A Nick In Time
by
Tira Nog


Disclaimer: All characters owned by JK Rowling. No profit made on use of characters.


Eight years. Sometimes Severus Snape had difficulty believing that it had been that long since Thomas Riddle was finally forced to shed his mortal coils and remain decently dead, but then Snape would look up and see Minerva McGonagall sitting in the headmaster's seat and that same gaping loss that he felt every blasted day would hit him. Then he'd have no trouble accepting how long it had been since their beloved mad hatter of a headmaster had made the ultimate sacrifice for their cause.

Who would have thought he'd miss those aggravating teas so much? But there were days he'd kill to hear Albus' sleepy voice offer him one of those loathsome lemon drops or force a biscuit upon him.

And it wasn't just Albus' absence that was felt. He and Minerva were among the last of the old guard, two of the few left of the Hogwarts' teachers who had survived Voldemort's assault on the school. He looked down the holly-strewn, Christmas feast table at Hogwart's current staff.

Trelawney was still here. Their resident psychic probably wouldn't have even noticed Voldemort's arrival until the blighter banged on her trap door, Snape unkindly, but truthfully, acknowledged. Professor Sinistra was the only other pre-war teacher who remained. Aside from Binns, of course, but Snape wasn't entirely sure that a man who wasn't alive enough to know that he'd died really counted.

The more honest part of his nature warned him of the hypocrisy of berating Binns. After all, was there really that much difference between Binns and himself? Aside from the fact that Snape showed up in the Great Hall for meals and actually consumed them, there was little to distinguish him from the ghost.

The remainder of the teachers' chairs were filled with the most talented of their former students. Although Snape wasn't certain he would ever have placed Neville Longbottom in that category, he reluctantly gave Longbottom his due and admitted that the man was a genius when it came to herbology. Beside him were the famous three - Potter, Weasley, and Granger, teaching Dark Arts, Quidditch, and Arithmancy, respectively. The blond man next to Granger was Callis Miller, a former Ravenclaw who now taught Charms. His perfect looks put Snape in mind of Lockhardt, only Miller's arrogance was far more offensive than Lockhardt's braggadocio had ever been. Further down the table, the Muggle Studies professor, Alicia Crenshaw, sat deep in conversation with Sinistra. Crenshaw's short, robust blondness was a sharp contrast to the Astronomy teacher's slender darkness. The final addition was from Snape's own house. Blaise Zabini had taken over Transfiguration once Minerva had assumed the headmaster's position, which pleased Snape no end. For a while there, it had seemed that those damn Gryffindors were going to take over the entire school.

Snape grudgingly admitted that the newcomers were a competent lot, but when he looked down the teachers' table at the absurdly young faces of people who'd been students in his own classroom less than a decade ago, he felt positively ancient.

Hardly a new experience, but these days he just didn't seem to be able to shake the malingering malaise.

Once he'd longed for Voldemort's defeat, desperately yearning for an end to the danger and lies that were the very fabric of his existence as a spy. All he'd wanted back then was to be free of his obligations. Strange, in all those years of anticipating an end to his servitude to that monster, Snape had never really planned on what he'd do with his freedom when he got it. And now with the Christmas festivities marking the passing of yet another year, Snape found himself looking back on these past eight years and realizing how precious little he'd done with that hard earned freedom.

With each passing day, he was becoming acutely aware that he had less of a life than some of the house ghosts. He went to meals, attended to the duties of his House and Potions classes, monitored detentions, spent what little spare time remaining on his private research, but inside, he felt as dead as Binns. He was only forty-eight years old, still a young man in his prime by wizards' standards, and yet, he felt old and used up.

Nothing moved him anymore, on any but the most superficial of levels. Oh, he could terrify children and treat his insipid co-workers to a scathing retort every now and then. He had only to glower down the table at Longbottom to reduce the man to a fork-dropping wreak, but his heart wasn't in it anymore. Hadn't been since Albus' death, were he to be honest. He was just existing these days, biding his time.

Waiting for death?

The morbidity of the thought sickened him. He was not a sentimental man. He was not given to self-pity. Wallowing was not his style.

But he was self-aware enough to recognize that the death of the sole friend he'd made in his lifetime had changed him in ways he couldn't begin to understand. He'd been alone his entire life. His childhood and adolescence had been miserable, but as an adult he'd come to appreciate solitude.

But lately he'd learned the difference between being alone and being lonely. Albus' death had changed his close-guarded solitude into soul draining loneliness, and he hadn't a clue how to alleviate his problem. He'd never asked for Dumbledore's friendship, and, consequently, had never realized how very much he depended upon it until it was gone. Not surprisingly, no queue had formed to take on Albus' dubious honour of being Hogwart's misanthropic potions master's only friend.

For the longest time, he hadn't even recognized the need for human contact in his life, but now that he was aware of that . . . lack, Snape had no idea how to change things.

How did a vetted curmudgeon attract friends? His colleagues were all good people, almost simpering with kindness (and that type of thought was definitely not going to win him friends or influence people, he chided himself). If he made a friendly overture, surely one of them would respond in kind, providing he didn't kill the unsuspecting soul with the shock of Severus Snape attempting to be pleasant.

But he'd spent the last thirty years in this school snarling to keep others at bay. He didn't know how to make small talk or how to exchange pleasantries. Hell, he couldn't even return his colleagues' *Happy Christmas* greetings this morning without making his response into a sneer.

His pride wouldn't allow him to appear weak, to admit to this unexpected need. After all, he'd turned self-sufficiency into an art form. And beyond that, he didn't *want* to be pleasant. He didn't want to transform himself into some blithering simpleton. Albus had never required him to change, had accepted him the way he was – greasy hair, snarls, death mark, and all. Surely, there must be one other soul somewhere who could be equally accommodating. All he really wanted was not to be so eternally alone, to have someone to share the occasional intelligent conversation with, someone who didn't tense up when he entered a room. It didn't seem like too much to ask from life.

And perhaps it wasn't, for normal people – for those who had never made mistakes too big to be forgiven; for those who would happily suffer fools, in short, for those who were worthy of friendship – people like Potter and his friends.

He had only to glance two empty seats to his left to where the fabled three sat with their heads close together to find proof of that. Not one of them had ever had difficulty attracting companions. Even now they were doing it as they worked to make the nervous students sitting at the teachers' table for the holiday meal feel less anxious.

The two Gryffindor second year boys, first year Hufflepuff girl, and second year Ravenclaw boy still looked like they were afraid to eat at the same table with their teachers, but Potter and Weasley were doing their best to dispel the children's nervousness.

Snape didn't know why they were bothering. It had been his experience that nervous children were far less likely to misbehave than those at ease.

He frowned at his co-workers' antics, not sure if his displeasure came from sheer envy or his disapproval of Potter and Weasley's unseemly behaviour. They were Hogwarts professors, for heaven's sake, not circus clowns. But the pair were currently acting like the half-time entertainment during a World Quidditch Cup Match. They were regaling the four wide-eyed students sitting across from them with an impromptu drumming session of seasonal carols on their plates and goblets.

From their expressions, it was clear that their pupils had never suspected their teachers capable of childish antics such as the three infamous war veterans had displayed at the feast. Weasley was banging away on his empty gold plate with a denuded turkey leg, the resulting sounds bearing no resemblance to music or rhythm, Snape irritably noted. Potter was tapping his fork against his goblet in counterpoint, while Granger -- he could never think of anyone that brilliant as a *Weasley* -- made ineffectual requests to stop it and laughed at their tomfoolery.

The giggling trio didn't look like professors at all. Aside from Miss Granger's loss of common sense in joining the Weasley clan, little had changed since Snape had taught them.

They were taller, of course – all but Potter, he amended.

Once it would have pleased him immensely that his old nemesis' son had remained a skinny runt. But Snape no longer thought of the DADA professor with the unkempt black hair solely in terms of his father. They'd fought far too many battles together for Snape to make that kind of mistake. James would never have been able to unite them during the war the way Harry had. There had been too much conceit in the father for James to share the glory. But Harry . . . for all that Snape had considered the boy a glory hound in their earliest days together, he'd come to recognize that Potter hated his fame as much as Snape did.

And, looking at him now, Snape was forced to admit that Potter wasn't all that small. What normal sized man wouldn't appear dwarfed by Ronald Weasley's height? Weasley's wife had grown up long and lithe as well, so Potter looked doubly small sitting between them.

Still, Potter's compact stature was no handicap. It had served him well during the war and had afterwards made him the best professional Quidditch Seeker the Chudley Cannons had ever had.

And now?

Potter puzzled him these days.

Snape couldn't say with any certainty why the most famous man in the Wizarding World had even deigned to teach at Hogwarts, when the entire world was his for the taking. When the interim DADA professor had retired three years ago and Minerva had told Snape of her intention to offer the post to Potter, Snape had laughed in her face and told her that not even Potter would be fool enough to abandon a career that was making him the richest wizard of this age. But three weeks after McGonagall had sent her owl, Potter had shown up for the first staff meeting and had displayed no intention of leaving Hogwart's since.

In the blink of an eye, Potter had gone from unparalleled fame to utter obscurity. It made absolutely no sense to Snape. After his defeat of Voldemort and unparalleled Quidditch career, nothing had been beyond Harry Potter's reach. He could have pursued the more glamorous career of an auror or worked his way up the Ministry ladder. Hell, if he'd wanted to be Minister of Magic, all the Potter boy would have had to do was ask. But, instead, at Minerva's first request, he'd packed up his Firebolt, left his fame and fans behind, to return alone to Hogwart's, where he lived nearly as solitary a life as its despised potions master.

And, that, too, mystified Snape. Where it made sense for a misanthrope like himself to live the life of a cloistered monk here at Hogwarts, Harry was an attractive young man, barely twenty-six years of age. While Potter was with the Cannons, he'd had a very active social life. Though Snape had made no attempt to keep up with his former student's romantic conquests, there was no way you could live in the Wizarding World and not be aware of Potter's fling of the week, what with it being advertised on the cover of seemingly every publication, with the possible exception of Potions Weekly. But since Potter had arrived here, he hadn't dated at all, as far as Snape could tell.

Although they were discreet, all of the young professors seemed to have active romantic lives. Even Longbottom apparated somewhere every Friday and Saturday night. But Potter just stayed at the school, seemingly content to remain forever with the Weasleys as a third wheel.

"Ahum," Minerva cleared her throat from the end of the table, her blue stare focused on Weasley's instrument.

The lanky redhead dropped the turkey leg as if it had transfigured into a hot poker. The guilty expression on his freckled face was exactly the same one he'd worn when twelve. It set the four students sitting across from him off into another fit of uncontrollable giggles.

Snape watched as Potter smoothly returned his fork to the table, with the same infuriating cool he'd always maintained when caught doing something forbidden.

"So," Potter said in his usual soft tone, as if they'd been doing nothing childish, "what did we decide? Is it essential to speak the spell to work magic?" McGonagall's gaze turned back to her own plate. "Or can it be done without words . . . without wands?"

"Oh, not that again," Granger complained. "I thought we'd settled that ages ago. We can't do real magic before we get wands or learn spells, so they are required."

"No," Potter mildly objected, "you decided that. We didn't. Did we, Ron?"

Weasley swallowed a large mouthful of pudding and answered, "I don't know, Harry. I was never able to do a thing before I came to school unless I snitched Fred or George's wand and used whatever incantation they'd been practicing around me."

"Well, I was able to make things happen when I was with the Dursleys without either wand or words," Potter said.

"But that's you, Harry," Granger said. "You've always been able to do things a lot of us can't."

"I think we just think we can't," Potter replied.

"Would you want to face a Death Eater without your voice or wand?" Weasley questioned.

Potter gave a subdued, "I have."

"Yes, but that's you," Weasley said. "Any of the rest of us would've been dead."

"I agree that we've come to rely on our wand and spells to the point that when they are denied to us, many of us are left as good as helpless, but I think that's because we believe we can't work magic without our props. I think if we were trained to do magic without wands, we could."

"In that case, why don't we just train the first years to fly without brooms?" Granger suggested with a sarcasm that rivalled Snape's own.

Weasley and the students laughed at the suggestion, but Potter replied, "Maybe we should."

"Harry, really!" Granger protested.

"Think about it Hermione. The brooms are made to be streamlined and fast, but they won't fly if a Muggle child sits on one. They don't work unless a wizard or witch mounts them. We fly. The brooms don't. We don't use either wands or words to power them. They just work the way we want them to, the way we expect them to."

"Oh, for heaven's sake! The broom acts as a wand. It channels our power," Granger answered.

"But it's still us powering the flight, not the broom. What do you think, Professor?" Potter's bespectacled gaze slid past Weasley to settle upon him.

Snape could see how Potter's pulling him into the conversation had startled his two adult companions and horrified the students. It was clear the other six had all but forgotten that the reclusive potions master was even sitting there. But unlike Granger and Weasley, Potter had been an active field agent during the war. He was always aware when someone was observing him, even if that person appeared to be paying complete attention to his own meal.

Seeing that Potter really did want his opinion on the matter, Snape spoke slowly on the subject as his thoughts formed, "We are given wands . . . and taught incantations to focus the power with which we are born. Most wizards come to rely completely upon these tools to focus their magic. When their crutches are removed, those wizards dependent upon them are rendered as helpless as newborn babes. But there are those rare few who learn to rely on their magic itself, and not on the tools that channel it. Albus Dumbledore, the dark wizard Voldemort, Professors Quirrel, and Potter here are among those who have mastered wandless magic in our age."

"You neglected yourself in that list. The brewing of potions requires neither wands nor words, yet it takes formidable power to achieve a truly potent brew. That's why there are so few potions masters today," Potter remarked.

Snape stared hard at Potter's face, searching for some hidden insult, but the words appeared sincere. Startled by the compliment, Snape arched a brow and answered in his most condescending tone to cover his uneasiness, "It goes without saying that the brewing of potions requires a superior individual."

Weasley barely masked his snort. Granger's disdainful huff was only slightly less noticeable.

Potter's green eyes sparked with amusement behind his round glasses as he laughed aloud and answered, "But, of course."

"So, Professor Snape, you really believe that wandless magic is possible for all wizards, not just the very powerful ones like Harry?" Granger questioned.

"None of our Muggle-born students would be here at all, were it not," Snape pointed out.

She gave an embarrassed flush. "I never thought of that."

"Obviously," Snape drolly replied, earning a barely suppressed chuckle from Potter.

"What about words? Even Harry usually speaks when he uses wandless magic," Weasley challenged.

"Yes, but I have seen him cast spells without wand or voice," Snape responded.

"What about you? Can you work magic without using them?" Weasley demanded. "And I don't mean potion making, 'cause that's different. If someone were cursing you, could you defend yourself without lifting a hand or using your voice?"

"Like you, Professor Weasley, I prefer my crutches," Snape sourly admitted. "Especially my wand."

"But you still believe that children can be taught to work magic without either?" Ganger asked.

"I believe it is possible. I make no claims as to its practicality. It is difficult enough to teach some," Snape's gaze couldn't help but seek out Longbottom at that point, "with such props. And I believe there is an inherent danger to the idea."

"What danger?" Potter asked.

"When we recite an incantation, voice a spell, or wave a wand, we are making a conscious decision to use our power to affect a situation," Snape explained. All three of his co-workers nodded their understanding. "We have to stop, think, and focus before our will is executed. That delay, infinitesimal as it may be, gives the wizard an opportunity to consider the consequences of his use of magic in the situation. But should we remove those props and teach children to work magic by thought alone, what is to stop their every impulse from being executed by magic? Think of how many times a day, even as adults, we find ourselves wishing we could hex some bothersome fool. How often have all of us wished we could perform an Unforgivable Curse in some situation? Remove our props from the equation and we'd have bedlam."

"I never thought of that. But you're right. If all it took to work magic was a thought, neither Malfoy nor I would've made it through first year," Potter admitted.

And Potter's father would never have survived long enough to sire him, Snape thought. "Precisely."

"Has there been anything written on it?" Weasley asked, confirming Snape's suspicion that the man had never opened a book from the library that Granger hadn't put in front of him.

Granger rolled her eyes at her husband's ignorance and said, "Tomes. But most of them are theories. There has been surprisingly little empirical work done to back up the theories."

"The 17th century alchemist, Anton Chartier, did a very interesting treatise on his experiments on the nature of magic that dealt with these very issues," Snape said. "He took a group of twenty orphaned ten year old wizards and attempted to teach them wandless, wordless magic."

Granger's brown eyes grew as eager as a student's on the last day of class. "I haven't seen that one in the library."

"Only you would know what books the library doesn't have," Weasly mumbled beside her.

"Understandable enough, as it is part of my private collection. You are welcome to borrow it, if you'd like," Snape was surprised to hear himself offer.

"Thank you. I would," Granger said with a smile.

"I'll have it ready for you in the morning," Snape promised.

"So what happened in the study?" Potter asked.

"Eighteen of the test subjects died before age twelve. One of the two survivors spent his adolescence bound as a slave to the strongest of the group," Snape discretely edited, in light of their students' presence.

"And?" Potter prompted.

"Normally trained wizards could not stand up to Chartier's protégée. His magic was too fast, too raw. Chartier himself had touble controlling the boy. The boy was not quite up to Voldemort's level of malevolence, but he was a danger to the whole of the Wizarding World. Chartier finally ended up poisoning him at his sixteenth birthday celebration. The boy's companion tried to avenge his master's murder and Chartier killed him as well. A rather grim outcome to prove a theory, I'm afraid."

"No wonder nobody tries to teach magic without props," Granger said.

"But it did prove the theory. Propless magic is possible," Potter said.

"Perhaps," Snape said.

"What do you mean 'perhaps'? Chartier taught them to work propless magic," Potter argued.

"Perhaps he did teach them, but I don't believe so," Snape answered. "Eighty percent of his test subjects perished within months of the start of his experiment. That is approximately the number of wizards whose natural power levels aren't strong enough to work wandless magic. I believe one of his subjects was someone whose natural talents ran as high as your own, someone who could perform those same feats without props under duress."

"Where did you get that figure from? How do you know eighty percent can't perform wandless magic?" Potter questioned.

Snape was quiet for a moment, forming his thoughts. If he said this incorrectly, the results could be catastrophic. "I've taught at Hogwarts for nearly twenty-eight years. Each year, there are usually two such as yourself, Potter, wizards filled with such raw power that very little would be outside their reach if they worked to attain their potential. But as in all things, most people choose to take the easiest course in life, and those with extra potential learn to rely on their props and learn what they can't do, rather than take the initiative to explore their true capabilities."

"You said two every year," Granger jumped in. "Who was the second one our term?"

"Malfoy?" Weasley guessed.

Snape raised his right eyebrow and drolly offered his opinion, "Actually, it was Longbottom."

"Neville!" Granger exclaimed in such a loud voice that the object of their conversation looked their way.

"Yes, Hermione?" Longbottom called from the far end of the table, appearing nervous to even have to glance Snape's way.

"Ah . . . could you please pass the custard tarts?" Granger stammered.

Looking his usual, confused state, Longbottom obligingly handed down the plate of treats, diplomatically not mentioning that an identical plateful of sweets sat in easy reach of Granger.

"Surely, you're joking," Hermione whispered once she'd settled the platter next to her goblet.

"I assure you, I'm not. Neville Longbottom had the potential; he was simply terrified of his own powers," Snape said.

"How can you say that? He was . . . ." Looking at the four students across from him, who seemed absorbed in their own conversation, Weasley broke off, the *hopeless* they all heard remaining unvoiced.

Lowering his voice, Snape said, "He had tremendous raw power. Even completely harmless potions would explode around Mr. Longbottom. It's my understanding that he had similar results in every one of his classes. He could rarely produce the desired result, but his mistakes were always spectacular."

"He could be right," Potter thoughtfully added, "Remember our first flying lesson? The minute Neville held onto his broom, he was airborne."

"And he always transfigured his object into something, just not what we were trying to achieve," Granger reminded.

"Yeah, but, he was totally out of control," Weasley argued.

"Yes, but the potential was still there. If he'd learned to control it . . . that's what you're talking about, isn't it?" Potter asked.

Snape nodded, relieved that he hadn't been misinterpreted. There was a time when he would have been accused of using them all as guinea pigs in an experiment had he voiced these observations.

"So, if you're correct, what does happen to those two with potential?" Granger wondered. "Why isn't there a Harry and a Voldemort in every graduating class?"

Snape noted she was wise enough to understand that the power might pull them in different directions. "The same thing that happens to every child in school, whether wizard or muggle. They blend in with their peers. They believe the power strictures placed upon them and forget what they used to be able to do before they came for Wizarding training."

"So, what you're saying is that we train ourselves to believe that we can't do magic without words or wands to protect the Wizarding World as whole?" Weasley asked.

"In a sense." Snape nodded, thinking that this was the first conversation he'd ever had with Ronald Weasley that was bereft of animosity. It felt strange, but not unpleasant.

"I read a book about that last year, Wizard Training and its Crippling Effects on the Naturally Gifted by Rosa Lawrence," Granger said, continuing to describe the theory.

To Snape's utter astonishment, he realized that he was enjoying the conversation. He couldn't recall the last time he'd had so intellectually stimulating a debate, certainly, never at the Hogwarts dinner table.

As Potter, Granger and Snape discussed the various articles they'd read on the nature of magic, the bored children sitting across from them left the table one by one.

Snape could see how strange this was to them all. Although they'd worked together as colleagues for almost eight years now, his former students seemed almost nervous conversing with the potions master as equals. After almost every statement they made, the Weasleys seemed to hold their breath, as if waiting for Snape to explode on them like one of Longbottom's more spectacular mishaps. Potter was the only one who seemed relaxed, but then, he'd never had the sense to fear him

For once the Christmas evening meal did not seem an endless ordeal. In fact, Snape was almost disappointed when the last of the diners finished, leaving only the four of them keeping the house elves from their clean up tasks.

"I guess we'd better clear out," Weasley said at last. "We still have to change for the party. I'm not wearing my dress robes to the Three Broomsticks."

"Heaven forbid you look decent for more than an hour a year," Granger snarked.

"Very funny," Weasley grumbled.

"Ah, Professor Snape?" Potter seemed nervous as he turned back to him.

"Yes?" Snape answered.

"Rosmerta is having a Yuletide celebration this evening. A group of us are, ah, going, if you'd like to join us?" Potter asked.

Snape couldn't tell who was more shocked by the DADA teacher's invitation – himself or Potter's companions.

To his unending shock, Snape was genuinely tempted to accept, even though he normally loathed such sentimental foolishness. However, the expressions on the Weasleys' faces made it quite clear that his presence would put a definite damper on the festivities. Weasley looked as though Potter had just exposed himself before a class of first years. Though Granger's response was less obvious, she, too, appeared stunned.

"Unfortunately, I have some work to complete tonight, but thank you for the offer," Snape lied, without a trace of his trademark sarcasm.

He could see the relief flash across the Weasleys' faces, but Potter didn't seem to share their feelings. Although he didn't appear surprised by the rejection, there was something almost like regret in his pale green eyes as he said, "Perhaps another time then."

"Perhaps," Snape did not commit himself.

"Well, Happy Christmas, then," Potter wished, rising from the table.

Snape nodded as Potter's companions echoed the sentiment.

As the trio left, he heard the tall redhead demand in what passed for a whisper in the Weasley universe, "Have you lost your mind, Harry? What if he'd agreed to go?"

Snape strained his ears for the response. But Potter had a modicum of discretion and whatever he said went no further than his companions. By the time Snape had even considered a sound enhancing charm, the three were out of the Great Hall.

Besides, even if he had had the presence of mind to work the spell, wizards of Potter and Granger's sensitivity would have been immediately aware of his actions.

His heart more heavy than it had been at the start of the evening, Snape returned to his quarters, doing his best to ignore the flashing strings of lights, real fairies, and carolling suits of armour on his way back to the dungeons.

His private rooms were blessedly free of seasonal cheer. But only in that way were they lacking. He remembered the few times he'd had visitors to his chambers. They had always seemed surprised that Snape's rooms did not reflect the asceticism his sombre clothes and demeanour suggested. He supposed that the well-lit, book lined sitting room with its lush brown rug, Slytherin green velvet couch, wing backed arm chairs, and highly polished mahogany desk, end and side tables didn't jibe with most people's expectations, but Voldemort's hospitality had convinced him at quite an early age that minimalism could be taken too far.

The book he'd started that afternoon on the possible use of the deadly mandrake root in a truth serum consumed the remainder of the night.

Hours later, Snape finally closed the tome. What an incredible waste of time! Six hundred pages of theory, all for a concoction that killed its test subjects. The fact that the drug had forced them to reveal the truth before their painful demise in some way alleviated the uselessness of the book, but a truth serum that killed its subjects was extremely impractical. One might just as well put the poor sod under Cruciatus until he broke down and told you what you wanted to know, Snape thought, resolving to have another discussion with Blott about vetting the books he sold before putting them on the shelves.

He replaced the book in its place on his theory shelf. Recalling his promise to Granger, he found the Chartier treatise and left it out on the end table so that he'd remember to bring it to breakfast with him.

Weary to the bone, Snape completed his nightly ablutions, entered his bedroom, and donned his nightshirt. The huge four-poster with its dark green curtains sang a siren's song to his aching muscles.

With a flick of his wand, he doused the torches on the wall, his soundless gesture bringing to mind this evening's discussion, which inevitably roused memories of its less than pleasant ending.

The truly annoying part was that he couldn't even be angry with Weasley for his reaction. It was, after all, precisely the response he'd laboured a lifetime to achieve. Albus had always warned him to be careful of what he wished for. Ah, well, such was life.

Cautious as ever, Snape slipped his wand beneath his pillow, where it had rested every night since Mr. Olivander first slipped it into his hand.

Back in school, it had been his inbred paranoia that had caused him to keep it so close. The other students in his dorm had laughed at him. Not even Lucius kept his wand under his pillow. For a long time, Snape had been almost self-conscious about the precaution.

It was only after he'd joined Voldemort that he'd realized how wise his younger self had been. He couldn't count the number of victims that he and the other Death Eaters had surprised wandless in their beds and finished off easy as Muggles. The war might be eight years over, but Snape was determined to never be caught with his pants down.

Unlike Potter, he did not excel at wandless magic. And even the living legend was better with wand in hand than without it. As he slipped in between cool silver sheets, he briefly wondered if Potter still slept with his under his pillow as well.

Damn, he would have to think of Potter again. Fifteen years ago, he'd envied the boy his celebrity. Snape gave a sardonic twist of his lips as he acknowledged how much he'd matured over the years. Now, he'd advanced to envying Potter his people skills. He supposed that meant something.

Pathetic, that was what it was, truly pathetic.

And yet, as he settled down into his bed, Snape couldn't help but wonder what it was like to be Harry Potter, to have been raised in a nourishing environment that promoted friendship and trust, instead of having endured a childhood where one's humanity was excised as a weakness. How different would he have turned out if he'd had a friend like Potter or even Weasley when young? Or if he'd had any friend at all?

Stars, but he hated Christmas. It made even heartless bastards like him wax maudlin. Enough of this. All he needed was a good night's sleep. Doubtless, it was just the season, during which Albus' absence was always most keenly felt, that had made him feel so dissatisfied with his life. Tomorrow was another day.

Turning over onto his side, Snape's hand snaked under his pillow. With the reassuring comfort of his wand gripped tightly in his fist, he thrust all self-pity from his thoughts, allowing sleep to court his tired body.

His mind drifted, worries fading.

Outside, the winter night was filled with wind, biting cold and ice. Its chill slowly invaded the subterranean dungeon. For once, he didn't notice the discomfort.

Warm in his dream, Snape ran across a sun-warmed field. He was barefoot and the grass felt sensually cool as it squished between his toes. He couldn't help but note how tiny his feet looked.

And there was something else strange. He was laughing, with pure joy and physical glee, happy as he could never recall being in real life, or even in most of his dreams, for that matter.

There was another oddity. His feet weren't the only ones slapping the dewy grass, nor was his boyish laughter the only sound piercing the sunny field.

Curious, he glanced to his left, and received confirmation that he was, indeed, dreaming. As if joy like this could have left him in any doubt.

There at his side ran Harry Potter, or the boyish version thereof. A grin on his face, his scar revealed as his black fringe bobbed in the breeze, his tiny body swimming in a pair of brown short pants and blue short-sleeved top that were at least five sizes too large. The Boy Who Lived was in fact a boy. Potter looked younger than Snape had ever seen him. Looking at Potter, Snape decided that he was about six or seven years of age, probably a year or so younger than his dream self, judging by the size difference. Snape was a head taller and markedly wider.

As if feeling his gaze, Potter turned his way.

To Snape's surprise, the smile grew wider. "Told you I could keep up. I'll beat you to him."

Potter took off with a burst of speed. Looking in the direction his companion had taken, something painful clutched tight in Snape's chest.

There, at the end of the field, dressed in his high-heeled boots and silver starred, lilac robes, stood Albus Dumbledore, grinning like a madman.

Snape increased his speed.

Normally, in his dreams, when he did something like this, Albus would vanish or crumble into dust when he got close to him. But tonight his old friend remained solid.

Tears of joy streaming from his eyes, Snape crashed into the long-bearded wizard, clutching at Dumbledore and feeling Potter do the same right next to him.

Albus bent down and drew them both into a tight embrace. Snape could never recall anyone hugging him like this.

"Severus, Harry! How good to see you!"

"Professor . . . ."

"Albus . . . ."

Judging by his wavery, childish voice, Potter seemed as upset as he was.

"It's been so long, sir, so very long," Potter rasped, giving voice to Snape's thought.

"There, there, boys. There's no need for tears," Albus comforted, patting their backs as they both hugged tighter. Snape could feel Potter's sweaty hand beneath his own on Albus' back as they tried to get as close as possible. Their sides were pressed together in their effort to get closer to Dumbledore. It almost felt as though they were hugging each other as well as Albus, but neither of them seemed to mind. They'd both loved the old man like a father.

"You've done me proud, working together as you have. You've made me so happy," Albus said. "But it troubles me that neither of you have found the joy you deserve."

"I'm happy now," Potter said.

"Ah, I'm glad to hear that, Harry, but you know this is just a dream," Albus said.

"It had to be. I was never this happy when little," Potter once again voiced Snape's sentiments.

"I wish it were real," Snape whispered, not recognizing the high, but soft voice as his own.

Both he and Potter lifted their heads out of Dumbledore's soft beard far enough to see his face.

"I suppose you both do. I'm afraid that neither one of you had an easy childhood. I always wished that I could change that for you both, but circumstances wouldn't allow it. Do you understand?" Dumbledore's normal glitter seemed dimmed, his guilt an almost palpable presence.

"You can't change things like that, sir," Potter said.

"No, I suppose not. We can only take our comfort in the present. I always hoped that by working so closely together that you would become friends. Has that happened yet?" Dumbledore asked.

