A/N – Yes, short and late. Got it. But this chapter is emotionally fraught and it took a lot to get written. After this one though, we shall return to our usual format.

Also, a note from one of my readers (Dane The Destroyer) regarding the question of Hermes:

To all the readers that are a bit confused about the situation Hermes finds himself in: Hermes has what psychologists would call "Gender Identity Disorder" which is an actual disease included in the DSM-IV. This means (in Hermes' case) that though he has typical female sex organs, he himself identifies as male. The word transgender is an umbrella term that covers everything from crossdressers to transsexuals (people who seek out surgical means to bring their bodies in line with their identities). But you can read more about this elsewhere, should you be interested.

The main point of me writing this, is to tell readers that Hermes is male, and should be addressed with typical male pronouns (he, him, his). The s/he thing has its own purpose within the story, and that's cool. When talking about the character, though, you'd use the pronouns that best match with his identity. Because we don't want to piss off a fictional person, or disgruntle people who may be in the same situation as said fictional person.

Chapter 18 – At Long Last, Christmas

The foal refused to leave Harry's side. Unfortunately, with two beds in his room, there simply wasn't room for the foal to follow, despite her earnest attempts at doing so. Finally, with an exasperated groan, Severus changed paths and set Harry up on the sofa in the main room.

Pulling out his wand, he spelled the expanse of floor next to the sofa with a cushioning and heating charm, before summoning several old blankets from the nearby linen closet.

Beside him, Hadwyn pulled out his wand and whispered an additional spell at the floor. At Severus' questioning eyebrow, the other man explained with a half-smile, "Something to keep the floor free of scat."

Severus nodded, mentally kicking himself for forgetting such a vital issue.

He glanced down to see that the foal was looking up at him with bright golden eyes.

"Well, go on," he answered, waving his hand at the veritable nest that was set up on the floor next to where Harry had been laid.

The foal whinnied at him softly and then stepped gracefully over to Harry's side, nosing him once before laying down as well.

Moving away from the sofa, he turned to the armchair next to it and waved his wand over it, transfiguring it into a recliner. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Hadwyn was doing the same for two other chairs.

"Are we ready for our sleepover now?" Was his snidely spoken question.

No one answered, but Severus did see a slight smile cross both Harry's and Hermes' faces.

"Brats," Severus retorted.

"Yup!" Harry whispered softly, still not opening his eyes.

Encouraged, Severus walked to the end of the sofa where Harry's head was and crouched down. Carding a hand through his boy's unusually wild hair, he smiled slightly as Harry leaned into his touch.

"Are you awake again, little one?" He whispered.

"Real real sleepy, Papa Pa," Was Harry's soft answer.

"Then go to sleep. We will all be here when you wake up."

"'Kay," Harry murmured, relaxing back down into oblivion.

Slowly getting to his feet, Severus turned around and glanced at Hermes.

"Ready for our conversation, Mr. Granger?" He asked with a raised eyebrow.

With a pale face, Hermes nodded back at him and he ushered his Slytherin into the small kitchenette that was off of the main room.

"Explain to me why it is you went with Harry as opposed to coming directly to me?" He asked, crossing his arms as he looked intimidatingly down at his small Snake.

"Because he needed me to," Was Hermes' quiet answer.

Severus looked at his student appraisingly, noticing the stubborn tilt of his chin alongside the faint tremble of his shoulders.

"And he didn't need to be kept safe?" Severus pressed.

Hermes took a breath and then launched into an explanation.

"Harry's my friend," Hermes said, his fists clenched tightly at his sides. "He's my first friend," his Snake admitted softly, eyes shifting to a point somewhere around Severus' right shoulder.

Then abruptly, those dark eyes were focused back upon Severus' own.

"I don't know if you understand what it's like to always be hated by your peers, but I do," Hermes' jaw clenched tightly and then he continued. "Before Harry, everyone looked at me and saw a freak. You know, because that's what I am, right?" The child let out a bitter bark of laughter.

"Now, I know that there is at least one person who sees Hermes, who sees me." Hermes jutted his chin out stubbornly against the tears that were threatening in his eyes. It was clear that the boy was emotionally worn out, and really, it wasn't a surprise.

"That's why I didn't tell you. Harry needed me to believe him, and I need him to believe in me."

Severus nodded; his face solemn at the boy's admissions. In his mind was the little red haired girl who had been his first friend. He understood what it was like to be loyal to the first ray of sunshine in an otherwise drab and grey world.

