He felt something shake his shoulder, and thought it was the wind that had fanned the flames . . .flames that wreathed the house in lurid yellow, orange, and blue. Crackling and snapping, they consumed everything within, and through the roar of the flames he could hear them screaming . . .screaming in agony for him to save them.
"Harry! You're having a nightmare, wake up!"
Again came the wind, shaking, shaking . . .He put an arm out for balance, so he wouldn't fall out of the tree he had climbed . . .and felt it connect with something hard.
That voice he knew. He abruptly came back to himself and opened his eyes.
Only then did he realize where he was. He was in bed, in Snape's house, which was not on fire, his relatives were not screaming and being burnt alive, the wind he had felt had been his guardian's hand shaking his shoulder, and . . .he saw Severus clutching his nose and swearing under his breath.
Horrified, Harry looked at his hand. He couldn't have . . .hit Severus, could he?
He reached out and jammed on his new glasses. The room came back into focus, as did his guardian, who was now applying what looked like a wet washcloth to his slightly swollen nose, which had a trickle of blood running from it.
Harry cringed, panic shooting through him. Merlin help me, but I am dead! I . . .I punched him. Oh, God. This is it. I'm going to be kicked out into the street. After he beats me senseless. How could I do that? How?
He huddled upon the bed, quaking, unable to move, waiting for Snape to look at him.
When the other wizard did so, he flinched as if Severus had slapped him. "I'm sorry, sir! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to . . .please, don't kill me . . .it was an accident. I'm sorry!"
Severus stared at the shaking boy for an instant, then said quietly, "Harry, calm down. I'm aware it was an accident. I'll live. Stop apologizing."
It was a moment before Harry could stop babbling and hear what his guardian had just said. "You're not . . .mad? You're not going to whack me one?"
Snape rolled his eyes. "Honestly, boy, if I wanted to "whack you one", I would have done it already. Did I not say that I would never raise a hand to you?"
"Yes, but . . .I hurt you!"
"You were dreaming. It was a reflex. I should have ducked sooner." He pulled the cloth from his nose. The bleeding had stopped. Severus' mouth twitched into a lopsided smile. "You pack quite a punch asleep, young one. I haven't had anyone hit me like that since your father—" he halted. Damn, now why had he mentioned James Potter?
"My dad hit you? Why?"
"Never mind that."
Harry hung his head. "I'm sorry I woke you up."
Severus shook his head. "No need to apologize again. This isn't the first time I've been woken up by a student having a nightmare. Though usually they're first years who wake me, frightened and homesick, because they've never been away from home before."
"Oh. What . . .what do you do with them?" Harry mumbled, almost afraid to find out.
"What do you think I do with them, Potter? Beat them?" The Potions Master sighed. "I bring them a glass of warm milk laced with Dreamless Sleep and talk to them for a bit. Would you like me to try it on you?"
Harry thought about it. "I guess . . ."
"Suppose you tell me what you dreamed and I shall prepare the milk with the potion? If you wish to drink it, it will be there. If not, I can save it for another night."
Harry bit his lip. He didn't want to seem like a whiny little baby or an idiot in front of Severus, all upset over a dream. "Promise you won't laugh?"
"Do I look like I'm amused?"
"No." He looked down at his sheets, which were tangled all about his legs. He squirmed, trying to untangle himself.
Severus flicked his wand.
The sheet suddenly unwound themselves and flattened out, coming to rest smoothly atop Harry's knees. "There. Much better. Well, are you going to talk? I have found that helps to sort out things."
Harry hesitated. "Err . . .but, if I tell you my dream, will you tell me what you meant before . . .about my dad hitting you?"
"Midnight confession time, is it? Humph!" the older wizard sounded annoyed as he pulled up a chair and sat down, but Harry saw no real irritation in the obsidian eyes. "Very well. Begin."
Harry cleared his throat and then described what he had dreamed. "I was flying my broom and all of a sudden I was in front of the house on Privet Drive. I went to turn around and all of a sudden, the house just . . .caught on fire . . .it was burning like . . .like wildfire . . .flames were shooting out of the windows and everything . . .I tried to fly down to help, but the flames were too hot. Then a wind came and knocked me off my broom and I fell into a tree . . ."
While he talked, Severus listened and also Summoned a glass of milk which he heated with a Warming Charm and added a small amount of honey and a dose of Dreamless Sleep, then stirred it gently and left it sitting upon the nightstand, where Harry could reach it.
Harry's eyes flicked to it and then back to his teacher, who was wearing a silk bed robe of green with a silver snake on it and leather slippers. Harry was glad he had not made Severus' nose bleed on to the silk robe, for blood was the devil to get out of clothes.
" . . .they were dying and I couldn't save them, I could hear them screaming . . . then I woke up."
"That is not surprising, considering what you just learned today. As I said before, your regret over their deaths will take a long time to heal."
"Will it ever?"
"Yes, in time."
The boy heaved a gusty sigh. He didn't like that answer. He wanted the stupid nightmares and guilt to fade now. Sometimes he wished he were more like Dudley, who had never cared about anything except his stomach and video games. Instead he got stuck with a conscience and a guilt complex. Go figure! But then he recalled the bargain that Snape had made and he eyed the tall wizard expectantly. "I guess so. Now will you tell me about my dad?"
"If you insist. Though I warn you, you will probably not like what you are about to hear. No doubt you have been told that he was a great Quidditch star and a hero," A sneer morphed its way onto Severus' face. "I am sure your . . .godfather Black told you about his days as a Marauder, roaming the school casting hexes upon students, though they called them pranks, most of them were not designed to be funny, like the Weasley twins, but humiliating and painful. The only ones who found them funny were the Marauders most times. You already know of the incident at the Shrieking Shack, which was the stupidest and most deadly of all their so-called jokes."
