14

Chapter 18 Trapped

The first week of Harry's grounding was just as miserable for Severus as it must have been for Harry. The boy spent most of his time in his room, and when Severus did see him, he was always in a foul mood. If Severus asked why he was holed up there instead of working at the table, the brat just complained about being under 'house arrest.' It was so irritating after awhile that Severus decided just to let him be. Harry could pout about his punishment all he wanted; Severus was not going to feel any sympathy.

Eventually, the grumbling about Gryffindor losing points died down. It was evident that Harry and his friends were still not the most popular Lions, but the boy was still the Seeker on the Quidditch team. While the House Cup might seem far off, there was a chance that the team might pull out a victory. Severus was still allowing Harry to play Quidditch. To not do so would be cruel. Severus knew what bullying would result and was loathe to subject the boy to that.

Although Harry wasn't allowed to sleep in his dorm or visit with his friends in the tower, Snape allowed him to attend study hall and eat breakfast and lunch in the Great Hall. It was still necessary for the Slytherin Head of House to make appearances at meals, and he didn't want Harry alone that much. Severus always kept his eye on his ward. Even though he was sitting with his friends, Harry was not jovial.

Most of the students' time was spent revising for exams and then taking them, anyway. First years had end-of-year written exams and then practical exams. Severus had set a forgetfulness potion as the Potions practical exam for Harry's class. The boy's grades had been steadily improving, and Severus roved the aisles on exam day, carefully watching out for either cheating or accidents. Potions was a dangerous class at any level. Still, it was actually the most dangerous in the earlier years where students were more prone to careless mistakes.

The first-year Potions exam passed without incident. Severus had seen that Harry's potion was the correct color and consistency. Still, he was careful not to signal either way to his ward. The boy would find out with the rest of the class. It wouldn't do for the child of the professor to seem to have any advantages.

While watching the boy, Severus had noticed that he seemed worn and rubbed his forehead several times during the two-hour exam. This concerned Severus greatly. He knew that Harry had not been sleeping well. The boy had said nothing about the expedition in the forest the night of his detention. Still, despite interrogations of Hagrid and careful questioning of Harry, Severus had no more information as to what had happened. Even Draco Malfoy was mum on the subject. Severus was close to buying Hagrid a pint to get him drunk enough to spill the information. He knew Harry would disapprove, but he was beyond caring. Something had happened, and it was affecting Harry's mood and sleep. He had given the boy enough privacy.

It was still unclear to Severus why he had waited this long to delve deeper into the subject. It was unlike Severus to let a secret go just to respond to someone else's feelings, especially those of a child. He was either going soft or was being too sensitive to Harry's accusations that he had no privacy. New to the parenting's hazards, Severus was still learning to navigate when he needed to invade Harry's space. He should have done so earlier with the dragon. Perhaps he should have done so now. Harry might be in serious trouble and not just pouting about his punishment.

Even though things between Severus and Harry had been chilly, he hoped they would thaw off now that exams were over. It was the official end of Harry's punishment. The relief was there for both of them. Yet as he walked through the hall that day, he saw that Harry and his two friends were huddled together. It made him immediately suspicious.

The three wheeled around. Granger even gasped. Severus could tell that Harry was trying to decide what to say. It did not fill him with confidence.

"Good afternoon," Harry said.

It was all Severus could do not to either chuckle or begin scolding right there. This boy needed spy training, and now, before he got himself killed attempting subterfuge. It would go on the summer to-do list.

"What are you doing inside?" Severus demanded.

Harry started to say something that was clearly going to be pathetic. Severus could tell from the look on his face. He cut the boy off to save him from embarrassment.

*"Hanging around like this, people will think you're up to something. And Gryffindor really can't afford to lose any more points, can it?"*

Regret flooded through Severus almost as soon as he said it. Watching Harry flushed with embarrassment reminded him too much of the bullying he had suffered in his own school days. He gave his ward a pointed look.

"You have just gotten off restriction, Mr. Potter. I do not think you want to find yourself in trouble again so soon."

"Yes, Sir," Harry said in a soft voice.

