They arrived back at the Snape farmhouse just after midnight. Coming to a halt beside the paddock fence, Harry slid from Moon Fire's back and leaned against the great black stallion. Moon Fire swung his head about and gave him a gentle nuzzle, his breath warm and soft upon Harry's cheek.
Hermione slipped off of Amicus and winced, for she had never ridden so far so fast, and was sore. Amicus turned and tapped her gently with his horn and she felt the lingering soreness vanish. "Thank you," she whispered to the beautiful unicorn, her eyes filling with unexpected tears. Amicus nuzzled her affectionately, blowing into her hair.
Precious child, I wish I could stay longer. But my herd needs its leader and I have been away longer than I would have wished upon the Lady's business. He turned to whicker gently at Moon Fire, his brilliant white coat shimmering in the faint light of the moon. Forgive me, brother, but I must depart. I have miles to go before I get home. Fare ye all well, and may Selene watch over you! He dipped his head in respect, then reared, pawing the air. His horn trailed sparks as he spun about and galloped off into the forest, seeking paths known only to unicorns to speed his journey back to the Forbidden Forest.
"Oh! He's gone!" Hermione cried, a note of despair in her tone.
"He's gone home, I'd think," Harry said.
"Unicorns never stay long in the company of humans," Draco added, dismounting as well. "You're lucky, Granger, that you got to ride one for as long as you did. I can't even recall the last time anybody was granted that privilege."
She sniffled and wiped her eyes. "That's good, I guess. But I'm going to miss him." She felt sadness overwhelm her then, as she recalled just how much she had lost and would never get back again. She bit her lip hard to keep from breaking down. The unicorn's presence had made her feel peaceful and serene and had kept at bay her devastating grief. But now, with the stallion's absence, it all came crashing back.
Draco looked at his watch and sighed. "Look, I have to be going. It's after midnight and I'm sure Aunt 'Dromeda's worrying herself to death wondering what my father's doing to me. So I'd better get on home."
"You're going to go there by yourself?" Hermione asked.
"It's not far. I know the way and so does Jazzy." He stroked the white Arabian. "I'm glad Moon Fire's going to be okay now and . . .I owe you one, Potter, for coming when you did and helping me even the score with my father."
"Draco . . .there are no debts between friends," Harry reminded him.
"Maybe not . . .but still . . .I'll see you in school then."
"What will you do, now that your dad's disowned you?"
Draco shrugged. "I'll tell my mother and hopefully she'll use her head this time and walk out on him. She has property in France, her own property, and she could live there while I'm in school. I'm not quitting Hogwarts now to attend some bloody French academy," Draco said firmly. He held out a hand to Harry. "Take care, Harry. See you next term."
Harry clasped it in return. "See you around, Draco. Oh, and don't be a stranger. Stop by every once in awhile before school, if you'd like."
"I just might do that." The disgraced Malfoy said, a half-smile playing about his face. Then he turned to Hermione. "Granger, I'd never thought I'd say this, but you've got more guts and perseverance than almost any pureblood witch I know. You didn't break and betray us, not even when my Aunt Bella did her worst. And you got the best revenge upon her . . .a Slytherin's revenge." He moved to shake her hand too, but Hermione pulled him into a hug instead, shocking the blazes out of him.
"Uh . . ."
"Draco, you were wonderful too, the way you helped Moon Fire and me. You stood up to your father for me . . .I know what it must have cost you . . .and I'll always be grateful . . ." she burst into tears.
Draco coughed, now dreadfully uncomfortable. He had never had a girl cry all over him before and didn't know quite what to do. He patted her back awkwardly. "Hey, Granger . . .could you please stop . . .it was no big deal . . .My father and I have always been at odds, I just never had the guts to tell him what I thought before now . . .and I'm a sucker for horses, I can't stand when anyone mistreats them. I don't care much for torture either."