Harry nodded. Suddenly he was beginning to regret he had ever asked. Clearly this was a bitter subject for the other and he almost told Snape to forget it, to let the past remain in the past. He knew that he would hardly care to discuss all the torments Dudley and his gang had put him through. But curiosity reared its head, and he kept silent.
Snape went on. "The Marauders, as I and some other unfortunate students knew them, were not mere pranksters, but bullies. And James Potter led them. He was like your cousin, rich, popular, and full of himself. Unlike him, Potter was also handsome, and girls tended to drool like imbeciles over him. He charmed half his professors with his rogue manners, and they tended to look the other way when it came to his little pranks. He tended to target those like myself, who were Slytherins, bookworms, or both. We had never gotten along, and soon it became an outright war between us. But I had only one friend I trusted to watch my back, and it was for that he detested me most of all. Do you know who that friend was?"
"Yes. Your mother was my best friend. That horrified certain people, especially your father and godfather. That a Gryffindor girl would dare to be friends with a slimy Slytherin. They thought she was "too good" for me and tried many times to get her to abandon me. But Lily refused, and it irritated the hell out of Potter. Your mother and I were very much alike. We both loved potions, though she was also excellent in Charms. I was just as good in Herbology, and so we complimented each other. It was I who introduced her to the magical world when we were seven and later I also told her about Selene, the Moon Lady. My mother initiated us both into Her Mysteries when we were thirteen.
"Now, if you've been reading the book I gave you, you should remember that though no formal worship is necessary, there are certain times in the lunar cycle where you may ask Her blessing and She may come to you and grant it. Mostly at the first rising of the full moon. Soon after we became initiates, my mother grew ill. We had returned to school then, so I didn't know how bad it was, though I feared the worst. Madam Pomfrey was a good friend of hers and she told me my mother was sick and would need an extended stay in St. Mungos. I was petrified, and decided to go into the forest on the next full moon and pray to my goddess to help my mother. Lily also wished to do this, and so we broke the rules and slipped out of the castle to go to the meadow up beyond Hagrid's. We brought offerings of cakes and butterbeer, the meadow we chose because it was a known haunt of unicorns, which were sacred to Her.
"Of course, the night of the full moon was also the night of the werewolf, and the Marauders were abroad, though Lily and I didn't know it. We reached the meadow, set the offerings down on a white sheet Lily had taken from her dorm, and began to pray.
"I can only assume that your father happened upon us by chance, whether in his Animagus form or out of it. In any case, he came into the clearing, saw me, and started insulting me. He did not follow Selene, he called Her the Lady of Fools and Milksops, and then he saw Lily and accused me of "corrupting her". I was furious. He had ruined my ceremony, insulted both my religion and me and my best friend. I was so angry I didn't even bother to draw a wand. I just slammed him one in the mouth. I also called him some rather creative swear words learned from my father."
"What happened then?"
"He hit me back and broke my nose. I couldn't win against him physically, he was bigger and stronger. Lily cast some kind of Itching Jinx on him, but even then he wouldn't quit hitting me. I recall Lily yelling, he had me pinned on the ground then, and just when I was seeing stars, Potter screamed and fell off me. I thought Lily had hexed him. I passed out briefly, when I came to, I was lying in the meadow still, Lily was wiping my face with a wet cloth, and she told me that a unicorn had appeared and attacked Potter, drove him off with his horn, healed me, then left.
"Lily was astonished. I told her, "Selene protects Her own", and then we headed back to the castle. No one caught us sneaking back into our dormitories, though we learned later that your father was caught by Professor Cypher, because even an Invisibility Cloak cannot hide a blood trail. The unicorn, you see, had gored him quite neatly in his arrogant arse. He was in the Hospital Wing for a week, mending from it, because for some reason not all Pomfrey's potions or spells would heal fully. The wound, rumor had it, left a star-shaped scar upon his backside, and for awhile some Slytherins teased him about being "kissed" by a unicorn."
Harry snickered softly. "He deserved it. I wish a unicorn would have come and done that to Dudley. Although Hagrid did give him a pig's tail." Then he sobered. "I guess then Selene never heard what you asked for, did She?"
"No, Harry. She heard, but She answered it differently than I would have liked. She gave my mother an extra year with me before She called her to Her side. It was not what I would have wanted, but then you don't always get what you want."
"I know." He was quiet for a moment, thinking about Snape's tale, his brow furrowed.
"Any more questions, or shall we call it a night?"
"I . . .was wondering . . .if my dad was such an arse and all back then . . .how did he ever end up with my mum?"
"That, Harry, is a question I cannot answer. I have never been able to figure it out, except to think that perhaps your mother finally beat some sense into his fool head and he respected and loved her for it. I don't know. She married him soon after we finished school and had you nine months later. Hopefully Potter managed to do one thing right and make her happy. Perhaps you ought to write Black and ask him. Though I do know that you made her happy, and she loved you with all that she was, and so did your father." Snape rose, clearly the conversation was finished. "Enough questions for tonight. It's late, we're both tired. Drink your milk and go to sleep."
Harry did not argue. He picked up the potion-laced milk and sipped it. To his surprise, it was still warm. He drank it down and almost immediately fell asleep, the glass slipping from his fingers.