With a nod, Severus strolled off. He was regretting the entire exchange. The boy could never seem to keep himself out of trouble. Severus could only hope that this time it was of a less dangerous nature. He vowed to himself that he would call the boy to their quarters later that evening and make him tell what was going on before things got out of hand.

Watching the boy during the evening meal, Severus decided to put off the conversation. He had his head together with his two little friends as usual, but Severus didn't have the heart to disturb him. He knew that Harry's first year at Hogwarts hadn't exactly gone smoothly. While Severus tried not to blame himself, it was hard not to. He had tried his hardest to protect the boy. Between Harry's penchant for trouble and the homicidal forces that seemed out to get him at every turn, it seemed he was doomed to fail at his task.

At the end of the meal, Severus released Harry with a nod, and the boy left toward his tower. There was a feeling deep down that Severus kept trying to dismiss. It was foolishness. Harry was safe in Gryffindor Tower, where there were prefects, Professor McGonagall and Filch patrolling. Everything would be fine. He had threatened the boy already earlier that afternoon. To do so again would be overkill. It would only embarrass Harry and make his ward think he didn't trust him.

Severus wandered aimlessly back to the dungeons. Rather than head to his quarters, he went to the Slytherins. It was the last day of exams, and they would be in the mood to celebrate, but Severus didn't go to hinder their shenanigans. It was more that he felt the need to do something useful, feeling helpless as he did about his position in Harry's life.

The Slytherins were indeed celebrating and with a little more gumption than they usually would. At first, they seemed inclined to cease their festivities in Severus's presence, assuming that he was just making an appearance and would leave them to their party after a few minutes. When he instead entrenched himself in an armchair, one of his seventh years challenged him to a chess game. The other students preceded to ignore him, more or less. The evening passed in much this way, and Severus beat four more students in chess before calling it a night.

It was challenging to go to sleep that night, even with clearing his mind and rigorously held Occlumency shields. Even then, his sleep was fitful. Each time he awoke, he had that same sick feeling in the pit of his gut. Something was very wrong.

Finally, he decided to forget about sleep. Getting fully dressed in his long back robes, Severus stole through the hallways. It was common for him to patrol when he couldn't sleep, and it was common for him to be unable to sleep. Severus was a familiar figure in the corridors in the dead of night.

Suddenly, he heard a scream. It wasn't anything he heard aloud; he heard it in his head though, plain as day. Without thinking about where he was going, Severus took off running toward the third-floor corridor. As he was running, it occurred to him what was on guarded there.

"That blasted boy!" Severus thundered. "He's gone after the stone!"

There was no time to think about why Harry had gone after the Philosopher's Stone. It was a certainty that Severus knew it. He was just as confident that Quirrell was there too. Harry was in grave danger. Severus had never been satisfied that Quirrell was safe. He knew that he should not have allowed himself to be distracted, but Harry's playing unsafely in Quidditch matches, breaking into cars, or smuggling illegal dragons. The boy had managed to get himself into real trouble!

When he got to the corridor, Severus shouted, "Bombarda!"

The door shattered. Severus did not stop to think about the fact that that Hagrid was likely going to be worried about his precious Cerebrus. There were enough problems to worry about. The three-headed dog had not been hit by the door or bits of it flying about. Severus knew how to put enough energy into his spells.

"Conjunctiva," Severus spelled to the mutt with force.

The dog immediately began pawing at its face, rolling around on its back. Severus felt terrible for it and knew he would face a riled Hagrid later. It couldn't be helped. He still had a scar on his leg from the beast and simply didn't have time to deal with it now.

Leaving the dog to its misery, Severus raced through the rest of the obstacles. They were no problem, of course. He blasted the door and the chess pieces. When he got to the fire, he simply waved his wand, and it disappeared. He idly wondered who had solved his riddle.

It took him less than ten minutes from when he heard the scream, and Severus thought it was too long. When he got to the Stone's Chamber, his heart nearly stopped. There in the center stood Harry, facing the Mirror of Erised and Quirrell—but it wasn't. It was Voldemort.

