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Chapter Twenty: Christmas Cracker

Hermione and Ron stared at him for long moments, before Ron said, quickly, "Open it."

Harry tore open the envelope, his heart started to speed up. This was it. He didn't know how helpful Bill's reply would be, but it would certainly at least shed a little light on the reason Khepri plagued Harry's life.

"Read it out," said Hermione, tensely.

Harry nodded. His finger's shook ever so slightly, as he unfolded the letter, and read. "Dear Harry. Thanks for your letter; I was sort of expecting it. I guess this has come up on your History of Magic NEWT work - Ron wrote to me a few days ago about his own project. I've never heard of Khepri beasts turning up on NEWT papers before, but I hope I'll be helpful. Khepri beasts (which are technically beings, but are referred to as beasts) were from ancient Egypt, and are incredibly rare. They're immortal, but only a few were ever created, for a specific job. You probably know about pyramids being tombs for the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, and that the wizards put curses in the pyramids to stop muggle raiders. It was a good strategy, but at that time, wizards and muggles lived in close harmony, and the muggles soon found out about these curses. The Egyptian wizards realized they would have to put something else in the tombs to guard the king and his treasure in the afterlife. Have you heard of Egyptian ankhs? They look like a cross, but with a loop instead of the top spike. Muggle history talks about them too, as a symbol of life and death, but the wizarding ankhs had a far greater power. Each different ankh has a different way of protecting its owner. Some of them are like good luck charms, others are amulets, some give special powers, and so forth. Magical ankhs were sealed in the tombs with the Egyptian kings, to protect them in the afterlife, but with the ankhs came their guardians - the Khepri beasts. The current theory is that when the first ankhs were made, the Khepri beasts simply appeared. Each ankh has two Khepri beasts guarding it. The Khepri beasts are incredibly magical and mysterious creatures, and not much is known about them, except that they are generally helpful. If an ankh is in danger of being used by somebody for evil or bad things, the two Khepri beasts split up. One goes with the person searching for the ankh, and guides them towards it. The other goes to that person's greatest enemy, to appeal for their help in stopping the ankh being found and used. I hope all this has been helpful, Harry. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! From Bill."

Silence hung in the common room like a cloud of poisonous gas for a moment or two. Harry glanced up from the letter, and saw Ron and Hermione both watching him tensely.

"So Voldemort's looking for Khepri's ankh," said Ron, slowly.

"I think so," said Harry. He bit his lip. "And there's another Khepri beast trying to help Voldemort find it. And when he finds it, he'll have control of whatever power that ankh has. But the ankhs all have different powers. Voldemort must be looking for one specific ankh."

"Wait," said Hermione. "All this started around the time they found that new tomb in Egypt, didn't it? The one that Rookwood robbed."

"But Rookwood can't have found anything," said Harry. "Or Voldemort wouldn't still be looking. So somebody else got there before Voldemort, and has got the ankh already. But who is it? And what's the ankh going to do if Voldemort finds it?"

"We've got to find out..." Hermione held out her hands, counting things on her fingers, and talking quickly. "What sort of ankh it is, who went into that tomb and in what order, and where all the artefacts from it went. If the ankh actually was among the items that Rookwood took, then it might actually be in Voldemort's collection now, but he just doesn't know it. Or he might have left it... it could be hidden in the tomb, for example. It might still be there, or the ministry might have found it."

"Or..." Ron looked up at them both, raising an eyebrow. "Imagine this. What if a muggle somewhere has it? What if a muggle tomb raider actually beat Rookwood there, and took the ankh? It could be anywhere, in the whole world. In a box in somebody's attic or something. Or it could be out in the desert, buried under loads of sand."

"I've got an idea," said Hermione, quickly. "All we need is an expert on Egyptian pharaohs and their tombs. Somebody who probably knows absolutely everything about every single one of them. Somebody who does nothing else in their entire existence but write notes about this sort of thing."

"Oh no," said Ron. "You're not suggesting that we actually give up our free time, over Christmas as well, to go and talk to - "

"Professor Binns...?"

Harry poked his head around the door of the staff room. There was nobody in there. The whole of Hogwarts was always eerily quiet on the morning when the students all went home for Christmas, and normally, the teachers could all be found in the staff room enjoying early glasses of Christmas tipple. Today, however, it was empty.

Harry sighed, and shut the door. "It's no use. He's not in there, and we've already checked his classroom. Where else will he be?"

"Library?" suggested Ron.

Harry shook his head. "He doesn't normally spend time in there... maybe we should go back and check his room again...?"

"Oh, but it's the holidays," said Ron, sadly. "Come on, nearly everybody else has gone home. Can't we go and roast marshmallows in the Great Hall, or play chess or something?" Hermione gave Ron a stern look, and he said, quickly, "I'm not complaining or anything, but this is really boring."