A fast glance at each other and then Potter, the eternal Gryffindor, was answering, "No. He still doesn't like me."

Those piercing blue eyes settled on him.

"Is that true, Severus?" Dumbledore asked without rancour, but Snape could feel the unspoken disappointment.

"I don't know how to be a friend. You know that better than anyone, Albus," Snape softly denied, his face hot with embarrassment. Even here in his dreams he was letting Albus down.

"To the contrary, Severus. I found you a most loyal and devoted comrade. I'm certain Harry would, too, if you'd just let him," Dumbledore counselled.

"Let him? I don't know how . . . I never learned how," he whispered, wishing this man didn't call the honesty straight up from his very soul. "You never cared that I didn't know how to be nice. Everyone else does."

"Ah, yes. I suppose that would be an impediment. What if you were given the opportunity to learn these things you feel were omitted in your upbringing – would you take it?" Albus questioned, the sunlight glinting off his silver beard and half moon spectacles.

Pinned by those eyes, Snape gave a slow nod. "If I could."

"And would you help him, Harry?" Dumbledore asked.

Potter met Dumbledore's gaze and then glanced at Snape before uttering a single syllable, "Yes."

"Because Albus asked it of you?" Snape snapped, hating the very idea of being pitied. He'd rather remain miserable than have Potter befriend him out of a sense of duty to Dumbledore.

"No, because I'd like to be your friend," Potter replied, his gaze and tone level, if the latter pitched much higher than Snape was accustomed to hearing.

"Why?" Snape asked in equal measures of suspicion and bewilderment.

"Because when you're not being too vicious, you make me laugh. I like your sense of humour, and your ruthless intelligence . . . and how bloody stubborn you can be. I also appreciate that you never once left me to die during the war, even when I probably deserved it," Potter answered, his light green eyes fixed squarely on Snape's.

Snape swallowed hard. He knew the truth when he heard it.

Finding his voice, he tested the veracity of the claims. "If asked, most would deem me completely humourless."

"Only those who don't know you," Potter answered. "Even Ron laughs when you get sarcastic these days."

"Ah, just what I aspire to in life – to be a source of amusement to a Weasley," Snape snarled.

"That type of comment is not going to aid your cause, Severus," Albus gently pointed out.

"And being a buffoon to mental incompetents is? I - I don't know if I want to be what most simpletons call . . . nice," Snape warned.

His disgust must have shown because Potter grinned. For once, he wasn't taking issue with the insult to his friend. "I don't think anyone would want you to do anything that radical."

"Then what would it take?" Snape felt lost again. Clearly, he didn't have any idea what the problem was, if not his lack of good will.

"Maybe you could take down some of your No Trespassing signs and let one or two of us a little closer?" Potter suggested.

"I . . . ." That don't know how line was getting a little old, Snape thought.

"Well, Severus, what shall it be? Will you let me help you?" Dumbledore asked.

Snape gave a tense nod. He'd faced Voldemort's wrath with less fear.

"Very well, then. I will give you your chance to learn, Severus. Use it well. But for now, let's chase some butterflies, shall we?" Dumbledore gave them a tight squeeze before releasing them. He stood up, waved a hand into which three wire and mesh butterfly nets instantly appeared. After handing one to each of the startled youngsters, Albus Dumbledore grinned and hared off after a cabbage leaf butterfly that was fluttering about ten yards away.

For a moment, Potter and Snape looked at each other out of adult eyes as their headmaster ran off in hot pursuit of the fluttering insect. The absurdity of the scene was no doubt reflected in both their faces.

"I've never chased a butterfly in my life," Snape cautiously admitted, staring down at the net in his hand, having no clue what to do with the thing. "Have you?"

"No, but it does look like fun," Potter answered, giving his own net an experimental swish, like a first year trying out wands.

"It always seemed a senseless pursuit when I watched other boys doing this when I was young. Unless one was going to use the butterfly in a potion, capturing one seemed an incredible waste of time and energy," Snape admitted.

"Something doesn't have to make sense to be fun," Potter said. "Some of the most enjoyable things are actually rather ridiculous."

"But . . . ."

"There's no one here to see us," Potter seemed to pick up on the true source of his hesitation. "And I'll never tell. I promise. I did mean what I said. I'll help you any way I can."

"And precisely how will chasing butterflies help me learn to be a friend?" Snape dubiously questioned, the enquiry just this side of cynicism. Still, when he saw Albus racing across the field, he ached to join him, no matter how idiotic his current pursuit.

Snape tensed as Potter reached out to give his shoulder a squeeze. "I haven't a clue. Come on. Just try it and don't worry about all that, okay?"

And then Potter turned and ran off to follow Dumbledore.

For a long moment, Snape stood there, feeling very left behind. This wasn't him. He couldn't waste his time with foolishness like this. He should be . . . .

"Severus, hurry up! All the good ones will be gone!" Albus called out to him.

What he should be doing vanished from his mind. He had a chance to spend some time with his only friend. What did it matter what they were doing? After eight years, it felt good to simply be with Albus again. And, chasing butterflies was certainly a lot safer than some of the things he'd done at this man's behest.

Feeling his own mouth quirk up into a hesitant, unfamiliar smile, Snape gave his net a swoosh and jogged off after his two companions.

Chasing butterflies might, in fact, be an entirely senseless pursuit, but as he and Potter trailed their loony headmaster across the wildflower dotted field, Snape began to understand that Potter was right. Joy didn't necessarily have to make sense. It just had to be experienced. And he'd done so little experiencing in his life.

Desperately wishing that he had more time than just a dream to learn about these things that his childhood had never taught him, Snape immersed himself in the butterfly chase.

**********

He was warm. That was the first thing Harry Potter noticed when he started to wake up. It wasn't the stifling, oppressive heat that filled his cupboard in the summer. This was pleasant, like the heat in Dudley's room in the winter months when Harry's cupboard would be freezing.

Something else wasn't right. There were no metal slats digging through his cot's thin mattress into his back. To the contrary, the mattress he was on was thick and cushiony. Maybe he'd fallen asleep on Dudley's bed, or, God forbid, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon's? If that were the case, he'd better get out of it right away.

Panic spreading through him, Harry's eyes snapped open. The room around him was blurry, but it was definitely too big to be his cupboard.

Instinctively, he groped around for the milk crate he kept as a night table at the left side of his cot. That was where he usually left his glasses.

Sure enough, his fingers touched their cool metal frames. Relaxing, Harry put them on. Only, they were too big. As soon as he put the glasses on the bridge of his nose, they tried to slide down. If he'd broken them again, Aunt Petunia would murder him. He fiddled with the sides and finally managed to get them to stay up on his face. If they were broken . . . .

The thought trailed off as he stared in shock at his surroundings. He was in a huge four-poster bed. It was fully three times as wide as his cupboard. And the rest of the room . . . .

Harry gulped. The walls were made of huge grey stone blocks, the floor between the area rugs was flagstone, and the windows were long, wide affairs with bevelled glass casements. He'd never seen a fireplace as huge as the one across the room from the bed. And the heavy wooden furniture looked like something that belonged in a king's room.

He jumped at a sound to his right. There beside the window stood an open birdcage. A huge white owl sat watching him out of curious golden eyes from its perch within. The bird gave a twitter that sounded like a question.

Harry swallowed hard, trying not to panic.

Another fainter noise drew his attention back to the nightstand he'd taken his glasses off. He stared in confusion at the big glass jar there. There were holes punched in its lid. Inside was a collection of flowers and grass at the bottom. Above the bedding, three white butterflies with black spots on their wings danced madly. The jar also contained two tiny lavender butterflies, and a huge orange and black one that was the most amazing thing he'd seen in his life; aside from the room, that was. The noise was being made by the butterflies colliding with the walls of the jar.

What a strange and wonderful place! He knew he still had to be dreaming, but when he pinched his arm, it hurt.

Eager to explore, he slid out of bed, and nearly measured his length. He was wearing some kind of linen nightgown that went down past his feet. When he pulled it up to keep from falling, his head and shoulders slipped straight through the head opening and the thing pooled around his feet. He blushed as he realized he was naked.

Harry quickly picked the garment up and held it out. It looked like a man's nightshirt. He'd only seen them on television, so he couldn't be sure, but it certainly appeared to be the same type of pyjamas that Scrooge had worn in the Christmas special Dudley had been watching that time Aunt Petunia had caught Harry after he'd snuck out of his cupboard. Looking around the room, he could see no children-sized clothing, not even anything of Dudley's. There was a long black robe of some kind draped across a chair in the corner, but that also looked long enough to fit a giant. Seeing nothing for it, Harry squiggled back into the nightshirt and did his best not to slip out of its neck again.

That sorted out, he hiked up the bottom and crossed the room to peer at some pictures over the mantelpiece. He'd never been that close to an open flame before, so he took care to ensure that his oversized nightshirt stayed clear of the dancing fire. Back home whenever his aunt and uncle had lit a fire in their tiny hearth, Harry had been consigned to his cupboard. He rather liked the cheery flames.

Peering up at the largest picture, Harry froze. Not only were the figures in it looking back at him, two of them were waving wildly and doing all they could to attract his attention. There were three black-robed people in the picture. A very tall redheaded man with an amazingly friendly grin was on the left. He had his arm around a woman with brown bushy hair, who also had a warm smile. The third person in the photo had messy black hair, round-rimmed glasses and a scar just like his on his forehead.

Harry stared up at them in shock as the moving figures continued to wave at him and the man who looked so much like Harry that he surely must be Harry's father gave Harry a confused looking smile.

The picture beside that one showed his possible father hugging the same brown haired woman in a wedding dress. They stood in front of a ramshackle structure that looked very much like the place the Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe might have moved into if her first home were repossessed.

Were these his parents, Harry wondered.

The final photo showed his father again. This time he was standing between a grinning old man with a long white beard who was dressed in a bright blue robe and a magician's pointy hat and another man in dark robes who had stringy black hair, a sour expression, and who looked rather much the way Harry had always imagined a vampire might look. His father was once again giving Harry a bemused smile; the old man beside him was positively bursting with enthusiasm as he waved and grinned. The mean looking man was rolling his eyes and shaking his head, as if embarrassed to be photographed with the pair.

Harry didn't know what to make of it. He stood there staring at the pictures for a long time before he decided to look out the window to see where he was. The owl hooted at him as he passed its cage. He received the distinct impression that the bird didn't quite know what to make of him.

Climbing up onto the window seat, Harry gasped at the view. He hadn't been far off in his appraisal of the room being fit for a king. His window looked out upon the most incredible castle imaginable. There were spires, turrets and towers all over the enormous structure. The ground outside was wearing a thick blanket of snow, and there was a huge, half-frozen lake beyond the castle grounds. Off to his right, Harry could make out what appeared to be an endless forest.

It was like a dream come true. All those times he'd sit on his cot in the locked cupboard, playing with one of Dudley's discarded knight action figures, pretending he was a prince who'd been kidnapped and left with the Dursleys as punishment, that someday his real family would come to rescue him, and it had finally happened! This was brilliant, just like . . . .

"Harry?"

Startled by the sound, Harry took shelter beside a tall armoire. He peered hesitantly around its corner. He didn't think anyone could have entered without his hearing. The bedroom door was still closed. There was no one else in the room.

"Harry, are you in there?" a woman's voice worriedly called from the far side of the chamber.

Harry's gaze followed the direction of the sound, trailing it to the hearth.

He gave a small, horrified exclamation at the sight of a woman's head and torso amid the dancing flames. It was, he realized, the same bushy haired lady in the moving photos. His mother?

Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had always told him that his parents had died in a car crash, but maybe they'd lied. Perhaps he really had been kidnapped as a baby and his real parents had been searching for him all these years. It was possible that he'd somehow just been returned to them last night while he slept and his mother was just coming to look for him. That made sense.

But . . . what was she doing in the fireplace, in the middle of all those hot flames? Was she a ghost? Was it possible that he himself had died and that was why his mother was here looking for him now?

Frozen with fear, he stood there shivering beside the armoire.

"Hermione, will you let him be?" a man's annoyed sounding voice called from behind her. "It's the day after Christmas, for pity's sake. Let him catch up on his sleep."

The day after Christmas?

"Harry promised to help wrap the children's presents," the woman who was not on fire in his hearth turned her head as if to speak to someone behind her. "He said he'd be here at ten. He wasn't at breakfast and the picture on his door said he hasn't been out yet. He's not in his sitting room or the bedroom. He could have fallen in the bath, Ron. He could be hurt." She turned back to face his room and called out in a louder voice, "Harry, if you're in there, get decent. I'm coming to check on you."

And with that warning, the woman with the bushy hair tumbled straight out of the fire onto the oriental carpet before it.

Absolutely terrified now, Harry watched her rise to her feet and dust ashes off the long blue robe she was wearing.

"Harry? Are you in there?" she called, turning towards a door that was straight across from Harry's armoire. It was probably the bathroom, he thought.

Harry tensed, trying to shrink deeper into the shadows and make himself as small as possible, but he was as far back as he could get.

His movement seemed to attract her attention. She turned towards him, speaking fast and crossly.

"What are you playing at, Harry? You gave me a terrible fright, I thought . . . oh . . . ." her words broke off as she gaped at him. " Harry ?"

"H-hello," he stuttered, taking a hesitant step out of the shadows now that he'd been spotted. Life with his aunt and uncle had taught him that hiding never did any good. The punishment was only worse for the delay, and the horrified expression on the woman's face told him that she was no more pleased to see him than Aunt Petunia generally was when she unlocked his cupboard door in the morning. She seemed enormous as he stepped forward.

But that scary, horror-stricken expression didn't stay long on her face. As she looked at him, it turned into worry. After a moment in which she seemed to be struck as speechless as he was, she sank down to her knees.

She wasn't hulking over him. Their eyes were on a level now and he wasn't quite so frightened.

"Harry, is that you?" she asked in a gentle voice, her kind, brown eyes wide as saucers. She didn't appear upset with him anymore.

Giving a nervous gulp, he nodded. "Yes."

"Oh, dear."

Reading nothing but worry and compassion in her face, Harry blurted out, "Are you my mother?"

"What?" His question seemed to totally befuddle her, as though it were the last thing she expected him to say.

"Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon always said my parents were dead, but I thought that maybe they'd lied, that maybe I was lost or kidnapped like in the fairy tales. In the picture on top of the fireplace . . . you're wearing a weeding gown and standing with a man who looks like he might be my father, so I thought . . . ."

He'd thought wrong, obviously, but she didn't appear to be angry about his big mistake.

But she did look like she was about to cry. "No, Harry, I'm sorry. I'm not your mother."

He gulped back his reaction and lowered his stinging eyes.

"Don't you know who I am?" she softly asked.

He gave a negative shake of his head. Still staring at his cold, bare feet, he tried to hide his disappointment that she wasn't whom he'd thought she was. Her popping out of the fireplace like that had frightened him, but now that she was talking so gently with him, Harry thought that he would have liked to have a mother like her.

"My name is Hermione," she said in that same gentle voice.

He looked up at her again. She seemed to be waiting for something from him. He mightn't know much, but he did know his manners. "I'm Harry."

"I know," she smiled, and it made him feel warm down to his toes because it seemed meant just for him. "Harry, do you know what happened to you? How you got here?"

He shook his head no. "I just woke up here."

"What's the last thing you remember?"

"Ah . . . going to sleep in my cupboard, I guess," he said; although now that she asked, he wasn't sure. When he tried to remember the details of last night, they seemed very murky.

"You're not certain, though?"

"No."

For a second, she seemed at a loss, and then she asked, "Harry, how old are you?"

At least that was a question he could answer.

"Seven," he said with a smile.

"Seven," she repeated, sounding like her mind was thinking this through. "Do you know what year it is?"

"Don't you?" he asked, stunned. Grownups always knew stuff like that.

"Well, yes, I do. I just wanted to see how grown up you are," Hermione said quickly.

He wasn't sure she was telling the truth, but she was still looking at him with worried eyes, so he didn't think she meant him any harm.

"You do know what year it is?" she questioned with more than a trace of doubt after a prolonged silence.

"Of course, I do. It's 1996. That's right, isn't it?" A chill passed through him as all expression blanked from her friendly features.

For a second, she looked like she didn't want to answer. Then finally, she said, "No, Harry. It's 2017."

"But . . . that can't be. I'd be . . . "" he couldn't do the math in his head, even counting on his fingers.

"Twenty-six," Hermione softly informed.

"That can't be," he protested, his fear running wild. "Wh-what happened? How did I get here? Where's Aunt Petunia? How – how did you know my name if you didn't bring me here?"

He couldn't ever remember being this scared, even when Dudley pushed him into Aunt Petunia's favourite lamp and it broke.

"Ssssssh," Hermione soothed and then did something that no one had ever done to him when he was upset. She reached out and collected him into her arms, holding his shaking form close to her as she rubbed his back and said, "It's okay, Harry. I don't know how this happened to you, but it will be all right. I promise. You're safe here. No one is going to hurt you."

In spite of all the questions still racing through his mind, his fear stilled. He felt so safe all of a sudden.

Hermione was so warm and soft. She smelt like cinnamon and apples. It felt so wonderful to have her embracing him the way Aunt Petunia always hugged Dudley. He'd never believed that anyone would want to hold him this way.

"How do you know my name?" he asked after a while, looking up at her troubled face.

"That's a little difficult to explain." She stared down at him for a moment, as if evaluating something, and then quietly said, "What I'm going to say is probably going to be hard for you to believe. Can I ask you a question before I answer?"

If she kept hugging him like this, he'd probably let her do anything she wanted to him. But he didn't say that. He just nodded, in case his speaking would make her let go of him.

"When you were angry or upset, did you ever make something happen, something you couldn't explain?" It didn't sound like a real question. In fact, it sounded like something she already knew. But . . . he wasn't allowed to talk about those things. Every time he tried, Aunt Petunia would start screaming, then Uncle Vernon would grab him by the ear and start shaking him, and then . . . he always ended up spending a few days without meals locked in his cupboard.

He let go of her and stepped a safe distance back. He knew this was too good to be true.

It was almost as though Hermione read his mind. "Don't worry, Harry. You won't get in trouble if you answer honestly. I used to make things happen at home, too."

"You did?"

"Everyone here did." Hermione nodded. He liked her grin. It was full of mischief.

"What kind of things did you do?" he asked.

"I once broke every glass in the kitchen with a glance when my mum wouldn't let me go out to play after dark," Hermione said.

"I . . . made all the weeds pop back up in Aunt Petunia's garden one afternoon after she yelled at me because Dudley pushed me into her flower bed. And another time she shaved all my hair off and it grew back overnight," Harry dared.

True to her word, Hermione didn't punish him for talking about those forbidden subjects.

"Those talents make you special, Harry. This is a school for children who can make things like that happen," Hermione explained.

"This castle is a school?" His own school back in Little Whinging was a grim, lifeless affair. He'd never seen anything so wonderful as the castle outside his window.

"Yes."

"And that's why I was brought here? Because I can do stuff like that?" Harry asked. Things were finally beginning to make a bit of sense.

"Well, not exactly, or, at least, not recently," Hermione answered. As if realizing that she was only further confusing him, she said, "You first came to Hogwarts School of Wizarding and Witchcraft when you were eleven. You, I, and several of our other friends from school teach here now."

"I have friends?" he asked, more amazed by this than by her saying he was a teacher.

"You have lots of friends," she assured.

"I do?" he'd always wanted a friend.

"Yes."

"And I'm a teacher?"

Another smile and another "yes."

"You said . . . 'School of Wizards and . . . ?'" he repeated, thinking that it was a funny name for a school. It almost sounded as thought they taught wizards.

"Hogwarts School of Wizarding and Witchcraft. You're a wizard, Harry. The greatest wizard of our age."

He searched Hermione's warm features, but could find no hint that she was teasing him.
"I . . . that can't be. Not me. I'm just . . . ." The boy that nobody wants, flashed through his mind, but he didn't say it. Hermione wasn't acting like she didn't like him or want him here. In fact, this was the nicest anyone had ever treated him. So, he didn't voice his doubts.

It was all so much to take in. Not only had he gone to bed a grownup last night, but if Hermione was telling him the truth, and he could think of no reason why she'd lie to him about this, he was a wizard as well. And somehow, he'd gone from being a wizard to being a boy again. He didn't understand anything that was happening to him. Maybe Hermione could help him understand. "What . . . how . . . if I'm a teacher and all grown up, how'd this happen to me?"

"I don't know. Someone might have put a curse on you to turn you into a child again, but . . . " She seemed to catch herself talking out loud to herself again.

"But?" he asked.

"Let's not worry about that now, all right? I think we should go visit Madame Pomfrey and see what she has to say about all this."

"Who's Madame Pomfy?"

"Madame Pomfrey. She's our mediwitch, er . . . our doctor," Hermione explained. "She'll be able to help."

"She'll turn me back into a grownup?"

"Let's hope," Hermione smiled.

"Will it . . . hurt?" he asked in a small voice.

Hermione reached out to touch his shoulder. "I won't let anybody do anything that hurts you. I promise. Most magic doesn't hurt at all, even that which transfigures a person into a toad or something of the sort."

"Trans . . . ?" he questioned.

"Changes them," she said.

"Have you ever changed into a toad, Hermione?" he asked, remembering all the incredible fairy tales he'd read and wondering how much of that was possible.

"Not a toad, per se, but when we were in second year, we brewed a potion that trans . . . changed me into a giant cat for three weeks."

"Why did you want to be a giant cat?" he asked, although it did sound rather cool.

"I didn't. It was a mistake. I ended up having to spend the whole time in hospital. It was quite boring, actually. My paws were so awkward that I couldn't even turn the pages of my books and I kept wanting to chase mice."

"Oh."

"All right, then? Are you ready to go?" Hermione asked, holding out her hand to him.

He stepped forward to take it, only the nightshirt he was swimming in didn't move with him the way it should and it nearly fell off him again.

"That won't do," Hermione said. She took a polished stick out of her robe's pocket, pointed it at him, and said something in a language he'd never heard before. Instantly, his nightshirt shrunk to fit his form. The dead cotton moving to fit his body was a weird feeling, but not nearly so strange as that of his glasses shrinking to fit his face.

"Wow! Is that magic?" he wondered, spinning in glee in his properly sized clothing.

Hermione laughed. "Yes, Harry, that's magic."

"And I can do stuff like that?"

"You've been able to do that since you were fourteen," she said. Her eyes were on his bare feet. "We're going to have to get you something for your feet and an outer robe. Ah, there are your slippers. Run and put your feet in them while I fetch you a robe."

He raced over to the bed and put his tiny feet into the sheep-lined bedroom slippers that were sticking out from under the four-poster.

She returned with the long black garment he'd seen lying on the chair before. Hermione put the enormous thing over his shoulders, said those same two words, 'Reducio something or the other,' and the slippers and robe also changed to fit his size.

Even shrunk to fit, the robe was still so large that he had trouble finding the armholes. Surprised, he felt Hermione move the robe to help him get his arm into its sleeve.

"There, that's better," she said as she fastened the front closed for him.

She brushed a hand through his hair, as if attempting to smooth it into place. He tensed. Whenever Aunt Petunia took notice of his hair, the shouting would start, but Hermione just ruffled it a little, as though it didn't bother her too much that it wasn't all neat like Dudley's. Then she smiled down at him, her eyes warm and glittering. "We're ready to go now."

He wondered if this was what it felt like to have a mother.

Her gaze slid past him, stopping at the bed and night table behind him.

"Harry?"

"Yes?"

"Do you know what that jar is doing there?" Hermione walked over to pick up the oversized glass jar with the butterflies in it.

"No. It was there when I woke up. "

"How strange," she said, staring thoughtfully in at the flying bugs.

"Don't I like butterflies?" Harry asked, confused.

"I'm sure you like them fine, Harry. I just don't know where you would have gotten them in December."

"Do you think they were here when I went to sleep?" he questioned.

"I doubt it. Perhaps we'd best bring them with us," she decided, tucking the jar under her left elbow.

He didn't understand why she did that until she held her right hand out to him.

He quickly took the offered hand, gazing up at her in awe as her warm palm closed protectively around his small, sweaty one. He'd only known her a few minutes and already she'd shown him more kindness than his aunt and uncle had in his entire life.

She led him out the bedroom door, through a sitting room he hadn't even known existed, and then to a huge corridor beyond.

"Who's this, then?" he jumped as a gruff voice sounded behind him as the sitting room door closed behind them.

Clutching Hermione's hand for dear life, Harry swung around to ogle the speaker. It was an oil painting on the front of his door, an old man with a red beard dressed in a black robe like the one Harry was wearing and a pointy witch's hat.

"Hello, Martin," Hermione greeted the oil painting's inhabitant. "Harry's had a bit of a mishap. We're going to sort him out now."

"Well, see that you do! Mishap, indeed!" the old man harrumphed as Hermione led him down the hall.

Martin wasn't the only picture that moved and talked. The corridor was lined with paintings, and every one of their subjects seemed to take an inordinate interest in Harry.

When they reached a turn in the corridor, Harry saw a blond boy race by. The boy was dressed in a black robe with a red and golden emblem stitched on it like a badge.

"Stanton!" Hermione called, and the boy ground to a halt.

"Good afternoon, Professor Weasley," the boy said. His curious blue gaze moved to Harry.

Harry tensed as the older boy's eyes bulged in his head. "Blimey, is that . . . ?"

"Stanton, run and fetch Headmistress McGonagall and ask her to meet us in the infirmary. Then please go to my quarters and tell Professor Weasley to meet us there as well."

"Yes, ma'm," Stanton nodded as she hurried Harry past him.

They turned another bend in a corridor. Harry stumbled to a stop, frozen by the sight before him.

The corridor opened onto what appeared to be Hogwarts' main stairwell. The space was as large as a cathedral. It rose at least eight stories high. There were dozens of stairways crisscrossing the open area, and some of those stairways were moving, slowly gliding from the right side of the building to the left and back again.

"Er, Hermione . . . ?" he tightened his grip on her hand.

He was holding onto her so hard that he thought she'd admonish him for it, but when Hermione glanced down at him, her gaze was soft with understanding.

"It's okay, Harry. They're just stairs. Sometimes they move, but usually you can get where you want to go. Are you all right?" Hermione drew him nearer to the wall and put her free arm across his shoulders. "Sometimes I forget how overwhelming this place can be when you're not used to it."

She let him watch the stairs move for a few minutes without trying to force him to go near them.

He saw a black girl a few years older than him, also in one of the long black robes everyone here seemed to wear, coming down a moving flight of stairs several levels above them. Although he couldn't see her face too clearly, she didn't seem upset by the motion.

"I guess they are pretty neat," Harry allowed, taking a determined step towards the stairs. He was grateful for the encouraging squeeze Hermione gave his hand.

He was almost disappointed when the steps they were on failed to move. He just trailed Hermione down past the curious inhabitants of the oil paintings and exited the stairs three levels below where they'd started.

She led him along another drafty corridor and then into a room that had a dozen or so single beds lined in neat rows down both its sides. None of the beds were occupied.

There was a lady in white robes at the back of the room stacking bottles in a cabinet.

"Hello, Poppy," Hermione called.

"Hello, there," the lady answered without turning. "Please tell me that you're not here for a Pepper Up Potion, too! I'm just about out. I'll have to ask Severus to brew me up another batch before term star-" Her words died as she turned and caught sight of them. "Good heavens, is that . . . ?"

"Harry Potter," Hermione confirmed. "Harry, this is Madame Pomfrey. She's the best mediwitch Hogwarts has ever had."

"Hello," he nervously greeted.

"Hello, dear," Madame Pomfrey smiled. "Don't worry. We'll have you fixed up good as new in no time at all." Her friendly blue eyes turned to Hermione.

While Hermione explained how she'd found him a short while ago, Harry let go of her hand and explored the hospital wing.

"It could be a simple age reduction potion," he heard Madame Pomfrey say.

"Like the opposite of the potion Fred and George used to try to fool the Triwizards' Goblet?" Hermione questioned.

For all the sense her words made, they might as well have been in another language.

"Exactly. Let's have a look at him and then give the remedy a try," Madame Pomfrey suggested.

"Harry?" Hermione called. "Would you come over here for a moment, please?"

The next twenty minutes passed in a blur. Madame Pomfrey checked his eyes, ears, nose, and throat like his regular doctor, and then performed a few more examinations that he didn't really understand.

He was lying on the examination table with Madame Pomfrey slowly passing her wand over every inch of him when the infirmary door banged open. The tall, redheaded man from the photograph on Harry's mantel stormed in, his brown robes billowing around him like wings from the speed at which he was moving.

"Hermione! What's all this nonsense about Harry? Stanton said . . . . Harry?" the big man's words ended in a squawk.

"Harry," Hermione said, leaning down to give his hand a squeeze, "this is my husband, Ron. He's been your best friend since you were boys. Ron, Harry doesn't remember us, so please try not to frighten him."

The confounded expression on the big man's long, freckled face was almost comical. "Er, hi, there, Harry. Are you doing all right, then? I mean, aside from . . . ."

"Aside from being seven years old, he appears to be just fine," Hermione snapped.

The exasperated look she shot at her husband made Harry giggle.

"Seven?" Ron repeated. "Are you sure? He barely looks five."

"I'm seven, not five!" Harry angrily informed.

"Really, Ron! Have you ever even heard of the word tact?" Hermione chastised.

A chastened flush turned Ron's face nearly as red as his hair. "I'm sorry, Harry. You really don't remember me? We've been best friends for more'n fifteen years."

He shook his head no, still not over Ron's five-year-old crack.

Harry thought better of him for the brave smile Ron gave him. The man's brown eyes still clearly showed his confusion over whatever had happened to him. "Well, don't worry about it. I'm sure it will all come back as soon as we sort this out." Ron looked over at Hermione, "Umm, what happened to him?"

Hermione lips had just parted to reply when the hospital door opened again. A stern-looking woman in green velvet robes with a tight black bun at the back of her head entered. "What's happened? Mister Stanton said . . . oh, dear. Good afternoon, Harry."

"Er, hello." He was beginning to feel nervous with all these people staring at him.

"Harry, this is Professor McGonagall, Headmistress of Hogwarts," Hermione introduced.

The three robed grownups conversed in whispers as Madame Pomfrey completed her examination.

"That's it, dear," Madame Pomfrey said at last. "You can get down now."

Hermione helped him down onto the floor.

Self-conscious with them all staring at him as though he were some kind of freak show, Harry scuffed his slippered toe on the stone floor.

"Well, Madame Pomfrey?" the Headmistress said into the silence.

"He's frightfully undernourished," the mediwitch replied. "Whoever has been taking care of this child should be horsewhipped. He's six inches and nearly a stone under what he should be-"

"No one's been 'taking care' of him," Ron interrupted.

"That's obvious enough," Madame Pomfrey appeared very upset over whatever she'd found.

