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Tuesdays with Severus

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Chapter 1: The First Letter

The first letter came on Saturday after the first week of classes.

Harry and Ron met Ginny in the Great Hall for breakfast. This was Harry's first breakfast in the Great Hall since classes started—the other mornings, he'd eaten in the dining room in the new eighth year quarters with the other repeaters. Repeaters. They had taken to calling themselves that, even though half of them hadn't even been here last year at all.

Or had spent the better part of the year camping out in the Room of Requirement.

Since today was Saturday. Hermione, who was cramming all of her classes into the mornings and helping her parents reestablish their dental practice in the afternoons, wasn't at Hogwarts. She'd be coming this evening, though, for the marathon revising session she'd organized. But now, with Quidditch tryouts only a week away, the Gryffindors were holding a practice session for anyone interested in playing.

Ginny was captain this year. She's accepted the position without apology to either Harry or Ron and had told them both in no uncertain terms that they would be trying out, though she went out of her way to inform them that there were no guarantees.

"You might not have it in you anymore," she stated emphatically, hands on her hips in Molly Weasley lecture mode. "You're not as young as you used to be."

"We're in way better shape than we were in sixth year," countered Ron, rolling his eyes. "Comes from having tamed a dragon."

Ginny rolled her eyes, smiling as she did so, and Harry, standing behind her with his arms around her stomach, bent to kiss her on the nape of the neck. "Of course not, Gin," he'd reassured her, winking at Ron. She'd elbowed him in the side, and they'd ended up on the floor, play wrestling, while Ron had sighed and opened his Arithmancy textbook. Unbelievably, with Hermione gone and Harry and Ginny paired up, he spent an inordinate amount of time with his head in a book these days. The schedule Severus has helped set for him this past summer was not a forgiving one.

This Saturday morning, Harry was sitting in the sparsely filled Hall next to Ginny, across from Ron, when the morning post owls arrived. They all looked up as the owls began to circle the hall. Three of them landed on the table beside Harry, each of them hooting softly and holding out their delivery legs, each one cutting in front of the others, trying to be first to be relieved of their missives.

Ron whistled.

"Only three today? You're slowing down, Harry." He grabbed the last piece of bacon off the tray just before the barn owl in the middle tried to snag it.

"What does he mean?" asked Ginny. She had unfastened one of the letters and was holding the last, rather jumpy, owl still while Harry untied the band around the rolled parchment it carried.

"Secret admirers, random witches and wizards thanking him, offers of employment, requests for autographs, chocolate cauldrons, you name it," said Ron helpfully. He picked up the first letter Harry had removed and held it out toward Ginny. "Crayon," he said, almost fondly. "We love the ones from the kids."

Ginny took the letter and stared down at it, then looked over at Harry. He grinned sheepishly and glanced up at the head table. Severus was sitting there, apparently deep in conversation with Minerva, and seemingly not paying a bit of attention to the students who had actually made it to breakfast on Saturday morning. The days had flown by so quickly and he'd only seen Severus briefly and in passing. He knew he shouldn't complain—most of his friends only saw their parents during holidays—but it didn't seem right anymore to be eating breakfast at a different table.

"Apparently, they've been coming since just after the Final Battle," Harry explained to Ginny. "Severus had most of my mail redirected all summer—the only owls that got through to Shell Cottage were ones from people we both knew."

"It must feel odd living here now after being at Shell Cottage all summer," said Ginny.

"Well, you've been at the Burrow all summer," countered Harry, not admitting just how odd and disconcerting it did feel.

"But I'm at the Burrow every summer," said Ginny. "I'm used to coming back here and missing home."

"I don't guess I'll miss it as much with Severus here too," said Harry, trying to sound casual and offhand. "We're going to have dinner together in his quarters on Tuesday nights, and he was waiting out in the corridor after Charms yesterday. Professor Flitwick asked me to stay and then went over my daily marks for the entire week with him."

Ron looked aghast. "Your daily marks? My mum and dad don't see anything but my half term marks."

Harry shrugged. "It's alright—no one ever really cared about my marks before, I guess."

Ron lowered his voice even though there was no one around to overhear them. "So Flitwick told him about—?" He glanced at Ginny, then back at Harry.

"Of course I told her," said Harry. "And yeah, he did. I don't think Severus was really that interested in my daily marks, you know."

"Was Severus angry?"

Harry glanced up at the head table again. Severus was still talking with Minerva and didn't look his way. "Not exactly mad. Maybe worried? Maybe disappointed I'd not come directly to him."

"Why didn't you, Harry?" asked Ginny. She sounded curious more than disapproving.

"I was planning on telling him on Tuesday when we have dinner together. It wasn't really such a big deal…"

Ron's snort of disbelief told Harry exactly what he thought of that statement.

"Ron—we all three got pretty good at healing spells last year…."

"Not that good, Harry. Healing spells are supposed to be localized and specific. You were supposed to be healing my parchment cut, not Professor Flitwick's lumbago!"

"I'm just not used to my wand is all," answered Harry, his voice determinedly casual. "And Severus told me not to get all worried about it—he said we could wait and talk about it on Tuesday."

"Good luck waiting 'til then with Hermione coming tonight," muttered Ron.

Ginny squeezed Harry's hand and held up the letter with "Harry Potter" written on the front in purple crayon. "May I?"

"Go ahead," said Harry. Ron picked up one of the two remaining letters and sniffed it then made a face.

"Marriage proposal," he said.

Ginny rolled her eyes and opened the letter she was holding, extracting a folded piece of parchment. She unfolded it carefully and laid it on the table, smoothing it out as she did so.

"Oh!"

"Bubotuber pus?" asked Ron, feigning concern.

Ginny ignored him. The picture was, predictably, of Harry, and was accompanied by a carefully printed thank-you note. Harry's head was disproportionately large for his body, undoubtedly to accommodate the oversized lightning-bolt scar that zigzagged across his forehead. His hair was a tangle of messy black lines and his eyes wide green circles behind carefully-drawn round glasses. He was wearing a Gryffindor scarf in vivid red and banana yellow around his neck and holding a wand in one hand and a sword in the other, a sword that more closely resembled a scimitar. A second zigzag, this one of red spell-light, shot out of the wand to the edge of the parchment. What looked like a bird with inordinately large wings zoomed around the sky above Harry's head in a show of magical animation.

"‘Dear Mr. Harry Potter,’" read Ginny. She glanced over at Harry and found his eyes on the letter and drawing as well. "‘Dear Mr. Harry Potter—Thank you for killing You Know Who. If you are ever in Edinburgh, I should appreciate a ride on your dragon, or on your broom if your dragon is indisposed. Love, Benjamin Jennings, Age 6.’"

Harry smiled. "Sorry, Benjamin," he said with a half smile. "My dragon is indisposed."

Ron snorted. "Indisposed? Think he had any help with that one?"

"It would be nice to give him the broom ride, though," said Ginny. She tilted her head, looking thoughtfully at the drawing and the flying creature that they now knew was meant to be a dragon.

Harry sighed. "I've had dozens of these. I can't give broom rides to every magical kid in Britain." He didn't admit that despite the impossibility of it, he wouldn't mind giving it a try.

Ginny shrugged and took a piece of toast off the stack. "You all ready? she asked. The letter, with its mention of broom rides, had undoubtedly put Quidditch back in mind.

"What's that last one?" asked Ron through a mouthful of toast as he stood up, indicating the third letter, which Harry hadn't yet read.

"Don't know. I was about to open it to see," answered Harry. He folded it and stuck it in his jeans pocket, then carefully folded the picture from six-year-old Benjamin. "You can keep that one, though," he said with a grin as the floral aroma from the scented letter seemed to grow even stronger. "Stick it in your pocket and give Hermione something to think about tonight."

He dodged a well-aimed piece of toast and they left the Great Hall a few minutes later, brooms in hand, and made their way outdoors to the pitch. From the head table, Severus Snape sipped his tea and watched them leave.

"The owls are coming directly to him now," said Minerva as she, too, watched Harry and his friends leave the Hall.

"There hasn't been a threat or a Howler for a month," responded Severus. He looked rather disparagingly at the teacup in his hand and Minerva touched it with her wand, muttering a warming charm.

"Surely there will be more…" she said.

"Most certainly. But the wards should prevent anything too dangerous slipping in, and I have instructed Harry to come directly to me if he receives a threat of any kind."

Minerva turned her head to look at Severus. "He will receive letters that are not threats but that are not kind."

"And he needs to learn to deal with those as well," stated Severus. "It should not be difficult for him to believe that the world is not uniformly kind, not adulatory of all heroes."

Minerva scoffed. "No, not too difficult at all," she replied. She sipped her tea, looking out over the Hall, which was now nearly deserted. "How many do you think he's received so far?" she asked after a moment.

"In all? Several thousand, I'd guess. Of those, perhaps half were missives I would not have wanted Harry to see." He held up his hand as Minerva started to exclaim. "Do not misunderstand me. Most of that number were adulatory. Some contained gifts, offers of marriage or apprenticeships or employment. Others told heart-breaking stories of loss and suffering accompanied by photos of loved ones lost." He paused and took another long, thoughtful sip of tea. "I think there were at least a dozen photos of babies all born during the last few months and named Harry—among those at least two girls." He raised an eyebrow as if wondering, for a moment, if he would still be headmaster when little Harry Annette Madison started at Hogwarts.

"Severus—you've hardly had the time—or the energy—to go through ten letters much less several thousand," said Minerva. She looked at him over the top of her glasses. "You are beginning to look rather worn. I'd suggest you get some rest this weekend before Poppy catches sight of you and pulls you in for a check-up."

"Fair warning," said Severus with a nod. He looked out over the empty hall. "Though I don't believe Poppy will be able to keep me in her sights for long. She is staying busy with the start-of-year physicals."

"I did advise my Gryffindors that they would be meeting the counselors at their health check-up," said Minerva.

Severus folded his napkin and placed it on the table beside his empty breakfast plate. He stood up.

"You didn't tell me who's been going through Harry's mail," Minerva reminded him as she, too, stood up and prepared to leave.

"A full complement of Weasleys," answered Severus with a wry smile. "'I gave them an entire room in the north tower. Bill checked the post for curses, Molly opened and sorted it and Percy catalogued it. I asked for representative samples to read and Percy provided me a full statistical breakdown."

"I believe the boy has come around," said Minerva, almost fondly.

They walked together toward the Entry Hall and Severus stopped near the doorway. "How has Harry been performing in your class this week, Minerva?"

Minerva considered a moment. "Better than he ever has, actually. But that isn't unusual given the past year and the considerable amount of practical magic they had to use living on their own as they did."

"So you see the same improvement in Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger, then?"

Minerva frowned. They had started walking again and were beginning to climb the great stairway.

"Actually, no. There is definite improvement in Mr. Weasley, but not to the extent I see in Harry. As for Miss Granger, she has always been nearly flawless in my class."

"Well, do let me know if anything unusual happens, won't you?"

"Of course, Severus."

They reached the top of the stairs and Minerva paused to pose a thoughtful question.

"Do you plan to let Harry read the letters, Severus?"

Severus glanced at her, an indecipherable look on his face. "Some of them," he replied. "In time."

ooOOOoo

Quidditch was a blast. Harry hadn't realized how much fun he hadn't been having until he was on his broom again. But not just on his broom. On his broom, with the other Gryffindors, on the Quidditch pitch at Hogwarts. It was one thing to play at the Weasleys’ in the cleared field they used as a pitch. They had plenty of fun there, with pick-up teams and a rag-tag assemblage of brooms, a misshapen Quaffle and Bludgers that had seemed to know Fred and George almost personally.

But today was about drills and formations and maneuvers and flying free with the sun on your back and the wind in your face. Harry and Ginny, in a show of good sense and forward thinking, worked with several of the younger students, trying to identify a good backup Seeker who could be trained up to take over next year when they were gone. Ron, playing Keeper, showed such a vast improvement from his sixth-year performance that the fourth and fifth years created a new verse of "Weasley is Our King" and serenaded him as they walked back to the castle.

They played until nearly lunch time, ate together again in the Great Hall, then Harry cleaned up and hauled out his Transfiguration and Potions books and settled in at his desk in his room for a couple hours of homework before Hermione arrived. While everything seemed so odd this year, like being in a classroom and having a schedule and having his own room at Hogwarts, nothing made him feel more out or sorts than not having Hermione around in the afternoons and evenings.

His fingers skimmed his Charms textbook but he left it in his bag. He didn't really want to think about Charms yet, or how that healing spell had felt when it left his wand. He was somehow glad that he wasn't any better at Potions than he'd ever been. He enjoyed it more than he ever had with Severus as his professor, of course, and even without the Half-blood Prince's textbook, his work—this first week anyway—had been E-level. He hoped Severus would think that good enough. He was better at Transfiguration than he'd been before he mastered the Animagus form, but not so much so that anyone thought it odd. Minerva, he thought, paid more attention to his effort and its outcome than she once had but at least hadn't called Severus to class yet. Today, when tasked with transfiguring one piece of clothing into another, which wasn't as easy as changing slippers into trainers, he'd changed a pair of trousers into a frock coat fairly easily, but that was nothing compared to the worn winter cloak Hermione had transfigured into old-fashioned pantaloons with silk ribbons and lace around the ankles.

He noticed the letter in his pocket before he ever really began reading, and pulled it out along with the folded picture from little Benjamin. He smoothed out the drawing and pinned it to the wall next to his schedule, smiling at it rather indulgently, then looked down at the letter he'd received this morning and hadn't yet opened.

His name was written across the front in black ink in neat handwriting he didn't recognize. He couldn't even guess if the writer was a woman or a man, though he thought that they were older than he, probably at least Severus' age. The letter was in an envelope, which weren't always used in the Wizarding world, he'd learned, but it was a thick, formal envelope of cream-colored parchment, almost hand-cut in appearance. It was sealed with a glob of green wax with a plain circular seal in it.

Harry pushed aside his Potions text and opened the letter, spreading out the single piece of folded parchment on his desk. The parchment matched the envelope in color and texture and was covered on one side with the same handwriting as on the front of the envelope. The script was small and tidy.

ooOOOoo

Dear Mr. Potter:

Though I am late in offering my heartfelt gratitude to you, it is no less genuine for being so late in coming. Wizarding Britain will not soon tire of praising your courage, determination and selflessness. I am one of thousands of persons—magical and Muggle alike—who is personally indebted to you for my life and the lives of my family.

You have given so much of yourself to stay with this fight, and in doing so lost many of those that loved and nurtured you. It is only natural that a boy would want a father-figure in his life, someone to guide him, counsel him and teach him. Even when the boy is grown and a young man stands in his place, nearly ready to leave his childhood behind and step out into a world of challenges and uncertainty, the heart of that young man yearns for the love and support of a family, and at its center, a father.

Much has been published and conjectured of late regarding the man who had been filling the role of father in your life. Your stalwart support of him following the Battle of Hogwarts has helped allay many of the fears the Wizarding public who wonder where the true loyalties are of a man who spent so many years in the presence of the Dark Lord. Of those that wonder what draws a man such as Headmaster Snape to mentor the Boy Who Lived, a Gryffindor like his father before him, a boy who was confronted with choice time after time after time and who always—always—chose wisely.

Your words bring redemption, Mr. Potter, and I want very much to trust you on this matter. The war is over, the side of the light has prevailed, and all need no longer walk in darkness, even those who walked in darkness for so long that they are blinded in the bright light of peace, and freedom, and justice.

Mr. Potter, you may think me out of place for calling this to your mind, but you must wonder why someone like Severus Snape would agree to take on the responsibility of an orphaned teenager. Why an unmarried, childless man with a past as lonely and as bitter as your own would change the course of his life at such a pivotal point in the history of the Wizarding world. Headmaster Snape must be grateful that he was able to ride with you out of the abyss.

In closing, may I once again express my gratitude for your service to the people of Great Britain and of the world, Mr. Potter. May your future be a happy one, and may you continue to be a shining example of doing what is right, not what is easy.

With most sincere condolences on the loss of your loved ones, and heartfelt thanks for your courageous acts,

Hilda Smith

ooOOOoo

Harry stared at the letter a long while. He read it again and then again a third time. His hand trembled as he bit his bottom lip, then quickly grabbed the parchment and crumpled it up. He tossed it in anger toward the rubbish bin but it hit the rim and ricocheted off, landing on the floor near the foot of his bed.

Hilda Smith? Who the hell was this Hilda Smith? And what business did she have questioning Severus' motives in taking him in? And how did she know what he had lost? Who he had lost?

Wait.

He stood up and nearly lunged for the discarded letter. He smoothed it out on the desk and skimmed over it yet again.

Right…easy: "a shining example of doing what is right, not what is easy"

That sounded a lot like Dumbledore.

He knew he had missed a lot of mail over the summer. Severus had told him that the owl post had poured in, sometimes a hundred letters in a single day. He knew that someone had filtered the mail, and sorted it, and that, like the mail he'd been getting since the morning after the Sorting Feast last week, it was full of thank-you notes, crayon drawings, job offers and marriage proposals.

And some hate mail. Of course—there had to be hate mail.

But what was this?

Not hate mail. The writer sounded more disapproving than hateful. But not disapproving of Harry. No, this witch was disapproving of Severus.

Not that she said as much, but she may as well have said it. Calling to question his motives for taking Harry in. For radically changing his life just at the right time.

Damn it! It was none of their business!

There was no way he was going to study now. He'd just have to make up with double time tonight when Hermione was here.

ooOOOoo

Severus wasn't in his office and he wasn't in his quarters.

When he finally tracked down Minerva in her office, she reminded him that it was the first Saturday of the month and that first Saturdays of the month were Board of Governors meetings—in London.

"What's wrong, Harry?" she asked upon seeing the distress in his face. "Can I help you with something?"

But he was already second-guessing himself, wondering if coming to Severus was the right move after all. He assured Minerva he'd be fine until Severus returned and hurried down the hall toward the Gryffindor common room.

And realized he didn't know the password.

He thought he might be able to talk the Fat Lady into letting him in, but she put her hands on her hips and told him there were no exceptions. None. She was haughty and high-handed. He thought vaguely that she might be drinking. Frustrated, he took out his wand.

Ginny opened the portrait hole a few minutes later.

"Your Patronus, Harry?" she said in a sort of voice that reminded him exactly of Molly. "Don't you think that was a bit much? It terrified a group of first years and two of them are crying!"

"I didn't know the password," said Harry, stepping into the common room through the hole and collapsing on a squashy loveseat beside Ginny.

"I realize that," said Ginny. "Your Patronus explained it. I don't think the firsties expected it to talk, either. And it's Dumbledore," said Ginny, with a small grin and an expressive roll of her eyes.

"My Patronus is Dumbledore?" Harry grinned tiredly. "Password. Right. I think I can remember that one."

"Even Neville could remember that one," she said. "Now what's going on? You look upset."

He held out the letter to her. "The other letter that came this morning. This is it."

Ginny took it, raising her eyebrows a bit at its tattered state.

She read it quickly, glanced at Harry, then read it again. He sat beside her, knees drawn up to his chin, staring ahead at the fireplace.

"Hilda Smith," she said quietly, frowning. "Do you know her?"

He shook his head. "Never heard of her."

"We have Smiths here at Hogwarts—Zacharias Smith and his younger sisters. Hazel is in my year."

"Smith is a pretty common name," said Harry. "For all I know, it's not her real name anyway. And that isn't exactly a Hufflepuff sort of letter, is it?"

Ginny looked back down at the letter, then over to Harry again. She sighed and settled back against Harry. "This one isn't really that bad, Harry. Just throw it away and forget it."

"Isn't that bad compared to what?" he asked. "I think it's pretty bad. She's trying to discredit Severus—making it look like he took up with me just to save himself."

"She doesn't say that…."

"No, she doesn't," he admitted. "But she all but says it. Makes it sounds like he doesn't have the credentials to be a father, either." He swallowed, trying not to shout, trying to hold back the angry tears. "It's none of her business!"

"No, it's not. But a lot of people get their noses in where they don't belong. And Harry, this is Severus we're talking about. Severus! You stood up for him in front of the entire Wizarding world. You didn't let anything or anyone stand in your way! You wouldn't leave the infirmary when he was hurt—you practically threatened Kingsley! You wouldn't even let Mum and Dad near him."

Harry sighed and took the letter from her again, shoving it back in his jeans pocket. He turned sideways until he was leaning against the arm of the loveseat and Ginny snuggled back against him.

"You smell good," he said softly after a quiet minute.

"Soap and shampoo will do that," she answered just as softly. She tilted her head up and kissed him, and he kissed her back, then sighed into her hair.

"I miss Severus."

He loved her more for not laughing, or pointing out that there aren't many girls in the world who would want to hear something like that in the middle of a snogging session. She was soft and warm in his arms and he couldn't help but relax a bit, the memory of the letter still forefront in his mind, but fading as Ginny seemed to melt into him.

"And I miss the cottage," he said, running his hand over Ginny's back and looking around the common room with its squishy armchairs and scattered text books and children and kneazles and gobstones and brooms. "There are too many people here, and too much noise."

"I miss the sound of the ocean and the creaking of the hammock," she whispered.

He smiled then, and thought he could almost taste the salty air, but it was only a stupid tear, and he licked it away and buried his head in Ginny's hair.

 

Chapter 2: The Rest of the Weekend

Hermione had a lot to say about the letter.

"She calls him The Dark Lord, Harry." She looked up at him, the letter still resting on her knees. "The Dark Lord," she repeated, staring at him.

Beside her, Ron tilted his head in to look more closely at the letter. He whistled.

"I missed that." He, too, looked up at Harry. "She's right, mate."

"She's always right, isn't she?" asked Harry, not liking where this conversation was going. "But I bet lots of people called Voldemort that."

"Lots of Death Eaters, maybe," said Ron. He glanced around the eighth-year common room as if expecting to see a few of them hiding in the shadows. "At home we always called him You-Know-Who, or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

Hermione was frowning, reading the letter yet again. "I don't like this, Harry. She's planting seeds of doubt, and she's…she's…" She trailed off and Harry frowned.

"I know, Hermione," he said. "I'm going to ask Severus who she is. It sounds like she might be someone around his age—he might know her."

"I wonder if she used her real name," said Hermione. "Smith is such a common surname."

"But Hazel isn't as common," Ron pointed out. "Although I do have a cousin named Hazel."

Harry looked up at him, slightly alarmed.

"She's not even old enough for Hogwarts," said Ron quickly. "It can't be her."

"She could be related to Zacharias Smith," Hermione continued. "He has a couple of sisters here, but I don't know another Smith family at Hogwarts."

"Yeah, Ginny already suggested that," said Harry. He rubbed his eyes behind his glasses. They hadn't even begun to revise yet and already he was tired. "It should be easy enough to find out. Have you seen him around?"

"He's probably off with Susan," said Hermione.

"Susan Bones? Are they going out?" asked Ron.

"Of course they're going out. How could you not know that? You live here!"

"I knew that," said Harry, looking smugly at Ron.

"How did you know that?" asked Ron.

"He's obviously not as oblivious as you are," said Hermione, but she smiled as she said it and snuggled into Ron's side even as she hit him with a throw pillow.

"Hard to be oblivious when you surprise a bloke with his hand up a girl's blouse," said Harry. He and Ron grinned at each other and even Hermione looked interested.

"Where were they?" asked Ron immediately.

"Looking for somewhere to go tonight?" teased Harry.

"Ron has his own room," said Hermione. "And frankly, so does Zacharias."

"It's more exciting under the Quidditch stands, then," said Harry.

"Hey! What were you doing under the Quidditch stands?" Ron asked, as if it suddenly occurred to him exactly where Harry had run into the couple. "You weren't down there with Ginny, were you?"

"So, do you think I should just ask him if he knows a Hazel Smith?" asked Harry, ignoring Ron's question. Ron rolled his eyes.

"I don't see what harm it would do," answered Hermione. "Though what are you going to do if he tells you that he knows Hazel Smith? Contact her yourself?"

"I don't know—maybe write back to her and tell her my life is none of her business?" said Harry. He took the letter from Hermione, folded it, and stuck it inside his Transfiguration textbook. "Aren't we supposed to be revising?" he asked. "What first, Charms?"

Hermione and Ron exchanged a glance. Harry sighed.

"Look, I'm going to talk to Severus about it on Tuesday," he said, knowing that the look they exchanged was all about his performance in Charms this past week. "He didn't seem too worried about it and I'm not going to lose sleep over it either." Hermione and Ron were both staring at him now. Harry opened his Charms book.

"Look, I'll prove that I'm just as pathetic in Charms as ever," he said. He handed the book to Hermione. "Go ahead, quiz me on Chapter 1."

Hermione took the book from Harry. "Harry, I've been thinking about it…."

Harry dropped his head into his hands. "Just get it over with," he said. "What do you think it is?" He looked over at Hermione and noted that Ron looked uncomfortable. Ron obviously already knew what she was about to say.

"The Horcrux," she said, her voice low. "The one inside you. Don't you think it's possible it was somehow…well…inhibiting your magic before?"

Harry stared at Hermione. "Inhibiting it?" He seemed perplexed. "I don't think so. The only real difference I've noticed is that I can't speak Parseltongue anymore."

"But the healing spell…."

"It was a fluke—it had to be. Maybe the combined strength of everyone practicing at the same time in the classroom…."

"Harry, heal this."

She grazed her hand on her cheek, along the faint, thin line still present from the torture at Malfoy Manor by Bellatrix Lestrange's hand.

Harry balked. He had grown used to that scar, thin as it was, a barely obvious pale scratch in her otherwise unmarred face. Accustomed to it or not, he hated it, hated how it reminded him of how helpless he had felt in that cell in Malfoy Manor with Hermione screaming upstairs, with Ron beside him, trying to break through the door of their cell, scratching his fingers against the impenetrable wood and stone.

"Hermione, no. I can't."

"Oh, I realize you think you can't. And it's even possible that you really can't. But I'd like you to try."

"No." He shook his head. "It's your face, Hermione. What if something went wrong? I could damage it permanently."

"Harry…." Her voice was low, firm. "Just try a simple healing spell. It's I doubt it will heal it since it's been six months already, but it will be a good test."

She sat still, turning her cheek toward him, as her words went through his head. Six months. Had it really been six months since the rescue from Malfoy Manor? Six months since he had buried Dobby?

"Come on, mate." Ron wrapped his arm more tightly around Hermione, an odd look on his face. Harry imagined he didn't like thinking about how Hermione got that scar either, six months ago or not.

Harry reached into his robe pocket and pulled out his wand. He looked at Hermione's face, noting how thin and pale the scar was. He held his wand out, thinking about the scar—only the scar. Scars he understood. He remembered that summer after fifth year, and the scar on his hands, how Severus had made a salve for it, and ultimately taken him to St. Mungo's.

"The Latin word for scar is cicatrix," suggested Hermione quietly.

Harry nodded.

"Sanare cicatrix, then," he said to himself. He lifted his wand and nearly brushed it along the length of the scar.

"Sanare cicatrix, " he said, still thinking about the scar, not having any idea what the appropriate wand movement would be, but acting on instinct, as he had, as they all had, all those months together hunting Horcruxes.

He stared, and Ron stared. Hermione put a hand up to her face and stared back.

"Well?" she asked.

"Gone," said Ron, smiling and lifting his hand to her face, brushing the spot where the scar had been.

Harry quickly pocketed his wand. "Don't say anything—please," he said. "I can't—can't…."

Hermione took his hand. "Harry, you know we won't. Just talk to Severus about it, alright?"

"Um, Hermione?" Ron glanced at Harry, then back at her face. "What are you going to tell anyone who notices? That the scar is gone?"

"Oh." She looked surprised that she hadn't thought that one out in advance. She considered a moment then smiled. "Cosmetic surgery," she said. "Muggles do it all the time to improve their appearance. There are surgeons who specialize in scar removal. I'll just say I did it the Muggle way."

"If Muggles can get rid of scars, why don't wizards…?" Ron rubbed his upper arms where the scars from the brains in the Department of Mysteries still remained.

"They can," said Harry. "Mainly with potions, though. Severus has one." He looked at Ron thoughtfully. "Want me to try yours next?"

Ron looked as though he very much wanted Harry to try. Hermione, however, shook her head quickly.

"How will you explain it?" she asked. "You've had those scars more than two years now, and no one will believe you went to a Muggle plastic surgeon."

"Plastic what?" he asked.

"Doctor," she said, smiling indulgently at him. She shifted and frowned then looked back at Harry. "And for the record, my cramps are gone."

Harry blushed and Ron grinned.

"Don't let that one get out, mate," he said. "You'll have all the girls lined up if they find out you can…"

Hermione elbowed him in the ribs, Harry laughed and Ron grinned.

They spread their books and notes out on the table and Harry set his wand down beside them. He looked down at it a moment, suddenly wondering if this new ability was even new at all. Maybe he'd always had a knack for healing and just didn't know it. After all, he'd never really tried healing spells until they were on the Horcrux hunt. He'd never had to. He'd always had someone else—Poppy, Molly, Tonks, Hermione—to help out when he was in a pinch. But then again…. He fingered his wand. His wand wasn't exactly the same as it had always been, either.

/

On Sunday morning, all the eighth years ate together in the Great Hall. Sunday morning breakfast had always been a bit of a treat at Hogwarts, and this morning was no exception.

The headmaster, however, was not at his place in the center of the staff table.

After he ate, Harry excused himself and approached Minerva. She was finishing her tea and reading the DailyProphet, but folded it up as he approached, looking down at him from her slightly elevated seat.

"Severus is in the infirmary, Harry. He would like you to come visit after breakfast." Her tone was no nonsense but not especially worried.

"The infirmary? What happened?" Harry peered at Minerva, tensing up.

"Nothing happened, Harry," she answered. "If anything serious were going on, we would have called you earlier. Severus is overtired. He has pushed himself too hard this week so Poppy monitored his sleep last night and is giving him a check-up this morning. I imagine she'll release him and let him go back to his quarters if you agree to keep an eye on him."

"Right," he said sarcastically. "I'm sure he'll appreciate having a baby sitter."

"Just invite yourself up. Tell him you need some Potions help," suggested Minerva. She frowned as she took a sip of tea, then heated it with her wand.

"Like he won't see right through that one."

Nevertheless, he headed directly up to the hospital wing and pushed open the door. The infirmary appeared to be empty. The door to one of the private rooms, however, was ajar and he could hear voices arguing behind it.

"More sleep and more exercise," she said. "You know this, Severus. You have to make time for both of these in your life."

Harry couldn't hear Severus' answer. He walked quietly across the room and stood just outside the door.

"A good walk along the lake path every morning or evening, Severus. It will clear your head and get you outdoors where you can breathe some good Scottish air right off the loch. You can take Harry with you—he's looking a little peaked himself."

"Oh, is he?" asked Harry, stepping into the doorway. Poppy was standing facing the single bed in the room, one hand on her hip and the other brandishing her wand, already in full lecture mode. Severus, sitting on the edge of the bed wearing his robe and slippers, looked over at him with relief.

"Now will you let me leave?" he asked Poppy. "Harry can walk me back to my quarters and tuck me in."

"What? No morning walk around the lake first?" asked Harry. He picked a pile of clothing off the chair near the door and placed it on the bed beside Severus.

"He will rest again today and tomorrow may start his daily walks," said Poppy. "And starting today, he will eat smaller, more frequent meals." She turned from Harry to Severus. "Your metabolism is extremely accelerated, Severus. You are too thin, and borderline anemic."

"I'll take care of him," said Harry, holding out his hand to take the bathrobe from Severus. He draped it over his arm as Severus slipped into his shirt and buttoned it, then reached for his waistcoat.

"Do you plan to rest in your full uniform, Severus?" asked Poppy, her voice expressing exactly what she thought of that idea. She hadn't moved from her original position and stood there now with hands folded over her chest, glaring at Severus.

"Uniform?" Harry bit back a smile and turned toward Poppy. "That's what you call it?"

"That's what the entire staff calls it," she answered. "He wears the same clothing every day here. What's not uniform about that?"

"Well, it's not really the same clothing," said Harry. "He probably has two dozen of those shirts, and ten of those waistcoats…"

Severus responded by throwing a pair of socks at Harry. Harry caught them and smiled. Severus might be overtired, but he wasn't acting any differently than he ever did.

"I will not now—nor will I ever—walk through the halls of this castle in my bathrobe," he stated. He was pulling on his trousers now, all business in front of Madam Pomfrey. He toed off his slippers and Harry handed him his boots. "I will undress again when I reach my quarters."

"Your quarters are just down the hall," Poppy reminded him. "And it is Sunday morning. You are not likely to meet a student out and about."

Severus glared at her and finished dressing. Harry picked up the robe and slippers and Poppy thrust a sheet of parchment toward him.

"Severus' instructions," she said, ignoring Severus' outstretched hand. "Be a dear and read that aloud to him, won't you Harry? That way he'll have heard them at least once before he loses them."

"Or burns them in the Floo," muttered Harry.

He and Severus walked side by side out of the infirmary and turned down the hall toward the headmaster's office and quarters. And while Poppy had thought it unlikely that they'd encounter any students out so early on a Sunday, they found Draco Malfoy standing beside the repaired gargoyle guarding Severus' office. He stepped forward as they neared.

"Headmaster—may I speak with you?"

He wasn't exactly rude or impolite, despite the fact that he more or less ignored Harry's presence. Instead, he seemed almost desperate, Harry thought. In fact, he looked a bit ragged. He was dressed in his usual clothing, all of it neatly pressed and well-fitting. Harry wondered if Draco was the only eighth year boy who actually hung up his clothes. His hair, longer now, was pulled back in a short ponytail, making his face appear even more narrow, his chin even more pointy.

Harry glanced at Severus and found that he, too, was staring at Malfoy. For a moment—for just a moment—given how intently Severus was staring at him, Harry wondered if he was using Legilimency.

"Harry." Severus broke eye contact with Malfoy and turned toward him. He placed his hand on Harry's shoulder. In front of Malfoy! "May I have some time alone with Mr. Malfoy?"

Harry glanced automatically over at Malfoy. He was standing exactly where he had been when he first spoke. He was looking at Severus, not at Harry. There was something about the look on his face that gave Harry pause. He resembled only vaguely the Draco Malfoy Harry had known these past years. He held himself the same—erect, proud—but the look seemed automatic now instead of deliberate, as if he had grown into his skin. But despite the posture, he seemed…alone.

Suddenly Harry realized that, until this year, he had rarely seen Draco Malfoy without Crabbe and Goyle.

Harry swallowed. He didn't want to leave Severus with Draco, and Severus had asked him, hadn't he? Still…

"Alright," he said, a bit too slowly.

Severus turned his head to look at him, frowning slightly. "Why don't you go to the library and find a book on healing charms? Read the first two chapters and then bring it to my office. That will give me some time with Mr. Malfoy." He looked over at Draco. "Will an hour be sufficient, Mr. Malfoy?"

