Somewhere near Little Hangleton:
It was with a great feeling of relief that Freedom finally spiraled down to a landing in a small patch of woodland near the sleepy little village known as Little Hangleton. He, Hedwig, and Warrior had been flying for at least six hours straight, and now it was dusk and his wings and shoulders ached fiercely from battling sudden cross currents and wind gusts as well as flying high enough so people would not remark upon the unusual sight of a red-tailed hawk in British skies, nor a goshawk either, accompanied by a snowy owl.
Though the threesome did not fly together in tandem, but staggered, sometimes above and sometimes below each other, at least fifteen feet away, in case anyone should look up they would not think it odd to see two hawks flying.
But now the sun was setting and the first stars of twilight had begun to emerge as the moon slowly rose above the treetops. A weary Freedom, followed by a slightly less tired Warrior, landed in a small shaded thicket bordering a little creek. Both hawks blurred swiftly into human shape after making certain no one was about.
Harry sank to the ground, stifling a groan, for even in his original shape, his arms and shoulders throbbed. He had never had that happen before, but then again, he had also never flown so far and so fast for so long, so perhaps this fatigue was normal. He watched as Severus inspected the perimeter of the wooded area and cast a few illusion charms so any Muggles who ventured too close to their campsite would be encouraged to look away or pass by.
That done, he stretched and looked down at his ward. "Do you have magic enough left to start a fire, Harry?"
"Yeah. I'm just . . .give me a minute," Harry said, drawing his wand. He began to clear away a patch of bare ground, knowing full well that a fire in even a small wood like this was dangerous if not properly contained. He summoned a few pieces of dry wood from the surrounding area and some small stones, which he arranged in a ring about the pieces of wood. Then he pointed his wand and whispered, "Incendio!"
A bright spark flicked out from his wand and within a half a minute, tongues of flame were licking hungrily at the wood, and in two minutes a sizeable campfire was crackling merrily.
"There. Not bad for my first try, is it?" Harry inquired of his guardian.
"No. I can see you've been reading that Muggle woodland survival guide I gave you," Severus said approvingly. "Now, I think some tea and perhaps a bit of soup is in order. Tonight I shall cook dinner, tomorrow you may do so. For now, why don't you set up the bedrolls?"
Harry nodded, and went to set up the thick padded bedrolls from each of their packs, which had been shrunk so they fit easily into their backpacks. The bedrolls were wizard made, which meant they had spells on them for comfort and coolness and to keep away bugs and pests and could be cleaned with a simple Scourgify charm. Harry got his set up first and then Severus's, setting them somewhat close to the fire about five feet from each other.
Severus had meanwhile summoned a small cauldron and the teakettle from his rucksack and was busy making tea and soup from specially prepared packages of dried soup mix that Twixie had prepared for them. All he had to do was to mix the soup with water and heat it and it would taste just like it was freshly made. There were small rolls as well, set with a preserving charm, that would taste good as well once the charm was removed.
Both hawks had hunted earlier in the day, feasting on a squirrel in Warrior's case and a large mouse in Freedom's, nevertheless flying burned up a great deal of energy and both Animagi were hungry again by nightfall. Severus stirred the soup with a long handled wooden spoon while Harry washed his face and hands in the small creek.
Hedwig flew down to perch briefly upon his shoulder, hooting softly, I shall go and hunt now, Harry. But fear not, I shall be back to keep watch over you while you sleep. No spying Muggle or creeping dark wizard shall disturb your rest, my oath as a post owl on it!
He stroked the snowy owl's breast and smiled at her. "Okay, Hedwig. Good luck and thanks!"
Hedwig nibbled his hair in affection before taking off and soaring silently among the trees, searching for an unwary mouse, or shrew, or possum.
"Where is Hedwig going?" came Snape's query from out of the gathering dusk.
"To hunt, but she says she'll be back and keep watch while we sleep," replied Harry, dusting himself off and coming to stand near Severus. He sniffed appreciatively. "Hey, that smells great. I didn't know you could cook, Sev."