"Aside from his being poorly cared for, is there anything else you can tell us?" Professor McGonagall questioned.

"He hasn't been cursed, charmed, or bewitched. As far as I can tell, he's a perfectly normal boy," Madame Pomfrey reported.

"What do you mean, he hasn't been cursed! Look at him!" Ron demanded.

"I ran my wand over every inch of him," Madame Pomfrey said. "It's spelled to detect even the most well-concealed magic. He's clean of magical influence from head to foot. If he'd ingested a potion to cause this, there should have been some traces lingering in his intestinal track, but there was nothing."

"What do you think caused it then?" Hermione asked.

"I wish I knew," Madame Pomfrey answered.

"Hermione," Professor McGonagall said, "what on earth are you doing with that jar?"

Hermione gave a surprised start. Obviously, in the excitement she'd managed to forget the jar she had tucked under her elbow. She raised it up towards the wall torches so that everyone could see its fluttering contents. "It was next to Harry's bed. He said he found it there when he woke up this morning."

"Do you think it means something?" Ron asked the question before Harry could.

Even Harry had to smile at the looks Ron's question earned him.

"Of course, it means something," Hermione replied, while the other two women stared at Ron as though he were a simpleton.

"I've never heard of anything like this," the headmistress said, pursing her prim lips. "If Potter wasn't cursed, then how . . . ."

"Perhaps Professor Snape might be able to help?" Hermione suggested.

"Yeah, he's forgotten more about the Dark Arts than most DADA teachers know," Ron said and then abruptly glanced down at him and said quite contritely, "Sorry, Harry. Present company excepted."

"Good idea. I'll go get him," Professor McGonagall said and quickly hurried off.

As Hermione, Madame Pomfrey, and Ron began to voice their incredulity over Harry's present state, Harry wandered across the room. There were some really interesting looking bottles on a side table.

Ron seemed to be running through a list of who might have cursed Harry, to the increasingly loud protests of his companions.

Harry, who felt blessed by this entire experience, rather than cursed, did his best to ignore them.

Hermione was loudly insisting, "Well, we'll just have to wait to hear what Professor Snape has to say about it," when the infirmary door opened again and Minerva McGonagall's grim brogue announced, "I believe we have a problem."

Everyone, including Harry, turned to stare at her, alarmed by her tone.

The room was filled with gasps and exclamations from the adults as McGonagall escorted a dark haired boy into the infirmary. Professor McGonagall was carrying a butterfly jar identical to Harry's own.

As the place erupted into chaos, Harry and the strange boy stared at each other.

Harry thought that the newcomer must be a year or two older than him. He was tall and thin, with long black hair and a nose that looked three sizes too large for his face. The taller boy didn't have a very friendly countenance. His features were harsh and angry.

Harry was rather intimidated by the other boy, but since the stranger hadn't given him the predatory glare that Dudley's thugs usually employed before attacking, Harry inched closer to him while the adults' conversation grew louder.

"Hi. I'm Harry," he said, trying to be friendly.

Eyes black as the robe he wore pinned Harry. After coolly appraising him, the other boy gave a slow nod. "Severus Snape."

Uh-oh. That was the teacher they were hoping would be able to help him.

"Were you a grownup, too, yesterday?" Harry whispered.

Severus gave him a disgusted look. "So that woman claims." He pointed his chin in McGonagall's direction.

"You don't believe her?" Harry asked.

"Of course, I don't believe her," Snape said.

"Do you remember how you got here?" Harry asked, wondering if the amnesia were specific to him.

Severus didn't appear happy about that question. In fact, Severus didn't look as though he were ever happy about anything.

"No, I don't know how I got here. But I think it's far more probable that I was kidnapped than this crazy tale they've concocted."

"Kidnapped?" Harry hadn't thought of that. But then he remembered Hermione's shock when she first saw him and knew that Severus must be mistaken. And even if he weren't, his kidnappers were treating him a lot better than the Dursleys ever did.

"I only hope that they hurry up with the ransom demand. I was in the middle of . . . ."

"Yes?" Harry prompted.

Snape's already frowning face grew thunderous. "I don't recall exactly what I was doing, but I know it must have been important. Now, if you'll excuse me."

Harry watched the other boy stalk up to the group of arguing adults and shout, "Excuse me. If you're quite through with this infantile behaviour, I'd like to go home now."

All conversation ceased.

"What did you say?" Headmistress McGonagall demanded. Even Harry, who'd known her less than an hour, suspected that her frozen features boded disaster.

He shivered at the headmistress' icy expression, sure that Severus was going to be punished.

"I said I want to go home. Whatever your demands are, I'm sure my grandparents will meet them," Snape said in a condescending tone that Harry had only heard from Aunt Petunia before when she discussed the neighbours.

"What's he talking about?" Ron asked, staring down at Snape as though the boy were a venomous snake.

"He thinks he's been kidnapped," Minerva McGonagall huffed.

"What?" Hermione's mouth dropped open.

To everyone's surprise, and Severus' obvious fury, Ron began to howl with laughter.

"Professor Weasley, control yourself!" McGonagall admonished.

"Oh, that's rich!" Ron laughed. Seeing all their gazes upon him, he tried to explain around his merriment. "Makes sense, doesn't it? He wakes up, doesn't know where he is or how he got there, Snape automatically assumes the worst! That's our Snape!"

"You're not helping, Ron," Hermione said and then bent down to speak to Severus on his level, "Profess . . . er, Severus, you haven't been kidnapped. You-"

"I know," Severus cut in. "I was an adult yesterday and woke up a seven year old this morning. You don't seriously expect me to believe that twaddle, do you?"

Snape's sneer caused another round of laughter from Ron, and made Madame Pomfrey chuckle as well.

"Are you sure he isn't himself?" Hermione asked. "What seven year old talks to adults like that?"

"I demand that you stop laughing at me and take me home immediately!" Severus commanded.

"I'm afraid that you're in no condition to make demands right now, dear," Madame Pomfrey smiled.

"Would you stop that insipid simpering and send me home?" Severus shouted.

"That's enough!" McGonagall moved to glare down at Severus. "Mr. Snape, you will stop this nonsense immediately and go over there with Mr. Potter and remain quiet until you are called."

"Or?" Severus raised his left eyebrow as though the Headmistress were nothing to him.

Harry held his breath. He'd seen Dudley throw tantrums and shout at his aunt and uncle his entire life, but all of that was simply Dudley acting like a baby. There was a mature, nearly menacing air to Severus. Harry had never seen a boy his own age stand so utterly defiant before adults. It was the bravest and stupidest thing he'd ever seen.

"Or you will find yourself unable to utter a word for the next twenty-four hours," McGonagall replied with suspect sweetness. "The choice is, of course, yours."

She took out a stick like the one Hermione had used to shrink Harry's clothes earlier and pointed it at Severus.

Severus glared at her for a long moment and then turned on his heel and stalked over to Harry.

As the tableau broke, the adults recommenced their discussion. Harry heard Hermione ask, "Do you think there's any chance this could happen to the rest of us?"

As the silently fuming other boy came to stand beside him, Harry turned to the table behind them and took down his favourite bottle. "Hey, did you see this one? It looks like a skeleton! Isn't it brilliant?"

Harry gulped at the expression that earned him.

"Are you mentally incompetent? Doesn't it concern you at all that these strangers are arguing our fate over there and we have no say in it?"

"Er . . . what's incump... incompretent?" Harry asked, certain that he'd been insulted, but not sure how badly.

Severus gave what sounded remarkably like one of Aunt Marge's dog's growls and moved to go sit on a bed three spaces down from the one Harry was playing near. Shrugging his shoulders, Harry turned back to his skeleton bottle.

Some time later, McGonagall called, "Boys, please join us." Once Harry and his sulking companion had rejoined the group, the Headmistress continued, "I'm afraid that we will be unable to restore you at this time. Please be assured that we are taking all steps to find a solution to your problem." They all affected not to notice Severus' disdainful snort. "Until such time as the situation is resolved, we will have to deal with matters as they are. The most immediate problem is where you will be staying until a solution is found."

"I want to go back to those rooms with the books," Severus said.

"I'm afraid that's not possible. A boy your age should not be reading spell books, let alone those on Unforgivable Curses," McGonagall curtly denied. "You will need proper supervision until such time as you are restored to yourselves."

"They can stay here in the infirmary," Madame Pomfrey offered.

His insides turned cold as he realized that Hermione was going to have to leave him here. He liked Madame Pomfrey, but it wasn't the same as what he felt for the woman he'd mistaken for his mother. But he knew better than to make a fuss. His heart breaking, he stared down at his fleecy slippers and did his best to keep his face controlled.

"Harry will stay with us," Ron's suddenly steely voice announced.

Harry's chin shot up. Hope welling inside him, he looked to where Hermione and Ron stood close together.

"Don't just assume, Ron. Give him a choice," Hermione chided. "We have a guest room, Harry, or you could stay in the boys dorm with the first years. Whichever you'd like-"

He had run up to stand in front of her before she finished speaking. He wanted to wrap his arms around her like he'd done before, but back home his aunt and uncle wouldn't allow him to touch them. "With you, please."

"That's settled, then," Hermione laughed and rustled his hair.

Her other hand slipped to his back and before Harry knew it, he was right where he'd wanted to be, in another of those wonderful hugs.

"What of you, Severus?" Professor McGonagall asked. "Which would you prefer – the dormitory or the infirmary?"

Harry felt almost bad for Severus as the other boy looked over to where Hermione was still hugging him, but then that nasty hardness came back over Severus' face and he didn't feel so bad anymore.

"The dormitory, I suppose," Severus said.

"Umm, Minerva?" Ron said uncertainly. "You do know that the only first years staying here over the holidays are from our house?"

"Of course, I know. It will do for a temporary solution. I'll have another bed moved in immediately. It will be there by the time he arrives. Madame Pomfrey, if you think of anything, please notify me immediately. If you'll excuse me." The headmistress took her leave.

"Well, come along, boys. We'll get you settled," Hermione brightly said, taking Harry's hand again to lead him out. She offered her other hand to Severus, who stared at her as though she were a worm on the sidewalk.

"I can find my own way," Severus said, standing taller.

"All right, then." Severus' rudeness didn't even seem to upset Hermione. She just led Harry out, while keeping pace with Severus, who looked like he wanted to be anywhere else on the planet. "This way."

As they walked yet another endless maze of stairways and corridors, Harry felt Ron come up beside him. The tall man's hand settled on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "It'll be all right, Harry."

When they reached a brightly decorated tower entrance with a portrait of a lady in a pink dress on the door, Ron moved over to Severus.

"I'll take him up to the dorm," Ron offered.

"Good night, Severus," Hermione said.

"Good night," Harry called.

"Good riddance, more like," Severus sneered.

Harry saw Ron's face turn bright with anger. "Come along, you."

"Password?" the lady in the pink dress questioned.

"Marmalade," Ron replied.

Harry watched the door close behind them.

"That man," Hermione muttered, shaking her head.

"You mean Ron?" Harry asked.

"No, Severus. Never mind him right now. We're right over here," Hermione said, guiding him to the door to the left of the one with the pink lady. She murmured some words in that foreign language again and the door swung open.

Harry followed her into a cosy sitting room. There was a live Christmas tree with hundreds of lights on it standing in the corner farthest from the fireplace. The furniture was old and comfortable, the rugs the slightest bit worn, but fastidiously clean. Aunt Petunia would have hated the place, but Harry felt instantly at home here.

As he wandered around the room, he realized that the man he'd taken to be his father appeared in almost all the pictures on the mantel.

"That's me, then?" Harry asked, staring up at yet another shot of Hermione, Ron, and the green-eyed man.

"Yes, Harry."

"Who are all those people with the red hair with us in that one?" Harry asked, pointing to a terribly crowded photo of laughing, waving people. Hermione and his older self were in the foreground, surrounded a tribe of redheads. Harry thought that the ramshackle house he'd seen in the pictures back in his room might have been in the background, but there were too many people in the picture to see what was behind them.

"Oh, that's Ron's family. It was taken last summer," Hermione said, and then proceeded to name each of the subjects. It seemed like a whole townful of Weasleys waved at him. By the time the last Weasley had been named, they were both giggling.

"The bathroom is here and the guest room is next to it. Would you like me to show you your room?"

At his nod, she led him into the guest room. It wasn't as large as the room he'd woken up in, but it was just as warm and comfortable. The big four-poster bed stood against the far wall. It had a bright blue duvet on it and matching curtains. There was a desk, bureau, and night table. The paintings in here seemed to be landscapes, so there was no waving or shouting going on in them, but there was a herd of deer moving through the painting over the bed.

"I'm afraid it doesn't have much to amuse a young boy. There isn't a computer or television," Hermione said.

"I think it's brilliant," Harry smiled up at her and then ran over to bounce on the bed. "Way better than my cupboard back home."

For a second, Hermione looked as though she might cry, but then she seemed to force a laugh, "Well, just don't knock the place down. Will you be all right on your own in here for a while?"

"Sure."

"I'll be in the next room if you need anything."

"Okay. Hermione?" he called as she turned to leave, needing to say something to her before she left, in case he woke up back in the cupboard again or something.

"Yes?"

"Thank you."

"For what?" she seemed puzzled.

"For being so nice to me," he said self-consciously, staring down at the duvet.

He didn't hear her cross the room. The next thing he knew, she was gently tipping his chin back up.

"Harry, you don't have to thank us. You and Ron and me, we're family. We love you."

He couldn't remember anyone ever saying those words to him before. His throat felt like he'd swallowed Madame Pomfrey's Skelagro bottle.

Apparently, Hermione was very good at interpreting things. Somehow, she knew what he needed.

As her incredible warmth embraced him again, Harry rested his cheek against the soft roundness of her chest. He closed his eyes tight and hoped with all his might that he could stay like this forever, that he'd never have to go back to the Dursleys'. Lulled by the comforting rhythm of her breathing, the events of the day caught up with him, and before he knew it, he was drifting off to sleep.

**************

"Oh, what a morning," Ron groused as he entered their quarters an hour or so after she'd settled Harry down.

Hermione glanced up from the book of age reduction spells she was reading. There was a three-foot pile of similar tomes stacked on the end table beside her easy chair.

She lifted her face up to Ron as he leaned over the back of her chair to give her an upside down hello kiss. The logistics of their position took a little work and, as a result, the friendly greeting transformed into something a bit more interesting. Consequently, when they finally withdrew, they were both rather breathless.

"Er, where's Harry?" Ron asked, his gaze scanning the living room.

"Asleep. The poor thing drifted off in my arms. Ron, he really thinks he's seven years old. He's got no memory of us at all. It's . . . ."

Ron squeezed her shoulder and came to perch on the wide arm of the brown velvet-upholstered easy chair. "I know. It's so strange. Age altering spells don't normally affect memory, do they?"

"Not that I can find." She leaned against him, glad of his strength. "And they leave traces of the casting. Minerva retrieved Harry and Professor Snape's wands from their quarters and spelled them to see what the last spell used was. Harry last used his to turn a hedgehog back into a pin cushion – don't ask; Stanton again – and Professor Snape used his to douse the lights."

"Not very encouraging, is it?" Ron sighed.

"No. Frankly, I'm worried. Every instinct I have tells me that you're right, that they must have been cursed, but none of Hogwarts' intruder alarms were triggered."

"So, it was someone in the castle, then?" Ron questioned.

"I don't see how it could be," Hermione said. "I mean, the only people here right now are the teachers."

"Don't forget the students who stayed," he reminded. "Remember the trouble the three of us used to get up to during Christmas break?"

"Ron, only seven stayed. The oldest isn't even thirteen. A student can't have done this. And, even if one had wanted to . . . ."

"Yes?"

"What's the point? I mean, think about it, what possible purpose could be served in turning your enemies into children? If you were going to curse someone out of vengeance or anger, wouldn't it make more sense to do something that hurt them? Cruciatus or one of the other offensive curses we've learnt would be a much more effective method of revenge."

"I suppose."

"And, even if you did something like this to humiliate your enemy, wouldn't you want them to be aware of their ignominy? What's the point of making your enemy impotent if they can't remember what they've lost? It just doesn't make sense."

"I just want to know how whoever did this got at them," Ron said.

"That's almost as big a mystery as why."

"Hmmm?" Ron asked.

"Minerva flooed in with some information a few minutes ago," Hermione said. "She gave the butterflies to Neville to release in the hot house, in case we need them to undo whatever was done to Harry and Professor Snape. That was the good news."

"And the bad news?"

"Whatever caused this happened when they were both alone in their rooms."

"How can that be?" Ron asked.

"I don't know, but both Snape and Harry's private wards were still up and unbroken. Minerva questioned the portrait guarding Harry's door. No one entered. The Ministry Floo records indicate that I was the only person to floo into Harry's rooms in the last three weeks and no one has flooed to Snape's since Professor Dumbledore died. Sad, that, don't you think?" She looked up into her husband's eyes, as ever finding strength in their warm brown depths.

Ron shrugged. "Hardly surprising. Dumbledore was always the only person who could stand him."

"Ron!"

"Well, it's true. Just look at how he was today! It's a wonder he survived to adulthood with the mouth on him. Mum would've killed us if we mouthed off to a teacher like that," Ron shook his head.

"We're not his teachers."

"Don't tell me you're defending him!"

"He doesn't know us. Think about it. He woke up this morning in someplace he's never been before, among complete strangers. He's only seven. For all his bluster, he has to be as frightened as Harry was," Hermione chided.

"Harry was frightened?" As was his habit, Ron latched onto the least important facet of a discussion.

Well, maybe it wasn't the least important, Hermione allowed. Harry was the only thing that concerned Ron in this situation. Normally, this type of obstinacy would have irritated her, but the absolute change in his tone told her this was something he hadn't considered. The idea of his best friend being afraid had obviously taken Ron completely off guard.

"He was hiding behind the armoire when I flooed in. He was putting up a brave front, but the poor thing was terrified. Remember, Ron, he was raised by Muggles. Magic itself is new to him. Add all that to the crazy story we told him about being an adult one day and a child the next . . . it's a lot to take in," Hermione said.

"Yeah. I guess the amazing part was that he wasn't accusing us of kidnapping him like Snape was," Ron marvelled.

"It's heartbreaking," she admitted, needing to share her feelings with someone.

"How so?" Ron asked, reaching out to run his fingers through her hair.

"Ron, any normal child would have been crying to go home. Snape's reaction was far healthier. But Harry . . . once I spoke softly to him, he didn't seem concerned about going home. He's just so hungry for affection that it breaks your heart. He acts like he's never heard a kind word in his life."

"Maybe he hasn't," Ron replied, his face darkening with anger. "You know what those people who had him were like. Mum used to come home in tears every time we had to leave him at the train station with those awful Muggles at summer break. The year Fred and George and I sprung him, they had him locked in a room with bars on the window. It was horrible, Hermione."

"I'm sure. I get so angry looking at how small and helpless he is, and then thinking about how those monsters mistreated him! I know that this has to be a spell of some kind, that he's really our age and will be restored to himself soon, but, when he looks at me with those lost eyes, I just want to hug him," she admitted.

"It can't hurt, can it?" Ron smiled with the good-natured compassion that had drawn her to him.

"You think it's all right if we indulge him a bit, then?" Hermione asked.

"Why not? Whatever you did with him this morning, you did right," Ron said. "He was the calmest person in the infirmary today."

"That's not necessarily a good thing. A healthy child would want to go home."

"Harry never thought of the Dursleys' as home. He always considered Hogwarts his home," Ron reminded.

"Even so . . . ."

"And it's not like he's really seven years old. He's really a full grown man under an enchantment," Ron argued.

"Ron . . . we don't know that," she said in a hushed tone, voicing her deepest fear.

"What do you mean?"

"What if they haven't been bespelled? What if they really are children?" Hermione questioned.

"I'm not following you. How can they really be children?"

"What if the Harry and Severus we know were exchanged for their seven year old selves? What if there's no way to reverse it?"

Ron gave the answer that his gender had historically voiced when faced with inconvenient facts. "Let's not worry about that until we have to, all right? For all we know, they could wake up fine tomorrow."

Biting her lip, Hermione turned back to her research.

Ron stared annoyingly down at her for a few more moments before silently picking the next book off the top of her pile and sitting down in the armchair across from her.

*************

"Now, when I put my two down, you look through your hand to see if you've got its mate," Ron instructed. "If you don't, then you draw another card. If you draw a two, then you take the pair. If not, the turn passes back to me. If I have a two, I can play it and take the pair. But if I don't have a match, then we keep drawing in turn until one of us can play the two. If the two should be the exploding card in this game, then the person who played the exploding card gets the pair and the player with the most pairs in their played pile wins. Is it making sense now?"

Harry scrunched up his face and peered at the cards in his hand. "I think so. Once a card explodes, the game ends and the person with the most pairs wins. And the exploding card is never the same from one game to another, so there's no way to tell who's got it. Is that right?"

"Got it in one," Ron approved with a huge grin. "You're a natural at this."

Harry held his breath as he put down his two. When it failed to explode, he picked up the pair and put it in his growing pile.

They were playing Exploding Snap on the floor in front of the sitting room hearth. Hermione was in the armchair behind him, reading the thickest, biggest book Harry had seen in his life. She was searching for a spell to turn Severus and him back into grownups, he knew. Harry hoped she wouldn't find it too fast. These past two days had been the best ever.

Sometimes at night when locked in his cupboard, Harry would push his face up to the grill and look out upon a scene very much like this. He'd always wondered what it felt like to be sitting out there in the light with people who cared about him. He'd never had anyone to play with him or just talk to him. Now he knew what it felt like. It was wonderful.

No one had ever been as kind to him as Hermione. Although she didn't slobber over him or call him baby names the way Aunt Petunia did with Dudley, she was everything he'd always imagined a mother would be. He hadn't gone hungry at all today, nor did he have to ask for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Hermione and Ron had sat him between them at the long table everyone ate at, and they'd kept piling food on his plate until Harry was sure he'd explode.

For the first time in his life, his clothing fit him. He wasn't wearing hand-me-downs. Hermione had shrunk some clothes from his grownup self's wardrobe especially for him. She'd said if he was still little tomorrow, that she'd take him into town to buy him clothes of his very own.

And last night when he'd had that familiar, terrible nightmare about the green light and nasty laughter, he hadn't been left to cry alone in a dark, locked cupboard. Hermione had come to him, lit the torches in his room by magic, and held his hand until he fell back to sleep in his warm bed. She'd even said that they could leave one of the torches lit tonight if he thought it might help him sleep easier.

Ron was just as good to him. Harry was still somewhat intimidated by Ron's height, but the big man had spent the entire day playing and laughing with him. Ron didn't even seem to mind if Harry won the games they played.

He had never had so much fun.

Harry was in the process of picking up his eighth set of pairs in a row when they were interrupted by an urgent pounding on the door.

"Come in," Hermione called.

The door swung open and the blond boy Harry had seen in the corridor yesterday came barrelling into the sitting room. His cheeks were flushed from running, his blue eyes wide. He was not smiling.

"Good evening, Stanton," Hermione said, closing her book and rising from her chair to meet their visitor.

"Professor Weasley, you'd better get up there fast," Stanton said in an excited rush.

"What's wrong?" Ron asked from the floor beside Harry.

"It's Snape, I mean, it's Professor Snape, I mean . . . you just better come quick!" the boy urged.

"I'm up. I'll go," Hermione said quickly.

Ron gave her a smile and said, "A teacher toils from sun to sun, but a house head's job is never done."

She was out the door before he'd finished speaking.

To Harry it seemed that she was gone for a long time. His duke had exploded when he'd put down his sixteenth pair and they were well into another game when the sitting room door crashed open. Harry and Ron both looked up from their game at the interruption.

His spine stiff as a board and his expression dark as a thundercloud, Severus stalked into the room. Harry and Ron were blocking his path, so he stopped a few feet away, looking down at them as though he'd never seen anyone playing a game before. Since this was the first time Harry himself had ever played a game, he understood the feeling.

Hermione didn't look much happier than Severus did as she entered behind him.

"What happened?" Ron asked.

"Harry," Hermione said, "would you mind showing Severus your room for a few minutes?"

"Well, that's subtle," Ron chuckled.

"Ron, please!" Hermione snapped.

"Okay, okay," Ron raised his hands in surrender. "Harry, why don't you bring the cards in with you and show them to Severus. We'll start another game in a few minutes. All right?"

Harry quickly gathered up his cards and climbed to his feet. "The guest room is this way."

Severus followed him to his room without argument. The taller boy cast an unimpressed eye over the furnishings and paused several feet within the door.

"Would you like to play Exploding Snap?" Harry asked hopefully.

"I think not," Severus said with a sneer.

"Can't you just say 'no' like normal people?" Harry asked, irritated with Snape's pretension.

"Can't you be quiet? I'm trying to listen," Severus snapped.

"It's not polite to listen to people behind closed doors," Harry said.

The sour look Snape shot him made him feel very stupid.

But neither of them had to try very hard to listen in. As Harry's cries had demonstrated last night, the door was far from soundproof. No sooner had Snape's words died, then they heard Ron's voice clearly ask, "So what happened? Why'd you bring him here?"

"He petrified Billings and Shearson," Hermione said.

"What? He can't have! He's only seven!" Ron protested. "What seven year old could cast that spell? Eleven year olds can hardly manage it!"

"Nevertheless, Severus petrified them," Hermione said.

"How?" Ron asked.

"By flicking his wand at them and voicing the spell, I would imagine – how do you think?" Hermione snapped, sounding exasperated.

"But you said that Minerva had both their wands. How did he get it?" Ron asked.

"You're going to love this. He said he used a summoning charm on it."

"A summoning charm?" Ron repeated. "But . . . ."

"I know. That's a fourth year spell."

"Do you believe him?" Ron questioned.

"Ron, there were two boys twice his size frozen on the floor. He admitted to immobilizing them. I wasn't going to haggle over how he got his wand back."

"But the Accio charm . . . Bloody hell!"

"That's not helping, Ron."

"Where's his wand now?" Ron asked.

"In his pocket, I would think," Hermione answered.

"What! You left it with him! Are you mad?"

"He was ready to petrify me. I didn't think it was a good idea to have it come to wands with an adult on his second day here."

"Hermione . . . ."

"He was provoked. Both Billings and Shearson admitted that they'd been taunting him with slurs to Slytherin," Hermione sounded tired.

"But he's not even in Slytherin! He's not a Hogwarts' student yet!" Ron protested.

Ron had explained to Harry about Hogwarts' four houses, so this conversation was making a bit more sense than it would have yesterday.

"His family's been in Slytherin for centuries. Just like yours have been in Gryffindor. If someone had been making fun of Gryffindor when you were seven, you would have gotten upset, wouldn't you?"

"I suppose, but how could you leave him with his wand? Who knows what else he's capable of, Hermione."

Her sigh carried quite clearly through the closed door. "He's been remarkably well behaved up until now."

"Except for the small matter of one or two petrified roommates," Ron snarked.

"Severus didn't petrify them until they both charged him at once. He was defending himself."

"We've put a baby Death Eater in the first year dorm," Ron sounded disgusted.

Harry wanted to ask what a Death Eater was, but Severus refused to look at him.

Hermione's voice filled the room. "He's a little boy among strangers. He's got to be frightened, Ron."

Harry glanced at the other boy. He thought that Hermione might be right. Severus was standing still as a statue, tight-lipped, with his fists balled in the pockets of his robe. With his scraggly long hair hanging down the sides of his lowered face and his oversized nose pointing downwards for once instead of stuck haughtily up in the air, he looked really upset. Harry could see how hard Snape was breathing from where he stood five feet away.

"We can't have him petrifying the students, Hermione. Even Dumbledore would've frowned upon that," Ron said.

"I know, but . . . ." her words broke off. "There isn't a silencing spell on that room, is there?"

"No," Ron said. "We removed it last night in case Harry needed us, remember?"

"Come inside with me. I've got to speak to you about something," Hermione said.

They could hear the Weasleys' voices retreating into the other bedroom. There was a sudden outburst from Ron of "You want to what?!" before all sound cut off.

Harry stared at Severus, not knowing what to say. Finally, he asked, "What did you do to those boys?"

Harry had seen the pair at meals today. They were a head taller than even Severus.

At first, he didn't think that Severus would answer him, but after a long silence, the other boy said, "Nothing permanent."

Severus was still staring at the rug.

"What's 'petrify' mean?" Harry asked. He didn't like the sound of whatever it was.

Severus gave a sigh. "It means I froze every muscle in their bodies and left them lying on the floor like a sack of potatoes."

"You did that with magic?" Harry asked, stunned.

"Obviously," Snape said in the same tone he'd used to call Harry a mental incompetent yesterday. Harry still wasn't sure what that meant.

"Do you really have a wand?" Harry asked.

Snape nodded.

"Can I see it?"

"Whatever for?" Severus suspiciously asked.

"I've never seen one up close," Harry explained.

"Don't your parents use magic or are they Muggles?"

Harry looked down at his slippered feet. He didn't know what Muggles were. "My parents are dead."

He tensed. Severus hadn't exactly been the nicest person since they'd met. It was totally possible that the other boy might make fun of him for not having parents, the way that Dudley's friends would tease him about it.

When no jibe came, Harry raised his gaze back to Snape's face. Severus didn't look so forbidding all of a sudden. He appeared nearly as uncertain as Harry felt.

"So are mine," Severus said softly.

"Oh. I'm sorry," Harry instantly sympathized.

"Why? You didn't kill them."

"I know. I just . . . ." he didn't know what he meant. He didn't understand half of what Severus said at the best of times. "I'm sorry, okay?"

Severus nodded.

"What are Muggles?" Harry questioned.

"People who can't do magic," Severus answered, sounding as if Harry had just asked what colour the sky was.

"Like my aunt and uncle. I never met anyone who could use magic before yesterday," Potter said.

Severus stared at him in open curiosity and then asked, "If you've only been with Muggles then how did you get that curse scar on your forehead?"

Curse scar? Harry realized that he was referring to the lightning bolt on his head.

"I got it in the accident that killed my parents. It was a car crash."

"I don't know what a car is," Severus said, "but that scar didn't come from any kind of accident. You only get that kind of scar when someone tries to put a very powerful, dark curse on you and you survive it. ."

"My aunt and uncle said it was from the crash." Harry felt his face harden in impatience. Severus was too arrogant by half!

"And I suppose they would never lie to you?" Severus challenged.

He wasn't a complete idiot, no matter what Severus' tone might imply. He couldn't count the number of time that the Dursleys had lied to him. He felt the scar in question crinkle as he considered the idea that they'd lied to him about even his parents' deaths. "Why would they lie about it?"

"How should I know?" Severus snapped. "But either they lied to you or they were mistaken. That's a curse scar."

"How can you be so sure?" Harry demanded.