"Healing charms?" Harry didn't particularly like where this conversation was going.

"Yes. You heard me correctly." Severus narrowed his eyes at Harry. "Professor Flitwick did mention that you were having some trouble with healing charms, didn't he?"

"Trouble?" Harry was surprised to hear Malfoy's voice. The old haughtiness was there, but it felt as if it was on the surface, just there for show. As though Malfoy didn't really believe it anymore. "He's not having trouble with anything in Charms. You'd think he'd somehow switched his brain with Granger's."

Harry glared at him, forcing himself to not look back at Severus. "I've been studying," he replied. He looked up at Severus then. "I'll see you in an hour, then, Sev…Headmaster."

Severus nodded and Harry thought he could see gratitude in his eyes, and perhaps relief. That Harry hadn't argued. That he had handled the change in plans maturely.

Still, as Harry walked back down the corridor toward the stairway, he couldn't help but feel annoyed. Severus wasn't feeling well—well, he was overtired, anyway. He didn't need to be spending time with Malfoy—he should be resting on the sofa, listening to his old LPs on the ancient phonograph, maybe even playing chess with Harry. A quiet game, with Muggle chessmen who didn't decapitate each other with ivory swords.

Except for the book. Severus wanted him to get a book on healing spells. Apparently, he didn't plan to wait until Tuesday after all to discuss the "problem" he was having in Charms.

ooOOOoo

He ran into Zacharias Smith when he was leaving the library.

"Hazel Smith? No, I've never heard of her. I have a great-aunt Hazel but she's on my mum's side." He shrugged and Harry thanked him and made his way back to Severus' quarters.

Severus was sitting on the leather chair beside the sofa, his feet up on the ottoman. He was still wearing his trousers, shirt and waistcoat, but had removed his robes and the waistcoat was at least unbuttoned.

Harry sat on the sofa and put the book he'd brought from the library on the table.

"All done with Malfoy?" asked Harry. It was a stupid question—he knew it—and Severus' raised eyebrows reinforced the fact.

"I have not hidden him in the loo or in the cupboard," he returned. "Though you are welcome to look if you'd like"

"No, I'll believe you," said Harry, looking around. "Are you hungry? I can make breakfast for you."

"I had breakfast in the infirmary," he answered. He steepled his hands under his nose and looked at Harry. "You don't look any different," he deadpanned. "Yet from what I've heard, you've taken on some extraordinary skills. Draco noticed. Others have too. I expect we won't be able to keep this under wraps, so we'd best determine exactly what is going on."

"Nothing's going on," protested Harry. "I'm not doing anything different at all." He frowned even as Severus smiled and couldn't help but smile himself.

"But something is different," said Severus. "Did you learn anything in your reading?" He gestured toward the book on the table.

"Actually, I did," admitted Harry. The book, Healing Hands, Healing Wands, discussed the differences between true healers and trained healers, focusing on what could be done by learning spells versus what could be done by understanding physiology and being able to channel one's magic without conscious knowledge of specific healing spells.

"Go on." Severus leaned back in his chair and rested his hands on the arms. He crossed his ankles. Harry thought he didn't look too exhausted at all like this, but maybe he was just accustomed to seeing Severus. Maybe he'd looked worn out all summer and he just hadn't noticed.

"Right." Harry took his wand out of his pocket and placed it next to the book. "Anyone can learn to perform a healing spell," he began. "If your nose is bleeding, you can use Episkey. Because your nose is bleeding, right? And Episkey is a spell to heal mild injuries."

Severus nodded. "Go on," he repeated.

"So you don't have to be a healer to use healing spells. But if you're not a healer, you have to be positive about what's wrong and what needs to be fixed. A healer is trained to recognize symptoms and diagnose problems. Then, once they understand what's wrong, they can use the right spell or another treatment—like a potion—to treat you."

"You chose a good book," said Severus with approval. "Can you see parallels in other disciplines?"

"Potions," said Harry immediately, smiling back at Severus when Severus smiled in approval. "Anyone can brew a potion if they have the instructions and the ingredients…."

"Well, perhaps not anyone," said Severus.

Harry laughed. "Right. Let's just say most everyone can brew a potion if they have the ingredients and supplies and the instructions. But you have to really understand the ingredients and the properties of each one, and how they interact with each other, to create a potion yourself for a specific use, or to modify it, say, if the person who was going to take it was allergic to one of the ingredients."

"You have been listening," said Severus.

"I've been around you a lot these last couple years," said Harry.

They looked at each other then, and Harry was reminded that nearly a year had gone by between Dumbledore's death…and Voldemort's. A year when he hadn't seen Severus at all.

"And is that all the book had to say?" asked Severus, looking down at the table where the book and the wand still sat side by side.

"Well, actually, no," answered Harry. He stared at the book a minute, remembering what he had read. "It also describes natural healers—people who aren't trained healers, but who can use their magic to heal, without really understanding what might be wrong with someone. They don't use spells, or potions—they channel their magic to repair damage, or cure diseases."

Severus met Harry's eyes. "This episode with Professor Flitwick, then?"

Harry considered before speaking. He looked up finally, pensive. "It seems like natural healing, except I didn't do it intentionally. I was using a specific healing spell on Ron's cut—just plain old everyday healing where I used a spell we were learning to fix a wound I could see and diagnose with my eyes. I didn't even know Professor Flitwick had lumbago. I didn't even know what lumbago was until Hermione told me after class."

"Professor Flitwick says you have improved in Charms all around, not only in healing spells. What is your explanation for that?"

Harry looked across at Severus. He didn't want to tell him Hermione's theory, but felt he had to. "Hermione thinks the Horcrux might have been blocking some of my abilities," he said, speaking rather softly and not looking directly at Severus. "But I don't necessarily think so. I think—well, I think it actually gave me some abilities, like Parseltongue."

"The presence—or absence—of the Horcrux is a logical line to pursue," said Severus. "But you obviously don't believe it. Or you don't innately feel that your new abilities come from having lost the Horcrux." He looked pointedly at the wand on the table, then back at Harry. "You think it has something to do with your wand."

He said it so matter-of-factly that Harry felt even more certain that his instincts about his wand were right.

"I told you that I broke it, then repaired it with the Elder Wand…before I put it back in the tomb with Dumbledore."

"You did indeed," said Severus. He reached out a hand toward the wand but paused and looked over at Harry. "May I?"

"Sure," said Harry. He realized, as Severus' fingers wrapped around his wand, that there were very few people in this world that he would willingly let touch his wand. Yet Severus touching it, picking it up, even using it, didn't bother him in the least.

Severus examined the wand carefully.

"I can't see the repair," he said.

"Neither can I," said Harry. "And I wondered…if the Elder Wand actually repaired it—mended it, I mean—or restored it somehow—undid the damage."

"A wand repaired by the most powerful wand in existence," mused Severus. "The master of the Elder Wand uses the wand to repair his own wand, imbuing it with some of the very properties of the master wand itself…."

Harry stared at him. He hadn't thought of it that way, not exactly. He just thought that the Elder Wand had somehow influenced his own wand, made it better or stronger.

"But I'm not better at everything," he said. "Like Transfiguration, and Potions."

"Oh, your professors assure me that you are better," said Severus. "I think you've simply not yet found the category in those disciplines in which you will excel the most." He put the wand down on the table. "On the dresser in my bedroom is a small silver knife. Would you please bring it in here?"

Harry stared at Severus a moment, knowing exactly what he planned to do with the knife. Nevertheless, he stood and went to fetch it. Severus' bedroom was neat, the bed still mad, as he hadn't slept in it the previous night. Harry grinned when he saw the dressing chair with three black waistcoats hung on it. He hadn't been exaggerating when he told Poppy Severus had ten of them.

Severus took knife when Harry held it out to him and without pause used it to slice across the palm of his hand. His cut was quick and efficient, nearly surgical, and he pushed on the edges to make the blood well up faster. He reached for Harry's wand.

"Hold out your hands," he said.

Harry eyed the knife on the table but held them out.

Severus smiled tightly. "I am still sometimes amazed at how much you trust me."

Harry had been looking at his hands, and his wand in Severus' hands, but now he looked up at Severus. "I know. It amazes me sometimes, too."

"Turn them over."

Harry flipped his hands over so that the palms were down.

"You have cuts on your knuckles—from Quidditch, I assume?"

Harry nodded. "Got a little rough yesterday morning. We had quite a few who wanted to be Beaters."

"Hmm. Those will do. Take them back now, put your hands in your lap. I have a theory, and I expect to be right."

He touched the wand to his hand, muttering a spell that Harry did not know. The cut closed and healed, disappearing completely.

"Show me your hands again."

Harry held out his hands. The cuts on his knuckles were still there.

"As I expected," said Severus. He turned the wand over in his hands, looking at it thoughtfully. "I used a spell on my hand that should have closed the wound." He looked at Harry now. "Healing spells do not normally reverse the damage as this one seems to have done. However…it did not heal the scrapes on your hand. In my hands, your wand performed better than mine would have, but worked only on the object of my spell—the cut I made in my palm."

"Let me try it with your wand," said Harry, slowly, digesting the information, the evidence from the trial Severus had devised.

"It is on my desk," said Severus.

The desk was in the same room, so Harry stood again and fetched Severus' wand. He reached for the knife but Severus took it up quickly instead. He made another cut in the same palm and held it out to Harry.

"The incantation is Vulnera Sanentur. It can be used on more serious wounds with a complicated wand movement , but is more than adequate without for wounds of this type."

Harry nodded and held out Severus' wand. "Vulnera Sanentur," he said. The cut in Severus' hand closed, leaving a thin pink line. Severus held it up and examined it. He ran his finger over the healed cut thoughtfully.

"Your hands?" he asked.

Harry looked at his knuckles and shook his head. "Still scuffed up," he said.

Severus nodded. "One more test," he said. He took his wand from Harry and handed Harry his own wand, the holly and phoenix feather wand he'd had since he turned eleven, the one he'd repaired with the Elder Wand in the office just below them, only four months before.

"Aren't you getting tired of cutting your hand?" asked Harry.

"I've no plans to cut it again," Severus responded. He held out his palm. "Same spell, on the cut you just healed."

"You know it's going to work, don't you?" asked Harry, hesitating, his wand clutched tightly in his right hand.

"Humor me," said Severus.

Harry held out the wand. "Vulnera Sanetur," he said, almost in a whisper.

Severus held up his hand. The thin pink line was gone.

"Your knuckles?" he asked.

Harry held out his hands, sighing. The scratches and scrapes were gone.

Severus stared at Harry's hands a long moment, then reached out and took one of them in his own hand, squeezing it.

"It is at times like these," he said, looking Harry in the eye, "that I wish Albus were still here." He let go of Harry's hand, and Harry let it fall into his lap. "As I suggested earlier, your wand appears to have taken on some of the qualities of the Elder Wand that healed it," he said. "And it is also apparent that you alone, as master of the wand, can use it to its full potential."

"But I don't want to." Harry was shaking his head. "I put the Elder Wand back—I gave it back to Dumbledore, Severus. I don't want special powers. I want to be an Auror, not a healer…."

"Have you used the wand in Defense yet?" asked Severus. "I understand that your new professor has spent the first week teaching Muggle defense methods?"

Harry smiled. "And since I'm the teacher's assistant, I get to get knocked around a lot." He really didn't mind. Professor Dimitri always explained what he was going to do before he did it and they'd learned some great self-defense moves that didn't involve wands—things they could use in the Muggle world. "But no, you're right. We haven't used our wands yet in class. We're going to spend all of September on physical self-defense and then start on our new textbook curriculum in October."

"The wand is seldom used in Potions," mused Severus, frowning.

"But what about Transfiguration?" asked Harry, latching onto this new thought. "The wand doesn't seem to be helping me much in that class. And I've always had more trouble with Transfiguration than with Charms."

Severus raised his eyebrows. "This from the mouth of a teenage Animagus?"

"No, really," protested Harry.

"It has shown its strength with healing charms," answered Severus. "I suspect you will find a niche in Transfiguration as well." He picked up both his wand and Harry's and laid them on his lap, one above the other, studying them. "Besides," he added, "Minerva told me you are doing particularly well overall in Transfiguration this year, though you haven't shown exceptional work as of yet."

Harry sat silently a moment, looking at the two wands balanced across Severus' thighs.

"What am I going to tell people?" he asked at last.

"Nothing," said Severus, firmly. "We do not wish to set you up for attack, if someone gets it into their head that your new strength comes from your wand. Remember that Albus was already a strong and powerful wizard when he won the Elder Wand. No, Harry, I think it is time for you to get a new wand."

Harry's face must have shown his opinion of that, for Severus quickly added, "A second wand, not a replacement for this one, but one to use in school, so that your magic and skills can develop as everyone else's do here. And I believe we should have it commissioned. Holly seems to work well for you, and you can have it made to look very much like your current wand."

Harry considered the idea. A second wand. A wand made of holly, of the same wood, the same length. A wand that was no more special than any other wand. But still, he'd get to keep his original wand, and use it when need arose….

"Yeah," he said, relieved. "Thanks, Severus. That's really a good idea. Maybe we can go to Diagon Alley next weekend."

"I will owl Ollivander," said Severus.

Harry smiled. "You really should get to bed, Severus. Poppy'll be all over me if you don't get some sleep."

Severus nodded. He didn't look as though he was going anywhere, however. He settled back into the chair.

"You haven't asked about Draco," he said, eying Harry speculatively.

Harry started. No, he hadn't. In fact, he'd managed to forget all about Malfoy since Severus had started right in on the wand and the book when he'd returned.

"It's…well, it's none of my business, is it?" he answered rather lamely. "You're the Headmaster. I guess any student has the right to talk with you, don't they?" His voice was tight as he spoke. Now that Severus had brought it up, he very much wanted to know what Malfoy wanted from Severus.

"No, it's not," agreed Severus. His voice was soft, without the edge in it that would usually accompany a statement like that. "However, there is a bit of overlap in what Mr. Malfoy wanted to discuss with me and our current conversation. It seems that Draco has a similar problem—with his wand."

"With his wand?" repeated Harry. Then realization hit. He swallowed. "Oh."

Malfoy's wand. The wand Harry had won at the battle in Malfoy Manor in March. The wand he had returned to him the day after the Final Battle. The wand he had used to defeat Voldemort.

"It seems Draco would also like to commission a new wand."

Severus spoke softly and Harry looked up at him, unable to hide the emotion he was feeling.

"You want to take us both, don't you? At the same time?"

"Yes. But I will leave the decision up to you. I will have to accompany Mr. Malfoy. It is a term of his probation that he not leave the grounds of Hogwarts unless under my direct supervision."

Harry's mouth dropped open. "Probation?" How had he missed that? "Wait! That's why he's here, isn't it? Why he's the only Slytherin in our form who came back? He had to, didn't he?"

Severus nodded. "He is trying, Harry. It will be a difficult year for him in many ways, not least of all in that he has lost a close friend and has none of his housemates, either."

"He's not the only one who lost a close friend," said Harry. He knew he sounded petulant.

"Indeed," answered Severus. "And that is another thing you share, is it not?"

Harry stared at Severus. Could Vincent Crabbe in any way compare to Fred? To Remus?

Nevertheless, he nodded tersely. "I won't be his friend," he said, keeping his voice level. "I can't be."

"I haven't asked that of you, nor will I," said Severus. "I only hope you can be tolerant of my role in his life these next months."

Another terse nod from Harry.

"Harry?

He looked up at Severus to find the dark eyes staring intently at him.

"I was given this responsibility for Draco by a court order. But you—you I chose." He reached out again and tugged at the wild hair that reached down well past Harry's ears. "You need a haircut," he said, his voice soft and undeniably fond.

Harry only nodded. He didn't intend to cut his hair, but he appreciated someone noticing, someone who felt very much like a father.

Thirty minutes later, Severus was back in bed, sleeping again, and Harry let himself out of the Headmaster's quarters. It didn't occur to him until much later, when Ginny brought it up as they walked hand-in-hand on the path by the lake, that he hadn't told Severus about the letter from Hazel Smith. What with the wand, and Severus' health, and the news about Draco Malfoy, it simply didn't seem as important now as it had when he'd first read it.

"I'll probably never hear from her again," he told Ginny. "I'm just going to try to forget it."

"Good luck with that," said Ginny, but she wrapped an arm around his waist and leaned against him and frankly, with her warm weight against his side and her hand comfortably on his hip, Hazel Smith was just about the last thing on his mind.

 

Chapter 3: The Second Letter

On Monday evening, Harry was caught out with Ginny after curfew.

It was stupid, really. They'd spent a lot of time together on Saturday, and again on Sunday after Harry had visited Severus. But on Monday, Ron was holed up studying Arithmancy, and Neville was working with the seventh years on a Herbology project. Harry had spent the evening in the library with Ginny and Luna and just before it closed, thirty minutes before curfew, Luna had gone up to Ravenclaw and he'd walked Ginny back to Gryffindor Tower

Only they hadn't quite made it back there.

It started with Peeves. They were climbing the stairs, headed toward Ginny's dorm, holding hands and taking their time. The halls were almost empty, but while walking down the third floor classroom corridor, they rounded a corner to find Peeves hovering near the ceiling.

"Potter! Potty Potty Potty Potter!" he taunted. "Out to haunt the halls of Hogwarts with the red red red red-headed weasel."

"Shut it, Peeves," said Ginny. She shook her head and rolled her eyes, more bored with the constant harassment than truly annoyed.

"Yeah, Peeves. Go bug a first year," added Harry.

"But firsties aren't so fun, are they?" Peeves said as he followed them, floating over their heads and looking straight down at them. "Firsties don't touch each other in dark rooms. Firsties don't take their clothes off. Firsties don't have soft…."

"Peeves!"

"Shut up!"

Harry and Ginny yelled at the same time, and Peeves gave a long, high-pitched squeal and, at least as Harry saw it, tried to look down Ginny's shirt.

"You're perverted!" yelled Harry. "I'm getting the Headmaster!"

"Perverted Peeves?" Peeves taunted. "Peeves looks but doesn't get to touch! Not like Potter! Potter is the one who is perverted. Pervie Potter!"

"Shut it, Peeves!"

"Leave it, Harry," said Ginny, taking his hand and pulling him down a side corridor. "And stay there or we're getting the Bloody Baron!" warned Ginny, yelling back at Peeves even as she ducked behind a tapestry that led to a different corridor. They ran together until they reached the door that led to the corridor that had housed Fluffy Harry's first year. They ducked inside and leaned against the wall, panting.

And that was where Minerva found them an hour later, sitting on the floor, Ginny sitting in front of Harry, between his knees, leaning back against him. He had his arms around her middle, his chin on her shoulder, his nose in her sweet-smelling hair.

"It wasn't my fault—our fault," protested Harry the following evening as he sat at the small dining table in Severus' quarters, aggressively devouring the chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream Severus had just served him. It was Tuesday again, and he'd arrived here an hour ago to share dinner with Severus, catch up on the week, enjoy some relaxing time together. Only it wasn't exactly relaxing. Severus had kept the conversation general and light during the meal itself, but had brought up the twenty-five points—each—that Harry and Ginny had lost from Gryffindor the previous night, and the upcoming detention with Mr. Filch that had appeared on his detention schedule this morning.

"Harry." Severus shook his head and leaned back in his chair. His eyes had a gentle and warm look in them that Harry had come to both accept and welcome, as incongruous as the look was with the Severus Snape Harry had once known. True, the piercing, cold look could still appear. Harry had seen it aimed at a variety of people over the past months, all of whom, in his opinion anyway, very much deserved it.

"What?" Harry used his thumb to scrape off a clump of frosting from the plate. He licked it off even as Severus shook his head.

"You are a heathen," said Severus, but Harry only grinned back at him. "Now—we were discussing the house points you lost and the detention you earned, were we not?"

"You were," said Harry. The look he got in return was not so gentle and warm. "Alright, we were. But honestly, it wasn't our fault. We were headed back to the tower right before the library closed—half an hour before curfew. We ran into Peeves and he started causing trouble…."

"When is Peeves not causing trouble?" asked Severus, sighing. "But you said it yourself, Harry. You were headed back thirty minutes before curfew. You've been dealing with Peeves for years. It should not take that long to get away from him, no matter how irritating he is."

"But it was different this time," protested Harry. "Really, Severus. Look, I know it's really no excuse. We shouldn't have been out that late—it's against the rules. But he really set me off this time." He frowned, then, suddenly wondering. "Poltergeists are about destruction and chaos, right? That's what Hermione said, anyway."

"I could talk to you about the nature of Poltergeists for hours," said Severus in reply. "Peeves has been here as far back as anyone alive at Hogwarts remembers.

His one purpose, it seems, is to cause havoc and destruction. So yes, Miss Granger is right—again." Harry smiled as Severus continued. "Whatever he did or said to you this time was, I am sure, designed to evoke a reaction from you specifically. Poltergeists, in fact, often seem to haunt only one person when they appear in non-magical places, playing on that person's fears and weaknesses."

"He tried to look down Ginny's shirt," stated Harry, bluntly.

Severus stared at him. He had such an odd look on his face that Harry thought he might be trying not to laugh.

"And he's been spying on…well, on older students! That's just wrong, Severus."

"Stop. Go back to the beginning." Severus rubbed his forehead with both hands, then pushed loose hair behind his ears. "I am interested in hearing this—but for the record, the points and detention hold, so don't think for a moment that embellishing the story will have any effect on your punishment. If you're finished licking your plate, we can go sit in the other room and be more comfortable."

So Harry related the story, and Severus listened, and considered it.

"I would suggest that you spread this story around, Harry, so that the upper years know that they may have a voyeur on their…activities. Perhaps this will discourage some things that ought to be discouraged anyway. They can save those activities for Peeves-free areas."

"You mean anywhere outside of Hogwarts," said Harry.

"Exactly," said Severus. "Now, let's leave Peeves for now and discuss your relationship with Miss Weasley."

Harry, who had been enjoying the discussion about Peeves' proclivities, faltered.

"What do you mean? We talked about that this summer," he said. "All of it," he added, for emphasis.

"And it is September now. We are at a different place. You have many more opportunities to be together unsupervised. I am wondering, especially in light

of this recent curfew violation, if you are still resolved to wait until you are out of school."

Harry shifted on his chair. No, this decidedly was not the conversation he thought he would be having tonight.

"Just for the record," he said, shifting again, "I talked to Ron and Seamus and Dean, and none of their parents have discussed their…."

Severus raised an eyebrow. "Their plans to sleep with their girlfriends?" he asked.

"Yeah. Sleep with them, have sex with them, lose their virginity, keep their virginity—whatever. So I'm not convinced this is something all dads and sons talk about."

"You are right. They do not. Mine did not. Which is precisely why we are having this conversation."

"Yours didn't?" Harry perked up. This was certainly more interesting than talking about his sex life—or lack thereof. "How did you figure it all out then? How did you know when it was the right time?"

"The same way you would have had I not come into your life to put the brakes on your hormones," said Severus. "You would have done what felt good, and hopefully what felt right, without taking too much time to consider the consequences. You might have rushed into a situation with all the Gryffindor bravery and bravado you muster so well in other aspects of your life."

Harry thought about that a minute. In many ways, he knew Severus was right. In other ways, he was wrong. Because Ginny wouldn't necessarily have agreed to it. She might have held back, too. She certainly wasn't rushing things now, as agreeable as she was to hiding out in dark rooms snogging and sleeping next to each other on the porch hammock at Shell Cottage.

"Well, what did you end up doing?" asked Harry. He looked over at Severus seriously. He really wanted to know. Severus rested his chin in his hand and looked back at Harry. He looked thoughtful—and torn. Finally, he sighed again.

"This conversation is not to leave this room. You understand this?"

Harry nodded. His stomach felt heavy suddenly, like he was about to hear something he didn't really want to hear. But he did. It was just….

"First of all, it was not your mother. Put that out of your mind."

Harry nodded quickly. He wanted to say, "Good," but he bit his lip.

"I loved your mother—from the time we were young. You know that. You have seen my memories; we have talked about it, even seen the home where she lived. When it became obvious that we would not end up together, I did not stop loving her. But I was angry, and despairing, and the summer between my sixth and seventh years, when I was seventeen, I lost my virginity to a Muggle girl in my neighborhood." He laughed, but the laugh was bitter and Harry heard the regret in it. "I should not say girl. She was twenty-two years old and staying in her parents' house while they were away in Edinburgh."

Harry stared at Severus. He wasn't surprised—not exactly. He knew Severus had loved his mother—until the end. But he wondered about the regret he heard, and the bitterness he saw.

"What was her name?" he asked. He could tell by the look on Severus' face that that was not the first question he'd expected from Harry.

"Maggie," he said dully. "Maggie McCormick. She left at the end of that summer and I never saw her again."

"Did you want to?" asked Harry. "I mean, did you want to see her again?"

"No." Severus considered Harry. "And I do not want your experience to parallel mine in any way. I sought this woman out with one thing in mind. I did not like her, nor did I respect her. She was a means to an end—to rid myself of my pesky innocence and to attempt to move on. It was an utter failure. No matter what my body was capable of, I could not get your mother out of my heart. I was with Maggie McCormick for three weeks the summer of 1977. I did not love her. I tried again a few years after your mother died. A witch this time, a woman I met at a Potions seminar in France. It was a forgettable weekend and I do not even remember her last name. I have never—never—" He stopped, but Harry thought he knew what Severus hadn't said, what he'd been about to say.

"It's not too late," Harry said, believing it as he said it, wanting for Severus that last elusive missing piece in life.

"I am too old," said Severus. "And I believe we were talking about you."

"You thought you were too old to be a father," said Harry. "And it turns out you weren't."

"My intent was to illustrate to you that love needs to come first," said Severus. "That without it, the act can be pleasurable, but it is just an act, just a release. It will not stay with you, it will not give you sustenance when you are alone."

"But love does?" Harry looked at Severus when he said it, knowing the answer already.

"Love does," confirmed Severus. He paused; he appeared to be thinking deeply, mulling over something. Harry waited, and Severus finally spoke again. "Not too long before we first went to Shell Cottage, Harry, Albus called me into his office. The place was in shambles, torn apart by a boy who had just been possessed by the Dark Lord. A boy who had just lost someone he had loved. ‘How is it that Potter is still alive?’ I asked. ‘How is it that he did not succumb when the Dark Lord possessed his mind?’ And Albus simply said ‘Love.’ And I scoffed, but I understood. I would not let Albus see it, but he knew it already. And he didn't tell me anything else about that day, and what happened at the Ministry of Magic. I know only what you have told me, and what was in The

Prophet." He stood then and approached the fireplace, adding another log against the evening chill that was always threatening this castle of stone, even in the early days of autumn. He picked up a stone from the mantel, a paperweight they had purchased in Liverpool a little more than two years ago. Harry remembered what was engraved on the stone.

Let it be.

Severus stared at the stone for a long moment, then placed it back on the mantel and adjusted the position of the Floo Powder jar, turning it a quarter turn. Harry stared at his back, waiting. How did a simple dinner and a complaint about how unfair a detention was bring them here?

Finally, Severus turned to face Harry. "Think of whatever it was that you thought of—that went through your mind—when you were possessed that night at the

Ministry. When the Dark Lord filled every recess of your mind, what did you think of to force him out? A fumbling kiss with a girl in the Room of Requirement? Or did your heart take over that night? Did you fill it with images of those you love? The feeling of belonging? The fierce protectiveness you feel for your friends?"

Harry wished he didn't remember, but he did.

"I think—I believe—that if you couple that feeling with the physical act of sex, and truly make love, that that would be something worth waiting for."

And Harry knew then that that was what Severus was waiting for, too. Severus, who was almost forty years old. Who hadn't had many opportunities to get to know someone, to fall in love, while he was Dumbledore's man, and pretending to be Voldemort's.

And Harry knew that Severus wanted this for Harry. He wanted Harry to experience what he never had. The heart of love, the emotional nexus, coupled with the physical act of love-making.

"Yeah, I think I can wait for that," Harry said, a wistful smile on his face. He looked earnestly up at Severus. "And it's a new era, Severus. Post-Voldemort like the Prophet keeps saying. It's not too late to find someone—but you're going to have to start looking outside Hogwarts for your soul mate…unless you and Minerva…?"

"Five points from Gryffindor."

"Hey!" exclaimed Harry. "You can't do that!"

"I can and I did," answered Severus. He smiled. "And I can't wait until you explain to your Head of House how you lost five points while having dinner with your father."

ooOOOoo

The second letter came on Saturday morning.

Harry was sitting on the front stairs of the castle, waiting for Severus and Malfoy for their planned trip to Ollivander's to get new wands. Harry had finished breakfast early and had come outside with a book he'd checked out of the library on wand wood and core materials. The post owls had come during breakfast, be he could see a straggler flying toward the castle now, an envelope clutched in its talons.

He'd already received four letters that morning: two from children asking for autographs, one from Andromeda that contained a photograph of Teddy and a lock of turquoise hair, and one from an Irish wish hoping to start up a "correspondence." When this one circled above him and dropped down to land on the stair beside him, he wasn't unduly alarmed. It was a nondescript Tawny post owl and it took off as soon as he took the envelope.

He recognized the writing on the front.

He stared at the cream-colored heavy Muggle-style envelope then glanced around him. It was early still and he was alone outside. The castle doors were closed behind him and Severus and Draco weren't supposed to be there for ten or fifteen minutes.

After dinner on Tuesday, Harry had decided to just forget the letter from Hilda Smith. He still had it, folded up inside his Charms textbook, but the indignation he'd felt when he first read it had faded, and he'd convinced himself that there would always be people like this Hilda, people who thought they knew more about Severus than he did, people who would try to convince him that Severus was not the man he thought he was. Bitter people. People who couldn't forgive and forget. People who didn't really understand love.

But a second letter from the same person might mean he'd have to rethink that plan, consult with Severus, maybe even let Severus handle the whole thing.

He turned the envelope over. It had the same green sealing wax on it with the same nondescript circular seal. He let out a breath as he opened the envelope and took out the single sheet of heavy parchment.

Dear Mr. Potter:

I write to you again at the end of your second week back at Hogwarts. I imagine you are feeling a little confined after your months away from Hogwarts, and hope you are finding the company of your friends and the stimulation of your mind adequate recompense for the loss of the unstructured summer.

I understand, from the articles written in the DailyProphet, that you intend to enter the Auror Corps after you complete this final year at Hogwarts and achieve your N.E.W.T.s. As the Auror Corps was nearly decimated during the previous two years with the fall of the Ministry and the war that followed,

I commend your desire to help rebuild the magical Britain we all love. What a noble decision on your part, predicated, I am sure, on your desire to keep the world you fought so hard to save free and safe for your children and their children. I hope more of the students at Hogwarts now will consider a career that is as selfless as the one you are planning.

One cannot believe everything one reads in the papers, yet the papers are the only source for many who look for news of you, for assurances that all is well in the life of the Boy Who Lived to Save Us All. If the press is not doing its duty to report the unvarnished truth, I hope that you will correct the untruths and misconceptions. There is, and will continue to be, a great interest in you, Mr. Potter. And while you certainly have earned the privacy you surely desire, remember that you saved our world, and thousands of witches and wizards look up to you. You gave them hope during the fight, you give

them hope now as you show that they can return to a normal life, and you will give them hope in the future as an Auror, a protector of what is right, and good, and just.

I understand that we must move on, Mr. Potter. I understand that there were actions taken during the war and after that are or were questionable. The use of Unforgivables by all manner of witches and wizards on both sides. Murder, thievery, forgery, breaking and entering, coercion, spying, torture, destruction of property. And while some was done in the name of all that is good and right and just in the world, is not a crime still a crime? I have been told that the rules change in time of war, but I hope you will seek to establish a justice system where men are measured by their actions and not by the secret intentions

of their hearts.

I will look for you in the DailyProphet,, Mr. Potter. Take care and enjoy this last year of carefree wonder. You most certainly deserve it.

With sincere wishes for your successful future,

Hilda Smith

He stared at the letter, his head spinning, and quickly read it again. Like the first one, it was all over the place in its carefully construed sincerity and its veiled suggestions and hints.

Who was this woman and what did she know? The list of 'questionable actions' read like a combined list of crimes committed by himself and Severus.

And her support of his choice of career—what did that mean? Did he have to want to be an Auror to keep the world safe? Wasn't it enough that he liked the work and thought he'd be good at it?

He heard the door open behind him and he climbed to his feet, stuffing the letter and the envelope in his robe pocket. He would take this one to Severus—discuss it as soon as they got back from Diagon Alley.

It was Malfoy.

Draco looked around, saw that Harry was alone out here, then nodded curtly to him.

Harry nodded back. He had no idea what to say. He couldn't imagine saying, “Nice weather we're having, don't you think?” or, “How do you think the Cannons will do this year?” He looked at the ground and had just decided to ask Malfoy what he'd thought about the Potions quiz the previous day when the door opened again and Severus appeared. He glanced approvingly at both boys, obviously surprised to find both of them here and ready to go, then gestured for them to follow him and started off at his usual brisk pace down to the castle gates.

"We are meeting our escorts at the gates. You will be pleasant and polite. The Ministry has provided two Aurors, and that is a stretch at this time, as their numbers are so reduced."

"Escort?" said Harry at the same time that Draco said, "Aurors?"

"Why do we need an escort?" asked Harry as he hurried to keep up with Severus.

"Because Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape are venturing out together into Diagon Alley," answered Severus. He didn't look back at them as they walked. Harry and Draco exchanged a glance, then looked away from each other as if trying to undo the unexpected show of camaraderie.

The Aurors were waiting at the gates.

"We'll be Apparating into the Leaky Cauldron," the first said. "Ollivander's is nearby, and we'll stay outside the door while you're shopping. One hour, and then we clear you out and send you back."

"One hour will suffice," said Severus.

To Harry and Draco's displeasure, they were required to side-along with the Aurors while Severus followed. Draco made a show of dusting off his sleeve after the Auror released him in the Leaky Cauldron, but Harry just sidled up closer to Severus. They attracted a lot of attention once they walked out into Diagon Alley, most likely because they were accompanied by two burley red-robed Aurors, both of whom walked with wands brandished.

Mr. Ollivander was sitting on a stool behind the counter when they walked in a few minutes later. The bell above the door jangled, but he was already staring up at them.

Harry smiled at him. He had not seen Mr. Ollivander since they left Shell Cottage for Gringotts last May. The man looked thinner and older than Harry remembered him from the few times they had met before ending up in the same dungeon at Malfoy Manor. And he knew, by the way Mr. Ollivander's silver eyes seemed to follow Draco, that the old man would not soon forget his internment there.

The Aurors positioned themselves on either side of the door to the shop and Severus approached the counter, Harry and Draco behind him.

