The Floo flared and deposited Harry on the cold hearthstone within the dungeons of Hogwarts. He pulled his trunk to the side and waited for Severus to arrive. Before long, they were warming before the elf-lit hearth fire in Snape's quarters.
"You truly do not mind staying here a few days and not arriving with your friends?" Severus asked.
"No, it's fine," Harry replied earnestly. "I'll have the castle all to myself."
Severus raised a brow, "Do not make me hire a babysitter."
Harry put on an offended face. "You wouldn't."
Snape looked challenging. Harry acquiesced and dropped his gaze.
"Shall I show you your room?" he offered.
"I have a room here?" Harry asked in surprise. "When would I need it? Well, other than now..."
"For times like these," he agreed, "and perhaps Christmas break or some such holiday. That is, if we choose not to go back to Spinner's End.""Why do you call it that?" Harry asked simply out of curiosity.
"Spinner's End?" Severus confirmed.
"Yeah, why don't you call it home?"Severus paused for a moment. "I simply never considered it home. It was just a place to go for times when I had no other."
"That should change," Harry said affirmatively. Severus looked skeptical as he rose to lead Harry down the hall. "Besides, how'd you get a room added on here? There wasn't one when I came last year."
"The castle knows how many people may need a space and it accommodates," Severus explained simply. "Did you not notice the extra bed for Mr. Malfoy during your last night here?"
Harry's face twisted in thought. "Guess I didn't."
Next to Severus's bedroom, there was another door that had been lacking the last time Harry had seen this corridor. He pushed it open and found it bedecked in Gryffindor colors. Severus seemed mildly repulsed.
"I see that it takes your... decorating preferences into account as well," he said dryly. "How thoughtful."
Harry grinned. "I like it. But I'll still stay in the dorms, right?"
"You will technically have your choice, I assume. I do not believe that this matter has ever come up before."
Harry thought about it. "I'm going to stay in the dorms, if that's okay."
Severus inclined his head. "Perfectly fine."
"But I do like having the option," Harry mused.
Severus stepped towards the door. "There is a meeting I must get to. You may wander but do try to avoid trouble."
"Trouble finds me," Harry grumbled lightly.
"It does seem to," Severus agreed. "The new password is 'draconis trauben'. Dinner will be in the Great Hall at six."
"Alright!" Harry said easily, grinning at the thought of what he could do with a few hours and his invisibility cloak.
Harry flicked his wand at Mrs. Norris. She whipped around at the tickle on her tail and meowed angrily. Harry tried to suppress a laugh.
"What is it, Mrs. Norris?" Argus Filch asked, peering around suspiciously. Under his cloak, Harry made sure to take slow, steady breaths.
After another moment, the groundskeeper turned and shooed his cat down the hallway. He glanced back once over his shoulder, then was gone. Harry pulled off his cloak and trotted happily outside. He soaked in the warm summer's day as he trotted down the hill towards Hagrid's. This time, as he neared the Forbidden Forest, Harry did not feel the same dread and trepidation that he had associated with it the year before. Between Quirrell and the fight with Snape, this part of the landscape held some bad memories for Harry which he promptly pushed away in favor of viewing it in a bright summer's light. He turned from this contemplation and headed for the small wooden hut that sat amidst the field of green.
"Hey Hagrid!" Harry called when he was a little ways away.
A large form grew even larger as Hagrid unbent himself from spreading manure on his pumpkin patch. He wiped his hands on his vast stomach. "Harry! How are ya?"
"Pretty good," Harry informed him. " What've you got there?"
Hagrid lifted a large colorful bag of manure for Harry to see. It depicted a dragon standing above a pile of dung. "Dragon manure," he said proudly.
"Er, that's great."
"Com' on inside, I'll make some tea," Hagrid offered, striding to the door. Harry rushed to catch up with him.
"Uh, why don't you wash up. I'll make the tea," Harry offered. He didn't particularly fancy the taste of dragon dung in his afternoon beverage.
"Thank ya, Harry. Yer a good boy."
Harry got the distinct impression that he knew how Hagrid's pets were addressed. Nevertheless, he heaved the huge kettle over to the table and used a quick warming charm, glad that he was now officially allowed to use magic since he was at school.
