A day after the arrest of Crouch, and the unreported death of Voldemort, Dumbledore spent the entire evening in his office, tying up loose ends. He had an appointment at half-eight, but otherwise, felt much as he imagined Father Christmas did at the end of each successful Christmas Eve. There was still work to be done, but everything was right in the world for that moment.
A steady and deep knocking sound reverberated through the office, and Dumbledore rose to see his visitor.
"Ingenious," Dumbledore said, seemingly talking to himself as a large and rather scruffy black dog entered his office. Dumbledore flicked his wand through the air, casting a spell, and emitted a rather pleased 'hmm' at the result. "You show no signs of being human."
"That was the plan," the dog said, transforming back into a man. "The dementors had no idea. Though I think I spooked Harry, the first time he saw me."
Dumbledore paused by his desk, giving Sirius a curious look. He remembered Severus's report nearly a year and a half earlier, and the mention of a giant black dog that Harry had been defending himself against. Dumbledore gave a soft smile, deciding to very much keep to himself the fact that Sirius may have been the catalyst for Harry's training with Severus.
"Ah, yes. Harry," Dumbledore said. "I assume you've seen the news, and the reports about Barty Crouch?"
Dumbledore sat down as Sirius settled in the visitor's chair in front of the desk, and watched Sirius fiddle with his rings as he crossed his legs.
"Arrested for impersonating Alastor Moody, and attempting to throw the tournament? Yes, I read that rubbish. What's really happening?"
Dumbledore beamed. "Quite impressed that despite all efforts of the dementors, you have retained your full faculties."
Sirius gave him a slightly dubious look, but Dumbledore ignored it and continued.
"It is partially correct, though I doubt Barty Crouch Jr had any interest in the politics of the tournament. His goal was to portkey Harry to a remote location, where Peter Pettigrew and Voldemort were waiting."
"Junior?" Sirius asked, his expression showing surprise. "Seems I wasn't the only one to slip out of Azkaban."
"Certainly not," Dumbledore agreed.
"Why was this miss-reported?" Sirius pressed. "Harry's still here, and he's safe, isn't he?"
Dumbledore raised his wand and brought the pensieve over from the cabinet.
"Harry is here, now, but Pettigrew did manage to both capture him and bring him to Voldemort," Dumbledore quietly informed him.
Sirius's leg dropped to the floor with a loud clunk, and he leaned forward. "Is he all right? Where is he? What did that rat do?"
Dumbledore held up his hand to stop Sirius long enough so the man could take a breath.
"I need you to listen very closely to this, Sirius, and then you must promise to never speak of it in public, or to anyone that doesn't already know," Dumbledore said, his tone very serious.
"What aren't you telli–"
"Your word, Sirius, or I will have you make an unbreakable vow to keep your silence," Dumbledore interrupted.
"I promise," Sirius grumbled. "Just tell me he's all right."
"He's as fine as he can be, given the circumstances," Dumbledore placated. "He was abducted, taken to Voldemort, and held captive as Voldemort was brought back to his fully corporeal form, using a potion that required Harry's blood to work."
Dumbledore was delivering the facts as if it were a simple news report, purposefully keeping his own sentiments subdued, lest he cause Sirius to fly out of the room in search of Harry.
"Jesus," Sirius exhaled. "So he's back."
"The potion worked," Dumbledore confirmed.
Sirius jumped up from the chair and turned for the door, pausing, and then turning back to look at Dumbledore.
"What do we do? Harry isn't safe, not if You Know Who is out there."
Dumbledore allowed a small smile to form as he gestured back to the chair.
"Voldemort is dead. The potion worked as intended, and killed him shortly after his revival. Harry has been training with Severus Snape for the past year, and it was him that managed to kill Voldemort for good."
Sirius stared at the Headmaster for a solid minute.
"I must say," Dumbledore commented, "I've never once seen you speechless in regards to Severus."
"Snape? He…he hates Harry," Sirius said, shaking his head slightly.
Dumbledore sighed. "Not always true, though it certainly appeared that way. But Sirius, even if he disliked Harry so much, do you honestly believe he'd stand aside and let a student be murdered?"
Sirius inhaled sharply.
"I was a teenager," Sirius began, the words forcing their way past his clenched teeth.
"That is in the past," Dumbledore agreed, cutting Sirius off. "And so is this. Severus helped Harry, in ways that even I couldn't, and together they have defeated Voldemort."
Sirius held his head in his hand, his thumb rubbing along his eyebrow.
"How do you know? How can you be sure that this time it's for good?"
A large book fell onto Dumbledore's desk, scattering dust as it fell and making Sirius flinch.