"Can I help you with something...?" said a dry, wheezy voice from the corridor to their left. They all spun around quickly. Professor Binns floated there, holding a gigantic book in his arms, looking startled to see students.

"Professor! We need your help with something," said Harry, hurrying over. "We've got a question about the Egyptians for you."

"The Egyptians, Patterson...?"

"Yes sir," said Harry. "Do you know anything about that tomb that was discovered, during the holidays?"

Professor Binns blinked down at them, looking rather taken-aback at being spoken to at all. "Why... yes, I do... they managed to work out who it was buried there, I believe..."

"Who?" asked Harry, hurriedly.

Professor Binns's wrinkly face crinkled up, as he struggled to remember, completely oblivious to the fact his book was sinking through his stomach. "Normally, it would be a pharaoh buried within the pyramids, though this was an odd exception... a very wise and powerful sorceress, by the name of Jendayi... we believe she discovered most of the ancient Egyptian curses, and for her success, she was buried as a king would be..." He blinked. "Why do you ask...?"

"This Jendayi," said Ron, casually. "You don't know if she was buried with any ankhs at all, do you?"

"I believe so, Webster..." Professor Binns looked thoughtful once more. "Yes, she was... a very powerful ankh, I believe, called the Shani Theoris. I can't remember off the top of my head what this ankh was given the power of... perhaps the library will be able to assist you further..."

"So it's called the Shani Theoris," said Hermione, who had taken out a notepad, and was writing down most of what Professor Binns said. He looked startled that even out of the classroom, people took down his every word. "And it belonged to a sorceress called Jendayi?"

"Yes, that's right, Miss Grey..." said Professor Binns, slowly. "Now... if you'll excuse me, I have more notes to make for my nest class..." He turned to glide through the doors of the staff room, and there was a loud clunk as the book floating in his stomach hit the door. "Oh dear... could one of you kindly go and ask Mr Filch to come and assist me...?"

"Filch left," said Ron. "About... two years ago. They found out he was a Death Eater, and he got put in Azkaban."

"Goodness... I really must keep up with the times," said Professor Binns, his voice muffled through the door. "History does take over one's life sometimes..."

He was right. Harry spent nearly every waking moment of the next few days sitting in the library, ploughing through the index pages of countless books, looking for anything about ankhs or Egyptian witches. Hermione was going through about three books a minute, and even tried to read some that were written in Ancient Runes or Hieroglyphs, normally without much success.

Finally, Christmas Eve came, and Harry was still perusing the shelves of the history section, taking anything that caught his eye. He could hear Hermione moving around in the restricted section - as Head Girl, she could go in there whenever she wanted. Most of their important information came from there, and they had found about eight books that actually mentioned Jendayi the sorceress, and her many achievements. None, however, had any information about the Shani Theoris, and what its power was. Another problem that refused to leave Harry's memory for one moment was the mystery of where Khepri's ankh was. If it was lying out there in the Egyptian deserts, buried under thousands of years' worth of sand, what chance did they have of finding it before Voldemort? Harry wasn't yet prepared to devote his life to sitting in a desert with a shovel and a metal detector, and neither was Hermione.

"The chances are that either Rookwood has it, or it's still there," she had said, briskly, loading more and more books into Harry's arms. "I've written to Bill, asking him to just have a really good look around, but not tell anybody what he's doing. We don't want Voldemort to realise you're searching for the ankh too, Harry."

"But what if somebody else has it?" Harry had argued. "What if it's sitting in a museum somewhere, that's next on Voldemort's target list? He'll find it, and use it, and I'm done for!"

"We don't even know what it does though," Ron had said, bracingly. "It might be something really sad, like turn your hair pink or make you grow an extra foot. Do we even know that Voldemort knows what it does? And is he even planning to use it on Harry? Maybe it's just an ankh that will give him ultimate power. If it is, then it's not really Harry's duty to stop him, is it?"

Harry replayed this conversation in his head, as he continued to search through the shelf of books before him. The door opened across the library. Harry glanced through a gap in the row of books, and saw Madam Ivy sweeping in. She sat down in her usual chair by the fire, slid her glasses on over her eyes, and started to read. She'd been wearing them more often lately, so she permanently looked like a cross between Madam Pince, Professor McGonagall, and some exotic bird.

"Harry?" Hermione was hurrying down the aisle of books towards him, cradling about six thick books in her arms. "It's about an hour until lock-out time. I think we should start carrying as many books as we can up to Gryffindor Tower."

Harry nodded, and took some of the books off her. "Okay. I'll carry these up, you keep looking." He left the library, avoiding Madam Ivy's gaze as he passed. She had a way of making him feel strangely paranoid, without even saying a word to him.

He dropped the books off at Gryffindor Tower, and when he got back to the library, Madam Ivy was still curled in her armchair. She glanced up at him as he passed. "Ah, Mr Potter. I was meaning to have a word with you."