Severus caught it before it hit the floor, then removed Harry's glasses and tucked the covers about him. "Good night, child," he murmured before heading back down the stairs. Potter was probably turning in his grave to see who was raising his son now, he thought with a wicked smirk. Who says the gods don't have a sense of humor?
After the night they had both had, Severus and Harry slept in till ten o'clock the next morning, a rarity for both of them. After breakfast, Severus told Harry to finish his reading assignments in Herbology and Potions. Harry set to with a will, but after finishing his Potions assignment, he became distracted by the book Severus had given him about Selene. The Path of Mysteries was not at all the dry theological text he had expected. In fact, it was written as a kind of story and a guide all in one and it was compulsively readable. Harry tried to concentrate on his Herbology text, but he found the siren call of The Path of Mysteries hard to resist.
After about ten minutes of reading the properties of the bell-shaped flame flower twice because he wasn't paying attention, Harry set 1001 Plants for the Aspiring Herbologist aside and picked up The Path of Mysteries instead. Within moments he was immersed in reading about how Selene, sometimes called Isis, was trying to find all the scattered bits of her beloved husband Osiris, which Set, God of Destruction, had scattered all throughout the world and heaven in order to bring him back to life. He read about how after she had done so, they had a son called Horus, Bringer of the Sun, and he bore much of his mother's magic talent.
He read how Selene/Isis had taught magic to those of the human race who showed an aptitude for it, those who questioned and wondered and saw things beyond the ordinary. Those first wizards and witches became priestesses and priests of Her temples in Egypt, and later in Rome as well. When the Roman mages came to Britain fleeing the collapse of their Empire, Selene came with them, though some argued that She had been there already, known by other Names and Aspects, like Dia the Great Mother. At first, the Roman wizards built shrines to Her as they had always done, but some of the local tribes took offense at that and Selene then told Her worshippers—Build Me thus a temple in your heart, for I am everywhere, in all that there is, and as the moon watches, so then shall I. I need no fixture of marble to hear your prayers, the wind is My messenger, whisper My name and I shall hear, your thoughts and dreams fly swifter than falcons in flight to My ears. Make me a temple in your heart and there I shall dwell, so long as there is magic and love to sustain Me. Stone crumbles, memory fades, but I shall remain, eternal as the magic I wield.
He then read about how Selene had Blessed the animals, and for a few She had given special powers and longevity, and of these, Her favorite was far and away the unicorn, sacred and pure, with a horn that could heal wounds, cure poisons, purify anything, and remove magical curses. So much did the Goddess love Her unicorn, that when a unicorn departs the earth, She takes it into the Afterworld to dwell forever with her, and follow Her across the sky as She journeys each night. And that is why one of the most heinous crimes a wizard can commit is to slay a unicorn. The one who does such an unspeakable deed is forever cursed and Selene turns Her face from him forever, and he is Named Oathbreaker and sentenced to death, for the one who can slay innocence has no place at Her side.
Harry read those words and felt a chill shudder through him. Voldemort had slain a unicorn and drank its blood, becoming a sort of revenant, he recalled. He had seen that for himself that night in the Forbidden Forest. A part of him had been sickened and terrified by such a thing, and even now he still cringed and felt ill recalling it. Damned, Voldemort was damned. He remembered how it had looked, the fallen unicorn upon the forest floor, so still, all the magnificent life and strength sucked from it, the white coat dull and bloodstained, the pearlescent horn dimmed forever, the vibrant magical life shattered into pieces to feed a selfish wizard's need for immortality.
He would never forget it, and for weeks afterwards he had nightmares about it, though nobody ever knew that, because he had warded his bed with Silencing charms. Lately, he had been dreaming of Cedric and the dead unicorn, or he had until he had met the moon stallion in the meadow. Now his dreams were filled with the great horse who bore the goddess's Mark upon him, and who had saved his life.
Did She send him to me? Even though I'm not her disciple, Professor Snape says She Marked me as a baby. Does that mean I'm under Her protection? Like he was that night, or my mum?
Owls, falcons, and hawks were also sacred to Her, and also the snake, the horse, cat, and wolf. She loved all animals, but those were Her favorites, and She was often depicted with one or another of them about Her.
He read on, coming to about the middle of the book, when he heard a soft cough behind him.
Startled, he sat up on his bed, and saw Severus standing at the foot, a half-frown on his face. "Have you finished your schoolwork yet, Harry?"
Harry flushed. "I . . .not exactly. I read your assignment and some of Herbology, but then I . . .umm . . .got a bit distracted." He lowered Selene's book reluctantly and eyed his teacher warily. "Am I in trouble?"
"Not yet. I am happy you find The Path of Mysteries so intriguing, however . . .your schoolwork must come first. Do not roll your eyes at me, boy, I would be remiss in my duty as a professor if I did not point that out to you. Therefore, I expect you to have finished reading your Herbology chapter by suppertime."
Harry groaned. "Okay." He gave the Herbology text a disgusted look. "Pain in the arse!" he muttered under his breath.
"Excuse me?" Snape said in a deadly soft tone. "Would you care to repeat that, Mr. Potter?"
"Uh . . .I . . .didn't . . .I mean . . .no, sir. No, I wouldn't."
"I didn't think so. Simply because we are not in school doesn't mean you can disrespect me, young man. Swearing at me will earn you at the least time scrubbing toilets without magic, or else a spoonful of cod liver oil."
"Cod liver oil? What the heck is that?"
"Fish oil. An old remedy for colds and mouthy teenage brats. Harmless but tastes absolutely dreadful. I keep an extra large bottle in my desk at school for those students who think it acceptable to swear at me, aloud or under their breath. I have another here. Unless you wish to experience it, I suggest you mind your tongue." He fixed Harry with a hard gaze.