"This isn't cooking, this is house elf magic," snorted the other. "Twixie gave these packets of soups and sandwiches to me, so we wouldn't have to do much beyond boil water."
"Can you do more than boil water?" teased the Potion Master's apprentice.
Snape shot him an irritated insulted look. "Of course I can, I'm not an imbecile, you know. I grew up Muggle and know how to cook and do other chores without magic, the same as you. Still, it's a relief to not have to throw together a meal after a day spent flying."
Harry yawned, feeling suddenly exhausted. He rubbed his eyes then sat crosslegged on the ground waiting for the soup to boil.
The woods were peaceful enough, he supposed, listening to the soft chirring of crickets and the rustle of some small animal in the undergrowth and the buzzing of nighttime insects. But this close to the graveyard in Little Hangleton made him feel slightly uneasy and a shiver skittered down his backbone.
The night had been dark and deep and shrouded figures surrounded him in grotesque white-painted iron masks, eager to see the rebirth of the monster known as Lord Voldemort, they had laughed when Wormtail tied him to the headstone . . .
"Harry! Your supper," a bowl with a roll on the side was thrust practically under his nose, and he blinked and took it from Snape's outstretched hand. "Huh? Oh, must have dozed off. Sorry." He still felt twinges of fear, but the savory smell of beef, carrots, and onions soon made his stomach start clamoring and the fear subsided to the greater need of filling his belly.
Severus sat opposite his apprentice, eating his own portion slowly and observing the young Animagus from beneath half-lidded eyes. Harry seemed to show no other side effects from his prolonged flight except for a general exhaustion, and that was only to be expected. Snape himself was feeling tired and weary and his bedroll was looking like Nirvana right then. I suppose after a few hours of sleep, Potter will be ready to jump right up and start flying again, whereas I will doubtless need a full night's rest before I feel up to flying to Riddle House. Ah, to be fifteen again with all of that endless energy.
He continued eating, saying quietly, "I trust you remember the rules when we get to Riddle House, Mr. Potter, or do I need to go over them?"
"No, I remember. Touch nothing unless you say so, go nowhere without you, and be quiet and try not to knock anything over, we don't want any Muggles noticing us." Harry recited in a bored tone.
"And above all, perform no magic without my express permission," Severus reminded sternly. "There may yet be things in that house-things of dark magic-that might be waiting for just such an unwary wizardling to awaken them. Voldemort might not have lived there long, but rest assured that he may have used the house to keep some of his cursed objects hidden . . .besides the Horcrux, to throw us off the scent. So no magic unless I tell you otherwise."
"All right, Sev. I'm not a little kid, that you've got to watch every minute." Harry said, somewhat crossly.
The Potions Master slanted a sharp glance at him. "You have had the tendency in the past, young man, to rush in where angels fear to tread, without using your head, so I thought a reminder was in order." He looked at Harry's almost empty soup bowl. "Would you like another helping?"
"Yes, please. I'm always hungry lately." He handed his bowl to Severus for a refill.
"Growth spurt, no doubt." The professor mused. "You're overdue for one." He handed the bowl back to his apprentice.
"You think? Because I was afraid I'd be a shrimp my whole life," said Harry, his green eyes shining.
"Your growth was most likely stunted because of your relatives starving you," Snape surmised, finishing his own soup a moment later. He too went back for a second helping, no sense in letting it go to waste. "But now that is no longer the case, your body should start responding normally and that means you'll begin growing taller. You might not have the height of your friend Weasley due to malnutrition, but you won't be undersized either."
"Is that why you made me drink those awful Nutrient potions all last month?" Harry asked, blowing on a spoonful of soup. He wrinkled his nose in remembered distaste. That potion had tasted like reconstituted swamp sludge.
"Yes. The Nutrient Potion was designed to replace your essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals your body was lacking," lectured the professor. "It also jumpstarted your metabolism, so that now you feel hungry and your body can stop storing away nutrients and process them normally."
"Oh. That's a good thing, I guess. But that potion was utterly vile, Sev." Harry made a face. "You could have at least made it taste good, like something fruity."