"I believe the Black family library likely had a book on the topic, but, I doubt it was something you interested yourself in as a child," Dumbledore began, flipping pages. "He used something called a horcrux, to survive this long."
What little colour was left in Sirius's face drained quite quickly, and with a shaky hand, Sirius withdrew a small flask from his jacket pocket. Dumbledore watched him, silently, and waited as Sirius unscrewed the cap.
"If you are about to explain that these horcrux things needed to be destroyed for You Know Who to die," Sirius said, taking a swig, "then it would appear that I owe my brother a drink of remembrance."
"He knew of them?" Dumbledore asked, waiting as Sirius finished his drink.
"He went off to find one, and I never saw him again. We were all a bit mad then, and I didn't…I couldn't take the attention away from Lily and James to see what he was talking about."
"That was a very dark time. Your brother may have tried, but unfortunately, none of us had the proper weapon to defeat it. Not then," Dumbledore said. He opened the drawer of his desk and withdrew the diary.
"This was a horcrux. It was destroyed with a Basilisk fang, by Harry, in his second year at school."
"He's got James's luck," Sirius said, smiling wistfully. "James was always getting out of tight squeezes."
"Ah yes, the infamous Marauders," Dumbledore said, his eyes bright and happy. "Harry does have good instincts, and they have served him well. As does Severus. He was the one to create a potion to alter Voldemort's regenerated body, and to use a Basilisk bone to do it. As a result, these horcruxes, the ones that are left undestroyed, do not recognize their master."
"They're…broken?" Sirius asked, leaning forward and staring curiously at the diary.
Dumbledore lifted something else out of the drawer, a small amber locket with a snake on it.
"This one is still, shall we say, active. If you place your hand near it, you'll feel the negative energy," Dumbledore said, placing it on the desk. Sirius put his hand forward and his fingers twitched unhappily the closer they got to the locket.
"But Voldemort can't use it to bring himself back?"
"No," Dumbledore said, staring at the locket once more as he returned held it up to the light. "It seems that Severus did enough to ensure that Voldemort's regeneration changed him so much that his own horcruxes didn't recognise his body when he died for the last time."
Sirius looked more than a little disturbed at the mental image Dumbledore's description brought up.
"So what are these now, then?" Sirius asked, gesturing toward the locket and the diary.
"Lost pieces, locked in containers, without any sort of map or starting point," Dumbledore explained. "The last parts of war for me to destroy."
"And I assume those won't ever be mentioned in the papers?" Sirius said.
"No," Dumbledore immediately answered. "Certainly not."
Sirius nodded. "And I suppose I'm still on the run?"
"Only for two more weeks," Dumbledore contentedly said. "You'll be happy to hear that Cornelius and I have come to an agreement regarding your exit from Azkaban."
Sirius only half listened as Dumbledore explained though, as his mind was still replaying the tale of the graveyard and Voldemort's last moments.
"And Remus will return as well," Dumbledore finished, his eyes twinkling at Sirius.
"Remus?" Sirius said, blinking rapidly. "Remus is here?"
"Not yet," Dumbledore softly said. Sirius shifted with a bit of embarrassment as he realised that Dumbledore was well aware that he'd not been paying full attention. "But it would seem I am in need of another Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor, and as I have promised to never run for office, the Minister has personally appointed him."
"Remus Lupin, tenured professor," Sirius said, smiling as he thought of his old friend.
"Yes, I do believe it is time that he had a steady profession," Dumbledore agreed. "He'll be here tomorrow morning if you wish to speak to him about perhaps standing in, once in a blue moon or so."
"Very funny," Sirius said, giving Dumbledore a mock disappointed look. "Though I shall be here, as I can speak to Harry as well."
"Tread carefully, Sirius," Dumbledore lightly warned. "Harry is a forgiving boy, but he won't tolerate blatant insults toward his friends and mentors. I ask that you leave your childhood grudges to yourself."
"I will if Snape will," Sirius growled, standing up and moving for the door.
"I think you'll be surprised," Dumbledore said, nodding as Sirius gave a small bow and left the office.
Snape sat at his desk, methodically re-inking his quill as he marked papers. He felt quintessentially wizardly when he corrected papers, as he sat wrapped up in his dark old-fashioned robes, in a dungeon, marking by the light of candles with mahogany red ink and a pheasant quill. He was very far away from his quirky half-wizard, half-muggle house in Lower Tarrow, but he still felt completely comfortable.
That was, until anyone dared enter his office. Snape gritted his teeth as the heavy wooden door banged against the stone wall.