"Headmaster Snape," said Mr. Ollivander in greeting. "I am hoping I can meet your expectations today. You ask no easy thing in finding second wands for two young wizards such as these."

Harry and Draco exchanged another look. Harry looked away quickly. It was almost embarrassing how he and Malfoy kept doing that.

"Mr. Malfoy first," said Severus, nodding at Draco. "No restrictions on wood, color or core, correct, Mr. Malfoy?"

"Well, I'd prefer not to have a pink one," he drawled and Harry had to work to hide a grin.

Severus shook his head but did not chastise him. Draco moved forward to the counter and Mr. Ollivander stared at him for some time, head cocked slightly to the side.

"Hawthorn, ten inches, unicorn hair core. Do you have your wand with you?"

Draco stared at the old man but reached into his pocket automatically and produced the wand.

"Ahhhh." The wand maker reached out and took it, holding it delicately before him. "A fine wand, still, though I do understand why you might want a replacement. You will keep this one as a spare, yes?"

Draco glanced at Severus. Severus gave no indication of his opinion on the matter, so Draco turned back to Ollivander.

"Yes. A spare," he said, squaring his shoulders and speaking with confidence. Harry was intrigued by Malfoy. He kept slipping into the kind of bravado that Harry expected from him, but it didn't seem to come to him naturally anymore—he seemed to have to work to produce it.

Twenty minutes later, Draco had tried out at least two dozen wands and Mr. Ollivander had put away all but two. They both performed very well for him, but were very different in every other way.

"Walnut, ten inches, unicorn mane hair." Ollivander held up the first wand. It was straight and smooth and fairly thick. "Maple, ten and three quarter inches,

dragon heartstring." Ollivander held up the second. That wand was a lighter color, rougher, with a thick base. "I will be frank, Mr. Malfoy. The first is a defensive wand and the second an offensive one." He nodded, barely, at Severus and continued. "Each can be used for the other, of course, but you will find your choice of wand now, as an adult, influenced by the type of work you wish to do, or the type of life you wish to lead."

Draco licked his lips nervously. Harry watched him, intrigued. Draco reached for the first wand, ran his fingers down it, then put it down and repeated the action with the second.

"No one will judge you for your choice, Mr. Malfoy." Severus' voice behind them was low, almost soothing. "No one will know but the four of us in this room."

Draco was still staring at the counter. Finally, he reached for the walnut wand and nodded to Mr. Ollivander. "This one," he said, his voice businesslike. "How much do I owe you?"

Harry glanced back at Severus as Draco completed his transaction. Severus gave him a tight-lipped smile, then turned his head to watch Draco as his other charge tucked his new wand into his robe pocket and then leaned against a side counter, ready to watch Harry have his own go.

"Now Mr. Potter," said Severus, stepping forward, obviously intending to engage himself more in the selection of this wand. "Mr. Potter, as I informed you in my letter, finds that his wand is behaving differently since the events of this past May. We have done some experimentation and feel that his wand may be partially responsible. He would like to commission or select a different wand, but of the same wood or one similar in color, and of approximately the same length."

"I see," said Mr. Ollivander, quite seriously. He held out his hand. "Your wand, Mr. Potter?"

Harry handed over his wand almost reluctantly. From the corner of his eye, he saw Malfoy leaning against the counter but watching the process intently.

"Holly, eleven inches long, phoenix feather core," said Mr. Ollivander as he rolled the wand between his palms. He held it horizontally in front of him then and stared at it. "The same wand I sold to you when you were eleven years old…but different." He eyed Harry thoughtfully, then glanced at Severus. "This wand is special, Mr. Potter, but it will only ever be special to…you." He emphasized the last word, pointing the wand at Harry's heart.

Harry stared at him. He hoped that meant what he thought it did. The wand was powerful, but the power was not something others could master. Harry nodded. "I understand. Can I try some new wands, then?" he asked.

"Oh no. No no no no no," said Ollivander as he busily levitated boxes of wands back to the shelves, clearing the counter off. "I must make this one anew. I have what I need, I believe. The holly, yes, and a selection of phoenix feathers from which to choose. Gold instead of red this time, I think, and from a different bird whose magic is not quite so old. A week, I think. Twenty-eight Galleons, please."

Harry's mouth dropped open. Malfoy had only paid eleven, and he distinctly remembered paying seven for his first wand all those years ago.

"It is a custom creation, Mr. Potter," explained Mr. Ollivander as Severus paid without protest, using a Gringotts voucher. "I will deliver it by owl, and you will try it out. Keep it for several days. If it is not what you are expecting, return it in person, please, and we shall see what we can do."

As they moved toward the door, Malfoy turned suddenly and addressed Mr. Ollivander. "I didn't bring you to Malfoy Manor," he said, "and I couldn't have got you out of there without getting myself killed. But for what it's worth, I'm sorry. I know it was horrible for you." His face blanched, and as it was normally already very pale, he looked almost ghostlike now. "I'm…I'm sorry." Harry thought he had to forcefully push the words out.

Mr. Ollivander's eyes traveled over to Harry, staring at him contemplatively before moving back to Draco.

"Apology accepted, Mr. Malfoy. And if I may, a word for you—life is about choices." He nodded at Malfoy's hand, holding the new wand inside his robe pocket. "You made a good one today. May it be a harbinger of hope." He turned and fitted another box on the shelf. "Good day, gentlemen," he said, not turning around as he continued cleaning up the counter.

That was odd, thought Harry as he followed Severus and Malfoy out onto the street. The Aurors escorted them back to the Leaky Cauldron and Apparated with them back to the gates of Hogwarts. As they walked the path up to the castle, Harry thought about his old wand and the promised new one. Of Draco's wand and what it said about the future he chose. But what pulled at him most were the final words of Mr. Ollivander. Albus Dumbledore had said something like that once. It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.

And that reminded him suddenly of the letter in his pocket. His choice—to be an Auror.

"Severus!" he called out. And he ran to catch up with his father.
Chapter 4: The Photograph in the Yearbook

Severus pressed down on Harry's shoulder, forcing him to sit on the corner of the sofa.

"Show me this letter," he said, holding his hand out and sinking into his own wingback chair.

Harry dug into his pocket and pulled out the envelope. He held it out to Severus and Severus, face set in an unreadable expression, took it and smoothed it out on his knee, studying the writing on it.

"This arrived today?"

Harry nodded. "I got it while I was outside on the castle stairs waiting for you and Draco this morning," he explained.

"You did not recognize the owl?" He had made no move yet to take the letter out of the envelope.

Harry shook his head. "It was just an ordinary post owl," he said. "A tawny."

Severus continued to stare at the envelope.

"I do not recognize the handwriting," he said, contemplatively, as if to himself.

"Did you think you would?" asked Harry. Severus had been a professor a long time, but surely he didn't think he could recognize the handwriting of every witch or wizard in Great Britain.

Severus glanced at Harry, lifting his eyes from the letter on his lap. "I thought that if the name was a false one, the handwriting might give away the writer."

"Right." Harry watched Severus nervously as he turned the envelope over and examined the seal. He suddenly understood that Severus had expected that the letters were coming from someone he knew.

"I do not recognize this either," he said, frowning. "It seems a very plain seal for a Wizarding family. They are normally given to…exaggeration."

"I think you'll find exaggeration inside the letter," said Harry, forcing a smile. He wished Severus would just get on with it and read the letter.

Severus was still in no hurry. He looked up again at Harry.

"You have the first letter as well?"

"In my Charms textbook," answered Harry.

"Hmm." Severus tapped the envelope on his hand, glanced up at Harry again, then finally—finally—reached into the envelope and pulled out the letter. He took just as much time smoothing out the letter onto his thigh as he had with the envelope.

Waiting for Severus to read the letter was nerve-wracking. Harry kept his eyes focused on Severus' face as he read, watching his eyes move from left to right, his mouth begin to set in a hard, thin line. He could tell when Severus finished the letter, as his eyes remained still, focused, Harry was sure, on the signature at the bottom of the letter.

His head slowly lifted. He looked intently at Harry.

"Go get the other letter." There was a short pause. "Please."

"All right." Harry stood, glancing back over at Severus, but he was already rereading the letter, his face set in the kind of expression Harry saw when he was marking essays and they were particularly bad ones. Irritated. Angry. Impatient.

Harry hurried out, nearly running down the corridor and up the stairs, heading for the eighth year dorms.

It was almost noon on Saturday and the halls were beginning to fill with students moving toward the Great Hall for lunch. His stomach rumbled. It hadn't been that long since breakfast, but the thought of food nearly always made his stomach react like this. Maybe he could invite Severus back to the dorm some evening for dinner—they could cook there instead of eating in the Great Hall. He grinned as he ducked into the dorms, imagining Severus visiting the dorms and eating with the eighth years. It was everyday stuff for Harry, but he doubted that anyone else had ever had a private dinner with the Headmaster.

He grabbed his bag from the corner of the room by his desk where he had left it the previous night and turned toward the door. He almost missed the package sitting on his bed.

It was wrapped in plain brown paper, book-sized. His name was written on the paper in a familiar hand.

Hilda's handwriting.

He stared at the package, then looked around the room. The window was closed: if an owl had come through, it—or someone—had closed the window afterward. A password was needed to get into the dorms.

Would any of his friends have taken the package and agreed to deliver it to him?

He reached for the parcel, then thought better of it and backed away, staring at it suspiciously. Instead, he checked to make sure the window was locked, then drew the curtains and left the room, closing the door behind him and locking it with a spell.

He was halfway back to Severus' office when he realized he had dropped his backpack and left it, with the package, in his bedroom. He kept going—he'd get the letter out of it when he figured out what to do about the package.

He burst back into Severus' office a few minutes later. Severus was still sitting in the chair, but the letter and envelope were on the table beside him. Severus stared at Harry as he skidded to a stop.

"The letter?"

"Left it in my room—come on. You have to come with me," Harry panted.

"You couldn't just bring the letter here?" Severus asked, frowning.

"No. Severus—there's a package on my bed that wasn't there when I left. It's got my name on it—in her writing!" He gestured toward the envelope. Severus rose to his feet.

"You are sure?"

Harry nodded. "I can't be positive, but I think so. Yes. I just got that other letter today—I remember her writing."

"And your room—nothing else is disturbed?"

Harry shook his head. "I don't think so. It looked the same, but I didn't spend a lot of time looking around. I checked to be sure the window was closed—it was, and latched from the inside. The door was closed too, but we don't lock the doors to our rooms when we're gone."

Severus stood up, picking up the letter and pocketing it as he did so.

"Come."

Harry followed him out into the corridor.

"Do you have any ideas…?"

"Nothing specific. I would like to see the first letter, and this parcel. I am not familiar with the name, but we have no proof she is using her real name."

"Maybe it's not even a she," said Harry. The students were moving out of the Headmaster's way, but Harry hardly gave them a glance.

"The handwriting would lead me to believe it is a woman," said Severus. "But handwriting can be disguised as well."

Ron and Hermione were in the common area when Harry and Severus entered a few minutes later. They were sitting on the floor on either side of the low sofa table, Indian take-away spread out before them. Harry's stomach growled. The smell was divine.

"I need a girlfriend who lives in Muggle London," said Harry, smiling at his friends.

Ron looked chagrined. He looked down at the food before him, obviously thinking there was not enough to share with two extra people.

"I thought you were going to be in Diagon Alley for lunch?" he said.

"We had company—a couple of Aurors from the Ministry. They were kind of anxious to get us out of there and back here," he said.

"What's going on?" asked Hermione, cueing in more quickly than Ron that the Headmaster was not here on a social call.

"I got another letter this morning," said Harry. "I showed it to Severus and he wanted to see the first one. I ran up here to get it and found a package on my bed—with my name on it. I think the writing is the same as the person who wrote the letters, so I went down and got Severus."

"Someone put a package on your bed? Could it have been a post owl?" Hermione stood up, clearly intending to go with them to investigate. Ron, however, looked more invested in the food than the mystery.

"Yeah. Was the window open?" he asked.

"No, the window was shut and latched from the inside," answered Harry. He was nervous, and he looked down the passageway toward his room.

"Come. Show me this package," said Severus. Harry saw him glance down—again—at the food spread out on the table. He thought Severus must be wondering when Hogwarts had become something like a Muggle dorm at Uni.

Harry unwarded his bedroom door and opened it, stepping back to let Severus enter first.

The package was on the bed where he had left it. Nothing else looked disturbed.

"Hermione—check the rest of the room, please," said Severus. He took Harry's arm, keeping him where he stood beside him, facing the bed. "Harry, stay here." Hermione, wand in hand, began casting, as if it were second nature to her. And it was. Harry had seen her in that exact pose countless times the year they had spent on the run. Muttering spells under her breath, for detection and protection.

Severus took out his own wand and pointed it at the innocuous-looking package. Harry watched the package glow as Severus ran through a litany of detection spells. Finally, he pocketed his wand and, sighing, picked up the package.

"I believe it is a book," he said. With all the magic in the world available, he did what every child did on Christmas morning. Picked up the package to feel its weight and shape.

Harry leaned in to examine it with him. Harry's name was written on the front of the package in black ink. Severus pulled the envelope out of his pocket and held it up next to the package.

"Same writing," said Harry.

"I believe so," commented Severus.

"There's no one here now," said Hermione, looking back at them from the opposite side of the bed. "Though the house-elves have been here cleaning since Harry left this morning. I can't find anything out of the ordinary at all."

"Thank you," muttered Severus, nodding at Hermione. He handed the package to Harry. "Open it."

Harry took it without comment. The package had a comfortable weight about it.

"Carefully, please," said Severus as Harry turned it over and put his finger in the seam of the wrapping. "I'd like to examine the paper, too."

Harry nodded and carefully removed the wrapping, handing it to Severus, then turning the book over to examine it.

"Might vs. Right: The Case for Magical Law Enforcement," read Harry out loud.

"Open it," instructed Severus, his voice deceptively calm. "Check for an inscription."

Harry opened the book. It smelled old, but the pages were still crisp.

There was an inscription, on the blank cover page. Harry read it out loud.

"To H. Some food for thought as you contemplate your future. H"

He looked up to find both Severus and Hermione staring at him.

"May I read the letter?" asked Hermione, of Severus.

Severus handed it across the bed to her and she sat in the desk chair and opened the envelope.

"I'd like that book, please, and the other letter, Harry," said Severus. "Why don't you eat lunch with your friends and then join me in my office in an hour?" He accepted the book from Harry, which Harry handed over without hesitation. The title was so off-putting to him that he was glad to get rid of it. Harry dug in his bag for the first letter and Severus addressed Hermione.

"I would like to speak to you, as well. Could you accompany Harry?" Harry glanced over at Hermione as he handed the first letter to Severus. She looked surprised and pleased.

"Of course. I'd be happy to come."

Severus left without a reassuring glance or gesture—no smile or nod or touch on his shoulder.

"He's worried," said Hermione as they sat down in the common area where Ron was still eating.

"What was that all about?" asked Ron.

"My mystery writer…."

"Hilda," supplied Ron.

"Yeah, Hilda. She sent me a book. About being an Auror."

"Well, you want to be a Auror, don't you?" asked Ron.

"Yeah, I do," said Harry. "But she makes it sound like it's my responsibility—my duty. I don't want to be an Auror because that's what I'm supposed to do." He paused and tore off a piece of naan bread. "I want to be one because it's interesting, and I think I'd be good at it."

"Don't let her get to you, Harry," said Hermione. She handed the second letter across the table to Harry, but Ron reached out for it.

"Can I?" he asked.

"Sure," said Harry. He watched as Ron started to read the letter, then looked back toward Hermione. "You think Severus is worried about this?"

"Of course he's worried," said Hermione. "You can just tell. He didn't even give you any false reassurances."

"Why would I need reassurances?" asked Harry. "I mean—this Hilda is kind of creepy, I admit. But do you think she's a real threat? She isn't going to drag me down to the Auror Academy and hold a wand on me until I sign up for life."

Ron laughed. "I don't think it's going to be that hard to get you to sign up," he said. "Besides, you're going to have to fill out the application and go in for the physical before Christmas." He scooped some more rice onto his plate. "Hope you pass it with those eyes."

"He'll pass it just fine," reassured Hermione. "He's really quite fit." She glanced sideways at Harry and he winked.

"Fit?" Ron rolled his eyes. "Look at the way those jeans are hanging off his hips. He's got no bum to speak of."

"Says the bloke who has an arse and a half," said Harry. He snagged a piece of chicken directly off Ron's plate.

"Aww! You noticed!" exclaimed Ron.

"You two are impossible," said Hermione, shaking her head fondly.

"Did you get your new wand?" asked Ron, obviously remembering again where Harry had been that morning.

"No—Ollivander is making it, though. Severus told him that I needed one that looks like the one I have now. He didn't even let me try any out. Just told me he'd send it by owl post when he finished it."

"How's the old fellow doing?" asked Ron, with obvious interest. "Last time I saw him—well, he wasn't exactly dancing around at Shell Cottage last spring."

"He seemed fine," answered Harry. He considered a moment. Ollivander had behaved rather oddly with Draco, but Harry had agreed to keep that part of the visit to himself. "His shop was in good shape, at least, and he seemed like he was getting on with life."

"The Ministry used some of the reparation money to restore some of the businesses on Diagon Alley," said Ron casually. "Mum and Dad were offered some because of the damage the night of Bill's wedding. They didn't take it. They said they didn't need it, really, and so many others did."

Harry and Hermione exchanged a quick look. The Weasleys did need the money, but it gave him a warm feeling inside to know that they thought others needed it even more.

ooOOOoo

"This is impossible."

Harry sat across from Hermione at the big library table.

"Not impossible. It's tedious and time-consuming."

"And boring," Harry added. He closed the Hogwarts yearbook he was holding, pushed it to the right, and picked up the next one from the stack on his left. "I've gone through six of these things already."

"We only have thirty years in all to go through," said Hermione. She didn't even look up. She was paging quickly through the book in front of her, stopping occasionally to look at the photos or read the short quips. "Did you know that Hogwarts had a curling team until the 1960s?"

"Curling? Isn't that played on ice?"

"It is," answered Hermione. "Here's a Hilda." She squinted at the page. "No—it's Hilde with an 'e'."

"Helda?" asked Harry, leaning forward.

"No, H-i-l-d-e. I guess it could be the same person."

"Hilde Johnson?" Harry read the name upside down. "That's almost as common as Smith."

"I know," said Hermione with a sigh. "But it's the best I've come up with so far. And it's the only Hilde—or Hilda—we've seen and we've already covered a dozen years."

"This is useless," said Harry. Unlike Hermione, he didn't enjoy paging through old yearbooks looking for people with a first name of Hilda or a last name of Smith. "I don't know why Severus is so worried about this, anyway."

Hermione looked up.

"You're whinging, Harry. You know perfectly well why he's worried. Those letters aren't normal. They're…well, they're almost insidious. Creepy."

"People get in other people's business all the time," said Harry. "Well, into my business, anyway."

"But now you have someone watching out for you," sad Hermione. "Look, Harry. You're going to have to get used to it. Parents are always interfering." She laughed. "Well, not interfering, I guess. But getting their nose into things. They worry about us—want to protect us."

"Hermione…"

"They can't help it," said Hermione. "It's in their blood. Just wait until you're a parent, Harry…"

"No. Look! I've found her! Hilda Smith. She's a first-year here." He turned the book around to show Hermione a photograph of a little girl with brown hair done up in two long braids.

"Ravenclaw," said Hermione. She smiled to herself. "No surprise there.

"This is 1977," she went on. "Which means she left Hogwarts in 1983—five years after Severus. It would make sense that he didn't know her."

She pulled the 1983 yearbook off Harry's stack and opened it, thumbing to the back to find the photos of the seventh years.

"Well, that's odd. She's not here."

Harry shrugged and pulled out 1980. "Here she is," he said, quickly finding her with the fourth years. "Still in Ravenclaw."

"Ha ha," said Hermione, leaning over to study the picture with him. Hilda's face was less babyish in this photo. Her hair was long and loose. She was looking at the camera almost shyly. She occasionally blinked but didn't flirt with the camera as the other girls on the page did.

Hermione found her again in 1981. And in 1982.

"Oh." Hermione looked up at Harry. She sounded distraught.

"What?"

"She…died. That's what is says—right here. It's an 'In Memoriam' tribute."

"But…"

"I know! She can't be dead if she's writing you letters, can she?"

"How did she die?" Harry got up and walked around the table to look over Hermione's shoulder. It was easier than craning his neck across the table and trying to read upside down. The full-page photograph of Hilda showed her sitting next to the lake with four other girls,

"Drowned," said Hermione, shivering a little. "In the lake, right here at Hogwarts. It doesn't say much else—but we can look it up in back issues of The Prophet. " She stared at the photograph again and Harry stared, too. It was so easy to imagine themselves in the photo instead of these girls, smiling and hugging each other with the lake in the background. "Odd, isn't it, that they would publish a photo of her in front of the lake—when she drowned in it?"

"Wow." Harry stared down at the photograph of the five girls. He could pick out Hilda easily enough. She was pretty, but in an ordinary way, so that you wouldn't necessarily notice her if she came in the room with a group of people. She had a serious look about her. Her hands were folded in her lap, although the girls on either side of her had their arms around her shoulders.

"So she never had a seventh year, then," he said. He reached out and traced the line of her face with his finger.

"No." Hermione was still reading the article. "Harry…"

"What?"

Hermione moved her finger beneath the last paragraph in the article. "Read this."

Harry scanned the paragraph. Oh.

"She wanted to be an Auror."

He sat in the empty chair beside her.

"Severus will want to see this. Can you duplicate it?"

Hermione rolled her eyes.

"I mean—would you duplicate it?" he corrected. And while she got out a blank sheet of parchment and incanted the duplication spell, Harry stared at the photo of Hilda, looking not at her serious face but at the girls around her.

Mary Amberhurst.

Camilla Foster.

Rhonda McMillan.

Honor Carson.

Hilda's friends. Could one of them be writing to him using her name?

Urging him to become an Auror because she had never got her wish?

"Let's go find Ron and Ginny and go outside for a while," suggested Harry. "I'm tired of the library."

"How can you ever get tired of the library?" asked Hermione. But she packed up nonetheless and followed him out to find their friends.

ooOOOoo

On Tuesday evening, when he presented himself in Severus' quarters at six o'clock, Severus was sitting on the sofa with a sheaf of parchment in his hands.

"Still marking?" asked Harry. He walked past Severus into the kitchenette and poured himself a glass of milk.

"No. I'm reading a report," answered Severus. He looked up at Harry. "It's the Auror's report on Hilda Smith's death."

"The Auror's report?" Harry sat down next to Severus. "Is this why you asked me to hold off interrogating Ernie McMillan?"

"I asked you to let me do some research before you launched your own investigation," clarified Severus. "According to the yearbook article you brought me, Hilda Smith died at Hogwarts. If she died here, there would be a report on the death and, as Headmaster, I would have access to said report." He held up the sheaf of parchment he was reading.

"Really? What's it say? What's in it?”

Harry sat down beside Severus and looked curiously at the rather thick document.

"The death was ruled accidental," said Severus. "But there were those that contended it was murder and others who claimed it was a suicide."

"Can I read it?"

"May you read it and no, technically, I am not allowed to share this report with a student. I will, however, answer any questions you may have."

Harry thought a moment, remembering the police programs Dudley had always watched on the telly. "What were the circumstances surrounding this mysterious death?"

Severus rolled his eyes and smacked him on the head with the report. Harry grinned.

"Alright, alright. What happened? Why couldn't they agree on the cause?"

"Miss Smith was discovered missing by her dorm mates when they woke up on a Sunday morning near the end of term. She had been out the previous evening with her boyfriend and apparently they often stayed out past curfew, so no one was worried." Here Severus looked sharply at Harry. "I, however, would find out, as you well know."

"Oh, I know alright," answered Harry with a very Severus-like roll of his eyes. "What next?"

"The boyfriend was found asleep and severely hung over on the Quidditch Pitch. He had a black eye but could not explain how he got it. He remembered little of the evening before, save an impromptu swim in the lake. The girl’s body was pushed to the shore later that morning by the giant squid, whose help was enlisted in the search."

"So why all the different theories?" asked Harry.

Severus considered a moment before answering. "The girl's friends reported that she had been experiencing some family issues and was depressed. Her parents were divorcing and she was to go live with her father for the upcoming summer in Milan. Her grades had been slipping, as well. The boyfriend was a seventh-year Gryffindor, and he would be leaving Hogwarts soon." He looked down at the report again before continuing, then back at Harry, speaking more softly. "The murder theories came about because of the condition of the body. But ultimately cause of death was ruled to be by drowning. The injuries were likely caused before she got in the water."

"Or was put there," said Harry. "Someone could have put her in while she was unconscious."

"True," said Severus. "I am inordinately glad that something like this did not happen on my watch. I wonder why Albus never spoke of it. He was interviewed by the Aurors—it is in the report."

"He probably didn't like thinking about it," said Harry, thinking to himself that this could not have been the most unpleasant thing Albus Dumbledore had to deal with during the course of his time at Hogwarts.

"No, he most likely did not," confirmed Severus.

"Did they ever find out what happened with the boyfriend?" asked Harry.

"They examined his memories, of course," said Severus. "It is even stated here that the Headmaster used Legilimency on him. But the young man was intoxicated during much of the time in question. Results were inconclusive at best and he maintained his innocence. The family suspected him of foul play, but his friends—and hers as well—stood by him."

Harry sat there a minute, thinking of the long-ago tragedy, and what it meant to him, today.

"So, do you think someone is just borrowing that name?" he asked. "They needed an alias and thought of the girl who died?"

"If they thought of the girl who died, they likely have some association with her, or were in school with her. But Harry, it is also possible that this is a different Hilda, who married a man named Smith, and is now Hilda Smith. Or a woman whose last name is Smith, who picked ‘Hilda’ out of the air."

"How old would she be—if she'd lived? Early thirties?"

“She would be five years younger than me," answered Severus. "Thirty-three or thirty-four."

"She could have kids here, then."

"She could."

"She could have had her kid bring that package to me, then. Or give it to someone to put on my bed."

"Harry, I've interviewed every person in your year. No one admits taking a package and placing it on your bed. No one heard or saw anything that morning, in fact."

"It could have been a house-elf."

"Yes, it could have. I have not yet had time to interrogate all one hundred of them."

Harry sighed.

"Well—what next?" Harry hoisted a trainer-clad food up on the table but quickly removed it when Severus gave him the look.

"Next is dinner."

"And then?"

"Then, a game of chess. Or two."

"And then?"

"I've a lemon pie for pudding."

"Excellent." Harry grinned. "So, when are we going to talk about finding the person writing to me?"

"I think, Harry, that we need to wait. Wait for her next letter. You are resolved to bring it to me, are you not? Even if it speaks negatively of me?"

"Sure, Severus."

But he wasn't going to sit around and twiddle his thumbs waiting for another letter to arrive. He had names, and he had Hermione, and she would know where to start to find out what happened to Hilda Smith's friends.

"Dad?"

Severus looked sidelong at Harry, a humored but exasperated look on his face. "You switch back and forth between my given name and 'Dad' randomly, you know."

"Do I?"

Severus closed his eyes and shook his head. "You do."

"Do you think I should be an Auror? Wait—don't answer. I know. We've talked about this already. You'll respect my career choice. So let me rephrase that—do you want me to be an Auror?"

Harry looked up into his father's eyes, searching for the truth. He saw Severus' expression soften, saw the crinkles form around his eyes as the corners of his mouth moved upward, just slightly.

"My mother wanted me to be a healer," he said. It wasn't the answer Harry had expected. "She thought that I could easily turn my love of Potions into a career crafting medical marvels for the Wizarding world. She hoped I could eventually become the private healer of a prominent Wizarding family and be set for life." He paused a moment, a wistful, far-away look in his eyes. "She used to hold my hands when I was very small—a mere boy—and study my fingers. She told me that I had the hands of a healer—long fingered, narrow, dexterous." He held up one hand and regarded it, then dropped it back to his stomach.

Harry looked down at Severus' hands. They were folded across his stomach, and he was lying back against the cushions of the sofa, not looking at Harry as he spoke. His hands were just as Severus' mother had said—long fingered and nimble, narrow and dexterous. But Harry knew that when Eileen Prince had kissed her little boy's hands, they weren't stained with potions and ink, nor scarred from a life more difficult than she could have imagined.

"My mother would not have made any of the choices in life that I made for myself—save one," he said. "She would not have wanted me to join the Death Eaters. She would not have wanted me to teach here at Hogwarts, or to serve as Headmaster. She was not fond of the school." He didn't elaborate, falling silent for a moment.

"What choice would she have made? You said 'save one,'" said Harry quietly after a few quiet moments had passed.

Severus glanced over at him.

"She always wanted to be a grandmother," he said simply.

"Oh." Harry swallowed a lump in his throat. He sat there, looking at Severus' hands, considering what he had said.

"You didn't answer my question," he said.

Severus smiled, reaching out for Harry's hand and squeezing it.

"Oh, I think I did, Harry. I think I did."
Chapter 5: Harry Potter's Father

Surprisingly, it was Ron, not Hermione, who came up with an idea for finding Hazel Smith's friends.

Ginny, Harry and Ron were walking back from the Quidditch pitch on Thursday evening. They'd had a couple of hours between the end of classes and dinner and had gone down to the pitch to sort through the Gryffindor Quidditch gear before their first practice on Sunday. Tryouts the previous Sunday had gone fairly well. Ginny was a demanding and organized captain. She had ultimately chosen Ron as Keeper, despite having warned him at least a half dozen times before tryouts that she would be choosing the best man—or woman—for the job and he was not guaranteed a position just because he was her brother. And she'd banned Hermione from tryouts, noting that Ron didn't need any help and the rest of the hopefuls would do better if they weren't Confunded. Hermione was properly affronted, even though, as a commuting student, she had no plans to be at Hogwarts on Sunday.

Harry would be Seeking again, but he'd also be taking a protégé under his wings—a second-year girl who was as natural on a broom as he had been at her age.

As they walked back, Harry and Ginny hand in hand and Ron beside Harry, Harry brought up the topic they'd tossed around at length while they were working in the supply shed.

"It's so much easier to track people down in the Muggle world," Harry said. "Most people have telephones and you can find them using the telephone directory."

"Maybe some of Hilda's friends do have telephones," suggested Ron. "Maybe some of them are Muggle-born, or married to a Muggle."

"If they married anyone, Muggle or not, they'd probably have a different last name," Ginny reminded him.

"All Wizarding marriages are recorded at the Ministry of Magic," said Ron. He grinned. "I know way too much about the Department of Records, thanks to Percy."

"We could send Hermione to the Ministry library," suggested Ginny. "She could pull the records books and check…"

"She'd get one look at the Ministry library and never leave," said Ron. He grinned. He hadn't really complained about Hermione's love of the library in months. Now, when he mentioned it, he sounded fond instead of annoyed.

"But what if any of them married a Muggle?" asked Harry.

"I think it depends on the legal system they use," said Ron, shrugging. "We'd be looking up marriage licenses, wouldn't we? So if the couple got their marriage license through the Muggle system, it wouldn't be registered at our Ministry, would it?"

"Ron, I'm pretty sure the Ministry of Magic only gives licenses to wizards and witches," answered Ginny. "If you marry a Muggle, you get married in the Muggle world. There's a Statute of Secrecy—remember?"

"Let's owl Hermione and ask her to bring the Muggle telephone directory with her when she comes tomorrow," said Harry. "We have to start somewhere—and if we find one of Hilda's friends, that should be enough, right? Don't you think they'll all know where the others are?"

"Why don't we start with Ernie tonight, then?" said Ron. "He's bound to have heard of Rhonda McMillan."

"Yeah, let's do that," agreed Harry. "What harm could it do to ask?"

ooOOOoo

Ernie had heard of Rhonda McMillan.

"Why do you want to know?" he asked, rather suspiciously. He was studying in the common area with Justin Finch-Fletchley, Susan Bones and, surprisingly, Draco Malfoy, when Harry, Ron and Ginny came in. Harry and Ron had exchanged a glance, then Harry had asked—as casually as he could—if Ernie was related to a girl who had been at Hogwarts in the 1980s—a girl named Rhonda McMillan.

Harry knew he couldn't tell Ernie the truth. Severus wanted him to lie low and wait for the next letter, not get the whole school talking about Harry Potter's mystery correspondent.

"Oh—no reason, really," answered Harry with a shrug. "We were looking at old yearbooks in the library and saw her picture. Thought she looked a bit like you and thought at first she was your mum, then realized she'd have had a different last name back then."

Ernie seemed to relax a fraction, but he still seemed uncomfortable. "No, definitely not my mother," he answered. "She's my aunt—my father's sister. We don't see much of her. She lives in Canada."

"Canada? Wow. Do you ever get to go visit her?" asked Ginny.

Ernie shook his head. "No. Never been. She doesn't get along so well with the rest of the family, see."

"Oh, Ernie. That's sad." Ginny had plopped down in the chair across from him. "Do you have cousins over there you've never even met?"

"No." He shrugged. "Aunt Rhonda's a member of a coven—I think she's had it with wizards. I can't imagine her having children. They have a lot of strange ideas—that's what's put her at odds with the family."

No one asked what kinds of ideas those were. It was obvious that Ernie didn't like talking about his aunt.

Harry watched Ginny work her magic. He would never have thought of taking the sympathetic angle to get Ernie to talk. But there really wasn't that much information to gather. He'd seen his aunt several years ago when his grandfather died, but hadn't seen her since and assumed she was still in Canada. He obviously knew nothing of her friends.

"Well, that's pretty much a dead end," Harry said when they were back in his room. "I can't believe it's her—it sounds like she doesn't pay much attention to what goes on over here."

"There's always Hermione and the telephone directories," said Ginny. "Why don't you write a note for her now and we can take it up to the owlery before dinner?"

Ron begged off, though he did ask Harry to have Hermione pick up some M&Ms for him.

"The ones with the peanuts inside," he instructed, as Harry rolled his eyes but added the request at the bottom of the note.

"Do you ever think of anything besides food?" asked Ginny.

"Snogging," answered Ron with a grin.

ooOOOoo

"You think it's nothing to bring along the London phone directory?" asked Hermione the next morning when she met them in the Great Hall for breakfast. She hefted her book bag onto the table. "Harry—you at least should have realized! Seven million people live in and around London! I had to take the directories from my parents' office and shrink them and they still filled up my bag!"

"Wow." Harry looked into her book bag. "This isn't going to be easy, is it?"

"No, but we'll divide them up and get through it. I can stay through supper today, so I can help after Transfiguration."

Owl post came just then, dozens of owls swooping into the hall through the open front doors and delivering packages, letters and the Daily Prophet. A particularly large owl came in a little after the others and flew directly to the head table, where it landed in front of the Headmaster, depositing its package on the table, then dipping its beak into Severus' cup of tea.

