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Chapter Twenty-Four: Merry Christmas, Professor

The Christmas break that year for Harry was a fairly quiet affair. Most of the school had gone home to be with their parents, in warmer places than the freezing cold of Scotland, but Hermione was staying. Ron and Ginny were home with the rest of the Weasleys, Neville had gone to stay with an aunt, Luna and her father were going to France. Harry quite hoped that Cho was staying, but she told him she was going to the Lake District with a friend.

So Harry spent his Christmas break mostly outside in the snow with Hermione and Draco. As grateful as he was for Ron's friendship, it was nice to have no fighting for once, and it was also so much quieter than normal. Ron always wanted snowball fights or to go and play Quidditch, but Hermione was happy to sit and read a book, and Draco didn't mind either.

On Christmas morning, when Harry woke up, he found a pile of presents on his lap on the sofa. Hermione was already awake, her nose stuck in a new book her parents had sent, and Crookshanks was rolling about in the wrapping paper all over the floor. Hermione had pulled her hair back into a half-ponytail, secured with a glittery green and red bow to match the one around Crookshank's neck.

"Merry Christmas!" she said, brightly, seeing him waking up.

He rubbed his eyes. "Yeah, Merry Christmas..." He took a great long yawn, and sat up, turning to his presents. "Hey, there's more than I normally get."

"You've got more friends though, haven't you?" she said, cheerfully. "That's mine on the top, and I think the one on the bottom's from Draco, his screech owl came in just now. Oh, Cupid went out last night and he came back with a parcel for you, it's there."

Harry picked up the present she had indicated. It was wrapped in festive copper, and there was a card in a clean cream envelope attached to the top. "You don't think it's from Alrister, do you?" he said.

"Open it!" She sat next to him on the sofa, as he eased the paper gently back, revealing a book entitled, "So You've Got Potential? Polish Your Pure Arts Powers!", and a long, bronze whistle.

He picked it up curiously, studying it. "What's this?"

Hermione handed him the letter. He tore it open and read.

Dear Harry - Merry Christmas! How are you and Cupid? I hope everything's fine back at Hogwarts and that I'm missed. I thought it would be nice to send you a little something for looking after my hawk so well. I daresay that your substitute teachers for Pure Arts aren't exactly the most skilled people in the world, so the book is to make sure you don't lose your touch Harry - I'm sure Hermione, Draco and Ron would like to look at it too when you're done. About the whistle, Cupid has been trained to come to it when he hears it. I figured that you'd need it more than me now. I'll be back as soon as I can, Harry, keep trying. Professor Alrister

Hermione gave a little intake of breath as she read it. "Um... Harry, you know you've got all those presents to open..."

Harry grinned and handed her the book. "Yes, you can read it."

"Thankyou!" She took it off him eagerly, opening it up and scanning the contents page eagerly, settled down into the sofa, as content as Crookshanks with cream.

Harry turned his attention to the rest of his presents. There was a jumper and a box of caramel cookies from Mr and Mrs Weasley; a t-shirt from Ron and Ginny that read 'DO NOT ARGUE - I AM THE BOSS'; five new packs of Quidditch cards from Hermione ("Well, I know you wanted a Cho card so I stocked up at the last match"); a carved wooden dragon from Hagrid (with a scorch mark on the bottom, that Hagrid had written was "Kibbles sending his love"); from Draco there was a rather sinister looking silver ring that looked like a dragon curled asleep round the base of his finger; the Dursleys had sent him a match with the lightable end snipped off; a bag of magic tricks "to thrill and fascinate" from Fred and George; and even when Harry was done, there were still three presents left.

"Who are these from? Who else would send me a present?" he thought aloud.

"Open them and see," said Hermione, turning the page in his new book, gazing transfixed at the words before her.

He picked up the first - it was rather plain, wrapped in simple brown paper and held shut with a very neatly placed single strip of spellotape. Wondering what on earth it was, he opened it up carefully and found, to his great surprise, a set of inks in all different colours. He checked the wrapping and the box carefully for any sign of who had sent it, but couldn't see any label or anything.

Hermione glanced over from the book, and said, "Oh, wow! Who got you those?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "There's no card."

