Harry sat at the kitchen table with his hands wrapped around a steaming mug of hot chocolate. He was slightly chagrined after Severus had forced him to don two pairs of socks and a thick robe after his foray into the snow. He sipped the drink and winced as it burned his tongue.
"So what do you think that means?" Harry asked, referring to the clue from the egg.
"I so love riddles," Severus said with a certain relish. His tone turning more distant, he added, "That is, when it does not concern your life or well being..."
Harry rolled his eyes. "'Come to us where we reside, in the bright is where we hide'," he recited. "'In the bright', what's that mean? In the sun?""Perhaps," Severus said thoughtfully. "Or it could mean in the daylight in general, meaning it is something exclusive to the day."
"Huh," Harry grunted. Neither of those potions sounded particularly plausible. "Let's move on, then. We won't be alone in the cold... what was next?"
"You've lost the thing that we now hold," Severus finished. "The cold. That contradicts the sunlight somewhat. The egg opened in the snow..." he mused.
Harry looked at him, waiting for the inevitable conclusion. Harry could tell that Severus was thinking hard.
"Could the bright be the snow? The white glare is rather bright," Severus said intensely.
Harry nodded. "That makes sense! So things that live in the snow... polar bears?"
Severus gave him a dull look. "I highly doubt it."
"That would hardly present a challenge."
"I can hope, can't I?" Harry grumbled. "Well what do you think it is, seeing that my guesses are apparently not good enough?"
Severus thought for a moment. "I think perhaps Ice Sprites."
"Ice Sprites?" Harry asked. "What are those?"
"Accio Rare Creatures of Dubious Origin," Severus said, picking up his wand and giving it a casual flick. In a few seconds, a book came zooming into his hand. He opened it and, after flipping through several pages, slid the book over to Harry. "Ice Sprites are mountain dwelling creatures who only live in the coldest of climates, obviously. They are intelligent but generally ignore humans unless given an incentive to deal with them. They are dangerous in that their touch can cause instant frostbite and their breath can lead to hypothermia."
Harry swallowed. "Sounds lovely." He looked down at the tiny sketch of a thin, angular figure with blurred lines and almost no color. It hardly gave him the impression of what he would have to face. "What do you think they'll steal?"
"Something you care deeply for," Severus stated. "What might that be?"
Harry shrugged. "Most everything I have is here. My broom is with Ginny and my photo album is upstairs. Maybe my mirror?"
"Let us hope not," Severus replied.
"Speaking of my photo album, do you have a camera?" Harry asked, changing the subject rather unintentionally.
"An old one, yes," Severus replied. "I am not sure if it still works. Why?"
Harry shrugged. "I realized I hardly have any pictures of the two of us for the photo album. Maybe we can take a few this Christmas?"
Severus pursed his lips. "If you must."
"What, you don't like pictures?"
"I don't mind them as long as I do not have to be in them," Severus corrected.
"Right," Harry said with a small smile. "Maybe later then."
"Hm," Severus replied, seeming hopeful that he would forget.
The next day, Harry wandered into Severus's study with a note in his hand.
"Hey, can I meet Hermione in some muggle place to do some Christmas shopping? Ron and Draco can't go and she doesn't want to go alone," Harry said.
"I don't see why not," Severus replied. "Where are you going?"
"I don't know how to pronounce it," Harry said, showing Severus the note.
Severus's eyes scanned the paper. "I know where that is. I suppose you want me to take you?"
"How else would I get there?" Harry retorted.
"Er, three o'clock," Harry replied. "Today."
"As in an hour from now?" Severus asked with a raised brow. "A little short notice, is it not?"
"I, uh, forgot to ask you this morning."
"Hm," Severus replied. "You best go get ready then."
Harry was a little surprised that Severus wasn't angry with him but he certainly didn't argue. It seemed like he was being a little more lenient than usual and Harry was alright with that. "Okay."
An hour later, Harry apparated with Severus to the intended location: a slightly run-down shopping mall on the outskirts of a small town. Harry glimpsed Hermione craning to see over the sea of shoppers bundled in fluffy coats and scarves. Glad that he had not brought his cloak, Harry figured he could blend in rather well here.
"What time do you want me to come back?" Severus asked.
"Uh, how about six?" Harry replied, fingering the small sack of coins in his pocket.