Harry dropped his eyes. "Sorry. I wasn't really talking about you . . .I was kind of talking about the assignment. . .Why do teachers give summer assignments anyhow? Isn't it a waste of time?"
"No. Summer assignments are meant to refresh your memory and keep it sharp, so you don't waste time at the beginning of term reviewing last year's work. It saves hours of classwork and enables us to get ahead on topics for the current term. So we don't have students with "I'm bored syndrome" cropping up everywhere. It also shows teachers who the real students are, and which ones are lazy, and which ones need help, and so forth."
"Oh." Put that way, Harry supposed it made sense. Too much sense. "I guess that makes sense."
"I'm so glad you approve," said the professor sarcastically. Then he softened slightly. "Regarding your other reading, is there anything you would like me to clarify for you? Anything that you don't understand?"
Harry considered. He had plenty of questions, but decided to start with the most recent one. "I was reading about how Selene grants some of her followers special powers, and I was wondering if you get to choose what you get? Or does She just award them to you? This guy—Libertus, I think his name was—he wrote that he called upon Selene and She granted him the shape of a winged falcon to escape his enemies, but then another person said that Selene gifted him with certain spells that helped him save his daughter. Why was it different for them?"
"Selene chooses to reward Her followers in different ways, Harry. One does not question how She chooses to help you, but just accept the help given. To some of her faithful She gives the forms of animals, and those forms mirror the inner spirit of the wizard or witch."
"You mean, it's like an Animagus form?"
"Yes, but those so chosen always bear the Mark of her favor, whatever form they become," Severus answered enigmatically. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell the boy that he was Moon Fire, but something made him hesitate. Wait. Now is not the time. Wait. Accustomed to following his inner voice, he bit back those words for now.
"And what about the spells? If you follow Her, do you get some kind of special magic?"
"Yes, sometimes. She is the Lady of Magic, and it was She who gave magic's gift to mankind. At first, women proved more receptive to the Gift and able to use it easier. Thus, Her first worshippers were women, but later, men mastered the Gift as well, and came to follow Her also."
"Why was it easier for women?"
"Some say because women are more open to the spiritual side of existence than men. They listen more to their inner voice. They are more contemplative, more prone to think before they act. Back then, men were very warlike, they hunted and fought to survive, and it took awhile for Selene's message to get through their thick skulls. Once Egypt became settled and civilized, it was easier for male magicians to accept magic's gift. The first Egyptian male magician was a scribe, working in the temple of Thoth. His name was Rahotep, and the first magical act he ever performed was to mend a priceless scroll some idiot noble's son had borrowed and spilled wine upon. Not such an earthshaking thing, you might think, but it preserved valuable knowledge, so it was greater than you might assume. For knowledge is power, Harry, and to a wizard there is no greater coin. It is no coincidence that the first line an initiate speaks when you pledge yourself to Her is "And I shall dedicate my gift and my knowledge of all things arcane and not to Your service . . ." he quoted softly. "Pity some of us have forgotten that, and think only about playing pranks and playing Quidditch."
"Just because I play Quidditch doesn't mean I'm a bad student . . .sir."
"Did I say you were? I was speaking generally, no need to get all ruffled, Potter. It was merely an observation, made by years of experience. I do not mind sports, in their turn, but I do mind when my students become obsessed over a silly broom game and start dodging class to practice. There is a reason why Quidditch is labeled an extracurricular activity. Meaning it should come after one's normal studies in importance. Any other questions you need answered right at the moment?"
"Uh . . .I just finished reading about how Selene's favorite animal is the unicorn and I was wondering why unicorns don't like boys and men?"
Severus chuckled wryly. "A common misconception. It's not that unicorns do not like human men, it's that they don't trust them. Unicorns will not mind a boy touching them, but once a boy becomes a man, and I mean that in the sense of losing one's virginity, not coming of age, then a unicorn usually will not trust you enough to come near. Why? Because men centuries ago hunted unicorns for their horns and hair, and killed them for sport. It is unknown exactly how many unicorns were hunted down and killed, only that they were near to extinction before Elizabeth I took the throne and forbid it."
"Was she one of us?"
"A witch? She had some power in her, gained from her mother's side. But she was a follower of the Lady, a secret follower, but Hers nonetheless. And under her reign the slaughter of unicorns stopped, and the kingdom flourished, and the Balance was restored. That was a good age to be born a wizard, Hogwarts was gaining precedence as a great school of wizardry, and witch hunts were down. Elizabeth was a good ruler, and she took as her royal symbol the unicorn, and that was no accident. In her own way, by claiming it, she showed her devotion to the Lady of Mysteries. Or so we Selenians believe."
"A slang term for those who follow the Moon Lady. As for the unicorns, count yourself lucky, Harry, that you were among them for so brief a time, it is something that very few wizards have ever experienced. Even Professor Dumbledore had never been graced so."
"Have you, sir?"
Slowly, Snape nodded. "But I am Her initiate, Harry, and as such, the unicorns do not mind my presence. That they accepted you, however, shows that you have an uncommon strength of character and goodness about you. It is a great honor."
Harry blushed, unaccustomed to the praise. He couldn't think of anything to say and so he said nothing, fixing his eyes upon his hands resting in his lap. "Oh. Well, umm . . .thanks for telling me and I guess I should get back to my Herbology."
"Yes. You have two hours till supper. I will call you when it's ready."
Then he left Harry to read about the delights of rootless magical plants and went back downstairs to start preparing supper.
