It was deep into the night before Harry's return to Hogwarts when he woke up, scar searing with pain. He bolted upright, breathing heavily and clutching his scar. Harry pulled off the covers, realizing they were soaked with sweat, and fumbled for his other set of robes. From the pocket, he pulled out the tin of salve that he and Snape had made. He supposed it was finally time for a test to see if it worked.
Harry spread the cream over his scar, feeling instant relief. The coolness of the balm eased the burn until it was barely present and definitely manageable. Harry allowed a bit of a sigh of relief.
He put his head back on the pillow when another thought struck him. What if that burn meant Voldemort was calling his Death Eaters? Slipping out of bed once more, Harry tiptoed to the door, careful not to wake Draco or Ron since they were all sharing a room. He shut the door gently and padded over to Severus's room.
Knocking three times, Harry asked, "Severus?"
Heavy footsteps sounded behind the door just before it was unceremoniously yanked open. "Harry? Is something wrong?" Severus asked, hair tousled from sleep.
"Oh, sorry," Harry said, biting his lip. "I didn't mean to wake you. My scar just started hurting and I thought maybe he was calling a meeting..."
Severus looked relieved and tired. "Come in."
Harry followed him inside, feeling sheepish. "Really, it's okay. You can go back to sleep."
"Sit," Severus commanded.
Harry sat on the edge of Severus's bed.
"Your scar started burning?" Severus asked. "Were you having a nightmare?"
"No," Harry replied immediately. "Er, maybe. I don't remember."
Severus nodded. "Did you use occlumency before you went to sleep?"
Harry winced. "No, I forgot," he admitted. To distract from his lapse, Harry said, "The salve worked, though. I put it on and now I can barely feel it burning."
"That is no guarantee it will work when He calls," Severus said grimly. He pinched the bridge of his nose as if he had a headache. "Your scar has burned in the past and normal salve has worked on it."
"That's true," Harry said with a frown. "I'll, uh, let you get back to sleep now. Sorry I woke you."
"It is quite alright," Severus assured him. "I am glad you notified me of the pain in your scar."
Harry nodded and stood. "Well, goodnight then."
"I believe it is morning now," Severus said dryly.
"Then good morning," Harry corrected himself with a hint of a smile. He left, closing the door behind him. Back in his own room, Harry glanced at the time, seeing that it was only a few hours before he generally woke up. He closed his eyes and tried for sleep but it was elusive. Every time he began to drift off, the darkness seemed oppressive somehow, as if it was more than mere lack of light. The pitch black dream world in which he walked was more than simply the land of nightmares. It was oblivion. Harry's eyes snapped open. He had the feeling he wouldn't be getting much more sleep that night, or morning, as Snape would have it. He repressed a shiver and rolled over.
Sitting up once more, Harry suddenly found the blackness of the room to be frightening. The dark had never scared him before, being that he spent many of his younger years in a cupboard, but now, with the lingering chill of the dream still upon him, it seemed unbearable. Harry reached into his trunk and fished around until his fingers felt the waxy side of a candle. He pulled it out and lit it, setting it on the nightstand between his bed and the window. Harry watched the shifting forms in the flame of the candle Rhea had given him until dawn broke.
Harry rubbed his eyes as he sat at the breakfast table. He grabbed a piece of toast off of the plate and nibbled on the corner.
"You look tired, Harry," Hermione commented, coming into the kitchen. Severus lowered his paper and peered at Harry, eyes narrowing as if to scrutinize him.
Harry shrugged. "Just a bit of a rough night, that's all," Harry said, sending a reassuring smile at Hermione and then at Severus.
Hermione pulled out a chair and served herself some eggs and bacon. "You're going back to Hogwarts today, aren't you?"
"Yeah," Harry replied, taking a sip of his pumpkin juice. "Wanna come?"
"No, thanks," Hermione said with a grin.
"You'd have the library all to yourself," Harry tempted lightly.
Hermione shook her head. "Tempting, but no. Why do you want to go early anyway?" she asked.
Harry shrugged. "It's kind of fun to have the run of an empty castle. Who knows, maybe I'll get to meet the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Maybe I can get on his good side before the term even starts."
"Do you know who it is?" Hermione asked curiously. "The text selections are so standard that it's not even possible to get a feel for what they're like."
"Severus, do you know yet?" Harry asked.
"The last I heard, the Headmaster was still undecided," Severus said. "Which is probably why the text is simply standard."
"Any chance it will be you?" Harry asked hopefully.
"I should hope not," Severus said, to Harry's surprise. "Two days is hardly time enough to prepare."
"Oh, right," Harry said. He shrugged to Hermione.
"I just hope we have a good teacher this year," Hermione said. "I mean, it is O.W.L. prep year and I'd like to actually learn something."
"Haven't you learned anything the past four years?" Harry asked.
Hermione smiled apologetically. "Well, I love Sirius and all, but his class was, well, pardon the pun, less than serious. Lupin was good, Lockhart was an idiot and Quirrell couldn't lecture to save his life. If you filtered out the stuttering, maybe."
Harry nodded. "That about sums it up. My Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Durmstrang was good, but not very amiable." He glanced sideways at Snape. "Kind of like you used to be."
"Used to be?" Severus repeated. "Hm. If that is what you think, I may have to correct my image this year."
"Don't worry," Hermione said, "I think you still get the meanest teacher in the building award."
"Thank you, Ms. Granger," Snape said, nodding to her before returning to his paper.