"I've seen one before. My grandfather had one just like it right over his heart. The curse didn't work, of course, because the bastard never had a heart."

Harry was shocked by the language. Aunt Petunia would have made him eat a whole bar of soap and cut his meals for three days if he ever used a word like that. "You don't like your grandfather?"

"I hate them both. They only keep me because there's no one else they can foist me upon. Snapes do not go to orphanages," Severus said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. Then Severus seemed to catch himself. "I don't know why I'm telling you any of this."

"I asked," Harry said. "Besides, they sound just like my aunt and uncle."

"Do you hate them, too?"

Harry hesitated. "I don't want to hate them, but . . . yeah, I guess I do."

Severus seemed pleased by his answer. "Well, perhaps you're more than just disgustingly agreeable after all. Do you still want to see my wand?"

Harry knew a peace gesture when he saw one. Severus wasn't quite as repentant as Dudley was whenever he'd make nice with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon after a tantrum, but, then, Harry supposed Severus really couldn't care less whether Harry accepted his offering or not.

Since he really wanted to see the wand, he quickly said, "Yes."

Severus withdrew a long, highly polished, deep brown stick from his pocket.

"That's what you use to do magic?" Harry questioned.

Severus nodded.

"Can you do some now? I mean . . . I don't want you to petrify me, but . . . ."

Severus seemed to think about it for a minute. Then he flicked his wand in the direction of the bed.

Harry's eyes nearly popped out of his head as the pillows began to dance around the bed.

"Wow! That's incredible!"

"Not really," Severus said in a bored tone. "I've been able to do that since I was four."

"Oh." Suddenly, Harry felt very backwards. "I guess everyone can do things like that. Hermione said that I'm a wizard, too, but I can't do anything that brilliant."

A mean light flashed through Severus' dark eyes. Harry braced himself, expecting something particularly nasty, but when the other boy finally spoke, his words were devoid of malice. "Most wizards don't get their wands until they turn eleven. Half the dullards in this school probably couldn't do that, especially in this House. I wouldn't worry about it."

From anyone else, the sentiment might have been reassuring. And at first Harry felt better for the words. Only slowly did he realize that the House Ron had said had been his own had been insulted.

"Ron said I was sorted into this House!" Harry protested.

"How unfortunate," the words dripped sarcasm.

"You take that back!" Harry said.

"Take what back?"

"That it was unfortunate that I was sorted into Gryffindor. There's nothing wrong with Gryffindor!" Harry insisted.

"If you say so," Severus replied, sounding bored again.

"I do!"

"I heard you," Severus said.

"So, you take it back then?" Harry asked, getting a little lost in the words. Fighting with Severus was like arguing with an adult. Snape used words in ways he wasn't used to and put meaning on them that confused him.

Severus stared down his long nose at him for effect and then said almost pleasantly, "No."

Harry's anger flared. He wanted to punch Severus on that big nose of his.

But then there was a knock behind them and the bedroom door opened.

"Harry, could we see you in the sitting room for a moment?" Hermione asked.

"Sure." Harry gave the other boy a glare and followed Hermione out. He noticed that she closed the door behind him.

She led him to the couch, where she sat down beside him.

He tensed, not liking the worried expression on Hermione's face. When he glanced at where Ron was sitting in one of the easy chairs beside the fireplace, he saw that Ron's affable features were tight with anger.

"Did I do something wrong?" Harry quickly questioned, wondering what he could have done to mess things up.

"No, of course not, Harry," Hermione quickly assured. "We just have something we want to ask you."

"And you're allowed to say no," Ron said in a truculent tone.

"Ron!" Hermione objected.

Ron glared at Hermione in a way that made Harry very nervous. He didn't want them to fight. He wanted things to be like they were before when Ron and he had been playing Exploding Snap and Hermione had been reading.

"We agreed that the decision is his. He should know up front that he gets to say no," Ron said.

"Say no to what?" Harry asked, more than a little scared now.

"Harry," Hermione said, "Severus can't stay in the dorm anymore. We wondered if you'd mind if we put him in the guestroom?"

He'd known it was too good to last. He'd never had anything in his life before, and that had felt awful, but to finally have something, and then to have it ripped from him so soon . . . that was worse.

But he really couldn't blame Hermione and Ron. Even if he wasn't the nicest boy, Severus was a real wizard, capable of doing magic with his wand. It only made sense that they'd want to keep Severus instead of him. But they'd said they loved him . . . .

In the back of his mind Harry could almost hear Dudley taunting 'Who'd want to love you?'

His mouth dry, he tried to swallow. All the moisture seemed to have gone to his eyes, which were stinging something terrible. But he wasn't a baby. He wasn't going to cry.

He tried to tell himself that Hermione and Ron weren't mean like Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. Surely, even if they didn't want him anymore, they might allow him to stay.

"Is – is there a cupboard here?" Harry stammered.

"What?" Hermione's brow puckered in confusion.

"I-I didn't see a cupboard door in any of the rooms," Harry explained. "Will I still be able to sleep here in the cupboard, or will I have to go to the infirmary?"

"Oh, God." To his horror, Hermione's eyes filled with tears.

Harry looked to Ron, but he appeared just as upset.

"No, Harry, luv, that's not what we meant," Hermione said in a rushed, upset voice. "We just wanted to know if you'd mind sharing your room with Severus until we sort this situation out. Nobody was sending you away."

"Oh," he felt very foolish, until Hermione reached for him and gathered him close.

"We'd never send you away or let anything bad happen to you, Harry," Hermione whispered, hugging him tight. He felt Ron settle on his other side, and put his long arms around them both.

A long time later, Hermione drew back a little to look down at him. "I'm so sorry I frightened you, Harry. Please forgive me."

"It's okay," he assured, not understanding why that made her eyes go all misty again.

"Well, now that we've sorted that out," Ron said in a cheerful tone, "How 'bout it? Do you care to share your room with Snape?"

Ron's expression made it clear that he thought Harry would be crazy to do so, but when Harry looked at Hermione, she looked braced for the worst. It was apparent that Hermione wanted Severus to stay and Ron didn't.

He didn't really want Severus to stay, either, but he'd been left out so often in his life that Harry didn't feel right about doing it to someone else. But maybe if he made sure Snape was going someplace nice that wouldn't be so bad.

"Will Severus have to sleep in a cupboard if I say no?" he checked.

"Nobody's sleeping in the bloody cupboard. If you don't want him here, we'll send him up to Pomfrey. She'll keep him out of mischief," Ron said.

"It's okay if you don't want him here, Harry," Hermione assured. "Nothing bad will happen to him."

"So, what do you say, mate?" Ron asked, his smile seeming to suggest that the answer was a foregone conclusion.

*************

On the other side of the closed bedroom door, Severus held his breath, waiting the inevitable no.

He was surprised that he really wanted to stay. It was a sorry state of affairs when a bunch of kidnappers were kinder to him than his own family.

But he knew they weren't kidnappers. At least, he was ninety-nine percent certain they weren't. He recognized Hogwarts from pictures he'd seen. The castle outside the windows certainly looked like the school. There could be a glamour in effect, but, he'd gotten up several times last night to look and he'd checked the windows sporadically throughout the day. The exterior changed the way real places did. If it were a glamour, it was an elaborate one. Snape could conceive of no reason as to why these people (Hogwarts' staff?) would perpetrate such an outrageous farce upon a seven year old.

Which probably meant that they were telling the truth. He tried to get his mind around the concept. Presumably, he'd been an adult yesterday and had somehow been transformed into a boy again. What a horrible curse! He couldn't imagine hating someone enough to do something that cruel to them, only . . . it really hadn't been that bad so far.

The last day had been . . . unusual. Although he couldn't say that anyone really liked him or wanted him here, no one had been actively cruel to him. Even those two Gryffindor morons upstairs hadn't been unbearable. Snape knew from previous experience that, had he ignored the pair, their bating would have stopped. It was his own sarcasm that had acerbated the situation beyond repair. And now his fate was being left in the hands of another person to whom he'd mouthed off.

He knew Potter was sure to say no. Who in their right mind would say yes? If their positions were reversed, he certainly wouldn't.

He couldn't understand why the woman, Hermione, had suggested he stay here at all. His instincts told him that she was no fonder of him than her husband, and, yet, she was forcing the issue. It made no sense.

He knew what he was. His grandparents let him know a dozen times every single day what a burden it was to have been saddled with their only child's Mudblood progeny. He knew it would have been better off for all involved if he'd never been born, but he was here, and everyone had to make the best of it, for the sake of family honour.

Yesterday, he'd been very conscious of his family honour and conducted himself in a manner in which he felt his grandparents would approve, but today . . . .

He'd seen the date on the Daily Prophet that one of the Gryffindor morons had had upstairs. If this weren't some elaborate scam – and more and more, he was beginning to suspect that it was not – then his grandparents were probably long dead. He supposed he should feel some remorse at that thought, but his reaction was really closer to relief.

But relief or not, it left him stranded here among these strangers, who had even less reason to like him than his grandparents ever had. He wished . . . .

Well, his wishes were irrelevant, as they always had been. His fate was in the hands of that scrawny boy with the scar from a curse on his forehead. Severus was acquainted enough with the ways of the world to know that he was going to be sent packing just as soon as the nitwit found the gumption to state his druthers.

He supposed the infirmary wouldn't be a terrible place to spend however long he was to be trapped here.

"I don't want him to go to the infirmary," he heard Potter say quite clearly from the other side of the door.

"What!" the big redheaded man squawked. He sounded like a brainless twit when he used that tone.

"Are you certain, Harry?" Hermione checked. "It is a small room."

"It's bigger than my cupboard back home," the Potter boy said.

Again, with the cupboard! Severus had no idea what Potter was blithering on about, all he knew was that the other boy hadn't condemned him to the infirmary.

The strength seemed to go out of his legs all at once. Not knowing what was wrong, Severus stumbled to the bed and gingerly perched on its end, beside the abandoned Exploding Snap cards.

Had Potter been older or more like himself, Snape would have suspected ulterior motives for the decision. As it was, he was completely befuddled. His presence only stood to inconvenience Potter. What possible reason could the other boy have had for allowing him to remain?

It wasn't as if Potter and he were friends or as if their being so were even a remote possibility. His peers never liked him. He spoke too much like an adult for children his own age to understand him. Normally, he couldn't last for more than ten minutes with his own age group before he became an object of ridicule. And then his wand would come out, and there would be hell to pay, one way or another, with his grandparents, if not his teachers.

Nobody inflicted his company upon themselves if they could possibly avoid it. The fact that Potter had voluntarily agreed to spend time with him rocked the very foundation of Severus' universe.

The door opened, and he quickly got hold of himself, schooling his features into their usual impassivity.

Hermione and Harry entered the room, with the confused looking redhead trailing in their wake. Severus could sympathize with the man.

Almost afraid, Snape looked up at the woman. She wasn't really what anyone would call beautiful, what with her bushy hair and sensible grey robes, but there was nevertheless a kindness about her face and eyes that made her seem even more lovely than his second cousin, Lydia Malfoy, and there wasn't a pureblood wizard who wasn't dying to pay court to Lydia.

Hermione smiled down at him with what appeared to be genuine good will. "Severus, if it's all right with you, Ron and I are going to move your bed down here. You'll share the guestroom with Harry. All right?"

Briefly, he considered saying no, just to see what their reaction would be, but he wasn't going to make light of the situation. There hadn't been a single instance in his life when he was down and someone had the opportunity to further disgrace him that they hadn't taken it. He was going to enjoy this while it lasted. So he gave a hesitant nod, and watched her smile grow broader.

"Very well, then. We'll leave you two alone here for a few moments while we get the bed," Hermione said.

Ron turned back at the door and pinned him with a sharp look. "Harry doesn't know any magic. If you hurt him, you'll answer to me. Understood?"

Severus read the threat quite clearly and gave another nod. Honest hatred he could understand. This other stuff made him nervous.

"Ron!" Hermione shouted. "Don't frighten him."

"You must be joking! Look at him! Nothing frightens the likes of him!" Ron gave a disgusted shake of his head and stalked out.

Hermione looked as though she wanted to say something, but then followed after her husband.

Snape glanced from the open door to Harry, who was standing just inside the room, looking like he didn't know what to say.

"Why did you let me stay?" Severus demanded as soon as they were alone together.

Potter came over to collect his Exploding Snap cards from where he'd left them at the foot of the bed. He seemed as uncomfortable as Snape felt.

"I wouldn't want to stay in the infirmary." Potter shrugged.

"But why should you care what happens to me?"

Potter gave another hapless shrug, looking like he really didn't know.

Snape searched those porcelain white features, scouring for some hint of subterfuge. Potter didn't look bright enough to be hiding anything. All Snape could find in the smaller boy's face was wariness.

Of him, of his tongue, he realized. Normally, Severus would have pursued his inquiry until his opponent was a simpering wreck, but Potter had proven that he wasn't his opponent. Severus uncomfortably noted that this was the first instance that he had spent this much time in another boy's company without being insulted or taunted. He knew how to deal with those adversarial situations, but he didn't know what to make of Potter. So, he let the matter drop and watched as Potter shuffled his cards.

"Potter?"

That got the other boy's attention fast. "Call me Harry. People only call me 'Potter' when they're mad at me."

"Harry, then."

"Yes?"

"When you were talking to the Weasleys before, what was all that stuff about a cupboard?"

"My aunt and uncle didn't really want me to live with them after my parents died in the car crash, so they . . . they make me . . . they lock me in a cupboard at night." Potter looked quickly down at his cards.

Something in Severus seemed to freeze up. For as long as he could remember, his grandparents had hated him, but even they hadn't made him sleep in a closet. That was . . . incomprehensible. What he couldn't understand was how Potter could be so nice to everyone.

He watched Potter sit down on the floor and amuse himself with the Exploding Snap deck, seeming to tune Severus completely out.

A few minutes later, the Weasleys returned, levitating the bed in front of them.

Potter jumped to his feet, his cards falling all over as he ogled the floating bed. "Wow! That's amazing!"

The Weasleys both rewarded Potter's insipidness with a smile.

Hermione levitated the room's existing furniture to make room for the newcomer while Ron manoeuvred the bed into place.

Normally, Severus would have let them just struggle away with it on their own, but since this was being done in his behalf and he didn't want to be deemed as useless as the near-Muggle Potter, Severus asked, "Can I help?"

Ron stared at him as though he suspected him of plotting his demise, but Hermione gave him an evaluating glance and asked, "Can you levitate the nightstand and move it between the beds?"

"Hermy, seven year olds aren't supposed – " Ron's words died as Severus withdrew his wand and smoothly manoeuvred the small table where requested.

"Thank you, Severus," Hermione said, the tip of her wand guiding the other bed against the far wall.

Snape cast a triumphant glance Potter's way, wanting to show off. But the other boy wasn't looking envious of his skills. To the contrary, Potter seemed just as impressed by Snape's show of expertise as by the Weasleys'.

"Wonderful!" Harry exclaimed. "Will I be able to do that some day?"

"Yes," Ron answered, as he finished positioning the extra bed. "You ready for that game now?"

"You bet!" Harry gave an excited shout and raced after Ron out of the room.

Hermione adjusted the duvet on Snape's recently installed bed. He noted that she'd brought the books Professor McGonagall had given him to read. They were floating midair near the door. He watched her levitate them onto the nightstand. When she straightened up from fixing the sheets, she said, "I've got some Muggle books I think you might find interesting, Severus, if you'd like to give them a look?"

"Muggle books?" He'd never even seen one. In fact, from what his grandparents had said about Muggles, he hadn't been certain they were sentient enough to read.

"Yes. I've got quite an extensive collection."

"Er . . . Professor Weasley?" he felt awkward calling her that. Harry called her Hermione, but the adult Harry was her friend. Her husband's attitude towards him had shown him that whatever Snape was to them, it wasn't a friend.

"I'm not really your teacher, Severus. Wouldn't you prefer to call me Hermione like Harry does?" she seemed almost eager.

"All right," he agreed, swallowing hard. He was frightened, and he didn't know why. Something in her eyes made him feel very vulnerable when she looked at him. He wondered if she were practicing some kind of spell on him. But there wasn't anything calculating or mean in her brown eyes. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"Did you want to ask me a question?" she reminded.

"Yes. Was Potter raised by Muggles?"

"Yes, he was. Both his parents were wizards, but when they died, he went to live with his mother's Muggle relatives." Some of the softness left her eyes. "Is that going to be a problem for you?"

"What?"

"I know some of the older Wizarding families frown upon association with wizards who aren't what they call 'pure blood'," she said.

Severus felt his cheeks flush with shame as he heard those most hated of words come out of her mouth. His stomach lurched with panic at the thought that she knew about him, but then he realized that they were talking about Potter, not him. She was just concerned about Harry's well being.

He tried to swallow with a dry mouth and said, "It doesn't matter to me if he's Muggle-born. I won't . . . it won't be a problem."

To his bewilderment, Hermione appeared upset by his answer. Her subsequent words shocked him nearly as much as Potter's decision to allow him to stay.

"I'm sorry, Severus. It was wrong of me to make that kind of assumption about you," Hermione softly said.

"Your assumption wasn't wrong. I'm just not very good at being a pureblood."

"What do you . . . ?"

He didn't want to talk about this anymore. "If it's all right with you, would you mind showing me those Muggle books now?"

"All right," Hermione said, not pursuing the subject, for all that he could see her curiosity burning in her eyes.

Startled that she hadn't hounded him for the truth, he followed her into the sitting room.

***********

"Mmmmm, is it morning all ready?" Hermione muttered. Squeezing her eyes shut against the intruding light, she buried her nose in Ron's armpit. She shivered as his fingers stroked down her spine.

"Wish we could sleep in," Ron said, sounding way too awake, "but I heard footsteps in the sitting room. I think Harry'd be all right on his own, but Merlin knows what Snape will get up to."

"Oh, yes, right." She'd forgotten. Harry and Snape.

She dragged herself into a sitting position. Once her eyes had adjusted to the assault of greyish daylight seeping in through the windows, she looked down at the sensual sprawl that was her husband. His long limbs looked so powerful, even in repose like this. His sleep-tousled hair was nearly as askew as Harry's.

Recalling the discord between them last night, Hermione reached out to brush his sleep-flushed cheek. "Thank you for letting Severus stay, Ron."

He shrugged in that no-big-deal way he had and reminded, "You already thanked me last night, remember? Quite thoroughly, if I do say so."

Stars, how she loved him. "Yes, well, it means a lot to me that Severus stay with us."

"I know. I don't understand it, but I get that much."

A crash of shattering glass sounded from the sitting room. They stared at each other in dismay, and then laughter bubbled over them.

"Kids," Ron said, shaking his shaggy head. "You want to deal with the two in the sitting room while I go see what the monsters in the dorm have gotten up to?"

"Okay." Grabbing her wand from the nightstand, she performed a quick cleaning spell on herself, grabbed her house robe and hurried out the bedroom door.

She looked around the sitting room for the source of the crash, but nothing appeared broken. A very guilty-appearing Harry was sitting on the rug in front of the fire with his Exploding Snap cards spread out in front of him. He was staring up at her out of anxious green eyes, looking as though he expected to be flayed alive. A way-too-innocent Severus was sprawled in Ron's favourite armchair, nose in a Dickens book, legs over the chair arm.

"Good morning, boys," she greeted.

"Good morning, Hermione," Harry swiftly replied, Severus' mumbled "'morning," sounding like he was forcing himself to be civil.

"Did I hear something break?" she asked, doing her best to hide her smile as Harry all but melted into the carpet. Severus said nothing, continuing to stare at his book.

She waited. She could see Harry struggling to not answer.

Finally, he broke down and admitted. "I . . . er . . . broke the vase on the mantle. I was trying to get down one of the moving photos and I couldn't reach. I-I'm sorry," he stammered. He looked as though he were braced for vivisection.

She glanced in Severus' direction. Typical Slytherin. He was watching the scene out of the corner of his eye. It was all she could do to keep from giggling at his disgusted expression. It was clear he thought Harry a fool for admitting what he'd done.

She looked at the vase, which was intact on the mantel, exactly where it had sat since Molly gave it to them last Christmas. "I see that it's somehow repaired itself."

Now Harry appeared totally flummoxed. His gaze shot to Severus, but he said nothing to incriminate the other boy. Even at seven, he was a total Gryffindor.

"Thank you, Severus," she said.

As he met her eyes and gave a nod, she could see that he was just as anxious as Harry. But Severus had helped Harry. The arrogant boy she'd met two days ago wouldn't have concerned himself in Harry's problem.

Feeling very proud of them both, she smiled down at them. "Let's have breakfast, shall we?"

Once the house elves had delivered their meal and they were all seated around the table finishing off the sumptuous repast of bangers and eggs, Hermione said, "I think that we need to deal with your clothing problem today, before I end up shrinking everything in your adult wardrobe. Baths are the first task of the day, though. Who wants to go first?"

As expected with boys their age, there was no concentrated rush for the bathroom, but after a minute, Harry volunteered, "I will."

"Very good. While you're in there, I'll do a cleaning spell on what you wore yesterday."

A half hour later, both boys were clean and dressed.

Hermione eyed them both. Harry's hair was its typical tumbleweed. Hermione took a brush to it. Just like the other day, Harry was tense at first, but relaxed after a few minutes. Hermione kept at it for nearly ten minutes, with no appreciable results. But she smiled into his nervous eyes and said, "There. That looks much better."

Her gaze fell on Severus. His hair was somewhat longer than the professor normally kept it. The wet ends fell past his slender shoulders now. It was starting to frizz as it dried and hung in unattractive strings around his face.

"Severus, we're going to have to do something with your hair," Hermione said. It was one thing for Snape to walk around looking like he never paid any attention to his hair beyond the cursory daily washing, but while the boy was under her care, she was determined to at least attempt to pay some attention to his grooming.

He froze in his chair, fully as terrified as she'd ever seen him.

"I don't want it blond and short," he said, a cornered look in his eyes.

"What?" Blonde?

"Grandmother always transfigures it blond and short before she sends me off to school," he said. "I turn it back once I get outside. I won't wear it that way!"

Hermione was confused. "Why did she want your hair to be blond?"

She could almost understand the wanting it short part, for it really was an eyesore most days.

Severus looked down at the rug. "She and grandfather are both blond with blue eyes, as was my mother. I – I've got my father's mud – mud coloured eyes and hair. She doesn't like that I look like him."

His downcast expression made Hermione furious with the person who'd hurt him this way.

"Severus, I don't want to change your hair colour or its length. I like it that the way it is. I just want to brush it so that it looks neat. Will you let me do that?"

Hermione could see how difficult it was for him to trust her. He was searching her face as though he suspected a plot of some kind.

After an extremely long, tense silence, Severus nodded and came to stand in front of where she sat on the couch. He was much taller than Harry and she had to stand to reach his hair.

At first, he was stiff as a statue, seeming to anticipate pain or deception, but when all she did was run the brush through his drying hair, he slowly relaxed.

His hair was soft as silk, but of an awkward length. No sooner would she get it neatly brushed back from his face, then he would move and it would come spilling forward to hang in his eyes.

"Severus? Do you think we could tie your hair back so that it isn't hiding your handsome face?" Hermione asked, wary of upsetting him by suggesting changes, but at the same time determined to get that hair out of his eyes.

He pulled back from her and glared up at her, fury darkening his features. "There's no need for mockery."

"What?" she gawked, having no idea what she'd said wrong.

"You were teasing me," he accused, his eyes bright with betrayal.

"Teasing you? How?" She was totally lost.

"I know that I'm ugly. There is no need to belabour the obvious." At that moment, he was truly the Severus Snape that she knew, short-tempered, his sarcasm sharp as a knife.

But what he was saying in that familiar scathing tone broke her heart.

"Severus, you are not ugly," Hermione insisted in the strongest voice she could manage. All she wanted to do was cry. She didn't know which of these poor little boys made her feel worse – Harry, who was so terribly, openly starved for affection, or Severus, who was equally deprived, but denying it with all his might.

"I know what I am. You don't need to lie to me," he snarled. "I've got my father's hair and eyes, and my nose is monstrous."

"There's nothing wrong with having your father's hair and eyes. And your nose is not monstrous. Yes, it's large," Hermione continued before he could spew the venom brewing in his angry eyes, "but it's not unattractive. You have strong features, Severus. There's nothing wrong with them. I've always thought you rather dashing."

He was regarding her the way a jury observes an accused man, searching her features for truth. Finally, he asked in a vulnerable voice, "Dashing?"

"It means handsome in a manly way. Not pretty, but strong and impressive," she explained. "Severus, it was very wrong of your grandmother to say those things to you, especially since they were not true."

He hung his head, his cheeks flushing in visible embarrassment.

"It wasn't just grandmother. The children at school . . . ." he broke off.

"Children can be very cruel. Usually, they just say things until they find the insult that gets a response. Just because their words hurt you, doesn't make what they said true."

"So you're saying that I showed a weakness and they attacked it?" He seemed resolved to take blame for it.

"Sensitivity isn't the same as weakness. We are all human and can be hurt. No one likes to be signalled out and ostracized from a group. Your classmates were probably just looking for a way to make you feel bad." Hermione reached out to stroke his cheek, trying not to notice how he flinched at her gesture. Merlin's beard, had those monsters physically abused him as well as emotionally bullied him? "What they did was wrong. You are not ugly. I don't care what your grandmother or your classmates said."

Harry, who was sitting on the floor to their left attempting to build a house of cards with his Exploding Snap deck, looked up at them and said, "I don't think you're ugly, either. You just look mean 'cause you never smile."

"I'm not a simpering cretin who goes around spewing optimistic lies," Severus snapped at him.

Hermione hid her smile. That wasn't a mistake anyone was likely to make with Severus Snape. Beyond that, it was obvious that Harry had no idea what Severus' words meant.

"Severus, that wasn't very kind. Harry was trying to make you feel better," Hermione reprimanded.

"What's a simpering cretin?" Harry asked.

Seeing the nasty spark rise in Severus' eyes, she admonished, "Don't." Then turning to meet Harry's gaze, she explained, "It's someone who isn't very bright."

"Oh." Harry went back to adding cards to his construction. It was really rather impressive. The structure was four levels high. He was just adding the supporting card for the fifth level when the card exploded and knocked the structure down.

"So, will you let me try to tie your hair back?" she asked Severus. "If you don't like it, we can take it right out."

He gave a grudging nod and moved closer to her again.

As she brushed his hair back from his face, Severus peered up at her from beneath his thick lashes. "Do you really think that I'm not ugly?"

Swallowing past the lump in her throat, she nodded and said, "Really."

And because he still seemed to have trouble believing her, she bent down and brushed a quick kiss on his brow. "Really. Quite dashing."

His eyes bugged out to twice their normal size. The fingers of his right hand rose to touch his forehead where she'd kissed it. His expression was somewhere between bewilderment and hesitant pleasure.

Only as she took in his reaction did it occur to her that that might have been the first time anyone had kissed Severus. Now that she thought about it, Harry had acted the same way when she'd done it to him that first day when she'd been comforting him in his room. She wasn't normally a violent person, but what she wanted to do to the fiends who had mistreated these two innocent boys was unspeakable.

Instead, she pretended nothing was amiss. Reaching out, she called, "Accio clip," to summon a black leather and silver hair clasp from her dresser. A moment's more work and she was finished.

"There, all done," Hermione announced. "Do you want to go look at yourself?"

She gestured toward the mirror on the wall beside the Christmas tree. Severus was tall enough to see himself in it. Harry would have required a chair.

She watched him cross the room with slow deliberation to study his reflection in the mirror.

"What do you think?" she questioned. "Do you like it?"

"I don't know. It looks very different," Severus said.

She refrained from stating the obvious, that his face was fully visible for the first time in memory. The ponytail was actually very attractive on him. Severus' glossy long hair was still showcased, but it didn't veil his face. The strength of his bone structure was accentuated, but the fall of the dark hair around his temples softened his features.

"I like it," Harry called up from the floor.

Hermione held her breath. Severus' vocabulary and behaviour were closer to that of a teenager than a seven year old. Perhaps understandably, Snape hadn't seemed highly impressed with Harry's abilities so far. She'd been around the Weasley household long enough to know how a younger brother's approval could often be the death knell to any alteration.

But Severus just stared at himself a little longer and then nodded. "I suppose it wouldn't do any harm to try it."

It was so strange to hear a child his size speaking with such a mature syntax. If it weren't for Severus' high pitched, seven year old's voice, he could very well have been the sarcastic Potions Master to whom she was accustomed.

"Good. Let's go, then," Hermione said.

Ron had fetched both Harry and Snape's winter cloaks, scarves, and gloves earlier and shrunk them down to size. Now, Hermione bundled the boys into their winter wear.

Harry took her hand as soon as they left their quarters. He was still staring goggle eyed at everything in Hogwarts. Severus walked calmly at her side, no longer seeming disturbed by their company.

They stepped out of the school into a cold, snowy day. The flakes were still drifting lazily down from the sky. The ground was blanketed with a fresh white carpet and the Forbidden Forest looked like a Christmas card. A path had been magically cleared from the school's main entrance to the road to Hogsmeade.

Harry immediately became excited. "Look at all that snow! I've never seen so much! Can I play in it, Hermione? Please?"

Unable to refuse him anything when he looked so happy, Hermione nodded. "All right. Just don't get too soaked."

"Thanks, Hermione!" Harry released her hand and immediately shot off to throw himself into the nearest pile of snow. He was laughing and howling like a maniac as he rolled around in it.

Hermione looked at the sombre boy at her side. Snape the teacher would have been glaring at Harry and making snarky comments about the foolish waste of time and energy. But this Severus wasn't old enough yet to be that bitter about other people's joys. He simply watched Harry playing as though it were an activity not applicable to himself. He was always the outsider, she realized, far much more so than Harry, who, while he'd had a most difficult childhood, was always eager to accept happiness when it came his way. Severus was so serous all the time that it hurt her to see him like this, so close to joy, but not touching it.

"Severus, wouldn't you like to play in the snow with Harry?" she asked in a puff of steamy breath.

He looked up at her out of dark, sad eyes. "I'm not permitted to play in the snow. It's not dignified."

"You don't have to be dignified all the time," she said softly, hating his grandparents. It was no wonder the other children had taunted him. The poor boy didn't even know how to have fun. "You are allowed to have some fun. Wouldn't you like to try?"

He bit his lower lip. "I don't know how. I've never done it before."

"Neither has Harry," she pointed out, gesturing to where Harry was making snowballs. "Go on. Go over there with him and give it a try."

Severus stepped uncertainly onto the nearest mound of snow, giving a startled yelp when he fell through it up to his knees. He had a look on his face like he was going to panic, but then Harry came slip sliding over to him.

"It's great, isn't it?" Harry laughed. "You want to make a fort?"

"A fort?" Severus repeated, staring from Harry to the unbroken line of snow that surrounded them.