"Yes, Madam?" he said, turning to look at her, and hoping he wasn't in trouble.

She gestured to the armchair opposite her. "Sit, please."

Harry sat. Madam Ivy put away her book. Harry glanced over her shoulder, and saw Ron standing in one of the aisles of books, watching closely. He locked eyes with Ron, but Madam Ivy then spoke, and drew his attention like a moth to a flame.

"Now then... Mr Potter... Harry." She arched one slim eyebrow, just a fraction. "I can't help but notice your... involvement with the current situation at Hogwarts."

Harry stared at her. "Um... I don't understand..."

"Vampires, Harry. Vampires." Another arch of her eyebrow. She was even better with her piercing stares than Dumbledore. "You've been involved in all three attacks so far, have you not?"

"Well... I wouldn't say involved, but I - "

"You wouldn't? What would you say it is?"

Harry thought about this. Madam Ivy's stare was starting to make him feel incredibly uncomfortable. "I've... been present."

"Been involved," said Madam Ivy, sleekly. "I also can't help but notice the... ah... night-time strolls you take to Professor Snape's office, regularly."

"That's my remedial Potions," said Harry. "You can ask Dumbledore about that, Madam."

"Mm," she said, simply, eyeing him closely. "Are you sure it's just that?"

"Yes," said Harry. He didn't bother to hide the cold tones in his voice. "The headmaster can tell you it's true, and - "

"No, Dumbledore isn't involved," said Madam Ivy quietly. "We both know that, Harry. In my work, and your work."

"Sorry," said Harry, frowning, "but I don't understand exactly what you're trying to say."

Madam Ivy sat forward in her chair, steepled his fingers, and peered at Harry over the rim of her rectangular glasses. She smiled, ever so slightly. "I'm here for more reason than to be back-up to a werewolf in a jinxed job. The ministry need proof, and I'm going to get it. All I need you to do is to consider whether you want to be an ally to me, Harry, or an enemy."

"Proof of what?" said Harry.

She smiled again. "Proof of guilt." Her voice lowered even more, to less than a whisper, and she spoke with a horrible sort of hunger in her face. "Professor Snape has never left the doubt of the ministry, Harry... Dumbledore protests his innocence, and gives no reason for doing so. We know that something is going on in this school, and that Professor Snape is... hm... a weak link in the chain of the ministry. The minister knows deep down that Snape and whatever he is planning will eventually be the biggest mistake in the fight against the Dark Lord."

"You're wrong," hissed Harry. "He's changed sides. Why shouldn't you believe it?"

Madam Ivy smiled, almost kindly. Harry knew now that she wasn't like Umbridge. Umbridge was sickeningly sweet, almost mocking, but Madam Ivy had a sinister side that Umbridge could never manage. "A vampire, an ex-Death Eater, a master of the Dark Arts..."

"You trusted Lucius Malfoy," snarled Harry. "And he was still evil. Why not Professor Snape?"

"I won't argue with you, Harry," Madam Ivy murmured. "I just want you to know that the ministry needs information, and will reward greatly for any given... it will all be confidential, if you want to just tell me in private. Your name will never be mentioned."

"So you're trying to dig up dirt on Snape," said Harry, angrily. "Trying to get students to give you information, is that it...?"

"Shhh... it's more than that... it's for a good cause. And..." Madam Ivy smiled again, and cast her eyes downwards. "How about a full range of Outstandings in your NEWTs, Harry? I've heard you want to be an auror... how about an instant acceptance into the academy? Or instant employment? No tests, no exams, no studying. The school records say you live in a run-down, broken house. How about a new one, all ready for when you leave school? Anywhere in the world that you want. Or is it gold? How about if I promised you that the next time you check your Gringotts bank account, it will be full...?"

"I don't take bribes," said Harry coldly. "There's nothing I can tell you anyway. He's on our side, and you might not believe it, but it's true."

Madam Ivy reached down, and took a slim black book from out of her bag. When she let it fall open, Harry realised it was the marks for their Defence Against the Dark Arts work so far that year. He found his own name, and a string of constant Os next to it. Ivy was smiling at him, as she drew a pencil from her bag, and let the tip drift to his final mark. He watched, with a cold feeling of dread, as she gently etched in the outline of a T.

"Not permanent yet," she whispered. "But it might be, Harry, if you don't make the right decision..."

"I'm going to Dumbledore," said Harry. He made to stand up, but she grabbed his arm and pulled him down.

"But think..." she muttered. "If you go to Dumbledore, I go to Fudge. Dumbledore is sacked the next day, and a new Headmaster is brought in. Maybe a whole new staff. And all your marks will plummet. Is that what you want, Harry...?"

She closed her mark book, slid it into her bag, and stood up slowly. She smiled at him, one last time.

"Think about it," she said, slyly, before she turned and left.