Severus nodded. "Have fun and be safe."
"Sure," Harry replied easily, waving a quick goodbye to his guardian before going to join Hermione. "Hi, Hermione."
"Hey, Harry," she replied with a bright smile. "How are you?"
"Great," he replied honestly. "It so nice being home again and seeing Severus and all."
"I'd imagine," Hermione replied in earnest. "Come on, who do you have to shop for?"
As they walked, Harry thought about that. "Uh, Severus, Ron, Draco..."
"And?" Hermione prompted slyly.
Harry looked at her with genuine innocence. "I already have your present, Rhea helped me make it," he said with confusion, thinking that was the thing at which she was hinting.
"Aw, Harry that's sweet," she said in an affectionate tone, "but that wasn't who I was talking about."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Well aren't you going to get Rhea anything?"
Harry blinked. "I hadn't thought of that," he said with a form of vague panic. "Hermione, what am I going to get her?"
She laughed and grabbed his arm in a friendly way. "She helped you with mine, right? I'll help you with hers."
"Thanks," Harry muttered gratefully. "This is all so complicated."
"Harry, she'll love whatever you get her," Hermione asserted.
"How do you know? You've never even met her."
Hermione smiled. "Harry, has anyone ever told you how hopeless you are at this?"
Harry frowned and grumbled, "Unfortunately."
The next day, Harry wrapped all of his presents and sent them out, borrowing Severus's owl in addition to Carmax. He carefully packaged Hermione's present, hoping that it wouldn't break. It was a flower of chillingrose, a flower exclusive to the cold. They had carefully preserved the blue white flower in a smoothed oval of ice and Rhea had charmed it so that it acted and felt like glass. All in all, it was a rather beautiful paperweight and Harry was sure that Hermione would put it to good use.
He set the package beside the box of sweets for Ron and the thick fur-lined gloves for Draco. A small package wrapped in gold was set apart from the others: Rhea's. In the end, they had settled upon a wooden box with an intricate tree design burned into it, branches lacing the top and roots twisting down the sides. The inside was velvet lined and it was really very nice. Hermione thought that it would give the right impression but not make it seem like he was moving too fast. Harry followed her advice, not knowing what else to do. He didn't even know how he felt about her at the moment, it was all too confusing.
Finally, Harry wrapped the box that contained Severus's gift and set it under the tree. He sent Camax off to Rhea with a quick "Merry Christmas" note and then gave Severus's owl the other presents to deliver to his friends in one trip. Satisfied that he had everyone covered, Harry went downstairs for dinner which appeared within moments of his sitting down across from Severus.
"Harry, I have been doing some thinking," Severus began as he served himself.
"Oh goodness," Harry muttered.
Severus shot him a dark look. "I was thinking that I would rather like to... meet this Gregor character at the time of the second task."
"Meet as in...?"
"Have a very pleasant conversation with," Severus replied with a generous dose of sarcasm.
Harry chuckled. "I wouldn't mind that. Go ahead."
"You said that the Durmstrang students do not dislike you?" Severus asked, brows furrowed.
"They're kind of amazed by me or something. It's odd," Harry admitted.
"That is surprising."
"Why?" Harry asked.
"Durmstrang has always had a reputation for being Dark. I would have thought that more people would hate you for your role in the Dark Lord's demise," Severus said.
Harry thought that over as he chewed his food. After a few minutes of silence passed, he replied, "I don't think it's like that. They're mostly too young, I think. I never really got the impression that many were big Voldemort supporters," Harry said, ignoring Severus's sharp look at the name. "You can be Dark and still think he was a lunatic, I guess."
"I suppose," Severus admitted.
"So, uh, has there been anymore on that front?" Harry asked. "You know, after the whole World Cup thing? And my dream?"
"There have been a few disappearances but nothing that gives definite proof to the Dark Lord's return. In fact, things have been almost disturbingly quiet. It cannot last."
Harry's mouth twisted. "I'm afraid for when things change."
"A legitimate fear," Severus commented.
Silence reigned until they finished eating. Midgy came to clear the plates and Severus stood.
"Shall we migrate to the sitting room?" he asked.
Harry shrugged. "Sure."