She checked the wrapping again curiously. "I can't see anything either. Weird. You've got a good friend, Harry, inks like that are expensive."

He nodded, putting the box gently aside and reaching for the next parcel. It was wrapped in green paper decorated with stars, and when he opened it, he found a picture frame. It was empty, and it was a fairly normal frame with no special decoration of anything, but when he turned it over, he found a note tucked into the back.

Happy Christmas, Harry! I wondered what I could get you that you would like, and I decided that the personal touch would be best. This frame is enchanted to show the viewer memory-images of the people close to them. For example, in it, I see my parents, whilst you might see Ron and Hermione, or any of your other friends. Just touch the glass and it shows you the memory. Have a merry Christmas - Remus

"That was nice of him," said Hermione.

Harry smiled. "Yeah, really nice." He placed his fingers gently on the glass, watching, wondering how it would work. At first, he thought it was broken, until he started to see colours fading from nowhere and making a photograph inside the frame. Gradually, everything came together, and Mr and Mrs Weasley beemed out at him, just as they were when he was leaving Grimmauld Place for Hogwarts.

He put the picture frame down by the inks and picked up the last parcel. It was fairly small, tightly wrapped in very brightly coloured paper, and when Harry gently tugged the paper off, he found what looked like a dog chew toy, a ball, decorated like a clown's face.

He frowned. "What's this?"

Hermione looked up, and she frowned curiously as well, taking it off him. "It's like a pet toy... why has somebody sent you this?"

"I don't know," said Harry. He checked the wrapping. "There's no label on this one either."

"Weird," said Hermione. "Maybe it's somebody playing a joke."

He took it back, frowning still. "Maybe. Do you think it's somebody like Zabini getting at me because I took Lupin out for a walk?"

"Probably," she said. "Just leave it Harry, or go right up to Zabini today and tell him he can have his stupid chew toy back, he probably won't be able to sleep at night without it."

Harry nodded vaguely as she returned to her book. He looked down into the clown's wide, grinning face and couldn't help but think how sinister it looked. It was a perfectly happy expression, and after all, it was just a dog toy... but there was something odd about it. Something about its eyes just wasn't right.

He spent the rest of the day with Hermione and Draco, enjoying the warmth of the Great Hall and the festive spirits. Christmas dinner was a lot of fun. Because so few people remained at Hogwarts, two of the house tables had been pushed together. Staff, students and all the different houses sat together. Hermione, Ron and Draco had fun with the crackers and for once, everybody ate as much as they wanted. It was all delicious, and even though Harry felt a bit bloated afterwards, nobody was ill or sick. Even Snape was allowed to just eat what he wanted, with a knife and fork, and he looked very smug when he managed to pass Madam Hooch the gravy without dropping it or burning himself.

It was only later, after a furious snowball fight all across the courtyard between Harry and Draco, when they had said goodnight for the day and Harry and Hermione headed back to Gryffindor Tower that Harry got a good chance to properly examine his presents.

Hermione was deeply engrossed in one of the books her parents had bought her for Christmas, curled up in the nest, absent-mindedly eating pinches of tiny black pepper imps out of a bowl. Harry had been amusing himself with Lupin's photo frame for a while, but was now getting a little bored with it. The mysteries of the inks and the dog toy were still fresh in his mind. He could see why somebody would send inks as a present. From the box, it looked like a nice set. But a dog toy?

He wasn't sure why the clown made him feel so strange, but he had thrown it neatly up the stairs into the boys' bedroom, and was pretty intent on leaving it there. At first, he'd worried about it being an evil artefact sent by a dark wizard, and had shown it to Professor Lupin at dinner, but Lupin said there was nothing wrong with it at all. It was just your regular, run-of-the-mill muggle dog toy.

Having taken care of the evil clown, Harry was free to study his other presents in more detail, and the first thing was probably those inks. As he pulled the box over gently and eased open the packaging, he wondered whether the sender had left a note inside.

And to his great surprise, they had. He pulled out a piece of parchment tied in a scroll with a green ribbon, and instead of inks, there was a black velvet pouch at the bottom of the box. Frowning in confusion, he pulled it out, looking inside, though he couldn't see anything within the darkness of the bag. He undid the ribbon around the parchment, unrolled it and read.