"Ooh. He's not going to like that," said Ginny with a grin.

"Who? Severus or the owl?" said Harry, smiling as he watched Severus shoo the owl away then accept a fresh cup of tea from Minerva.

Transfiguration was just before lunch; Harry was surprised when Minerva handed him a note as they were gathering up their things when class ended. The note was from Severus and it requested that he go to his office directly after lunch.

"He probably wants to know what we're up to," said Hermione. She and Harry were ignoring Ginny and Ron, who were busy bickering about the Quidditch practice schedule. "You know he watches you at meals, don't you?"

Harry reflexively glanced up at the head table. Severus, who had been talking with Minerva, turned his head. They locked eyes. Severus acknowledged him with a nod and Harry looked quickly back at Hermione.

"I told you," said Hermione. She picked a cucumber out of her salad and pushed it to the side of her plate. Harry reached over and picked it up and popped it into his mouth.

"Hey!" said Ron. "I get the cucumbers."

"No, you get the tomatoes. I get the cucumbers," said Harry.

"You two are impossible," said Hermione.

"Maybe you should eat your own vegetables," said Ginny, stabbing a cherry tomato with her fork.

Severus stood and left the room a few minutes later, and Harry gulped down the rest of his lunch and made it to Severus' office at twelve forty-five, thirty minutes before Charms.

"Your wand," said Severus without preamble as Harry came into the room. He was seated at his desk, a box on the table before him. "It came with this morning's post. I've taken the liberty of unwrapping it." He pushed the box across the desk as Harry dropped into a chair, staring at the box.

"Wow." Harry looked up at Severus. "My first wand didn't come in a box like that."

Severus shook his head. "Nor mine. Perhaps Ollivander has simply changed his delivery methods—or perhaps he has done something special for you."

Harry reached for the box. It was made of yew, long and narrow, and the lid was fitted with delicate hinges. He ran his fingers over it, then looked up at Severus again.

"Go on. Open it." Severus leaned back in his chair, affecting an air of calmness that comforted Harry.

He opened the lid to reveal a holly wand, remarkably similar to his own in appearance, resting on a lining of blue velvet. He reached into the box and picked up the wand, wrapping his fingers around it as he brought it forth. It felt familiar—yet different. Heavier than his old wand, somehow more solid. He gave it an experimental wave, not saying or thinking anything, then looked up at Severus.

"Should I try it out?" he asked.

"By all means," said Severus, watching Harry carefully. "Something simple, please."

Harry held the wand out before him.

"Lumos," he said, the word a simple command.

And just as it should have, the wand tip lit up. And though to him it seemed to glow more intensely than it should have, Severus didn't comment. Instead, he picked up an empty teacup and dropped it purposefully back onto the desk. It broke into several pieces. Severus gestured toward it.

"A Reparo, please."

"Nox," said Harry. The wand went dark and he pointed it at the ceramic fragments on Severus' desk.

"Reparo."

The fragments whirled into the air, reforming themselves into a perfect teacup. The cup spun a few times before settling lightly on the desk. Harry swallowed. Severus stared at the cup, then slowly opened the desk drawer at his right elbow. He looked in, frowned, and extracted another teacup and set it on the desk. He stared at the cup—it was chipped and cracked. Severus turned it around but did not speak. Harry watched him but remained quiet. He had a feeling they weren't quite finished.

"Transfiguration," said Severus quietly. He opened the center desk drawer and took out an ordinary quill. He placed it on the center of the desk, straightening it to align with the edges. "Transfigure this quill into a Snitch."

"A Snitch?" Harry repeated. And though it seemed an odd request, he humored Severus and pointed his wand at the quill, thinking the incantation but not speaking it.

The quill morphed quickly into a Golden Snitch, hovering above the table with delicate wings beating noiselessly.

Harry stared at his new wand. He wasn't that good at Transfiguration.

Severus, however, reached out a hand and nabbed the Snitch. He turned it over and examined it, then released it into the air. It shot off and hovered in the corner of the room, above the portrait of Phineas Nigellus. Harry eyed it as it hovered, then turned back to Severus.

"It works," he said.

"Apparently," said Severus.

"I'm not usually that good at Transfiguration," said Harry, following the Snitch with his eyes as it darted to the opposite corner.

"Summon the Snitch," instructed Severus then. He nodded toward the corner where it was hovering.

Harry pointed his wand. "Accio Snitch," he said.

The Snitch didn't move.

"Accio Snitch!" repeated Harry, this time with more force than before. But the Snitch remained where it was. "It won't come!"

"Of course it won't come," said Severus. "Snitches are spelled against the summoning charm. Quidditch would be a boring game if the Seekers simply summoned the Snitch to end the game, would it not?" Harry watched as Severus looked at him, studying him quietly. At last, he spoke.

"You know what it means, do you not, that you could not summon the Snitch?"

Harry nodded slowly. He had realized it as Severus stared at him. He glanced over at the Snitch again.

"It's a real Snitch. It's spelled against the Summoning Charm."

"Indeed," said Severus. "When you transfigured the quill into a Snitch, you produced not just an item that looks like a Snitch but one imbued with a Snitch's magic. And that is quite a feat for a wizard who hasn't yet achieved a N.E.W.T. in Transfiguration."

"Do you think he made the wand too strong?" asked Harry. He was examining the wand now, still enjoying its feel beneath his fingers. He looked hopefully at Severus, already knowing the answer.

"No," answered Severus. "I believe your magic has changed, Harry." He picked up the old teacup he had taken out of his desk drawer. "This teacup was broken—it was sitting in my desk drawer in pieces. When you repaired one, this one was pieced back together too. Not perfectly, mind you. But the spell you cast had some effect on it."

"But I didn't know it was there," protested Harry.

"Nor did you know that Professor Flitwick had lumbago," countered Severus.

"But that was different—I used my other wand…" He trailed off as the Knut dropped. "It's not my wand, is it?" He frowned, then took out his first wand and laid it on the table beside the new one, studying them. The realization hit him as he stared at the two wands, so similar in shape and length and color. He picked up his old wand, felt its weight, its comforting form, the way his hand seemed to meld with the handle. Then the second wand. Somehow a bit heavier, a tiny bit longer, familiar in his hand, yet new. He looked up at Severus. "My magic is different, isn't it?"

"You are different, and your magic is part of you," said Severus. "Whether it was the destruction of the Horcrux you carried inside you for so long, or the power you gained as you hunted the Horcruxes with your friends, or something else entirely different, you are decidedly more powerful than you were a year ago. The wands differ in how they channel your magic. The new one, which has not been affected by the magic of the Elder Wand, seems to help focus your magic more than the old one. I would like you to use it exclusively for a week or so, then we will reassess the arrangement."

He stood up then and glanced backward at Albus Dumbledore's portrait. The old headmaster was sleeping, head slumped forward, chin on his chest, soft broken snores breaking the quiet of the office. Harry could see Severus in profile and saw Severus' indulgent smile as he shook his head slowly at his old mentor, then turned back to face Harry.

"I have discussed this with Albus, Harry," he said. "He reminded me that those who face adversity and prevail …."

"No—it's not that," interrupted Harry. He had been staring at the two wands as he tried to sort this out, as he dug through the flotsam and jetsam of the last years. He looked up at Severus, searching the familiar face with its angular lines, its dark eyes. He remembered seeing that face when he had broken into the castle back in May, and again in the Shrieking Shack, when he had almost lost him, and again in the hospital wing when it was all over, and Severus had lived, they both had lived. That thing that had swelled within him all those times, that feeling that was bigger than he was, that love he couldn't contain.

"I know you're not sleeping, Headmaster," he said then, looking past Severus at the portrait of Albus Dumbledore. The portrait's snoring had changed and he had caught the shine of a bright blue eye a time or two as he spoke. He stood up and walked determinedly behind the desk, stopping so that he was just in front of the portrait. He placed a hand on the wall on either side of it and leaned in.

"The power he knows not," he whispered.

"Harry?" Severus' hand came down to rest on his shoulder.

Harry turned around. "Adversity hasn't made me stronger," he said. He glanced back at the portrait to find Albus Dumbledore regarding him with blue eyes bright with painted tears. "You have."

Severus stared at him and Harry grinned as he threw his arms around his father and hugged him.

"It's love," he whispered as Severus' arms came up around him, still strangely hesitant after all this time. "Having a family—a father." Severus' arms tightened around him, pulling him against him. "Having a home to come back to. Somewhere safe." He breathed into the comforting smell of Severus' robes. He laughed, realizing then that he was now nearly as tall as Severus, no matter how young he felt. "My magic must like it. I like it."

And Severus Snape, standing there in his office hugging Harry Potter, in front of Albus' portrait, knew, with the wisdom of many hard years, that the real answer was somewhere in between. Between safety and danger, between love and adversity. A child, and his magic, should be like a well-tended tree, growing straight and tall and true until it was strong enough on its own to withstand cutting wind and licking flames and scorching drought.

How different would Harry have been had he been so sheltered and tended in his youth?

ooOOOoo

They spent two hours going through the telephone books that afternoon before Hermione had to leave at dinnertime.

"This is hopeless," said Ron. He had found seventeen listings for a 'C Foster', but none that specifically listed a Camilla Foster. There were also twelve listings for hyphenated last names with Foster such as Foster-Smith, Foster-Gonzalez and Foster-Thomas.

"This is odd," said Ginny a few minutes later. "Here's a listing for an 'M Amberhurst-Carson'."

Hermione immediately put down the book she was paging through and leaned over Ginny's shoulder.

"That is odd," she agreed. "She has two of the last names we're looking for. I suppose she could have married one of her friend's brothers."

"But she's not listed with a man," Harry pointed out.

"She could be divorced," suggested Ron. "Or her husband could be dead."

"I wish there were a way to know if Honor had a brother," said Hermione. "I suppose we could go back and look at the yearbooks again…."

"What about the Hogwarts Magical Registry?" suggested Ginny. She closed the telephone directory she was holding and rubbed her eyes, leaving a smudge of newsprint on her face. "Can we stop for the evening? This is making my head swim."

"Magical Registry?" said Harry, looking at Ginny curiously.

"You know—the book that records all the magical births in Great Britain. That's how we get our Hogwarts letters—they check the book and prepare the letters for the children who are turning eleven that year."

"Hagrid said something about that once," said Harry. He, too, closed his telephone book and looked at Hermione. "He said my name was down in the book for ages—or something like that."

"That will save us loads of time," said Ron. "We can just page back and look for Carsons."

"Does the Registry say whether the child is a Muggle-born?" asked Harry. "Because if Honor Carson was Muggle-born, her brother might not be magical."

"Of course—it must," replied Hermione. "Because Muggle-borns get special visits before they get their Hogwarts letter—to introduce the family to the Wizarding world. Can you imagine my parents getting a letter one day from an owl and actually taking it seriously? "

Harry laughed but Ginny and Ron just shrugged.

"Where is this book?" Hermione asked. Her voice trembled with suppressed excitement. Harry knew it was killing her not to have thought of this herself.

"I have no idea," he answered. "Why should I know if you don't?"

"Because your father is the Headmaster," Ron answered with an exaggerated sigh. "You've been loads of places in this castle we haven't. And you've been in that office plenty of times with no one else there."

"Well I have no idea where this book is," answered Harry. "I'm sure they keep it protected and Severus has never mentioned it."

"But you could find out," said Hermione.

They all stared at her.

"Hermione! Are you suggesting that Harry be sneaky?" asked Ron.

"Well, it would have to be in his office, wouldn't it?" she asked. "Where else would they possibly keep a book like that? It could be in a drawer, or in a cabinet, or even on top of a high shelf. All the important things are there—the Sorting Hat, and the Sword of Gryffindor…."

"You'd think I would have noticed a magical quill hovering over an open book," said Harry, rolling his eyes.

"It might not be a magical quill," said Hermione. "The names might just appear in the book…"

"Alright—I'll look for it when I get a chance," he agreed. "In the meantime, are you going to phone that M Amberhurst-Carson, Hermione?"

"Tomorrow," she said. "And I may try to phone some of the others that Ron found, too."

ooOOOoo

The next morning after breakfast, as he sat on the castle stairs waiting for Ginny so they could leave for Hogsmeade, Harry had not forgotten that it was Saturday and that on the two previous Saturdays he had received letters from Hilda Smith. But breakfast had gone by with no owl post for him and he returned to his room to get ready after arranging to meet Ginny outside in an hour. He half-expected an owl to approach him as he sat there waiting, but Ginny came out with a big group of sixth and seventh years and they joined the crowd and, holding hands, walked together to Hogsmeade.

"Did you get a chance to ask Severus about the Registry?" asked Ginny. They were taking their time as they walked, deliberately lagging behind the others.

"I haven't seen him—he wasn't even at breakfast," answered Harry.

"Hardly any of the professors were there," said Ginny thoughtfully.

The mystery of the missing faculty was soon solved. They were in Hogsmeade. They were everywhere in Hogsmeade. Every store frequented by the students had a faculty member inside. Professor Flitwick was in Zonko’s, looking not-at-all amused. Professor Sprout was in Honeydukes. Hagrid was patrolling Madam Puddifoot's—talk about a bull in a china shop! Harry could see him through the window—he had resolved never to set foot in that place again. They saw Professor Sinistra at the Hogsmeade Post Office and Professor Vector at Scrivenshaft's.

"They're worried," said Harry as he and Ginny walked down the street, still hand in hand. These days, these slow, unhurried days, he could enjoy long walks with Ginny's hand in his, with nothing too weighty pressing him down, with no sense of urgency at all in this wholly unfamiliar life.

"I haven't seen any Aurors," said Ginny. "They can't be too worried."

"It's the first Hogsmeade weekend since the Final Battle," Harry said. "They're just being overly cautious."

A few minutes later, they ducked into the Three Broomsticks to meet Ron and Neville for a butterbeer.

Severus, the Headmaster himself, was sitting at a table near the door.

Having tea. With Professor Trelawney.

Professor Trelawney seemed to be enjoying it a lot more than Severus was.

She was sitting across from him but leaning in, clearly invading what he considered to be his personal space. She let go of his hands, which she had been trying to turn over—likely to tell him how short his life line was—and picked up a cup.

"Do try a sip of this, Severus." Professor Trelawney held the mug out to Severus. It was steaming and topped with whipped cream and cocoa powder. She pressed the mug at his face and he sputtered, coming away with a whipped cream moustache.

How Dennis Creevey happened to be there at that exact moment with his brother's camera, Harry did not know but he would forever treasure the photograph Dennis presented him a few days later.

Harry and his friends enjoyed their butterbeers and a basket of chips, listening to Ron complain about the salesman at Zonko's following him around the entire time they were in the store. "They don't trust me! They think I'm going to steal their ideas and give them to George!"

"Well, you were planning to do that," said Neville, giving Ron a nudge.

"Not steal! Just look, check out some of the merchandise," protested Ron. "So George can improve it—give consumers a better product."

When they were leaving the Three Broomsticks an hour later, a Ravenclaw girl Harry didn't know hurried over to him and handed him an envelope.

"You're Harry Potter, aren't you?" she said, half breathless. She was staring up at his face.

Really? Did anyone really not know who he was?

"Yes," he answered, looking at the envelope. His stomach sank and he looked back at her.

She was staring at his forehead.

"Wow." With effort, she broke her eyes away. "Some lady asked me to give that to you." She started to move away but Ron quickly grabbed her shoulder as Harry stared again at the familiar writing on the envelope.

"Lady? What lady?" Ron asked, a bit too sharply.

The girl tried to pull away. This time Ginny stepped in.

"You're Emerald, right?" she asked. "Emerald Williams?"

The girl succeeded in freeing herself from Ron and backed up against Ginny, still looking at Ron suspiciously.

"He's fine—he won't hurt you," said Ginny. "He can't help looking like a wild baboon."

Ron stuck his tongue out at Ginny. She rolled her eyes.

“It's just that we need to know who gave you the letter," she said. "The Headmaster wouldn't want just anyone giving you things to take into Hogwarts."

"I'm not taking it into Hogwarts," she protested. "I just gave it to him. She told me to give it to Harry Potter and no one but Harry Potter."

"What did she look like?" asked Ginny. "Did you know her?"

"No, I don't know who she was," answered Emerald. "I was in Honeydukes and she just asked me if I'd give the letter to Harry Potter right away. I don't remember what she looked like—dark hair, maybe. Kind of old."

"Old? How old?" asked Harry. Was it possible—had Hilda Smith really been in Hogsmeade today? Was she still here?

Emerald rolled her eyes. "Old like my mum. You know—maybe thirty-five."

"Mum will be happy to hear that that's old," said Ron under his breath.

"How long ago did she give you the letter?" asked Harry. He was still holding the envelope and stuck it inside his robe pocket as he spoke.

Emerald shrugged. "Half an hour ago, maybe. I didn't know where you were. But she gave me a Galleon to find you right away so I left my friends and came looking for you." She leaned over and peeked at the envelope hopefully. "Aren't you going to read it?"

Harry shook his head and managed a smile. "No—I'm going to save it for a little while. Thanks for bringing it to me, though."

"Well, what does it say?" asked Ron after Emerald had shrugged then run off to find her friends again.

"I'll read it when we get back to Hogwarts," said Harry. He had hoped to get through a weekend without a new letter. The thing was an oppressive weight in his pocket. He thought about just tossing it out without reading it, but knew he couldn't really do it. He wanted to read the letter. And he wanted to know who was sending them to him, and why.

They were walking in front of Honeydukes now. The crowds of students had thinned but there were still quite a few lingering outside or sitting on the benches in front of the store.

"I'm going to run in and get some licorice," said Neville. "Wait for me?"

"Sure," said Harry.

Neville, however, had not even made it to the door when the ground beneath their feet seemed to shift.

Harry nearly lost his footing. He grabbed on to Ron's arm even as Ginny fell against him and the ground shook again.

The street below them seemed to disappear.

There wasn't time to scream, yet someone was screaming. He didn't think he had fallen far but he was lying on his back, on something hard. He hurt. He could see—there was light over his head. There was something—someone—on top of him. Groaning. Groaning all around. He hurt. Everything hurt.

"Harry!" It was Ginny. "Are you hurt?" She touched his face with a shaking hand. "Ron—Ron?"

A groan above him, or beside him.

Shouts above them.

He tried to roll over. But there was something on his leg and the pain was no longer muted but sharp and biting.

"Harry—no! Don't move." Ginny had got to her feet and was looking up into the light. Harry could see faces now, people on the street, looking down, shouting to them but the words were unclear, made no sense. He focused—tried to focus—on Ginny. Her shirt was torn. It had come untucked from her jeans. She was missing a shoe. There was a smear of blood on her cheek.

They weren't alone down here. There were others—others who had fallen into this…this pit? This hole?

This tunnel.

They were in the tunnel, the tunnel that led from Hogwarts to Honeydukes.

The ground above the tunnel had collapsed—the roof of the tunnel falling into itself, bringing the ground above it down with it.

There wasn't much room. It was a narrow tunnel. He remembered that, from all those years ago when he had walked it. Narrow and dark.

His head hurt. Where were his glasses?

"No—come down and help me with Ron and Harry!" Ginny again.

But she was gone then—hands pulling her up and away and it was quieter. Moaning still. Ron moaning.

Ron was on his legs—draped over them. He was starting to move, to try to get to his feet. Each movement sent waves of agony through Harry's legs.

"Weasley. Stay still."

Tears were leaking from Harry's eyes. The pain was so bad. Almost intolerable. No. Intolerable. The voice. The voice was Severus'.

"Help me lift him."

"It's alright, Harry. We're taking Ron first. He's going to be fine—looks like he knocked his head."

It was Neville's voice. Neville was there, helping Severus lift Ron.

"Ginny's out already. She's going to be fine."

"Fine," muttered Harry. "She's going to be fine."

The weight was gone from his legs now. Severus' hands were on his face, pulling back his eyelids. Wand light in his eyes. He blinked.

"Legs hurt," he managed.

"They're broken," said Severus softly. He was kneeling in the rubble beside Harry. He pushed loose hair behind Harry's ear. "You need a haircut," he said. His voice was still low and very tense.

"Growing it out," mumbled Harry.

Then Neville was back again and he was being lifted—Severus at his head, Neville at his feet. Lifted up toward the light, then carried and laid on the ground. Then Severus' wand was in front of his face—the familiar dark wood moving from left to right.

"Sleep, Harry."

And he slept.

ooOOOoo

When he woke again, he was lying on a soft cot in a quiet room. He blinked, fighting off the clouds in his head. The ceiling above him was blurry, the light muted. Awareness and memory crept back in slowly. He had been in Hogsmeade. The ground had buckled under him. He'd fallen into the tunnel. Ginny had been there, and Ron.

He was tired and sore. His legs hurt. A lot. It felt as though the bones in them were throbbing, though he knew in his head that bones did not throb.

There were voices near him, speaking in low undertones.

"Severus?" He said the name tentatively, unsure of using it when Severus might be with other professors. He turned his head toward the voices but the blurred shapes did not resolve themselves into clearly distinguishable persons.

The voices stopped and one of the shapes approached him.

"What time is it?" he asked. He knew it was Severus. He had learned the sound of his footsteps, the rustle of his robes.

"Half six," answered Severus. He sat in a bedside chair, then arranged Harry's spectacles back on his face. "I've repaired them as best I could—we will have to make another trip into Diagon Alley for a replacement pair. How are you feeling?"

"Like shite," answered Harry.

Severus scoffed. "Language."

"Is everyone alright?" Harry asked, pushing his glasses to a more comfortable position on his nose. The blurry ceiling resolved itself into the familiar ceiling of the hospital wing.

"Six students were injured—only one seriously, and she has been taken to St. Mungo's but will recover."

"Ron and Ginny?" Harry tried to use his hands and arms to scoot himself up on the bed but Severus placed a hand on his chest to stop him.

"Will be fine. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley have arrived and are with them."

"Ginny isn't hurt badly, is she?"

"No, she has some cuts and bruises but escaped relatively unscathed. Ronald has a severe concussion. Poppy is keeping him sedated."

"But he'll be alright?" Harry repeated.

"Yes. He'll be fine. He will likely spend the weekend in the infirmary but should return to classes on Monday."

"Alright—good." He tried to relax back into his pillow.

"Get comfortable, Harry. You will be staying here until tomorrow afternoon. Poppy gave you a double dose of Skele-Gro. Your left ankle in particular was badly mangled."

Harry was beginning to feel less disoriented, less panicky. He could think more clearly.

"What happened, Severus? We were just standing there and it was like a sinkhole opened up and sucked us in."

"It was a tunnel—a very old tunnel that connected Hogwarts to Hogsmeade."

"But what happened? Did it just collapse?"

Severus' face was grave as he answered. "We thought so at first. The tunnel was old and not well maintained. It was conceivable that it simply did collapse. Unfortunately, however, that is not the case. The Aurors found a body beneath the rubble. "

"A body! But you said…"

"I said six students were injured. This was not a student."

Harry stared at him. His throat felt dry.

"Who was it?" he asked. He wasn't sure he really wanted to know.

"A man by the name of Alex Sanders," answered Severus. "He was identified by his wand—the family has yet to make a positive identification."

"But who was he?" asked Harry. "Was he sabotaging the tunnel?"

"I do not know—not yet, anyway. The Aurors are still hard at work examining the evidence." He paused and looked past Harry out the window. Harry thought his face looked grave, and tired.

"What? What else do you know?" asked Harry, still watching Severus carefully. "Did you know him or something?"

"No—but I recalled the name. I had seen it somewhere recently." He lowered his voice. "It may be an incredible coincidence…though I think it is not. Alex Sanders was Hilda Smith's boyfriend—the one who was with her the night she drowned. He was mentioned by name many times in the Auror's report I examined."

"The boyfriend?" he asked, mouth agape.

"The boyfriend," repeated Severus. He sighed then, and took a folded piece of parchment out of his pocket.

"And there is this," he said, folding the letter onto his knee. "I found it in your pocket. Miss Weasley has filled me in on how and when you got it."

"The Ravenclaw girl gave it to me," said Harry. "Just before…."

"I took the liberty of breaking the seal and reading it," said Severus unapologetically. He met Harry's eyes. "I trust you do not mind?"

"No—no. What does it say?"

"Mrs. Smith, in essence, suggests that you return to Hogwarts by one o'clock," he said. "She suggests you will hear news there that you will not want to miss."

Harry's face paled.

"Harry, this is no longer a puzzle for you and your friends to work out." Severus' voice was grave. "This is a case for the Aurors. I am turning over this letter and the others. The Minister has already contacted me and will be here soon."

He reached out then and smoothed down Harry's hair.

"I like it long," said Harry, smiling tiredly. He remembered then that Severus had made that same gesture hours ago, when he was lying in that tunnel just after it collapsed.

"I thought things would get easier once you turned eighteen," said Severus. "Once the war was over and the biggest thing you had to fear was being harassed by the Daily Prophet."

"I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Harry, though he wasn't sure he believed it.

Severus frowned but didn't say anything. He stood, unfolding his frame from the too-small chair and glancing at the door behind him.

"Miss Granger has been waiting to see you. Are you up for a short visit?"

"Hermione? How did she know? She was at home in London this weekend."

"I contacted her, of course," said Severus.

"You contacted her?" A smile spread across Harry's face, an apt accompaniment to the warm feeling in his belly.

"I did." Severus looked at Harry again. "Do I have your promise that you will let the Aurors handle this?"

Harry nodded. At the moment, he didn't have the slightest interest in finding Hilda Smith.

"Good. I will send in Miss Granger and Mr. Longbottom. He, at least, has been waiting patiently."

Harry nodded. He reached out and squeezed Severus' hand.

"Thank you," he said.

"You can thank me by keeping that promise, Harry," said Severus. He held Harry's eyes for a long moment, then the corners of his mouth turned up in a trace of a smile—tired, but fond. He turned then and motioned toward the door.

Harry saw Hermione, with Neville standing behind her, and lifted his hand to wave at them. Hermione's worried face broke into a relieved smile. She waited, though, for Severus, reaching up as he approached and kissing him on the cheek, just as she had so often this summer at Shell Cottage.

And Neville reached out his hand then, and Severus grasped it, then placed his other hand on Neville's shoulder. They looked at each other and exchanged words Harry could not hear.

Harry swallowed the lump in his throat. Looking at Severus and Neville right now, he had a very hard time seeing the Potions master and the bumbling, stuttering, terrified child of yesterday.

Severus Snape might be their Headmaster. But now—in this moment—right now—he was simply Harry's father.

ooOOOoo

Harry Potter's father was angry.

Strike that.

Harry Potter's father was irate. He managed to close the infirmary door quietly behind Longbottom and Granger and set off down the corridor with only a slightly more aggressive pace than usual. His office was not far, and he rode the spiral stairway as he always did, standing straight and stiff.

He closed the office door behind him and nearly flung himself at the cabinet behind his desk where he kept the liquor.

He pushed the scotch aside. He wanted firewhisky tonight.

He poured himself a healthy measure and raised it to his lips.

And paused. Someone was knocking on the door.

Minerva didn't bother to wait for him to open it. She let herself in and surveyed him a moment.

"One for me as well, please," she said.

"We were everywhere!" exclaimed Severus, pushing the drink into her hand. "I had a professor or staff member in every building the students frequent. I even had Filch in the Hog's Head. And still this happened!"

"I don't know what you were expecting, Severus, but we all agreed that caution was needed—not for Harry alone, but for the entire school. I don't know what else you could have done."

"Checked the tunnels! They never crossed my mind—not once. Yet they are an obvious point of vulnerability."

"Severus, it may have been an accident. And no one can prevent all accidents from happening."

"It was not an accident. There was someone in there—down there. The Aurors found a body under the rubble. Someone was there, deliberately sabotaging the tunnel." He dropped into his desk chair and glared at her.

"They couldn't have known Harry would be there when it failed," she said. "Be reasonable, Severus…."

Severus dropped his head into his hands.

"He was badly hurt. He could have been killed." He looked up at her then, eyes pleading.

"He was badly hurt. But he will be fine. He's only in need of a night in the infirmary, Severus. Be thankful for that."

"I am thankful for that!" he roared, surprising even himself as he stood abruptly, pushing back his desk chair until it banged against the frame of Albus Dumbledore's portrait. The sleeping headmaster was jarred awake. "I am thankful that only his legs were broken and mangled and not his back as well. I am thankful that Weasley fell on his legs and not on his head!"

"Severus…." Minerva had gotten up as well and had moved quickly around the desk. She faced Severus now, before the portrait of Albus. "Severus—you have every right to be angry. And since we're alone here, why don't you vent your frustration instead of holding it all inside."

Severus stared at her.

Minerva's mouth quirked. It wasn't a smile—not quite.

Severus shook his head. He began to laugh. But suddenly, he wasn't laughing anymore. He was crying, and Minerva's arms were around him, and he was embarrassed, humiliated, to be seen like this, crying, tears—actual tears—streaming down his face.

When his tears had subsided and he was sipping a warm cup of tea she had pressed into his hands, Minerva kissed him on the cheek.

"Love hurts," she whispered. "But it is a gift, Severus. Truly a gift."

She turned and left the room and he stared at the door as it closed behind her.
Chapter 6: The Auror Comes Calling

"I was wondering about the book that records magical births in Britain," said Harry. It was Sunday evening and he was still in the infirmary. Poppy, not happy with the progress of his ankle, had given him yet another dose of Skele-Gro an hour ago. He'd be confined in here for another twenty-four hours and he was not happy.

"The Magical Registry," said Madam Pomfrey. She had her back to Harry and was restocking one of the supply cabinets. "What about it?"

Ron groaned in his sleep in the bed beside him. Poppy had been keeping him sedated so his head would heal properly and had sent Mr. and Mrs. Weasley home with assurances that he would be perfectly fine and they could come back to see him after work on Monday.

Harry glanced at Ron, wishing that he was awake so they could at least play a game of chess or work on their Charms homework. Something—anything—was better than staring at the walls. Hermione had spent a good bit of the day here with them, managing to get all of her homework done while holding Ron's hand. Harry, on the other hand, had stared at his Potions essay for hours but it never succeeded in writing itself. He eventually gave up on it and read the Daily Prophet instead. The reporting had been even worse than usual—he couldn't find much at all, in fact, that it had got right about what happened in Hogsmeade yesterday. He was pretty darn sure he hadn't called out for Albus while he was lying down there in the tunnel and he was pretty sure he would have noticed Death Eaters—in masks—lining the streets.

"Well, I don't know." He shrugged as he thought about what he really wanted to know about the magical registry. He couldn't just say 'Where is it and how can I get a look at it?' "How does it work? Hagrid told me once that my name was down for Hogwarts since I was born, but Ginny just told me last week that there's a book that records the names."

There, that sounded innocent enough. And asking about the book wasn't breaking the promise he'd made to Severus to let the Aurors handle the investigation.

"It's a book of endless pages, of course," answered Poppy. She shoved several rolls of gauze onto a shelf and turned around, brushing her hands off on her apron.

"Sure," said Harry, aiming for pleasant and conversational. She looked at him suspiciously. He had not been very pleasant or conversational an hour ago when, with Severus staring down at him rather menacingly—as if daring him to complain—she'd she told him he'd have to spend another twenty-four hours in the infirmary.

"One page per magical birth," she continued. She pulled open a file cabinet and waved her wand. Harry's file—he assumed it was his, anyway—floated out of the cabinet and she caught it with her right hand. "The pen notes the date and time first, then the gender of the child, then the names of the parents. The child's name is added as soon as it is registered."

"How do you know if the child lives with Muggles?" asked Harry. He watched Poppy sit down on a wingback chair and start rifling through his file. "I mean, don't you need to know before the Hogwarts letters are sent out?"

Poppy looked up at Harry, staring at him for a long moment. "You're awfully curious about that book, aren't you?" she asked.

Harry smiled and shrugged. "Just bored," he explained. "I just don't get how Ron and Ginny just know all this stuff."

"Oh, it's common enough knowledge in the Wizarding world," said Poppy. She smiled apologetically. "We really don't teach Muggles well enough." She jotted something down on a piece of parchment and continued. "The entries in the book read something like this: ‘31 July, 1980, 8:20 a.m. Baby Boy to James Potter, a Wizard living in Godric's Hollow, and to Lily Evans Potter, a witch, also living in Godric's Hollow.’ Then, once your parents had decided on a name, it would have added ‘Harry James Potter’ just below."

"And how does it know…?"

"Magic," said Poppy, quite firmly.

"Well, I was just wondering," said Harry. "So, what if a baby has a wizard father and a Muggle mother but is raised by the mother and a different Muggle father? How do you know the kid knows anything about magic before the letter is sent out? I mean, how many Muggles are going to let some random owl in the house and put up with it while it drinks out of their orange juice pitcher and steals the bacon?"

Poppy chuckled. "Now that would be a sight, wouldn't it? I never thought of it that way before." She stood and tucked the file back in the drawer. "Well, to put your mind at ease, Mr. Potter, at the same time that the Deputy Headmaster or Headmistress sends the letters out to the new first years, she also duplicates the pages for the next year's class. She starts making inquiries a year in advance so that by the time the letters go out, they've already made visits to the Muggle-born children."

Harry scooted back carefully, sitting up a little more in bed. Poppy had immobilized his ankle, so he had to drag it along the bed as he scooted. Now this was interesting. There were copies made of the pages in the book. Copies made each year, in fact.

"What do you mean by making inquiries?" he asked. "Who does she ask?"

"There is a department of the Ministry of Magic concerned with Muggle relations," answered Poppy. "She starts there."

"Oh." Harry found this all very intriguing for some reason. He was about to ask who exactly visits the Muggle children when the infirmary door opened and Kingsley Shacklebolt, the Minister of Magic, came in, followed closely by the Headmaster and an Auror Harry didn't recognize.

He knew he'd have to speak with the Aurors. Severus had filled them in on the letters Harry had received and had turned over all of them—and the book Hilda had sent as well—sometime yesterday. But he'd hoped he could wait until he was out of the infirmary. He didn't want to lie here in bed while they stood around him or pulled chairs up and spoke in hushed voices. He hated appearing weak.

"Harry." Kingsley extended his hand as he approached the bed. Harry took the hand and shook it. He pushed himself upright more, dragging his ankle as he did so. Severus frowned. In the bed beside Harry, Ron let out a long, low moan. They all turned to stare at him. Kingsley looked quickly over at Madam Pomfrey.

"He does that all the time when he sleeps," said Harry. "He's probably dreaming about spiders again."

"The Minister and Auror Peace would like to speak with you now, Harry."

Harry nodded at Severus then glanced from Kingsley to Auror Peace. Kingsley looked…tired. Auror Peace, however, looked much more alert. He was a fairly young man, not more than thirty, Harry thought, and he reminded Harry vaguely of Percy Weasley. He was clean-cut, serious and doing a pretty good job of hiding his awe of Harry Potter. And as much as Harry disliked being held in awe, it was certainly better than being regarded with the kind of hostility he'd become accustomed to from the Ministry.