After supper, much to his dismay, Professor Snape quizzed Harry on his reading that day. "Didn't you trust me to read it, sir?" he asked indignantly.
"Read it, yes, retain it, that's another story." Severus said bluntly. He then went over the parts Harry had trouble with and told him to read those sections again and then move on to Transfiguration and Charms tomorrow.
"Fine," Harry said, a bit sulkily, for usually he did his summer assignments on the train going to school and copied Hermione, he wasn't accustomed to being accountable to an adult for how well he learned them.
"Attitude, Mr. Potter," scolded the professor.
"You have a distinct whine in your voice that aggravates me."
"No, I don't!"
Severus crossed his arms over his chest and flashed his ward a warning look. "You most certainly do, and don't contradict me. This is your first warning. Lose the attitude or else you can go out with a bucket of whitewash and paint a fence till you remember your manners."
Harry threw up his hands dramatically. "I don't believe this! All I said was fine and you're chewing my arse out?"
Severus frowned. "It wasn't what you said, but how you said it."
Harry fumed silently. Really, now Snape was becoming impossible! "I'm going for a walk." He started to move towards the back entrance, deciding that he needed to leave before he said something really disrespectful.
Severus moved in front of him. "You don't leave this house without asking permission."
Harry stopped. "Okay! Can I go for a walk?"
"Respect, Mr. Potter. Otherwise you can take a walk out to the paddock with a paintbrush."
Harry gritted his teeth. "Can I go for a walk, sir?"
"You may. Be back at sundown and don't—"
"Go into Sherwood Forest, I know," Harry finished, rolling his eyes. Then he stalked towards the door and slammed it behind him. Honestly, sometimes Snape could be a real pain in the rear!
Suddenly, the back door opened and Severus strode out, his eyes blazing. How dare the little brat slam doors that way? The cheek! Well, he wasn't going to put up with that sort of thing. He was going to nip that insolent attitude in the bud right bloody now!
In three strides he had caught up to his ward and snapped, "Harry James Potter, you do not slam doors in my house! Stop right where you are."
Harry stopped dead as if commanded by an Imperius Curse. He hadn't heard that sort of tone from Severus in weeks, but it still had the power to freeze him in his tracks. He looked up at the professor through his fringe of untidy hair. His stomach took a nose dive towards his sneakers. Aww, hell, now I'm in for it. I shouldn't have done that. I really shouldn't have done that. "Sir?"
"Don't you "sir" me, and try and act all innocent!" snapped the other. "I warned you twice about the attitude. And don't bother trying to tell me you don't have one, because that's a lie. I refuse to tolerate your insolence any longer." He snapped his fingers and a can of very thin white paint appeared in his hand, along with an industrial-sized paintbrush. "March over there to the fence and start painting, Potter. We'll see if that will alter that impudent attitude of yours. Paint as far as the tree down there," he indicated the tree they had sat under for a discussion the other day. "You have two hours." He shoved the paint and brush at Harry. "Well? You going to stand here all night like an idiot or are you going to get started?"
Harry took the items and started to offer an apology, but Severus vanished before the words could cross his lips. He looked down at the whitewash and the fence unhappily. Good going, Harry. You handled that brilliantly!You know better than to mouth off like that. Lucky he wasn't Uncle Vernon, else you'd have some bruises to go with your smart attitude, his conscience rebuked.
He moved over to the fence, which gleamed alabaster in the setting sun, and dipped the brush into the paint can.
Two hours later, Harry was aching and sore, his back throbbed from bending over so much and his hand ached from holding the brush, which seemed to get heavier with each stroke of whitewash. He had just reached the tree and was now taking a bit of a breather. He was paint splattered and tired, no one had ever told him that painting a fence was such hard work, or that the bloody whitewash tended to run which meant you had to paint the same spot over twice.
But he had worked out his attitude on the inanimate fence and was now calm and ready to go back inside and apologize. He just hoped Severus had calmed down enough to accept it. He wiped a hand across his brow, wondering what had happened to the boy who used to live to annoy the hell out of his potions professor? A few months ago he would have been happy as a clam to give Snape lip and get him ticked, but now . . .now he felt guilty and ashamed. And the odd part was he had done it on reflex, without really thinking.
Next time he'd know better. He had pushed Severus too far and gotten his arse walloped, figuratively speaking. He stretched and groaned. Damn Snape for coming up with the most creatively painful ways to punish children! Where did he come up with them, anyhow? Did he ask Selene for advice? Harry's entire back and shoulders felt like someone had beaten him with bamboo rods. I'm never going to smart off to him again. I'd rather be scrubbing cauldrons or pickling rat spleens. Ooohh!
He examined the fence, decided it didn't look bad for a first time attempt and then he prayed Snape didn't expect a professional job or anything. He rolled his shoulders, wincing, and stuffed the brush back into the almost empty can of whitewash. At least the can was empty, so even if Snape wanted him to, Harry couldn't go back and paint over the fence again. Unless there was another can of the damn stuff somewhere, Harry thought with a shudder.
Oh please, Selene, let him not have another can stuffed away, I've learned my lesson this time. He went to wipe his hands off on his already paint wrecked jeans when he heard a familiar sound of hoofbeats.
He jerked up as if prodded by a red hot iron in the small of his back.
There, across the pasture, cantering easily, was the black stallion he had last seen at Hogwarts. The horse ran like a black flame, his long legged stride devouring the distance between them. Harry could only stand and watch as the horse thundered towards the fence, his mane whipping back across his massive shoulders, the crescent moon Mark gleaming brightly upon his brow.
