Harry heard the Floo flare as his friends left, but didn't hear anyone call out "The Burrow". All he heard were whispers. Maybe they had decided it would be best if they left quietly. Harry could hear Sirius and Severus saying goodnight to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley as they followed their children. He had no idea where Ginny had gone off to.
Harry thought of all of this with a certain sort of numbness. He was still lost in thought when Lupin, Sirius and Severus wandered into the kitchen where he was seated.
"Harry, I wanted to tell you happy birthday before I left," Lupin said, coming closer. "Are you alright? Was I disturbing some sort of deep thought?"
Harry shook his head. "You're fine. Thanks, Lupin."
"Sure. Have a good one, Harry," Lupin said. He nodded to Sirius and Severus. "I'll talk to you soon."
They replied in kind as Harry returned to staring at the grain in the wood of the table. Harry was vaguely aware of Severus pulling out a chair and sitting next to him.
"Everyone is gone, Harry," he said rather gently.
"So do not think I am going to believe that everything is okay. You are obviously disturbed. Care to talk about it?" Severus asked.
Sirius cleared his throat. "I should go as well. The meeting is to start in a few minutes..." he hinted at Severus.
Severus didn't take his eyes off Harry. "Then tell them I will be late," he said in a tone that implied he would obviously be staying behind for a few minutes.
"You can go," Harry said. "I mean, it is your job."
"You are my job too, Harry," Severus said as Sirius left. "What happened?"
Figuring that he'd end up telling his guardian everything sooner or later, he gave in. Harry ran a hand through his hair.
"My friends have all gotten together. Without me," he said glumly.
Harry's anger flared at his guardian. "'Ah'? That's all you've got to say?"
Severus remained calm. "That is not all I have to say. I was simply registering what you said."
"Oh," Harry replied. "But the point is that they don't want me around anymore, I guess."
"Are you truly one to give up so easily?" Severus asked. "That is not the Harry I know."
"I'm not going to force myself upon them," Harry replied stubbornly. "If they don't like me anymore, then fine."
"Are you sure that is the reason they did not include you?" Severus asked. "Perhaps that is not it at all."
Harry scoffed, "What other reason could there be?"
"Maybe they weren't allowed," Severus suggested.
Harry gave him a flat stare. "What, Mrs. Malfoy actually hates me and doesn't want me over?"
Severus sighed. "Harry, I am not suggesting that anyone hates you. In fact, I am pointing out the opposite. I do not believe that you are hated by anyone of which we speak. I am simply trying to say that you do not have all the facts, nor are you aware of any extenuating circumstances."
Harry didn't reply.
"Don't jump to conclusions and let this ruin your friendships. That is all I ask."
"Why do you care?" Harry asked testily.
"Because your happiness matters to me. I get the feeling that your friends are and will continue to be very important in your life. Do not give up so easily," Severus said softly.
"But I've got you and Sirius. Isn't that enough?"Severus shook his head. "I will not be around forever, Harry. Another war is beginning; nothing is certain. Your friends will be there where family fails. Remember that."
Harry looked up at him, pained. "Alright. I'll give them another chance."
"And perhaps many more after that," Severus said, standing.
"Since when did you become the forgiving one?" Harry muttered.
"Times are changing, Harry," Severus said grimly. "It may be too late for me but not for you. Now, I really must get to that meeting."
Severus left Harry wondering when his guardian had gotten so darkly philosophical. Had he missed something? Harry seemed to be missing a lot these days.
Severus entered the room and sat down with a swish of his robes. "I apologize for being late."
"That's alright," Mr. Weasley offered. "Sirius told us there was a bit of end-of-party wrap up work to do."
"Indeed. Have I missed much?"
"Well we are almost finished, actually. There isn't much more we can do until Dumbledore can manage to stop by," he replied.
"There's plenty we can do," Moody growled. "But none of it's gonna get done by sitting here and talking about it!"
"Somebody's got to plan, Moody," Tonks replied placatingly. "We can't just be running all over the place, doing anything we want, can we?"
"Can we hurry this along?" Severus interjected moodily. "I dislike leaving Harry alone and by arguing we are wasting time."
"We offered to assign a guard, Severus," Mrs. Weasley pointed out gently.
"I am quite capable myself, thank you," he snapped. "We would be better served assigning a guard to... well, you are quite aware."
"I agree with Severus," Moody asserted. Under his breath, he added, "For once."
"Since we are agreed, perhaps we could appoint Lupin to draw up a schedule? Give him something useful to do," Severus said snidely.
"Severus," Tonks snapped. "You know full well-"
"Yes, yes, it is almost the full moon but that does no-"
"Stop. It's fine," Lupin assured her. "I'll do it."
Tonks still looked a bit put out but Severus obviously didn't care. He turned to Kingsley who had been silent throughout the majority of the meeting. "Has there been any news about the Tournament?"Kingsley shook his head. Replying in his signature deep voice, he explained, "The international confederation was more than happy to turn the investigation over to Fudge and his investigative department. Therefore, it has, naturally, been thoroughly covered up and explained away."
"Why would they do that?" Sirius demanded. "Why on earth would they think Fudge could do a better job?"