"My cousin Dudley and his friends made them all the time," Harry said. "They were so cool."

"Of course they were cool. They were composed of snow," Severus snapped.

"Not that kind of cool," Harry objected. "Come on. Help me push some snow over this way and you'll see for yourself."

Hermione felt sorry for him as Severus tentatively lifted an armful of snow and it fell immediately to the ground.

But Harry was a patient teacher. "You've got to pack it together first so it doesn't get away from you. See? Like this. Yeah, that's better."

Together they packed the snow into blocks and built a wall with it.

Hermione watched the two boys working side by side. Both of their black cloaks were spotted with snow and Severus' lashes were flecked with it, but they looked like they were having the time of their lives.

"No," Severus said about ten minutes later as Harry hauled another pile of snow up over his head. "Don't put that up there. It's too tall. The wall will . . . ."

Their fort crumbled in on top of them before Severus had finished his warning. Piles of snow tumbled down on top of the kneeling children, temporarily burying them. After a moment of stunned silence, both boys flailed their way free of the fluffy white avalanche.

Severus was up to his neck in snow and Harry was still on his hands and knees trying to get his upper torso free. When Harry raised his head, he met Severus' gaze.

Hermione held her breath, waiting for the scathing condemnation. She knew how Snape responded to bungling. Poor Neville still couldn't sit on the same side of the table as his former teacher.

But the silence stretched. After a moment, Harry started to giggle, and then . . . to her utter shock and delight, Severus laughed, too. Shaking the snow off like puppies, they crawled out of their devastated domicile, helping each other as they slid on the unstable piles. They were both still howling as they stumbled to her side on the path.

Severus immediately stopped giggling and smoothed his features into their characteristic impassivity when he noticed her observation, but he'd laughed, and that was more than she'd ever thought him capable of.

"That looked like fun. Did you have a good time?" Hermione asked, flicking her wand at them and muttering a drying spell.

"Yes," Harry exclaimed as his cloak and clothes steamed dry on him. "Can we do it again later?"

"If we get back early enough. If not, we'll make sure to come out tomorrow," she promised. Taking Harry's hand, they started up the path to Hogsmeade.

Their first stop was the clothes store. Fancy Frocks was very much like a Muggle store in that the wares were offered on racks. There were row upon rows of selections of every type of wizarding garment imaginable.

Harry's excitement at buying clothes that fit him was infectious. While Harry played peek a boo with himself beneath the clothes racks and Severus stood a bored, gloomy presence at her side, Hermione found the boys a week's worth of underclothes and socks.

But it was when they got to choosing their robes from the racks of rainbow assortments that Harry had the most fun.

"Can I get the blue one and the green one, Hermione?" Harry asked with hopeful eyes as green as his intended selection, as he pawed through the offerings on the rack.

"Yes. I'm going to get you some black school robes, too, in case we don't get you sorted out before the term starts. Minerva spoke to the Hogsmeade school's headmaster to let him know that you both might be coming for a few weeks."

"I get to go to Wizarding school?" Even that seemed to over joy Harry.

"Yes, Harry. You do." Hermione turned to Severus. "What about you, Severus? What colour robes do you want?"

Severus seemed startled. After a pause, he reluctantly said, "I'm only allowed to wear black. The other colours are . . . ."

"Undignified, I know." Hermione completed, not wanting to consider what it had taken to beat the spirit out of this intelligent boy to the point where he parroted these restrictions when the people who'd made them were not even present. "Severus, I know that your grandparents were very strict with you, but you're not with them now. If you'd like to choose some other colour besides black, go ahead. You have plenty of dignity; you don't have to rely on your clothes for that." She moved them a few yards down the aisle. "Here, these are your size. Go through them and see which you like."

Temptation flickered through his face. After the briefest of hesitations, he started moving hangers along the rack. Finally, he asked, "May I have the green one?"

"Of course. You'll need more than one. Pick another and we'll get you a black one for school as well."

His brow puckered in concentration, he slowly shifted through the robes. He paused over one and looked up at Hermione, "I suppose this one wouldn't be acceptable?"

Hermione pursed her lips. The robe he was holding out was lilac, almost pink. It certainly wasn't a colour she would ever encourage him to choose, but he'd chosen it on own and she'd told him he could have whatever colour he wanted. Not about to go back on her word, she gave an uncertain, "I wouldn't say unacceptable." Seeing his barely masked enthusiasm, she smiled. "Well, why not? You've certainly got the height to pull it off."

Although the smile didn't touch his lips, the surprised light in his eyes made her very happy.

"Are we going back home now?" Harry asked as they stepped out of the clothes store a while later.

Hermione safely stowed their shrunken purchases in her pocket and gave them a smile. "Not yet. We've got a couple of more stops to make."

"More clothing?" Severus asked.

"No." She grinned at their curious faces. "I was thinking a stop at Zonko's Joke Shop and Honeydukes sweet shop were in order."

Loving their surprise, she towed them after her.

Harry was easily amused, she found. Denied so much with the Dursleys, he was delighted with anything she did for him. He seemed as touched by the fact that she thought enough of him to do for him as for the act itself.

Severus was a bit harder. Although she got the feeling that Snape hadn't been any more spoiled in his home life than Harry, his tastes were far more mature. The toys and gags that enthralled Harry in Zonko's Joke Shop left Severus with a slightly bored look. She was able to persuade Severus to select something in Honeydukes, but even there, she felt that he was doing it more to indulge her than out of any genuine interest. And his choice left her a little teary-eyed. Out of the dozens of exotic offerings the Wizarding Sweet Shop carried, Severus chose a small bag of Muggle lemon drops.

It was only when they stopped at the bookstore to pick up Hermione's own order that Severus showed anything like excitement. He'd avidly browsed the bookshelves, but it was an item on the store's novelty table that he kept returning to.

When she saw Severus pick up the hand held telescope for the third time, she came up beside him and softly asked, "Would you like that, Severus?"

Although he tried to mask his surprise, she read it quite clearly.

"I don't have any money with me," he said softly.

"Neither does Harry, but he picked some things at Zonko's," she reminded.

"Yes, but . . . ." his words trailed away as he lowered his gaze.

"But what?" she encouraged.

"You . . . care about Potter," he reluctantly said.

Even at seven, Severus Snape was a master of inference. Hermione clearly read the end of that sentence, the 'not about me' that his pride doubtless wouldn't allow him to voice.

Hermione leaned down until she was on his level and quietly said to him, "Severus, I've known you for fifteen years. I care about you, too."

She saw his Adam's apple bob, heard him gulp. Then he asked in a near whisper, "You do?"

"Yes, I do. I promise." Seeing how overwhelmed he was by her admission, Hermione quickly changed the subject, "Now, do you want that telescope for your treat? You didn't pick anything out at the joke shop."

A shy nod and a "yes, please," and they were on their way to the clerk to pay for their purchases.

It was growing dark by the time they were done with their adventuring. Both boys seemed worn out by the time they were leaving the Three Broomsticks after their hot chocolate and scones break. They seemed quiet, but happy as they stepped out of the pub.

Hermione automatically took Harry's hand and began walking up Hogsmeade's main street with its bright Christmas decorations. Severus was close on her other side. As they walked and commented on the ornate seasonal displays, her empty, hanging left hand kept bumping Severus' arm. They were stopped before Zoe's Brooms and Flumes shop, watching the antics of the charmed manikins. Hermione was saying, "And if you look very close at Santa's workshop in this window, you can see a real elf making toys," when she felt Severus' gloved hand slip into her empty left hand.

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He was standing stiffly beside her, his face visibly braced for rejection. She wanted to hug him tight and promise him that it was all right, but she understood that he'd hate that kind of fuss. So, she gave his hand an encouraging squeeze and kept talking, as if nothing monumental had occurred. But deep down, her heart was trilling with triumph.

**********

"Severus, are you ready? Hermione's waiting to take us to school!" Harry announced as he barrelled into their bedroom.

Severus closed his new black robe over his new purple jumper and black pants. Harry had been ready for the last half hour, practically bouncing off the walls with his enthusiasm. Severus was about to petrify him.

But he knew he wouldn't. Potter might be as immature as the rest of their age group, but he wasn't cruel. Harry never taunted him or made him feel like a freak because of the way he spoke.

Harry's attitude would probably change today, Severus realized, trying to prepare himself for the inevitable. There was nothing like peer pressure to alter one's attitude. Severus remembered all too well how the one or two boys in his last school who hadn't initially treated him like a pariah had learned to do so at their companions' urging. He'd seen how popular Harry was with the Hogwarts students who had remained at school over the holidays. Harry would no doubt have friends at the Hogsmeade school by the end of the day, and by the end of the week Severus knew that he'd be persona non grata again. He'd probably end up rooming in the infirmary.

His stomach clenched at the very idea. The last week and a half here with the Weasleys had been the best of his life. He hadn't been punished or beaten once. As long as he kept his sarcasm in check, Hermione treated him pretty much the same as she did Potter. Even her halfwit husband had stopped glaring at him. He was starting to feel . . . safe here, and he'd never really felt that way before. Pity, it would all have to change.

Severus stared into the mirror over their dresser, still not accustomed to the sight of the pony tail he'd been wearing since Hermione had first fixed it for him. He looked so different. Surely, the changes went more than skin deep. Maybe . . . maybe there was a chance things wouldn't go all wrong for him at this school. Maybe if he kept quiet, he'd be able to fit in for once and there would be no teasing.

And maybe he'd grow a new personality in the next half hour! There was no way he could fit in. He never had, never would. His name and upbringing made it impossible for his Muggle-blood classmates to interact with him; while the purebloods . . . they knew what he was. His grandmother could force him to carry himself like one of her kind, but even children their age were conscious of pedigrees. They didn't understand the nature of the scandal surrounding him, but they were aware of it. And no matter what airs he put on, the purebloods still knew that he carried his mother's last name.

That probably wouldn't matter too much to Harry, Severus thought, surreptitiously watching as the other boy stuffed the singing handkerchief Hermione had bought him at Zonko's into his pocket. Harry was Muggle-raised, so he was refreshingly ignorant of Wizarding social standing. However, when their class started treating Potter's roommate like a freak, that he'd notice. Unpopularity by association was a strong inducement for joining the throng. It was only a matter of time before Potter joined the ranks of his tormentors.

"Are you ready?" Harry asked again, looking like he was about to burst with enthusiasm.

"As ready as I'll ever be," Severus answered, turning from the mirror.

"You don't seem too happy about going to our new school. Don't you like school? You're so smart, I thought you'd love it," Harry said from the end of his bed where he was fussing with his school bag again.

"I enjoy learning new things," Severus said, hoping that would put an end to the discussion. Potter was usually so easily distracted by everything in his new world that it was normally very easy to change a troublesome conversational topic without his noticing.

Severus' luck appeared to be holding true, however, and this was not one of those occasions.

Potter tilted his head to the side and peered up at him out of those ridiculous round glasses. "You didn't answer the question. You don't like school, do you?"

Severus considered lying, then gave it up as a lost cause. In little under an hour Potter would fully understand why he dreaded school. A lie would do nothing to salvage his pride. So, Severus blanked his features and said with as little malice as he could manage, "Not everyone is as instantly popular as the Boy Who Lived. I like the subjects I learn in school. I'm just not very fond of the company."

Harry's face darkened at the 'Boy Who Lived' comment. Ever since Ron had explained his personal history to him, Potter had been very sensitive about being fussed over because of events he couldn't remember. But once again Potter proved that he wasn't so easily diverted. Instead of taking issue with Severus' crack, Harry looked up at him out of those impossibly innocent green eyes and softly asked, "I remember what you told Hermione last week. The other kids are mean to you, aren't they?"

This would be the one subject about which the cretin showed any perception, Severus silently fumed. Seeing no other course, he gave a tight nod, braced for the worst. All this meant was that the teasing would start now instead of after class, charming.

But Potter surprised him. Instead of reacting gleefully, he quietly offered, "The kids in my old school were awful to me, too. My cousin Dudley was very popular, and a bully, so if they wanted to stay on his good side they had to be mean to me."

"So why are you so excited about going to school here then?" Severus questioned, completely bewildered by Potter.

Harry shrugged. "Everything's been going so good here. Dudley won't be at this school. There won't be any reason for anyone to tease me. I figure it might be fun."

Well, that made sense. If Potter's problems were tied to a specific individual, the removal of that person from his environment might be enough to totally transform his experience. Snape was never that fortunate.

"Ah, I see," Severus said.

"Are they mean to you 'cause you're so smart?" Harry questioned.

Severus re-evaluated his estimation of Potter's perceptiveness. "You've spent nearly two weeks with me. Haven't you figured it out yet?"

"What?" Potter's features revealed his utter incomprehension.

"Would you have spent that time with me if you'd had any other choice?" Severus demanded, tiring of the topic.

"I had a choice, remember?" Potter reminded.

"Are you telling me you don't regret it?" Severus challenged.

Potter seemed genuinely startled. "I don't." Those two simple words shook him. "Why would I?" This last question was voiced as though the very idea was a mystery.

Severus squeezed his eyes shut. He felt too raw and open under that bewildered green gaze. Harry really didn't want to get rid of him.

Potter continued speaking, "I know I annoy you sometimes, but we have fun together, don't we?"

Still not opening his eyes, Severus gave another nod. He wasn't sure he knew what fun was, but . . . Potter did. And he called what they did together fun.

"It will be all right today," Harry said in the tone of a promise.

"How can you be so sure?" Severus opened his eyes and asked. Harry mystified him. He'd heard what Potter's life was like with those Muggles, how they'd locked him in a closet and let their obnoxious offspring bully him. And now Potter had just admitted that he'd had an equally difficult time in school. Their lives weren't all that different. And, yet, their outlooks couldn't be further apart. "How do you know that it's not going to be more terrible than what you left behind?"

"Because things are already different."

"How are they different?"

"It won't be all strangers. Hermione said that we're going to be in the same class. We'll already have one friend there," Potter said.

Snape couldn't have been more flummoxed had Potter pulled out a wand and hexed him. Potter had called him friend. No one had ever done that before. And it wasn't a joke, either. Harry had never looked more serious.

He was about to question Potter when Hermione stuck her head in the open bedroom door. "We have to leave now, boys. Hurry up."

Potter grabbed his book bag and raced over to her. Severus found his own bag and followed.

Bundled into their winter gear, they set out for Hogsmeade.

It was a clear, cold day. The sun was almost blinding on the blue-white fields. Severus thought he'd rather stay home and make snow forts.

"I'm going to take you today because it's your first day," Hermione said, "but Hagrid has agreed to take you the rest of the time. Is that all right?"

"I like Hagrid," Harry said, swinging Hermione and his joined hands as they walked along the snowbound road.

Since Harry seemed to like everyone, including him, that hardly seemed a very discerning comment.

Hermione appeared pleased by it, however. "He was your very first friend. It was Hagrid who tracked you down and gave you your Hogwarts acceptance letter when you were eleven. Your aunt and uncle had refused to let you open the first thousand or so Professor Dumbledore sent."

His stomach still quite queasy over his impending humiliation, Severus stopped listening as Harry blithered on about something or the other. Normally, Potter was fairly quiet, but when he was with Hermione he seemed to behave just as silly as most boys their age did.

All too soon, they reached the little schoolhouse on the edge of Hogsmeade. Severus stared up at the snow-topped, two story, fieldstone building. It was a pleasant enough looking place. There was a playground out back, as well as a children's quidditch pitch. There was really no reason for the mere sight of it to give him stomach cramps, but it did.

He watched a trio of boys a few years older than them race up the stairs and through the wooden doors.

He took a deep breath, not realizing how tight a hold he had on Hermione's hand until she squeezed his own back and he noted that his muscles were clenched so tight she could barely budge his skin.

She paused them on the school steps and gazed down at them both. The sun was sparking bronze highlights in her bushy hair. "I need you to promise me something, all right?"

"What?" Severus asked as Harry simultaneously answered, "Sure."

"I know that all of this is temporary and that you'll both be returned to your former selves as soon as we figure out how to reverse whatever happened," she began. Severus refrained from pointing out that if they had to wait that long, they'd probably be full-grown again. "Until that time, you, me, and Ron are sort of a family. Families take care of each other. While you're at school, I want you to look out for each other as though you were really brothers, okay?"

She gave both their hands another squeeze as they nodded.

Severus didn't know what to say. No one had ever voiced any concern for his well being before.

"I'm going to take you to your classroom door, but I think I'll save you the embarrassment and say goodbye to you here." With that, Hermione bent down and pressed a quick kiss to Severus' brow and then turned to do the same to Potter.

Harry's entire face lit up.

Severus could only gape at her, literally stunned speechless. He was still so startled by her affectionate gesture that he followed her into the schoolhouse, barely noticing where he was. They stopped at a door halfway down a long corridor.

Hermione knocked.

A heavy set, brown haired wizard with clear blue eyes opened the door. He was dressed in teachers' black robes that were nearly identical to those Hermione was wearing beneath her winter cloak. "Ah, here you are. Welcome, Mr. Potter, Mr. Snape."

"Boys," Hermione said, "this is Professor Allen."

"Hello," Harry and he said almost together.

"Thank you for taking them into your class so late in the term, Professor," Hermione said.

"My pleasure," Allen answered, beaming at them. "I never thought I'd have the opportunity to teach the Boy Who Lived."

The professor was wearing the same idiotic expression that some of those Gryffindor fools had in the Great Hall this morning when Headmistress McGonagall had explained the situation to the school.

Harry was already frowning.

"Well, I suppose I'd better get back. Have a good day, boys!" Hermione smiled.

"If you'll come this way," Professor Allen said. "Take a seat anywhere you like."

Harry and he exchanged a nervous glance and followed the portly professor into a classful of strangers.

All eyes turned their way as they entered. A whisper of, "Look, he really does have the scar," came from somewhere nearby with another of, "My mum says he was a Death Eater," following it.

Severus straightened up to his full height and scowled at them all. He heard the gulp Harry gave from a foot away.

They both stood inside the doorway scanning the room. The classroom looked very much like the empty ones they'd passed in Hogwarts for the last two weeks. Four rows of benches across the room, six back, two students per bench. There were two empty benches at the front of the room and three in the back.

Snape could see Harry eyeing the benches near the back of the room, but experience had taught him that the troublemakers were bolder the further they were positioned from the teacher's desk. With that thought in mind, Severus slid into the front bench nearest the door. He was somewhat surprised when Harry took the seat beside him.

"Well," Professor Allen said, "now that everyone is here, I believe we should introduce ourselves again as we did on our first day of class for the benefit of our new arrivals."

Once that odious chore was concluded, Professor Allen started teaching. As usual, nothing was covered that Severus didn't already know. Harry, however, seemed to be understandably lost through quite a few of the subjects. Muggle math and English were apparently pretty much the same and Potter seemed fine with those, but it was clear that the Beginners Latin and Beginners Potions were new to Harry.

Lunch break seemed to take forever to arrive. The class broke in the usual noisy chaos. Harry and he stopped in the lavatory before heading down to the lunchroom, which Professor Allen had been kind enough to give directions to before dismissing them.

"I'll wait for you outside, Severus," Harry called after completing his business.

Snape quickly finished up and washed his hands. He was about to exit the bathroom when a voice on the other side of the door stopped him.

"Hey, there, Harry!" a boy's voice greeted.

"Hello," Potter said.

"I'm Jonathan Crater. This is Barnaby Williams and Grant Soloman. How'd you like your first morning?"

"It was good," Harry answered without his usual enthusiasm.

"We're going to play some Exploding Snap at lunch. Do you want to join us?" Another voice eagerly invited.

"I'm waiting for my friend," Harry said.

"You mean Snape?" the Exploding Snap voice asked.

"Yes," Harry replied.

"You don't know about him, do you?" Crater questioned. "My mum said he used to be a Death Eater."

"I don't know what that is," Harry said.

"So, it's true then, what Professor Allen said about your being accidentally cursed back into childhood?" Yet another voice asked. "You really don't remember anything about the war and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?"

"We don't know that it's a curse," Harry explained. "I've heard about the war and Voldemort, but I don't remember any of it."

"Death Eaters were Voldemort's lackeys. They used to kill and torture for him. Your friend Snape used to be one," Crater said in an ugly tone.

Behind the door, Severus froze. He'd looked the Death Eaters up in Hogwart's library after he'd heard Ron call him one. He still couldn't believe he could have been part of such a group.

"Severus was working for the good guys," Harry said.

"You don't know that," the Exploding Snap voice pointed out.

"Yes, I do," Harry insisted.

"How?" Crater asked. "You just said that you don't remember a thing!"

"Maybe not, but I know Severus. He wouldn't do anything bad without a really good reason. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go."

Feeling the door beneath his hand start to push in, Severus quickly darted back into the cubicle he'd just vacated. His legs shaking, he sank back down onto the commode. That was the first time anyone had ever said anything positive about him like that in his life. Harry had sounded so sure, and so angry with those other boys on his behalf . . . but Harry was so wrong about this, for Ron had said that he'd been a Death Eater, which meant he'd done all those terrible things . . . .

"Severus?" Harry called from the other side of the stall door.

"Yes?" he tried to keep his voice level, but even he could hear the quaver in it.

"Your robe is stuck in the door. It wasn't like that before."

Severus glared at the offending garment. Potter was right. He'd caught the hem in the cubicle door during his hasty retreat.

"Come out," Harry urged.

Knowing he'd appear even more foolish if he delayed, Severus rose to his feet and slowly opened the door.

"You heard," Harry said. It wasn't a question.

Snape nodded.

"Do you know what that 'Death Eater' stuff they were talking about is?" Harry asked him.

Biting his lower lip, he nodded again and then explained before Harry was forced to ask again, "I looked it up in the library. Basically, what they told you was true. The Death Eaters were Voldemort's henchmen. They did his dirty work. They killed, tortured, and performed Unforgivable Curses for him on a regular basis." Snape looked down at the white tiles beneath his black leather boots. "Ron said I used to be one of them."

Harry didn't say anything for a long time.

When Severus finally dared the other boy's gaze, he was startled by the lack of disgust. Harry seemed to study him forever, then his hand came up to give Severus' left arm a squeeze. "It doesn't make any sense. They wouldn't let someone who did all that teach in the most famous Wizarding school, would they?"

Severus held Harry's green gaze. "I wouldn't think so."

"So, it's got to be wrong, then," Harry insisted.

"Perhaps. But what – what if I really did it?"

Harry appeared troubled by the question for a moment, but then the wrinkle furrowing his lightning scar smoothed back down as he said, "Hermione wouldn't be so nice to you if you'd done those terrible things. It can't be true."

Such faith. Where did he get it from?

Snape averted his eyes again. He could feel his cheeks warming as he began, "The other boys – "

"Are idiots. Don't pay any attention to them," Harry advised. "Come on. Let's go get lunch. I'm hungry."

Severus couldn't have kept food down at that point if his life had depended on it, but he followed Harry out of the lavatory and down to the lunchroom in the basement. As they made their way down the stone stairs together, something in Severus wanted to reach out and touch Harry to assure himself that the other boy was real. But he managed to refrain from further embarrassing himself.

Instead, he planted himself at Harry's side and resolved to remain there. He didn't know how Harry had kept his faith in people and his enthusiasm after the horrible life he'd led. All he knew was that Harry hadn't deserted him when anyone with half a brain would have been long gone. That kind of loyalty was beyond his ken. Severus knew that he would never understand what motivated Harry. The world had always seemed completely unforgiving of such innocence. He was ashamed to recall how he'd ridiculed Harry for these very traits during the first days of their acquaintance. But never again, he vowed. Whatever it was that allowed Harry to believe as he did, Severus was determined to protect it.

Perhaps in some small way that might make up for the terrible things he might have done if Harry were wrong about him.

************

Hermione looked up from the medieval curse book she was searching. The spell book was so dark, and so dry. It was hard to keep at it, hour after hour. But she had to keep searching.

Six weeks had passed since Christmas. Neither St. Mungo's nor the Ministry had come up with a workable solution to their problem. Harry and Severus were still seven year olds. Hogwarts' other teachers were on the verge of collapse from the extra workload of covering two vacant positions. And she and Ron were missing the adult Harry something fierce. A hundred times a day, she'd turn to tell Harry something, only to find the wide, green eyes of a child gazing up at her.

She glanced over to the table where Severus and Harry were just finishing up their homework. She was amazed at how well they were getting along. They were virtually inseparable these days. The patience Severus exhibited while helping Harry grasp the basics of Wizarding, that his Muggle upbringing hadn't prepared him for, astonished her. Snape hardly ever got snarky with the smaller boy. He just explained things in different ways until Harry understood. Although she'd acknowledged his expertise in potion making, she'd never thought of Severus as a very good teacher before. She was seeing a whole new side of him with Harry.

"Are we done yet?" Harry asked, as close to a whine as she could recall.

"We'd better be," Severus said.

"Great! Want to play Exploding Snap?" Harry questioned as they put their homework away.

Harry was nothing if not an eternal optimist, she thought, wondering how many times Severus would have to say no before Harry got the point that Severus simply didn't enjoy the child's game.

Hermione's eyebrows shot up to her hairline as Severus gave a resigned, "All right."

Ron sat up straighter in the chair across from her own and exchanged a shocked look with her as Harry took out his cards.

The boys scrambled down onto the carpet in front of the fireplace at their feet and began to play.

Hermione gave Ron a 'who knows?' shrug and tried to return her attention to her book, but it was impossible. The sight of those two dark heads – one a messy jumble of short black hair, the other a neat pony tail – bent together was simply too distracting.

The boys were obviously doing their best to keep their voices down so as not to disturb the adults, but every few minutes one or the other of them would start laughing. Hearing Severus laugh was still a shock to her. Although he was quieter about it than Harry, and seemed to do it only when he couldn't control himself, Snape had an earthy chuckle that filled the room.

Hermione smiled. "I could get used to this, Ron."

He gave her a mock frown, but his eyes were warm as he said, "You may have to. It's been nearly two months, with no end in sight."

"I know. It hasn't been so bad, though, has it?" she quizzed in a soft voice during an especially loud burst of laughter from the floor as both boys tussled over a card. Ron hadn't wanted Severus here at all. She'd never expected the situation to last this long when she'd forced the issue. She just hadn't been able to condemn any child, even Severus Snape, to the infirmary during Christmas week. Ron hadn't complained, but that didn't mean he was happy with the set up.

"Nah, it hasn't," he said in an equally subdued tone. "I love being able to do things with Harry that no one ever bothered to do when he was this small. And Snape hasn't been any trouble, much to my surprise."

Hermione took a deep breath, thanking her stars that her husband's fair nature usually prevailed over his occasional bouts of childishness. These last few months could have been sheer hell if Ron hadn't cooperated.

She hid a smile as she noticed an inky dark gaze sweeping over Ron from the floor. Severus looked as though he were completely absorbed in what he was doing with Harry, but she knew that he was taking in every word they said. It was little wonder that he'd made such a good spy for Albus. Even at seven he was frightfully good at disappearing into the scenery.

"Any luck?" Ron asked, gesturing at the tome in her lap.

"Surely, you jest? My eyes are about to roll out of my head," she sighed.

"Give it a rest for the night, Hermy," he advised as a loud explosion sounded from the carpet.

"I win!" Severus crowed.

He was never a good winner or loser, Hermione sadly noted.

"Another game?" Harry asked hopefully.

"Not right now," Severus refused. "I want to savour my victory."

To her delight, Harry just laughed at Severus' intolerable attitude.

"I'll play you, Harry," she volunteered.

"Oh," Ron said, a little glumly. "I was going to ask you to play Wizards' Chess."

"You know I'm no competition for you," Hermione reminded. "Every time we play, you spend twenty minutes beating me and then the remainder of the night lecturing me on what I did wrong."

"Yes. Well . . . ." he was too honest to protest.

Both Harry and Severus chuckled at Ron's expression.

Ron glanced down at the floor. "You play chess, don't you, Severus?"

Severus appeared as shocked by Ron's question as they'd been by Snape's laughter.

"Yes, I do," Severus replied, his features tense and grim.

Hermione found herself holding her breath. For the last six weeks Ron and Severus had managed to exist in these small quarters with zero interaction. Most times it was almost as though they couldn't even see each other.

This was the first time in weeks that she could recall Ron speaking directly to Snape. Ron tolerated his childhood nemesis for her sake, she knew. Even though she was happy the two were finally beginning to communicate on some level, she hoped that her husband wouldn't inadvertently frighten or upset Severus. The seven-year-old Snape had impassivity down to an art form, but she'd seen that there was a lot more to him than that frowning visage. Severus mightn't show everything he was feeling, but she suspected he felt it all quite deeply.

"Would you care for a game?" Ron asked, almost as guarded as the boy.

"Yes, thank you," Severus replied with perfect formality. He scrabbled to his feet as Ron put aside the parchments he was grading.

They both appeared nervous as cats as they approached the table. Ron retrieved his chess set from the breakfront in the corner, then they sat down across from each other and began to set up their pieces.

Hermione glanced over at her companion. Harry was watching Severus and Ron as well. When he noticed her gaze, Harry smiled and whispered, "They'll be all right."

"You think?" she grinned.

"I know. And it's your turn," Harry reminded.

Both she and Harry appeared to be paying more attention to the chess game taking place a few feet away than to the cards in their hands. Despite his assurance, Hermione could see that Harry was fully as concerned as she that Ron and Severus' uneasy truce would devolve into a shouting match with closer contact.

Aside from the soft shifting of chess pieces and the occasional crashing as one piece pounded another, the table was ominously silent.

After about five minutes, Severus complained, "I'm not a baby. You don't have to let me win."

"All right, then," Ron agreed.

Pieces could be heard banging each other into oblivion at a much more frequent rate after that.

Fifteen minutes or so later, they heard Severus gasp as Ron announced with far too much gusto for a full grown man playing a seven year old, "Check and mate, I believe."

Hermione and Harry paid close attention to their cards at that point, neither of them daring to look in Severus' direction.

The silence was unbearable.

Finally, Ron broke it. Sounding extraordinarily like his father, Ron reasonably asked, "So, do you want to pout about losing all night or play again so that I can show you how to prevent that from happening next time?"

Hermione sneaked a peak at Severus. It was just as she'd feared. He was sitting there staring at his fallen king with a face like a storm cloud. As she watched, he bit his lower lip and then glanced tentatively up at Ron.

"You'll teach me how to do that?" Severus sounded astounded.

"Yeah, if you stop glaring at me," Ron bargained.

"Agreed," Severus said stiffly.

"And if you two are going to spend the night staring at us, you may as well come up here and join us," Ron said, making both Harry and her jump in surprise. Ron's back was to them. He shouldn't have known they were watching.

Harry and she abandoned all pretext of playing and climbed to their feet.

Hermione moved to stand behind Ron. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she leaned on him, pressing an affectionate kiss to the top of his loose, red curls.