The fire was roaring as Harry curled up on the couch, clutching a mug of hot chocolate and plucking a cookie off the tray that Midgy had left on the table. Severus sat next to him, staring into the fire with distant eyes.
After a few moments of watching the flames dance, Harry commented, "It's Christmas Eve."
"Yes," Severus replied. "It is hard to believe how much time has passed."
Idly, Harry let his mind drift over the past years to the very first time he had encountered his guardian, now one of the most important people in his life. He laughed to himself and Severus shot him a curious look.
"I was thinking about the first time I saw you," Harry explained with a wry smile. "Imagine being on an island in a leaking cabin in the middle of a storm when the door breaks down and you come and kidnap me."
Severus scoffed. "I hardly kidnapped you."
Harry raised a brow. "I distinctly remember you dragging me up and out of that place."
"You were catatonic, what was I to do? I have no patience with stubborn children," Severus said with an air of haughtiness.
"And that's why you teach?" Harry teased.
Severus gave him a non-genuine glare. "Do you regret my 'kidnapping' you?"
Harry laughed again. "Of course not. It was the best thing that ever happened to me." He paused for a second. "You really did hate me then, didn't you?"
"More than you can possibly imagine."
Harry let out a low whistle. "Goodness," he breathed. "Do you remember my first Christmas at Hogwarts as a first year?"
Severus looked at him. "The one at which we took an unexpected trip to the Dursleys'?"
"Yeah that one," Harry confirmed. "I can't help but think how everything would have been so different if we hadn't made up that night."
"It is thanks to you that we did. I was so hard-headed, I would have easily resumed my hatred of you," Severus said. He paused. "Different for the better or the worse?"
Harry looked at him in surprise. "Are you being serious?"
Severus gave a half shrug and studied the fire once more. Harry shifted in his seat to face his guardian.
"You can't honestly be thinking I'd be happier without you?" Harry asked incredulously.
Severus didn't reply so Harry nudged him on the arm to get him to look over.
"Severus?""I worry that I am not giving you the proper guidance. I would hardly call myself a good parent. Simply thinking of all of the times that I was the cause of your injury is enough to make me think that perhaps you would have been better off had we never resolved that conflict."
Harry was in shock. "What? When were you the 'cause of my injury'?" he demanded, almost angry.
"Would you have rushed into a swarm of dementors if I hadn't been there?" Severus replied sharply. "Would you have been incapacitated for a week if you hadn't tried to help me escape those Death Eaters?"
"Yes!" Harry replied, as irrational as it was. He didn't feel like arguing the point that he would've gone after Sirius anyway and Harry ignored the bit about the Death Eaters. Severus looked at him doubtfully. "Severus, stop."Severus looked away.
"Severus!" Harry snapped. "I would have been dead five times over if it wasn't for you. Not to mention the fact that I'd be miserable and stuck at the Dursleys'. Severus, I'm happy here, please don't do this. I'm happy and getting into the same amount of trouble that I would be otherwise only you're here to help me through it."
Something in this struck a chord with Severus and he looked over at Harry, seeming oddly pained. "Perhaps it is time for you to go to bed. Tomorrow is Christmas, after all."
Harry gave him a searching look but didn't protest. He stood silently and moved towards the door, feeling Severus's eyes on his back the whole time. At the door, he turned. "I do love you, Severus. Please believe that." Without another word, he headed upstairs, feeling that some of his security had just been unexpectedly chipped away.
Severus gazed into the flickering flames and could do naught but think. Though Harry obviously felt differently, Severus honestly did not believe he was making the best choices for him. He didn't think he was doing a good job. How could he possibly think that, being that he allowed Harry to be sent off to a known Dark institute while there is some nefarious plan obviously in the works?
Harry doesn't know what is good for him, Severus thought derisively. But then again, neither do I.
Severus stood and tossed what was left of his firewhiskey into the fire. It ignited in a brightly colored flame before melting into the ordinary orange. He considered his empty glass before setting it on the table. It was time to push his thoughts aside for now. Tomorrow was Christmas and he was determined to make it an enjoyable one for Harry.
As Severus fetched the small pile of gifts he had purchased and arranged them under the tree, his thoughts wandered. Despite his resolve, on deep thought kept penetrating his mind.
Would Lily think I am doing the right thing for her son?
Severus didn't know.