"It is not that he can do a better job," Kingsley told him, "it was because they did not want the controversy that would undeniably be stirred up when their findings were released, especially if they happened to miss something. If they chose the wrong side in the debate over You-Know-Who, it could have serious consequences. Much better to allow Fudge to take the risk and deal with the fallout."
"But Fudge chose the wrong side," Sirius protested.
"Yes, well, there's nothing we can do about that, is there?" Mrs. Weasley piped up. "I say we just focus on what we can do, like trying to protect the-" she cut herself off, peering at the door.
Severus looked that way, trying to figure out what had attracted her attention. He didn't see anything amiss, save a thin piece of flesh colored string in the crack at the bottom of the door.
"Can we call this meeting closed?" Mrs. Weasley asked. "I have a certain pair of twins to flay," she said with a venom, loud enough to be heard through the door. Severus noticed the string recede.
"I think we're done for today. Next time Dumbledore gets a chance, we'll meet again," Kingsley said authoritatively. "Dismissed."
The moment he said that gathered herself up and charged out the door. Severus fully expected horrified screams from upstairs soon enough. As everyone filed out, Severus pulled Sirius aside. With a look, he indicated for him to hang back until everyone else had left the room.
Alone, Severus closed the door.
"Harry is convinced that his friends hate him," Severus said bluntly.
"What? Why?" Sirius asked.
"Because they're here and he is there."
Sirius pulled his hand through his tangled hair. "This is your fault, you know."
"How do you figure?" Severus asked, scowling.
"You're the one who ordered me not to tell him anything or let him come over," Sirius said.
"Could you imagine what would happen if he came over here?" Severus demanded. "He wouldn't give it a rest until he found out what was going on." He added defensively, "And those were Dumbledore's orders, not mine."
Sirius rolled his eyes. "As much as I love and respect Dumbledore, I'm not sure he really knows what's best for Harry. After all, he's only even met him a few times; talked to him even less. Harry's a normal fifteen year old as one can be with what he went through and now thinking that his friends don't like him anymore? He's insecure, Severus and he can't be kept in the dark any longer!" Sirius raged.
"Are you quite finished?" Severus said calmly.
"Yes, I am," Sirius replied.
"Until Dumbledore says differently, or until I decide Harry is no longer safe at Spinner's End, that is where he will stay," Severus stated.
"Then at least let his friends come over more often," Sirius suggested. "I know that you're not exactly an expert in matters of friendship being that you never had one-"
"I had one."
"- but this is what Harry needs. Really," Sirius finished.
Sirius nodded in approval, seeming mildly surprised that he had won the argument. "And you might let him leave the house from time to time, Severus. I mean, he's not a prisoner."
"It isn't safe."
"Don't be so overprotective," Sirius admonished. "Your town is like five blocks wide at most. How dangerous could it possibly be?"
"Well maybe with his friends then," Sirius pushed. "Just think on it, okay? Believe me, there's nothing worse than feeling caged."
"Azkaban is hardly the comparable to a house," Severus noted.
"But the feeling is the same," Sirius insisted. "Come on, I think I smell dinner."
Severus rolled his eyes. "Your animgaus form is fitting, you know. You both think with your stomach."
"Yep," Sirius said proudly.
"I could say something about intelligence too, but I'll spare you," Severus deadpanned.
"Thanks for that."
"Anytime," Severus replied shortly. They entered the kitchen were the twins were being forced to set the table and wash dishes at wand point. "As it happens, I am not staying for dinner."
"Why not, Severus?" Mrs. Weasley said as Harry's three friends wandered into the kitchen. "Go grab Harry."
Severus looked at her critically. "We have been through this. He is not to know of the Order's existence."
From the corner of his eye, Severus saw the fifth years look down awkwardly.
"Oh, I know, but-"
"I appreciate the offer, but we will have to decline," Severus said in a monotone. He scrutinized the trio for a moment, much to their discomfort. These people had caused Harry such distress. They meant a lot to him and Severus knew how much power that gave them. He hoped they were worthy of it.
Stepping out of the Floo at home, Severus met an unnerving silence.
"Harry?" he called, feeling the need to assure himself that nothing was wrong.
"What?" Harry asked, meandering in from the other room.
"Just checking," Severus responded.
Harry shrugged, throwing himself on the couch. "Okay. Everything okay at Hogwarts?"
Severus hesitated for a fraction of a second. "Everything is fine."
His assurance was met with silence. Severus crossed his arms.
"I spoke with Sirius-"
"Pardon?" Severus asked, Harry's comment breaking his stride.
"For talking about me," Harry said. For good measure, he added, "Behind my back."
Severus felt a spike of anger. "Do not accuse me of gossiping like a teenage schoolgirl," he snapped. "You are out of line."
Harry scowled moodily.
"I realize you are frustrated at the moment, but your godfather and I are concerned about you. If you cannot accept that we are doing this for you, then I suggest you at least keep your comments to yourself," he said testily.
Harry looked down. "Sorry."
"I will excuse it this time, but do keep that in mind," Severus said stiffly. "Now I was going to offer to let your friends come over but only if you snap out of this mood in the meantime. Agreed?"
"Alright," Harry agreed. He added, "Sorry."
"It has been a long day for the both of us. I suggest you get some rest."
Harry nodded. "Goodnight."
Harry went off to his room and Severus rubbed his forehead. He had been truthful; it had been a long day.