Clods of dirt flew up from the stallion's hooves as he raced directly at the fence. He showed no sign of slowing down.
Paralyzed, Harry watched in horror as the big horse continued his suicidal charge at the white barrier. He held out his hands in a futile attempt to halt the horse. No, no, he's isn't going to stop, he's going to crash right into the damn fence, and there's not a damn thing I can do to stop him! He was afraid to shout, because that might startle the horse even more, but inside he was screaming, Stop, please, stop!
He shut his eyes, the horse was about five feet from the fence now, his eyes glittering and his breath coming in harsh snorts, his hooves pounding in a staccato rhythm. He waited for the sound of boards splintering, for the scream of agony as the stallion hit the fence and fell.
There was silence.
Cautiously, Harry opened his eyes.
The stallion was standing a foot from the fence, tossing his head, a mischievous glint in his dark eyes.
"Bloody hell! You trying to give me a heart attack here?"
He shook a finger at the stallion.
The horse snorted, then let out a piercing whistle.
Payback, Potter, for the many times you nearly gave me one.
"Hush! You want the professor to hear you? He's already in a snit 'cause of me, I don't think he'll take too well to a horse just appearing in the backyard, even if you are Marked by the Lady."
The stallion whickered and sniffed the freshly painted fence, snorted in disgust and backed off, tossing his head.
"Stay away from that, unless you want to have a white mark on your nose to go with the one on your forehead," Harry warned. "Took me two hours to paint the bloody thing and it really sucked."
The stallion eyed him and shook his head. Good. It's punishment, it's not meant to be fun.Though you look like you had a war with the whitewash, Potter.
"How did you get here anyway? Hogwarts is like . . .kilometers from here. What did you do, ride a moonbeam?"
Moon Fire let out a sharp whinny.
Harry could have sworn the horse was laughing.
"Okay, whatever. Guess it doesn't matter now. You're here. I missed you, you know." Harry said, speaking to the horse in a half-croon. "Sorry I don't have any treats for you, but I wasn't expecting you."
He held out his right hand, palm up.
Moon Fire approached the fence, leaned his head over, and blew softly into the wizard's palm. Then he shoved his nose into Harry's hand.
"Hey, that tickles," the boy giggled. The stallion stared right at him, and there was something in those eyes that seemed somehow more than any animal intelligence. "You're a magic horse. And I think you can understand everything I say to you."
Moon Fire bobbed his head. Yes, I can. Every word, youngling.So watch yourself.
Harry went on, talking softly to the stallion while gently stroking the satin cheek. He told Moon Fire all that had occurred, then he said how grateful he was to Snape for taking him in like this, but sometimes the man could really get on his nerves with his damn rules of deportment or whatever you called it.
And you do the same to me, boy, with your cheeky attitude. But then, it's the age. I was no different. In fact, I was probably worse. He playfully nibbled Harry's hair.
"Hey! Quit that, I just washed my hair." He swiped playfully at the stallion's nose, and Moon Fire danced away.
"Don't go! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," Harry called forlornly.
Moon Fire shook his head, pawed the ground, and then trotted about the paddock in a circle, his hooves hardly seeming to touch the ground at all. It's getting late. Time for you to come inside, so that we can have a talk.
The stallion's strides lengthened, until he was galloping, and then he raced down the paddock, leaped the fence with careless ease, and vanished into the forest.
Dejected, Harry watched him leave. He kicked the fence post and yelped as his toes throbbed. "Damn it! I don't know what the hell's wrong with me. Lately I just screw up everything."
He lingered for several more minutes, waiting to see if the stallion would come back, but the horse did not return.
He dragged his feet as he came up the porch steps, set the empty can and brush down, removed his shoes, and cast a Cleaning Charm on them. He left them soaking but free of paint, and went into the house in his socks.
He glanced about, but saw no sign of the professor in the kitchen or the den, though the fire was crackling merrily and there were lights on and a book lying on the small table next to a half drunk glass of what looked like butterbeer.
Maybe he went down to the lab, Harry thought and made his way silently upstairs to take a shower. I hope the professor knows a spell that takes paint out of clothes.
Twenty minutes later, after a lengthy scrubbing and soaking, Harry came downstairs in his blue pajamas and robe and slippers, he had a whole new wardrobe, since Severus had taken one look at his so-called summer clothes and declared them only fit for kindling. They had gone into town the second day Harry had arrived and Snape had bought him everything brand new, from the inside out, underwear, socks, jeans, shirts—everything. The pajamas he had on now were his favorite pair of the five he owned.
To his relief, he found his teacher downstairs on the couch, reading and sipping his butterbeer. He was also dressed in his night clothes, which were similar to Harry's.
"Sir? I've finished the fence," Harry said, somewhat diffidently.
Severus set down his book and looked over at the boy standing at the end of the couch. "I trust you've learned your lesson?"
"Yes, sir. I'm sorry I talked back to you before."
"Try not to let it happen again. Or else," Severus said, then he beckoned the boy over to him. "There's tea in the pot and some scones if you want them on the counter. Bring them in here and sit down. There's something I need to discuss with you."
What else did I do wrong? Harry wondered frantically as he made his way to the kitchen. He tried to come up with some rule he'd broken and failed. He quickly fixed himself some tea with lots of sugar and took a large cinnamon scone, freshly baked that morning.
Severus allowed Harry to eat, pleased at how the boy seemed to be gaining a healthy appetite now that he was away from Privet Drive.