Potter. Do not open the contents of this box in front of every Gryffindor in the school. Nobody but you and I are to know about this anyway. The bag contains various supplies put together by your second magical guardian and I. These items are to be used in emergencies only. Four of the objects in here are not legal in this country, and two of those are not legal anywhere in the world. I hope this stresses to you just how important it is that you keep this a secret. Try to keep it away from any flames. There are flammable potions in here which will make a nasty mess of you and anything within fifty feet of you if they reach a certain temperature. THIS IS NOT AN EXCUSE FOR YOU TO GO LOOKING FOR TROUBLE. Come to my office tomorrow at nine o' clock PM sharp to discuss the various items and for your regular extra-curricular lesson.

There was then a gap, something was scribbled out, and added at the bottom in small handwriting, as though the writer was saying it quietly, "Seasons greetings. Your magical guardian".

Seasons greetings? Merlin, don't choke on that, Snape.

"What's that?" said Hermione, looking round.

Harry shook his head. "Nothing." He tucked the letter firmly inside his robes, and dropped the velvet pouch into his bag.

It had taken a while, but Harry had convinced Cupid to stay with Hermione for the evening. The little hawk was eating owl treats contentedly out of her hand as he left the common room that night with the velvet pouch concealed in the pocket of his robes and his wand up his sleeve.

The corridors were cold, dark and shadows danced all around him as he walked calmly from Gryffindor Tower to the entrace hall, and then down the corridor heading for the dungeons. Maybe Lupin would admit he was his magical guardian at last. Harry was also very curious as to what was in the velvet bag, especially the illegal items. Snape must know that something dangerous was coming, or he wouldn't be giving Harry things he could be sent to Azkaban for.

When he knocked on the door of Snape's office, he expected the usual drawl from inside, but to his great surprise, his knuckles had barely touched the door when it flew open and he was dragged in with a yelp.

"Shhhh!" Snape hissed. "Have you got it?"

"Yeah," said Harry, pulling away and brushing off his robes. "What did you have to drag me in? Worried I was going to run off?"

"Potter, you're carrying some of the most dangerous things known to wizard kind, and you expected me to just leave you loitering around outside my door? Need I remind you that this is the strictest confidence, even the headmaster does not - "

Harry's eyes widened. "You haven't told Dumbledore that you've given me a bagful of illegal stuff? You could get fired for that."

Snape glared at him as he crossed the room and sunk into an old armchair by the fire. "Try not to sound too hopeful there, Potter... and yes, I could. Do you now understand just how serious this all is?"

Harry had to admit that it was all getting to him eventually. He felt as though he and Snape were traitors in the goblin uprising, trading illegal objects at midnight in some grotty little muggle warehouse. "Yeah." He took the bag carefully from the inner pocket of his robes, making sure he held it with both hands just in case it would blow up or catch fire if he held it with one.

Snape took it off him, setting it on the floor between the two armchairs. Harry sat in the other tentatively, watching Snape undo the drawstring with his long pale fingers and ease it open. "Now... you repeat none of what you see tonight to another soul in the world. Not a passing mention. You don't even think about it when there are people around you. Legilimency may only work with eye contact, but there are other forms of psychic power in this world that can read your mind like a book."

Harry nodded seriously. "Okay... um... couldn't there just be somebody listening at the door?"

Snape scoffed, shaking his head, as though unable to believe Harry's lack of thought into the matter. "My chambers are guarded by the most effective silencing and privacy charms known to wizard kind, controlled by my own hand. We are safe here, Potter." He reached into the bag absent-mindedly, and Harry watched in amazement as nearly his whole arm disappeared inside it as he searched around for something. When he found it, he removed his arm from the tiny little bag. Harry saw he held a huge metal tin.

"What's in - "

"Four of the most powerful and useful potions you will ever encounter," said Snape. He beckoned Harry closer. Harry sunk down onto his knees beside the bag, watching Snape give a sharp twist to the lid and ease it off slowly.