"He does, Mr. Granger," Severus said softly, his voice cracking with what he hoped was only weariness. He preferred not to appear overly emotional to anyone. It only served to remind him of his own childhood and failed foray into the Death Eaters; not to mention the consequences gained from those actions.

. . .

"Little boy," the Dark Thing hissed at him. "There's nowhere to go and no one to rescue you but Death."

Harry shot upright with a jerk. The Dark Thing had been back in his head and he shook at the memory of it. Beside him, Goldie opened her eyes and looked at him in concern.

"He was back in my head, Goldie," Harry whispered, his body still trembling.

Silently, Goldie jerked her head toward where Severus was asleep in the transfigured recliner.

Harry's eyes went wide and he scrambled off of the sofa, careful not to tread on his new friend as he did so.

At Severus' side, Harry leaned in close and whispered, "Papa Pa?"

When he didn't get an answer, he turned back to Goldie and whispered, "He's real asleep."

She jerked her head toward Severus once more and Harry nodded.

Slowly, Harry climbed up into his Papa Pa's lap and curled up against his chest. His daddy was very warm and the sound of his rhythmic heartbeat against his ear was very soothing. Slowly he relaxed again, and his eyes shut of their own accord.

. . .

Across the room, Hadwyn opened his eyes and smiled at the sight. His smile brightened as Severus reached out in his sleep for the child and wrapped his arms around him.

Eyeing the just vacated sofa, Hadwyn eased out of his recliner slowly, freezing when it creaked. He waited for one of the room's other occupants to wake up, but when no one moved, he stood the rest of the way up and softly padded to the sofa. He smiled down at the little unicorn before easily stepping over her. He stretched out on the cushions with a contented sigh and closed his eyes again.

. . .

Being a light sleeper, Hermes often was privy to the night time wanderings of others. His eyes had widened in surprise when Harry had climbed up into the sleeping Professor Snape's lap. He doubted he could even be tempted to go near a sleeping Snape—er, Severus—let alone climb up in his lap. Despite his growing comfort with the man, there were still limits to what he would and would not do around him.

He was glad that the professor seemed to understand that. It made him feel safer with the experience that Severus would never abuse that trust—at least, he didn't think he would. There was always some doubt, but he could easily say he trusted Severus more than he trusted any other human being.

He looked away from Harry and his professor. It made him sad that there was no one around to hug or love him like that.

"Ugly, awful, horrible," Hermes repeated softly to himself. Something flashed out of the corner of his eye and he looked up to see the foal staring at him. The flickering light from the fireplace was reflected in her warm eyes and the sight momentarily mesmerized him.

"You had someone like that, but you don't anymore," Hermes whispered, standing up silently and moving over to the foal.

He crouched down and hesitantly put his hand on her head. Angrily, he swiped at his face.

"I guess we're all orphans, huh?"

Goldie leaned her head back to nose his hand and then looked questioningly at him.

"Do you think I could lie down right here and we could be alone together?" Hermes whispered.

Goldie nodded; her big brown eyes speaking volumes as she moved over to make room.

. . .

Severus awoke slowly. The warm weight on his chest moved and he managed to pry one eye open.

"Harry?" He asked hoarsely. The night had been far too stressful and there was an ache in his bones that had not been there before.

"Oh hi, Papa Pa!" Harry said brightly, leaning upward and kissing him on the cheek.

For a moment, Severus envied the boy of his ease of movement, but then he pushed it out of his mind. What Harry had in physical youth, he largely lacked in social and emotional expression. The trade-off wasn't worth it.

"You're alls rough, Papa Pa," Harry added, rubbing a smaller hand across Severus' stubbled cheek.

"And that's surprising?" Severus asked, managing—with some effort—to sound more human.

"It feels funny," Harry admitted, his bright green eyes shining up at him. "But I likes it, I think," He added. "Will I get rough sometime too?"

Severus briefly thought back to the male members of Harry's past. Lily's father was at the forefront of his memories. The older man had worn a beard as long as Severus could remember, with one minor exception of when wild magic had removed it, thanks to a much younger Lily. Likewise, his few memories of an adult James Potter featured more than a few images of a rough and unshaved man.

"Likely enough," Severus admitted after his moment of thought. "Your genes have the necessary components for beard growth, should you wish to utilize them."

Harry nodded up at him, intelligence shining out of green eyes. Severus realised that his explanation had been a bit too wordy, but the boy hadn't seemed to have any difficulty in deciphering his meaning.