Harry sat frozen in his chair, staring after her, wondering what on earth he was going to do. Ron appeared in front of him. "Harry...? What was that about? I couldn't hear what she was saying."

Harry looked up at him. He thought of Mr Weasley. Could he possibly intervene in all this?

"I...." said Harry. "I'm being black-mailed. By Madam Ivy."

"What does she want you to do?" said Ron, looking horrified.

"Come on," said Harry. "Let's get back to Gryffindor Tower. I'll explain on the way."

"I think you should go to Dumbledore," said Ron, half an hour later, as he, Harry and Hermione all sat in the Gryffindor common room. "If the ministry have actually put somebody into the school to check up on Snape, Dumbledore deserves to know about it. And if Ivy's black-mailing Harry into ratting on Snape - "

"No," said Harry, sadly. "I can't. She says she'll go to Fudge, get all the Hogwarts staff fired, and bring in new ones that will make me fail my NEWTs. She's already put a T for my final mark in Defence Against the Dark Arts."

Hermione gasped. "She hasn't! Oh, Harry, you've got to tell somebody! This is your whole future, she can't do this to you!"

"Go to the Daily Prophet," suggested Ron. "There'll be a huge scandal. HARRY POTTER BLACK-MAILED BY MINISTRY."

"The ministry control the Daily Prophet though," said Hermione. "And I don't think the papers will be able to sort this out... all Fudge has to say is that it's complete nonsense. Harry's got no proof." She sighed, and put her head in her hands, giving Harry a very sympathetic look. "This is the last thing you need right now..."

"I know," said Harry. "I mean... what is there that I can do?"

"I've got an idea," said Hermione. She sat up in her chair, and looked thoughtful for a moment, biting her lip. "But you'll have to help me develop it, and iron out any problems."

"Go ahead," said Ron.

Hermione rubbed her hands together. "Harry could tell Snape what Madam Ivy's up to, so Snape will be in on the plan. Then Harry and Snape can both work out fake crimes. Harry gives this false information to Madam Ivy, and she'll be distracted while she tries to find out about stuff that doesn't exist. That way, Harry keeps his NEWTs, and Snape won't end up fired."

"But accused of things he's never done," said Harry, dully.

"Yes, that's the only problem," said Hermione. "If you try to think of things which are a bit bad, but not illegal, Snape won't be in trouble. Or if Harry just gives very vague clues."

"What like?" asked Harry.

"Say... if you tell her than you went to your remedial Potions, and Snape was brewing some weird potion when you walked in. Something that looked a bit suspicious, but you don't know what it was," said Hermione. "Or give her things that she knows must be wrong. Be awkward on purpose. Tell her Snape has told you all about his happy childhood. She'll check up on it, and she'll think that Snape must be lying to you, so your information is rubbish. She won't bother you any more."

Harry was quiet. Ron looked at him, and said, "What is it...?"

"I'm just wondering what other horrors life can throw at me," said Harry bitterly. "Maybe a dementor could just come floating into the room right now. Or my Aunt Marge. Or the Dursleys, announcing they've adopted me. I mean... there's a vampire, there's Khepri, there's Ivy..." Harry put his head in his hands, and massaged his forehead. It's all just so... so..."

"Unfair...?" tried Ron.

Harry nodded. "Exactly. Why is it always me?"

Ron and Hermione were both quiet for a few moments, and then Ron said, sympathetically, "My dad always says that life never gives us more than we can handle. You'll get through this, Harry... and come on, it's Christmas! We shouldn't be sitting around and being miserable about some black-mailing cow. Let's go and get some of those marshmallows Fred and George sent us, and we'll play chess. Okay?"

"Okay," said Harry. He stretched out on the sofa, and rested his head on one of the pillows, watching the flames flicker in the fire. Ron went over to his trunk in the corner; they had put them there at the start of the year, as none of them ever went into the dormitories any more. After a moment of rummaging round, Ron found the chessboard and his set.

"Want me to get your set?" he asked Harry, as he removed several packets of Weasley Wizard Wheezes Magical Marshmallows.

"Yes please," said Harry.

The evening got much better from that point on. The three of them played chess in front of the fire, toasting marshmallows and eating sweets, until Harry couldn't care less about Madam Ivy, or Snape, or Khepri. Harry was determined to enjoy his last Christmas at Hogwarts.

The hours drifted by, until it was at least midnight. All three of them were settling down for the night, and finishing off the marshmallows as they talked. Harry felt his eyes starting to droop, so he took his Dreamless Sleep Draught, and laid his head down on the pillow. The last thought he had before he fell asleep was that in the morning, he would embrace the spirit of Christmas, and try to sort out as much of his troubles as he could.

"Harry! Harry, wake up!"

Harry opened his eyes, and looked around. Ron was sitting in the middle of their nest, grinning at him.