This was a face that Severus had hoped he would never see again. It still haunted his nightmares. There was no question about who it was, though, even though the face was currently peeking out of the back of Quirrell's head. Not only was Voldemort possessing Quirrell, but he was also speaking to Harry.

*"See what I have become?" the face said. "Mere shadow and vapor . . . I have form only when I can share another's body . . . but there have always been those willing to let me into their hearts and minds. . . . Unicorn blood has strengthened me, these past weeks . . . you saw faithful Quirrell drinking it for me in the forest . . . and once I have the Elixir of Life, I will be able to create a body of my own. . . . Now . . . why don't you give me that Stone in your pocket?"*

Although he considered saying something, Severus realized that no one in the room seemed to have seen him yet. He fingered his wand and tried to think of the best plan. To hit Quirrell with a spell from his current position was dangerous, especially when he was in front of the mirror, particularly when Severus was unsure how powerful this Quirrell-Voldemort combination was. Both the boy and the Dark Lord were distracted for the time being, but Severus knew that would not last. When they saw him, it would get infinitely more complicated. Far from being savior, Severus had just put the boy in more danger by his presence.

His thoughts were interrupted by Voldemort's words. The Dark Lord had just asked Harry to join him or meet the same end as his parents. Severus was about to step forward when the boy reacted vehemently. As Harry was shouting at the Dark Lord and both he and Quirrell were distracted, Severus eased his way around the room to get closer. He heard the Dark Lord order Quirrell to seize Harry, but when the sniveling coward obeyed, the strangest thing happened.

Quirrell knocked Harry to his feet in his haste to get the boy and backed off as if he were burned. Harry was holding his head as if he, too, were in pain. Severus moved closer but in front of Quirrell so that the Dark Lord could not see him yet. Quirrell was screeching.

*"Master, I cannot hold him — my hands — my hands!"*

Harry seemed no better off. Quirrell was on top of him, pinning him to the ground with his knees. Even though Severus was getting closer to the man, he was in no condition to notice. Harry was reaching out now, grasping at Quirrell's face and any exposed skin. The result was a horrifying burning. Harry was literally burning the man alive with his touch.

Quirrell jumped up and tried to run. Harry followed. Severus knew that this was the moment to intervene. The boy saw him there but didn't stop. He went careening after Quirrell at full-tilt.

"He's helping Voldemort!" Harry shouted. "I have to stop him."

"Harry!"

Severus followed as the boy chased after Quirrell. Harry grabbed his would-be Defense teacher by the arm. There was an awful hissing sound as his skin sizzled beneath Harry's fingers. The boy gripped harder.

"He can't stand the touch of my skin!" Harry shouted unnecessarily.

"Severus," the Dark Lord sneered, "I should have known. What are you doing with this Mudblood spawn?"

"You have no right to talk to him," Severus said, gritting his teeth as soon as the words were out.

He had often wondered if he would see the Dark Lord again and what condition the man would be in. That usually followed with him wondering in what state he himself would be in. He had never imagined he would be talking to him out of the back of another man's skull. There was no length his former master would not sink to.

"I see that you have turned against me, Severus," the Dark Lord said with a twisted face. "Or were you never mind, to begin with? Never serving two masters, were you? You were always Dumbledore's man, I see."

Sometime during this conversation, Harry had turned around. Quirrell was a pile of seared and charred skin on the floor, sitting up with the back of his head facing up. He wasn't moving. The only motion was coming from the Dark Lord's words as he was likely slowly stealing what little life was left from the body. Severus didn't have time to think about that. He did not want another conversation between Harry and the Dark Lord. He didn't want the boy overhearing this one either.

"What does he mean, Sir?" Harry said, wrinkling his brow.

"Never mind," Severus spat. "Get out of here, Harry."

"No," Harry said. "What is he talking about?"

Severus drew his wand and pointed it at the Dark Lord. He had long ago stopped thinking of the body as Quirrell's. He didn't want to kill the man with Harry watching.

"Go, Harry," Severus repeated. "I mean it. Now. You do not need to be here anymore. Your part is done. Go through the chambers and wait for me before the Cerberus. I do not know what condition it is in."