Auror Peace stood at the foot of Harry's bed while Kingsley sat in the bedside chair and Severus walked over to converse with Madam Pomfrey in a low voice.

"Auror Peace is heading the investigative team for this case, Harry," began Kingsley. "He's just come from interviewing your friends."

"I was with them the whole time," Harry said, looking at Auror Peace instead of at Kingsley. "I saw exactly what they saw—pretty much nothing."

"We're interested in more than what you saw," said Peace. His voice was low-pitched. Harry had expected him to sound like Percy. "We'd like to know what you know about anyone potentially involved in this case, or what you think you know. Any ideas you have. Would you mind if I ask you a few questions, Mr. Potter?"

"Harry," said Harry, automatically. "And no, I wouldn't mind. I expected you to have some." He glanced over at Severus. Severus was leaning against the file cabinet now, examining his fingernails.

"Fine. Harry it is. The Headmaster has turned over to us several letters you've received over the past weeks. Do you know the person writing these letters?"

Harry frowned. "Of course not."

"And the name—Hilda Smith—isn't one you know, either?"

"No." He looked at Severus. Severus was looking at him now, but his face remained impassive.

"When did you receive the first letter?"

"The Saturday after classes started—at breakfast. Look—I get a lot of letters like that. People thanking me and drawings from kids and all. I thought it was just one of those. I never thought I'd get another one."

"But the letter bothered you? What made you keep it?"

Harry studiously resisted looking at Severus. "I wanted to show it to my…Severus," he said.

"The Minister and Auror Peace are aware of our relationship, Harry." Severus' voice was quiet, but it seemed to bounce around the walls of the otherwise quiet room.

"Did you feel threatened in any way?" asked the Auror. He was taking notes in a Muggle spiral-bound notebook, the small kind that you could fit into a robe pocket, and he was using a stubby Muggle pencil.

"Not threatened," answered Harry, watching the little pencil bob on the paper. "Uneasy, though. I felt like she was…well…insinuating things…about Severus."

"But you didn't tell the Headmaster—not right away."

Harry should have seen that one coming.

"No. I meant to—but he got sick and I decided I wouldn't trouble him with it."

"Then you received another letter."

"Yeah, the next Saturday." He didn't volunteer that they were on their way to Diagon Alley to get new wands. "And I showed him the letter that same day, and gave him the first one, too."

Auror Peace pointed his wand at the bedside chair by Ron's bed and summoned it to him. It slid across the floor and did a quick little spin in front of him, turning so he could straddle it. He sat.

"So tell me about this Hilda Smith, Harry. Severus tells me you've done some investigation on your own."

"Not on my own," corrected Harry. He frowned. "I'm pretty sure my friends must have already told you all of this."

"Humor me," said the Auror.

Harry had to respect him. He was patient, thorough and treated him pretty much like he'd treat anyone else.

"We looked through old Hogwarts yearbooks," began Harry. "We found a Hilda Smith but then found out that she was dead."

"Smith is a common name," said Peace. "Perhaps it was a different Hilda Smith."

"It could have been," said Harry. "And we realized that. We were actually looking for anyone named Hilda. Hilda's not a common name at all. We figured she'd have got married and Smith might be her married name so we wouldn't find her as Hilda Smith in the yearbooks."

"So, you found a Hilda Smith then discovered she was dead. End of story, right?"

Harry grinned. "You're kind of obvious, you know," he said.

"You have a reputation, Mr. Potter," said Peace. His mouth quirked up in a half smile.

"Harry," Harry reminded him.

"Right. Harry. So—you've just hit a potential dead end. You've found your letter writer but she's dead. So, is a dead woman writing you letters or…?"

"Maybe we had the wrong woman," said Harry. He shook his head. "But I don't think so. Especially now. We thought someone else was writing the letters—but someone who was using Hilda Smith's name. Obviously someone who knew her."

"Did you notice anything about the owl that brought the letters?" The Auror threw in the question, seemingly out of nowhere.

"The owl? I couldn't even tell you if it was the same owl both times. A tawny." Harry shrugged. "The first letter came while I was at breakfast and I got three owls at the same time that day. I don't even remember anything about the one that brought me Hilda's letter except that it was a tawny. All three of them were tawnies that day."

"Alright." The Auror studied his notes a moment, flipped back a few pages, then looked up at Harry again. "Let's talk about Hogsmeade now."

Harry looked at Severus. Severus was pretending not to pay attention to the conversation. He was looking at Ron, a small frown on his face. Harry glanced over at Ron. There was a line of drool coming out of his mouth.

"Sure. Hogsmeade. What do you want to know?"

"Tell me what happened."

Harry stared at him. He was well aware of the fact that the Auror had already heard the story from any number of people who were there. He shrugged. "There's really not much to tell. We were at the Three Broomsticks…"

"We?" interrupted Peace.

Harry rolled his eyes.

"Just being thorough," said Peace unapologetically.

"He's doing his job, Harry," said Kingsley. His deep voice startled Harry. Even though he'd been sitting right there for the entire interview, Harry had nearly forgotten he was in the room.

"Myself, Ginny, Ron and Neville," said Harry.

Peace looked up from his notes. "Go on."

"We were leaving when a girl came over, asked if I was Harry Potter and handed me an envelope. I could tell right away it was a letter from Hilda Smith—my name was written on the front of the envelope in the same handwriting. I stuck it in my pocket—I didn't want to read it in front of everyone and planned to read it when I got back here."

"And the girl's name?"

Harry frowned, thinking. "Esmeralda? I didn't know her but Ginny recognized her. She's in Ravenclaw."

"So you put the letter in your pocket, the girl left and then?"

"Well, before she left, Ron and Ginny asked her about the person who'd given her the letter. She said she didn't remember what she looked like—dark hair, maybe. And in her thirties. The woman gave her a Galleon to bring me the letter and told her to give it to no one but me."

More page flipping. Peace looked up then and nodded. "What next?"

"We started back. When we got to Honeydukes, Neville wanted to run in and get some licorice. We said we'd wait for him and almost right away the ground shook. And that's it. Next thing I knew I was on my back looking up at the sky."

"Did you see or hear anyone or anything unusual while you were in Hogsmeade? At any of the stores you visited?"

"Well, Severus having tea with Professor Trelawney was pretty unusual..."

Kingsley let out a loud guffaw.

"Harry, that is hardly relevant here. Do not waste these men's time." Severus looked exasperated.

"But it is relevant, Severus," said Harry. "Because it was unusual to have a professor in every store, wasn't it? Normally you just have a couple professors in charge of the entire group, but yesterday we couldn't go anywhere without seeing a faculty member. That's the odd thing that we noticed—that all the students noticed." He turned to Severus. "Why?" he asked simply.

"I was worried," answered Severus. "It seemed an appropriate course of action given the circumstances."

"What circumstances?" asked Harry.

"The unleashing of several hundred students upon the town of Hogsmeade for the first time since the battle," answered Severus. "As much as we would like to believe that things are getting back to normal, we cannot be sure. We can never be sure. A bit more prudence cost us nothing, though it did nothing to prevent the incident."

"Severus, don't be ridiculous." It was Kingsley this time. "Your plan at the very least put experienced witches and wizards within shouting distance. When it did happen, a half dozen faculty members were on the scene within a minute."

"Harry." Auror Peace drew his attention again. "Did you see anything or anyone outside of Honeydukes?"

Harry shook his head. "Really—it happened so fast. We came around the corner and stopped in front of the store. Then Neville went inside then…." He shook his head. "Then it happened."

"Can you describe what it felt like?" asked Peace. "Did you hear any noises? Explosions?"

"I didn't hear anything." He realized suddenly that that in itself was odd. "The ground shifted. I fell against Ginny. Then it seemed to shake again and it just opened up and we fell through. Only I didn't know what was happening—what had happened—until it was over."

"The Headmaster has told you about the fatality, of course?"

Harry nodded. "He said it was Hilda Smith's old boyfriend—the one she was with the night she died. Have you found out anything else?" He saw Severus frown. "Anything else you can tell me, anyway?"

Now Kingsley and Auror Peace exchanged a glance.

"What?" It was Severus, not Harry, who voiced the question. He stepped closer to the group. "What have you discovered?"

"We received the autopsy report from St. Mungo's just before we came here, Severus," said Kingsley. "Alex Sanders was already dead when the tunnel collapsed. In fact, he'd been dead for several hours."

"He was already dead," Severus repeated flatly.

Harry looked from Severus to Kingsley to Peace, trying to read their faces. Severus' was easiest—whether because Harry knew him best or because he felt the most emotion, Harry didn't know. Severus looked alarmed.

"Then how did he die?" Harry asked.

"Blow to the head," answered Peace. "He was probably killed somewhere else then left in the tunnel."

"Then how did the tunnel collapse? Who did it? And where were they?"

"We have a full team on it now, Harry," Kingsley reassured him. "But we simply do not know yet."

"Is there anything else you need from Harry?" Severus stepped up closer to the bed.

The Auror shook his head. "His story matches all the others'. The only one who gave us any conflicting information was the Ravenclaw girl—Williams."

"Perhaps you can fill me in in my office, gentlemen," said Severus.

"Hey!" Harry protested, but Severus gave him the look, and Madam Pomfrey moved in with his chart and her wand.

"I will return as soon as I can," promised Severus.

"You'd better," mumbled Harry under his breath.

Poppy shook her head. "Such disrespect," she said.

Fortunately, Harry soon had plenty of distraction. Ginny had been waiting in the corridor and she came in as soon as Severus and the others left, looking back at them curiously.

"A moment, Miss Weasley," said Madam Pomfrey, holding up one of the very ancient bedpans still in use in the Hogwarts infirmary.

Ginny grinned and turned around.

When Harry was finally taken care of to Madam Pomfrey's satisfaction, and the bedpan was once again out of sight, Ginny settled onto the bed beside him.

"I thought you were getting out tonight," she said, leaning forward to place a kiss on his lips.

He lifted a hand and cradled the back of her head, kissed her again. "She's still worried about my ankle so she gave me another dose of Skele-Gro."

Beside them, Ron grunted loudly.

"Did he just…?"

Ginny laughed. "Nope. Just a grunt. He's probably dreaming about spiders again."

She maneuvered herself onto the bed so she was sitting up beside him, legs stretched out beside his.

"Careful of that leg!" warned Madam Pomfrey but she went into her office, leaving them be.

"They almost spilled something important," said Harry. "I'm hoping Severus tells me when he gets back."

"He's coming back?" said Ginny. She sat up but Harry wrapped his arm around her and pulled her back down beside him.

"Let him find us like this," groused Harry. He kissed her neck.

"What did they almost spill?" asked Ginny a few minutes later.

"Peace said that that Ravenclaw girl's story was inconsistent—I think it didn't match what the rest of us had to say."

"Emerald Williams? Really?" Ginny worked a hand behind Harry's back and snuggled against him. "I wonder what that's all about? I mean, we hardly saw her—just for a few minutes."

"Do you remember exactly what she said?" asked Harry. He tried to run through the conversation in his mind. "I know she said the woman gave her a Galleon to deliver the letter."

"And that she was told to give it only to you and no one else," said Ginny.

"Didn't someone ask how long she'd had the letter?"

"She said thirty minutes," answered Ginny. "I remember that bit."

"Well, what d you suppose was inconsistent, then?" asked Harry.

Ginny shrugged. "You'll have to grill Severus later," she suggested. "They're probably going to lock us down pretty tightly here, you know."

"Thank Merlin we have Hermione, then," said Harry. "She can pretty much come and go as she pleases."

When Severus got back twenty minutes later, Ginny was still sitting beside him on the bed. They were holding hands beneath the covers and Severus, standing at the end of the bed, stared at the bump the hands made under the sheets until they got the message and pulled their hands out.

"We were just holding hands," grumbled Harry, shaking his head.

"Which can be done on the outside of the sheets," said Severus.

"I'd better go, Harry," said Ginny. She leaned over to kiss him on the cheek but he turned and deliberately captured her lips in his. He held them a little too long for a casual kiss and when she pulled away, he pulled her back down for a hug.

"You're an idiot, Potter," she said fondly. She looked over at Severus. "Good night, Headmaster."

Both Harry and Severus watched her leave.

"That was not necessary," said Severus as soon as the door closed. "And you are not to forget propriety. I cannot believe that Poppy allowed you two to sit in the same bed like that to begin with." He looked around the infirmary. "Where is she?"

"In her office," said Harry. "And I think she felt sorry for me—she knew Ginny was in here and she stepped out to give us some privacy."

"Then she shall be the first one I fire if you end up a father before you are nineteen," said Severus sharply.

Harry stared at Severus, speechless. Where had that come from? He took in the intent dark eyes, the dark circles under them, the worry so evident on his face. Severus was upset—and not just about him and Ginny snogging on the infirmary bed. The retort on his lips died.

"I'm sorry for setting you off," he said. "You're stressed enough without me making it worse."

Severus' face softened slightly. He walked around the bed and sat in the chair Kingsley had occupied earlier.

"How are you feeling?"

"Fine," said Harry dismissively. "Did you get any sleep last night?"

"We're not talking about me," said Severus. "You do not look fine."

Harry met his eyes, challenging him. "Alright. My leg hurts. And I hate using the bedpan. Poppy seems to get some sort of medieval delight from making us use it. So, did you get any sleep last night?"

Severus sighed. "You do not need to worry about me. If I am a bit short on sleep, it is to be expected. I will catch up when I can."

"Severus—you're not blaming yourself, are you?" Harry stared him down, daring him to admit it.

Severus stared back at Harry. "I could have done more. I should have thought about the tunnels."

"Severus…"

"There will, of course, be no more Hogsmeade weekends."

"Severus." Harry reached out and took hold of Severus' arm. "Stop it. You did everything you could. And it couldn't be an attack on me. There was no way they could have known when I'd be…." His voice trailed off. He had seen something on Severus' face—a fleeting look that was there then gone just as quickly.

Severus was shaking his head. "I will not hide this from you, Harry. The Aurors believe the collapse was triggered from street-level—by someone observing from the surface. Which does not necessarily mean that you were the intended victim."

Harry stared at him. He searched his face, then laughed harshly. "No? Who do you think they were after, then?"

Severus swallowed. He looked down at his hands. "Me."

Harry had dropped Severus' arm but he reached out reflexively and took hold of it again, his face pale. "You? What do you mean?"

But he knew already, or thought he did.

"Harry—" Severus started to speak, then apparently thought better of it and stopped. He forced a smile. "The trap was triggered when there was a cluster of students over the weak point. While six of you actually fell in, there were an additional six who were close by but were able to move out of the way in time. As the Headmaster of Hogwarts, I am responsible for all of the students here under my care. Any incident will reflect badly on me…."

"Bollocks."

Severus stopped. "Language, Harry." He sounded tired.

"No. I mean it. I'm eighteen, Severus. I spent a year on my own going after the bad guys, remember? I think you might be right. They're not after me—not really. Except that I'm a convenient way to get to you."

They stared at each other then, father and son, man to man.

"We will let the Aurors handle this, Harry," said Severus, breaking first. "We should not jump to conclusions."

Harry sighed. "Fine. What did they have to say about the Ravenclaw girl? How was her story inconsistent?"

Severus seemed relieved to change the subject. "She claims to have received the letter for you no more than thirty minutes before delivering it. But the two friends she was with say she was gone well over an hour before the cave-in. And they both saw her talking with a woman in Honeydukes."

Harry stared at him. "Why would she lie to us about how long it took to find me?

Severus shook his head. "I could not say. Let us leave it to the Aurors, as I have already suggested. You concentrate on getting better. You have a Quidditch team counting on you, I hear."

"You're all over the board tonight, Severus."

Severus shook his head but met Harry's eyes as he replied. "It has been a long day. A long week, in fact." He reached out and adjusted the covers, smoothing them out over Harry's right leg. "I will return tomorrow morning. As you'll be missing some classes, I will gather your assignments from your professors and bring them to you so you do not fall too far behind." He took Harry's hand, pressed it, then dropped it and stood up.

"Goodnight, Harry."

Harry watched Severus' form glide toward the infirmary door.

"Severus?"

Severus turned, his robes snapping in the quiet as he spun. "Yes?"

"Weren't the tunnels all sealed up?"

Severus gave a short nod. "They were either sealed up or watched closely. Why do you ask?"

"Not just anyone would know how to get into the tunnels—would they?"

Severus stared at Harry a long moment. Harry held his gaze.

"No, Harry. They wouldn't."

He shook his head tiredly and held up a hand as Harry began to speak again.

"The Aurors will sort this out. Goodnight, Harry. Get some sleep."

He closed the door behind him but, despite his directive, sleep was a long time coming for Harry Potter.
Chapter 7: The Apprentice

The eighth year common room was quiet when they pushed open the door Monday evening. Draco and Neville were sitting across from each other at one of the study tables, and Seamus, Ernie and Hannah were sitting on the floor in front of the sofa around the low table with their Transfiguration textbooks open.

"Harry! Ron!"

Neville stood up as Ron and Harry walked over to the table laden with armfuls of books. He reached out and grabbed Ron's as the stack teetered.

"Thanks, Nev." Ron collapsed in the chair beside Draco as Harry took the chair across from him. Seamus abandoned his Transfiguration study group and pulled up a chair at the end of the table.

"I saw it all. We were standing outside of Honeydukes," began Seamus without prelude. "It was like the ground just opened up and sucked you right in. Ron, you look awful."

"Well you're talking pretty loud to a bloke who just spent two days in bed with a concussion," grumbled Ron.

Seamus grinned. "Sorry, mate," he apologized, his voice much lower now. "Rotten luck, eh? You standing there when it collapsed? We all ran over but Professor Sprout was out of Honeydukes so fast she practically bowled us over. I've never seen her move so fast!"

"We saw it too," said Ernie.

"Saw it? You and Malfoy almost fell in!" exclaimed Hannah.

Harry looked over at Malfoy in surprise. Malfoy didn't look up from the essay he was writing.

"Are you all right?" He directed the question at Ernie, who shrugged.

"Fine, I suppose. Knocked us down and all, but we didn't go in, did we? Malfoy hurt his ankle but Madam Pomfrey got him all sorted out."

"Frightened us all half to death," said Hannah. "We thought all this was over, didn't we?"

"It could have been a fluke, couldn't it have?" asked Seamus.

Harry was surprised when Malfoy raised his head and stared at Seamus.

"A fluke?" This time it was Ernie. "Haven't you been reading the Prophet, Finnigan?"

"You can't believe the Daily Prophet. " It was the first thing Malfoy had said, and all eyes turned to him.

"No, you can't, can you?" said Harry. He frowned as Malfoy went back to his essay. "Did the Aurors talk to everyone here?"

"All together, then private interviews—one at a time," answered Neville.

Malfoy wasn't writing anymore. Harry watched him fiddle with his quill and pretend to reread his essay.

"They wanted to know about you and Snape," said Neville. "Wanted to know if we knew of anyone that was upset about your relationship."

Draco stopped fiddling with his quill.

"Relationship?" Ron said. He was holding his head.

"You should go lie down, Ron," said Harry. "You're looking a little green."

"You should be the one looking green, Harry. The Aurors are making it sound like…like…"

"I don't think so, Ron," said Harry, smiling. "No one thinks my relationship with Severus is anything but what it is."

"None of us do," said Ernie, almost too quickly. "But who knows what other people are saying."

"Ernie!" Hannah looked at him sternly. "Harry, don't listen to them. The Aurors didn't ask us anything about your relationship. But from the questions they asked, it seemed obvious they think you were the target."

Malfoy looked up then, catching Harry staring at him.

"Not everyone was happy about how the war turned out," said Harry dismissively. "I'll just have to watch my back."

"You won't have to watch it by yourself," said Ron. "We'll be there with you."

"And there'll be Aurors in the castle, too," said Seamus. "McGonagall came in last night to tell us they'll be stationed here indefinitely. Warned us to be polite and cooperative."

Aurors in the castle. That was good, Harry thought. If someone was after Severus, there'd be extra eyes watching out for him, too.

ooOOOoo

Tuesday after classes, Harry headed directly for Severus' quarters. He'd had the longest of long days, trying to both keep up and catch up after missing all his classes the day before when he'd been in the infirmary. Hermione had loaned him her Transfiguration notes, and had taught him the wand movements to the shifting spell they'd learned on Monday.

"You'd think it would be easier than an overall transfiguration but it's not," she'd explained as she'd effortlessly changed the ceramic sugar bowl on the lunch table into a silver one. Harry lifted off the lid—the sugar was still inside.

"Try it on a pair of socks tonight," she suggested. "Cotton to wool, maybe."

He thought about that as he let himself into Severus' quarters, about practicing on Severus' socks tonight, and grinned. Severus was really particular about his socks.

"Severus?"

No one seemed to be there. He stuck his head into Severus' bedroom, rapped on the door of the loo, then wandered into the kitchen to find something to eat before settling on the sofa and sorting out his books on the tea table. Severus had left a stack of documents on the table and he pushed them aside to make room for his books and homework supplies. He glanced down at the top document. A sentence jumped out at him. "…memory was modified."

His eyes traveled to the top of the document. It was printed on Ministry letterhead—the Department of Magical Law Enforcement—and marked with today's date and the word 'Draft' in red letters. He glanced around the room out of reflex but there was nothing for it—he had to read the report. He wasn't even too concerned about the repercussions of being caught with his hand in the cookie jar, so to speak.

He had read only the first few sentences when the door opened and Severus came in. Harry didn't even try to drop the report and pretend he hadn't seen it.

"I left that there so we could discuss it together," said Severus. He was unbuttoning his robes as he made his way past Harry and down the short corridor to his bedroom.

"Oh—thanks. Good. Hello to you, too, Severus."

Severus appeared a few minutes later in trousers and shirtsleeves. He made his way directly into the kitchen and a few minutes later placed a tea tray in the space Harry had cleared for it.

"So, what do you make of the report?" Severus asked as he poured the tea.

"None of it makes sense," said Harry immediately. "Emerald thinks she was gone thirty minutes, her friends say more than an hour, and they've found evidence that her memory was altered sometime between getting the letter and giving it to me. Someone didn't want me to get the letter on time—but they still wanted me to get the letter." He paused, looking at Severus for answers. "I don't understand. Like I said—it doesn't make sense. Wouldn't it have been easier to just take the letter from her so that I never got it at all?"

"You are assuming, I think, that the person who gave Emerald the letter was not the person who subsequently modified her memory?"

"Of course…." Harry stopped, staring at Severus. Severus took a drink of tea and reached for a biscuit. Harry shook his head and sighed. "I'm not ready to be an Auror yet, am I?"

"The Auror Academy is a three-year course, Harry. You work your way up after that. This is only Peace's second year as a criminal investigator. You will be assigned any number of small, thankless jobs before you are asked to lead a case such as this one."

"Are you trying to talk me out of the Auror Academy?" asked Harry.

"Not at all. In fact, I've asked Auror Peace to spend some time with you, answer any questions you have about the Academy and a career with the MLE."

"You are trying to," said Harry, rolling his eyes.

"What? Are you afraid it might not be as exciting as you'd thought?" asked Severus, raising an eyebrow.

"No, I'm afraid you've given Peace an incentive to make it seem like that," said Harry.

"Come—let's discuss this report." Severus let the accusation slide. "The Aurors believe we are dealing with a very clever person, and a very dangerous one. There is no proof, is there, that the woman who handed the letter to Emerald is, indeed, your Miss Smith."

"But the handwriting…." He stopped again. "Right. She could have written the letter and given it to just about anyone to bring it to Hogsmeade."

"Some very intelligent, very clever, and very…ill…individuals complicate things needlessly," said Severus. "Fortunately, we have an excellent team of Aurors, headed by the Minister himself, on our side."

"Maybe…maybe she only wanted it to seem like she had warned me," suggested Harry. He was trying hard to sort through all the details and possibilities in his head. "So I had to get the letter—only too late, right? Because she needed time to get the trap set up." He frowned, then looked up at Severus again. "But what if I hadn't gone that way?"

"Ah. What if you hadn't?"

"I don't know—maybe she would have waited for another chance?"

"If you were the intended victim, Harry, she—or he—would have done more to make sure that you were in front of Honeydukes when the trap was ready to spring. Had you read the letter when you received it, you might have headed back to Hogwarts and been nowhere close to Honeydukes."

"It still doesn't make any sense," said Harry, frustrated at his inability to understand what was going on.

"No, it doesn't," admitted Severus. "And that is why we have a contingent of Aurors at Hogwarts. But humor me, for a moment; use that brain of yours." He smiled, rather fondly, and Harry smiled back.

"I've told you I'm not the one with the brain in my group," said Harry.

"And I've told you that your brain is just as capable as Miss Granger's. Think, Harry. Your letter writer—Hilda Smith—seems to hold no grudge against you, and seems to be trying to plant seeds of doubt in your mind regarding me. She either planned and perpetuated this attack or had foreknowledge of it. In either scenario, she is heavily involved in an act of sabotage that injured several students. There is also the matter of the dead man. If she is truly trying to protect you, and sent that letter to warn you off, someone else then waylaid Miss Williams yet still allowed her to deliver her letter to you. Without that delay, the plot would make more sense. With it, the Aurors are scrambling to determine motive, opportunity, the entire game."

"It's confusing. I'd need to write it all down to make any sense of it at all," said Harry.

"Auror Peace has volunteered to show you how the Aurors do just that," said Severus. He looked pleased—more pleased than Harry thought he should be given that he had already told Harry to let the Aurors handle this case.

"And you're going to let him?" asked Harry suspiciously. "Just two days ago you told me to let the Aurors handle this case. What happened?"

"Auror Peace happened," said Severus. "I've had some…enlightening…conversations with him. He has a good head on his shoulders and will be an excellent mentor for you."

In Harry's short life, he'd learned that things that sounded too good to be true generally were. He took a long drink of tea then set his mug on the table and took a deep breath.

"Be straight with me, Severus. What's this about? This doesn't sound at all like you—you're practically asking me to stick my nose into this investigation instead of locking me up in the dungeons until they figure it out."

Severus put his own mug down on the table. "You are growing up too fast, Harry," he said. "And there is nothing I can do to stop it." He sounded resigned, and proud, and perhaps a bit angry. "So, at the advice of Kingsley, and seconded by Albus, who could not help but add his voice to the discussion despite being confined to a portrait, I have decided to let you apprentice to Auror Peace during this investigation. Wait…" He held up his hand, obviously to get his piece in before Harry got up and hugged him. "There are a number of caveats—restrictions—all of them for your safety and my peace of mind. You will agree to all of them or we will go no further with this."

Harry didn't even try to hide his grin and Severus shook his head.

"I still wonder if this is wise."

"Of course it's wise. Kingsley and Dumbledore couldn't both be wrong, could they?"

Severus gave a small snort. "Are you ready for the conditions?"

"Sure. Go on."

"You are not to leave the grounds of Hogwarts for any reason at any time with any person—ever."

"Ever?"

"During this investigation. No trips to Diagon Alley or to the Burrow or to Hogsmeade or to any of the myriad places you might think about going. Shell Cottage. Andromeda's house to visit your godson. London—on your broom, on a thestral, on the back of a dragon. No Apparating anywhere. No Flooing anywhere. No walking anywhere, no…."

"Fine. I get it. I stay here until the case is solved."

"I need your promise, Harry."

Harry sighed. "I promise not to leave the grounds of Hogwarts during this investigation. Anything else?"

"Auror Peace has agreed to take you under his wing as an apprentice. Note the word 'you.' He had not agreed to act as mentor for Ronald Weasley, Ginevra Weasley, Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom, Luna Lovegood or any other person. He is responsible for you, and you alone. If we go forward with this arrangement, you must agree not to involve any other student in any way with the investigation or share any details with them. Agreed?"

"Severus…." He knew this would be nearly impossible. He spent all his free time with his friends. And they were a team—they worked on these things together, didn't they?

"Agreed?"

"Can they at least know about it?"

"That you are apprenticing with Auror Peace? Yes. Your closest friends only, though, and they must be instructed not to share the information with anyone else. Harry, it is costing me quite a bit to go down this road with you. If you do not feel that you can live with these terms…."

"No. I can do it. As long as they can know about it."

"Your promise, then."

Harry almost rolled his eyes. He stopped himself just in time. "I promise not to discuss anything about the investigation with any students, including my best friends."

"And your girlfriend."

"She's one of my best friends, too. She's covered already."

Severus gave a tight smile. "One more thing, then. I retain the right to end the apprenticeship at any time if I feel that it is endangering you—wait—or if your grades suffer. I am looking for E’s and O’s, Harry. E’s and O’s. Understood?"

Harry swallowed. It was a fair request—well, demand—really, but not one he had expected. He'd have to buckle down and study more to make sure he didn't slip in any of his classes.

He nodded. "Understood, Dad."

Severus shook his head, exasperated and amused. "You always do that when I don't expect it," he said.

"I do it when you go all Dad on me," said Harry with a grin. "It just comes out automatically."

Severus stood up. "I should order supper for us. What would you like tonight?"

Harry stood as well and before Severus could react, stepped forward and enveloped his father in a hug.

"Thank you," he said, his words muffled as her buried his head in Severus' shoulder. "I know how hard this is for you."

Severus' arms tightened around Harry, then he released him, moving his hands to Harry's shoulders and gazing at him from an arm's length away.

"Now, why don't you tell me why you've been grilling Poppy about the Magical Registry?"

He laughed as Harry's face took on a gobsmacked look. "Adults talk, Harry. Come, let's decide on dinner then I shall fill you in on the secrets of The Book."

/

"It's kept in a warded room behind McGonagall's office." Harry was talking around a mouthful of oatcakes. Hermione and Ginny exchanged a look.

"You sound like Ron," said Ginny. "Do I need to tell you not to talk with your mouth full?"

"Sorry." Harry swallowed then wiped his mouth. "All right, then. If we want to get a look at the book, we'll need to work on Minerva. I've got an idea on that already. I'm going to tell her I'm worried that Teddy's not magical and ask if I can see the book to check."

Hermione shook her head. "Harry. She's not going to go for that."

"Why not?" asked Ron. "I mean, it's possible, isn't it? Wizards sometimes have Squibs."

"Teddy's a Metamorphmagus," Hermione reminded them. "Do you know of any Squib Metamorphmagi?"

"I don't know any Metamorphmaguses besides Teddy," Ron shot back.

"Metamorphmagi," corrected Hermione. Ginny grinned and mouthed the word at Harry behind Hermione's back.

"You're right," said Harry. "Bad idea. Hmm. Well, I could tell her that Hermione is pregnant and...ouch!"

"You're in a pretty good mood for someone that just spent three days in the hospital wing," said Ginny.

"Perhaps his ear mites have been cured," suggested Luna, who had joined them for breakfast at the Gryffindor table.

"Ear mites?" Hermione was looking at Luna as if Wrackspurts were flying into her ears.

"Magical ear mites, of course," said Luna distractedly. She took another bite of her oatmeal. "I suspect the Skele-Gro turned them to stone."

"Probably," said Harry, smiling at Luna. She smiled back and went back to her oatmeal. She was definitely not a morning person.

"You aren't pregnant, are you, Hermione?" asked Luna a moment later, looking up from her oatmeal and staring across at Hermione.

"No!" hissed Hermione, glaring at Harry. "This is how rumors get started, Harry."

"I wouldn't mind being an aunt," said Ginny. "Or a mum. I love babies." She smiled but when she looked up, everyone was looking at her in alarm. "What? I meant some day. You know, after my Quidditch career. Sheesh."

"So, any other ideas on getting a look at the Magical Registry?" asked Ron. He was obviously trying to steer the conversation away from pregnant girlfriends and sisters.

"Why don't you just ask to see your birth record?" asked Hermione.

Harry stared at her. "Has anyone ever told you that you're brilliant?" he asked.

"People tell her she's brilliant all the time, Harry," answered Luna. She turned her spoon upside down, stuck it in her oatmeal, and lifted it out again. The oatmeal rolled off the spoon back into the bowl. "Do you think the ear mites chewed through your eardrums into your brain?"

"Magical ear mites," said Ginny, stepping on Harry's foot under the table.

Harry had already told Hermione, Ron and Ginny about the apprenticeship with Auror Peace. They were going to meet tomorrow after classes to get started.

"Owl post," said Luna a moment before the first owl flew into the hall and began circling.

"Let's see what drivel the Prophet has this morning," said Hermione. Harry wondered if the stress of commuting was starting to work on Hermione, or if perhaps the stress was coming from life at home trying to help her parents get their lives sorted out. She spoke very little about it, but Harry thought privately that she'd bitten off a bit more than she could chew this time around.

The Prophet, it seemed, had quite a bit of drivel.

"It's all about Alex Sanders," said Harry, leaning in to get a look at the paper.

"And about you, too," said Luna. She and Hermione were the only two that took the Prophet, and she turned her copy around so Harry could see it from across the table. "Harry Potter: Too Young to be a Daddy?" screamed out from the paper in two inch letters.

"What?" Ginny reached over and grabbed the paper from Luna.

Harry and Ginny were scrabbling over the paper, and Harry finally got it smoothed out enough to read it.

"Cradling my stomach? Of course I was cradling my stomach when they pulled me out of there! I felt like I was going to puke!"

"Seems you were also seen shopping for baby toys," said Hermione.

"I picked up a couple things for Teddy! This—this is ridiculous!" Harry sputtered.

"And I have not been gaining weight!" Ginny was almost shouting now.

"Yes, you have," said Luna. "You've probably gained a stone since last spring."

Everyone turned to stare at her but she seemed unfazed. "You were horribly thin, Ginny. You weren't eating enough at all, worrying about Harry and Ron and Hermione, trying to stay out of the Carrows' way." She smiled brightly. "You look much better now. Much healthier."

"No one really thinks you're pregnant, Ginny," assured Hermione. "No one believes anything in the Prophet anymore.

"Mum does! Oh Merlin help me. Mum's going to kill us."

"Us?" Harry dropped the paper. "She's not going to think…?"

"She believed that bit in fourth year about you and Hermione, didn't she?" asked Ron.

"Come with me, Potter, Miss Weasley."

Professor McGonagall stopped behind them.

"This isn't true," said Ginny at once. She looked pale.

"It's not," said Harry. "They can't do this—make up these lies and publish them."

Minerva sighed. "Get your books and come with me," she said quietly. "Severus will meet us up there."

When Harry stood, he felt the eyes of the entire school on him.