Harry felt a sudden spate of jealousy. He wanted to yank Hermione out of Draco's arms and push the blond boy into the mud for hugging his girlfriend. But he soon regained control over himself. Draco hadn't initiated the hug, after all. And he didn't look like he was enjoying holding Hermione either. In fact, he looked damn uncomfortable. Get a grip, Potter! One minute you're declaring Malfoy a friend and the next you want to punch his lights out. Would you do that to Ron, if he were in Malfoy's place? Hmmm . . .I might . . .if he acted like he enjoyed holding my girl. He smirked inwardly. He didn't know when he had become so possessive around Hermione, and he wondered what she would think of it. She would probably tell him she was nobody's prize to be won. Not that he thought of her like that . . .he just hated it when she cried, it tore him all up inside and made him feel horrible.
After a few more moments, Hermione mastered herself, and drew away from Draco. "Sorry. I don't know what came over me." She wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
"Don't mention it," Draco said awkwardly.
She shook her head. "Boys! Why are you all so afraid of a little salt water? I think you're a better man than your father, Draco. You just have trouble shedding that arrogant Malfoy pride."
Draco snorted. "Malfoy pride's what's kept me alive, Granger. But that's something we can talk about another time. I really do have to get going." He threw a leg over Jasmine and mounted. "Come on, Jazzy! Let's go home. Home, girl!"
The Arabian whistled a farewell and then she turned her head and galloped off across the lawn, heading for the road and home to her mistress.
Both Hermione and Harry watched until they could no longer see the white mare, then Hermione said, "I . . .need to go and get washed up and changed. I've been in these same clothes for a week . . .ugh!" She quickly departed for the house.
Harry turned back to Moon Fire. "Sir . . .are you . . ."
The stallion shimmered and became Severus in an eyeblink. The newly restored Potions Master set his lean hands upon Harry's shoulders and murmured, "Have no fear, child. I am myself again. Thanks to you."
Harry felt a strong desire to cling to the older wizard and dissolve into tears. But he resisted the urge, he was no coward, to cry now when they were all home safe. "Love is memory, sir. So She told me."
"It is indeed. In Her embrace we are comforted, in Her love we are reborn." He drew the boy he had come to regard as a son into his arms for a brief moment. He was extremely grateful to have his mind restored and be able to change back into his human form. "I am whole once more, Harry. And we must inform the others of the Order of the Phoenix about Riddle Manor. But we can do that tomorrow. For now, we ought to go inside. We could both use a shower and a hot meal. How much does Miss Granger know?"
"About you? All of it, sir." Harry admitted, staring up into his mentor's dark eyes. "I . . .I needed help once you lost your memory, and so I . . .told her the truth. I'm sorry, I broke your trust, but I had to . . .please, don't hate me . . ."
"Hate you?" Severus repeated, incredulous. "Will you quit babbling nonsense, boy?" He gave the youngster a slight shake. "Why would I hate you for doing what you had to in order to save me? Do I look like a fool to you, Harry James Potter?"
"No . . .never . . .but I know you didn't want anybody to know about your Animagus form . . ."
"You broke your word from necessity, not deceit, Harry. I can forgive that. Besides, I have a funny feeling that if you did not tell Miss Granger the truth ere now, she would have discovered it on her own. She is a very bright witch who dislikes mysteries." He started to walk towards the house, gently shepherding Harry before him. "Just so long as that secret remains between the two of you," Severus added after a moment. "I take it Draco does not know?"
Harry shook his head. "No, sir. I didn't really trust him at first. I do now, but . . .I figured if you wanted him to know, you'd tell him yourself."
"A wise decision, Harry. The one who divulges a secret ought to be the one who made it in the first place."
They entered the house, and Harry found Hermione in the kitchen, cooking some kind of chicken with vegetables in a skillet. "Mmm . . .that smells delicious, Hermione," he said, sniffing the heady aroma of savory chicken in sesame teriyaki sauce.
"I must agree with my ward, Miss Granger."
Hermione spun around, still holding a wooden spoon. "Professor Snape! You've returned."
Severus nodded gravely. "In all ways. Though I must say I'm surprised that you've made yourself at home in my kitchen."
Hermione colored. "Oh . . .well, you see, sir, I've been cooking for Harry and myself, err . . .since your accident . . .I apologize if I seem too forward . . .but I figured we could all use a hot meal after that ride so—"
Severus held up a hand. "Hermione Granger, will you allow me a word in edgewise?"
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir . . ."