Harry stood beside the table for a second and then moved over to Severus' chair. Harry never said a word, but Severus slid over to make room for the smaller boy on his seat.

Ron's arm slipped around her waist and drew her down onto his lap as he began to play again.

Relishing how cosy it felt to have them all gathered around the table like this, Hermione relaxed against Ron's chest and watched him teach the seven-year-old Severus chess moves that were so complex, she could barely follow them. But Severus did. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.

**********

Severus woke with a start. He looked around in confusion. The single torch on the far wall was still lit and filling their bedroom with its dim orange light. It wasn't morning. Hermione hadn't called them for school, so why was he awake?

A second later, he heard the moan from the other bed. Harry was crying in his sleep again. Three, sometimes four nights a week the other boy was troubled with bad dreams. Normally, Severus tried to give Harry his privacy and pretend to have slept through the disturbance, but tonight Harry was particularly loud.

A few months ago he would have only been irritated about having been awoken, but now Severus was worried. Harry's dreams weren't like his own. They left Harry a shaking wreck afterwards.

Not liking how upset Harry sounded, Severus slipped out of his bed to pad barefoot across the cold floor. Even with the thick rugs on the floor, the castle was still drafty and freezing on a winter's night. He was covered in goosebumps by the time he reached the bed opposite his.

Harry's face was scrunched up with emotion, silver trails of tears streaming down his cheeks as he tossed and turned under his tangled blankets, begging 'no' to something.

Severus watched for a moment and then eased onto the edge of the bed.

"Harry?" he called softly, giving the dreaming boy's arm a shake. "Harry, wake up."

Wild-eyed, Harry shot up in the bed and propelled himself right at Severus' chest.

Startled, Severus caught him. He wrapped his arms around the shaking back as Harry buried his wet face in the front of his nightshirt. He could feel the other boy's small fingers clutching the back of his nightshirt as Harry held on for dear life.

Harry was trying so hard to control himself, almost choking on his efforts to hold back his sobs. After an awkward moment, Severus laid his palm on Harry's back and patted him.

"Do you want me to get Hermione?" Severus asked, aware of how inadequate he was when it came to emotional issues. Surely, Harry would prefer to be comforted by someone kind.

"No, p-please . . . d-don't b-bother her," Harry whispered.

Remembering the question Hermione would ask on the nights Harry's cries would bring her in, Severus softly asked, "Do you want to talk about your nightmare?"

Harry shrugged, his arms tightening around him. "It's the same as usual. There's this scary green fire everywhere and then the evil laughing and . . . and a woman screaming. I don't know why it scares me so much."

Severus did. He considered carefully before asking his next question. "Does your scar hurt when you have the dream?"

He felt Harry draw in a shuddering breath. "How'd you know?"

"Green flame is a sign of dark magic being used. I think you're remembering the curse that killed your parents," he gently offered. "Ron said you saw it happen. On some level, you've got to remember it."

"I guess you could be right. I don't remember them, though," Harry's voice was thick with sorrow.

"According to the story, you were only a year old when it happened. How could you have a clear memory of anything that far back? It had to be the most terrifying thing that ever happened to you, and you were too little to understand it."

Harry seemed to digest that for a long time as he rested against Severus' chest.

It was strange to hold someone like this. The only experience Severus had with anything like this were the brief hugs Hermione sometimes gave them. And those were different.

It took a while for Severus to figure out how it was different, but eventually he understood. When Hermione did this, she was offering them comfort. This was the first time in his life that he had been called upon to offer solace to someone else. And, even though he didn't know what he was doing and was probably completely inefficient at this, it felt good.

Harry certainly didn't seem to find his offering lacking in any way, he thought as the smaller boy's breathing slowly calmed. Therefore, he was surprised to feel Harry stiffen in his arms and pull swiftly away a few minutes later.

"I'm sorry," Harry said in a rush, his face as close to panic as Severus had ever seen it.

"For what?"

Those nearsighted green eyes peered up at him. "I know you don't like to be touched. I didn't mean to – "

Harry self-consciously gestured at Severus' tear-darkened nightshirt front.

"It's not that I don't like to be touched, it's just . . ." Severus swallowed hard and continued, "I'm just not accustomed to it. The only time anyone ever touched me at my grandparents' was when they were reprimanding me." He held Harry's myopic gaze. "I know you won't hurt me."

Severus crossed his arms over his chest, feeling the night cold now that Harry had withdrawn from him.

Harry seemed to notice his gesture. Potter scooted further into the bed, untangled the blankets and crawled back beneath them. With his typical generosity of spirit, Harry lifted the covers up, patted the space he'd just vacated, and invited, "Come on. Get warm."

Severus climbed in, glad of the warmth as Harry settled the blankets around them both. They pulled the covers up to their shoulders and then turned to face each other across Harry's rumpled pillow.

"I'd never let anyone hurt you," Harry said in a strangely fierce voice once they were settled. "You're my best friend."

That still befuddled Severus. Harry had had ample opportunities to form other attachments in their new school, but even though Harry did occasionally play with the other boys, Harry always made sure that he, Severus, was included in the games and still spent the majority of his time with him.

"You're my only friend," Severus softly replied.

After a silent moment, Harry gave a loud gulp and asked in a tentative tone, "Did your grandparents hurt you a lot?"

Suddenly, the air seemed thin and unbreathable. Severus couldn't understand why such a simple question should make his blood run cold.

He didn't really want to answer, but Harry had told him about all the horrible things those Muggles had done to him. He wasn't such a coward that he would lie now that Harry had openly asked him. So, taking a shaky breath, he answered, "All the time."

"Did they hit you?"

"When I was lucky." Severus tried for calm.

"What does that mean?" Harry didn't sound as though he were sure he wanted to hear the answer.

"There are ways to punish a person with magic that make whipping seem like a love tap," Severus explained. "There's a curse called the Cruciatus that sends every nerve in your body into extreme agony. That's the worst one. But there's another that makes your skin feel like it's been scalded that's nearly as bad. And another that makes your head feel like it's bursting and your eyes go blind . . . ."

"Your grandparents did all that to you?" Harry gaped.

Severus nodded. He'd never told anyone about this. He felt naked and terribly vulnerable, and not a little bit dirty. After all, these types of things were never done to normal children. Even Harry, who was the most abused boy he'd ever met after himself, seemed horrified.

"I know you act like a grownup most of the time, but you're really only my age," Harry said. "What could you have done that was so bad that they felt they had to punish you like that?"

"I suppose I misbehaved. But mostly they just look for excuses to punish me. Tormenting me seems to be their only pleasure in life," Severus admitted.

"But . . . it doesn't make any sense. You're their grandchild!"

Severus stared at Harry's dimly lit features, considering. Should he tell him the truth? Put it all out there in the open and see if Harry were still his friend afterward?

"What is it, Severus?" Harry asked softly.

"My mother . . . my mother's family were purebred Slytherins as far back as Hogwarts existed. My mother was an only child. She was a Slytherin herself, but she . . . she fell in love with a Gryffindor. To add insult to injury, he was a Muggle-born gypsy. My grandparents hated him and forbade her to see him, but she . . . ."

"Yes?" Harry gently encouraged, placing a hand on the wrist that was holding the blankets up to his neck.

Severus stared at Harry's hand for a long moment and then continued, "She ran off with him right after graduation. Her parents tracked her down and . . . well, let's just say that my father didn't last out the night."

"They killed him?" Harry gasped.

Severus nodded. "Sometimes they brag about how he died."

"What – what happened to your mom after that?" Harry sounded almost afraid to ask.

"My grandparents dragged her back to their estate. They were going to make her go through with this marriage they'd arranged with one of the Malfoy cousins, only . . . ."

"Only?"

Severus bit his lip and just said it. "Only she was pregnant with me. It was the worst scandal imaginable."

"Why?" Harry asked.

Severus opened his mouth to explain, but . . . for all the mistreatment that Harry had endured, Potter hadn't grown up in an environment where perversion and sadism were the rule. Those Muggles might have been horrible, but Harry was still a child. He had no more knowledge of the ways of the world than a seven year old should. And Severus knew it wasn't his place to change that.

So, he found a way to explain that wouldn't broaden Harry's horizons any more than necessary. "You know that a mother and father are supposed to be married before they have a baby?" Harry nodded. "Mine never got married. That's supposed to be a bad thing."

"Oh." Harry gave his wrist a squeeze. "It can't be bad if it made you, right?"

"I don't know. Sometimes I think . . . ." Unable to make that kind of self-destructive statement to those innocent, concerned eyes, Severus cut the thought off.

"So what happened after that?" Harry asked.

"You know that there are ways to make a woman not have a baby?"

"Yes, Aunt Petunia always told me my mother should've had an abrortion," Harry whispered.

"Abortion," Severus automatically corrected. "Her parents wanted her to get one, but my mother was too far along to have one, so they had to let me be born. I think they were going to kill me after she had me and make her marry that Malfoy, only . . . . I don't know if they did something to her while I was still inside her or if she just missed my father so much that she got sick, but . . . she died when I was born. She was their only child, so if they didn't keep me, the Snape line would die out. So they kept me, but they hated me because I looked so much like my father. And because I killed my mother. That's why they like to hurt me."

His heart pounding so hard it felt like it was going to burst, he waited the inevitable rejection.

But Harry didn't look disgusted, at least not with him. After a moment when it seemed that Harry might start crying again, the other boy firmed his features.

"You didn't kill your mother," Harry insisted, throwing an arm over him and pulling him close. "Don't even think that!"

Severus froze, totally unprepared for the reaction. He'd hoped that Harry wouldn't turn away from him completely after the revelation of his scandalous birth, but it had never occurred to him that Harry would be upset on his behalf.

He was shaking all over. When Harry pulled him even tighter, Severus buried his face in the crook of Harry's neck and just tried to breathe. Harry's hand was rubbing his back in circles, the way he'd sometimes see Hermione do for Harry after one of his nightmares.

And, somehow, even though telling Harry didn't change anything that had happened, the fact that Harry could know his repulsive history and still offer him kindness seemed to change his entire world. If asked, he would have died for Harry Potter at that moment.

Gradually, the trembling stopped. Severus knew that he should get up and go back to his own bed, but he was too comfortable to even think of moving. Harry's hand was still rubbing soft circles on his back when he dropped off to sleep.

**********

Severus and Harry weren't the only ones disturbed by Snape's revelation.

Ron Weasley stood frozen within the boys' bedroom doorway, too horrified by what he'd overheard to move. He'd been on his way back from the loo when he'd heard Harry cry out. He'd popped his head in to make certain everything was okay, and was frozen in place by the sight of Severus Snape offering comfort to a distraught Harry. He knew he should have withdrawn then, but he'd been afraid to call attention to himself. And then once Severus had started speaking about his past, he'd been incapable of motion. Only when it seemed that both boys had drifted back to sleep was Ron able to find his feet and stumble back to the bedroom.

Hermione lay a warm, blanket-cocooned bump on the bed. The empty space at her side was tempting, but he couldn't lie down just yet, not with the fury raging within him.

He wanted to kill something. Not something. Someone. Specifically, Snape's grandparents.

Merlin's beard! Performing Cruciatus on a child was crime enough, but those other atrocities that Severus had voiced . . . just thinking about them made him want to puke. To think of an innocent child left in the hands of such heartless fiends! The Snapes made Harry's Muggle relatives look like the perfect family! Was it any wonder Severus had grown up to be the joyless bastard he was, Ron reflected.

Cruciatus on a child . . . .

He stumbled to the window and looked out over the lake. Normally, the beauty of the moonlit snow would have calmed him. He would have enjoyed watching the rippling trail that the giant squid's passage below the surface made on the water. Eventually, the peace of the familiar scene would have lulled his mind, but not tonight.

He couldn't stop thinking about what Severus had told Harry. Torture and murder, reported like it was a normal event.

How long he stood there shivering at the window, he didn't know. His next awareness was of the grey light of dawn filling the chamber. The magical grandfather clock against the wall chimed its wakeup call and Hermione began to rouse in the bed behind them.

"Ron?" she called in alarm when semi-coherent.

"Right here," he said, his voice sounding thick and gruff even to his own ears.

"Are you all right?" Her hair a wild, beautiful tangle around her sleepy face, Hermione blinked over at where he stood by the window.

All right? How could someone be all right after hearing what he'd heard last night?

"I couldn't sleep," that much was true, at least.

"Ah."

He watched as her bare, shapely legs emerged from under the covers. Attaining the vertical, she tugged down her purple flannel nightgown and crossed to give him a kiss.

That simple gesture was enough to remind him that there was still some good left in the world.

"Mumpf," she grunted as he pulled her into a tight hug. But bewildered as she clearly was, she returned his embrace.

"I love you, you know that, don't you?" he asked as she finally drew back.

"You'd better," she sassed. But then the smile faded from her face. "Something's bothering you. Can't you tell me what it is?"

It wasn't his secret to tell. He wanted to, but it was bad enough that he'd eavesdropped as Severus poured his heart out to Harry. He wanted to tell her so badly that it hurt, but he didn't know if it was right for him to do so.

He was still wrestling with his emotional demons when Hermione gave a surprised gasp.

"What is it?" Ron asked, his nerves shot to hell after his sleepless vigil.

"Did something happen between you and Severus last night?" Hermione asked slowly.

"Why do you ask?" Ron hedged, guilty as a first year caught out after curfew.

"Look at the clock, Ron," Hermione commanded.

Ron turned as requested and felt his jaw sag open. Hermione, his, and Harry's pictures had been on that mahogany clock since his parents had given it to them as a wedding present. Harry's picture had transformed into his child self around Christmas week, and the addition of such notations as AT PLAY, AT SCHOOL, AT QUIDDITCH PRACTICE, and NAPPING had joined the designations.

Now, their family clock showed a fourth picture hand. A young Severus stared uncertainly out of the picture on the hand beside Harry's, which read IN BED. Even in the photo, Severus looked as though he expected to be tossed out on his ear.

"Do you want to tell me what's happened?" Hermione gently questioned.

Hoping that she wouldn't hate him, Ron sat down on their bed and softly told her what he'd overheard last night.

"Oh, my God," Hermione whispered when he was done. "They really killed his father?"

"And performed the Cruciatus and a number of Unspeakables upon him. I always hated Harry's Muggle relatives for what they did to him, but this . . . . I want to kill the sadistic bastards, Hermy; I really do!"

"They're long dead, Ron," Hermione sighed. "Poor Severus."

"If we can't restore Harry and Severus, they're not going anywhere, neither of them. They'll stay here with us and we'll raise them as our own. Okay?" Ron begged, as though she'd planned on carting the boys off to the nearest orphanage.

"Of course, they'll both stay with us, Ron," Hermione hugged him tight. "We're a family now."

Of course. Hermione always knew the right thing to do. She'd been the one who'd insisted on bringing Severus here. He'd been the one who'd behaved like a selfish prat, unable to open either his heart or his home to a little boy who had no one. Trembling all over, he buried his face in her shoulder, hoping that he'd get the opportunity to make things up to Severus.

***********

Although hardly surprising, the news from the Ministry and St. Mungo's was disheartening. The Wizarding World's most learned experts still couldn't even say how Professors Snape and Potter had been reverted to children, much less how to reverse the process. As Minerva McGonagall left her office to share the latest lack of news with her teaching staff, her heart was heavy. She couldn't help but wonder what Albus would do if he were here.

"I know who you are!" Filch's furious shout echoed down the corridor. "Don't even try to hide!"

Minerva sighed. Would the man never realize that when he shouted that, he clearly told the miscreants involved that he had no idea who was responsible for the latest offence and their only hope was to run for their lives?

Sure enough, she heard footsteps racing her way along the adjoining corridor.

"Hurry up! He's coming!" a youngster's voice urged.

"He knows who we are!" Another voice answered. "We're done for!"

"If he knew who we were, he'd be yelling our names, you dolt! Hurry up!"

Headmistress McGonagall drew herself up to her full height and pasted on her most stern expression, the one that would quell a rambunctious classroom in seconds. She positioned herself so that the light from the nearby window would fall at her back and cast her into shadow. Looking her most imperious, she waited.

Sure enough, the wrongdoers barrelled around the corner without looking and ground to a noisy halt at the unexpected obstacle in their path.

Minerva couldn't tell who was the more shocked, herself or the two boys before her. They were not students, as she'd thought.

"Mister Potter, Mister Snape," she nodded, caught off guard.

"Ah, hello, Headmistress McGonagall," Harry and Severus greeted.

"What have you been up to?" she asked, staring askance at the pair.

They looked like they had been dropped into a mud bath. Their faces and clothes were caked with wet muck and there was a clear trail of muddy prints leading up to where they stood. Severus was wearing a bright purple robe that was mostly black and brown now, while Harry's robe might have been blue at one point, but was now completely brown. They were both soaked to the skin from the look of them.

"We were building a snow fort," Harry said.

"Mr. Potter, there is next to no snow left," she said.

"See, I told you," Severus complained, rubbing his nose and depositing even more mud on his face.

Minerva's eyes flicked to Severus and stopped dead. Severus Snape was smiling.

As she watched, Harry reached up to remove the big gob of mud Severus' action had left on the tip of his long nose. She had never seen anyone touch Severus Snape in the thirty years she'd known him, certainly not so affectionately. What was even more astounding was the fact that Severus permitted the contact.

Potter's gesture set both boys to laughing.

"Yes, but Severus knows this really neat drying spell that we used on the mud to make a mud fort," Harry proudly related.

"And where did you make this fort?" she asked, still unable to remove her eyes from Severus. She'd never seen him so relaxed. Granted, she saw the boys every day at meals, but they sat far down the table, between the Weasleys, so she never really had an opportunity to interact with them. When she'd last spoken to the younger Severus months ago, he had seemed a smaller, carbon copy of his grim adult self.

Harry and Severus exchanged a guilty glance and then they giggled.

Severus Snape . . . giggling. Even when he'd been a boy here at Hogwarts, Severus had never laughed, not like this, where his entire face lit up and his body shook with mirth.

Finally, Potter blurted out, "We built it on the Quidditch Pitch."

"The Quidditch Pitch!" Her eyes turned towards the nearby window, which just so happened to overlook the playing field.

Sure enough, there in the centre of the snow-speckled, muddy field stood a mud coloured wall with impressive turrets. A smile pulled the corners of her mouth. Ronald Weasley was going to love this. Quidditch practice was scheduled to start up again this very week.

"I see," she suppressed her laughter as best she could.

A horrible cry of, "I'll get you, you little monsters!" sounded from way down the corridor.

"He's coming," Harry said, looking behind them.

"Are you going to punish us, Headmistress McGonagall?" Severus asked, his face no longer carefree.

"Why is Mr. Filch angry with you?" she questioned.

"He'd just finished mopping the main entrance hall when we tracked mud through it. We didn't mean to," Harry swore.

They both appeared braced for the worst.

Normally, she would have soundly reprimanded a pair of students for such reckless disregard of the rules, but . . . they weren't students. They were only seven year olds, having fun as she suspected neither of them had had when they were actually that age. And, she had never seen Severus Snape happy before in the thirty years she'd known him.

"Are you going to punish us?" Harry echoed Severus' concern.

"Not this time. But be sure to be more careful in the future. Understand?" she gazed down on their startled features.

"Yes, ma'm," they chorused, openly shocked.

"Oh, and one other thing. Stand still a moment," she commanded. Pulling out her wand, she performed a quick cleaning charm on the boys and their clothing. "This way, there will be no incriminating evidence if you meet a certain caretaker in the hall."

She gave them a conspiratory smile. No one here would probably believe it these days, but she'd been young once herself.

"Thank you," Severus said.

Harry echoed the sentiment, and then went one better and threw his little arms around her waist to give her a quick hug.

Goodness! She felt the heat of her blush straight down her neck.

"Well, you'd best run along," she smiled as she drew back from Harry.

"Yes, ma'm."

"Thank you, ma'm."

They said before barrelling past her.

As she watched the two dark heads disappear down the hall, and heard their boyish laughter echoing back to her, she knew exactly what Albus would have done.

He would have enjoyed the boys to the fullest and allowed them to enjoy themselves.

Her burdens much lighter than they'd been in months, the now smiling headmistress made her way to her staff meeting.

***********

Another night, another curse book. That was Hermione's life these days. Her research since Christmas had probably made her the most erudite Dark Arts expert in the Wizarding World. She knew spells that would kill, spells that would hurt or heal, spells that would cleanse, spells that would make a person hate or love . . . she knew more spells and charms than was healthy for any single wizard to know. The only thing she didn't know was how to turn Harry and Severus back into adults.

And, as she watched Harry and Ron rough-housing on the sitting room floor in front of her, Hermione wasn't even certain anymore that she wanted to find the cure.

Harry and Severus seemed so happy. Neither of them had ever really had a chance to enjoy a normal childhood the first time around, but they both were making up for lost time now.

"I've got you," Ron crowed, rolling on top of Harry and attempting to hold the squiggling boy to the floor.

It was impossible. Like a little eel Harry squirmed free and scurried on hands and knees away, crawling behind the armchair across from hers in which Severus sat reading another Dickens novel.

"Save me, save me!" Harry laughed up at Severus.

Severus lowered his book, and gestured Harry behind his chair.

Normally, Ron would have followed Harry around the chair, but tonight Ron reached up and grabbed Severus by the ankle. A tug, and the other boy landed on the floor.

Taking in Severus' stunned expression, Hermione tensed.

"I've got a prisoner now," Ron laughed at Harry.

"Oh, no, you don't!" Harry shouted back and launched himself at Ron. "Come on, Severus! Help! We've got to get him down!"

It was clear that no one had ever played with Severus like this in his life. Hermione felt bad for him. She was on the verge of breaking it up and rescuing Severus from the awkward position when Severus once again startled her.

Still appearing extremely uncertain, Severus reached out and tugged Ron's supporting knee out from under him. Ron went down like a ton of bricks and groaned as a victoriously howling Harry landed on his stomach.

"Come on, Severus! Help hold him down!" Harry encouraged.

She had to smile at the tentative way Severus settled himself on top of Ron. When he wasn't immediately thrust off, Severus seemed to trust more of his weight to Ron. Then he reached down to help pin the big redhead to the floor.

"We win, we win!" Harry announced.

"Dream on," Ron grinned, and put his strength to work.

Hermione smiled at the expressions on the boys' faces when Ron's long arms came up to surround them both in a move that was part wrestling hold and part hug. She could see the care Ron took as he held both boys safe as he rolled them over.

Shouts of outrage and laughter filled the room.

Unable to resist, Hermione called, "Unfair advantage!"

Putting her book aside, she dropped to the floor, slid her arms around her husband's chest and pulled backwards. Harry and Severus pushed at the same time, and they ended up with an hysterically laughing Ron pinned beneath all three of them.

"No fair, no fair!" Ron cried.

"All's fair in love and war," Hermione announced.

"Oh, really?" Ron challenged with a familiar glint in his eye.

She squealed as the world moved. Before she knew what was happening, Ron was rolling them all over again and had all three of them trapped beneath him. All four of them were laughing so hard they could barely breathe.

They tumbled and rolled until everyone seemed tired out.

Harry and Severus had temporarily gotten Ron flat on his back again when Harry challenged, "Do you give up?"

Hermione knew that Ron could have reversed their positions again and quite probably kept the wrestling up all night if necessary, but Ron gave the boys a grin and said, "What are the terms of surrender?"

Harry thought for a while. "You let us try your broom tomorrow?"

"You're too young to fly alone," Ron denied.

"Then you give us each a ride," Harry insisted.

"All right," Ron conceded.

"Great!" Harry enthused, and then with the determination of a seven year old intent on cramming as much fun into his day as possible, he said to Severus, "Come on. Let's go check on your experiment."

And then they were off like a miniature tornado, tearing off into their bedroom.

"Do I even want to know what kind of experiment they're doing in there?" Ron asked, still flat out on the floor.

Hermione giggled and shook her head. "Probably not. They borrowed some seeds and pots from Neville this afternoon."

"Oh, God," Ron groaned. "We'll have Devil's Snare in the guestroom!"

She laughed, but wouldn't bet against it. After a moment, she asked, "Did you ever get that fort out of the quidditch field?"

Ron chuckled. "Not yet. We're flying over it, so I thought I'd leave it there for a while." He was quiet for a time before he tentatively questioned, "Do you think I was too rough with Severus? He's so reserved."

Hermione smiled. Two months ago Severus wouldn't have been 'reserved.' He would have been a 'stuck up prig.'

"I think he was fine," she assured. "Whatever made you do that?"

Ron sat up and moved until he was sitting beside her, with both their backs pressed against the couch. Then he said in a low voice, "I heard him tell Harry once that the only time people used to touch him was to hurt him. Harry's the only one who has any real contact with him and I just thought that . . . well, he shouldn't feel that way. He's always watching Harry and me horse around, even when he seems to be doing something else, and I thought he might enjoy joining in."

"Ronald Weasley, I think you are the most wonderful man on this planet," Hermione whispered, kissing her husband's blushing cheek.

"You're prejudiced," he ducked his head.

"Am I, now? Should we take a survey in the next room?"

The howls of laughter coming from the boys' room indicated that someone of adult age should stick their head in there fairly soon to check on things.

"What if we just hold our own little caucus right here?" Ron suggested with a wink, moving in for a kiss.

A loud crash and abrupt silence from the other room separated them a few minutes later.

"You or me?" Ron checked.

"You've already conceded defeat tonight. Let me handle it," Hermione offered.

"Brave, very brave."

"Hardly," Hermione smiled. "That leaves you free to run the night check on the Gryffindor dorms."

She made sure that she was up and moving before he could react.

************

The sun shone brightly down out of a crystal clear March sky. The trees were still bare and the wind still cruel and biting, but there was a hint of spring in the air. But just a hint. Despite the cheerful sunlight, the day was as cold as winter.

The class was gathered at the end of the school's quidditch pitch, shivering as the wind tried to rip their robes from them.

"Okay, class," Professor Allen said. "I want you to divide up into two groups of nine. Crater and Winchester, you'll be team captains. Those of you not chosen today will play on tomorrow's teams. The rules are the same as in adult quidditch," Allen briefly explained the rules of the game, ending with, "No brooms, of course."

Severus tensed his jaw and tried to look unaffected as that most loathed of ignominies, the choosing of teams, began around him. He glanced at Harry, who was standing beside him practically vibrating with excitement over his first quidditch game.

There was a time when Severus would have voiced a cutting remark to quell the other boy's enthusiasm, but he really couldn't blame Harry for enjoying his life. But he couldn't help being envious. It wasn't as though the Cannon's most successful Seeker of the century would be standing on the sidelines for long, Severus unkindly reflected, even if Potter were only seven and had no memory of his success. The other boys knew, even if Harry didn't.

Sure enough, Crater came their way. The muscular blond boy in his flashy blue robes could almost have been a walking advertisement for the perfect quidditch captain. Even if Crater hadn't been the one to start all that Death Eater garbage, Severus would have hated him. As it was, they could barely stand the sight of each other. Whenever Crater, Williams, and Soloman came near him, Severus found his fingers twitching for his wand.

Today was no different. Crater pretended not to notice him standing there as he stopped in front of Potter.

"We still have a Seeker position open, Potter. You interested?" Crater smiled invitingly.

"What position do you have for Severus?" Harry asked, looking wary.

"Team's full, other than Seeker," Crater said.

"How surprising," Snape drawled.

"I'll wait for tomorrow to play, then," Harry declined.

"Come on, Potter," Crater urged. "You're not going to sideline yourself for – "

"Severus is my friend," Harry cut in, his eyes hard as diamonds.

He still wasn't used to such loyalty. Every time Harry refused anything for his sake, it still turned his world upside down.

"Oh, for . . . ." Crater glared at them both.

While the flustered blond was standing there emoting, Adam Winchester, the captain of the other team, approached. With his fiery hair and big brown eyes, Winchester could have been a Weasley, except he was a little too shy for that honour. Adam was one of the boys that Harry and he played with on a daily basis at breaks.

"Hi, Severus, Harry," Winchester greeted. His brown eyes turned towards Crater, his disappointment obvious. "Am I too late? I've got a Seeker and two Beater positions left if you're not taken."

Harry glanced at him, a question in his eyes. Severus gave the slightest inclination of his head, assenting.

"Not anymore, you don't," Harry accepted for them. "Sorry, Jonathan."

They walked away from Crater without a backwards glance. Even Severus managed to refrain from gloating; he was so caught up in the excitement of actually being asked.

"So which do you want?" Harry asked him. "Seeker or Beater?"

Severus could see Adam's surprise at Harry's question.

Knowing what position Winchester undoubtedly wanted Potter to assume, Severus graciously suggested, "I'm too big to be an effective Seeker. Perhaps the Beater position, if that is agreeable?"

His speech patterns always seemed to surprise Adam, but the redhead nodded and looked to Harry. "That all right with you. Harry?"

"Sure," Harry agreed.

Feeling strangely content, Severus accepted the red team robe Adam handed him. Crater's team would be in blue today.

And then they were off.

Children's quidditch wasn't nearly as exciting as the adult version, as it was played on the ground, but it was fun all the same. Were they Muggle children, the game probably would have been spent in fumbled attempts to catch quaffles or direct bludgers, but their magic was already in effect. Although no spells were cast, each player was unconsciously influencing the game, using a bit of magic to nudge a quaffle of bludger where intended when motor skills alone would have left the game piece spinning inexpertly off in the wrong direction.

To his utter shock, Severus was having the time of his life as he raced around the field, using his bat to keep the bludgers off his team. The fact that their team quickly assumed the lead helped add to his enjoyment.

It was about twenty minutes into the game when the first bludger hit him on the side of the head. Severus fell at the impact, but no sooner did he hit the ground than Harry was there.

"You all right?" Harry asked, helping him up.

"Yes," he said, although he wasn't sure. His left eye was stinging as he gingerly touched it.

"That Soloman is one sore loser. I swear he sent that at your head on purpose."

"It's a fast game. I'm sure it was unintentional," Severus dismissed. He knew he was lying, but he didn't want Harry to fuss. This was his first game and he should enjoy it to the fullest. They'd been watching the Hogwarts' teams practice for months now and Harry had been biting at the bit to give quidditch a try.

"That eye is going to turn black and blue. Do you want to keep playing?" Harry checked.

"Of course," Severus said and raced to intercept the nearest bludger.

They scored another ten points in the next few minutes.

Less than three minutes later, another bludger flew straight into Severus' side. The wind knocked out of him, he was on the brink of falling again. And then a second bludger hit him in the same spot. Doubled over with the pain, Severus glanced up to see Soloman grinning evilly at him.

Harry appeared out of nowhere, grabbed the bat out of Severus' hand, picked the first bludger up and batted it straight into Soloman's solar plexis and then repeated the process with the second bludger. His accuracy was unerring, especially coming from one so small.