"Lucius Malfoy. I have been quite expecting you," Snape said, not bothering to look up from the essay he was writing as Malfoy entered.
"Have you?" Malfoy asked, tapping his cane on the floor. "Something to confess? We all noticed the tattoo change, Severus."
Snape did look up then, with a cutting glaze.
"No, regarding your son's reprehensible grades. I had assumed that was rather high on your list of topics to discuss."
Malfoy's lip twitched rather strongly.
"I did not come to speak of Draco," Malfoy hissed. He slashed his cane toward the heavy wooden door of Snape's office, which slammed shut seconds later. "What have you done?" Malfoy demanded.
Snape sat back in his chair, quill returned to the inkpot, as he looked at the pale arm that Malfoy presented. The Dark Mark was still there, but it was very faded and had lost all the fine detail, to the point that part of the tattoo was almost unrecognisable.
"It would appear from the Mark's disintegration that the Dark Lord is finally dead," Snape said, not answering Malfoy's question.
"Yes it would, wouldn't it?" Malfoy snapped. He began to pace on the stone floor in front of Snape's desk, and Snape watched with a bored look.
"After all these years, there was always the hope…"
"The hope for what?" Snape barked. "You want another war? Most of the Death Eaters have either grown old or gone mad. If there were a war now, you would lose."
"You don't know that," Malfoy accused. "We'll build an army, and the rightful families will be in charge once more."
"Is that so?" Snape asked, standing up and letting his black robes settle around him. "Two half-bloods defeated the Dark Lord. What chance do you stand?"
Malfoy stopped pacing, and an ugly smile took over his face. "It was you."
"Yes," Snape said, smiling back. "And the Ministry is fully aware, having seen the body. You have riches and influence now, Lucius, but if you dare try to resurrect the Death Eaters again, the Ministry won't be fooled by your little Imperius defence. And they won't take mercy on either you, or your possessions."
Malfoy exhaled heavily, smacking his cane down on the ground.
"Just like the Potter brat. Meddling in affairs of others," Malfoy said. He pointed a thin, glove-covered finger at Snape. "Be smug now, Severus Snape, but there are many of us just waiting for the next uprising, and mark my words, it will come."
With a dramatic swirl of his cape that not even Snape could usually manage, Malfoy stormed out of the office and down the hall. Snape watched the door slam again, staring at it for a moment before picking up the quill and returning to the essay he was marking. Lucius Malfoy usually was all puff and smoke, however, Snape would remind Harry to keep vigilant, regardless of the fact that Voldemort was now dead.
Harry wasn't entirely certain that meeting Sirius at the Three Broomsticks was the best idea, as it was rather public. Dumbledore had excused him from Transfiguration with a note of explanation though, and Harry found the pub rather quiet without the students there. He wasn't alone, either, as Harry knew Snape was somewhere around, watching but not listening.
He thought back on class earlier that morning, which was Remus's first full class back at Hogwarts. According to the schedule they were to be working on beasts of the Greek Isles, but Professor Lupin had declared it a task day, and set up a small obstacle course in the defence class to test the students to see how well they'd fare as a Triwizard champion.
Most of the class had done fairly well, but Harry had let himself get attacked by Hermione-the-pretend-banshee, and died a very dramatic death. Lupin had been amused, and had awarded points for creativity.
Five minutes before their scheduled meeting time, the door opened and a well-dressed gentleman entered, with a rather large hooded robe on. He circled the pub, before approaching Harry's booth and sitting down.
"Good to see you're okay," Sirius said, lifting his hood up and back off his head. His hair had been washed and cut short, his beard shaved off, save for two day's stubble, and he had a healthy flush to his cheeks. Some how Sirius had managed to look completely different from the Wanted posters that were faded on the wall.
"Been a long week," Harry replied, genuinely happy to see the man. He had a mug of butterbeer, and waited while Sirius raised his hand for a drink from the bar. Harry then watched as Sirius unfolded a yellowed piece of paper, with soft edges as if it had been consistently kept close in a pocket. With slightly widened eyes, Harry recognized the letter that he'd written Sirius weeks ago, asking him not to disrupt things.
"So what's the full story, kiddo?" Sirius asked, pulling out some coins to give to the bored looking house-elf that delivered his beer.
Harry stared down at the letter, his mind shifting and unwilling to pick a good place to start explaining things.
"What do you know of what happened?" Harry asked instead, falling back on the technique he'd seen Snape use. Figure out how much information the other person had first, before blabbing.
"Dumbledore told me about what happened with You Know Who," Sirius said, on a deep exhale. "Explained that Snape saved you."
