh, Harry, we've all been so worried!" she gushed.
"If that lot want to attack one of us, they'll have to go through all of us!" One of the Gryffindors yelled as the students slowly began to detach themselves from the group to find their own families.
"Hear, hear!" cheered a few of the younger ones, Ginny included.
"We did invite you for Christmas; we thought you might not like to be in that castle what with everything that's happening."
"Thanks, Mrs Weasley. I have to go to the Dursleys though so-"
"Mum, let him breathe!" Ron exclaimed and Harry was mercifully released. Hermione helped him throw on his cloak and pull his baggage over to a hidden corner.
"Write to us!" she whispered as the Weasley children took a moment to be greeted by their parents.
"I will. Have a good Christmas!" he managed to gasp out before being whisked back home.
He hit the ground with a thump, followed by a clatter as Hedwig's cage tumbled down alongside him. He rolled over, realising he wasn't in too much pain, his fall having been cushioned by unusually long strands of grass.
Snape yanked him upright with a firm grip on his forearm, muttering, "quickly," in a low voice.
"We're not home," Harry pointed out with confusion, turning his suspicious gaze on Snape. They were in a large, empty and wildly overgrown field. There was nothing in the distance in any direction other than some hills half concealed by fog and the rain.
"Your powers of observation simply astound me," Snape drawled, still speaking quietly. He gestured for Harry to follow him but stopped, catching sight of Harry's expression. "I have a potion in my pocket that I created for you using what is technically considered Dark Arts. It is me."
"What are we doing here?" Harry asked, dragging his trunk with difficulty after Snape through the awkwardly long grass..
"We've had a change of address," Snape answered, handing him a slip of parchment and casting a spell to shield it from the rain. As soon as he finished reading a small, dilapidated house emerged from the grass looking as if it had been there all along. It was old, older than Spinner's end and seemed to have been built with stone. It wasn't just surrounded by tall, wild grass; it was covered in wild, leafy plants that made it look like nature was trying to swallow the place up.
"What happened to the other house?" he asked. He cast a doubtful look at the structure before him, even as Snape used his wand to cut down a length of ivy blocking the front door.
"The aurors are interested in my whereabouts and I'd rather it didn't appear as if I was hiding from them. Not to mention that Spinner's End was known to various Death Eaters before the Dark Lord fell so it would be convenient to use as a base when I begin spying again. If either group begin investigating me, I cannot have you in the house."
"Sir!" Harry protested loudly. "You got this house because of me."
"No," he disagreed, shutting the front door behind the pair of them and so blocking out the majority of the light. "I had to buy a house because of decisions that I made and a series of unfortunate circumstances."
The front door opened into a shadowy room, only made dark due to the overgrown plants covering the windows. There were two worn looking chairs and a bookcase that didn't look as sturdy as it ought to for the number of books Snape had stacked onto it. "Come," he gestured, opening a door on the opposite side of the room. "This one is your room, you can change it over Christmas."
Despite his words Harry could see that the man had taken pains to make this room look more welcoming than the last. He recognised his bed as the one from the last house and Snape had cleared away the vines covering his window so that the room was cheerfully lit up by the remaining sunlight.
"Sir," he protested again, disliking the guilt he could feel creeping over him as he stood in his new room.
"Harry," Snape mimicked, as he settled Hedwig's cage onto his desk.
"You have to let me help. I've got money-"
"That is not how this arrangement works. I'm your guardian, I provide for you," Snape interrupted as if this was a conversation that he had both expected and planned for.
"Yeah, and I've been better about the clothes and the school books, but this is a house."
"You need to consider what you can bear to accept from me," he said seriously, rounding on Harry. "You had no problem accepting my assistance when you were sick. I heard no complaints when I put my own research aside to make an illegal potion that you have had no cause to use as of yet. There were no arguments about the lengths I went to in order to get you pulled from that tournament or to assist you in learning spells or to give up my evenings teaching you occlumency."
"I don't know how to pay you back for all that-" Harry started, dismayed.