Severus gave him a look of disgust and rolled his eyes. "Merlin save me from thickheaded apprentices. Mr. Potter, how many times have I told you that altering the composition of a draft will throw off the entire solution unless you are putting in a nonreactive substance? And in the case of fruit juice . . .that would ruin the draft entirely, since sugar inhibits some of the absorption of essential nutrients. Therefore, it would not be feasible to tamper with the potion simply because you wish it to taste better, understand?"
Harry flushed. "Right. I'm tired, I forgot." He quickly finished his bowl of soup and then took the bowls, spoons, and the cauldron to the creek, rinsed them and washed them with magic and then shrunk them. Severus took them and placed them inside his rucksack.
"Here. Drink that. It'll help with your sore muscles." He floated a cup of Muscle Relieving tea over to the boy.
Harry took it, eyes widening. "How did you know I needed this?"
"It would stand to reason, Potter, after all you've been flying for six hours today. Drink it quickly, it's most potent when hot."
Harry obeyed. The tea tasted of cloves and was quite good. Finishing his cup, he set it down and then asked, "You don't think anyone will be in the Riddle House, do you?"
Snape shook his head. "No. It's unlikely, but should we encounter a dark wizard, you are to let me confront him. You are not, under any circumstances, to reveal yourself or attempt to fight a dark wizard on your own."
"I know. I promised, remember. And you're not supposed to die protecting me either, Severus."
"That goes without saying. Worry about your own hide, Potter. I shall take care of mine." Severus sighed. "I suggest we turn in, it has been a long day for us both."
He waved his wand, and Harry found himself wearing a familiar pair of pajamas and fuzzy red and gold socks.
The apprentice yawned again, he was now feeling pleasantly sleepy and didn't need to be told twice to seek out his bedroll and fall fast asleep upon it, though not before seeing a familiar white shadow alight upon a nearby branch overlooking the campsite. "Night, Hedwig," he murmured before his eyes shut.
Severus remained awake a moment more, then he transfigured his robes into a set of pajamas as well and sought his own bedroll, trusting in his wards and Hedwig's watchful eye to keep anything that meant them harm away.
* * * * * * *
Harry was standing before the black-robed figure of Voldemort, trembling slightly, as the necromancer sneered, his red eyes glittering like the fires of hell, and pointed his wand at his heart.
"You think you have defeated me, boy! But you know nothing! I shall return, and this time I shall make certain you are destroyed. There is no escape from me, Potter! Where ever you go, whatever shape you assume, I shall find you, I shall come to you, and I shall kill you. I swear it upon my immortal soul!"
Then Voldemort threw back his head and laughed madly, the confident chuckle of one who knows he holds the upper hand.
"You destroyed your immortal soul long ago!" Harry shouted back.
"Did I? I think not! I am stronger than I ever was, and when I make the journey back through the Veil, you and yours will fall before me. And when all of your pitiful friends lay dead at my feet, I shall celebrate!"
Harry felt his stomach tighten and threaten to rebel at the way the dark wizard was licking his lips. But he managed to cry out, "That'll never happen! You're dead and you're going to stay that way!"
He woke up with Tom's insane laughter ringing in his ears, gasping and sweating as if he had run for miles. He glanced about and saw, or thought he saw, something moving in the shadows and drew his wand, crying, "Lumos!"
Light bright as day shot from his wand . . .to reveal . . .nothing.
Feeling like an idiot, Harry lowered his wand, then nearly jumped out of his skin when he felt a hand clutch his shoulder.
"What on earth are you doing? Trying to show the whole village our position?" scolded a grumpy Severus.
Harry could feel himself flush to the tips of his ears. "Uh . . .no . .. I just . . .thought I saw something . . ."
"You thought you saw something? Well, this is a forest, Potter, and animals do roam at night," Snape began sarcastically, annoyed at having his sleep interrupted. "But if there was any danger the wards I set would have warned me."
He woke up from a nightmare, professor, and was jumpy, put in Hedwig from her perch in a gnarled oak tree.