Hermione leaned over to Harry, "Wow, I just made a joke to Professor Snape and he didn't murder me," she whispered, thinking Snape couldn't hear her.
Before Harry could reply, Severus cut in, without looking up, "Do you mean to suggest I am slipping, Ms. Granger?"
Hermione blushed. "No, sir, not at all."
Severus's lip twitched ever so slightly and Harry laughed just as Sirius walked in.
"Mornin', Harry, Severus, Hermione," Sirius said cheerily. He dropped down into a seat with a grin. "Well, when do you two leave?" he asked, looking between Harry and Severus.
"That eager for us to leave?" Severus asked, casually raising a brow.
"Of course not," Sirius said sincerely. "Not saying that it won't be nice not having you around to bug me about cleaning up the place..."
"Not saying it won't be nice to have to be the one cleaning up the place," Harry added.
Sirius winked at him. "You got it, Harry. But really, when do you leave?"
"This afternoon," Harry replied. "Why?"
"I have something for you. Come on," he said, standing up.
They went upstairs to Sirius's room where he opened a dresser drawer and offered Harry a mirror.
"Is this yours?" Harry asked.
"No," Sirius replied. "I made one for you to send to your girlfriend."
"Don't even bother denying it, Harry," Sirius said, shaking his head. "Here."
Harry took it by the handle. "Thanks," he said, twisting it so that it caught the light. "Did you put an unbreakable charm on it this time?"
"Sure did," Sirius said.
"Thank you, Sirius," Harry said with a smile. "And you'll call me on yours, right?"
"Of course," Sirius said. "It'll be just like old Durmstrang times."
Harry couldn't resist asking, "Are you sad you aren't going back to Hogwarts?"
Sirius shrugged. "A little," he admitted. "Teaching was a lot more fun than I expected. Then again, it was a lot more work too. I'm fine with moving on, though. I think this job with the twins is more my style anyway." He grinned. "They're leaving me in control of a couple of experiments while they're at Hogwarts."
"Oh, Merlin," Harry breathed. Harry knew that the twins didn't hand over their work easily, which meant that Sirius's experiments were probably too illegal for school, even by the twins' standards. "Please don't burn the house down. Or worse."
"I won't," Sirius promised.
His grin didn't exactly inspire confidence in Harry.
Harry lugged his trunk out of the Floo with a groan. "Ugh, I hate goodbyes," he said.
"Agreed," Severus replied. "They are often tedious and far too attached to sentimentality and emotion."
Harry blinked. "So in layman's terms, your worst nightmare."
"Essentially," Severus replied, amused.
Harry grinned, pulling his trunk out of the way. "When do we have to go down to dinner?"Snape glanced at the time. "Five minutes ago."
"Fashionably late?" Harry teased as they walked. "You're usually right on time."
"Yes, well, the later we go, the less time we have to spend there," Severus reasoned.
"Good point. But why don't you want to spend more time there?" Harry asked. "The teachers aren't so bad."
"Because I have a horrible suspicion as to the identity of the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher."
"Really?" Harry asked. "Why didn't you say anything at breakfast?"
"Because I did not want to start a false rumor," Severus said. "That is, if it turns out to be false."
"I guess we'll find out now, won't we?" Harry asked, pulling open the door to the Great Hall.
Everyone was already seated when Harry and Severus approached. They took the two open seats on the end, right next to-
Harry froze. It was the woman from both of Sirius's trials. The woman who had accused Sirius of lying. Slowly, Harry took his seat, eyes locking with hers. She glanced at his scar and then smiled sweetly.
"Harry, Severus, welcome," Dumbledore said graciously. "May I introduce our new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Dolores Umbridge."
She offered a hand to Snape and he shook it stiffly. "So nice to meet you, Professor Snape. I have heard much about you."
"I have heard nothing of you," Severus replied, true to form. Harry had to force down a grin.
"Yes, well, that will change soon enough, you'll see," she replied, trying to mask her un-satisfaction. "And the great Harry Potter. What an honor it is."
Something in her overly saccharine tone told Harry that she considered it anything but. He didn't say anything as he shook her hand, but rather, focused his energy on trying not to cringe.
For a while, everyone busied themselves with food but eventually, small talk became necessary. Being that Harry and Severus were nearly isolated at the end of the table, her attempts at conversation fell on them.
"Hem, hem," Umbridge said, clearing her throat. "So, Professor Snape. I hear you are quite the disciplinarian."
"I believe that if the students know how to behave, they will perform better in class," Severus said in a clipped monotone. Harry recognized his tone as the one that he donned whenever he wanted to end the conversation before the other party began to think that it was okay to converse with him. So, in other words, his usual.
"I quite agree," Umbridge said. "And you use the same principles concerning your, hem, hem, other responsibilities?" She looked pointedly at Harry.
Severus's gaze hardened. "If you are speaking of my son, then do say so."
Umbridge blushed slightly. "Well, of course."
"Our home life is none of your concern. I would thank you to restrain any further questions regarding it," Severus said. While his words were polite, his voice was as sharps as a lash. Harry stifled a smile and, from the corner of his eye, noticed McGonagall doing the same. That only made him want to smile more.
Umbridge turned away to start up a conversation with Flitwick, her chin still held high. As soon as Harry thought she wasn't looking, he shot a grin at Severus and was surprised to see him respond with a slight turn of the lip. Even though Harry hated Umbridge already, perhaps this year wouldn't be so bad. After all, it was very well possible that it would be worse for her than for the students. Harry grinned.