The brown haired Soloman doubled over, clutching his gut.

Harry gave him a smile, handed him back his bat, and raced off after a sliver of gold that shot right by them.

Moving carefully due to his aching side, Severus ran towards where one of his red-robed team-mates was being harried by two of the larger blue-robed opponents.

When the bludger hit his side this time, Severus saw stars. He also heard a distinct cracking sound before a blinding pain pierced his side.

This time when he turned in the direction of his attack, it was to see another bludger coming straight for his face.

Everything went wrong in that instant. Harry's head appeared between Severus and the oncoming projectile - obviously Harry had failed to notice the second danger in his concern over him.

The sound made as the bludger hit the side of Harry's head was sickening.

Harry's eyes widened in shock and then rolled up in his head. A second later, Harry tumbled to the frozen mud below their feet.

Sever caught him and followed him down. Frantically, he scrabbled for Harry's throat. There was a steady pulse beneath his fingers and Harry was breathing steadily. Knocked out cold, then.

Hearing laughter, Severus glanced ten feet away to see Crater and Soloman enjoying their handiwork.

"Some hotshot Seeker he is," Crater crowed.

Somewhere there was a whistle blowing and an adult voice shouting "Time out!", but the world had narrowed down to Harry's pale face and those two laughing hyenas for Severus. His wand was in his hand before he even gave it a conscious thought and the spell falling from his lips, "Petrificus Totalus!"

And then Carter and Soloman stopped laughing. Severus kept his eyes on them long enough to watch them fall. He hardly noticed the utter silence that had claimed the pitch. After his opponents toppled, he had eyes only for Harry.

"Harry!" he called, afraid to shake or move him. He looked so small and still on the muddy earth.

Around him, Severus could hear the field exploding in chaos. Dozens of voices seemed to be screaming different versions of "Did you see what he just did!!!???"

Adult sized boots appeared beside Harry's head.

"Give me that wand, Snape," Professor Allen demanded, his face tight with fury. Behind his teacher, he could see the stunned looking, but standing, Crater and Soloman being helped over to the centre of the fracas by a couple of their classmates.

Severus realized that his teacher must have unfrozen them.

He was in such pain from his own bludger hits that he wasn't thinking clearly. At that moment, it seemed to Severus that the entire class was against him and that he was all that stood between his fallen friend and total destruction. So, he did something he probably wouldn't have done on a normal day. He pointed his wand at Allen and shouted, "Stay back, all of you!"

Everyone froze, including his teacher.

"You're not seriously threatening me, are you, Mister Snape?" Professor Allen asked, his hand inching towards the pocket of his black teachers' robe.

"Don't do it," Severus warned, totally cornered. There were too many of them for him to take them all down at once, but maybe if he concentrated on the teacher, the others would stay back. "I'll petrify you, too. Just . . . get back! Get away from him!"

"Come on, now, boy, be reasonable," Allen said in a tone that was anything but.

"I won't let any of you hurt him again," Severus hissed. The hand holding his wand was shaking and he could barely keep his feet, but he wasn't leaving Harry unprotected.

Behind Allen, he could see the class parting as the school's white robed mediwitch moved through the mob of excited children.

"What's going on here?" she demanded. She was young, with black hair, rosy cheeks, and brown eyes that looked like Hermione's. Severus saw the genuine horror in her face when she took in Harry's unconscious form.

"He won't let us near the boy," Allen explained to the mediwitch.

"Great stars, are you daft? The boy's hurt himself. Call off this mob and give him some room," the woman commanded.

Allen belatedly seemed to realize that having the class gawking at the scene was hardly conducive to either his control over his class or the situation as a whole. "All of you, back to the classroom!"

In slow dribs and drabs, their classmates turned to leave the field.

As soon as the crowd thinned out, Severus immediately felt less threatened.

"What's his name?" the witch asked Allen.

"The fallen boy is Harry Potter. The boy with the wand is Severus Snape."

She nodded, seeming not to recognize either of their names.

"Severus, dear, my name is Amalia Rodgers. I'm here to help your friend. Will you let me see if he's all right?"

Severus stared into her brown eyes, wishing he were older. She seemed harmless and sincere in her concern, but Harry was hurt and he was the only one here to defend him.

"It will be all right, Severus, I promise. Can I please come closer?" she asked in a soft, lulling voice.

"Just you," Severus decided.

"Thank you." She approached slowly, keeping her wandless hands in full view the whole time.

Severus moved out of her reach as she knelt beside Harry.

"I don't know why they insist on letting you little ones play this horrid game," Mediwitch Rodgers muttered as she examined Harry.

Too concerned to resist, he glanced her way. "Is he going to be all right?" Dismayed, he heard the sob in his voice. And at that exact instant, he recognized his mistake.

The second Severus' attention had been diverted, Professor Allen's hand had reached into his pocket. Severus turned just in time to see his teacher's wand flicking in his direction, and then . . . then the world blacked out around him. His last conscious awareness was of toppling over right on top of Harry.

Severus didn't know how long he was out. When he came to, all he could hear was shouting. He was lying on something soft with his head pillowed on something warm, but hard.

Recognizing the after-effects of a spell, Severus opened his eyes.

He was lying on a couch with his head on Harry's lap in what had to be the school's Headmaster's office. Severus thought that because the grey-haired, affable looking headmaster, Dorin Forrest, was sitting behind the desk. Aside from Harry and himself, Headmaster Forrest was the only quiet person in the room. Professor Allen was on the left side of the desk, red-faced and shouting at an equally livid Hermione and Ron Weasley, who were positioned on the other side of the desk.

"Hello," Harry said, looking down at him and running a hand over his hair. "Are you all right?"

"Are you?" that was all that mattered.

Harry nodded. "Mediwitch Rodgers fixed my head."

Severus released a relieved breath. From the shouting, he knew that he was probably going to be expelled or worse, but he couldn't really care at the moment. Harry was okay.

"And I'm telling you, Snape is a menace. He petrified two of my students!" Professor Allen yelled.

"And what were they doing to Severus?" Hermione demanded in the angriest tone Severus had ever heard her use.

"How long has that been going on?" Severus asked.

"Not long," Harry whispered. "Hermione and Ron just got here. Headmaster Forrest called them."

That settled it. He was certainly going to be expelled, if not turned over to the Ministry for the use of Underage Magic. He wondered if they sent seven year olds to Azkaban.

Hermione glanced their way and reached out to touch Ron on the sleeve of his green robe. "He's awake."

Severus struggled to sit up as they rushed over to the couch. Their tense, anger hardened faces frightened him. He was really in big trouble. He knew that they probably wouldn't hurt him the way his grandparents would have done, but he knew for sure that they were going to send him away. He'd frozen those boys and caused all this fuss . . . .

Hermione was barely a foot from him when her entire visage changed, softening like she might cry. She sank down on the couch beside him and reached out to pull him into her arms. All he could see at that point was her grey robe, in which his face was squashed.

"Are you all right?" she whispered, holding him tight.

Severus felt Ron ease into the space between him and Harry. A large, strong hand settled on his black while Hermione hugged him.

"I'm fine," Severus mumbled, stunned.

"Fine, he says," Ron muttered behind him.

Hermione gave him one last squeeze, which made him wince as it hurt his injured side, and then sat far enough back to look at him. "What happened?"

"I told you what happened," Allen said from across the room. "Mister Potter here was unavoidably injured by a bludger and Mister Snape petrified the boy who threw it, as well as another student who was standing nearby."

"Is that what happened, Harry?" Ron asked from Severus' other side.

"Not really. Crater and Soloman were aiming their bludgers to hurt Severus through the whole game. Just like they do in Bobo Ball. One of the bludgers hit him in the eye . . . Mediwitch Rodgers healed it while he was asleep. Two of them hit his side at once and I threw them back and hit Soloman with them. Then they hit Severus in the same place a few minutes later. I ran over to help and . . . I don't know what happened after that," Harry explained.

"Another bludger was coming at me and Harry stepped right in front of it," Severus finished.

"I didn't see it," Harry said.

"After that . . . " Severus faltered. His memories of the aftermath were sketchy in the extreme. All he could remember was his pain and fear.

"After that he petrified two of my students and threatened me with the same," Professor Allen snapped. "I want him charged."

"Now, there, Sorus," Headmaster Forrest said to Professor Allen, "he's just a boy."

"A boy? He's Severus Snape, for Merlin's sake! Dark wizard, Death Eater -"

"That's enough!" Ron shouted, shooting to his feet beside Severus. "He's a seven year old boy."

"Ron, please sit down. Severus," Hermione said softly, "did Mediwitch Rodgers heal your side?"

Ron did not resume his seat. He moved to stand closer to Hermione and him, looking chastened, but resolute as he glared at Allen.

"I don't know," Severus answered, still unable to get over the fact that the Weasleys did not appear to be angry with him. "It still hurts."

"No, she didn't heal it," Harry said, appearing stricken. "I-I forgot to tell her about it. Sorry."

"May I see your side?" Hermione requested.

"Players get hurt in quidditch games," Professor Allen said in a far more reasonable voice. "We can't have students petrifying each other every time one gets in the way of a bludger.

Severus stood up and removed his red quidditch robe. Even that was nearly more than he could manage. The pain was intense, not as bad as Cruciatus, but extreme in its own way all the same. Hermione helped him to pull up the purple jumper he was wearing beneath his robe and then she peeled up the white shirt beneath that. She gasped as his side was revealed. Looking down, Severus saw that the left side of his ribcage was already mottled with darkening bruises.

"Bloody hell," Ron muttered, bending down for a closer look. Severus saw him bite his lower lip, stare for a moment. Then he asked in a low, unmenacing tone, "Can I feel the bruise, Severus? It might hurt. I want to check your ribs, make certain they're not cracked."

"All right," Severus allowed, standing stock-still. The instant Ron applied the slightest pressure, he saw stars. A moan escaped him in spite of himself.

"I'm sorry," Ron said and the pain stopped immediately. He trembled a little as Ron's hands moved towards him again, but Ron only pulled his shirt and jumper back into place. When the big redhead turned back towards the teacher and headmaster, Ron was fully as furious as Severus had ever seen him. "I teach quidditch, so I've seen my share of qudditch injuries. Those bruises aren't the result of a single hit. And two of his ribs are broken. I thought you said you were refereeing this game, Allen! Where the hell were you when this happened?"

"I can't be everywhere at once!" Allen protested, his eyes moving to Severus' side. His expression made Severus think that his teacher really hadn't known about his previous injuries.

"These are seven year olds. They need supervision," Hermione said.

"They were supervised," Allen insisted.

"Then how the blazes did this happen to him?" Ron yelled. "Harry says that the same thing has happened before. Is that true, Severus?"

Severus looked at Harry. Left to his own devices, he would never have mentioned the previous incidents. He was just happy they weren't going to expel him or make him leave the Weasleys. Under Harry's encouraging gaze, Severus gave a tight, affirming nod.

When he didn't say anything, Harry filled in the details, "Crater and his friends don't like Severus because of . . . well, that Death Eater stuff. They're always throwing the ball too hard at him during sports, hurting him on purpose."

"Is this true, Sorus?" Headmaster Forrest questioned, his round, affable face grim and concerned.

"What if it is?" Allen snapped. His face turned ugly with hatred. The way he was looking at Severus reminded him of the way his grandmother used to look at him just before she'd punish him. "You know what he is! We all know what he did!"

Shivering, Severus unconsciously sidled closer to Hermione. He relaxed as her arm came up around his shoulders.

"That's enough!" Headmaster Forrest raised his voice for the first time. "Mister and Mrs. Weasley, I'm terribly sorry for this. Obviously, the problem is not with Severus. I hope you can all accept my apologies. This will never happen again."

"Your apologies!" Professor Allen sneered. "I'm calling the Ministry. I want the little bastard charged for the use of Underage Magic. He tried to petrify me!"

"You're lucky that's all he did!" Ron said, moving for Allen. Hermione shot off the couch and grabbed him around the arms before he could take his second step. "You want some charges pressed with the Ministry, I'll be happy to oblige you! How does negligence and reckless endangerment of minors sound for starters? I leave my two boys in your care for a few hours a day and they end up having to be patched back together because you can't contain your pathetic prejudices!"

"Your boys?" Professor Allen challenged. "It was my understanding that their unfortunate accident left them both orphans, wards of the Ministry."

"Last month we petitioned and received temporary custody of both Harry and Severus until they are restored to their adult selves," Hermione said in a cold voice. She was obviously just as furious as her husband, but better at controlling it.

Severus and Harry exchanged a look at Hermione's statement. Hermione and Ron had adopted them?

"And even if we hadn't, they're still our friends," Ron said.

"Professor Allen," Headmaster Forrest said, "I think you should leave now. I want to see you in my office at eight a.m. tomorrow morning. We will be discussing your resignation, so I suggest you have it ready."

Allen opened his mouth to respond.

Before he could speak, Forrest cut him off, "I will not have you disgracing this school. Severus Snape is a hero of both battles against Voldemort. No member of this faculty is going to condone the mistreatment of a war hero while I am headmaster. Now, kindly leave, before I forget myself."

His face as red as the zigzagging scar on Harry's forehead, Allen stormed out of the room.

"Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Severus, Harry, once again, I apologize. I will not ask that you do not press charges against the school, for it is fully within your right. I only ask that you please believe that Professor Allen's negligence was not condoned by me or the rest of the staff," Forrest said.

Hermione returned to the couch. Putting an arm over each of them and pulling them close, she said, "I really don't think that any charges need to be filed against the school, Headmaster. That is, if Severus agrees?"

Severus winced as all eyes turned to him. "No charges. Please, can we just go home?"

"I think we should allow Mediwitch Rodgers to treat your ribs first, young man," Headmaster Forrest said in a kindly voice. "If that's all right with you, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley?"

"Please," Hermione said.

It was another forty minutes before his treatment was finished and all the excitement died down.

"Should we floo back?" Ron asked when it finally seemed to be over.

"I don't know, Ron," Hermione said. "Harry's just had a head injury healed and Severus' ribs are still healing. Flooing can be very hard on the traveller."

"You mean landing can," Ron said. "Okay, so we walk then. How about it, boys, are you up to it? Or should we get Hagrid to bring a carriage round?"

"It's dinnertime at Hogwarts now, Ron," Hermione reminded.

Harry met Severus' eyes and then said to Hermione, "We'll be fine."

It seemed to him that Hermione spent an inordinate amount of effort fussing over them while she got them into their winter cloaks and gloves. She took hold of each of their hands in a grip so tight a mountain troll couldn't have gotten them away from her.

Severus felt great relief as they set off down the moonlit road and put the school at their backs. The sun had set while they were in Forrest's office and it was fully dark now.

"He's out on his feet," Ron said, gesturing towards Harry.

"Severus isn't much better," Hermione said. He could feel her gazing down at him, but was too tired to look up. "Maybe we should have called Hagrid, after all."

"If you can handle Harry, I'll take Severus," Ron said.

What he meant by that was a mystery, but Severus didn't have the curiosity to explore it.

"I can take Harry," Hermione assured.

And then they were stopping in the middle of the road, halfway home to Hogwarts. Confused, Severus looked up at Hermione, and gasped as Ron came up beside him and carefully lifted him into his arms. Severus saw Hermione bend to do the same to Harry.

"You all right there?" Ron checked, adjusting him onto a hip like he was a two year old.

There was a part of Severus that was outraged and knew he should be deeply embarrassed to be treated like a baby. But the larger part of him was just so cold and tired that all he could do was nod and press closer to the warmth.

"Good," Ron said. "You gave us quite a scare today. The both of you."

Not knowing what to do with his arms, he cautiously wrapped them around Ron's neck. When there was no outburst at that, he slowly lowered his head to rest on that broad shoulder that was temptingly nearby.

To his unending shock, Ron's right hand moved to rub his back.

"It's all right now. It's all over. You're safe," Ron assured.

Releasing a deep, shuddery breath, Severus softly asked, "Ron?"

"Yes?"

"Did you really adopt us?" Severus asked, still thinking that must have been a dream.

"Yes."

"Both of us?" he whispered.

"Both of you," Ron answered in a gruff tone.

The sob escaped before he could stop it. Squeezing his eyes tightly closed, he pressed his face into Ron's shoulder and held on as tight as he could. It seemed like those big arms held him back just as tight. After a minute, Severus felt Ron brush a light kiss onto the top of his head.

"You're home now, Severus. Stop worrying."

Somehow, he knew Ron didn't mean just physically. Never having felt so safe or wanted in his life, Severus gave into exhaustion and allowed sleep to claim him.

**********

Bright morning light shone down on the field. The grass was thick underfoot and damp with dew. Everywhere he looked, there were rolling hills covered in wildflowers and aflutter with butterflies, bees, and dragonflies.

Barefoot, Severus followed his smaller companion across the open field. They were both in short pants and short-sleeved shirts. Severus couldn't help but wonder why Harry's were so large and ill fitting.

"Oh, this is great, isn't it?" Harry said, throwing his arms out in the air and gesturing at their surroundings.

Severus gave a guarded nod. Yes, it was a lovely place, but Severus wanted to know how they'd gotten here, and, beneath his confusion, there was something very like dread, as though he knew something truly terrible were about to happen here.

"Come on, let's roll down this hill," Harry suggested as they mounted another peak.

"I think we should try to find our way home, Harry," Severus said.

"Come one! It'll be fun!"

And before Severus could stop him, Harry was tumbling head over heels down the hill, laughing like a maniac. He landed in a heap at the bottom, covered in grass, still giggling.

"Come on, Severus! It's fun!"

Severus stared around at the perfect morning, still not knowing why he felt so uneasy. Then he looked down the hill at Harry, who was waiting expectantly.

Giving a mental shrug, Severus squatted down, tucked his head, and rolled down as Harry had. Harry was right. It was fun. By the time he'd rolled three feet, he was laughing as well. Unable to direct or stop his descent, he crashed right into Harry, which only caused more laughter.

"Come on," Harry gasped, climbing to his feet. "Let's do it again."

And so they did, again and again until they were almost nauseous from the motion.

They were lying in a sweaty, giggling tangle amidst a shower of daisies when a tall shadow fell over them.

Sheer terror clutched Severus' insides. Harry only looked puzzled as he turned to see where the shadow had come from.

At first Severus didn't recognize the tall wizard in the purple robes with the long white beard, but then the memory clicked into place and he knew why he'd been so frightened since they'd gotten here.

"Albus," he greeted, glad to see his old friend in spite of his fear.

"Professor Dumbledore," Harry shouted, jumping to his feet and hugging Dumbledore.

Albus gave Severus a meaningful look and opened his other arm.

After only the slightest of hesitations, Severus joined Harry in hugging their old friend.

Harry lived so much in the present that he didn't recognize that Albus' reappearance was doubtless about to upend their world again. Severus, who looked for hidden meaning in everything, knew this visit did not bode well.

"It's so good to see you!" Harry said in a rush when they eventually withdrew.

"As it is to see both of you. Have you been enjoying yourselves?" Albus asked with a kind smile, his eyes bright with affection.

"Immensely," Harry said. "Severus and I made our school quidditch team last week. I'm their Seeker and Severus is the youngest beater they've every had!"

"Ah, very good." Those sparkling blue eyes speared Severus. "And have you learned what you needed to?"

"What?" Harry seemed confused. Severus wondered if he fully remembered the dream that had propelled them into reliving their childhoods.

"Have you become friends?" Albus questioned.

Always so open and honest, Harry threw his arm around Severus and announced, "Severus and I are best friends for life."

"Ah, I can't tell you how happy that makes me." Dumbledore beamed at them both.

"It's been great, Professor Dumbledore," Harry continued.

"I'm relieved to hear that. I hoped that the season I gave you to enjoy some of the childhood pleasures that circumstances denied you when young might in some small way make up for my inability to help you when you most needed me. You've had fun, then?"

"Oh, yes," Harry answered.

Severus shivered at Albus' words. The season he gave us. December through March was a season, wasn't it?

Suddenly finding it hard to breathe, Severus reached out and locked his hand around Harry's wrist. Harry gave him a curious glance at the action, but then just smiled at him.

"Very good," Albus approved. "Unfortunately, the responsibilities of your adult lives can no longer be ignored. I've given you all the time I could. You now must return to the lives you've made. If you linger longer, I'm afraid I won't be able to undo this."

"Would that be so bad?" Harry spoke the words Severus hadn't been able to get past his tight throat.

"Hermione and Ron love you very deeply, Harry," Albus said. "Although they have come to love the child you were, they miss their adult friend terribly. If you remain as that child, it will be as if the adult you were dead to them. I think that would hurt them deeply, don't you?"

Harry gave a guilty nod. "Yes, I guess so."

"You understand, then, why you must return?" Albus questioned.

"I guess so," Harry repeated, clearly unhappy with the proceedings.

Severus felt him shift closer, pulling their joined hands close to him. Harry was holding onto him just as tightly as he was to Harry.

"Severus?" Albus' perceptive gaze settled upon him.

Severus swallowed hard.

"Please," he said, damning his pride, "don't take this away from me, Albus. I beg of you."

Harry straightened beside him, his other hand coming up to clutch Severus' hand between both of his.

"I take nothing away from you, Severus," Albus gently assured. "The things you've learned will carry over into your former life."

"Please, Albus, don't do this to me," he whispered. Harry was gripping him so tight that he'd lost all feeling in his right arm.

"I'm sorry, my friend, but it really is for the best," Albus said.

The ancient wizard's wand flicked in their direction. Harry and he clutched each other tighter and then they were falling away into darkness.

**********

"Ron! Come see this!" Hermione's voice sounded excited, but as she wasn't calling them for school yet, Severus affected not to notice and snuggled closer to the warm bundle beside him. Then he remembered that it was Saturday, so they didn't have to get up at all. Hermione was probably just looking in to see if they wanted to go down to breakfast in the Great Hall.

"Bloody hell!" a sleepy Ron declared. "What're they doing in the same bed?"

"Severus has been bunking in with Harry the last month or so. It helped Harry sleep better," Hermione explained.

"But . . . ."

"They were seven, Ron," Hermione said in the tone of a reprimand.

Were seven . . . .

"Where are their clothes?" Ron sounded extremely uncomfortable.

"In shreds, I imagine," Hermione chuckled. "We should wake them."

"You think?"

"Severus? Harry?" Hermione gently called.

The comforting warmth under his right arm stirred. "Hmmm?"

"I think you should wake up now, Harry, Severus. The spell has reversed itself!" Hermione announced, sounding overjoyed.

Severus sat up in a bed that suddenly seemed half the size it was when they climbed into it last night. Abruptly aware of his nudity, Severus clutched the bedclothes over him, seeing Harry Potter do the same out of the corner of his eye. The remains of both their nightshirts and undergarments were tangled amidst the blankets.

He turned to look at Harry . . . at Potter. The myopic, green eyes were regarding him with a strange expression. The memory of the last four months lay between them like a dead love affair, the kind that cuts you to the quick with the depth of your loss, but which you really had no idea how you'd gotten into in the first place, because you were obviously so ill-suited. For the second time in his adult life, Severus Snape felt like crying.

But he didn't. He pulled his barricades around him and resolved to muddle through this humiliating situation.

"Ummm . . . ." Potter mumbled, his cheeks flushing as he broke Severus' stare to gaze around the room. His hand fumbled to the nightstand to retrieve the pair of round lensed silver glasses resting there. He quickly put them on, but they were too small for his adult face.

Severus reached under his pillow. Sure enough, his wand was still there.

"Occulus repairum," he muttered. Harry's glasses immediately stretched to adult size.

"Thanks," Potter said, meeting his eyes, his hesitation a palpable presence.

Knowing he'd go insane if this continued much longer, Severus gave his wand another flick and whispered, "Accio clothes and shoes."

A moment later, underclothes, socks, shirt, pants, jacket, black robes, and shoes floated to him in a neat pile.

"Would you mind getting mine?" Potter requested, his face scarlet.

Severus inclined his head and repeated the spell. Within moments, a pile of Harry's clothing joined his at the foot of the bed.

"We'll let you get dressed," Hermione said, taking Ron by the arm and closing the door behind them.

"Er . . . ." Potter stammered, his cheeks still a brilliant hue.

He'd had a better vocabulary when he was seven, Severus unkindly thought.

"We'd best get dressed," Severus said. He was just as lost. He didn't know how to treat Potter. He didn't even know how to look at him right now.

The tension lethal, they slid out of their respective sides of the bed and quickly dressed without looking at each other.

Potter's wardrobe was somewhat simpler than Severus', so he was finished first.

Severus was buttoning up the dozens of tiny buttons on his black brocade jacket when Potter cleared his throat and asked, "Did you . . . did you dream of Professor Dumbledore, too, last night?"

Feeling his own cheeks warm, Severus nodded. Had he lied, his pride would have been spared, but for some reason, he found it difficult to dissemble with Potter now.

"So it was real, then," Potter said softly.

"We just spent four months as children. Did you doubt that it was real?" he snapped, unable to control his impatience. "How else would we have ended up in that state, if not Albus?"

Guilt lanced through him when he saw Potter flinch at his savage tone.

Apparently rallying his spirit, Potter defiantly met his gaze and shot back with, "You do sleep with your wand beneath your pillow. It could have been you."

"Do you think we'd be like this now if I were responsible?" The words were out before Snape could stop them, with everything they implied slithering through the unbearable tension between them.

Potter could have attacked then and cut him to ribbons, but confusion entered Harry's hurt eyes as he stared at him. "What are we going to do?"

"Do? There's nothing to be done," Severus dismally replied. "I, for one, am going to go see what ruin those dunderheads have made of my Potions Lab."

Severus finished up his last button. Pausing, he took what he knew would be his last look around this room that had come to mean safety to him in the last four months. Never again.

A glint of gold on the nightstand on his side of the bed caught his eye. His heart wrenched as he recognized the telescope Hermione had bought him on his first day here. Well, she'd said he could have it.

Feeling very foolish, he self-consciously picked up the toy, stowing the cool brass cylinder safely in his pocket. Potter's gaze burned down his back the entire time.

Not even daring to glance in Potter's direction, Severus made for the door. When he opened it, he was met with another set of complications – Hermione and Ron waiting expectantly on the other side.

"Welcome back," Hermione said, smiling from ear to ear.

"Must feel good to be yourself again, hey?" Ron grinned.

Of course, they were happy. Their ordeal was over. So much for that bunk about them all being a family.

His face under iron control, Severus was nevertheless compelled to be honest with them. "Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I . . . excuse me, I must go now."

"Severus?" All of Hermione's happiness vanished. "Severus! "

Knowing that he wouldn't be able to hold it together another moment, Severus fled the Gryffindor Tower.

*********

"Oh, dear," Hermione said as the door slammed shut behind the retreating Potions Master.

"What was that all about?" Ron said.

She was relieved that Ron wasn't making nasty comments about Severus being back to normal. There was nothing but worry in his face right now.

A totally miserable Harry stepped out of the boys . . . no, the guestroom. He was dressed in a brown shirt, black pants, and green robe. He looked like he'd just lost his best friend, and, in a way, Hermione supposed he had.

"He didn't want to change back. Professor Dumbledore made him," Harry said, as if the words would make perfect sense.

"What's Dumbledore got to do with any of this?" Ron questioned, but before Harry could answer, he broke out in a grin and added, "Oh, and, by the way, welcome back!"

Harry didn't appear anymore pleased to be restored than Severus had been, Hermione noted, but he allowed himself to be hugged and exclaimed over all the same.

When they were done with the hugging and the sniffling, Hermione guided them into the sitting room and drew them down onto the couch with her.

"So what does Professor Dumbledore have to do with it?" she asked.

"Sev . . . Snape and I both had a dream where we met Dumbledore. He . . . he gave us a chance to enjoy the things we'd missed out on in childhood," Harry explained.

But that wasn't all there was to it. Exchanging a glance with Ron, she could tell that her husband knew as well as she did that Harry was editing out some major facts.

"You mean he worked magic on you both from the grave?" Ron questioned, understandably disturbed, for if Dumbledore could do something like that, what was to say that a dead wizard with a score to settle, someone like Voldemort, wouldn't be able to do the same thing to his enemies?

"I don't know," Harry sighed, seeming defeated.

"What do you mean? Was it Dumbledore or not?" Hermione questioned, as worried as Ron about the possibilities uncorked by opening this particular bottle.

"I don't know. We both dreamed it was Dumbledore that did it, but . . ." Harry said.

"But?" Ron gently prodded.

"But Severus sleeps with his wand under his pillow. Remember that discussion we had on Christmas about wandless magic and intent? I think it was Albus, but it could just as easily have been Severus," Harry said.

Hermione couldn't help but note the emotion Harry put into Snape's first name.

"Or it could have been you," Hermione pointed out. "You've always been capable of wandless magic. Wordless magic, too."

"Yes, it could have been me." Harry shrugged. "I don't know. All I know is that it hurts."

"Hurts?" Ron echoed, totally not following.

"Of course, it hurts, Ron," Hermione swiftly intervened when she saw the raw misery flash in Harry's eyes. "They were both little boys yesterday, with all the freedom of little boys."

"Ey?" Ron questioned.

"They could laugh or cry or shout whenever they felt like it and it was totally permissible because they were children. Now, overnight, they've become adults again. Those feelings are all still there, but they haven't the freedom to express them as they did yesterday, nor have they had the time to acclimate themselves to adult emotional restrictions. Of course, neither of you is delighted to be back just yet, Harry. You're probably both processing tons of emotion," she said, giving his cold hand a squeeze. "Remember, when you were reverted to being seven, you only remembered your life with the Dursleys. All of the bad feelings associated with that time must still be very fresh in your mind. I'm sure Severus is going through the same thing."

Harry had never looked so grateful for anything in his life as he did those words. Ron seemed to be thinking about them too.

"Guess that makes sense," Ron allowed.

Looking very much like his seven year old self, Harry glanced at her from beneath his lashes. "He's closed me out totally, Hermione."

She tightened her hold on his hand.

"He'll come around," she promised.

"He was so upset with Albus," Harry whispered.

Hermione glanced at Ron. Not knowing what else to do, she put her arms around Harry and drew him close.

It seemed to be the right move. After a moment, Harry's arms closed around her to hug her back. She caught Ron's eye over Harry's shoulder. Seconds later, Ron wrapped them both up in his longer reach.

They kept Harry cocooned between them for what felt like forever.

Hermione's own feelings were pretty mixed up at the moment. For the past four months, she'd acted the part of mother to this person. It was hard to just turn that off. She could only imagine how confused Harry must be feeling, what with his two closest friends being his stand-in parents. But the hug seemed to be helping.

When Harry finally seemed ready to be released, they all drew back to their own parts of the couch.

"I don't know what I would have done without you two," Harry said, catching both their gazes in turn. "You were amazing these last four months."

"It was our pleasure, Harry," Ron answered.