"Didn't say anything else, nothing about who you're living with, though I expect it was him that misplaced all my letters to the Ministry about it."
"Probably," Harry carefully said. If Sirius knew that Snape had saved Harry (and killed Voldemort), then maybe Harry could use that as a way to show Sirius that Snape was a good guardian.
"More than probably," Sirius muttered. "When we were kids he moved mountains so James and I wouldn't get in trouble for the prank with Remus…it's a bit frustrating being on the other side of that."
"Yeah, it is," Harry distractedly said, remembering the faces of the Slytherin students in first year, when Dumbledore had awarded Gryffindor the house cup with one fell swoop of last minute points.
"It's Snape, isn't it?" Sirius bitterly asked, sipping his drink.
Harry's eyes widened, caught between admitting yes, and wondering if he should delay a bit longer to show Sirius why he'd chosen correctly.
"You wouldn't be this secretive if it wasn't," Sirius pointed out, shaking his head and cupping his hand around his drink. "Severus Snape."
"He's a good man," Harry quietly said, echoing what his father had told him. "He made a promise to keep me safe, and he did. Not even Dumbledore was all that worried about Voldemort coming back, but Snape spent a year and a half training me, because he knew this would happen. He knew Voldemort wouldn't give up."
"I'm sure he did," Sirius moodily said. "As close to You Know Who as that snake was, he'd know."
"Sirius," Harry warned, clutching his butterbeer. "He's not a Death Eater any more. And he does, you know, care about me."
"So do I, Harry," Sirius countered, banging his mug on the table. "And I'm your godfather, as chosen by your parents."
"Yeah, I know you were," Harry said, his voice harsh with frustration. "But you weren't there. Both Dad and Mum were fine with Snape being my guardian, and Dad said to tell you as well that your shoulders weren't big enough. Whatever that means."
Harry refused to look up, as he felt angry and more than a little insulted that Sirius seemed to be trying to make him feel guilty.
"How did he tell you that?" Sirius asked, his tone heavy with confusion.
"When I died in the graveyard, I saw them," Harry muttered, looking around for a serviette. He sniffled a bit, but was relieved to hear that it sounded like he just had a bit of congestion, not like he was upset.
"You died? The Headma…he never said you died!" Sirius barked, reaching out and grabbing Harry's hand, as if to check and see that Harry really was alive.
Harry blinked a few times, and nearly laughed.
"He told you that Voldemort had returned, and that we'd killed him, but forgot to tell you that I was dead for a minute. Great," Harry said, shaking his head. This was not how he'd planned the conversation to go.
"Unbelievable," Sirius softly said, letting go of Harry's hand.
"What does the shoulders thing mean?" Harry asked, changing the topic slightly. Sirius gave him a sad smile.
"My family, the Blacks, are one of the old pure blood families," Sirius started.
"Like the Malfoys?" Harry questioned.
"Bit less twisted," Sirius said, nodding. "But my mother, she had very grandiose ideas of what my brother and I should become, and your dad…when I was angry and overwhelmed, he used to remind me that my shoulders weren't big enough to carry the world, never mind my mother's demands."
Harry smiled. "He also said you'd be fine, if you stuck with Remus."
Sirius glanced down at his beer before taking another long drink. "That is something James would say."
Harry, without anything else to add, drank the last of his butterbeer.
"So you're staying with him?" Sirius asked, and Harry winced at the hurt tone in Sirius's voice.
"He's been my legal guardian for a year, and I don't want to change it, no," Harry carefully answered. "But I was telling the truth in that letter. I want you to still be my cool godfather."
Sirius nodded, before standing up. "Final task's in a week?"
"Uh, yes," Harry confirmed, startled by the swift change Sirius's body language.
"Right, I'll see you then," Sirius muttered, throwing the hood back over his head and stepping away from the table.
Harry stayed were he was, bewildered and more than a little stung that Sirius had just up and left. Before he could try to logically process what had happened, Sirius turned back and looked straight at him.
"I don't like Snape. Never have. But I haven't been around for nearly fourteen years, so maybe I'm wrong. I need time to decide."
"Yeah, all right," Harry agreed, keeping his tone calm and uninterested, as if he was completely fine with that and not at all hurt that Sirius didn't trust him.
"I'll be there at the tournament," Sirius promised, smiling quickly at Harry, before he left the pub. Harry didn't look up to wave goodbye, but instead, stared into the bottom of his butterbeer glass, where remnants of cream stuck to the sides. It was an odd pattern that didn't make any more sense to Harry than tealeaves in his divinations cups.
"I suppose I should be grateful that he's even taking time to think," Snape said, sitting down in the booth a moment later.