Inside, the tin was split into four compartments, each packed with a sort of thick green jelly, and suspended in each compartment was a phial. The stoppers were labelled L, H, V and W.

"Larin, hamadras, vaxilis, waron brax," said Snape, coolly, gesturing to each in turn. "Larin is a mixture only recently discovered by the Dark Lord. Hamadras has been declared an illegal class A non-tradable item in every single country on the planet. Vaxilis is illegal in 80% of the world. Waron brax is illegal the world over."

"What do they do?" said Harry, his eyes wide.

"Larin... commonly known as a Light As Air Draft." Snape nipped the top of the phial and slit it out, showing Harry a soft, swirly-blue potion. "It reduces the body's weight so dramatically that flight is almost possible - it slows descent from falls, most usefully, and also softens the impact of hitting the ground. NOT to be taken in high winds or you will be blown away until something stops you."

Harry winced. "What else is there?"

"Hamadras. The most powerful healing draft known to man." This one was a bright, rich green, and every few moments, Harry saw a spark of yellow glitter deep within the potion's depths. "Class-A, non-tradable object. If you are caught carrying hamadras you will be treated with the greatest possible suspicion, no matter who you are or what you claim the purpose for it is. Just a few drops on any wound heals it completely, and faster than any spell or charm. Even severed limbs. When the death penalty was still in place, people sentenced to die would sometimes be used for experiments with this. The head would be removed, and a few drops of hamadras administrated before blood loss killed the victim. People who have had this procedure done to them have been known to live for about a week with no head."

"Seriously?" Harry choked, going cold at the thought of living without a head. "But... they wouldn't be able to think, or move..."

"But they're still alive," said Snape, silkily. "Electrical reactions with the body's chemicals and the hamadras have been able to create some very uncontrolled reactions in test subjects. Most of them end up killing themselves by thrashing about so much the limbs break and the body exhausts itself. Though with no brain to tell the body to stop its actions, the subject just carries on and eventually tears themself quite literally apart."

"I don't think I like that potion," said Harry, feeling his stomach churn. "I... want to keep my head, thanks..."

Snape smirked, toying lazily with the lethal phial of hamadras. "There are other uses though. It's a very powerful poison, noted as the one preferred by the notorious murderer Arsenius Malarice in the 1800s. He only ever killed muggles, by giving them a lethal dose of hamadras. It clogged their blood. The muggle doctors said it was natural, and nobody could prove Malarice had killed them."

"So you've given me a potion that will kill me," said Harry.

"Not if you use it wisely," said Snape, simply. "Five drops maximum, depending on the severity of the wound. Think of it as five being for pain to rival cruciatus, and one being a nosebleed... however, I do not want to see you using this without good reason to. It takes five years to make and if one single part of the brewing goes wrong, it must be started completely again."

Harry swallowed. "Okay... I think I'll stick with paracetomol... and what's the one with the V on?"

Snape's lips curled into a sinister smile. "Ah, vaxilis... when you want to persuade somebody to do something that in usual circumstances they would not want to, vaxilis is a highly useful potion to have." Snape replaced the hamadras, and withdrew the vaxilis tube from the container. It was a warm, passionate red, glittering slightly as it caught the light. "Vaxilis is illegal in eight out of ten countries, not because of its effects, but because of the methods used in making it."

Harry grimaced. "And how is it made?"

"Pheromones must be carefully extracted from the sweat glands and major organ of a veela," said Snape, lazily, giving the phial a little shake so that it shimmered within its tube. "If not done properly, this causes immense pain for the veela and can possibly render them infertile. But if done properly, the pheromones are the most important element of the draft. Vaxilis effectively tricks human senses into believing the drinker is a veela. The drinker gives off the pheromones from the potion and heightens powers of persuasion. With a few sips of this draft, I could convince anybody in the world to do anything I like. Kill themselves, kill somebody else, give me all their gold... the possibilites are endless..."

"And the last one?" said Harry, as Snape slid the vaxilis carefully back into place, withdrawing the last tube. It was a sinister shade of violet.