"Come on, it's Christmas! Presents!" said Ron, pushing a bag towards Harry. "All yours are in there, the owls just delivered them."

Harry sat up, and put on his glasses. Hermione was sitting in one of the armchairs, with her own neatly stacked pile of presents, tearing off the paper very carefully and saving any special bits of decoration. Harry could see a large number of books already sitting on the floor next to her.

"Merry Christmas!" she said, cheerfully. "Did you sleep well?"

"Fine," said Harry, smiling slightly. He opened up the bag of presents Ron had handed him, and saw several carefully wrapped packages for him. He reached in, and took out the first one, which turned out to be a box full of different-flavoured muffins from Hagrid. Harry tried one, and though it nearly broke his front teeth, it was quite nice.

He got a lot of other things as well as the muffins. From Ron, there was an assorted box of Honeydukes sweets and from Hermione, he got a useful set of new quills, all hand-crafted. From Draco, there was a high-quality jar of broomstick polish, and Mr and Mrs Weasley had sent him some home-made vanilla fudge and a thick green jumper with a gold star on the front. Neville sent Harry a little toy house, that was mostly for Sneezy, and a pack of chocolate-covered raisins. Luna's present was a rather thick book about astronomy, that didn't look terribly exciting, but from Kainda, there was an expensive new watch. Harry put it on straightaway, and resolved to not take it off anytime soon. Ginny had given him a bag full of Zonko's tricks, that he couldn't wait to test out.

Harry enjoyed a stress-free morning in the Great Hall with Ron, Hermione, Draco, Kainda and Ginny. Luna and Neville had both gone home for the holidays. Harry wasn't exactly glad that they had gone, but it was nice to enjoy a morning without Bucket trying to turn his jeans into ribbons, or Neville squealing when Bucket did the same to him. At around dinner time, the few extra people staying for the holidays milled into the hall, and they all got ready for Christmas dinner.

"I'm ready for this," said Ron, rubbing his hands together. "I've been starving all day..."

Everybody eyed the many empty sweet-packets littering the table, and the chocolate smudges at the corners of Ron's mouth. They all shared smiles, but said nothing.

"What are we doing this afternoon then?" Kainda asked, sitting back in her wheelchair and unwrapping another piece of Drooble's Best Blowing Gum.

"Just staying here, I think," said Ron. "I mean, we've got plenty of sweets, and - " But he suddenly stopped talking with a gasp, staring towards the doors into the hall. "Look!"

Harry turned around quickly. His insides squirmed, as Snape walked into the hall. Lupin was walking on one side of him, and McGonagall on the other. A hush spread over the few people present. Snape did not look good. He still had a black eye, his arm was in a sling, and there was a scar on the side of his face that would probably be there for a long time. He looked very weary, especially as all eyes in the hall turned onto him, and the whispering started. Harry wondered for a moment where they were going to sit; there were only three of the large round tables out, because so many people had gone home for the holidays. One was being used by Harry and his friends, one was full of staff, while the other was full with the remaining students.

Lupin's eyes scanned the hall, and he seemed to register the openly available seats at Harry's table. His gaze landed on Harry, almost questioning. Harry did nothing for a moment, and then nodded. Lupin, McGonagall and Snape headed over to their table, and sat down at the other side. Snape looked very, very bad-tempered. He completely ignored the students at the table, and Lupin and McGonagall too, sitting as though he was in a world of his own and did not want to be disturbed. Every eye in the hall was glancing between the Potions professor, and Harry. He didn't quite know where to look. He glanced across at the doors as they opened again, but he inwardly grimaced as he saw Madam Ivy sweeping in. Her eyes flicked up, saw Snape, and then saw Harry watching. She smiled, and came over. Every step of her heels on the floor sent a hot, angry flush across Harry's chest.

"Nobody using this seat, I hope...?" she said, with a polite smile, resting her hand on the back of the chair next to Lupin.

"No, Arabella, you can sit there," said McGonagall. "As long as Potter and his friends don't mind, of course."

Everybody glanced at Harry. Ron was just opening his mouth, clearly about to make an excuse and get rid of Madam Ivy, but Harry cut in. "No, it's fine," he said.

Ron looked at him quickly. As Madam Ivy sat down, smoothing her skirt underneath her, Ron muttered under his breath, "What are you doing?"

"Don't cause a fuss," said Harry quietly. He tried his best to look casual, and murmur to Ron at the same time. "You don't know anything suspicious, remember?"

Ron nodded, and offered Harry another sweet. Harry met his eyes, just for a moment, and saw the sympathy there. "She won't try anything here," said Harry, under his breath. "Don't worry."

He glanced up at Madam Ivy. She was watching him. She smiled pleasantly, and he returned it, as he poured himself another glass of pumpkin juice. She then turned to Professor Snape, and asked, kindly, "And how are you feeling, Severus?"

Snape gave her a very dark look. "Absolutely fantastic," he muttered.