Harry, who'd only seen him coming out of the corner of his eye, gave Snape a look that he hoped conveyed his reluctance to talk about Sirius.
"I thought you weren't going to listen," Harry finally muttered.
Snape said nothing more, merely studying Harry, before he knocked on the table.
"Let's go," Snape announced, "I have some credit at Honeydukes I need to use, before it expires."
Harry remained at the Gryffindor table as his friends left to go write their exams, wondering what he'd do with his free time. McGonagall had mentioned that the champion's families were visiting before the final task, but Harry knew that Snape hadn't yet decided to tell anyone about the guardianship, and he very much doubted Sirius would show up. He did, however, have a little laugh to himself at the amusing idea of the Dursleys coming to Hogwarts.
"Potter!" McGonagall said, from the side room behind the teacher's table. "Sometime this century, if you'd care to join us."
Harry gave her a blank look, but shrugged and got up from the table. Once he passed through the door, he saw Victor Krum chatting to his parents in rapid fire Bulgarian, Fleur Delacour speaking in poetic French to her parents, and Cedric's father, Amos, giving his son a pep talk. At the far side of the room were two more people, one dressed in severe black, and one wearing a happy quilt of colours.
"There he is!" Mrs Weasley smiled, standing up to give Harry a hug. "All ready for the last hurrah?"
"Hope so," Harry said, smiling. He looked at Snape, who was watching him with an expression that almost looked like pride.
"Going to watch me compete, sir?" Harry cheekily asked, unsure if Snape was there only as a Professor and not, as Harry actually hoped, his parent.
"I'm told I'd be a terrible father if I didn't," Snape dryly said. Harry grinned.
"Yes, you would," Mrs Weasley huffed. "Now Harry, how about a tour around the school?"
"All right," Harry easily agreed, wondering how Mrs Weasley had found out about the guardianship. Snape merely cocked an eyebrow when Harry stared at him though, so Harry figured he'd have to actually ask.
"So, you know..." Harry started, as they left through the Great Hall.
"Oh yes, dear," Mrs Weasley said. "And I've already given permission for Ron to visit at your new home."
"Great," Harry happily agreed. He pretended to lose a bit of balance, and bump into Snape, the smile still on his face.
Snape put his hand on Harry's shoulder, as if to steer him back on course, but left it there for a few minutes.
"Oh, the old clock tower," Mrs Weasley wistfully said. "Gorgeous place to be at midnight."
Snape smirked. "Lost a few house points as a student?"
She gave him a sly look in return. "Only a few."
"I see," Snape continued, squeezing Harry's shoulder. "So you are the responsible party for those troublesome twins."
Harry laughed again, feeling relaxed and content as they passed through the front door of Hogwarts and out to the grounds. It was warm and eerily empty, as most students were still writing exams.
"Oh, well," Mrs Weasley chuckled. "Neither Arthur nor I were perfect students, but Fred and George got the best of both of us, I should think. We've paid for it, I promise you."
"I have often wondered why the Sorting Hat would not do us all a favour and separate those two," Snape mused, as he watched Hagrid's latest creature acquisition romp around in a makeshift pen.
"Those two in separate houses?" Mrs Weasley scoffed. "I can't keep them apart for ten minutes. Heaven knows what they'll do when they get married."
"Indeed," Snape hummed. "They are not invited to my home, just to be clear."
Mrs Weasley smiled.
"Of course. Now Harry, are you all ready for the final task?"
"Hope so," Harry honestly said, walking with them toward the green houses. "I've practiced loads, and I've learned a bunch of new spells, so I hope I'll do well."
"That's the idea. Do your best, and see what comes," Mrs Weasley said, patting his shoulder. She glanced up toward the tower, and (to Harry's astonishment), caught a flash of bright red hair. Harry wasn't surprised that she'd recognized the hair, but rather that she knew in a second what was happening.
"FRED! GEORGE! YOU LEAVE YOUR BROTHER ALONE!"
She turned to look at Snape and Harry, giving them a frustrated look.
"I'll see you at the task, dear, I have to sort this out," she said, before turning and stalking off.
"I've never realised how scary she sometimes is," Harry said, watching Mrs Weasley go. In the window above the greenhouses Harry could see George, Fred, and Ron looking down. Only two of the three looked guilty.
"Or how loud," Snape muttered. He kicked Harry's foot, gently, and they continued walking down the path that lead to the Forbidden Forest.
"Would you be angry if I didn't win the tournament?" Harry asked, taking his glasses off and putting them in his robe pocket.
"Planning on forfeiting?" Snape asked. "After your extra training?"