With a shake of his head, Harry moved toward the door. Severus watched him. In that moment of distracted, the Dark Lord somehow managed to get the energy to lift Quirrell's body up. He lurched toward Severus like an Inferius.

With lightning speed honed of a season's foolish Quidditch moves, Harry lunged back. He thrust his palms hard against the sides of Quirrell's head, Voldemort's face, and pushed. The body crumpled almost in an instant. Just as Severus was beginning to allow himself to feel some relief, there was a rush of air and Dark Magic as he could feel the Dark Lord's life force leaving the chamber. The Dark Lord was not dead, just on the run.

Turning to Harry, Severus tried hard not to gasp. The boy looked like death warmed over. Rushing over, Severus reached the child just as he collapsed. Taking his pulse, Severus was relieved that the boy was alive. He had just passed out from magical exhaustion.

As quickly as possible, Severus carried the child through the chambers, again cursing that it wasn't possible to Apparate within Hogwarts, and paused to see how the dog was doing with his eyes. He heard whimpering outside the door and felt some pity for the beast. Slowly, he opened the door a crack.

"Somnium," Severus whispered to the already sleepy Hellhound.

When he was confident the spell had taken effect, Severus carried Harry to the hospital wing. There were no rooms with Floo nodes close enough that he trusted. When Severus arrived, he deposited the boy gently on a bed and raced to Madam Pomphrey's office. He met her at the door, her alarm having alerted her to a visitor already.

"What in Merlin's name did the boy get into this time?"

"Poppy, please run a complete diagnostic," Severus said. "I think it's magical exhaustion, though he will have burns on his hands."

Silently, Severus was asking her to tell him that Harry would be okay. He wouldn't allow himself to say it out loud. It would ruin his reputation, but that was not the only reason. It was too terrible to utter in words.

She nodded, and they both looked on at the boy in the bed. He was in a deep sleep. Severus looked up at her. Quietly, she spelled his torn and scarred clothing into white hospital pajamas and ran her wand over Harry from head to toe.

"What do you recommend?" Severus asked after the first results of her diagnostics showed severe magical exhaustion.

"He will need a Nutrient Potion for sure. There is no way to tell how long this will last. He will also need a Replenishing Potion. I will be putting salves on his hands right away. I'll be monitoring his condition after that. Do you mind using the stock for now? I know you will want to make everything fresh, but I would like to get him started right away," Madam Pomphrey said.

"Of course," Severus said.

"Who did this to him?" Poppy asked gravely as she gently plastered salve on Harry's burned hands and wrapped them in bandages.

"The Dark Lord."

"Again?"

Severus nodded and said, "It was Quirrell. He was possessed, so to speak. I am not even sure I know the whole story. The Dark Lord was under the turban. I awoke, went to check on the stone, and found Mr. Potter having a conversation with the Dark Lord from the back of Quirrell's head. There was a struggle, and the Dark Lord departed in spirit form. I believe Quirrell perished in the process."

It was a version of the story that was mostly true, though it left out a few key details. Severus would have to tell a fuller version to Dumbledore, though perhaps not the complete one. With a sigh, Severus sat in a chair next to Harry's bed. The headmaster was out of the castle, but Minerva would have to know what had happened.

"Poppy, would you call Minerva, please?"

With a nod, the Mediwitch left to call Harry's Head of House. Severus kept his eyes on the boy in the bead. He remembered the feeling of impending doom he'd had and the way he'd dismissed Harry and his friends earlier. Severus had known they were up to something. He should have followed up.

For the first time, he looked around the hospital room. Neither of Harry's partners in crime was there. Severus was both relieved and puzzled about that. Now that he had a moment to think, he was wondering what had happened to them.

"Poppy," Severus kept his voice low, even though his charge was not going to wake. "Did you happen to have other visitors tonight?"

"No other Slytherins," Madam Pomphrey shook her head.

"I didn't ask about Slytherins," Severus eyed her, wondering if she was playing coy for some reason other than medical confidentiality. "I have a couple of Gryffindors in mind, as a matter of fact, that I am concerned about."