"I don't want you to pay me back! I'm merely pointing out that those things I did were of far more significance than getting another house."
He didn't disagree with him but he couldn't let it go either. Snape just didn't understand. "I don't want you to waste all your money on my account. The Dursleys never let me forget how much it cost them to look after me; I don't want to be a burden on you too. I can pay my own way."
"No. Those muggles have warped your views. Do you think they would have loved you had they been compensated for taking you in?"
"No," he admitted. "They would have liked the money, though."
"You are my responsibility. You can pay your own way when you're seventeen and you've left school. I chose to take you from the Dursleys and I chose to promise that you wouldn't have to go back. Furthermore, I chose to be your permanent guardian knowing full well that I would need to provide for you financially."
"I know you think you have to pay for me and I'm really grateful that you're willing to, but I don't want you to. It's your money."
"I'm positive you're being deliberately obtuse. I enjoy seeing you get what you need. I do not enjoy having the same arguments with you."
"You've already done enough for me, you don't need to do this too."
"I'm not doing you a favour, you irritating little twit. I could not see you sent back to your relatives, I want you to live with me, I want to provide the things you need and I want you to unpack your things in your room and make some attempt to feel at home. I've bought you a damned Christmas present, do not attempt to reimburse me for that as well."
Severus knocked twice on the door despite it being open already. "That wasn't quite how I intended to welcome you home."
"I wasn't trying to start an argument," Harry shrugged, shutting his now empty trunk and attempting to kick it under the bed.
"I knew the house would make you feel uncomfortable," Severus admitted. "Be that as it may, you need to see the rest of it."
There wasn't a lot left to show; only the kitchen, his own room and the bathroom left and it was all on the same floor. It was a thoroughly unexciting house but he'd been pleased to acquire it, it was a relief not to have to live in Spinner's End for the next few years. Despite Harry becoming oddly attached to the house, he still had no love for the place.
"There's no potions lab," Harry commented, staring around the room for another door.
Severus shrugged, it was a minor irritation for now. "I've considered putting in a basement. It would mean perfecting a few construction spells but I don't imagine it will be too much trouble."
Harry nodded but Snape got the impression that he wasn't truly listening. After a moment, Harry confirmed his suspicion by blurting, "Sir?" and taking a breath as if to steel himself. "Ron and Hermione know I'm not with the Dursleys. The rest of Gryffindor found out that some of Slytherins were planning something for when I got off the train, so they wanted to look out for me, you know, show some solidarity. Anyway, I needed some help being discreet with the portkey and they figured out that I wasn't going to use it to go to the Dursleys.
They know I've been hiding something and I wouldn't be surprised if Hermione worked at least part of it out." He shrugged apologetically and steadfastly avoided Severus' eyes, waiting for Severus to let loose and berate him for his mistakes.
"Is there anything else?" Severus questioned, careful to keep his tone even.
"No, I don't think so. They think it was you who imperiused Malfoy and put my name in the goblet."
Predictable, what a completely unimaginative conclusion to come to. At least their suspicions of him would work in his favour; they would never suspect that Harry would live with a man that they believed guilty of his attempted murder.
"Merlin," Severus muttered. "Consider yourself immensely lucky that your friends are as foolish as the aurors employed by the Ministry. Do not even think about telling them a word more."
"I know, I won't," Harry replied, still holding himself stiffly as if expecting much more to be said on the matter.
This Christmas holiday was off to a great start, Harry thought grimly and he couldn't help but suspect that Snape would rather spend his holiday with Malfoy instead of him.
"Eat something," Snape ordered, handing him a plate.
"What happened to eating at the table?"
"I'm relaxing the rule to celebrate your homecoming."
"Thanks," Harry laughed, oddly touched by Snape's attempts to be kind to him despite his bad mood.
"Here," he said, hovering a box over to Harry and dropping it at his feet.
"What's this?" he asked, leaning down to have a look inside.
"Decorations. I hear you enjoy Christmas. Go mad."
Author's note: I may have changed the date of the Yule Ball to fit it into the story where I want it to go.