"No," Harry immediately replied, watching some birds soar over the forest. "It's just...we beat Voldemort right? And there's still this tournament, and I'm going to try, but you know how they say 'go big or go home?'"
"Whoever 'they' are, yes," Snape answered, leaning down to pluck some weeds from the ground. Harry was rather proud that he recognized them as some sort of potion ingredient.
"Well, I'm looking forward to just going home."
"And what is home, now?" Snape asked, his tone light, but his words causing Harry to flash back nearly a year earlier, when he'd had the same conversation with Snape after Sirius had offered his home to Harry.
"Lower Tarrow," Harry easily answered. "And Hogwarts, of course."
"Of course," Snape agreed, shoving some weeds toward Harry. "Hold these, if you're not doing anything useful."
"Useful? We're at the edge of the forest, it's not like there's not any hoovering to do," Harry commented, holding onto the weeds anyway.
"Your sarcasm is noted and not appreciated," Snape replied, ripping out a particularly dirty weed and tossing it, dirt and all, toward Harry.
"Were you serious about Ron though?" Harry asked, side stepping the weed and letting it sail to the ground behind him. "He can stay over this summer?"
"Pick that up," Snape ordered, though he still was crouched over and hadn't even seen that Harry hadn't caught it. "And yes. I assume you'll want to do the normal stay over things with your friends."
"I don't really know what those are," Harry bluntly said.
"Pizza, noise, and games, I believe," Snape answered, yanking up another weed. "You'll be cleaning before and after your friends arrive."
"Yeah," Harry agreed. "Sounds like the time I spent at the Burrow, after they broke me out at the Dursleys. I can do that."
Snape straightened, clutching several different types of weeds, and in one hand, an ugly looking pod that had a bunch of seeds in it.
"I doubt your friends will judge you on whether you host a proper slumber party or not," Snape told him, rolling his eyes. He transfigured a large plant leaf into a canvas bag, and gave it to Harry to dump all the weeds into.
"Speaking of my friends, actually," Harry started, following Snape as they stepped into the forest. "You told Mrs Weasley already, but, well. Can I?"
Snape didn't pause to look at him, but instead continued on the path.
"On what planet does that sentence make sense?" Snape asked.
Harry stuck his tongue out at Snape's back as they approached a birch tree.
"Can I tell people you're my guardian now?" Harry asked, very slowly and overly enunciating the words.
"Yeeeeesssssss," Snape responded equally as slow, snapping a vine off the tree branch. "But you will continue to call me Professor at Hogwarts, outside of our quarters."
"Oh, right," Harry said, holding the bag out for the vine. "I, well, yeah. I hadn't planned on calling you Dad in potions class."
"Good," Snape said, closing up the bag. "The Dark Lord may be gone, but there are others about who would not benefit from a constant reminder that I am your caretaker."
"Caretaker?" Harry echoed, following Snape to another part of the forest. "You make me sound like I've been sectioned or something."
"Or something," Snape dryly repeated, kicking aside a clump of dirt on the path. "I had a surprise visit from Lucius Malfoy earlier. He is dim enough to attempt revenge, but I don't think he will. In either case, your tattoo warning signal is permanent, and I expect you to continue using it in case of emergency."
"Okay, Dad," Harry cheekily agreed. Snape opened his mouth to say something, but Harry interrupted first.
"You didn't say anything about the Forbidden Forest," Harry grinned.
Snape rolled his eyes and flung the bag at Harry.
"Go pick some nettles," Snape ordered, pointing toward a fairly large bush just off the path.
Harry stomped off in a protest of noise, as he was quite sure that Snape knew Harry didn't have any gloves to pick the stinging nettles up with.
At the bang of the gun for the third task, Harry entered the maze feeling giddy and energetic. He didn't care if he won, and he was only slightly worried that something in the maze was out to get him–something other than the planned traps and diversions. Sirius had been in the stands and Snape had been at the starting line, standing down with the parents of the other champions, which had confused most people in the stands. Snape's bored look (and refusal to explain why he was there) had Harry ridiculously amused.
Mazes weren't really his forte, but Harry calmly jogged through this one, taking his time to watch for traps within the deep box hedges. Harry recognized it as English Yew, and remembered from Herbology that the berries were quite poisonous.
He lit his wand with a lumos spell, as the shrubs and maze were both very dark and very silent. He couldn't hear the crowds of students yelling, but he could hear someone nearby battling with something.
Harry wandered further into the maze, keeping his wand pointing north, as he figured that the centre of the maze was somewhere north west of where they'd started from. The first creature he encountered was a large jewel-encrusted crab, which he considered just taking a running jump over before he saw the crab raise itself on its hind legs.