Just like old times, he thought, and he followed Minerva out of the hall, holding Ginny's hand tightly in his own.

ooOOOoo

"She says the Prophet didn't actually claim Ginny and I were having an actual baby, so it isn't libel," Harry said. He was sitting on the floor, panting. He'd been put through the paces by Auror Peace—whose name, it turned out, was Reuben—and had just finished his second set of fifty sit-ups. The Auror had decided that Harry's leg wasn't yet up to jogging, so he'd had him doing push-ups and sit-ups instead. Harry hadn't been paying a lot of attention to physical fitness of late and he hoped Peace had made his point already and they could get on with things—things that didn't involve proving to Harry how in shape one had to be to be an Auror.

"She's right," said the Auror. "Insinuating that someone may be pregnant is not the same as stating that someone is. It's rotten, but not illegal. What do you plan to do about it?" He was sitting cross-legged on top of the teacher's desk in the unused classroom the Aurors had taken over as their "war room."

"Nothing," sighed Harry, making it obvious that doing nothing was not his preference. "It will be obvious soon that she's not pregnant."

"Ah. Wise choice. So, what would you do if you got to decide?" He pointed over to the wall. "How about a hundred wall pushes to finish up?"

"Wall pushes?"

"Like a push-up, but done against the wall. Helluva lot easier than a regular push-up. Kind of a cool down exercise. You can talk as you go." He hopped off the desk and walked over to the wall and demonstrated for Harry.

Harry shrugged and struggled to his feet. He got in position as Pease retook his seat on the desk.

"I agreed with Severus and Minerva in the end," he said. "And of course the Weasleys weighed in, too. Everyone thought it was best to just ignore the Prophet. You are counting, aren't you? I can't talk and count at the same time."

Peace laughed. "Just keep on. I'll tell you when you're done."

"Of course, we got lectures all the way around," said Harry. "The eyes of the Wizarding world are on you and all that rot."

"Is it rot?" asked Peace.

"Do you have kids?" asked Harry. "Because you sure sound like you do."

"One," answered Peace. "Baby boy. Named him Harry after you. Don't stop now—you're only halfway through."

Harry had stopped and was staring at Peace. "You didn't."

"We did. He was born on your birthday this summer. Thought it only fitting."

Harry had gone back to his wall pushes. He was dumbfounded. He didn't know what to think. He stared at the wall and kept going.

"He looks more like your Severus than you, though. He's got straight dark hair and dark eyes—his mum's family is from India."

"What's his middle name," asked Harry.

"Potter," answered Peace. "I told you I named him after you. There are a lot of Harrys out there—wanted him to know for sure who he was named for."

"Harry Potter Peace," said Harry. He felt a smile play at his lips. "It's weird—but I like it."

"Yeah, we did too," answered Peace. "You tired yet? You've done a hundred and fifty of those things at least."

"Git," muttered Harry. He stopped and shook out his arms. "Are we going to talk about the case today?"

"Nope. Not today. Now you get to experience what it's really like to be an Auror."

That sounded promising. "Really? What are we going to do?"

Ten minutes later, Harry found himself standing just inside the door of an empty classroom, pressed against the wall. The room was dark and the door only just ajar. He'd been instructed to stay here for an hour. Waiting. Listening. Standing against the wall the entire time. Aware, alert. Not daydreaming, or sleeping.

He should have known it wouldn't be all fun and games.

His mind kept wandering back to the Hogsmeade incident. Reuben had warned him not to let his mind wander. He was to be aware of his surroundings at all times, ready to draw his wand if need be. But the puzzle of the tunnel plagued him. The existence of the tunnels might be fairly well known, but very few people knew how to access them. They'd been closed off all of last year—watched at either end by monitoring spells, Severus had said. If anyone accessed them, he'd have been alerted along with the Ministry.

And the Honeydukes tunnel had been used by Death Eaters to access Hogwarts for any number of reasons. Probably used by Voldemort as well.

So it made sense, didn't it, that whoever had planned this attack, whoever had left Alex Sanders' body in the tunnel before the collapse—whoever had killed the man—had some connection to Voldemort's regime.

He tried to clear his mind and focus on the here and now. The padding of occasional footsteps in the corridor. The hush of voices—he was in a passage just around the corner from the entrance to the Headmaster's office and students tended to keep their voices down around here. The whistle of wind through the shuttered window. He shifted from one foot to the other. How long had it been? He attempted a non-verbal Tempus and sighed when he realized he'd only been here twenty minutes. He leaned his head back against the wall and tried not to let his mind wander.

Which was impossible, of course. He was bored. Bored bored bored bored bored.

Twenty minutes later, it occurred to him that Severus must have known exactly what he was doing when he set up this so-called apprenticeship.

And that made the next twenty minutes just a little more bearable.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: Concerning Prudence

On Saturday morning, Harry sat down at the Gryffindor table for breakfast looking decidedly out of sorts.

"You're here early, Harry." Neville was sitting next to Hannah Abbott, really close to her, in fact, and he looked up as Harry sat down across from them.

Harry blinked and turned over a coffee cup. He sighed and watched as it magically refilled from the bottom, then added sugar and cream. "They wanted me to get here well before post arrives," he said. "Just in case."

"Oh, right. It's Saturday already." Neville frowned. "You don't really think she'll send you another letter, do you? Not after last week and all?"

Harry shook his head as he spread jam on a piece of toast. He spread some on his fingers by mistake and licked them off. "No, I don't. But Peace said they can't rule anything out. She's already established the pattern of contacting me on Saturdays and I think they half expect me to get another letter today."

"I don't know, Harry," said Neville. "Just be careful, alright?" He and Hannah both stood. Harry grinned. Hannah had been sticking pretty close to Neville this year, more or less beating off all the other available eighth year girls in the process. It still surprised him to see Neville like this—together, confident. He'd missed a lot last year.

"Where are you two off to?" Harry piled eggs and bacon on another piece of toast to make a sandwich.

"Greenhouses," answered Hannah. "We're getting a head start on our Herbology project."

"Oh, right. Our Herbology project." Harry inwardly groaned. Severus was insisting that he get all O’s and E’s if he wanted to keep working with Reuben Peace and it would be easy to let Herbology slip. "Neville, do you think you could help me figure out what plant I'm going to research? Maybe this evening?" With Hermione's time so limited, he'd have to explore other avenues to get by and get motivated.

Neville grinned. "Sure, Harry. I'll bring some books from my room and you can take a look at some things that interest you." Harry smiled back in thanks and the two went off, passing Ginny and Ron at the door.

Twenty minutes later, Harry was watching Ron eat while Ginny was talking to them both about Quidditch practice that afternoon. After all these years, Harry was still fascinated by how much food Ron could put away at a sitting.

"I'd like you to work with Madeline after warm-ups," Ginny said. "Start with thirty minutes of Follow the Leader—really take her through the paces. Then work on mind games—how to fake out the other Seeker. Then, when I have the Beaters and Chasers doing drills, you can work with her on avoiding Bludgers."

"I don't know why you care so much," said Ron as he swallowed a mouthful of bacon. "We'll all be gone next year."

Ginny just shook her head.

"I'll work with her, Gin," said Harry. "She's got a lot of natural talent—I think she'll come into her own."

Ginny gave him a pleased smile. "No owl post yet?" she said, frowning as Ron took another two pieces of toast from the tray.

Harry glanced up at the staff table. Severus was sitting there, looking rather stern and stirring his tea distractedly. His eyes were on the back of the hall. Harry's eyes moved to the person sitting next to him—Kingsley Shacklebolt. Kingsley had walked in ten minutes ago, causing the entire Hall to go silent. He'd waved good-naturedly at the students and had made his way up to the staff table. Minerva had scooted over to make a place for him beside Severus. He and Severus had engaged in a short conversation and then Kingsley, too, had settled back to watch the opening in the rear wall that served as an entrance portal for the post owls.

"The post is late," said Ginny a few minutes later.

"Here they come." Harry's voice was low. The first owl had flown in and was circling the room. It dipped and headed for the Ravenclaw table even as three more flew into the hall. Those were followed by several dozen more, and Harry watched the Malfoy family's eagle owl glide around the Hall looking for Draco. He tried not to hold his breath. He tried to ignore the owls as he used to do, only paying attention if one landed in front of him and stuck its foot out. Movement at the door of the Hall caught his eye and he looked up to see that Reuben Peace had stepped inside. He was leaning against the wall, watching the owls.

Five stragglers flew in at the very end, when the rest of the owls had found their marks and none had landed anywhere close to him. There were three tawnies and two barn owls. One of the barn owls headed for the Hufflepuff table and the largest tawny, clutching a book in its talons, flew up to Madam Pince at the staff table. The other three flew right toward Harry.

He held his breath as they landed on the table in front of him and jostled for position.

There were two tawnies and one barn owl. One of the tawnies looked particularly scrawny. It stabbed a piece of bacon off Ginny's plate without invitation.

A whisper behind him and all three owls fell over onto the table. In front of him, Ron's head, too, crashed down, his head dropping onto his breakfast plate. Eggs splattered in all directions.

Harry jumped backwards.

"Stay calm." It was Severus' voice. How had he gotten there so fast?

"Nothing like not calling attention to me or anything," complained Harry under his breath.

"What did you do to them?" asked Ginny, reaching out tentatively to touch the barn owl.

"A simple sleeping spell," answered Severus. "It seems to have affected Mr. Weasley as well." He picked a blob of scrambled eggs off of his robes and dropped it back onto the table."

Auror Peace was behind them now, too, and was working quickly to divest the owls of their letters and place the birds in a holding cage that another Auror had quickly brought over to the table.

"Shouldn't someone wake up Ron?" asked Harry. Ron was snoring and Harry was pretty sure he'd have eggs up his nose when this was all over.

"Shake him by the shoulder, Mr. Thomas," instructed Severus. Dean, who had been sitting next to Ron but who had scooted over quickly when the Aurors appeared, slid back over closer to Ron and reluctantly shook his shoulder.

"Ron! Wake up!" He shook it a bit harder and Ron moaned and sputtered.

The Auror behind Harry helped out with a quick Scourgify as Ron looked around, puzzled.

Auror Peace held all three letters now and fanned them out.

They all stared at the one in the middle.

"Your office, Severus?" said Kingsley.

Harry stood up. "I'll see you at practice," he said to Ginny, leaning in to kiss her then grinning at Ron. "You've got egg in your ear, Ron," he added.

Ron rolled his eyes. "Watch your aim," he called out to the Aurors. "Ruined my eggs," he muttered, pushing what was left of them around his plate with his fork.

"What are you doing with the owls?" asked Harry as he hurried behind the two Aurors, leaving Kingsley and Severus to bring up the rear.

"Tracking charms," said Peace. "We can find out where they go next at least, though I doubt your letter writer is using her own owl."

The fact that the letter clearly had Harry's name on the front did not mean that Harry actually got to open and read the letter himself.

When they were all seated around a table in Severus' office, Peace carefully picked up the letter and examined the seal on the back. He held it up to Harry and Severus.

"It's the same one as always," said Harry, shrugging.

Peace dropped the envelope into a bag and unfolded the parchment inside.

"Aren't you going to check it for spells or curses or poison or anything?" asked Harry as Peace smoothed the letter out on the table in front of him.

"We've already strengthened the standard castle wards, Harry," explained Severus. "The owl couldn't have even got into the Great Hall if the letter was cursed or poisoned or if it contained anything hazardous."

"Oh, right," Harry answered distractedly. He peered over at the letter, though it was upside down from his perspective. "What does it say?"

"Read it out loud, why don't you?" instructed Kingsley, studying Peace's face with a frown.

Peace cleared his throat.

"Dear Harry:

I tried to warn you."

He stopped reading and looked around the table. Harry glanced at Severus. His mouth was set in a tight line. Kingsley had settled back in his chair, arms crossed in front of his chest. Peace started reading again.

"The war may be over, and the winners crowned victorious, but evil remains. Because you are The Boy Who Lived, because you brought evil to its knees, you will remain a target of those on the margins, on the fringe. Those who fought and lost, or who lost loved ones in the fight, or who see their way of life threatened by the new Order of things in our world.

Regrettably, I find myself, at times, on this very same fringe, with connections to persons from my past, persons who did not then and do not now represent my beliefs, nor my hopes for my future and the future of our world. It was through these same connections that I learned of the plot in Hogsmeade. I was concerned for you, Harry, because the persons behind the plot seem to have their eyes on another target, one close to you.

You know to whom I am referring.

Your association with the Headmaster of Hogwarts puts you in danger, Harry. Look how close you came to death just one week ago. The trap would have been sprung even had you heeded my warning and returned to Hogwarts. But as it was, the perpetrators were able to begin to sow seeds of doubt about his ability to look after the safety of his students and deliver a gut punch as well by injuring you in the process. Harry, believe me when I tell you that your association with Severus Snape is endangering your life now and will continue to do so in the future. He succeeded in skirting disaster, but only by making alliances with persons of questionable character and reputation. Why would an honorable man do that? Why not take the higher road from the beginning, live up to the high moral code he has certainly set for you, instead of laying down the foundation for his own survival and letting the walls of Hogwarts crumble around him?"

Peace stopped reading and looked up. Harry felt the angry flush on his face and knew his expression betrayed his feelings. He glanced sideways at Severus. Severus' face was blank, though tight-lipped. Next to him, Kingsley had leaned in closer to the table and was fiddling with a quill.

"I don't see any walls crumbling," grumbled Harry. Severus glanced at him but didn't say a word.

Peace looked back at the letter and continued reading. "‘Harry, you are not safe, not even within the grounds of Hogwarts. Those who seek retribution for their losses—or perceived losses—have ways of penetrating the best defenses. Be on your guard. You have fought hard, and bravely, and suffered great losses. You learned last year that you are your own best asset, your own most trusted confidante. Be wary of new friends, and of old friends with new faces.

‘I know I am being a bit cryptic, Harry, but I must assume that after the events of last weekend, Hogwarts is now full of Aurors and you yourself are trying to piece together the puzzle of what is going on and who is on the attack. I was distraught that you and your friends were injured in an attack that was meant only to prove that Hogwarts is not an impermeable fortress, and that the Headmaster, in his unaccountable relief that he has survived so far, has forgotten some of the castle's weaknesses. He would do better to remember his roots, and to think like the Slytherin he is instead of the Gryffindor he wants to be.’"

Peace stopped reading and cleared his throat. Harry shot a glance over at Severus. Severus' face remained set. Harry let his eyes travel down to Severus' hands. His pinky finger was twitching. He glanced up at Kingsley. The Minister, too, was staring at Severus' finger.

"Finish it." Severus' voice was flat. Dangerous. Harry swallowed. He didn't like this—this reading the letter aloud so everyone heard it at the same time. He wondered what it would have been like to receive it without anyone knowing and take it up to the eighth year dorm to read it with Hermione and Ron instead.

"‘In closing, I hope you will not think me too forward in addressing the matter of the story in the Daily Prophet earlier this week. You may, indeed, consider yourself too young to start a family of your own. If you feel this way, might I suggest it has something to do with your Muggle upbringing? For it is not uncommon at all for witches and wizards to find their soul mates early in life, then settle down to raise a family and enjoy many happy long years together. A witch or wizard having a child at eighteen or nineteen has boundless energy and many, many years to devote to that child. Indeed, your mother herself was not much older than you are now when you were conceived. The Wizarding world would benefit from more witches and wizards from your line, and I, for one, hope that the Prophet is not too far off the mark in predicting an addition to the great Potter line.’"

Peace looked up.

"She signs it 'H'," he said, his quiet voice sounding very loud in the perfectly silent room.

"Harry is not to read any more of these letters," said Severus. His voice, too, was quiet, and unnaturally calm. "You have my permission to screen all owl post entering Hogwarts."

"Severus—" Harry began but was cut off. Severus was just getting started.

"And any students who leaves the castle grounds for any reason will be searched upon return."

"Now, Severus…"

"I am not finished, Kingsley. Visitors as well—be they parents, siblings or Ministry officials. Once she realizes that she cannot reach Harry through owl post, she will find another method."

"What do you mean once she realizes?" Peace interjected. "Why would we…?"

"Severus, we cannot go this far just to prevent Harry getting a letter. We've already significantly heightened the wards to detect suspicious or malicious intent and a variety of other subtleties. It will have to be enough. You will have to trust him to bring any letter he receives directly to you, or to Auror Peace."

"And what is to prevent him from reading it first?" asked Severus.

"What are you afraid of, Severus?" asked Harry. "I don't believe that shite in those letters. I'm not going to go off and have a baby just because she thinks it would be a good idea. And I can see right through what she's saying about you."

"It is the worse kind of subversion," said Severus. "Insidious. Sowing seeds of doubt…"

"Severus, I get it." Harry reached out and touched Severus' hands where they were clenched together before him on top of the table. "It's all right. I don't believe her. I believe you. I trust you. "

"I agree with the Headmaster," said Peace. He picked up the letter again and examined it. "It is insidious. But she certainly realizes that Harry is sharing the letters. She knows this place is full of Aurors and that the incident in Hogwarts is being investigated as a murder. Her target is the Headmaster, not Harry. And as such, Headmaster," he said, addressing Severus directly now, "you should stay close to the castle as well."

"I will not be a prisoner in this castle," Severus stated emphatically.

"Wait. You've made me agree to stay here," said Harry.

"You are a Hogwarts student. You do not have other places you must be," answered Severus.

"It's not forever, Severus," said Kingsley. "Just until this gets sorted out."

"Sorted out? Does anyone have any clue yet what's going on?"

"Actually, yes," said Peace. "And we've learned a lot more in this letter."

"We have?" Harry looked from Peace back to Severus. "What have we learned?"

"You tell us, Harry," said Peace, handing him the letter and giving a curious little half-smile.

Harry reluctantly took the letter. Severus shot Peace an interested look and settled back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest to mirror Kingsley's pose.

"Well…" Harry unfolded the letter and started to scan it. "She starts off by trying to distance herself from whoever caused the tunnel collapse," he said, "but she admits being associated with them somehow—at least in her past. I get the feeling that she might have been associated with Voldemort or the Death Eaters at one time."

"Or wants you to believe that," voiced Severus.

"Right." Harry read through another paragraph. "When she talks about these people that are after Severus—that caused the collapse and probably murdered that man—she makes it sound like they're disgruntled losers, doesn't she? Maybe people who aren't happy that Severus didn't go to prison?"

"Go on," said Peace. He put his hands behind his head and leaned against the wall behind him.

"She seems to know more about the intent of the attack than she should if she's not involved in it," said Harry after a minute. "And while she pretends to be on the margins or whatever, she does a lot herself to try to discredit Severus in my eyes."

"Bingo." Peace nodded in approval. "So, who is she?"

Harry looked surprised. "What do you mean who is she? How should I know that?"

"No—not her name. We have nothing else to go on besides how she signs the letters. But get into her head, Harry. Why is she trying to discredit Severus? And why most especially to you? It's one thing to make him look like a weak and inattentive headmaster who can't protect his students. It's quite another to call into question his character with the young man who sees him as a father."

Harry chanced another glance at Severus. Severus appeared to be having a very hard time keeping his cool. He was now drumming the fingers of one hand on the table and his mouth was set in a firm line.

"She knows him—doesn't she? Or she did. Or she blames him for something that's affected her personally. Maybe someone she lost? Or someone that went to prison—one of the other Death Eaters?"

"We are playing guessing games," said Severus suddenly. His hand was now clutching the edge of the table.

"It's an exercise, Headmaster," said Auror Peace. "Harry needs to practice this—to create hypotheses, work them into theories, and then gather evidence to prove or disprove them. I agree that the person writing the letters knows you, or has some other close connection to you. Let's let Harry go on to Quidditch practice so you and I can review the memory Miss Williams supplied of receiving the letter from the woman in Honeydukes."

Severus nodded, then looked at Harry.

"Professor McGonagall will be monitoring the Quidditch practices today. Do not stray from the pitch." He gave Harry another assessing look. "You have a release from Madam Pomfrey to play?"

"A release? Why do I need a release just to play Quidditch? I don't even use my leg..." He trailed off, realizing he was not going to get anywhere. "Fine. I'll go see her now."

"You do that. Please ask her to send me a copy as well so I have it for my files."

"Right. Your files." Harry shook his head as he managed an exasperated grin, then bid Severus and the others goodbye and trudged off down the corridor to visit Madam Pomfrey.

ooOOOoo

Minerva was still on the stands after the Gryffindors came out of the showers. Ravenclaw was on the pitch now, and she watched them with interest, apparently assessing their chances of beating her Gryffindors this year. Ron went back to the castle to meet Hermione for a study session—she'd promised to come for a couple hours after lunch—but Harry and Ginny made their way up the stands to see their Head of House. Harry sat down on the bench beside her, and Ginny beside him.

"Mr. Potter, Miss Weasley. Very good practice. The team is looking promising this year."

"And next," said Ginny. "What did you think of our reserve Seeker?"

"Miss Shoemaker? Hmmm." Their Head of House tilted her head slightly as if in thought. "Promising, promising," she said at last. "And while I appreciate the thought that went into finding a protégé for Mr. Potter here, I hope that he's able to carry us through to another winning season even as he trains his replacement."

"No pressure or anything," said Harry.

"So, are you two planning to sit here and entertain me while I watch the Ravenclaws?" Minerva asked when Harry made no sign of leaving.

"Well, actually I was wondering about something," began Harry. "I was actually wondering about the Magical Registry."

"Were you, now?" asked Minerva, cringing as the Ravenclaw Keeper narrowly avoided a Bludger to the gut. "And what, Mr. Potter, has made you suddenly interested in a book in which you have never shown the least interest in seven years?"

"Well, to be honest…." he began.

"That would be appreciated," she said with a knowing smile.

"To be honest, at first I wanted to use it to find more information about this Hilda Smith that's been writing the letters to me."

"Oh?" Minerva raised an eyebrow but she didn't look at all surprised to hear this news. "And how did you think the Magical Birth Registry could help you do that?"

"Well, we're looking for a woman," said Harry. "And a lot of the women don't keep their original names when they marry. So when we look up their names now in the London telephone directory, we're not sure if they have the same name anymore. But their brothers could be in the book—and we could trace back to them using their brothers. So we'd use the Magical Registry to find their family members…see…"

He realized how lame it sounded and Minerva laughed.

"You'd be hovering over that book for weeks, Mr. Potter," she said. She shook her head. "It would be far easier to use the enrollment lists of new students we prepare each year and cross-reference them. The parents are listed along with the children so they're fairly easy to use."

"Well, it's kind of a moot point anyway, now that the Aurors have taken over the investigation," said Harry.

"But Harry still wants to see the book," said Ginny helpfully.

"Whatever for?" asked Minerva.

"I'd like to see my own birth record," he said. He shrugged, looking a bit embarrassed. "I don't know why—it's just names in a book, I know."

Minerva turned her head away from the Quidditch practice and focused more on Harry. "You are welcome to come by my office after dinner tonight and we will look you up," she said. "It is not quite as exciting as you might imagine, but I'm certainly willing to indulge you. It seems a harmless enough request."

"Can I look mine up too?" asked Ginny.

"Of course. But please do not broadcast this about Hogwarts. The book is quite old, and weighty, and despite being magically preserved, it can be quite fragile as well."

"Is the book ever wrong?" asked Ginny as she and Harry stood up to leave.

"Wrong?" Minerva paused, considering. "No, I wouldn't say it is ever wrong. We have yet to invite a non-magical child to Hogwarts, at least. But do we have any way of knowing if it is truly capturing all of the magical births? Unfortunately, we do not. We rely on the magic of the Founders in this, just as we do with the Sorting Hat."

Harry and Ginny walked back to the castle together a few minutes later, taking their time. It was a pleasant day, sunny and cool, and the courtyard in front of the castle was full of students sitting with friends, or with books in their laps, enjoying the nice weather. Neville and Hannah were sitting together on a stone ledge and Harry and Ginny walked over to join them.

"Did Draco find you?" asked Hannah as Ginny hopped up on the ledge and Harry leaned against it between her legs.

"Malfoy?" Harry looked around, surprised. "What did he want?"

"He said to tell you that Auror Peace is looking for you," Neville answered. He shrugged. "I saw them talking up by the castle doors when we came back from the greenhouses. They walked down toward the gates together but Malfoy came back up by himself after that. That's when he asked after you."

"Oh." Harry frowned. What were Reuben and Malfoy doing walking the grounds of the castle together? He pretended to be unconcerned, shrugging his shoulders. "Did Peace come back up yet?"

"No—well, I haven't seen him anyway. Wait—there he is now." He pointed and Harry turned to see Peace walking toward them from the direction of Hagrid's hut.

"Go on, Harry. I'll meet you in a bit for lunch," said Ginny.

Peace waved as he got closer. "Do you have a minute, Harry?" he asked. He nodded politely at the others.

"Sure." Harry walked over to meet him and Peace continued walking back up toward the castle.

"I have an idea I'd like to bounce off you," Peace said as Harry hurried to keep up with him.

"Alright—what?" Harry followed Peace up the stairs and down the hallway toward the room the Aurors were using for their base.

"How are you at letter writing?" Peace asked.

Harry hid a smile. He may be a bit out of practice, but after the correspondence he and Severus had had all of sixth year, he was a pretty good letter writer.

"Good," he said, not giving any more explanation. "Why?"

Peace pushed open the classroom door and went immediately to a cabinet against the rear wall. He pulled parchment, ink and a quill from a shelf and placed it on a table. He pulled a chair out and spun it around so it faced Harry and removed a familiar looking letter from his robe pocket.

"You're joking," said Harry. He hung back by the door, looking at the parchment suspiciously.

"Not at all," answered Peace. "It's only polite to respond to correspondence, isn't it?"

"Severus won't like this."

"Harry, Severus and I reviewed Emerald Smith's memory. Severus recognized the woman who gave her the letter."

"What? Why didn't you say? Who was it?"

Peace held up a hand as Harry's reluctance disappeared and he took a few steps into the room.

"First of all, we have no way of knowing if this person was indeed who she seems to be. She could have been Polyjuiced, or wearing a glamour."

"Sure. Right. Who was it?"

"He believes it was a classmate of his—Prudence Carson."

"Carson? Honor Carson was one of Hilda Smith's friends at Hogwarts. Prudence has to be her sister."

"Indeed. And not coincidentally, her husband joined the Death Eaters about the same time Severus did. He disappeared years ago and is presumed to be dead."

Harry glanced down at the parchment laid out on the table.

"How is the letter going to get to her?"

"We've still got the owl that brought your letter this morning. Granted, it will probably go back to a public owl post office. People who want to maintain their privacy often have their post redirected to a box in one of these offices. Their mail is collected and compiled and sent out again so that there's no easy way to track it."

"You didn't answer me when I said Severus won't like this." Harry sat atop one of the tables instead of on the chair Peace had pulled out for him. "Does he know?"

"How old are you, Harry?" asked Peace.

"You know how old I am," Harry answered. "I'm eighteen." He knew where this was going and he didn't like it.

"So you're going to have to decide for yourself. No, I haven't told the Headmaster my idea. I think it's a good one, and a safe one as well. You answer Hilda Smith's letter. She'll write back. And each time she writes back, she'll reveal a little bit more, intentionally or not. If we're lucky, she'll show her hand with the next letter, once she gets a reaction out of you."

"But you know who it is now. You showed Severus Emerald's memory and he recognized the woman who gave her the letter—the letter from Hilda to me. Shouldn't you start by questioning her?"

"We pursue our target—our investigation—from all angles, Harry. While the official investigation appears to be following the Carson lead, you can unofficially reach out to Hilda Smith—as if it's your own idea. We'll stand a better chance of breaking this case open if we go in through the proverbial back door, too."

"But it's not my idea," said Harry. He glanced down at the table again where the quill and parchment waited. "It's your idea, and I personally don't think we have to do this…yet." He sighed and took a step backward. "And no matter what, I'm going to have to talk to Severus about it first."

"I told you he wouldn't write it." Harry whirled around to find Severus standing in the doorway, looking smugly at Auror Peace.

"You did. But you hardly gave me enough time to break him down."

"Hey!" protested Harry. "You two planned this?"

"We discussed it," said Peace. "And actually, Severus is here to help you write that letter."

Harry looked from Peace to Severus. Severus nodded.

"Against my better judgment, yes. However, I have a few things I'd like to say to Miss Smith that might sound a bit more acceptable coming from you. I know just how to bait her."

They sat down at the table, Auror Peace across from Severus and Harry. Harry picked up the quill and with help from Severus, penned the letter.

ooOOOoo

Dear Hilda:

Thanks for the letters. I grabbed the owl in time today so I could try writing back to you. It doesn't seem to appreciate being stuck in a cage with my owl so I'll try to finish this so it can get on its way.

I'm doing fine. I wasn't hurt too badly last week but of course I'd prefer not being hurt at all. Getting back at Severus by hurting his students, or me, or Hogwarts, might seem like a good idea but it will just make him madder, and believe me, you don't want to get between a brick wall and a mad Severus Snape. He's a great headmaster, and a great mentor for me. You don't know anything about him. He may have made some mistakes in the past, but he's a totally different man now and he's paid his dues. He deserves some peace and quiet and a normal life.

Thanks for the book about becoming an Auror. Actually, I'm not too sure what I'm going to do when I leave Hogwarts. Severus thinks I should consider all my options and putting myself in danger every day after everything I've already done is pretty ridiculous. Do you know anyone who was an Auror? You seem to think it's a good career choice for me and I'm wondering why it would matter to you.

As for having babies—that's a pretty personal thing, don't you think? Do you have children? I was wondering how old you were when you had them. Why is it a bad idea to wait until I'm thirty or so? There's a lot I'd like to do before I settle down and have kids.

I asked Zacharias Smith if he knew you—I wondered if you were related to him. He said he didn't know any Hildas. Anyway, seems like a lot of people in the Wizarding world are related so I was just curious.

Just so you know, I didn't read your letter when I got it in Hogsmeade last week. I was around a whole bunch of people and didn't want to open it in public. They found it in my pocket when I was in the hospital wing and gave it to the Aurors. I've told them I have no idea who you are but they're really curious and are asking a lot of questions. They seem pretty bright, so they'll probably be on to your 'connections' soon, so it might be best if you just contact them on your own before they track you down.

Well, I'd better go. I have a lot of homework and studying to get to.

Harry

"It's boring," said Harry.

"It's not supposed to be a work of literature," said Severus. "It's supposed to give her just enough to want to reply."

Auror Peace took the letter and rolled it up.

"Did you find Draco?" asked Severus.

"I did," answered Reuben. "He was quite helpful, actually. He answered all of my questions and was very cooperative. You had nothing to worry about."

"What's going on with Malfoy?" asked Harry, unable to resist asking.

Severus and Reuben exchanged a look.

"Prudence Carson lived at Malfoy Manor until Draco came to Hogwarts," answered Reuben. "She was Draco's childhood nanny."

 

Chapter 9: The Magical Registry

"Come in, Harry."

Minerva glanced up from the essays she was marking as Harry, followed closely by Ginny, opened the door and came in to her office. Harry smiled and glanced around the homey office, then slid into one of the comfortable chairs in front of her desk while Ginny settled in on the other.

"You said we could see the Magical Registry tonight?" he said as Minerva put down her quill.

"I did," answered Minerva. "Though I wondered if you were coming at all." She glanced over at the clock. "It's nearly nine o'clock, Harry. I'm usually off to my quarters with a good book by this time of the evening."

"We took a chance you'd still be here," said Harry, grinning at her. He didn't mention that he'd run into Draco in the corridor earlier and had had one of the longest and least confrontational conversations he'd ever had with Malfoy before coming here.

Minerva arranged the completed essays in a neat pile in front of her. "It's easy to lose track of time. It certainly has been a busy day, has it not? I couldn't turn a corner in the castle without running into an Auror."

"They've had a lot of new leads today," said Harry.

"Severus told me you've written back to your mysterious correspondent," said Minerva, glancing over at Ginny who, until now, had remained silent.

"He told her he didn't want to have babies until he's thirty, " Ginny said with a displeased scowl, elbowing Harry.

"I wasn't serious!" he protested, in such a way that Minerva could tell this was already a tired argument between the two. "It was just to let her know I wasn't listening to her advice! "

Minerva shook her head fondly. All this talk of babies! An idea occurred to her and she tucked it away with a smile. A fire call, a few supplies…yes, indeed. This could indeed put all talk of babies to bed for quite some time.

"You mentioned leads?" she said, looking at Harry keenly.

Harry leaned forward, apparently eager to share, then stiffened and sighed.

"You'll have to ask Severus if you want to know anything," he said, remembering his promise not to talk about the case in return for Severus' permission to work with the Aurors.

"Of course," she replied with a tight-lipped smile, pleased that he had remembered and had been discreet. "Very good, Harry. I know this isn't easy for you."

"He won't even tell me," groused Ginny. Minerva frowned. This was unusual behavior for Ginevra Weasley. The girl was usually a supportive friend and could and did stand on her own two feet. This business with babies was getting out of hand.

"Well, since you're here to see the Magical Registry, why don't we get at it?" Minerva asked, easily turning the conversation. She stood, hand on the small of her back, and stretched, then moved to a door that Harry had always assumed led to a cupboard. It was a narrow door, set in a small alcove behind Minerva's desk and was barely as tall as Minerva. She waved her wand in a complicated series of movements to un-ward and unlock the door, then pulled it toward her and held it open.

"Come on now, inside, both of you."

Harry ducked in first and Ginny followed. He looked around the small room curiously as Minerva came in behind them, crowding them so they stood nearly shoulder to shoulder. It seemed very much as if they were in a storage cupboard. Two walls were lined with shelves, the shelves full of parchment and books, envelopes and inkbottles, candles and cleaning supplies.

The third wall, however, was bare, and Minerva turned to this wall and performed another series of wand movements until the wall seemed to melt away, leaving a curtain made of strands of multicolored beads where it had been. A soft light came through the beads and, had there been a smell of perfume, Harry would have thought they were standing outside of Professor Trelawney's classroom. He looked at the odd curtain suspiciously.

Minerva regarded the beads and shook her head.

"It always does this," she said with a long-suffering sigh. She parted the beads with her hands and stepped inside the curtain. Harry exchanged an amused glance with Ginny and followed her through.

The room beyond the beaded curtain was small, the size of his bedroom in the eighth-year dorm, but definitely larger than a storage cupboard. Large pillows in a rainbow of colors were strewn about the room around low glass tables. Another circular beaded curtain, hanging from the ceiling, hid something in the center of the room. The castle's flagstone floor was covered by a thick carpet in a deep green color.

Minerva waved her wand and the pillows, curtains and carpet disappeared, leaving a very ordinary looking room with a very tall table in the center.

"The magic in this room," she said as she stepped onto the two-step platform that surrounded the table and beckoned them to approach as well, "attempts to disguise the room even if the wards are removed legitimately. It's been throwing out this illusion of a 1960s student lounge for years now."

Harry's eyes were on the table as he stepped up onto the small platform beside Minerva. "Wow."