"Is that so?" Poppy raised an eyebrow. "It just so happens that I did have some Gryffindors earlier. First years. I have treated and released them. Neither had injuries serious enough to stay the night. Not like Mr. Potter here."

"That's good to hear," Severus mused. "Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger were involved in the same misadventure as Mr. Potter here."

"With the Dark Lord?" Madam Pomphrey gasped.

"Yes," Severus said. "I do not think that they are in any more danger, though. Apparently, Mr. Potter sent them back when they were injured. He does look out for his friends.

"That is true," Poppy said. "There never seems to be one of them in here without the others. They will want to visit him in the morning."

"Can he have visitors?"

"He can, but he won't likely be aware they are here, Severus," Poppy said gently. "He will sleep for several days."

"I understand," Severus said, turning as the hospital wing's double doors swung open and Minerva marched through them.

"Where is he?" Minerva demanded.

Moving away, Severus gestured to Harry's bed. The boy looked so small and wan lying there with the white blankets and metal bed frame. It was all so institutional. Severus hated the hospital wing. He was torn between the need to be by Harry's side and his desire to work on the potions Harry needed to get well.

"What happened?" Minerva asked, pursing her lips.

Severus looked at Harry. He realized he was going to need to repeat this story many times. Harry would need to as well. It would never get any easier. He might as well get used to it.

"Mr. Potter and his friends knew about the Philosopher's Stone," Severus began. He could tell by her reaction that this was not entirely new news to her. "For some reason, they decided to go after it themselves. Mr. Potter reached the stone and had an altercation with Quirrell, who was possessed by the Dark Lord. Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger were far less injured and have been treated and released."

From the way she was looking at him, Severus thought Minerva's eyes would possibly pop out of their sockets. He would acknowledge if pressed that his terse version of events left much to be desired and bordered on farcical, but it was also patently correct.

"I beg your pardon, Severus!" Minerva finally blurted out.

"Minerva, I am very tired," Severus said slowly, "I would really rather you allow me to go so that I can begin on the potions Mr. Potter will need."

"Are you serious? Potions?"

"Yes, Minerva. Potions," Severus was not even trying to be patient now. "As you can see, the boy is unconscious and will be for some time now. He will need several potions to maintain and promote good health. As his guardian, it is my prerogative to ensure that he has the best resources available."

With that, Severus stood up and stormed out of the room, leaving a stunned Minerva with Madam Pomphrey. He did not care what either woman thought of him at this point. All he cared out what getting out of the hospital wing.

Severus quickly walked through the corridors to his private lab. Once there, he went to his personal stock and downed a vial of Girding Potion. It was exceedingly early in the morning. At least there were no classes the next day. He began setting out the ingredients for several potions at once and then started all the potions his ward would need, as well as the salve. When they were all brewing, he returned to the hospital wing by way of his office Floo.

Dumbledore had arrived. He was standing in a corner far enough away from Harry's bed to not disturb the boy if talking in a low voice would wake him. Of course, it would not. Severus strode across the room and met the Headmaster's gaze.

"How is the potion-making going, Dear Boy?" Dumbledore asked.

"Just fine, Albus," Severus said. "I can leave them for just over an hour, so I came to visit Harry. I am aware that if there has been a change, Poppy would have alerted me. Still, I just …"

As his voice trailed off, Dumbledore gave him a congenial nod that made Severus want to grimace. He looked from Poppy to the Headmaster and decided it was better not to continue this line of discussion. That Harry was important to him was apparent to everyone, but there was no reason to talk about it.

"No change," Dumbledore informed him. "However, he seems to be in a mild coma due to magical exhaustion. As his magical core is replenished, he will slowly return to consciousness. He is an extraordinary boy."

"He is," Severus agreed. "He should never have been down there."

"No," Dumbledore said. "I had hoped that it would not happen this way."

"Just exactly what did you hope would happen, Albus?" Severus demanded.

"Voldemort should not have been able to get to the stone that easily," Dumbledore admitted. "As you see, however, he did not get it."

"No, he didn't," Severus said. "Harry almost got killed. How could you let Harry be so close to Voldemort for an entire school year?"

"Harry was in no danger," Dumbledore said mildly.