"Really," she added, already missing those two little dark haired boys that had upended her world. It was hard to think of them being gone forever and not just off at school for the afternoon.

Obviously, it was going to take some time for them all to adjust.

"Well, I guess I'd better go and start getting things back to normal," Harry sighed.

"You don't have to go," Hermione said.

"Yeah, I do," Harry answered. "I appreciate the offer, but I can't just hide from life here."

"You need to give yourself some time to recuperate," Hermione counselled.

"You're right. Thank god it's the weekend. It is the weekend, isn't it?" Harry checked as he rose from the couch.

"Yes, Harry, it's Saturday morning," Hermione answered. "Don't worry about telling anyone. I'll let Minerva know that you both have been restored."

"Thank you both . . . for everything," Harry said, forcing a smile.

Hermione reached for Ron's hand as Harry walked out the door.

"That didn't go like I thought it would," Ron said once they were alone.

"He's hurting bad," Hermione said.

"So's Severus. It's probably even worse for him. I mean, Harry's always had us, but who has Severus got now," Ron acknowledged.

"Us," Hermione said, giving him a stern look. No matter what happened in the next few days or how badly Severus might behave in the wake of his restoration to adulthood, Hermione was determined that things were not going to go back to the way they'd been before Christmas.

"Yeah, you're right. He's going to be hell to live with for a while," Ron said. "He'll probably hole up in that dungeon of his and growl at anyone who comes near him for weeks."

"I know," Hermione said, fearing the same thing herself, for all that she was resolved not to let that happen. She owed it to that serious, sweet boy she'd been a mother to for a few short months, if not to the man she'd known for fifteen years.

Ron was quiet for a few minutes before he admitted, "I just don't understand why Dumbledore would have done something like this . . . if he did do it."

"Don't you?" Hermione asked. "Remember how happy both Harry and Severus have been these last few months?"

"Yeah, I suppose that'd be reason enough," Ron agreed, adding, "But they're both so unhappy now."

"Maybe they're both feeling that they've lost something important," Hermione theorized.

"Like?"

Men, they really were clueless. It was little wonder Severus and Harry were so miserable at the moment.

Taking a deep breath, she tried not to let her irritation show. "Like their friendship."

"Oh," Ron said. "It was strange how well they got on together, wasn't it? They're so different."

"They're really not that different, Ron," Hermione argued. "They both had horrible childhoods that left them with deep emotional scars. Harry's left him starving for love, while Severus' left him believing himself unworthy of love. They actually have more in common than we ever did."

"Yeah, but that's different. We're a couple. We were written to be together in the stars," Ron grinned.

Hermione opened her mouth to say something, then thought better of it and closed it. She loved her husband with all her heart, but sometimes the man couldn't see the forest for the trees, or what was written on his own bedroom clock.

"Well, I had better go see Minerva and let her know the good news," Hermione said, hoping to convince herself with a positive attitude. Giving him a kiss, she left him alone on the couch.

The rest of the day passed in a blur of floo communication and conversation with Hogwarts staff and Harry's numerous friends. It got so Hermione could tell the tale without conscious thought. And tell the tale, she did, at least ten times an hour.

Neither Harry nor Severus showed up for meals, but that was hardly unexpected. Hermione suspected it would be some time before either of them were up to company.

She was relieved to retreat with Ron to their too quiet quarters after supper. They took their normal armchairs by the fire, she with her tests to grade and Ron with the latest quidditch journal.

After about ten minutes, he sighed and complained, "It feels like someone has died in this place. It's so bloody quiet!"

"I know," she said. "I know. I keep waiting for something to explode in the boys room, only . . . ."

"No boys," he finished glumly. "I sure – "

A knock on the door interrupted his words.

"I'll get it," Hermione said. Of the pair of them, she was more diplomatic about telling the tale of Harry and Severus' miraculous restoration when out of patience. Ready to launch into the abbreviated, abridged version to whatever well-wisher was at the door now, Hermione's jaw dropped open at the sight of an uneasy Severus Snape standing there.

"Good evening," he greeted. Dressed in his normal black brocade, he looked the same as he had for the last fifteen years: tall, dark, and menacing.

There was one physical difference. For the last fifteen years, Snape had worn his hair in a straight cut that fell just below his ears. It had grown past his shoulders since Christmas. Hermione had expected a return to the rather unflattering straight cut, but Severus hadn't touched its length. Nor was his longer hair hanging around his face like he was trying to hide behind it. Severus had brushed it back into a neat ponytail, securing it with the black leather and silver clasp she'd given him months ago.

He really did look dashing with his hair like that, she acknowledged, dashing and somehow more sensual, which was a disturbing thought, considering the last four months.

Yet other than that one small alteration, Severus was very much their former teacher, frightening and formidable.

But their nasty potions teacher had never worn the nervous look Severus now had on his face. His very stance seemed to suggest that he feared he was making a grave error by coming here.

It was strange to look up at him. Strange to see him so guarded against her. But, stars, it was wonderful to see him, even if it only had been twelve hours since he left.

"Severus," she grinned, resisting the impulse to hug him, "please, come in."

She couldn't tell if she'd put him at ease or unnerved him more. But he entered their quarters; that was all that mattered.

"Hello, there!" Ron got to his feet immediately, a grin brightening his features at the sight of Severus – and how different was that, Hermione marvelled.

Their joy seemed to both bolster and disquiet him.

"We're so glad you stopped by, " Hermione quickly assured.

"Yes, I came to . . . ." whatever he came to say, the words were obviously very hard for him.

It was Ron who saved the moment. Stepping up to Severus, Ron laid his hand on the slightly shorter man's back and said, "You don't need an excuse to come here, or an invitation."

Those dark eyes stared at them both, as if trying to gauge their verity.

Hermione waited for Severus' expression to blank into its normal insouciance, but for whatever reason, he allowed his confusion to remain visible. Perhaps it was a testament to how upset his transformation had left him, or it might have been a show of trust. Hermione didn't know, but she appreciated not being walled out.

"I left very abruptly this morning," Severus said, and it was only her knowledge of the boy that allowed her to see the man's fear. "That was rude of me."

Ron and she exchanged a glance, not sure what to make of this. Even as a seven year old, Severus had rarely been able to apologize.

"You'd just suffered a severe shock," Hermione said. "It was understandable."

"It was unforgivable," Severus countered in that deep drawl of his. "I never even thanked you for all that you'd done for me."

"There was nothing to thank us for," Ron insisted before she could even open her mouth.

Severus' gaze swept to Ron. "To the contrary. It was everything. What you did for me, the kindness you showed . . . I could never repay you for that. I am in your debt."

"You're not in our debt," Ron denied.

"You're in our family," Hermione corrected.

She could see that Severus had no idea how to respond to that. His expression clearly revealed that he didn't believe it possible. The abused child he'd been could accept, but this man who'd been Death Eater and foe to them obviously couldn't see his way through his past.

"That is . . . most kind of you," Severus replied, palpably ill at ease.

Seven or forty-seven, Hermione knew Severus now, and could feel how impossible it was for him to accept what they were trying to tell him.

"It isn't kind; it's true," Hermione insisted.

"If you don't believe us, come see for yourself," Ron said.

Hermione glanced at Ron, uncertain if that were such a good idea. Severus was already overwhelmed and she knew Ron hadn't really paid attention to what he was about to reveal to Severus.

"See?" Severus repeated.

"Humour me a minute," Ron requested.

"As you will," Severus gave a nod of assent.

Then seemingly oblivious to the dark haired man's shock at being touched, Ron took hold of Severus' arm and led him to their bedroom.

Hermione hurried quickly after them. She could see that their destination both perplexed and worried Severus. Ron had stopped them in front of the grandfather clock, but Severus was looking the wrong way. His uneasy gaze was focused on the bed a few feet away.

"What . . . ." Severus began, before Ron cut him off with, "Look at the family clock."

Severus did as directed, and stiffened.

Hermione studied the newest arm on their clock. Severus' adult face stared down at them out of the picture on the new hand. While the seven year old Severus had appeared worried of rejection while up there, the adult version seemed utterly bewildered to find himself there at all.

She watched out of the corner of her eye as her two companions took in the positions of the clock's arms. It was all she could do to hide her grin as Ron guffawed at his own family clock, which he obviously glanced at enough to know who was on it, but never paid any real attention to its designations. Now that he was finally seeing the clock . . . well, providing that Severus wasn't mortified by the information revealed, the entire thing was rather amusing. Or would be, in time.

Harry's clock hand was all by itself, under the designation LOST. Hermione and Ron's were clumped together under HOME. And Severus' hand? That was firmly in a new section of the clock face marked IN LOVE.

"How does this charming device work?" Severus asked in a tight tone.

"It's sensitised to the emotional engrams of the people it is given to or bought by. Ron and I have always considered Harry part of our immediate family, so he's been up there from day one. Your picture arrived a few weeks after you came to live with us."

Severus frowned. "And how accurate are the . . . ."

"Designations?" Hermione supplied, doing her best to ignore her husband's paling complexion. From his tension, Ron was clearly expecting an explosion of atomic proportions. "I've always found them to be exceedingly accurate."

Severus didn't explode. His eyes squeezed shut for a moment before he hoarsely enquired, "Has he seen this?"

"No, Harry hardly ever comes in here," Hermione assured.

Severus opened his eyes, but he immediately lowered his gaze to his shoes.

Hermione could only imagine the degree of pain and shame that he was experiencing. He mightn't still be the child she'd grown to love, but that little boy was still inside of him somewhere, hurt and afraid. Unable to hold back, she put her arm around him, that as much of an invasion of his personal space as she was willing to dare.

She breathed a relieved sigh when Severus didn't immediately pull away from her. He flinched and tensed, but he stayed put.

"It will be all right, Severus," Hermione promised, trying to ignore her husband's stare. Ron was looking at her like she'd lost her mind.

"How can this possibly be all right?" The question was a hiss of emotion, like a boiling kettle letting off steam. "You can't begin to suggest that you are pleased by this development?"

"I think . . . I think that Harry has needed someone of his own for a very long time," she said slowly, choosing each word with extreme caution. "And I don't see why that someone couldn't be you."

He gave her that same betrayed look that his younger self had cast at her every time Severus suspected he was being teased.

She stared him down, easily.

"I don't know how this happened," Severus confessed. "Yesterday . . . ."

"He was your entire world yesterday," Hermione supplied. "You were totally devoted to each other. It was . . . wonderful to see."

"We were children," Severus insisted.

"And today you are adults. Those feelings didn't go away. They just matured," she countered.

"Look at me . . . the very idea is . . . an obscenity. I am old enough to be all of your fathers," Severus whispered.

She cupped his cheek and drew his tormented gaze to her eyes. "Harry has never thought of you as a father substitute, Severus."

"Yeah, I've got that lovely role now," Ron lamented.

Hermione was going to lambaste him for making light of this situation, but seeing how Ron's perfectly normally voiced comment affected Severus, she changed her mind. Sometimes humor was the greatest healer. Severus appeared no more certain, but at least the levity had calmed him some, as though its very presence assured him that the world wasn't ending around him, no matter how bleak the moment seemed.

"Even so, he would never . . . it's unthinkable," Severus denied.

"Why?" Hermione challenged.

"He is the Boy Who Everyone Wants . What could I offer that he couldn't get elsewhere from someone younger and more comely?" Severus shot back, the speed of his delivery telling Hermione that these were arguments he carried close to his heart.

"How about the friendship that he relied on for the four months you spent together? How many times a day did you hear him brag to someone that the two of you were 'best friends forever'?" she reminded.

"We aren't children anymore," Severus said. "All that changed when Albus made us come back. The boy I lost my soul to doesn't exist anymore."

And that belief was an open wound. Hermione could almost feel the agony his altered reality had visited upon Severus. 'Lost his soul'. . . when had she heard Severus Snape admit to so much as liking someone? Albus Dumbledore had been his only friend for decades and Snape had managed to maintain his controls when they'd laid his body in the ground. Now, here he stood talking about losing his soul to Harry.

"That boy is still inside Harry, the same way your seven year old self is inside you," Hermione insisted.

"Perhaps," Severus conceded. "But do you think he has this same twisted impulse?"

"There is nothing twisted in caring for someone, Severus," she almost scolded. "I think Harry is hurting the same way you are. And I think that you should speak to him about what he may or may not be feeling."

"Harry Potter would never . . . think of me that way. And even if he did . . . it would never work."

"Why?" That seemed to be the only word she could say to him. She was losing patience with his stubbornness.

"I have no . . . skill in matters of the heart," Severus haltingly confessed.

"And you think Harry does?" Hermione almost laughed at the idea.

Severus quickly offered, "I saw the articles; they could hardly be missed. Every week a new face, a new romance . . ."

"Severus, I was one of those faces purported to be Harry's lover of the moment. When we were visiting him during his quidditch tour that second year, the photographer caught Harry and me having breakfast one morning before Ron came down. You remember that debacle, don't you?"

"Yes, what is your point?" Severus demanded.

"What makes you think any of those other articles were any more accurate than that one? Harry couldn't buy a chocolate frog from a store clerk without it becoming the romance of the century, for heavens sake!" Hermione argued.

"It got to be a running joke between the three of us," Ron added. "We'd see the pictures and then owl him to find out the real story. Half the time he didn't even know the names of the loves of his life."

Seeing that they'd finally gotten Severus to listen, Hermione finished with, "Harry is a very private person, Severus. Between school and battling Voldemort, he never really had a chance to develop any romantic attachments. You're more alike than you think. Please, I know this is a lot for you to handle, but please promise to consider some of the things we've said."

"You would seriously condone . . . such an idea?" Severus had never sounded more like his seven-year-old self than at that moment.

Hermione exchanged a quick look with Ron. Relieved that they appeared to be in sync on this, for all that Ron still seemed slightly weirded out by the prospect, Hermione touched Severus' sleeve and softly assured, "We approve of anything that will make you both happy, Severus."

"Both?" Snape whispered.

"Both. You're on the clock, too," Hermione smiled.

His expression suggesting that he felt he'd said far too much, Severus quietly said, "I must go now." His gaze swept to the clock and then back to them. "May I rely on your discretion in this matter?"

Six months ago, the paranoid Potions Master would have been convinced that they would use this information against him in any way possible. Hermione was immensely relieved that that much had changed.

"You have our word," Ron said.

Seeming at a loss, the normally articulate Severus stumbled, "I . . . thank you . . . for everything."

Hermione reached out to give him a quick hug before he could flee. "Don't be a stranger."

"You're family now. You can't get rid of us," Ron said, offering his hand.

The moment strangely solemn, Severus reached out to shake it. Once he'd let go of Ron's hand, he said in a typically droll manner, "Family, is it? Two hundred Weasleys at Christmas time. How charming."

For a moment, Hermione feared that Ron would take his words wrong, but then Ron burst out laughing and said, "Two hundred sounds about right. At least that's how it feels sometimes."

Hermione had to grin at the alarm Severus couldn't quite keep out of his eyes. But the fact that he wasn't cutting the idea to shreds with his scimitar tongue said more for the transformation he'd undergone these last few months than anything to date.

As Severus turned to go, Hermione reminded, "You'll promise to think about what we said?"

"I'll consider it," Severus reluctantly agreed, and then he really did flee.

**********

He was still considering it hours later as he sat in shirt sleeves and slacks before his hearth in quarters that abruptly seemed far too lonely to even think about sleeping in. Just last night he and Harry had been wrestling with Ron on a rug in front of a nearly identical fireplace. The room had been filled with noise and warmth . . . and love.

And laughter, so much laughter.

Severus thought that he might miss that the most. Although they had only been seven and most of the things that they'd found amusing probably wouldn't be funny to him now, it seemed that he and Harry had laughed most of the time they were together.

Not surprisingly, his visit to the Weasleys was still heavy on his mind. He still couldn't believe half of what had transpired.

When he'd knocked on Hermione and Ron's door tonight, Severus had been fairly certain that he wouldn't be turned away, but he'd expected things to be awkward in the extreme. He'd left so abruptly this morning, without even pausing to thank them for all the trouble they'd gone to for him, and, beyond that, he was no longer the child they'd grown fond of. He was himself again, a man of whom no one was fond. He'd been especially concerned about Ron's reaction to his adult self. He'd expected things to be hellishly uncomfortable, but . . . .

But they had been genuinely glad to see him. Although relations could hardly be said to have been the same as they had with his seven-year-old self, the foundation had remained unchanged. They had welcomed him . . . and accepted him as he was.

More than that, they had encouraged him to pursue . . . .

No, he wasn't going to think about that. It wasn't a possibility.

However, Severus knew he would be forever grateful to Hermione and Ron for the compassion they'd shown him tonight. They'd embraced something he'd viewed as a shameful perversion, brought it out into the light, and turned it into something, if not possible, then at least not twisted. It warmed his heart to know that they considered him good enough for Harry, even if he knew he were not.

No matter what Hermione said, Harry deserved someone like himself, someone bright and loving, someone who had a lot to offer . . . not a used up Death Eater.

Inevitably, it always came back to that, probably always would.

But at least he was no longer entirely alone. Hermione and Ron had made it clear that his presence was not just tolerated, but desired. Perhaps Albus was right after all, and this was all for the best. Had he remained a child under the Weasleys' care, their relationship to him would always be a parental one. But now he had the opportunity to enjoy a friendship of equals . . . if he could manage to avoid alienating them.

Severus had no illusions about himself. He knew he was difficult, but . . . Hermione and Ron knew that, too. Just as Albus had. Perhaps a friendship might be possible. They'd said he was family – said it, and meant it.

Why else would they have encouraged him to pursue . . . .

He was thinking about it again.

Sighing, he tried to expel the unwanted thought, but . . . he'd spent four months living in Harry Potter's pocket. It had been less than one day and he missed the other boy as he would his right arm.

But Harry wasn't that boy anymore. He was a full-grown man, an attractive man who could have anyone he wanted for a friend or lover. The small boned boy with the round glasses and messy hair who had defended him like a lion against his tormentors was gone forever. As was their friendship.

Harry Potter might have been able to befriend him when they'd been children the same age, with no memory of their former lives, but why would Potter need to continue such an association now that they were both back in their right minds? There was more than a twenty-year difference in their ages. They had nothing in common, save an adversarial past that made even civil speech an effort. And there was that Dark Mark on his left arm, that accursed memento of mistakes too huge to be forgiven or forgotten. No, even a simple friendship with Harry would be impossible at this point.

Saddened by the thought, Severus tried not to dwell on the loss.

He gazed around his comfortable, sepulchral silent chambers and wondered what he was going to do with himself for the remainder of the night. Sleep was an absolute impossibility.

There was a bottle of excellent cognac on the sideboard across the room, but Severus feared that comfort. Once a man turned to a chemical to numb his pain, there was rarely any turning back from that path. And with the pain he was attempting to drown . . . well, there wasn't enough alcohol in all of Britain for that.

No, he'd best leave the cognac where it was and . . . .

A knock on the door stilled all thought, and his breathing.

Damning himself seven times a fool for the idiotic hope that flared in his heart, Severus rose from his chair and went to deal with the interruption. It was probably another fracas in the Slytherin dorm. Merlin alone knew what Zabini had been doing these last four months as temporary head of Slytherin, for it certainly had no resemblance to anything Snape would have deemed supervision. He didn't know if he was up to another teenage tempest right now.

Severus pulled open the door, a snarl on his lips . . . and gaped into the uncertain green eyes of the person he most wanted/didn't want to see.

"Er . . . hello," Potter greeted.

His vocabulary had definitely been better at seven, Severus thought.

At a loss, he stared at his visitor. Potter was dressed in Muggle clothes: black jeans that were way too close-fitting for Severus' peace of mind, a light blue shirt with a brown woollen jumper on top. He'd had better fashion sense at seven as well, Severus noted.

Realizing that some response was called for, Severus softly returned, "Hello."

"We need to talk," Potter said.

Talk? A great open pit seemed to replace his stomach. Severus certainly felt like he'd tumbled off solid ground.

"I don't think that would be wise at this time," he denied with as much gentleness as he could manage.

"Tough. If we wait until you think it's wise, we'll both be dead and buried," Potter said, brushing past him into his quarters.

Severus stared at the door his hand was resting on, and then looked at Potter who was now definitely on the wrong side of said door. Less than two minutes. He had no idea how he could have lost control of the situation in such a short interval.

"Listen, Pot – "

"If you call me 'Potter,' I will turn you into a turnip," Potter warned, green fire sparking in his eyes. Those eyes were the colour of dark and powerful magic, Severus acknowledged.

His move. Four months ago he would have said 'Potter' out of sheer contrariness, but . . . Harry had made the first move by coming here, and, judging by his obstinate determination, whatever the younger man wished to discuss was obviously of some significance to him.

Harry's expression also stilled his tongue. He'd so rarely seen despair on that handsome face. Potter's tension clearly telegraphed that he thought this a hopeless cause, but that he was determined to see it through to the end. Severus knew he had the power to end this conversation, right here and now. All it would take was a bit of expertly aimed vitriol and Harry would never darken his door again.

But he didn't want Harry to go away forever. That was the very root of his problem. Unable to attack, Severus slowly said, "I loathe turnips."

That wasn't what Potter was expecting. Severus almost smiled as he watched the other man change mental gears.

"Then you'd better not call me 'Potter'," Harry answered with a shy smile.

Severus felt the corners of his own mouth twitch, "Since you're here, you might as well sit down."

"Your hospitality overwhelms me," Potter snarked. But his comment wasn't nearly as sarcastic as it could have been. And he sat down. In Severus' favourite armchair.

"Not difficult to do, I'm sure," Snape countered, wondering if that were a bit much.

To his intense relief, Potter just smiled.

It was rather like they'd just met and were learning to interact, verbally fencing with each other to determine allowable boundaries.

Severus had to remind himself that wasn't the case. They hadn't just met. They'd been adversaries and uneasy allies for fifteen years. The past four months were . . . an anomaly. They weren't beginning a relationship. In all likelihood, they were here to bury one.

"Would you care for some cognac?" Severus asked, wanting to delay the inevitable for as long as possible.

"Yes, thank you," Potter was openly relieved. As he took the snifter Severus offered him a moment later, he admitted, "I was afraid I was going to have to fight you tooth and nail to get in here."

"Yes, well . . . " Taking his own drink, he retreated to the other armchair. He didn't know what to say. He didn't even know why Potter was here.

"Minerva stopped by to welcome me back this afternoon. And then most of the rest of the staff dropped by one by one," Potter said into the silence. "Everyone seems to think the spell's reversal is a cause for celebration. I've never felt more miserable in my life."

Well done, Albus, Severus thought. It appeared that yet another one of his old friend's schemes had gone horribly awry. Snape never expected things to work out well as far as his own fortunes were concerned, for he never expected to be truly happy, but it seemed criminal that Harry should suffer from this.

Severus spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. He didn't know how to comfort, but perhaps he could commiserate. "It's strange how often good intentions cause only sorrow and regret."

"Do you regret what he did for us?" Potter asked, sounding utterly lost. There was no need to question whom 'he' was.

Regret it? Severus thought longingly of the laughter. In its memory, he gave Harry the truth. "Those last four months were the only portion of my life entirely free of regret."

"Severus," Potter said his name as though he half-expected to be reprimanded for doing so. "I miss my friend."

Snape set his drink on the end table beside him. He couldn't dare Harry's eyes. There was too much emotion roiling through him for him to sit still. He rose to his feet, crossed the short distance to the hearth, and stared into the flames.

It was some time before he could voice the words that needed to be said. "That boy you knew, he doesn't exist anymore. He never really did."

"I don't believe that," Potter said from behind him. Severus could feel Potter's stare burning his stiff spine. "I can't believe that."

"Believe it," Severus urged. "I am not a nice person. You-"

"Did I ever once ask you to be nice or change?" Harry broke in. "I don't care if you're not nice."

Severus froze, almost afraid to turn around and face Potter. But of his many faults, cowardice was not among them. He forced himself to turn and meet Harry's upset gaze, forced himself to try to clarify this abruptly murky situation. "Than what do you want from me, if not niceness?"

Clearly, Harry didn't know the answer to that question. Or maybe he wasn't prepared to tell him. After an extremely tense staring match, Potter softly said, "I want my friend back."

"We're not seven anymore," Severus reminded.

"That doesn't mean we can't be friends," Potter obdurately insisted.

"Upon what could we possibly base a friendship?"

"What do any two people base a friendship on? We found things to do together four months ago, we'll do the same now," Harry said.

"What? Build snow forts and play tag?" Severus sneered.

"If that's what you'd like to do," Harry answered, steel in his eyes for all that his tone was mild. "I thought we might start with chess."

"Hermione can beat you at chess and I could beat her at seven," Severus said.

"You're not helping," Harry complained.

"And you are not being realistic. I am old enough to by your father. We have absolutely nothing in common, beyond the events of the last four months. We have spent fifteen years loathing each other," Snape said.

"So, you're saying that I'm too immature to be your friend?"

Harry could not possibly be as hurt as he sounded.

"I didn't say that," Severus snapped.

"Then what are you saying? What is the big deal about being my friend? Do you hate me that much?" Potter asked.

What Severus did hate was the crushed look his rejection had put in those vulnerable eyes.

"Answer the question," Harry demanded, visibly braced for the worst.

"No, damn you. You know I don't hate you."

Harry searched his face for an uncomfortably long time before giving a slow nod. "I know this isn't easy for you. It isn't for me, either, but . . . I think we have to try."

Severus lowered his gaze. He had no idea how to refuse without further hurting Harry, but . . . he knew himself. He was certain to ruin anything that might grow between them. The surest way to do that, he realized, would be to mention the unexpected turn his own feelings for Potter had taken. In the short or long run, the result would be the same – Potter would not stay. How could he? And then . . . well, then he'd be alone again; only that alone would be a million times worse because he'd know what he was missing. And Potter would be here at Hogwarts, shoving Severus' failure right in his face every single day by his mere presence. It was better for all concerned if they didn't even try to be friends. He just had to find a non-painful way to make Harry understand that.

"That clay fort we built is still standing in the quidditch pitch," Harry said into the horrible silence.

Bewildered by what seemed a complete non sequitur, Severus asked, "What?"

"Our fort. I can see it out my bedroom window. It's still there."

"Oh." There really didn't seem to be much else he could say to that comment.

"Severus, we don't have to lose everything this time. I know it feels like our entire world was snatched away from us again, but . . . it's only that way if we let it be taken from us. Our fort is still out there. And we're still both here, alive and together."

"Everything is different now," Severus said, wincing at how petulant the protest sounded to even his own ears.

"I know," Harry's voice carried that same unbearable loss.

"Why would you even want to try? I'm hardly anyone's idea of good company."

"Your company suited me fine the last four months," Potter said.

"Can't you get it through that thick skull of yours that I'm not that same person!" Snape demanded. This entire circular conversation was hurtful.

"How are you so different?"

Pushed to his limit, Severus rolled up his left sleeve and thrust his forearm out. "I am marked. I am sullied. And quite probably damned."

Potter stared at his outstretched arm for a long moment, then put his drink down, and got to his feet.

Good. Harry had finally seen sense. He was leaving.

That thought should have flooded him with a sense of victory, but it only made the hurt inside sharper.

But Harry wasn't heading towards the door. He came up to him and took hold of Severus' outstretched arm.

Severus trembled as Potter's fingertips traced the grinning skull and serpent seared into his flesh all those years ago. "This is only skin deep. It goes no further. You are not sullied and you are most certainly not damned."

"You can't know that. I – "

"You made a terrible mistake when you were barely seventeen years old. As soon as you recognized the depth of your error, you went through hell to rectify it. This happened years before I was even born. It's ancient history," Harry said.

"Not to me. It – "

"It still hurts you – the same way Voldemort's killing Cedric and using my blood to restore himself still hurts me. Don't you see? We do have more than snow forts and tag games in common," Harry insisted, still holding onto his arm.

For a man who abhorred emotional entanglements, he'd certainly blundered into his share of them today, Severus thought. His flight instincts were shrieking that he move away from this danger. But Harry still had hold of his arm.

"We'll work it out, Severus. Please say you'll try?"

He couldn't. He just couldn't. It was all too much. He just wanted to turn off his feelings and go back to his comfortably numb life.

He knew this couldn't work. Even if he managed to keep his lethal tongue from destroying whatever bond they might forge, the inevitable revelation of his desire was bound to finish it. He simply could not do this. He opened his mouth to tell Harry that. . . and slammed it shut as something small and white nearly flew right between his parted lips.

Thwarted, the tiny flyer collided with his cheek and then fluttered into the air between them.

Harry's hand closed uncomfortably tight around his arm as they both stared at the white butterfly with black spotted wings that was flittering in the air between them . . . in the freezing air of a Highland keep that hadn't seen its first thaw yet.

Their shocked gazes met. Severus could see the same thoughts passing through Harry's eyes at the timely interruption. He was amazed that he was still able to read so much there, that the knowledge his seven-year-old self had gained of this person would still be valid.

"He wanted us to be friends," Harry stated.

Albus wanted them to be friends. Harry Potter wanted them to be friends. And, deep down, Severus Snape himself wanted them to be friends. If Lord Voldermort hadn't had the strength to stand against that triumvirate of Hogwarts' finest, what chance did Severus' resistance have?

"He never could take no for an answer," Severus remembered.

Harry smiled almost the same smile he'd give him when they were standing on top of one of their forts. "Is that a yes?"

Please, Albus, let this be the right decision, he silently prayed, and gave a tight nod of assent.

"It will work. I know it will. We just have to try," Potter said with the faith of a child.

"I give you my word that I will try. I can't promise that I will succeed," Severus cautioned.

"That's good enough," Harry accepted, so overjoyed that Severus could hardly credit that his friendship could have been that important. "If we try, we'll succeed. What could beat the both of us together?"

"What, indeed?" Severus seconded, but he knew the answer to that question.

As he saw the joyful confidence that his acceptance put into Harry's eyes, he swore that the one true threat to their friendship would never see the light of day. He was a master of self-denial. He'd chain that beast and keep it locked deep away. So long as Harry never suspected how he felt, they would be all right. If he could hide his change of loyalties from Voldemort for years, he could certainly keep a single feeling secret from Harry Potter. But somehow, he couldn't help but suspect that this would be harder.

Harry's friendship was worth it, though.

"So," Severus said as Harry self-consciously unhanded him, "what are we going to do now that we are friends? There isn't enough snow out there for a fort and my quarters are a little too small for a game of tag or Bobo Ball."

His attempt at levity was well received.

His cheeks flushed with an unaccountable excitement and his eyes glowing bright as a dark curse's green flames, Harry grinned and said, "Well, there's always Exploding Snap."

To his delight, the laughter was back.

Side by side, they returned to their armchairs to watch their unexpected, white-winged visitor flutter around the room.

Thank you, Albus, Severus silently toasted his old friend with his cognac, thank you.

The End

 

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