"Guess whats, Papa Pa," Harry said, sneaking a look at the room around them.

"What's that, child?" Severus asked, noting that Hadwyn was sitting upright on the sofa next to Hermes. The damnable man even had a cup of coffee in one hand, and Severus' eyes narrowed threateningly.

"It's Christmas!" Harry exploded, bouncing a bit on Severus' lap with his exuberance.

"So it is," Severus answered easily as he transfigured the recliner back into a regular armchair. Their angle changed, moving the bouncing Harry off of his lungs and back onto his lap proper. Beside them, a cup of coffee floated at Hadwyn's direction and he took it with a satisfied nod.

From the floor, Goldie whinnied.

"What do Goldies eat, Papa Pa?" Harry asked suddenly, tucking his feet under him as Severus summoned a spare blanket to wrap around them.

"Milk, laddie," Hadwyn answered. "Unicorn foals eat milk for their first two or three years before switching to grass and other things."

A concerned expression flashed on Harry's face at this and he looked to Severus for guidance. "Do we haves milk?"

"I'm sure we can find some," Severus soothed.

"Can we opens presents now, Goldie? Or should we finds some milk?" Harry asked, turning back to the golden foal.

Said foal jerked her head to the side as if to say, 'Presents.'

"'Kay," Harry said, clapping his hands and looking back up at Severus hopefully.

Severus looked around and realised that there was a significant pile of brightly wrapped packages on the floor next to their chair. Looking up, he saw that there were similar piles next to Hermes and Hadwyn, and even a couple for Goldie.

Shaking his head at the improbability of the unicorn foal having presents, he turned back to his and Harry's pile and picked up the topmost item. It was parchment thin and just as light, and he rightfully wondered what it was.

"Dat's from me, Papa Pa," Harry whispered in his ear. "You said a card was okays, but I wanted to write a letter. Was that okays?"

"A letter is wonderful, Harry," Severus replied softly, tearing the end of the letter open and pulling out a few pages filled with the boy's messy script. "Why don't you open a few of your gifts while I read?"

"'Kay," Harry answered easily, flapping his hands a little.

While the child hunted through the pile looking for ones marked with his name, Severus began reading:

Dear Papa Pa/Daddy Sev/'Fessor Snape,

I guess that you know from my essays that my writing is really different from how I talk, right? I was telling Caddy that it sometimes feels like there's something wrong between my head and my mouth. Like something isn't configured right or something.

I'm not stupid. I'm not stupid. I know that now. I know it, because you know it, because you let me know that you know it. You won't let me just be stupid ol' Harry. Dummy. Retard. You don't let me get away with thinking that way anymore, and I think it's because for whatever reason, you see me. You can see the me that's in my head—the one that thinks. The one that is, the one that is trying to be.

For all I'm say about being better at writing, I don't think I'm doing a very good job of saying what I mean. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me. That's why I love you. You see what I'm trying to be. Well, at least as much as I've got figured out. I'm still trying to get a handle on what's me and what's left of the person that the Dursleys wanted.

It was really hard, Daddy. To be me, I mean. They hated me. I knew they did. Vernon—well, he still hates me, even if he's gone now. And I think I hate him too, because . . . he never even gave me a chance, Daddy. He just hated.

And I think Hermes knows what it's like to be hated too. I think he's trying to find himself just like me. Daddy, I think we have to love him, because he doesn't love himself and he doesn't think anyone ever will love him. I try to love him, but sometimes my meaning and my actions get a little mixed up. I hope he knows I love him, but you gotta try and show him that you love him too, Daddy. He doesn't have anyone but us and Ron and Millie and Vince.

We gotta love him, because I'm scared what'll happen if we don't.

And can you tell Hadwyn I'm not mad anymore? I was mad—I was super mad, but I thought about it for a long time and I can kinda see why he was so mad at you for hurting Dudley, but he still shouldn't have tried to hurt you. I don't like it when people yell. It scares me and makes me want to go find somewhere to hide.

Uncle Vernon would always yell before coming after me, and so when other people yell around me, I guess I just sorta freak out. I know you wouldn't hurt me, but I don't know Hadwyn as well, especially when I'm scared, and I guess that I thought if he could hurt you, then he could hurt me. And I don't want anyone to ever hurt you, because what if you went away and left me alone again? Where would I go? Where would Hermes and Vince and all of the other Snakes go if something happened to you?