"No danger?" Severus scoffed. "What do you call almost falling off a broomstick hundreds of feet in the air, facing a fully grown mountain troll, or a three-headed dog? And what about that night in the Forbidden Forest?"

For a few beats, the two men stared at each other, Severus's coal-black eyes meeting Dumbledore's ice blue ones. Neither blinked nor moved. There wasn't a sound in the room.

"As I said," Dumbledore finally repeated. "The boy is special. He emerged from each of those incidents more or less unscathed."

"More or less," Severus ground out. "Meaning they were tests of some kind?"

"I did not say that."

"You didn't have to," Severus said, looking coldly into Dumbledore's eyes. "I don't know what kind of game you're playing here with Harry, but it ends now. He is not a pawn. He is not a soldier. I have said this already to you. I am his guardian."

Turning so fast that his robes snapped with him like a vampire's, Severus began to march out of the room. He had forgotten that Poppy was there. Severus realized, though, that she was now nowhere to be seen. He idly wondered when she had left.

"Oh, Severus," Dumbledore called after him.

Not liking this tone, Severus turned around. He saw that Dumbledore was standing tall, his eyes with none of the twinkle they usually had. He exuded power and authority.

"You are indeed Harry's guardian," Dumbledore said gravely. "With my blessing. Remember, though, that you are also one of my most trusted lieutenants. I need you, Severus. You saw that Voldemort is not gone, merely dormant."

Facing the man fully now, Severus gave Dumbledore his full attention. He heard what he was saying and what he wasn't saying. He didn't like one word of it. Gritting his teeth, Severus gave a short nod almost against his will. Some battles would have to be fought later when he had the strength to do so.

"Not everyone is ready to be a soldier when called," Dumbledore continued. "Part of the reason you will make a good guardian for Harry is that you can get him ready to be the soldier he is. He is already a soldier, Severus, whether you want him to be or not. If you want him to be better prepared when he next meets Voldemort, it is your job to do so."

"He will be prepared, Albus," Severus stated. "But it will be on my terms."

With that, he walked purposely out of the room, leaving Dumbledore standing there alone.

The next few days were a whir of potion-making, bedside-sitting, and nap-stealing in between. Somehow, Severus managed to get a good stock of the potions made in a few days. Poppy was predicting that Harry would be awake by the End of Term feast. Severus was grateful for that. He knew that the boy would hate to miss it.

Loathe though he was to spend time away from the hospital wing when Harry might awake soon. Severus had an important errand to run that he had been putting off far too long. The house had been prepared for their return home to Newton Abbot. Severus was looking forward to the quiet, and hopefully, there would be less talk of boys being soldiers.

Before he could take Harry home, however, he had one more promise to fulfill to Dumbledore. It was not a dealbreaker but would make things infinitely more manageable with the old man if he could get this last brick in place at their new home. For that reason, he was now standing on the sidewalk in front of the hated Privet Drive wearing Muggle-friendly clothing.

Walking up to the door and knocking brought back memories that Severus recalled somewhat fondly. He would like to think that his two previous trips to this house had changed the Dursleys' perceptions of their behavior toward their nephew. On the other hand, there was no hope for some people. If anyone fell into this category, it was Vernon Dursley. He had seen a glimmer of light in Petunia, though, and that was the reason he was here.

"Get the door, Dudley."

That was a good sign. At one time, the child had been considered behind such menial labor as door-answering. Severus waited on the stoop, hopefully. He was pleasantly surprised when a somewhat slimmer version of the Dursley's child swung the door open.

"Oh, it's you."

Not encourage, Severus had to admit, but he could work with it.

"Good morning, Mr. Dursley. Is your mother home?" Severus greeted.

"Sure."

The boy swung the door open and stepped back and then closed it behind Severus. He didn't slam it. He wasn't making faces, and he wasn't running for the stairs. This was progress.

"Mom!"

Well, Severus decided manners would come later.

"Good morning, Severus," Petunia stated in what did not seem at all like a greeting. She looked like she had just come from sucking a lemon.

"Good morning, Petunia. If I might, I'd like to speak with you for a few minutes about a matter of some importance," Severus said evenly.