"Good, good," she said, smiling. "Will you be teaching again after the holidays?"

"Unfortunately," was the cold reply. "I wish to repair the damage Grubbly-Plank has inflicted upon my students."

"Oh, I'm sure they'll get back on track soon," said Madam Ivy, reassuringly.

Harry didn't think the atmosphere of the table could get anymore awkward. Madam Ivy was the only person talking at all, and Harry had the feeling she was doing it purposely to highlight how tense everybody else was. McGonagall looked as though she had swallowed a lemon, while Lupin was drumming his fingers on the table-top. Harry and all his friends were quiet too, while Madam Ivy just smiled, pouring herself a glass of pumpkin juice. Harry found himself glaring at her, hating her, wondering how she could possibly do what she did. Black-mailing Harry, looking for information on Snape, angering Lupin, yet she could still smile and act as though nothing was wrong.

Luckily, the silence and awkward tension lasted only a minute or so more, for Dumbledore stood up at the staff table and let the feast begin. The table was filled instantly with dishes and plates and bowls and platters of only the finest Christmas dinner, and the chatter between Harry and his friends started again. Lupin joined in their debate, though Snape was utterly silent throughout. He scooped a few vegetables onto his plate, and a piece of meat that couldn't really have been much smaller, and only ate half of it. Harry was trying his best to stick to his Christmas promise and not let his troubles get him down too much. Once or twice though, he felt a prickling in the back of his neck, and glanced up just as Snape's eyes moved down to his half-empty plate. Not a word passed between them.

Once the dishes and platters had been cleaned of the first course, the puddings arrived. Harry treated himself and had several slices of some gooey chocolate cake, then shared a bowl of sponge cake with Sneezy. The little opsittop amused them all throughout dessert, chattering away with everybody and even singing them some Christmas carols, while eating cake and laughing loudly at the Christmas cracker jokes. Lupin let Sneezy have the plastic whistle from his cracker, but Ron confiscated it after Sneezy started to drive them all mad.

Finally, after a long and unhurried hour of eating and talking, their empty plates were disappearing back down to the kitchens to be cleaned. Everybody was feeling much better than before, and incredibly full. Harry wasn't planning anything for the rest of his Christmas except sitting and relaxing. Even Madam Ivy couldn't spoil anything now, or even if Khepri strolled in and started making more vague warnings. Harry decided it would take a Death Eater attack and nothing less to trouble him now.

Though that was before he received an unexpected message, just as the last plate disappeared, and Lupin was standing up to leave.

"Shall I help you down to your quarters, Severus?" he asked, kindly.

Snape shook his head. He stood up, and closed his eyes for a moment, as though in silent pain. Lupin made a concerned sound, but Snape waved him away. "It's a broken arm, not a broken neck," he said, in only half of his usual snarl. He sighed, and turned away towards the doors.

Harry watched him go. He didn't know if he should follow Snape or not; now would be the perfect time to apologise, and try to set things right with his magical guardian. Harry was just standing, only half-decided on what he would do, when a voice spoke in his head.

"Sit down. She's watching."

Harry cast his eyes casually around the table. Madam Ivy was watching him out of the corner of her eye, one eyebrow raised. He sat down obediently. Snape's voice continued in his head, in a very distant sort of tone.

"Come to my office this evening. Make sure she does not follow you or know where you are going."

"Okay," Harry thought. He looked down at his hands to avoid Madam Ivy's gaze.

"Are you okay, Harry?" she asked, kindly.

He looked up, and met her eyes. He smiled. "Perfect, thankyou."

"Good," she said. And she continued her discussion about NEWT standards with Professor McGonagall, as though nothing had happened.

Snape hadn't specified a time for Harry to go to his office, merely 'this evening', but the moment it started to go dark outside the windows, Harry wished he had. It was very hard to sit in the Gryffindor common room, trying to play chess with Ron or listen to Hermione teaching Sneezy more words, knowing that at some point he had to go and talk to Snape. It wasn't really that Harry was scared of Snape, but he was scared of Snape's certain disappointment in him. He was starting to almost hate the existence of the bond, but at the same time, he was grateful for it. He knew that if it hadn't been there, he would never have actually gone to see Snape. Finally, when he could hold off the meaning no longer, he left Ron and Hermione in the common room, and made his way through the darkening corridors.

As he stepped through into the dungeons, he could almost sense Snape putting down whatever he was doing, and heading to the door of his quarters. As always, it opened before Harry had even knocked. Snape looked down at him. He seemed a lot calmer than at dinner.

"Come in and sit down, Harry," Snape said, quietly. "We need to discuss something."

Harry wasn't sure what it was about these innocent words that terrified him so much: that he would be here long enough to sit down, that Snape had called him Harry, or that they needed to 'discuss something'. Silently, feeling the hand of doom upon his shoulder, he stepped into the darkness of Snape's quarters. Normally, the quiet and the calm was comforting to Harry, but suddenly, he felt as though it was all luring him into a false sense of security. The snap of the door behind him seemed to seal his fate.