"Right," Harry muttered, staring at the jewelled crab. Making a decision, he pulled out his wand and conjured his patronus, sending it galloping into the hedge. The crab, happy to spot even shinier target, scuttled full force into the hedge.
Harry managed to get past two more obstacles, before tripping into Fleur as he rounded another corner. His spectacles went flying, and Fleur laughed as she took off running again. Harry didn't bother searching for his glasses in the dark underbrush of the hedges, knowing he could see without them, and instinctively feeling that he was close to the centre.
He was right, as it turned out. Behind the next corner revealed a giant sphinx, looking both very calm and deadly as it peered down at Harry.
"The fastest way is through me," the sphinx told him. "But you must first answer a riddle."
Harry scrunched his face up at that, as Hermione had always been the better of the three of them to figure out riddles. But he was so close, and surely the sphinx would let him listen to the riddle first, before he decided if he wanted to answer it or not.
"You're the hobbit," Harry told himself. "This is Gollum, and this is a game of riddles, and you are a smart hobbit."
He looked up at the serene face of the sphinx and nodded, ready to hear the clues.
The sphinx spoke slowly, and was kind enough to repeat the clues as Harry muttered to himself, tumbling over the words and working out each individual line. By the time Harry had worked out the riddle, Cedric had turned down the hedge row and was closing in on him.
Harry darted past the sphinx, exhilarated at the chase, and honed in on the bright cup waiting for him. Cedric ran straight for it as well, and they were both so focused on the cup that neither noticed the giant spider until it was upon them. Harry had a split second to make his decision, whether he should dive for the cup, or stay to fight the spider. One of them could maybe slip by, but not both.
Cedric was white with panic, as he'd probably never seen a spider that large, but Harry definitely had.
"Friend of Aragog! FRIEND OF HAGRID!" Harry bellowed, raising his arms in the air to catch the spider's attention.
Both Cedric and the spider froze, giving Harry enough time to grab Cedric's shirt and drag them both to the other side of the clearing. The spider clacked its pincers, unsure of what to do, and Harry gave a scared, triumphant laugh that he was right. It was one of Aragog's acromantula family.
"Stupefy on three," Cedric whispered, but Harry shook his head. He remembered how bloodthirsty the spiders had been in second year, and was rather grateful that this one was nice enough not to eat them on sight.
"Just block the path," Harry said, firing reducto curses at the hedge. Within seconds they'd blocked it, and were left staring at the blue glowing cup.
"So which one of us gets it?" Cedric asked, his arms twitching, as he was clearly ready to run if Harry showed even a hint of dashing for it.
"I solved the riddle," Harry said, panting. "And I stopped the spider, right?"
Cedric was silent for a second, glancing back at the blockage they'd made. The spider wasn't breaking through though, and the eerie quiet of the maze had descended again.
"Yes," he gritted out.
"So I won," Harry concluded, scratching his arm where a thorny branch had got him earlier.
"Not yet," Cedric countered, quite unhappily. He still seemed to be judging the distance, and predicting whether Harry's shorter legs could actually beat him in a race. But he hadn't run yet. "But I suppose."
"The cup's yours then," Harry told him, standing up straight and relaxing his arms against his sides. "I don't want it."
Cedric almost dropped his wand. "What?"
"Your dad wants you to win, and you'll be famous. A famous Hufflepuff. Do it," Harry urged.
"I..but...your parents would want you to..." Cedric said, taking a step forward toward the cup, despite his feeble protest.
"My dad just wants me to not kill myself," Harry grinned. "Take the bloody cup. But between the two of us, I won."
"Yeah," Cedric grinned. "You did."
And he took off in a run, swiping the heavy trophy off the pedestal and nearly dropping it in surprise at the fireworks that exploded over the maze once the cup was taken.
"See you later Sean!" Harry yelled, nearly walking into the front door as he swung it open at the last moment.
"Yeah, on the weekend, Johnny!" came a fading yell from up on the bridge in front of the house.
It took Harry a minute for his eyes to adjust from the bright summer light to the cooler indoor dim of the Lower Tarrow house, and thus he didn't notice that the sitting room was, for once, occupied. Harry kicked off his shoes quickly and proceeded onto his room, where he dropped several Super Nintendo games on the bed. Sean had quite the collection, and they'd traded a few between themselves for the summer. Harry couldn't wait to teach Ron how to play, though he was determined to teach Ron before Hermione, because he knew from years of experience at school that Ron and Hermione learning the same thing together often ended with one of them storming off.