"So how's life treatin' ya, Harry?" Hagrid asked, sitting with a thump. " 'fesser Snape bein' nice to you?"
Harry grinned. "More or less. Any new pets, Hagrid?"
"New?" Hagrid asked with a throaty chuckle. "Not exactly."
Harry deemed it best not to ask. He sipped his tea.
"Rock cake?" Hagrid offered."Er, no thanks," Harry refused. He was rather fond of his teeth. He lifted his cup for another drink and gave a sharp yell. A spider the size of his thumb had been crawling surreptitiously up his arm. He shook it off quickly and it righted itself on the table. Harry raised his saucer to smash it.
"Harry!" Hagrid said, horrified. "Don' smash tha poor thing." He gathered it gently in his hand and set it on the window sill. "'ere ya go."
"Hagrid it was just a spider," Harry said defensively.
"It's still got a life, don' it?" Hagrid replied.
Harry fell silent, not wishing to offend Hagrid any more. "Hey thanks for helping Severus with that photo album last year," he said to change the subject. "I love it."
Hagrid's face broke into a good natured smile. "Of course, Harry! Glad ya liked it. Knew ya would."
Idle chatter filled the next few minutes until Harry decided that he best head up to the castle for dinner.
"See you, Hagrid," Harry called.
"Don' go gettin' into trouble," Hagrid replied with an attempt at sternness that failed miserably.
"I'll try," Harry promised.
"Well, Harry, how was your summer?" Professor McGonagall asked from beside Severus at the dinner table.
"Pretty good, ma'm. How was yours?"
She smiled lightly making Severus note that she was much more relaxed when the hall was not filled with students. "Rather nice, thank you for asking." In a lower voice, she said to Severus, "So polite. How long until you break him of that?"
Severus turned slightly and raised a brow. "Are you implying that I am rude?"
McGonagall's mouth twitched. "Certainly not rude, but perhaps brusque?"
Severus's flat stare suggested that he considered them one in the same. "I eagerly await the return of my Slytherins. They do so love wreaking havoc upon your house."
"Hey!" Harry spoke up indignantly. "It goes both ways."
Severus turned to his adopted son. "Is that something to be proud of?"
Harry seemed to reconsider. To cover his lapse, he spooned a large portion of potatoes into his mouth. Severus returned to his meal.
"I'll bet Harry will be glad to get away," McGonagall commented slyly.
"Are you implying that my parenting is unsatisfactory?"
She opened her mouth to respond when Dumbledore spoke up from McGonagall's left side. "There are an awful amount of implications flying around that end of the table, I notice."
Severus favored him with a dark look. "Indeed there are," he agreed. "And I considered coming back earlier?" he added, half to himself.
"Harry looks to be interested, at least," Dumbledore commented.
Harry flushed and turned back to his food. Severus studied him intently for a moment.
"Well that makes one of us," McGonagall quipped. "At least the students liven things up."
"Do you want me to encourage them to be extra lively this year?" Harry asked rhetorically in a whisper that only reached Snape's ears. His lip twitched ever so slightly.
"If you are encouraging Gryffindors, then by all means go ahead."
"What are we encouraging them to do?" McGonagall asked, thinking she missed something.
"Become ever more studious," Severus replied in an inscrutable tone. Her eyes narrowed as she stabbed a carrot.
Harry grinned at seeing his Head of House out of context and annoyed all the same. He returned to his elf-made food with a vigor despite his quick filling stomach.
"The students arrive today," Severus announced two days later. He had decided against forcing Harry to the Great Hall for breakfast in favor of requesting a plate of pastries form the house elves. "I do hope you shall endeavor to be a good role model to the new First Years?"
"Of course," Harry replied. "When have I ever done anything foolish or rash that they might imitate?"
Severus rolled his eyes.
Harry took a pastry from the plate. "I'm sort of glad, really. Now that I know every corner of the castle like the back of my hand, it'll be fun having my friends to share the knowledge with."
Severus guessed that this was intended to push his limits. "I shall simply advise you against deliberately seeking out trouble as is your prerogative."
Harry grinned. "Naturally. Who doesn't like a good spot of trouble?"
Severus simply glared. The boy was exceptionally cheeky today.
"Do you have anything to brew today?" Harry asked.
"Bored of wandering with your invisibility cloak already?" Severus asked.