He sat in his usual armchair for their DMT lessons, fiddling nervously with his hands. He was trying to think of something to explain his actions, how he could phrase it without sounding as guilty as he felt. Snape sat in the armchair in front of him, and sighed, quietly.

"Harry..." He reached up with his only good hand, and raked his greasy black hair back from his face. Harry met his dark gaze, and felt his insides squirming uncomfortably. Snape just looked at him for a few moments, then spoke again. But what he said was the last thing Harry could ever have expected. "I wish to apologise for my actions. At the time... the situation affected my judgement. I never meant to - "

"But..." said Harry, so startled by what Snape was saying that he actually dared to interrupt. "That's what I wanted to say! What on earth are you sorry for? You didn't do anything!"

"Except scare you witless," said Snape, raising an eyebrow.

"And I dumped you outside the hospital wing to die!" said Harry. "When you saved my life, I didn't even stick around to make sure you were okay!"

Snape was looking at Harry in great surprise. "Did you mean to 'dump me outside the hospital wing to die'?"

"No, of course I didn't!" Harry protested.

"Then I don't blame you. Your actions actually saved my life, Harry." Snape sat back, staring at him in confusion, as though he couldn't see why Harry was so determined to be blamed for something." If you had left me on the floor where I fell, then you would have been at fault. What you did was... very brave."

"I owed you it," said Harry. "You stopped that vampire killing me... what are you apologising for? What did you do?"

"I... I would have preferred you to find out about my transformation in a slightly calmer situation," said Snape quietly. "I scared you, Harry. By the rules of the guardian bond, I'm forbidden to do so."

"I bet these rules also mention not leaving your guardian to bleed to death," Harry said darkly.

"Even if they did, it would make no difference," said Snape. "You did nothing like that, and yet you insist on acting as though you did... unless you intended for it to be that way."

"Of course I didn't," said Harry. He looked as his fingers. All the awkwardness had been obliterated by Snape's apology. "It's just that... you saved my life, and I just ran off..."

"We're going to get nowhere if we continue like this," murmured Snape. "I can't see why we are fighting over the guilt, or why either of us would want it."

"Because I want to say sorry," said Harry.

"As do I." Snape sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers, eyeing Harry. "Then shall we save our sanity, and just say that we both apologise?"

"Alright," said Harry. "Sorry..."

"Indeed," said Snape. He smiled ever so slightly, that clever sort of smirk he had perfected by now. "You are an odd child."

"I'm not a child, I'm seventeen," said Harry, with a grin.

"It does not make you less odd," said Snape, smirking. He reached for a glass of something dark he had been drinking, but then stopped, remembering something else. "Ah, yes... Madam Ivy, Harry."

Harry's insides twitched. "What about her?"

"You're not fooling anybody with the innocent act," said Snape simply. "Peelish came into the hospital wing sometime last night, and told me about your conversation with Ivy."

"So you know she's after you," Harry said, quietly.

"I knew long before now," said Snape. "I found out barely hours after we arrived at the castle. A house-elf that had been cleaning her office came to me with a letter he had found. It had my name on it, and so he thought it belonged to me. And a most interesting letter it was too. It told me everything I needed to know; Madam Ivy has been placed here by the ministry, to find something incriminating about me, and have me removed... preferably to a cell in Azkaban. Of course, merely being a vampire is not a crime. Dumbledore has spoken to the ministry, and insisted I do not lose my job after seventeen years of loyal service, as I am not dangerous. Though Ivy is not so easily deterred. She has also been told to have Lupin removed as well, if she can. He has found her searching his desk several times already."

"That's why he doesn't like her," said Harry. "Is that it?"

Snape nodded. "This job is the only way Lupin can ever hold any sort of financial income. If he loses it, he has no chance of a career ever again."

"What are you going to do about it?" asked Harry. "I mean, you can't just let her search around in your life, can you?"

"Why not?" said Snape. "She will find nothing that the ministry are not already aware of."

"What about me?" said Harry.

Snape glanced at him, one black eyebrow arching.

"I mean..." said Harry. "What if she finds out about me?"

"I think she will probably be aware of your existence, Potter, she's been teaching you for four months already."

"No, but... about me and the guardian bond. What if she finds out about that? She could blab to the prophet, or the ministry, and then Voldemort will find out, and use it against us."

"She won't find out," said Snape, calmly. "Rest assured. Though there is another thing about you that we must discuss... Peelish tells me she is trying to pry information from you."

Harry nodded numbly. "Hermione thought that - "

"We could supply Ivy with false information," finished Snape. "Yes, I know. It is an extremely risky plan though Potter. Even giving Ivy information that is completely and utterly untrue might lead to her digging for more, and finding out things she should not."