He glanced at the games again with a grin, wondering which one to play first. Lifting up his shirt, Harry scrunched his face up at the smell, and decided to change it before Snape harped on him again. He and Sean had run into Richard the Twat Brook again, and in response to Brook's mocking commentary about them, a surprise and rather strong gust of wind had blown by and absolutely covered Brook's expensive clothing with dirt. Brook blamed Harry and Sean for the malicious act of nature for some reason, and the ensuing chase had been both fun and sweaty in the summer heat.
Harry had just pulled a new shirt down over his head and closed the cupboard door when he turned and came face to face with the small black end of Snape's wand.
"Protego!" Harry yelped, wandless and still managing to conjure a fairly sturdy personal shield.
"Ten points for not noticing we have visitors," Snape informed him, keeping his wand steadily aimed inches from Harry's face.
"We do?" Harry asked, dropping his shield in surprise. He pushed aside Snape's wand, not noticing the irritated look he received in return, and stuck his head out the door. Sure enough, Harry could hear quiet conversation in the sitting room.
Who on Earth would be visiting them? Snape didn't even let Dumbledore know where the house was.
Behind Harry, though he couldn't see it, Snape rolled his eyes before pushing him out into the hallway.
"Don't tell me you're afraid of strangers," Snape said, following behind Harry so Harry had no choice but to go forward.
"It'd be a healthy fear," Harry muttered. When he got to the edge of the sitting room, Harry's eyes quickly swept over the couch and to the small armchair, his body relaxing when he saw whom it was. Snape's mum was sitting on the couch, wearing a simple dress and sifting through a scrapbook photo album. There was an older gentleman sitting in the armchair, who Harry assumed to be Snape's dad. The man had the same severe black hair and distinctive nose as Snape, as well as the giant ears that all older English men seemed to get.
"You must be Harry Potter then," the man said, giving Harry a steely look. There were two canes resting against the arm of the chair, and Harry guessed that while this man might be physically weak, he wasn't mentally.
"Yes, sir," Harry said, coming into the room and sitting on the other edge of the couch.
"Don't spook the lad, Toby," Snape's mum warned, not even looking at her husband as she read an article in the scrapbook she was holding. Harry glanced down for a second and was surprised to see a picture of himself, taken just after the first task of the Triwizard tournament.
"What's the thirteenth element on the periodic table?" Snape's dad asked.
Harry's eyes glanced briefly up as he counted in his head.
"Aluminium, sir," Harry answered.
"My father, the chemist," Snape said, settling into a chair as his father gave Harry an approving nod.
"What are your plans for after school?" Mr Snape continued, ignoring his son.
"Uh," Harry said, glancing to Snape. The man was no help however, as he sat passively with an amused look on his face and said nothing.
"Strange things have been happening and I was a bit focused on not dying, so, I don't really know. I thought maybe I could write, not a biography, but a little book of adventures."
Harry looked back at Snape and was relieved to see that Snape thought it a worthwhile idea.
"You have encountered dragons," Snape quietly mused. "Not many manage that these days."
"Gobstones too tame for ya?" Mrs Snape asked, still flipping through the book. Harry scolded himself, as he'd temporarily forgotten that Snape's mum was actually a witch.
"I'm not really good at playing gobstones," Harry admitted, remembering his messy failed attempts at playing against the Weasleys.
"She'll teach you all right. You can call me Granddad," Mr Snape proclaimed, tapping his chest. He shifted slowly in the chair, his hands picking up the material of his trousers in order to move his legs where he wanted them. "And she'll be Gran."
"Okay," Harry readily agreed, feeling like he'd been officially accepted. Aunt Petunia had never spoken of her parents, and Harry hadn't even thought about getting more than just Snape as family when he'd asked for guardianship.
"And if he gives you any trouble," Mr Snape continued, shaking a calloused but strong finger at Snape, "we'll set him straight."
"Trouble?" Snape sarcastically replied. "Compared to this boy, I was an angel growing up."
Mrs Snape snorted.
"Angels aren't just from heaven," she replied.
Mr Snape smirked with a very familiar sly smile, Harry thought.
"Welcome to the family, boy."
Harry grinned back, thinking that for once, he didn't mind the term 'boy' at all. He wondered, fleetingly, if Snape had ever expected Harry to become his son when he'd offered to teach Harry defence lessons two summer earlier, but then decided that was a question he could ask some rainy day years from now.
AN: And after 17 weeks and 140 000+ words, this is where it ends. I want to thank all of you wonderful people for reading along on this adventure. It's been a pleasure, and thank you all for the notes as well. I really appreciate them, every single one.