"First off, I am not angry at you cooking in here, since, as you say, you have been doing so for the better part of a month. In fact, I am glad that you have chosen to cook tonight, for I am not up to creating much of a meal in my current state. Continue as you are, Miss Granger. Harry and I need to wash before we are fit to eat in a civilized manner. Will your meal be ready in twenty minutes or more?"
"Oh, yes, professor. It should be done in about thirty."
"Good. If you will excuse me . . ." Snape turned and headed down the hall to his room.
Harry flashed Hermione a wicked smile. "See, he's not always a nasty git," he said, keeping his voice very low.
"I heard that, Mr. Potter!" came a silky voice from down the hall. "Don't make me get out a certain brown bottle."
"I meant it as a compliment!" Harry protested.
"What bottle?" Hermione asked, her eyes alight with curiosity.
"The bottle of cod-liver oil," Harry told her, grimacing. "He made me eat it once when I . . .err . . .got cheeky and swore at him."
"Yuck! Did it taste disgusting?"
"Totally. Be right back, 'Mione." Harry sprinted up the stairs to the loft bathroom.
Twenty minutes later, Harry and Severus returned to the kitchen, presentable members of the human race once more. Hermione had set out three plates and silverware, plus a pitcher of water with lemon slices, it was refreshing and a good compliment to her chicken teriyaki and rice.
The three ate in relative silence, giving all their attention to the excellent meal. Afterwards, Harry demonstrated his command of wandless magic and washed the dishes. Hermione's eyebrows rose and she said, "When did you learn wandless magic, Harry?"
"This summer. Professor Snape taught me. So far I can only do minor charms though."
"I shall set you a harder charm to learn, Harry. And if you would like to learn as well, Miss Granger, I shall teach you."
"Oh, would you, professor?" Hermione cried. She looked as though she wanted to kiss him. "That would be so awesome! I've always wanted to learn wandless magic. How do you perform it? Do you simply focus on the incantation in your head and will it to happen?"
"That is essentially correct. However, you also need to summon a portion of your magic and keep it ready," Severus explained. "I shall go over it in more detail tomorrow, right now we are none of us alert enough to study wandless magic."
Hermione looked disappointed, but then she recalled just what Moon Fire had endured and how he had carried Harry all the way from Riddle Manor through Sherwood. "You're right, sir. Tomorrow is fine."
"Might I suggest we retire to the den? There are a few things I need to discuss with you. Would either of you care to join me for a cup of tea?"
"And oatmeal biscuits?" Harry hinted.
"If you would like." Severus waved a hand and the tea kettle began to boil on the stove. A tray arranged itself with cups, spoons, sugar, cream, and the promised oatmeal raisin biscuits. "Come. The tray and tea will bring itself to us when all is ready."
They headed into the den, where Severus seated himself on the couch, the two students one on either side. "Now then. I need to know if anyone hexed you or harmed you in any way while I was . . .Moon Fire. Harry?"
"No, sir. The Death Eaters didn't even know I was there. I Stunned Lucius Malfoy from behind." Harry said. He then related what he and Draco had done to the supercilious aristocrat.
Snape's mouth twitched into a smirk. "How very Slytherin of you, Harry!"
"Harry, you didn't! That was so wicked of you!" Hermione said. Then she doubled over laughing. "But oh, so fitting! Like what I did to Bellatrix. It's the perfect revenge!"
"Miss Granger, from your words I may assume that you had dealings with Bellatrix LeStrange? Did she hex you?"
Slowly, Hermione nodded. "Yes. She . . .she tried to make me tell her things, only I wouldn't . . .at first she used this long needle . . .she would stick me with it . . .it was like an acupuncture needle, only she used it to hurt me . . .she hurt me so bad, professor . . ." A shudder rippled through her. "I tried . . .I tried to be brave . . .but sometimes I couldn't help screaming . . ." She shut her eyes, tears running down her face.
"Child, you were tortured. You should not expect yourself to endure what many a grown witch or wizard could not," Severus said, very gently. "That you managed to defy her at all speaks very highly of your courage and honor. Did she do anything else?"