Harry stared at the ground. Oh, great! Hedwig, why did you have to tell him? Now he's going to think I'm a wimpy little baby.
"Is that true, Harry?" Severus's tone suddenly lost its sarcasm.
The boy nodded, stiffening. Here it comes.
But Severus did not yell, instead he said only, "Care to tell me what this dream was about?"
Harry bit his lip and sighed. "I dreamed about Voldemort."
"In the graveyard?"
"No. After that. He said we were going to fail and he was coming back to kill me. And when I woke up I felt . . .I don't know . . .all jumpy and then I thought I saw something in the shadows . . .I'm sorry I woke you, Sev."
But Severus did not dismiss his dream as Harry had expected. Instead he said, "Did you Occlude your mind before sleeping?"
Harry stared down at his bedroll, idly playing with the border. "N-No. I forgot."
This time Severus did scowl. "You forgot? I ought to smack you upside the head for that bit of forgetfulness, you foolish child! How many times do I have to tell you, Occluding your mind before you sleep should be something you do automatically, especially on a mission such as this one?"
"Okay, I get it! I'm sorry!" Harry snapped, feeling ashamed and resentful at the same time. "Excuse me if I'm not bloody perfect like you."
"This is not about perfect, this is about protecting yourself from unwanted mental influences, Harry. Even though the Dark Lord's body is dead, his spirit still lingers in a half-life, waiting for his chance to return. And though the link you shared with him severed upon his death, I cannot trust that entirely."
"Do you think he sent me the dream, then?"
"Possibly," Severus hedged. "Unlikely, but you must not allow him any loopholes, Harry."
"Okay, okay." The teen suddenly sprang to his feet, his earlier tiredness replaced by a feeling of foreboding and unease that made him start at shadows. "Are you sure there's nothing out there?"
Severus sighed exasperatedly. "Yes! Do trust that I know what I am about, I have been a spy long before you were born."
"What do you want, a medal or a monument?" muttered Harry cheekily.
Severus's mouth tightened and the obsidian eyes flashed. "Mind that tone, young man, before I-"
I shall fly the perimeter and check if it will make you feel better. Meantime try not to kill each other, Hedwig offered from the tree, diffusing the argument, then spread her wings and glided noiselessly away.
"Sorry, Sev. I'm just . . .on edge."
Severus snorted, nodded shortly, and turned away, peering hard through the trees facing the direction of the village.
Harry waited tensely for the owl's return, then relaxed when Hedwig came back some five minutes later and reported that all was calm. There is no danger here, Harry.
Still, he could not shake the odd feeling that something was lurking nearby. Nerves, just nerves. He stared up at the moon, which was a crescent sliver in the indigo sky, and tried to forget about the dream. But it would not leave him alone and he could not settle back to sleep.
Severus watched his charge for a few minutes, then said abruptly, "Close your eyes, Harry, and take four deep breaths. One. Two. Three. Four."
Harry obeyed, finding his center and then taking the requisite breaths, allowing his mentor to walk him through the beginning stages of Occlusion and meditation. Soon he felt himself begin to relax, and after about five minutes of controlled breathing and relaxation, Harry managed to Occlude his mind and relax enough to fall back to sleep.
Severus waited until the boy was well and truly asleep before tucking the bedroll about him and then retreating to his own to catch up on the sleep he had lost. It was paramount they be well rested and mentally prepared when they arrived at the Riddle House, so they could evade whatever traps Voldemort had set and discover whether or not the abandoned manor held a Horcrux, as Dumbledore assumed.
As Seveus started to sink into the gray realm of sleep, he spared a thought for the Headmaster, and wondered how the old wizard's meeting with the Dursleys had gone. He hoped that Albus had given the miserable Muggles something to remember, as payback for all the times they had abused Harry over the years. A moment later, the watchful eyes closed and Snape slept, while above a snowy owl kept watch.
But the night was still and no dreams or ill feelings disturbed the sleep of her wizard companions further that night.
Chapter End Notes:
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Next: Severus and Harry search Riddle House and Dumbledore confronts the Dursleys.
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