Harry devoured the scone, nervous as he was, he had worked up an appetite painting. Then he drank his tea slowly, darting glances at the professor out of the corner of his eye. Snape didn't look angry. But that didn't mean anything. He'd seen the man go from inscrutable to furious in two seconds flat. Trying to delay the inevitable lecture he was sure he was about to receive, Harry said, "Professor, you know the horse that I told you about at school? The black stallion with the crescent on him that saved my life? Well, he . . .he came here tonight. He just came out of nowhere, I don't know how he ever found me, but one minute I was alone and the next minute he was running towards me. He's gone now, but I swear I really saw him! If you go and look, you'll see the hoofprints in the grass. I'm not lying."
"Harry, take a breath."
Harry quit talking. He waited for the lecture, but all the professor did was look at him rather oddly and then he said, "The stallion's name is Moon Fire."
"You . . .you know him? You've seen him before?"
"He doesn't belong to anyone, right? I mean he acts like he's wild."
"He is. He belongs to no one save himself and the Lady of Mysteries. And until you, he never let anyone ride him."
"I didn't really ride him, professor. More like just hung on. I was lucky he didn't buck me off."
"Never. Not running from Death Eaters. He is sworn to protect you."
Harry stared at him. "How do you know that, sir? Did Selene tell you?"
"She had no need to tell me anything about Moon Fire. I know him as well as I do myself. Because I am the black stallion you rode that night." Snape confessed.
"What?" Harry nearly fell off the couch. "You . . .the horse . . .You're an Animagus! Like my dad and Sirius."
Snape grimaced at being compared to the Marauders. "No. Not like them. Their forms came from a spell, mine was gifted to me by my goddess. She granted me Her favor when I was sixteen, and ever since I have been Moon Fire."
The green eyes were widened in astonishment. "All this time . . .it was you . . .that first night, that was how you knew about Hermione and I being outside . . .and after that . . ." He blushed and swallowed hard. He had told the stallion things about his home and himself that no one ever knew, and all the while he had been spilling his guts to Severus Snape. "You knew . . .you knew about the Dursleys. Why didn't you just report it to Dumbledore then?" Harry cried angrily. "Why bother going through all that trouble making me tell when you could have just said!"
"Because I could not have done so without revealing the truth to the Headmaster."
"What truth? That you're a sneaking spy?" he was too angry to care if his tone of voice was disrespectful now.
To his utter shock, the Potions Master smirked at him. "That is no secret to him, I have been his spy since I finished school. I told you once before that I have many secrets, and that not all could be shared. The fact that I am Moon Fire is one of them. No one knows of my other form."
"Not even my mother knew?"
Severus shook his head. "No. Only you."
"Why tell me?"
"Because you deserve to know that I wasn't using my stallion form to spy on you personally. I went for a run in the moonlight with the unicorns and returned to find you in my meadow sobbing your eyes out. What was I to do? I couldn't leave you alone, you were too vulnerable, so I stayed and watched. It was no coincidence we met then, Harry. Selene put you in my path for a reason."
"What reason? So you could listen to me make an ass of myself telling you stuff I'd never even tell my girlfriend?" He blushed, but calling Hermione his girlfriend, even if it wasn't official, was the truth.
Severus sighed. "Things aren't always what they seem. As a spy I am not free to reveal things, and doing so might have gotten me killed, since I often used my horse form to gather intelligence from the Death Eaters. I am an unregistered Animagus, and being so has kept me alive these past thirteen years, for there are Death Eaters and You-Know-Who sympathizers working in the Ministry and even I don't know all of them. I play a dangerous game, Harry, I pretend to be the Dark Lord's spy at Hogwarts and slip him false information about Dumbledore and his plans, I ape the perfect Death Eater, but one glance at my stallion form would destroy me, for all know Selenians are sworn to fight dark wizards. I bear the Mark, and I would not if I had repudiated Her. So no one must know that Severus Snape and Moon Fire are one and the same."
"So it's dangerous for me to know the truth too," Harry surmised, beginning to get over his shock and anger and starting to think. "Will you Obliviate me then?"
"If I had meant to do that, I would have kept silent. Like I said before, you deserve to know."
"You should have told me before!"
"Before what? Before we reached Privet Drive? Before I called the plagues down and had to monitor the curse? Or perhaps you meant during your detentions with me? Harry, you did not trust me then, and I needed to find out the truth about your relatives. If you had known I was Moon Fire, would you have spoken the way you did to me? No. You needed help, and that was the only way I could help you then. I had no time to try and coax you to reveal what was wrong slowly, term ended in a week's time and I knew only that whatever sort of home you had to return to scared the spit out of you. And there was only one reason I knew of why that would be. Because you were abused."
"But if you knew that . . .why did you make me admit it on the Knight Bus?"
"Because I didn't know all of it. You didn't tell me everything, and you needed to say it, to speak of it before it poisoned your soul. It was therapeutic for you. I am sorry I didn't tell you a few days before this, but something always seemed to get in the way, like your relatives dying. Or tonight, I had intended to tell you after supper, but you pulled an attitude with me and ended up making me punish you instead."
"You came to me as Moon Fire though."
"Yes. I often change forms and run if I can. It eases stress and makes me able to think clearly. The Lady chose well when She gave me that form. As Severus Snape, I am forced to live a life of secrets and lies, at least until He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is destroyed. But as Moon Fire I am free to go where I choose and I bow my head to no one." There was a proud glint in the other's eye, similar to one Harry had seen in the stallion's eyes.
"So . . .when you're Moon Fire, do you think more like a horse than a man?"