"Waron brax," said Snape. He shook the bottle, and it flashed black for a moment, then settled back into violet. "Being bitten by a werewolf is not the only way to turn another human being into a lycanthrope, Potter. Waron brax is one of those ways, which makes it another class-A non-tradable item. However, it has some uses as well. It has only been discovered recently. If a person has been bitten by a werewolf, drinking waron brax can actually prevent the drinker from being made a werewolf themselves - though if a bite is not present on the body when taken, the victim will become a werewolf."

Harry nodded, feeling rather green, but the contents of the bag didn't really get that much more light-hearted. Snape showed him all sorts of things cleverly concealing poisons, from inks to chocolates to packets of shampoo that looked as though they were from a muggle hotel. There was a flask of polyjuice potion and the hairs of several of his classmates, something Snape called a doubling coin which conjured money, the most realistic fake blood Harry had ever seen in his life, something that he first thought was a muggle ball-point pen until Snape opened it and produced a corkscrew blade, and last but certainly not least was a silver ring that the Potions master seemed exceptionally proud of.

"This is possibly the most undetectable of them all, Potter," he said, with a quiet smile, holding the ring in his palm. "You see the emerald jewel in the centre?"

Harry peered closer. "Yeah... don't tell me, it transforms into a particularly large Norwegian Ridgeback that's got lazers for eyes."

Snape snickered. "No, Potter, nothing quite so farfetched. It's a poison, not an emerald."

"Hamadras?" said Harry.

"No," said Snape. "Something of my own invention - molacella. It turns the blood itself to poison, which then boils inside the body. It is a fast death but painful."

"What, so if being poisoned isn't bad enough, they boil alive as well?" said Harry. "You're... you're a sadist, an absolute sadist. Haven't you got anything that's quick and easy and doesn't hurt at all?"

Snape smirked. "I'm a Potions master, Potter, not a human rights campaigner. When there's a Death Eater strangling the life out of you, you'll be a whole lot more grateful."

"Why do I get the feeling you know something I don't?" said Harry, suspiciously.

Snape chuckled again, and dropped the ring back into the bag. "Before I forget. To actually release poison from the ring, you need to use a specific key-phrase."

"What's the phrase?" said Harry.

"It was a pleasure knowing you," said Snape.

Harry blinked. "Yeah, likewise, what's the phrase?"

Snape smirked. "That was the phrase, Potter. Just never say it if the emerald isn't in contact with a part of another living creature's anatomy."

Harry nodded, rubbing his head. This was possibly the most sinister Christmas present he'd ever had. "You're reminding me of Mad-Eye Moody, giving me all this stuff as though I'm about to be jumped on by a gang of dark wizards right outside."

Snape redid the drawstring and handed it to Harry carefully. Harry put it firmly on the side where it couldn't kill him or worse.

"Potter, we are at war... the Dark Lord cannot reach his full power or survive properly as long as you are alive in this world. Every wizard who knows of the prophecy would do anything to keep you alive. You're too young to remember the reign of terror inflicted by the Dark Lord the last time he was active... and if you die, then that time will come again and will be far greater than ever before." Snape got up, walking over to his desk, shifting through papers, his eyes averted. "And there is... of course... a personal need for myself to take interest in this matter. Your safety is my responsibility."

"Can't it be mine?" said Harry.

Snape shook his head. "No, Potter. As a Death Eater, I have advanced warning of when the time has come to worry for your health." Still not looking up, he said, "I daresay you will need some rest. Mr Weasley returns tomorrow after all, and no doubt you'll be chasing each other around the grounds like toddlers on orange juice."

Harry smiled ever so slightly. "Probably, yeah."

He picked up the bag carefully, keeping it at arm's length, and heading for the door. Just as his fingers curled around the handle, Snape said from behind him, "And Potter?"

"Yes, Sir?" Harry said, over his shoulder, expecting something about homework or Occlumency practice.

"Merry Christmas."

Harry looked around, surprised, and for just one moment he caught the expression on Snape's face. It looked as though Snape had never wished anybody a merry Christmas in his entire life, nor received the wish back, but then he looked down into his papers again, as though he hadn't said it.

Harry smiled. "Merry Christmas, Professor," before he slipped out of the room silently and shut the door.


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