He was really going out of his way to be polite. Besides the Muggle attire, his wand was nowhere to be seen, and the sneer that was usually on his face was put away too. Really he was an ambassador of goodwill.

"I suppose."

She led him to the parlor and asked her son to get a tea service. To Severus's infinite surprise, the boy went without question. There might have been other wizards here who had cast some spells to force them to act like this, but it hadn't been Severus. He had conducted some interrogations and made his views known and perhaps dealt out some punishment, but that was it. Nothing that could cause this behavior change. They weren't acting afraid of him. It was more like indifference.

"You seem well, Petunia," Severus said.

"I suppose I am," Petunia stated. "For now."

"For now?" Severus asked.

"Dudley and I are moving," Petunia said. "So, if you are here to tell me that the brat needs a bigger bedroom or more luxurious meals this summer, you are out of luck."

She wasn't saying this out of spite. There didn't seem to be any malice in her use of the term "brat" to describe Harry. Although Severus resented it, he had to admit he often referred to his ward that way himself. Something was definitely going on, though.

"Why are you moving, if I may ask?" Severus prodded.

"Go ahead and ask," Petunia said with a shrug. "I no longer care. It's my husband."

"Your husband?"

"Ex-husband," Petunia said with a grimace. "I'm leaving him. You opened my eyes; I'm not afraid to tell you. For all my talk of magic, that man had me under some kind of spell. A curse, that's what it was. He was a vile, ugly man. I kicked him out." She sighed. "But we can't afford this place without him. Without his income."

Severus nodded, trying to take in all that she was saying. In a way, it made sense. Petunia had begun dating Vernon while Lily was still alive. He might have been involved in the rift between the sisters. He wasn't willing to forgive her for everything, but it was a start.

"I see," Severus said. "Do you have a job?"

"No," Petunia said sadly. "I've never worked. Vernon insisted on it. He wanted the house to be perfect. Nothing was ever good enough. The day … Harry … was left on our doorstep. He was furious. He was willing to believe that I had nothing to do with that unnaturalness. But to have it under our roof? Around his precious son? He was so much worse after that. I could handle him before then."

"I see," Severus could see where she was going with this. He decided to let her continue.

"He's made Dudley into what he is. He is a bully and a coward. Sometimes I wonder," Petunia made a noise like a sob. "Sometimes, I wonder if it's already too late."

"I don't think so," Severus said. "It's never too late to change."

There was nothing said for a few minutes. Dudley brought in the tea and then left. The two adults busied themselves with their cups and sat there drinking in studied awkwardness.

"I have a proposition," Severus began. "It is, in fact, the reason I came. I knew nothing of your changed circumstances."

Petunia looked up at him. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but there was only the slightest glistening of tears in the corners. She was holding it together by the thinnest thread. Saying nothing, she gave him one curt nod.

"I require a caretaker for my home near Plymouth," Severus said. "The house is not that large, and there is a garden-level apartment large enough for you and your son. You would be staying there year-round. There are some conditions."

By the look on her face, the suggestion was not wholly unwelcome. Severus knew that she was a proud woman. Her reduced circumstances left her few options, though, and Severus realized that he had an advantage over her. He felt no qualms about pressing it.

"Conditions?" Petunia asked through pursed lips.

"You are to avoid Harry at all costs unless you can treat him at least civilly," Severus told her. "The same goes for your son. You will not be rude to him or behave as you have in the past. That will be the end of this arrangement. Will you accept those conditions?"

"Yes," Petunia said without hesitation.

"Very well," Severus waved his hand, and a piece of parchment appeared. "Here is the address, as well as salary information and a floor plan that might be useful for packing purposes. My agent will be by with more information and keys. Good day to you, Madam."

She nodded as if in a daze, and Severus took his exit. He had completed his business. The ceremony for the blood ward could be done, Albus had assured him. Severus was not satisfied with this account, but if Petunia's safety was assured, this was ease Harry's mind. He knew that the boy would never forgive him for leaving his aunt vulnerable to Death Eaters, no matter how vile she was or how she had treated him.