"Sometimes she used other hexes . . .she liked it when I was in pain, she made me call her Mistress Bella and said that a Mudblood was nothing but a dirty rag to wipe her feet on . . .But I'm not, sir! I'm nobody's slave! Nobody's!" she cried passionately. Then all at once her defenses crumbled and she started weeping, harsh sobs that shook her small frame. "She k-killed my mum and dad! She k-killed them!"
She turned and buried her head in Snape's shoulder.
He drew her to him, holding her on his lap much as he had done Harry on the Knight Bus. "I know, child. I am sorry I could not get there in time to save them as well."
"I t-tried too, sir . . .but I failed . . .I failed . . ." she sobbed raggedly into his shirt.
"No, little sorceress. You were up against evil incarnate, had you fought, you too would have been slain. What you did was even braver. You survived. It is what they would have wanted, so do not feel guilty, Hermione."
He patted her back, rubbing circles over and over.
"I can't help it . . .!"
"Shhh. Lady Bright, guilt serves no purpose save to make you miserable. Your parents would not want that. They would wish most of all for you to live a meaningful life, not wallow in guilt and self-loathing."
"How do you know that?" she gulped, sniffling.
"Because it is how I would feel, were I to sacrifice myself for Harry," replied the Potions Master honestly. "Guilt will tear you apart eventually, Miss Granger. Take it from one who knows. Do not waste the gift your parents gave you, but honor them by living your life the best way you know how. What happened was a terrible tragedy, but you need to mourn and then move on. Doing anything else would be dishonoring their memory."
"I . . .will try . . ."
"Good. Here. I am not a handkerchief," Severus removed another of his seemingly innumerable stock of handkerchiefs from his pocket.
Hermione accepted it, and blew her nose. "Sorry, sir."
"For what? You have nothing to apologize for. It is natural to grieve for the loss of one's parents." Severus said gruffly.
"Does it ever . . .go away? Or will I always feel . . .this great hole inside?"
"It lessens with time. You will always remember and a part of you will always long for them, but the pain does fade, little by little. Selene in Her mercy does not make us suffer forever."
"That's what I read, sir. In The Path of Mysteries."
Severus raised an eyebrow. "You are a Selenian too, Miss Granger?"
Before Hermione could reply, Harry interrupted. "I was the one who gave her The Path of Mysteries to read, professor. I thought it might help when she first came here. Was I wrong to do that?"
Snape shook his head. "No. Comfort is never wrong. Only . . .I am surprised that you accepted the tenets of the Moon Lady so readily, considering how you were raised, Miss Granger."
"My parents taught me that people should be allowed to worship as they pleased, and we were never very rigid Anglicans, sir. When I read Her book, there was something . . .something that called to me . . .I can't explain it . . .but it made me feel welcome, like I belonged. And She is the Goddess of Magic, so it makes more sense that I worship Her, since my whole life is bound around magic. And She's come to me . . .several times . . .especially when Bellatrix was . . .hurting me. She held me somehow and told me not to cry, that She was with me always . . ."
"So She is. In the darkest of places, Her light shines the brightest, and hope defeats despair and good triumphs over evil." Severus quoted softly. He eyed Hermione consideringly, with one of his piercing eagle-eyed looks. "So. Yet another Chosen. It is no accident then. She sent me to you."
"Sent you to rescue me?"
"Yes. Our paths crossed for a reason."
The tea tray came floating in and Severus served them each a cup and some biscuits. They ate and drank quietly, letting the peaceful aura the house possessed to soothe their weary spirits.
Hermione gulped back more tears. She would not gain any points by bawling all over Severus continually. She blotted her eyes with the handkerchief. "Then you don't mind if I stay here, sir? I don't have any relatives alive who could take me in."
"Which makes you a Ministry ward, Miss Granger. Not a very good thing to be." Snape's lips pursed. "You may stay, the Lady sent you to me, and I am not fool enough to refuse Her. You may have a home here for as long as you desire."
"You'll let me stay?"
"Did I not just say so?"
"Thanks, Professor Snape!" she squealed and hugged him once more.
"Ahem! Do try and let me breathe once in awhile," Severus scolded.
"Ooops! Sorry!" She loosened her grip and sat back on the couch.
Severus rolled his eyes. Adolescent girls! Always so touchy feely.