"What like?" said Harry. "I thought you said there was nothing she could find out."

Snape thought quietly for a few moments, and then spoke again. "There are... a few tiny things."

"Which would be...?"

"One or two little slips on my clean record."

Harry stared at Snape, with a half-frown. "And those are...?"

Snape looked perfectly calm, as he took a drink from the glass of dark liquid, and said, "Murders."



"Who did - "


"Which muggles?!"

"Do you seriously think I stopped to ask their names?"

"When? How? Why?"

"About two years into Voldemort's reign... with the Avada Kedavra curse... and because I was told to do so."

Harry put his hands over his face. "You do realise that Ivy's poking around looking for this sort of information, don't you? And you'll be sent to Azkaban if she finds it?"

"Precisely - IF she finds it..."

"What am I supposed to tell her?" said Harry. "I've got to give her some sort of information or I'll fail all my NEWTs!"

Snape took a sip from his drink. "Play dumb for a few weeks. Tell her you know nothing. When it looks as though she'll definitely be dropping your grades, break down and have a little emotional moment. Then tell her that... hmm.... you are worried about the extra Potions work I'm teaching you. A lot of the potions seem rather dangerous, but you don't know what they're called. If she asks for details on the ingredients, just give her vague lists of common things."

Harry didn't know why, but he had the worrying feeling that this wasn't going to work. After a moment, he came up with the main problem. "She's already suspicious of Potions. I'm a NEWT student, with a fairly constant stream of Os, and yet I do Remedial Potions. And she's also expected to believe that I can't tell one dangerous potion from another."

"Right then..." Snape reached into his robes, and took out two small phials. One held a scarlet sort of goo, and the other was full of some watery brown-coloured liquid. "Which is the most dangerous, and what is it called?"

Harry frowned. "How should I know?"

"You shouldn't. That's the point." Snape slid the phials back into his robes. "If she asks for details of what the finished potions look like, tell her one is red, one is brown. Be vague, Potter. Act like the little innocent idiot you were in first year."

Harry nodded, silently, sitting back in his chair and looking down at his fingers again. He sighed.

"Something wrong?" said Snape.

"Everything's just... complicated right now." Harry shook his head. "I was planning on having a quiet seventh year before going out into the world and facing Voldemort."

"Which shows just how foolish it is to ever make plans," said Snape. He stood up. "I suppose your companions will be panicking without you, setting fire to things and running round in frantic worry."

"Probably not," said Harry. "They'll be playing chess or something..." He didn't stand up. For some reason, he didn't want to leave. The peace and the quiet of Snape's quarters was an odd comfort to him, and he knew that the moment he stepped out into the corridors again, the world and its troubles would return to pester him. Vampires, Khepri, Ivy...

"It's Christmas Day, Harry," said Snape quietly. "Surely you would rather spend it in good company."

"Can I stay here...?" said Harry. For a moment, he remembered a time when the last thing he would have wanted was to stay with Snape. "We could make up for the DMT lessons I've missed."

"No," murmured Snape. "I still have to recover... come to my office tomorrow, and we will discuss DMT. Until then, I order you to go back to your common room and enjoy Christmas." He opened the door. "Come along. I had better escort you, in case we are ambushed again."

Harry got up, wearily, and turned away from the gentle crackling flames and the comfortable armchairs. He headed over to the door. He felt oddly tired all of a sudden, as though he just wanted to sit somewhere and wait away his troubles. As he was heading out into the corridor, a hand rested on his shoulder. He looked up. Snape was watching him seriously, with an expression surprisingly like sympathetic.

"Peelish and I are always here to talk to, as are the other professors," his guardian said. "Well... perhaps give Ivy a miss."

Harry smiled. "Okay... and thanks Severus. I mean, Snape! Professor! Oh, damn..."

Snape smirked, and lead him out into the corridor, closing the door behind him. "Formalities, please, Potter... it might be Christmas, but it makes no exception."

Snape walked Harry back to Gryffindor Tower, the two of them only exchanging a few words every now and then. Finally, they reached the portrait hole. Snape turned to face Harry, looking at him for a few moments. Harry realised Snape wasn't looking down, as he always remembered, but standing at the same height as him, looking eye-to-eye.

"Merry Christmas, Potter," Snape said.

"Merry Christmas, Professor," Harry replied.

In years to come, neither would be sure who moved first, or whether what happened actually happened at all. One moment, Harry was just looking at Snape, and then the next, something amazing happened. He found himself in an embrace with the person he had once hated more than any other. All he registered was a moment of how surprisingly warm Snape was, and the feeling of safety that rushed through him, before they broke apart. With a last nod, Snape turned, and disappeared into the darkness.

Hiding his smile, Harry gave the password, and stepped into the common room. Merry Christmas Professor, he thought.


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