The Magical Registry was as large, as ornate, as over-the-top magical as he could possibly have imagined it to be. It was open, displaying a page of cream-colored parchment with several ornate lines written in dark green ink in a formal hand. A magnificent quill, made from the feather of a bird Harry could not readily identify, rested beside a bottle of ink. The inkbottle was as ornate as the feather and the book and looked very, very old.

Minerva studied the page before her. She smiled at something she saw there.

"Another Harry," she said. "Born yesterday. This one a Harry Albus."

"I wish they wouldn't do that," said Harry, sighing. "Harry is just an ordinary name."

"It's a grand name," said Minerva. "And they honor you by using it. Someday, Harry, you will understand what you did for us."

"I love your name, Harry," said Ginny. "I don't think there can ever be too many Harry’s in the world." She looked down at the book. "Harry Albus. That's lovely." She had a fond smile on her face and Harry could tell that she really did think it a very nice name. He blushed and Ginny reached over and squeezed his hand.

Minerva turned back to the book and studied it again. She flicked her wand and the pages turned backward, each one lifting up and then settling down individually, like great wings attempting to raise the book off the table. She leaned down to glance at the newest records. "As I suspected," she said after a moment. "I've seen the same thing the last few years. The birth rate among witches and wizards has fallen during these years of uncertainty and unrest. However, the number or magical births overall remains largely the same." She smiled and looked up at Harry and Ginny. "Magic is a great compensator."

"What do you mean?" Harry was trying to read the open page, tilting his head and leaning in toward Minerva.

"When fewer magical babies are born to witches and wizards, more magical babies are born to Muggles," said Minerva. "We're going to have an interesting few years…" Her voice trailed off. "Here you go, Harry—your godson."

"Ohhh…" Ginny was leaning in toward Minerva now. "Ted Remus Lupin, born this thirteenth day of April, 1998, to Remus Lupin, a wizard, and Nymphadora Tonks Lupin, a witch, with residence in London, England: 2009."

Harry felt a familiar lump form in his throat as Minerva spoke again.

"The book starts a new section each September 1st, and groups class years together. Teddy is in the group that will receive their Hogwarts letters the summer of 2009."

"So that's why it says 2009 after his entry," said Harry. He looked down at the page again and noticed something curious. "Why are some of the words…well…glowing?"

Minerva touched her wand to the number '2009' which was, indeed, glowing faintly. The book turned back two pages. "The students who will be invited to attend Hogwarts the summer of 2009 begin here," she explained. "The glowing words are short-cuts, of sorts. The Registry creates magical cross-references within the tome." She paged ahead to Teddy's entry, then touched her wand to Remus' name, which was also glowing.

The pages began to flip rapidly backward, settling on a new page further back in the book. "We've gone back to 1960," said Minerva. She nodded at the book. "Remus," she said fondly, running her finger over his name on the page with a sad sigh. "March 10th."

"His mum was a Muggle," said Harry, reading Remus' entry on the page. He sounded surprised. "And her son was a werewolf…"

"It must have been horrible for her," breathed Ginny.

"It was horrible for all of them, I'm sure," said Minerva. "Remus was born before the Wolfsbane Potion was perfected. His early years as a werewolf were particularly traumatic, as much for his parents as for the poor tyke himself."

Harry noticed that Remus' father's name—John Spencer Lupin—was glowing, while his mother's was not.

"So his father went to Hogwarts, then," he said.

"He did," said Minerva. She didn't comment further, or attempt to shortcut back to his father's own entry. Instead, she pointed to the entry below Remus'.

"Your father," she said to Harry. "He and Remus were only a few weeks apart in age."

"Wow. I didn't know that," said Harry, leaning down again to study the entry. "Charles Potter, a wizard, and Lydia Hansen Potter, a witch," Harry read. "They lived in Godric's Hollow?"

"They did," said Minerva. "Where to next?"

"Dad," said Harry. He bit his bottom lip. After all, they were already looking at James Potter's entry. "I mean Severus," he added quietly.

"I know who you mean, Harry," said Minerva vaguely as she turned the pages backward with her wand. "January, correct?"

"The ninth," supplied Harry. "There it is."

It was an entry just like all the others. "Eileen Prince Snape, a witch and Tobias Snape, a Muggle." There was nothing on the page to suggest that Tobias Snape hated magic, or that Severus would one day join the Dark Lord's forces, or serve as Headmaster of Hogwarts, or nearly die in the Shrieking Shack. Harry stared at the page a moment, suddenly underwhelmed.

"Let's look up Ginny," he suggested. "I'd expect there will be stars and moons shooting out of the pages at the world finally producing a female Weasley."

"Git!" said Ginny, but it was clear she didn't mean it.

They paged through to find each of the Weasleys in turn, saw that George had been born just before Fred, then found Hermione, then Harry himself. They turned back to Sirius, then to Lily Potter, then forward from Lily through a dozen pages until Harry saw a familiar name.

"Regulus," he said. "Sirius' brother."

He glanced over the entry then froze as he saw a name just below Regulus'.

"Wait."

"Anastasia Snape?" Ginny read the entry aloud and even Minerva leaned in. "Daughter of Tobias Snape, a Muggle, and Eileen Prince Snape, a witch. Professor Snape has a sister?"

"No he doesn't," said Harry. "Or didn't. He couldn't have. He's never mentioned her." He looked at Minerva, who had a puzzled frown on her face as she read the entry herself.

"She must have died," said Ginny. "As an infant, probably. Look—she was only a bit more than a year younger than he was. He might never have known."

"Oh." Harry looked up at Minerva and swallowed. The knowledge that Severus had a sibling that died before he got to know her made him inexplicably sad. He wondered why Severus had never mentioned this sister, no matter how short her life may have been.

"There's no year of death, though," said Minerva, her voice faint. She was obviously puzzled. She looked over at Harry. "It is not common, but there are occasions when I check the book for the incoming year and find that a magical child recorded in it has died. The book always inscribes a year of death in those cases. But there isn't one here."

"Maybe it's a mistake, then," said Harry. Both Minerva and Ginny looked up at him with identical expressions on their faces. "Oh, right. Magic. No mistake, then." He frowned. "But I don't understand. If she didn't die, what happened? Severus never mentioned a sister—not once. And I've been to his house—the house he grew up in. He didn't say anything about a sister when we were there, either."

"I was teaching here while Severus was a student," said Minerva. "If he had a living, magical sister only a year younger than himself, she was not here at Hogwarts."

Harry was trying to process all of this. It didn't make sense—not at all. "It has to be a mistake," he said. "Or…maybe there was something wrong with her. What if…what if she was physically or mentally ill? Would she have gotten a Hogwarts letter then? What if she was like Neville's parents? Would she have been sent to St. Mungo's or some other institution?"

Minerva shook her head. "Magic tends to protect magical children, Harry," she said. "Those kinds of diseases and injuries are uncommon in the magical world, though they do sometimes occur. It is not exactly impossible, just highly improbable."

"Well there has to be some explanation," said Harry, looking from Minerva to Ginny.

"There are several," said Minerva. "Any of which requires more research. The most likely explanation is that the child did not grow up in the same household with Severus, and may not have kept the name she was given at birth."

"You mean she was given away? Adopted?" asked Harry. "Wouldn't there be a record of that somewhere? Maybe at the Ministry?"

"Not one accessible to just anyone," Minerva answered. Harry thought she looked…well, concerned. "She could have been raised by someone else in Severus' family—by his maternal grandparents, perhaps. They could have sent her to a different Wizarding school. Still, it would be odd that Severus never knew of her existence. If we had sent a Hogwarts letter out to her, it would have reached her at her current residence and likely with her current name. The magic is tied to the witch or wizard himself or herself, not to the name. We would have to examine the Deputy Headmaster's records for 1972." She looked up at Harry again. "But Harry, this may come as a great shock to Severus. I'd like to do a bit of digging, then go speak with Severus privately, before you say anything to him."

Harry swallowed. "All right," he said. "When do you think you'll talk to him?"

"Tomorrow," Minerva answered definitively. She looked over at Ginny, who looked nearly as shell-shocked as Harry did. "Agreed, Miss Weasley? You will keep this information private?"

"Of course," Ginny said.

A million possible scenarios came to Harry's head that night as he tossed and turned on his bed. Perhaps the mediwitch who had delivered the baby had taken it—telling Eileen that her baby had died. Maybe the baby had been born deformed, or had been oxygen deprived and had suffered brain damage. Maybe some sort of accident had happened after they got home from the hospital. Perhaps she was institutionalized, maybe even living in a Muggle hospital somewhere. He even imagined a kidnapping—a scenario in which Eileen brought the baby home, but someone snatched it from her when it was still a wee thing, while Severus was too young to remember what had happened. And Eileen, traumatized, had destroyed all evidence of the baby to try to get through the grief.

Or maybe…maybe Eileen had had an affair, and the baby wasn't Tobias Snape's. But the book had listed him as Anastasia's father, hadn't it? So that couldn't be the case.

The more obvious explanation—that Eileen and Tobias had given the baby up for adoption—didn't make much sense to him. Why would they have done that? They were married, weren't they? There was no shame involved in having a second child so soon after a first, especially when the parents were legitimately married.

Had Tobias forced her to give up the baby? Had he not wanted a second child? A daughter? A witch?

Perhaps they could not afford another child so soon after having Severus. He remembered how Severus had dressed as a child, how poor he had seemed.

Had…had Tobias himself done something to injure the child?

And while Harry certainly lost sleep that night, the mystery of Severus' sister at least kept him from thinking about Hilda Smith.

He never once imagined the two mysteries were related.

ooOOOoo

Harry was on pins and needles most of Sunday. He spent several hours studying with the other eighth years in their common room, sitting on the floor in front of the low coffee table beside Ron and across from Malfoy.

Malfoy. Now there was a puzzle. When he had run into the Slytherin in the corridor the previous day on his way to meet Ginny to go to Minerva's office, they had ended up in an empty classroom discussing Malfoy's theories on the incident in Hogsmeade and about Prudence Carson, his former nanny.

Malfoy thought someone was out to get Severus. To discredit him, not to kill him. To set him up to suffer.

"They know him," Draco insisted. "They know how to push his buttons. It has to be a Death Eater, or someone associated with the Death Eaters. They don't think he deserves to continue on at Hogwarts, in a respected Ministry-appointed position, and they sure as hell don't think that he deserves to have a happy family." He looked at Harry significantly.

"You're saying that I'm putting him in danger, aren't you?" said Harry. "And that's pretty much what Hilda Smith is saying too, only the other way around. That he's putting me in danger."

"What I'm saying, " said Malfoy, shaking his head, apparently at Harry's stupidity, "is that people will use either of you to get to the other one. So, someone who wants to hurt Severus only has to do something to you. And if they want to hurt you, they only have to get to Severus."

Harry stared at Draco, looking at him with new eyes. Draco was right, of course. He'd been pretty blind so far, thinking that now that Voldemort was dead, they could just get on with their lives and people would leave them pretty much alone. After all, he'd done what he was supposed to do. So had Severus. Chapter written, book closed.

Malfoy's theory was that his former nanny, Prudence Carson, was being used by someone with a more serious axe to grind.

"She's not the brightest witch in the coven," he said. "She follows orders well and is extremely loyal, but she's not the mastermind behind a nefarious plot." He rolled his eyes. "She always carried out my parents' instructions to the letter," he said. "But she didn't have an original idea of her own. Ever. Effective nanny." He grinned, as if Harry would understand the joke.

Still, it was a cordial conversation. And Harry had gotten the sense that Draco was worried about Severus' safety.

And that unsettled Harry, adding to the other items keeping him constantly off-balance.

On Monday, Harry caught up with Severus after breakfast.

"Did Minerva talk to you yesterday?" he asked as Severus stopped in the corridor and turned to wait for him.

"She did." Severus' voice did not give away his feelings on the matter. "Harry, can you wait until dinner tomorrow night to discuss this?"

Harry opened his mouth to protest, then closed it again. He nodded, then fell in step beside Severus as the Headmaster headed for his office. "Did she find out anything else?"

"She did." Severus' voice was low and held something—a note, an inflection—that was unfamiliar to Harry.

"Oh." Harry didn't know how to follow that comment.

Severus put his arm around Harry's shoulders and rubbed his arm affectionately, before dropped his hand altogether.

"It's a long story, Harry. I haven't had time to properly digest it all yet or to track down some of the loose ends. Give me another day?"

"Sure. Of course." They walked side by side in silence until they reached the T at the end of the corridor.

"Are you going to be all right?" asked Harry, looking worriedly at Severus.

"I'll be fine, Harry. We'll talk tomorrow at dinner as planned. It's been quite a…shock." He smiled, but the look on his face seemed more of a grimace than one of pleasure.

Severus turned and continued to his office, leaving Harry staring at his back.

For the rest of the day, Harry was distracted. He bollixed up so much—spells and charms and potions—by lunch that Hermione pulled him into Moaning Myrtle's bathroom after Transfiguration and he ended up spilling everything to her and to Ron, who had followed them in.

"Are you worried that he'll find out he has family other than you?" asked Ron. "Maybe a niece or a nephew that's related to him by blood?"

Well no, he hadn't even thought of that yet, thank you very much. And now he had something new to worry about.

"I just wish I knew what's going on," he explained as they sat leaning against the wash basins.

"You will—tomorrow," said Hermione. "Just try not to think of it."

"Hey—I just remembered something," Harry said a few minutes later as they walked to lunch. "You'll really be interested in this, Hermione. Minerva said that the births of babies to witches and wizards were way down because of the unrest and all these last few years. But she said there are more magical births to Muggles—that magic compensates."

"What?" Hermione was, as predicted, immediately interested—on high alert, as he and Ron liked to say. Ron groaned.

"Oh great! Good going, Harry. She's never going to let this one go. By the end of the week she's going to have a graph showing the number of Muggle-born students per year and she'll have it tied back to political and social events in the Magical world. Just wait!"

"Ron!" Hermione was beaming at him. "What a marvelous idea! We'll get started right after classes." She turned to Harry. "You can help us. It will keep your mind off of Severus."

But it was getting through the mountain of new homework they were assigned that day that kept his mind off of Severus that evening. A full class schedule distracted him on Tuesday, as well as a ninety-minute-long assignment from Auror Peace just after his last class. Reuben put him on guard duty outside of their war-room door while Severus and Kingsley met with the Aurors inside.

An hour and a half standing at attention just outside the door, unable to hear a single word that was spoken inside, while keeping his focus on the corridor.

It was torture. Pure mental torture. He hated not knowing what was going on just behind him.

Harry thought that Reuben Peace was a cruel teacher. Effective, but utterly cruel.

ooOOOoo

They ate supper together at Severus' small kitchen table. Harry watched Severus eat almost mechanically, not enjoying his food, perhaps not even tasting it. He had insisted that they eat first before discussing the startling discovery that Harry had made on Sunday evening, that Severus had a sister. When they finished eating, Severus poured himself a glass of wine and, in an uncharacteristic and surprising move, offered one to Harry as well. Harry sat on the sofa, shoes off, legs drawn up, sipping his wine and feeling awkward.

"I want to thank you, first of all," said Severus. He looked over at Harry and gave him a genuine smile, though he looked drawn and tired. "If it were not for your insatiable curiously, your obsession with the Magical Registry, I doubt I would ever have known that I have a sister."

‘Have,’ thought Harry. Not 'had.' "What did Minerva find out?" he asked. "Do you know what happened?"

Severus gave him that some smile, this time with a touch of indulgence. "Minerva compared the list compiled from the Magical Registry with the enrollment list from 1972, the year that my sister would have received her Hogwarts letter. She noticed immediately that one of the boys on the Registry list had not attended Hogwarts—turns out his parents sent him to school in the States. The only other difference was that there was a letter for Anastasia Snape and a subsequent enrollment from an Estelle Smith."

Severus said the name very quietly. He took a drink of wine, eyes closed, as Harry stared at him.

"Estelle Smith?" Harry repeated, staring at Severus. He swallowed. "She went to Hogwarts? She was here when you were here too?"

Severus nodded, the movement of his head abrupt. "She was a Ravenclaw. I knew her by name, just as you might recognize the name of one of Luna Lovegood's Ravenclaw year mates."

Harry had a million questions, but one pushed up amongst the others, demanding to be spoken.

"Does she have anything to do with Hilda Smith?"

Severus nodded again. "She was Hilda Smith's older sister. Minerva spent most of Sunday going through Hogwarts student records and was able to piece the story together amazingly well. Estelle was born in 1961, Hilda in 1965. They both lived with Harper and Margaret Smith."

"You're convinced this is real, aren't you? That Estelle is your sister?" Harry was leaning in toward Severus now, eyes bright.

"The Magical Registry tells one story, Harry, and the Hogwarts enrollment roster corroborates it. But here…" He reached into his robe pocket and drew out a Muggle envelope. He opened it, his hand shaking somewhat, and drew out a photograph.

"My father," he said, laying the wallet-sized photo on the table. Harry had seen a photograph of Severus' mother, the grainy newsprint Hermione had found their sixth year. But he had never seen Severus' father, save in a memory gleaned during those horrendous Occlumency lessons his fifth year of a menacing, hook-nosed man.

Severus had clearly inherited his nose from his father, but little else. His father had a rounder, fuller face, nearly nonexistent eyebrows and a wide and full-lipped mouth. His eyes were blue.

Harry looked his fill, then looked back up at Severus. "You must resemble your mother," he said with a small smile.

"I do," said Severus. It was clear, even from those two words, that he held his mother in much higher esteem than his father. "This is a copy of her photograph from her seventh-year yearbook." He drew out another photo and laid it next to the first. This was the Eileen Prince that Harry remembered from the photograph Hermione had shown him. Dark brows, long face, pale skin.

"I have an idea what you're going to pull out of there next," said Harry.

"Estelle Smith," confirmed Severus, sliding a third photo beside the other two.

The resemblance to Tobias Snape was impossible to deny. There was a bit of Eileen as well—a bit of Severus—but the general impression was of a young Tobias with a fuller, rounder face, blue eyes, blonde hair turned darker with the loss of childhood.

Harry studied the three photographs then looked up at Severus.

"Have you found her? Do you know where she is now?"

"I expect," said Severus, his words measured and careful, "that she is in hiding,."

"In hiding?" asked Harry, clearly confused.

Severus nodded.

"In hiding, and contemplating what she will say to you in response to your recent letter."

 

Chapter 10: Tangled Webs

"It was like finding out about Sirius. Like finding out I wasn't really alone after all…"

Harry was sitting on a fallen log at the edge of the lake, wedged between Ginny and Hermione. Ron stood a few steps in front of them, while behind him the ghostly form of Fang, Hagrid's dog who had been lost in the Final Battle, frolicked, bounding through the water joyfully without disturbing a drop.

They were quiet, contemplating Harry's words. He had been telling them about his evening with Severus the night before, about the look on Severus' face when they had spoken of the sister he had never known.

"But does she know she's his sister?" asked Ron. "Why would she do this if she knew?"

"He doesn't think she knew while they were at Hogwarts," answered Harry. "There was never…well… anything…between them. No recognition, nothing."

"But he does believe she knows now, then?" asked Hermione.

Harry shook his head. "He says he has no idea. He thinks she might know, and she might not. I don't see how she can, though. If she does know, why would she go after Severus? Her biological brother? If she has some grudge against the Snapes, how could she possibly think Severus had anything to do with it? He was only a year old when she was born."

"Maybe she had a horrid life with the Smiths," suggested Ginny quietly. "And she blames Severus somehow, even though it's not rational. Because he got to stay with the Snapes and she didn't."

"She would have had to have had a really crummy life for Snape's childhood to look any better," said Harry. "His dad drank a lot, and didn't like magic. And their house certainly wasn't anything special…"

"But she wouldn't know that, not necessarily, would she?" said Hermione. "She might look at what he has now and have no idea what he had to battle to get to where he is."

"And why now?" asked Ginny. "Why is she writing you now?"

"I imagine something could have happened recently," mused Hermione. "Perhaps one of her parents…her adoptive parents, I mean…died. And she went through their personal papers and found correspondence between her birth parents and Severus' parents or even her birth certificate?"

"That's what Severus thinks," said Harry, nodding. Hermione often seemed to think along the same lines Severus did. That should scare him more than it actually did. He kicked at the ground with the toe of his boot and frowned. "Before we discovered who Estelle Smith really is, I know he thought she was going after him because he's the Headmaster, because what she really hated was Hogwarts itself. Because it didn't protect and save her sister Hilda all those years ago." He frowned, remembering how unsettled Severus had been the previous night.

"It would be fairly easy to find out about her parents," said Hermione, her voice contemplative. "If they died, or if one of them did. There are years of back issues of the Prophet in the library. We could look through the obituaries."

"Or we can get Percy to check for us in Magical Records," suggested Ron. "It will save loads of time and he's at the Ministry anyway."

Harry shook his head. "Severus has already spoken to Reuben about it," he said. "I'm supposed to meet with him after Potions this afternoon. He'll probably dump a year's worth of the Prophet in front of me and make me read obituaries."

"Fun," said Ron. But he turned away and Harry knew he'd had enough of death this past year and was certainly not envying Harry an afternoon of reading obituaries.

Fang suddenly bounded out of the water, jumping up at Harry and passing through him with an unearthly chill. And then the ghost dog was off, back to Hagrid's hut, faster in death than he'd ever been in life. They watched him run circles around Shorty, Hagrid's new Welsh Corgi, then chase off toward the forest where Hagrid was working with the thestrals.

"I miss running," said Harry as they watched Fang disappear.

Hermione laughed. "We were on the run for nearly a year, Harry. I'd think you'd be happy to stay in one place for awhile."

Harry shrugged as he stood up. He'd only been confined to Hogwarts for a short time, and already he was beginning to feel stir crazy.

/

Hours later, Harry was elbows deep in yearbooks, newspapers and Ministry paperwork. Ensconced in a small reading room just off the library, with a huge sheet of parchment spread out on the table and held down at the corners with sandbag paperweights that Madam Pince had supplied, he sat staring at the interconnecting lines and names scrawled all over the document.

It was intensely boring yet utterly fascinating.

Severus had indeed shared the entire story of Estelle Smith with Reuben Peace, including her apparent parentage. Reuben had tasked Harry with creating a series of family trees and group profiles—for the Snapes, the Smiths, Hilda Smith's friends—and determining how they were connected.

They'd begun together by writing "Eileen Prince" and "Tobias Snape" in the center of the parchment, connecting the names with a horizontal line between them. Below them they had added "Severus Snape" and below his name, "b. 1960." Next to him, Harry had penned "Anastasia Snape, b. 1961."

Reuben had already discovered the names of Hilda and Estelle Smith's parents. "Margaret Bancroft" and "Harper Smith" were dutifully filled in, along with their years of death, 1995 and 1998, respectively. Harry filled in the years representing Hilda's brief time on earth, 1965-1981, then added Estelle with her birth year—1961—and drew a line connecting Estelle and Anastasia. He stared at the parchment, then wrote "Alex Sanders," drew a circle around the name and connected the circle to Hilda's name with a line.

He started on the Carsons next, adding Prudence and Honor in a separate group. As Prudence was in Severus' year, he wrote "finished HW 1978" under her name, then "Malfoy's Nanny" under that and finally "delivered warning letter." He knew much less about Honor, only that she would have finished Hogwarts in 1983, the same year Hilda would have had she lived.

Reuben left him to his puzzle and to plow through the papers and he had finally found Eleanor Bancroft in the Hogwarts class of 1945. He'd have found her earlier if he'd paid attention to her obituary, which listed her year of birth as 1926. He stared at her photograph for a long time. She was a pretty girl, a Slytherin by her robes, with smooth, dark hair and a teasing smile. He wrote the year of her birth, and of her leaving Hogwarts, on the parchment below her name.

Eleanor Smith would have been 35 years old in 1961 when Anastasia was born. Thirty-five. Almost as old as Severus was now. Old enough to have a child halfway through Hogwarts. Older by more than a dozen years than his parents were when they died.

Perhaps she hadn't been able to have children of her own. Perhaps it had been her dream to have a baby. Perhaps she would have done anything to adopt a little girl.

But then, Hilda was born four years later, when she was almost 40.

And Hilda was her biological child. He had looked her up with Ginny last week when Minerva had taken them in to see the Magical Registry.

He dug through the pile of documents that Reuben had left on the table until he found Eleanor's obituary and scanned through it. Married Hammett Elwin Smith on July 10, 1955.

On an impulse, he picked up Eleanor's senior yearbook and turned to the P’s.

He wasn't surprised in the least to find Eileen Prince's photograph there. She had been a classmate of Eleanor, then, both of them in Slytherin House. They would have known each other for at least seven years, would have shared a dorm room, a common room, hundreds of hours of class time.

He stared at the photograph of Severus' mother. She stared back at him cautiously, appraisingly. There was something so utterly familiar about her, and he wondered what pieces of her Severus carried in his heart.

He sighed and closed the book, picked up his quill, circled Eileen's name, then Eleanor's. He connected the two circles with a dotted line.

He certainly hadn't expected the connection between Eileen and Eleanor Smith to be so obvious, so easy to prove.

The door to the small room opened behind him.

"You missed dinner."

Harry looked up. Severus, still dressed in his teaching robes, stepped into the room and closed the door softly behind him.

"I'll make something when I get back to the dorm," he said. He glanced down at the cluttered table. "I've had a bit of a breakthrough here."

Severus walked over and stood beside Harry. Harry glanced at him as he studied the scribbled document, eyes moving over it with interest. After a moment, he reached out a hand and traced the line between his mother's and Eleanor Bancroft's names.

"They were both in Slytherin," Harry said quietly. "In the same year, even."

"Hmm," answered Severus. He ran his thumb over his mother's name. "I never saw my mother with other witches and wizards except when she took me to Diagon Alley from time to time. I suspect she distanced herself from her friends go so as to not upset my dad."

"He was like my Uncle Vernon, wasn't he?" asked Harry. "Didn't much like magic?"

Severus raised an eyebrow. "We do have that in common. My father, however, didn't think magic unnatural, as your Uncle Vernon does. He was terribly jealous. I learned quite early in our home not to use it unless it was for his benefit. If he didn't benefit by it, he thought no one else should, either." His eyes moved over to the Smith family diagram, then back to his own. He touched Anastasia's name and added softly, "He didn't like much of anything. If something made others happy, he generally disliked it."

"Like babies," said Harry sagely.

"Like babies," repeated Severus. He looked over at Harry, studying him for a moment. "Harry, we may never know how Anastasia ended up with the Smiths. But we need to get to the bottom of why Estelle Smith is sending you those letters, and whether she's the mastermind behind the crimes."

"And if she's not, who is," said Harry. "Alex Sanders is dead and someone killed him. If they could dispose of him so easily, who knows what they'll do next."

"Precisely," said Severus. He pulled out a chair from the table and sank into it. "How's that new wand of yours working out?"

"What?" Harry turned toward him, confused at the abrupt change of subject. "My wand?"

Severus smiled. "Yes, your wand. You have a new one, remember?"

"It's fine." They'd already been down this path. They both knew that it was Harry's magic that had changed, and they couldn't attribute his greater powers to either of his wands. "I'm getting better at channeling less magic through it."

"Indeed. So, your performance in class doesn't set you apart from the other students?"

Harry shook his head. "Not really. I try not to draw attention to myself."

Severus picked a quill up off the table and turned it over in his hands.

"Do you want me to transfigure that into a Snitch again?" asked Harry, half-teasing, reminding Severus that he had already tested Harry this way several weeks ago.

"Actually, I was wondering about your Animagus form. It's been a while since you last transformed, hasn't it?"

Harry didn't even have to think about it. "The last time was when my form changed," he said. "Right before term started."

"A month, then. Perhaps you would burn off some of that stress by having an occasional run as Lightfoot."

"Stress? What stress?" Harry challenged. What was Severus talking about? He wasn't the one who had just found out he had a sister he'd never known about. He wasn't the one who had to protect Hogwarts and all the students from someone who was clearly not in their right mind.

Auror Peace chose that moment to open the door.

"I'll find a place for you to run," Severus said quietly, leaving Harry half befuddled. Why was Severus suddenly worried about his stress level when there was so much going on in his own life?

"How are you doing with your assignment, Harry?" asked Reuben. He was holding a sheaf of papers in his hand.

"He's made some interesting connections," said Severus.

Peace was already standing beside the table, studying the schematics Harry had created.

"Excellent work, Harry," he said, looking up at Harry with something like pride on his face. "So, do you have a theory to offer on why Anastasia was raised by the Smiths as their daughter Estelle?"

Harry glanced at Severus before answering. Severus looked genuinely interested. Harry had puzzled this out already, and he had a theory, a plausible one. But he hadn't expected to have to voice it with Severus in the room.

"I don't know anything about the Smiths yet," he said carefully, "except that their daughter Hilda died before she left Hogwarts, and that their daughter Estelle doesn't exist in the Magical Registry. I don't know what kind of people they were, whether they were rich or poor or somewhere in between. But Eleanor Smith was 35 years old when Anastasia was born. She'd been married for a while, too, so I'm imagining she and her husband couldn't have children of their own, or thought they couldn't." He swallowed. This next part was difficult to voice. "And so when Eileen found out she was pregnant again so soon after Severus was born, and Severus was still a little baby himself, she might have decided that it wasn't a good idea to bring a second baby home to that house. Her husband was a Muggle, and didn't like magic much, and it was already stressful having one baby at home and not a lot of money to live on." He spoke slowly, staring at the small Snape family tree as he did so. "So she found someone who would take the baby and raise it as their own. Someone she trusted, of course, and someone who would give the baby a good life." He looked up and met Severus' eyes. "And I have no idea what she would have told her husband, or if it was really his idea to begin with. Maybe he knew the truth. Or maybe she told him the baby died."

Peace nodded once and turned toward Severus. "A plausible theory, Headmaster?"

"I would appreciate this conversation not leaving this room, at least for the time being," Severus answered. Harry noticed that his face was even more pale than usual. He looked haunted and Harry immediately regretted having voiced his ideas. But Peace had asked, and Severus had not stopped him. "And yes, Harry's theory is indeed plausible. I, of course, was too young to retain any memories of that time, but my father was a difficult man who drank to excess. My mother may have well been concerned about the safety of a second child in that household. And there was never enough money even for the three of us. Another child would have definitely presented a hardship."

"You realize there are other possibilities?" asked Peace, speaking to Harry now.

"Of course there are. The baby could have been kidnapped, or Eileen could have agreed in advance to have the baby for the Smiths, or she could have been blackmailed into giving it up. But I don't think so. I probably don't have it exactly right at all, but I'd guess Eileen knew what she was doing, and thought she was doing the best she could."

"What do you have there?" asked Severus suddenly, once again changing the direction of the conversation. He was certainly distracted and Harry was beginning to worry about him.

"The background report on Estelle Smith," said Reuben. "I thought you might be interested in it."

They were more than interested.

"What did you find out?" asked Harry, leaning over to get a glimpse of the report.

According to Peace's report, Estelle Smith had left Hogwarts in 1979 and had gone to work immediately at Gringotts. A year later she had married a man named Jacob LePonte. LePonte had been captured and imprisoned after the initial fall of Voldemort, his name reported to Aurors by Igor Karkaroff himself. He had died in Azkaban five years later. Hilda Smith had died at Hogwarts while LePonte was still in Azkaban and Estelle, her life in ruins around her, left her job at Gringotts and moved home with her parents.

"Her mother died three years ago, her father just this past summer," Peace said.

"So where is she now?" Harry cut in. "Have you brought her in for questioning?"

"I do not like that look on your face," said Severus. He had been watching Peace intently. "You cannot find her, can you?"

"Frankly, no. She apparently kept largely to herself these past years, caring for her parents and rarely leaving the family estate. The estate is being cared for by several house-elves now, and I'm sure I don't need to tell you that none of them are talking. We've managed to turn up a few family friends and neighbors but to a person they've not seen Estelle since her father's funeral in June. They all assume she's finally taking a vacation after all these years of being holed up in that manor caring for her parents and mourning her husband and sister."

"And Prudence Carson? Were you able to locate her?" Severus tapped his finger on her name on Harry's chart.

Peace shook his head. "Not yet. She disappeared the weekend of the Hogwarts incident and hasn't been seen since. We did manage to track down her sister. She's being brought into the Ministry now for questioning—I'll need to leave in a few minutes, in fact."

"Go, then," said Severus. "And thank you for your continued efforts on this case. I know it has taken some unexpected turns."

"It's my job, Headmaster," said Peace. "I'll let you know how the interview turns out."

They watched him leave, then Severus turned to Harry.

"You need dinner. Go back and spend some time with your friends. Get your mind off this case for a while."

Harry nodded. But he could tell by the drawn look on Severus' face that Severus himself wouldn't be able to get his own mind off the case, no matter how hard he tried.

"I hope you weren't angry about what I said earlier," he said as he packed up his things and got ready to leave. "I really don't have any right to try to guess why your mum might have given your sister to the Smiths. I didn't know her, or your father either. I only…well…" He looked up and met Severus' eyes. "What I saw of them in your memories that time reminded me a lot of living with the Dursleys."

"You needn't apologize," said Severus. "You brought up valid points and voiced a credible theory. You will have to think like that all the time if you wish to be an Auror, separating yourself emotionally from the case you are covering."

As Harry walked back to his room, he wondered again if Severus' plan was to make him a better Auror, or to make him abandon the career path before he even left Hogwarts.

Frankly, he was thinking more and more of a career playing Quidditch.

ooOOOoo

Saturday came and there was no letter from Hilda.

He still thought of her as Hilda, even knowing that the real Hilda Smith was dead. And while the evidence pointed to the letters coming from Estelle Smith, he couldn't quite get his brain wrapped around the fact that Severus had a biological sister, and this sister was likely his poison pen pal.

Honor Carson had cooperated fully with the Aurors but ultimately had not been able to advance the case very far. She knew Estelle Smith only from Hogwarts and only as her friend Hilda's older sister. And while she was fairly close to her own sister, she didn't know where she was, only that she'd gone out of the country with the family for whom she worked for a month or two.

Of course, the Aurors had already checked with the family before questioning Honor. Prudence had disappeared after the Hogwarts incident and had never come back, leaving the family and their three young children without a word.

By noon, Harry had stopped looking for the owl and was getting tired of the Auror on duty following him around. Severus was keeping his eye on him, too, and for some reason, that, too, was getting on his nerves. After lunch, he made his way to the pitch for Quidditch practice and managed to not think about Hilda Smith for two solid hours, throwing himself into practice with more gusto than usual, pushing himself physically in an effort to keep his mind clear. Ginny ended the practice with a flying competition, focusing on aerial maneuvers and speed.

They flew one at a time and Harry was second to last, behind Ron and Ginny.

He watched Ron, who was one of the fastest flyers on the team but only average in dexterity. When Ron landed, Ginny took off and Harry watched her, fascinated, as always, by her speed and her grace. She was as natural on a broom as he was, but she had an innate athleticism and competitive streak that he'd never have. She smiled at him as she landed and hopped off her broom, and he took off for his own run.