"Could we . . .go back to my house, do you think?"
"Was there something you wanted from there?"
"Just some pictures of them and a few of my clothes and things. You do think they're still there, right?"
"They may or may not be. It depends upon who was in charge of the investigation, if they had time to call in someone to go through their things. We can take a look tomorrow. Right now you're exhausted and need sleep."
He turned to his ward and found Harry in mid-yawn. "And so do you."
Harry made an unintelligible noise.
"You may sleep down here on the sofa for tonight, Hermione." Snape told her. "I shall go over rules and chores tomorrow. In the meantime, sleep well, and may Selene bring you pleasant dreams."
"You too, professor. G'night, Harry. Or rather, good morning."
Harry was halfway into the realm of dreams by then, and hardly heard her. Severus sighed and scooped the boy up in his arms. He then headed up the stairs to the loft. "Honestly, you are getting too big to be carried like this, Potter. I may develop a hernia carting you up these stairs."
Hermione smiled at the professor's familiar grumbling and then she closed her eyes and slept.
Severus banished Harry's clothing after setting him down on the bed and spelled on new pajamas. He carefully tucked the blankets round the boy and whispered, "I love you, son. Sleep well."
He was unsure if Harry had heard, but then he saw the boy smiling in his sleep and knew somehow that Harry had heard him. He returned to his own room and undressed. His last coherent thought was that he needed to initiate them into the Mysteries as soon as possible. Nothing else would protect them half as well, not even himself.
He drifted into slumber.
Around two hours later, Harry was awakened by someone yelling. He bolted up from his bed and looked around. The first hint of dawn tinted the night sky and for an instant he was unsure if he had actually heard a voice yelling or if had been a dream. But then he heard it again.
Severus! He needs me!
Harry threw off his covers, ignoring the chill upon his bare toes, and raced down the stairs.
Hermione was still asleep, making Harry wonder if Severus had slipped a Calming Draught into her tea earlier.
He passed into the kitchen and then headed down the back hall to Severus' room. He knocked tentatively and when there came no response, called softly, "Professor? Are you all right?"
Still no answer except another groan.
Harry pushed the door open then and entered the bedroom. Severus was moaning and thrashing about, obviously in the throes of some ungodly nightmare. "Sir? Professor, wake up. It's only a nightmare."
But Snape continued to dream and flinch every so often, his face a grimace of pain. Harry could guess what he was dreaming about. His abuse at the hands of Wormtail.
Harry carefully put a hand upon his guardian's shoulder and shook it while saying almost in the same breath, "Professor, please wake up! You're home now and safe. Please, sir!"
Severus woke abruptly, his eyes wide and alert, his wand in his hand. He nearly hexed Harry before he could stop himself. "Selene's Grace! I almost roasted you!"
"I had to wake you. You were yelling kinda loud."
"I woke you?"
Harry nodded. "Not Hermione though. Are you allright?"
Severus considered. "I will be soon." He shivered recalling the awful dream he had had about that sadistic deceased Wormtail, beating him with a blacksnake whip while he was held helpless.
"Do you want some warm milk and honey with Dreamless Sleep?"
"Taking over my role now?" his guardian asked, deadpan.
"What? No, I could never do that, sir!"
"Harry, I'm only teasing. I thought you would have learned to read me by now."
"Right," he flushed. "Be right back with the potion and milk." He hurried off to the kitchen to prepare it.
Severus lay back upon his pillows, a little chagrined at having a nightmare and having to be comforted by his own ward. At the same time he was also touched that his ward cared that much for him.
Harry returned with the milk and honey and gave them to his guardian.
Severus swallowed all of it at once and then he settled himself back down. Dreamless Sleep worked quickly. Just before the potion induced sleep dragged him down, he said, "Thank you, Harry."
"You're welcome. May the Bright One guard your dreams."
Then he turned and retreated up to his loft. As he settled down beneath the sheets, he thought about how far they had come since that day on the Knight Bus. The bond that had formed then was now even stronger, thanks to hardship shared and a sincere love for each other, the love of a father and son.
Sorry for the delay but I was writing Return to Prince Manor and Irresistible Chemistry. Thanks for being so patient.