As quickly as possible, Severus strode to the Apparition point. When he reached Hogwarts, he nearly ran to the hospital wing. When Severus arrived, Harry was still not awake. With a quiet sigh of relief, he sunk down into the chair at Harry's bedside he had frequented so often.

"He's coming 'round," Poppy said, coming up behind him.

Severus took a better look at Harry. The boy seemed to have more color in his cheeks, and his breathing was less even. If it wasn't his imagination, Severus thought he might have even seen the boy stir.

"How long has he been like this?" Severus asked.

"Possibly about a half an hour."

Taking Harry's hand in one of his, Severus stroked the boy with thin pale fingers. As he did so, he noticed a fluttering in his face. Severus felt his heart skip a beat. Even though he had known it was just magical exhaustion, Severus had always wondered if the boy would ever wake up.

"Harry," Severus said gently.

"Snape?" Harry's voice was hoarse and so low that Severus barely heard it.

"I'm here," Severus's own voice was choked, almost as hoarse and low as Harry's.

Waving his hand, Severus conjured a picture of cool water and a small glass. He poured the water in the glass with a hand that he was startled to find was slightly shaking. Holding the glass to Harry's lips, he tried to steady his mind.

"Take it easy," Severus said. "You've been out for a while."

"Out?" Harry asked.

"Shh," Severus said. "Take a sip."

The boy obeyed. He winced, and Severus waved his wand to dim the lights for Harry's sensitive eyes. Relief coursed through his veins; Harry was okay.

Madam Pomphrey bustled over and began running diagnostic spells. Neither Severus, not Harry said a word. They waited for the results, watching her ministrations. Severus handed the cup to Harry and helped him sit up, adjusting his pillows.

"Well, Mr. Potter, it seems you are much better," Poppy said. "Your magical core is replenished, and your nutrient levels are good. I would say that you will be up and out of bed in time for the feast."

"The feast?" Harry said. "What day is it?"

"It is Sunday, Mr. Potter," Poppy told him. "You have been asleep for the better part of five days. The End of Term feast is tomorrow."

Gaping at her, Harry turned to Severus as if for confirmation. He nodded to the boy and gently squeezed his shoulder. Glad that he seemed less the worse for wear, Severus could not help but feel relieved the ordeal was over.

"Get some rest now," Severus ordered his charge. "You will no doubt have visitors later."

"Rest!" Harry said with a grimace. "I've been asleep for five days."

"You have been unconscious," Severus corrected. "There is a difference. However, you may stay up in bed. You should take a bath, change, and have a small meal of real food."

Harry nodded, yawned, and started to get up. Severus stood up and helped him to the infirmary bathroom. He magically drew a bath and made sure the child had fresh pajamas of soft flannel, soap, and clean undergarments. After summoning a robe and slippers, he left the boy to his ministrations and returned to the main room.

Dumbledore was standing next to Harry's bed, getting an update from Poppy. Severus was not surprised. He knew the headmaster would show up as soon as the boy was conscious. Walking with a determined gait, he presented himself before the man.

"It is done," Severus stated.

"She agreed?" Dumbledore said.

"She did," Severus said, even though he had a feeling the wizard knew as much already.

"I will take care of the wards. When will she arrive?" Dumbledore peered at Severus over his half-moon spectacles, his blue eyes twinkling cheerfully at a plan well-orchestrated.

"Before we arrive," Severus said.

"Very well," Dumbledore said. "It will be done."

Severus nodded. Dumbledore turned back to Poppy. In a few minutes, Harry returned from the bathroom with wet hair. Severus reached up and performed a drying spell as the boy got situated again in his bed. A house elf appeared with porridge, and Harry ate famously.

"You will be fine, Harry," Severus told him. "We'll talk later. I am pleased that you survived your adventure."

"Yes, Sir," Harry said with a grin. "How many House points do I lose?"

Severus stole a glance at Dumbledore, who was standing behind him, clearly waiting to talk to Harry. "I believe you just might come out ahead on this one."

Note: While this is the last chapter, an epilogue will be posted soon.

Rowling, J.K.. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (p. 288, 316, 317). Pottermore Publishing. Kindle Edition.