I get worried when I don't see you all day. Sometimes I just need to see you so I know you're still alive and then I feel better. The worst is at night when I can't see you (unless I'm here), and I just have to wait until it's day again. That's the worst. Being around Vince makes that easier to put up with, but sometimes, I guess . . . I just need to be a kid and know you're gonna take care of me and that I'm safe. Is that okay?

I'd try to keep from getting so attached, but it's hard, because I do love you and I know you love me. I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you. I think something would explode. I think I'd scream and scream and not know how to stop if I couldn't have you as my daddy anymore.

I don't know how you'll react to this letter, but I hope I didn't say anything to scare you. I hope you won't get mad at me for any of it. I hope it's okay.

Happy Christmas, Daddy.

Love, Harry (your boy)

Severus put the letter down with trembling fingers. Several parts of it had disturbed him, but not for the reasons that Harry might have thought. The child was right that they didn't yet have a back-up plan for where he would go should something happen to Severus. He'd been thinking of asking Hadwyn, but now he knew he would be doing something sooner as opposed to later. Harry didn't need to be so worried about something that Severus could help with.

As for the other points concerning Harry, there was one thing he could do immediately, and so he did. He reached out and pulled Harry in for a hug.

"I love you so much, Harry," he whispered into the boy's ear.

He felt more than saw the blinding smile that graced Harry's face at his words.

"I love you, Daddy Sev," Harry whispered back, kissing his cheek again and holding onto his shoulders tightly.

"Why don't you go and give Mr. Granger a hug too?" Severus suggested softly when he realised they were being watched.

"That's a real good idea, Daddy Sev!" Harry chirped back. He jumped off of Severus' lap and trotted over to Hermes, and enveloped him in a huge hug before the other boy knew quite what was happening.

"I love you, Hermes Granger!" Harry announced loudly with a wide grin after releasing his friend.

One corner of Hermes' mouth quirked upward at his actions, but then the other side went up as well, showing the room a real smile.

"I love you too, Harry," Hermes answered shyly. "But you still haven't opened your best present."

"My bestest present!?" Harry squealed, jumping to his feet and grabbing Hermes' hand. "Come ons! We gotta opens it!" He demanded, pulling Hermes with him to the floor beside Severus' chair.

Severus reached for the present that he had collaborated on with Mr. Granger and handed it to his son.

"Well, go on," Severus prompted when Harry only stared at it.

"It says it's from my Papa Pa and my Hermes, Daddy Sev," Harry said, his green eyes wide in surprise.

"That just means that you're the only one who doesn't know what it is!" Hermes countered, poking him in his shoulder lightly. "Now open it."

With a trembling hand, Harry undid one side slowly and carefully pulled out the object that was inside. Instantly, it uncurled and stretched out to its full length of four feet. It was a soft green plushie snake and it was obvious to the room that Harry was instantly enthralled with it.

"For Harry?" Harry whispered, stroking it gently.

"Just for you," Hermes answered, resting an arm on Harry's shoulder.

"Nobody else's?" Harry whispered, glancing briefly at Hermes before turning his full attention on Severus.

"You said that you'd never had a stuffed animal before, so Mr. Granger and I thought you should have one," Severus said slowly, reaching out a hand to cup Harry's face. "Try wrapping it around yourself."

"Harry's own?" Harry whispered, still stuck on the concept of his present, even as he dutifully wrapped it around his midsection.

"Harry's own, laddie," Hadwyn said, crouching down beside him with a handkerchief to wipe his silent tears with.

"Tell it to 'Stay,' Harry," Severus added, sliding off his seat to sit on the floor with the others.

"Stay?" Harry asked and then looked down in surprise as his stuffed snake tightened around him just enough to keep from falling off.

"You can make it be tighter or looser, depending on what you want," Hermes explained, taking one of Harry's hands in his.

Harry wrapped his free arm around the head of his snake and looked up at Severus again.

"All mine?"

"All yours. No one can take it off except at your command. No one can take it from you. It's all yours, son," Severus said gently, reaching out and pulling Harry into his lap.

"All mine, Daddy," Harry whispered, squeezing his snake tightly.

"And if you want," Hermes said slowly. "I have an idea for a name."

"Idea?" Harry asked, turning toward Hermes.

"Yeah," Hermes grinned. "Why don't you call it 'Fessor Snake?"

Severus snorted and Hadwyn barked with surprised laughter, but Harry just thought and thought before finally grinning back.

"'Fessor Snape! I'm gonna call my snake, 'Fessor Snake just like my Hermes said!"