Harry shrugged. "Maybe a little. Wait, how'd you know?"
"I caught Filch grumbling about 'those blasted invisible pixies' tormenting Mrs. Norris. I simply assumed that it was not a pixie, exactly."
Harry couldn't hold back his grin which simply confirmed his guilt.
Severus shook his head lightly admonishing. "As it happens, I need to mix up a batch of burn cream for the hospital wing. It would be rather helpful to have an extra person to hold the tins as I ladle the hot cream..."
"Sure," Harry said eagerly.
Severus looked at him. "What makes you think that I was speaking of you? I thought perhaps, say, Hagrid, would make an excellent assistant."
Harry gave him such a complex look of confusion, shock and amusement that Severus actually cracked a smile, albeit a very small one. This prompted a reciprocating grin from Harry as he jumped up to follow Severus to his lab. Harry was very patient during the process, adding to Severus's reasoning that, should he apply himself this year, he could be an excellent potions student. Harry stirred the potion as Severus briskly chopped up the dandelion petals that would be the next addition to the bubbling substance. He set the knife down with a clang that seemed to jerk Harry from a thought.
"Anything of interest?" Severus asked, placing the petals in the cauldron individually.
"Huh?" Harry responded intelligently.
"In your thoughts. You were rather lost in them but a moment ago," Severus clarified.
"I was thinking about my first potions class and wondering whether that speech about 'bottle fame, brew glory, put a stopper in death' and such was prepared," Harry answered honestly.
"You remember that word for word?" Severus said mildly impressed. "I meant to make an impression but..."
Harry nodded. "I was taking notes."
"So when I accused you of not paying attention... ah," Severus said, clarity dawning. "I apologize."
Harry shrugged. "It's alright. Hang on, you remember that day too?"
Severus smirked. "Of course. It was my first contact with the illustrious Boy Who Lived."
Harry scowled. "Well?"
"What did you think?" Harry asked, seeming to be genuinely curious.
"I thought that you were an arrogant, unremarkable boy who was above paying attention in my class," Severus said bluntly. "I now realize that, for perhaps the first time in my life," he inserted arrogantly, "I was completely wrong."
Harry smiled softly. "And if I were to say that I thought you were a mean old dungeon bat who took his underlying anger out on Gryffindors, you would say?"
"That you are grounded," he replied without hesitation.
"Good thing I didn't say that then," Harry remarked.
"Oh, you think that doesn't count?" Severus asked with mocking surprise. Harry's eyes narrowed for a moment. When he realized that Snape wasn't being serious, he relaxed and turned his attention back to the potion.
"So was the speech prepared?" Harry asked.
"Perhaps," Severus admitted. "Was it effective or should I revise it?"
"Very effective," Harry told him. "Do that glare too when you look around, it worked like a charm."
Severus studied Harry for a moment, then shook his head. "You continue to surprise me."
"Thanks," he replied dryly. "This is thickening, we should pour it now."
"Yes, Potions Master," Severus said snidely.
Harry rolled his eyes and readied the tins. He held his hand around the bottom of the nearest one. Severus dipped a metal ladle into the boiling hot potion.
"You ought to remove your hand and hold the jar with a charm," Severus advised. "This will burn."
Harry looked up at Severus, "I trust you."
Severus raised an eyebrow, unsure if even he trusted himself.
"Besides," Harry continued, "think of the irony if I were to get burned by burn cream."
Severus shook his head and carefully poured the liquid into each container. They were sealed against contaminants with a quick spell and stacked to be transported to the hospital wing.
"Thank you for coming, Severus. This will take but a moment," Albus said pacing in front of his window. "I am sure you recall the locket you placed in my possession at the end of term?"
"Have you any idea of its nature?" Dumbledore asked.
"I do not," he admitted. "Nothing that I have tried has revealed anything except that it is cursed which is more or less obvious."
Albus nodded. "As I thought. I simply wished to know if you had any ideas. I have but theories and I would wish them to be untrue. In whatever case, it is of no immediate effect to anyone so I will take my time in doing the proper research."
"May I ask what it is you think?" Severus asked.
Dumbledore smiled gently. "I will inform you when I am more certain. Thank you, Severus. You may go."
Severus swept out with a disturbed furrow to his brow.