"It's complicated. I do retain my memories and knowledge that I am also a human named Severus Snape, but much of my reactions and emotions are that of a wild stallion. I can comprehend human speech with that part of me that is still human, but the stallion understands only tone and scent. As Moon Fire, I can also "speak" with other equines, or magical creatures like them—such as pegasi or unicorns. The crescent allows me to draw upon the moon's strength and also enables me to see in the dark. That was how I was able to navigate so swiftly the night the Death Eaters came for you."
Recalling that wild ride made Harry wince, but then he recalled how he had met the unicorns and that made all of it worth it. He also remembered how Moon Fire had played with the unicorn foals and he smiled. "You played with the foals."
"Yes. I often do, it's the only way to get any peace, to run the little pests into exhaustion."
"You know, you're a lot nicer when you're Moon Fire," Harry remarked slyly.
Severus turned and glared at him. "Me, nice? Bite your tongue! I am never nice."
"You rescued me from my awful relatives. What do you call that, if not nice?"
"Necessary," the professor replied. "I am sworn to protect you."
"Even if you weren't, you would have done it anyhow," Harry predicted, somehow knowing he was absolutely correct. "And that's mighty nice of you, Professor Snape."
"Humph! A spy cannot afford to be nice, Harry James Potter. Or else he gets himself killed."
"Moon Fire's not a spy," Harry pointed out. "And you've been nice to me since I came here, sir. Except when you made me whitewash that bloody fence. Then you were nasty."
"Oh, really? If you don't watch your language, you shall be seeing just how much nastier I can get."
"What? What'd I say?"
"I made you whitewash the bloody fence," Severus prompted.
"Oops. It sort of slipped out."
"Do it again and you'll be getting a reminder spoonful of cod liver oil."
Harry grimaced. "I like you better as a horse."
"Sometimes, so do I," admitted Severus, very quietly. The stallion was the heart of who he was, his soul given flesh, the truest essence of himself both magically and physically.
Harry was silent for a long time, mulling over what Snape had told him. He was still slightly resentful that Severus hadn't told him the truth of what he was from the beginning, but then again, this was Severus Snape he was talking about. The man was like one of those nesting boxes, just when you unlocked one, there was another one inside, and another and another, all surrounded with wards and locks like a fortress. Harry knew that Severus had learned how to guard himself that way when he was young, it was a legacy of abuse that Harry understood. He's never let anyone see him for what he truly is. Not even my mother. At least, not anyone mortal. I doubt you can keep secrets from a goddess. Until me. He still didn't understand that. Because you deserve to know was not enough for him. Could it be that Snape, who trusted almost no one, trusted him?
Harry recalled that feeling of oneness, that odd connection he'd felt when he had ridden the stallion. Had Moon Fire felt it too? Was that why he trusted Harry with his most guarded secret? Because they were both the moon goddess' Chosen?
He looked up at his professor, who was quietly watching him.
"I won't betray you, sir." For some reason he needed to say that. And Snape needed to hear it.
"I know." Still, the boy's words warmed him. "So, do you forgive my necessary deception?"
"Why did you tell me? Why do you care if I knew or not?" Harry countered his question with his own.
Severus sighed. "Stubborn boy. You wish to know the full reason? You are what I was a long time ago. Young, impressionable, and hurting. With the potential to be either a force for great good or great evil. I don't want you to become what I am—cynical, hard, alone. So I'm giving you a chance I never had, to have a mentor and to keep that damn innocence you've managed despite everything to preserve. I made a promise to your mother to protect you, but that wasn't why I told you about Moon Fire. It's because a relationship must be built upon truth, not lies. I want you to trust me to watch over you. To teach you what you need to know to survive that crazy beast who wants to kill you. And then you can live a normal life, or as normal as it ever gets for one of us."
"One of us? You mean a wizard? Or Selene's Chosen?"
"Both. Does that answer your question?"
"Yeah." He squared his shoulders and exhaled softly. Snape trusted him. He felt honored. At least someone did. "I am a little peeved at you for not telling me sooner, but . . .seeing as how Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon lied to me my whole life about who and what I really was, and I dealt with that, I can forgive you. I understand why. I've kept a few secrets myself."
Their eyes met in a shared moment of understanding. Nothing else needed to be said.
Severus broke the contact after a minute, because neither of them enjoyed baring their souls to each other so casually. "More tea?"
The teapot floated out of the kitchen and poured itself into Harry's cup. The milk pitcher came next, along with the sugar bowl. Harry watched as the spoon stirred in precisely three teaspoons of sugar and then stopped. "How did you know that?"
"Observation is a paramount ability for a spy. Watch and learn, Mr. Potter."
Harry took a sip of the tea. "Perfect."
"If you like drinking sugar," the Potions Master said with a grimace.
"So . . .what happens now?"
A wicked gleam lit the older wizard's eyes. "Now you will have another lesson to master over the summer besides wandless magic."
"What's that? Are you going to teach me how to become an Animagus too?" the boy asked eagerly.
Severus shook his head. "No. That is not my area of expertise. I was given the ability to shift forms, I did not learn a spell."
"Oh." Harry's face fell. "Then what is it?"
"It is a skill that once every wizard and witch mastered along with flying a broomstick. Riding a horse." He laughed at the boy's expression, which was somewhere between delight and horror. "It won't hurt. Much."
This one is just flying out of my head at warp speed or the equivalent thereof. I hope everyone is enjoying the wild ride along with Harry and Moon Fire.
Next: The bond between Harry and Severus deepens as Moon Fire teaches Harry to ride as only a horse can. Plus more lessons on wandless magic.