He didn't know that anything was wrong until he landed on the pitch in almost the exact place he'd begun. Ginny was standing with her back to him, watching Ron as he ran toward the castle, Professor McGonagall hurrying along behind him.

"What's going on?" he panted, looking from Ginny to Ron's retreating form and realizing, to his surprise and confusion, that Severus had appeared and had stopped Ron. He was speaking to him, both hands on Ron's shoulders.

Ginny whirled around to face him.

"Hermione…" she began.

"Hermione? What happened? Ginny?"

He stepped toward her, his heart beating fast.

"She was hit by a car," said Ginny, walking toward him and wrapping her arms around him. She was shaking. "She was walking home from her parents' office. They've taken her to a Muggle hospital."

Harry's arms tightened around Ginny. She was still shaking. He needed to ask, but he didn't want to know. "How…how badly is she hurt? Did Minerva say? Can we go see her?" After all they'd been through the previous year, all those months on the run, he'd thought that this year would be calm, healing, peaceful.

"Professor McGonagall is taking Ron there now," she answered. "She doesn't know how badly she's hurt, only that her mum said it was very serious."

"We need to go too," Harry said, grabbing her hand.

"She said no," said Ginny, her voice rising in pitch. "I already asked. She said they'd get word back to us as soon as they could—as soon as they know something."

But Harry dropped her hand and began to run toward Ron, who was still standing with Severus.

"Harry! Stop! She said to remind you that you can't leave the castle grounds! Harry!"

She took off after Harry, but Severus got to him first.

He'd released Ron, and Ron and Minerva had hurried off toward the castle gates, Ron still in his Quidditch gear.

So much for Ron and Harry missing running.

"You cannot go," Severus said, grabbing Harry by the upper arm as he tried to change direction and rush to the gates. "Her mother was insistent—only Ron now. And Harry—you are not to leave the grounds under any circumstances."

"But Severus…it's Hermione!"

"She will be all right, Harry. Her mother said her injuries are very serious but not critical. Minerva is accompanying Ron. She can determine if Hermione should be moved to St. Mungo's."

Ginny caught up with them and tugged on Harry's hand.

"Harry…look!" She pointed ahead and upward where a large tawny owl was headed toward them.

"Do not touch it!" Severus tried to put Harry behind him, but the owl was not deterred. It lit on Severus' shoulder, tucking its wings in quickly, and extended a leg out to Harry.

"Stupefy!"

The owl toppled sideways and Harry caught it in his arms.

The stood there together, wordlessly staring at the motionless bird in Harry's outstretched arms.

"Thank you, Miss Weasley," Severus said, nodding at Ginny as she pocketed her wand.

"It's from her," said Harry, his voice toneless.

Without a word, Severus took the letter from the owl. His hands shook as he extracted the parchment from the envelope. Harry stood, still holding the stunned owl in his arms, as Severus unfolded the letter.

"Read it out loud," said Harry as he watched Severus scan the letter.

Severus quickly read the letter, then folded it back up and tucked it into his pocket. His mouth was set in a hard line. He looked angry.

"Come with me," he said, turning and starting to head back to the castle.

"What? No way!" Harry hurried after him, still holding the owl, Ginny right behind him. "Give it to me! It's my letter, not yours!" He knew he was being childish and petulant, but he didn't care. "And take this ruddy bird! I'm not going to cart it all over Hogwarts."

"We need to find Auror Peace," said Severus, continuing to hurry toward the castle. He pulled out his wand as he hurried along, sending his familiar doe Patronus ahead of them.

Reuben Peace was waiting for them in the infirmary with another Auror when they pushed through the doors. He quickly took the owl from Harry and handed it to the other Auror.

"Sit on the bed, Harry," said Severus. Without waiting to see that Harry obeyed, he disappeared into the dispensary and returned with a calming potion, which he handed to Harry.

"I don't need this," said Harry, pushing it away.

"Take it anyway," said Severus. He pulled the letter out of his pocket and handed it to Peace, then sat on the bed across from Harry.

"She has knowledge of Miss Granger's accident," he said bluntly, not softening the blow.

Harry stared at him for several moments, eyes wide and disbelieving. He looked at the vial of potion in his hand then downed it without a word. He stared at his hands in his lap as they slowly stopped trembling.

Ginny settled on the cot next to Harry and took his hand. He squeezed it—hard. Hard enough to hurt. She winced and Severus reached over and forcibly separated their hands.

"Headmaster—did you notice the handwriting?"

"I did. It is hers, but different."

"Let me see it." Harry held out his hand and Peace handed him the letter without comment.

He stared at the letter. The handwriting was spikier than usual, less even and harder to read. The letter itself was shorter than usual. Acknowledgement that she had received his letter the week before. Apology for not replying sooner. Then…"Your friends should not be wandering about London streets in such unpredictable times. They establish patterns, of comings and goings that those who would do them harm can easily learn. One does not need a wand to harm a witch or wizard. There are Muggle contrivances that do the same, as I am sure you remember, Harry, having been on the receiving end of a collision between yourself and a Muggle automobile some years back. It is too late to warn you about your Muggle-born friend, and I learned of the planned attack far too late to stop it or to alert you, but it should serve as a reminder to you, Harry, to keep your friends close and your enemies even closer."

"Why?" Harry let the letter fall out of his lap and flutter to the floor. "I don't understand. Why would they hurt Hermione?" He looked at Severus helplessly, his expression unguarded, looking far younger than his eighteen years.

"I can only guess," said Severus. "She is my student, a Hogwarts student, and was accessible to them, unprotected by Hogwarts' wards in the Muggle world. She was an available target."

Harry closed his eyes tightly. Hermione would be all right. She had to be all right. She was like a sister to him.

No.

No no no no no.

A sister.

 

Chapter 11: An Honorable Man

Harry sat cross-legged on one of the low stone walls in the castle courtyard, Herbology textbook open on his lap. Luna was perched beside him, working on her Charms homework and humming softly to herself. Harry didn't recognize the tune but, oddly enough, he found it relaxing instead of annoying. It was Friday afternoon—finally—and they were two of dozens of students taking advantage of the unexpected sunny day by sitting passing time in the courtyard as the last classes of the day wound down.

It had been a horrible week.

On Tuesday, when Harry had dinner with Severus, Severus had not given in to his pleas. He insisted that Harry would not be leaving the grounds of Hogwarts, not even to visit Hermione at St. Mungo's. Not by secure Floo connection, not by Portkey, not by broom or thestral or Apparation or Muggle jetpack. He could not go even if he were Polyjuiced or wearing a glamour or safely hidden under his Invisibility Cloak.

Harry had been angry. He had pointed out that he was eighteen years old and capable of making his own adult decisions.

Severus reminded him that he had agreed to these terms after the accident in Hogsmeade.

Harry pointed out that that was before Hermione ended up badly injured and in St. Mungo's.

In the end, after a shouting match and threats from both sides, Harry picked up his tea mug and threw it into the fireplace.

"Feel better now?" Severus asked.

Harry's hand was shaking. He clenched and unclenched his fist. It itched to pick something else up and hurl it.

Severus silently handed him his own mug.

The second mug joined the first, reduced to broken shards among the coals.

Harry's hand was still trembling.

Severus reached out and took hold of his wrist. He tugged it gently.

"Come," he said.

He led Harry over to the upright piano that stood against the wall in the alcove between kitchen and sitting room. The piano had been there as long as Harry had been coming to Severus' quarters, and he'd never paid it much attention. It seemed to him to be just another piece of furniture. He'd never seen Severus play it, or even notice it in any way. Not until now.

Severus sat on the bench and scooted over to make room for Harry beside him, on his right.

While Harry watched, speechless, Severus poised his hands over the keys, stretched them twice then lowered his fingers and began to play. He didn't take out any sheet music and didn't seem to falter in the least. He played as if he practiced daily, as if he knew this music like the inside of his soul.

Harry stared at Severus' hands as they moved over the keys. He smiled as the notes formed around him, coalescing into a familiar melody, calming him from the inside out.

"Let it be…" he mused as the Beatles perfect piano song filled the room.

Severus played on.

Harry watched his fingers dancing on the keys. The words and the melody seemed to enwrap him, blanketing him with a feeling akin to drinking a calming draught. His heartbeat slowed, his breathing deepened, the weight on his shoulders lightened. He sat quietly, listening, feeling, until Severus' fingers slowed then stopped, resting just above the ivory keys.

"Still want to throw something?" he asked.

"No," said Harry, eyes still on the keys.

"Would you like to try?" Severus' voice was low. He wasn't looking at Harry either.

"Yes. Yes, I would."

And right then and there, he'd had his first piano lesson.

He smiled now, listening to Luna's humming, and thought about those thirty minutes spent side by side with Severus, pecking out a soft melody. Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice…

"Do you play a musical instrument, Luna?" he asked, closing his Herbology book. He'd read the page in front of him at least five times already.

"Hmmm…" Luna smiled. She wrote a few more words on the parchment in front of her then closed it up inside her Charms textbook and looked up at him. "I play the oboe. That's the duck in Peter and the Wolf, you know." She smiled. "Are you thinking of learning to play, Harry? You can borrow my oboe if you'd like."

"Severus plays the piano," said Harry. It wasn't an answer, but Luna didn't seem to mind.

"Oh, of course he does," she answered. "He has perfect hands for the piano. Is he going to teach you?"

"His mum taught him," said Harry, again not answering her question. "They didn't have a piano at home so they went to a neighbor's house every Tuesday and Thursday for an hour to practice."

"That's nice," answered Luna. "I imagine Severus misses his mother."

"She cleaned the neighbor's house in return," said Harry, continuing the bizarre almost-conversation in kind.

"Is he good?" asked Luna. "Does his music make you want to dance?"

Harry shook his head.

"It's not that kind of music," he said.

And that was all. They each went back to their studies then, without another word.

The castle doors opened twenty minutes later and students leaving the final classes of the day began streaming out to the courtyard.

Harry looked up. Ron should be here any time, and he had promised to take a letter to Hermione. Harry had just finished it after lunch. Hermione had been in a magically induced coma until yesterday morning. They had managed to move her to St. Mungo's on Sunday and by Thursday, her broken bones and other injuries were largely healed. They were getting her up and out of bed on Saturday and, if all went well, she'd be coming to Hogwarts on Sunday or Monday.

For good.

No more commuting to Hogwarts in the morning and back to London for the afternoons and weekends. It wasn't safe enough. Her parents insisted she return. Ron insisted. Severus insisted.

Harry swallowed the lump that kept reappearing in his throat. Two more days

He wanted Hermione safely behind Hogwarts gates.

Not that what he wanted made any difference. He hadn't been able to convince Severus to let him visit Hermione.

Nothing was happening fast enough. The Aurors still hadn't been able to find either Prudence Carson or Estelle Smith, though the stupefied owl had been traced back to an owl post office south of London. It was one of the rental owls, and on Saturday morning had indeed been tasked with delivering a letter to Hogwarts. The destination was recorded, but not the recipient, for the sender was charged based on the distance the owl had to fly and its expected total in-service time. The sender was anonymous; there was no reason to track who rented post owls and, as Wizarding Britain used a cash economy, there was no easy way to track sales transactions. The clerk on duty on Saturday cooperated with the Aurors, but even a study of his extracted memories in a Pensieve didn't yield additional clues. The shop had been busy on Saturday and no one fitting the description of either Prudence or Estelle could be identified in the shop that day.

However, sometimes, senders used an owl-hopping system. An owl would carry a letter to an owl post, where it would be transferred to another owl and forwarded to the final destination or to another intermediary hop. This system was most frequently used when the letter was traveling exceptionally long distances. There was no way of knowing if the letter had even originated from that owl post office.

A watch was put on all the public post owl offices within a standard day's flight of Hogwarts, though it seemed almost impossible to locate either Estelle or Prudence by their use of owls to send letters to Harry at Hogwarts.

Ron ran up to them a few minutes later.

"Mum's meeting me in the Three Broomsticks and we're Flooing from there," he said. Harry thought he looked a hundred percent better than he had on Saturday night when he got back from visiting Hermione that first time. He hadn't blamed Harry. He'd gone out of his way, in fact, to threaten whoever was doing this to his friends, and to reassure Harry that he didn't blame him. But the look on his face was the same one he'd had when they were imprisoned in Malfoy Manor, listening to Hermione's tortured screams shaking the very stones of the mansion.

It didn't matter that Ron didn't blame him, though, when Harry clearly blamed himself. He couldn't help it. It didn't matter that his brain knew he couldn't prevent it. His heart just kept telling him that he had to do something about it.

"Do you have the letter?"

"You put it inside your Herbology textbook, Harry," said Luna helpfully.

"Oh, right." Harry fished the letter out and handed it to Ron.

"You can read it if you want," he said quickly. "I didn't say the accident was my fault or apologize or tell her we can trade war stories about getting hit by cars. I just told her I can't wait until she's back at Hogwarts and that I'm thinking about her all the time."

Ron grinned and wiped the hair back out of his eyes. He was growing it out. He wanted a ponytail like Bill's, he said. Harry thought that he looked immensely older than he had a week ago, and it had nothing to do with his hair.

Ron pocketed the letter without reading it and hurried back inside to Floo to Hogsmeade.

"Hermione will help you," said Luna a few minutes later. It was another out-of-the-blue statement and Harry swiveled his head over to stare at her.

"She'll need something to do with all her extra time now," said Luna. She smiled at Harry. "You three are a good team, you know."

Harry smiled back. "Maybe you can help, too," he said.

"Oh, I'd love that," she answered. "I think I'd ask the Merpeople about the girl that drowned. I imagine they might know something."

And without another word, she hopped down off the ledge, gathered her things and took her leave.

Merpeople?

ooOOOoo

Harry was fairly certain Hermione could get to the bottom of this case faster than the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. By Monday, they had had reassurances that she would recover fully, and by Wednesday her parents and Severus had decided that she would return to Hogwarts full-time as soon as she could leave St. Mungo's. On Thursday night, after the Aurors had got no further with Prudence and Estelle, and not a single piece of evidence had been turned up in the search for the automobile that had struck Hermione as she walked across the nearly empty car park near her parents' office, Harry had stared at the ceiling above his bed as he tried to fall asleep, fighting the traitorous thoughts that kept rising to the surface.

We could do as much as they're doing. Look what we did last year. Puzzling out the Deathly Hallows. Finding all the Horcruxes. Breaking into Gringotts. Getting back into Hogwarts. With Hermione and Ron, and maybe Ginny and Luna and Neville…

But Severus…Severus would kill him.

But the Aurors weren't getting anywhere. Harry understood they had to operate in a specific way. That their numbers were greatly reduced after the war. That there were still Death Eaters on the loose, and so many lives to rebuild now that Voldemort was gone for good.

Severus had made him promise.

But they'd gone after Hermione. They'd tried to kill her.

Who would be next? Ron? Ginny?

Severus?

Harry turned over and bunched up his pillow.

He didn't especially like having his own room.

He'd spent six years sharing a dorm room with four other boys, then nearly a year sharing a tent with Ron and Hermione. And even though he'd had his own room at Shell Cottage this past summer, he'd had Severus right across the corridor, and the sound of the surf outside his window.

Here, in this room in the castle, he felt utterly alone. Sometimes he welcomed the feeling. Other times, like now, he hated it.

He wished, on nights like these, that he had someone to hold at night. He remembered the night after the Final Battle, when he and Ginny had fallen asleep together on the floor of the infirmary. He sighed as he mentally relived the summer days spent cuddled on the hammock together, or on the beach blanket, or on the sofa when the skies outside opened up in rain.

When he had first considered coming back to Hogwarts, it had been like a dream come true. A year to take his time, finish his education, get back into the routine of normal life while he decided what direction he'd go when he left Hogwarts. He'd seldom considered where he would have to compromise. What was his independence worth?

He turned over again. Tomorrow was Saturday. He fully expected another letter from Hazel and he really, really wished he could read it without Severus and two Aurors looking over his shoulder.

ooOOOoo

Dear Harry:

It is time for me to be more forthright with you. Over the past weeks, I have corresponded with you to show my great appreciation for all you have done for the Wizarding world. I have offered you a certain amount of guidance and advice based on my position in life and my experience with some of those that are now close to you and who influence you—for good or for ill—in your daily life and your future paths. You know, too, that I have exposure to certain…factions...and that I have tried to warn you of events that might cause you or those you love harm. I regret that my efforts have not yet been successful—indeed, that you were injured and that last week your Muggle-born friend was hurt so badly. I cannot promise that I will have prior notice every time, or ever again for that matter, so I feel that I must deliver this warning to you and do what I can to ensure that you are protected as much as is possible.

Harry, I was at Hogwarts myself long ago, when the Dark Lord was still revered by many and recruiting followers from all of the houses. You have certainly guessed that I am not signing my actual name to these letters. I knew a girl named Hilda once, and admired her greatly, and have borrowed her name for our correspondence. And while you certainly may be curious about my identity, I assure you that I have only your best interests at heart. You have put your life—your trust—into the hands of someone who is not worthy of that trust, and certainly not of your life.

Hear me out, Harry. I know that at this point you are ready to tear this letter into shreds. You have formed family with this man, this mentor. While I was fortunate enough to have grown up with a family who loved me unconditionally, I do understand loss, and death, and trials, and betrayal. I have lost more than one person that I loved deeply. And I cannot in good conscience stand by and let Severus Snape destroy another life.

We make choices in our lives, Harry. We must live with the consequences of our choices. Severus Snape chose to become a Death Eater. He chose to obey the Dark Lord's commands. There is not a Death Eater among the lot, living or dead, that did not torture, kill, plunder, rape. The Unforgivables were their weapons of choice. How can one forgive torture? Murder? Rape? And if this man, this Death Eater, became a spy, and worked against the enemy from within the snake's nest, are his actions before or after automatically forgiven?

How is one life valued compared to another? Is your life, Harry Potter, more valuable than the life of a Muggle child?

I must believe that you avoid thinking of the acts of violence that Severus Snape committed while he was a Death Eater. It is the past, you say, and he has repented. He is honorable.

Would an honorable man kill a Muggle child, Harry?

Perhaps you should ask him. Perhaps you should ask him how it feels to kill a man. Or to murder a child.

Harry, these accidents, these atrocities that have happened—in Hogsmeade, in London with your Muggle-born friend—they are not about you. They are about Severus Snape. And someone will soon make a request of him.

If he is an honorable man, there is only one way he can respond.

Yours,

'Hilda Smith'

Severus let the letter fall from his hands onto his desk. Reuben Peace, standing between Severus and his office door, watched the letter float down. He'd brought it in to Severus directly after reading it himself.

"You are certain he has not read this?" Severus' voice was hoarse, his face pale.

"No. And he's not happy about it. Daniels took the letter before he opened it. The envelope it came in was different to the others and only his first name was written on the front. He was suspicious and insisted on checking the letter before letting Harry read it." He stared at Severus intently. "Are you all right, Headmaster?"

Severus lifted his head and stared up at Peace.

"No. I am not all right," he said harshly. "I have to explain to my son why I am responsible for the death of a Muggle child twenty years ago."

Peace stared at Severus. Severus stared back.

"You don't have to give him the letter, Headmaster."

Severus glanced down again at the parchment on his desk, blinking as the words swam before him.

Would an honorable man kill a Muggle child, Harry?

He stood up slowly and picked up the letter.

"It is Harry's letter, Reuben. Send him to my quarters, please."

And without another word he turned and disappeared with the letter through the door that led up to his rooms.

Reuben Peace stared after him.

That, he thought to himself. That is an honorable man.

 

A/N: A warning, to all, that there is mention of the death of a child in this chapter. It was alluded to in the letter from Hilda Smith in the last chapter, as she alleged that Severus was responsible for the murder of a Muggle child during his Death Eater days. There are also mentions of torture and rape as Death Eater atrocities. While there are no graphic descriptions, I did want to warn for it anyway. These are serious issues, not to be taken lightly or trifled with, and I use them to build the plot, not for gratuitous reasons.

 

Chapter 12

He was angry. He was upset. His stomach hurt with it.

He didn't want to talk to anyone. To see anyone. Not Ron or Ginny or Luna or Neville. Not Minerva. Not Severus. Especially not Severus.

There was nothing Severus could say to make anything better. Nothing he could say or do to take away the ache in Harry's stomach as he thought about that Muggle family. Two boys, barely teenagers themselves, who had fought for their mother. The eleven-year-old girl. The father, killed outright as he opened the door to see who was making the disturbance in the garden.

Harry didn't want to be angry with Severus. He wanted to be angry at Voldemort, and the other Death Eaters, and anyone who thought that magic made a person intrinsically better than someone not born with it.

It had happened a long time ago. A long, long time ago. Probably even before Harry was born. Severus was young. An initiate. He had looked so…ill…when he'd explained it to Harry after Harry had read the letter. After Harry had read the letter twice, then lifted plaintive green eyes at him. What is she saying, Severus?

Harry had had no illusions that Severus had been a saint. He'd hated him the first five years he'd known him. He knew he'd been a loyal Death Eater, at least in the beginning. He knew he'd had to have committed atrocities. Torture. Murder. Anything Voldemort demanded of him. Even while he was loyal to Dumbledore.

He's been there on top of the Astronomy Tower that night. Even though he knew what he had to do, and why, it had not been easy. He'd seen him kill Dumbledore. He knew Severus was capable of casting the Unforgivables. Casting them…and making them stick.

A mercy killing. Just like that Muggle girl.

She probably wouldn't have survived. She'd seen her father killed, her brothers, her mother. Merlin, her mother. Her mind was broken, her strength nearly gone, too.

Severus had saved her from…something worse. Harry knew that. Severus hadn't said it outright, but Harry realized it. He understood. He knew.

But still…

Severus had neatly hidden the hurt look on his face when Harry had stood up, looking ill himself. When Harry told him he had to go outside to think. To get some air.

But he hadn't stopped Harry. "I'll be here for you when you come back if you'd like to talk then," he had said, his voice measured and quiet.

Harry hated—hated—having it in his head now. The little girl. The same age as the first year Gryffindors. The same age he had been when Hagrid had shown up on that island.

But Severus—Severus had lived with that memory for twenty years.

What was it like for him to see the first years each year? To teach them? To see that little girl among them? Someone who looked like her, or had her eyes, or her hair, or her laugh.

No.

Severus would not have heard her laugh.

Harry was sitting in the Quidditch stands, in the faculty box, high above the ground. He'd climbed here, knowing that if Severus were to come looking for him, he'd go right to his usual spot on the lake where there were always enough stones to hurl, or skip, or toss. Where he could work his frustration and anger out with rocks that felt no pain, into water deep but soulless.

Into the water that had taken Hilda Smith's life all those years ago.

The lake. What had Luna said the other day when they were studying together after classes outside in the courtyard?

The merpeople.

Luna had said that if she wanted to know more about the girl that had died—the girl that had drowned in the lake—she'd ask the merpeople.

From his perch high over the grounds, he looked out toward the lake, thoughtful. It was not a warm day. The lake would be cold and he really didn't fancy a swim, anyway. Even with gillyweed, or a Bubble-Head Charm, he'd still have to swim in those murky waters to reach the merpeople. And there were grindylows.

And even if he did find them, how would he communicate? Sign language? To ask if they knew anything about a girl who had died in the lake nearly twenty years ago?

Dumbledore spoke their language. Wouldn't he have gone to the merpeople first when it all happened?

He shook his head in frustration. Nothing was easy anymore. Nothing made sense. Jumping into the lake on some foolhardy errand wasn't going to make him forget the conversation he'd just had with Severus.

He was eighteen, not fourteen.

It was infinitely more difficult to be eighteen.

At fourteen, he could have—would have—stolen some gillyweed, jumped in the lake, sought out the merpeople and realized, when he got to them, that he had no way of communicating. He would have survived by sheer dumb luck. He would have expended his anger in adrenaline.

He would not have come here, to the highest vantage point outside the castle, to be alone. Far from anything that was dangerous, or distracting. He hadn't even brought his broom. He wanted to be alone. To think. To understand. He wanted his head to catch up with his heart, or his heart to catch up with his head.

He looked up at the castle. He could see Severus' office windows but the Headmaster's walk, as always, was hidden from view. Was Severus there now, looking for him?

I've lived with the image of that child in my mind for many years, Harry. I have no excuses to offer you, and no explanations that are suitable. I do not believe that what I did—ending her suffering before much worse could be inflicted on her—was wrong. I believe that my mistake, what was wrong, was my joining the Death Eaters, and that mistake led me to many more before I set myself right as Dumbledore's spy.

And then…and then he had stood and walked toward the window. Had stood there a long moment, back to Harry, looking out over the grounds. Harry had a fleeting impression of Albus Dumbledore standing there as well, with Snape beside him, both of them watching, watching a young boy hurl stones into the water.

But what I believe is inconsequential. You must determine what you believe, and if you can forgive me. The woman who wrote this letter would like me to suffer as much as she has. She obviously does not believe that I already have.

He turned then, and looked at Harry. Stared at him as Harry had stood, pushed back his chair, made his excuses.

Go. I'll be here for you when you come back if you'd like to talk then.

And Harry had gone.

He thought now about that letter. There had been a lot more in it besides the part about the little Muggle girl. There was the admission that Hilda had borrowed another name. There was the claim that the atrocities that were happening were not about him. Not about Harry Potter. The claim that they were about Severus. Severus Snape.

He squinted. Someone had just walked onto the pitch. They stopped and scanned the stands, then started moving purposefully toward him.

He recognized Ginny when she got to the bottom of the stands.

She took little time in climbing up to him and, when she reached the box, smiled at him as she settled on the bench beside him.

"How did you find me?" he asked.

"Snape said you'd be at the lake and, if you weren't there, to try the pitch." She leaned back, resting her upper back on the bench behind them. "I never realized what a good view they have from here. You can see the castle gates and the doors." She rested her hand on top of his. "What's wrong, Harry?"

"Didn't Severus tell you?"" he asked, a bit too sharply.

"No. Should he have?" she countered. She seemed perfectly at ease, raising an eyebrow at him and squeezing his hand.

"No." He relaxed marginally, leaning back and resting his elbows on the bench behind them, putting him more in line with her. "Another letter came today," he said. He knew his voice sounded harsh.

"I thought as much," she said. "What garbage was in this one?"

"It wasn't all garbage," he said. He wasn't looking at her. He was looking toward the castle, toward Severus' office, toward the secret walkway over his quarters. "She's trying to bring him down, Gin," he said, his voice low, almost fearful. "All this…this…stuff…that's happening—Hogsmeade, Hermione—she says it's because of Severus. "

"Because of Severus? What do you mean?" She sat up a bit straighter and turned to look at him.

"They're trying to discredit him. Make him pay for being a Death Eater. She's…she's dredging things up. Things from his past." His voice had dropped again to almost a whisper. "They don't want him to be Headmaster. I think they want him in Azkaban…or worse."

Ginny continued to stare at him, her warm brown eyes understanding, waiting for him to finish.

"She told me he killed a little girl, Ginny. A Muggle."

She blinked. He knew she must be trying very hard to listen, to be there for him.

"A little girl?" Her voice, too, was low.

"He told me all about it. It was just after he joined the Death Eaters. It was a raid on a Muggle village. They'd…killed her father, her brothers. Tortured…raped…her mother. Made the little girl watch. Had used the Cruciatus on her. They would have…would have…done that…" He couldn't say it.

He felt hands on his face. Warm hands. Ginny's hands were as calloused as his own. She turned his face toward her, leaned her forehead against his.

"Oh, Harry. How horrible. How horrible for that family." She pushed a strand of too-long hair behind his ear. "And how horrible for Severus – carrying that around with him all these years. And having to tell you…"

He stared at her, surprised. … having to tell you. And that was it, wasn't it? The perspective that he needed. He couldn't bring the Muggle girl back. The crime was not his to forgive. And the Severus he knew – his Severus – was someone entirely different. Someone who cared enough about him to tell him the truth. Who handed him the letter, albeit with trembling hand, when they had finally let him into the office, when he had so rudely barged in and demanded it.

It's mine. It's addressed to ME—Harry Potter—not to the Ministry of Magic or the Headmaster of Hogwarts!

Severus had only asked that he remain there in his office while he read it.

"Harry?"

He gave her a small smile. "You're right."

Ginny grinned. "Of course I'm right." She pushed another lock of hair behind his ear and smoothed her hand down over his head, working her fingers up under his hair and massaging his neck. "You can't let her get to you like this, Harry. What our parents did in their past, good or bad, is part of their past, not ours. Harry, even my own mum…"

"That was different," he said, his face taking on a hard look. "That was Bella. What she did…"

"What she did was attack me, and Mum defended me. Mum killed her defending me. It wasn't because of her past actions, or torturing Hermione. It was very in the moment, Harry, wasn't it?"

"You're also really smart." He smiled and pulled her down toward him. Moments later, she was straddling his lap, and she was kissing him. He pulled her more tightly against him, kissing her lips, her chin, her neck, trembling in the cool afternoon as she ran her hands up his back, under his shirt.

And on the Headmaster's walkway, Severus stood beside Auror Reuben Peace and sighed.

Peace put down his Omnioculars. "I think you can stop worrying about him now. Can we go inside and talk about that letter?"

"We can talk about it here," answered Severus, continuing to watch the two distant shapes in the Quidditch stands.

Peace glanced at him and frowned. "Don't you trust them?" he asked.

"How old were you when you first had sex?" asked Severus bluntly.

Peace smiled tightly. "Point taken. I was still at Hogwarts." He leaned back on the inside wall and pulled the letter out of his pocket. "So – who was on this raid with you?"

"There were at least eight of us, maybe ten," said Severus. His eyes did not waver, staying fixed on the stands. "I was the only new recruit. I wasn't yet nineteen. I don't remember everyone. Malfoy. McNair. Crabbe or Goyle. Several who were killed before he fell the first time – Carney, Hampstead."

"If Hilda Smith is indeed Estelle Smith, she would have been only eighteen at the time of the raid, then. Possibly still at Hogwarts. How would she have known?"

Severus pinched the bridge of his nose. He held out his hand to Peace, who handed him the Omnioculars. Severus lifted them to his eyes. "Very smooth, Harry," he muttered.

"Still at it?'

"Hmmph."

"My question, then?"

Severus sighed.

"I gained a reputation as a result of that evening. I spoiled their fun. I was labeled as both a pouf for not letting them have the girl, and an idiot, for killing a child with Pepperup Potion."

Peace raised an eyebrow. "Rape is an act of violence, not…"

"I know what rape is, Reuben," interrupted Severus. His hands gripped the stone rail, his knuckles white. "But no matter—I had the reputation from that point forward. The child died because the potion I gave her, that they expected would revive her so they could rape and torture her before they killed her, killed her before they could have their fun. Nearly all the Death Eaters knew the story, even those that weren't there. Some thought it was a mistake on my part. Most thought I was an inept brewer. Any of them could have told Estelle. Her future husband included."

"So she wouldn't have been there."

Severus shook his head sharply.

"She was not there."

"LePointe—her husband. Did you know him?"

"Know him?" Severus shrugged. "I knew who he was. I knew very little of him."

He was fidgeting now, and turned away from Peace and began walking the well-worn pathway. Peace pushed off the wall and followed him.

"What do you make of the end of her letter?" he asked. "What demand are they going to make of you?"

Severus kept walking. The walkway was too narrow to comfortably walk two abreast, so Peace was a pace behind him.

"Headmaster?"

"They will ask me to resign my post. They will threaten to reveal the murder of the Muggle girl if I do not."

"It was a mercy killing. Surely the public…"

Severus stopped and turned to face the Auror.

"How many mercy killings am I allowed, Reuben?" he asked softly.

"Headmaster…"

"And then they will reveal the information anyway, and I will be forced to resign even if I did not do so when they made the request. Too many people know of it and, while they may not think to reveal it now, they will certainly be able to corroborate the story."

"Is anyone alive or out of prison that was actually there?"

Severus shook his head. "I think not, but cannot be certain. It does not matter. Harry knows. You know. I cannot deny this. I will not."

"And you're sure they'll ask for your resignation?" Peace's voice was still clinical, but there was an edge to it. "We need to involve the Minister, Headmaster. This is becoming more political than criminal."

"If they don't ask for my resignation, they will ask for something else." They had reached the front of the castle again and Severus stopped walking and looked out toward the pitch again. "I will not be blackmailed," he said firmly. "I will resign now, before they can carry this any further."

"Headmaster, don't be foolish. There isn't a soul in Wizarding Britain who isn't aware of your past. You have been forgiven, Headmaster. Twenty years ago you helped a child die a quick and peaceful death instead of suffer horrible atrocities. Your actions these past years certainly make up for…"

"I am the Headmaster of a school full of children. How many parents of eleven-year-old children will forgive me the death of an eleven-year-old twenty years ago? Will forgive me for even being there to begin with? No matter that my role was simply to keep the victims alive so they could be tortured even longer?"

"It was a long time ago."

"Not long enough that I have forgotten. Not long enough that my sister has forgotten."

"Still, we should wait. We don't know what they're going to ask."

Severus pursed his lips, shook his head slightly. "Minerva and Shacklebolt should be here. We need to move quickly – but not too quickly. I have an idea that may at least buy us time."

ooOOOoo

On Tuesday evening, when Harry opened the door at the top of the stairs between Severus' office and his quarters, Severus was standing next to the fireplace with the box of Floo powder in hand.

"Leave your bag on the sofa," he instructed calmly. "It will be here for you when you return. Do you have much homework tonight?"

Harry froze in place.

"When I return? What about you?" he said carefully. "And where are we going?"

"You trust me, Harry?" asked Severus. He held a tired smile in his eyes.

Harry walked cautiously over to him, dropping his bag on the sofa along the way.

"I'll go first. Follow me, please."

Severus handed Harry the box of Floo powder after taking a handful himself.

"Shell Cottage," he said, very clearly. He stepped into the flames and spun out of sight.

ooOOOoo

"What's going on?" Harry's voice rose as he shook the ash off of his robes and looked around the familiar sitting room.

The oil lamps were burning, the cottage was warm and he could smell something – roast chicken, or lamb perhaps. He glanced around the room, a lump forming in his throat. A crocheted afghan hung over the back of the chair and there were books stacked on the tea table.

"Severus?"

He walked into the kitchen, glancing up the stairs as he passed them.

"Kreacher?"

The little elf bowed low. He still wore Regulus' locket, and it dipped forward with him.

"Headmaster Snape is on the porch," he said in his gravelly voice.

Harry gave him a puzzled smile and walked through the kitchen and onto the porch. Severus was seated at the table, which was already set.

"What's going on?" asked Harry.

"It's Tuesday. We're having dinner together—as we always do," replied Severus. He motioned to the chair opposite him. "Sit. We have some important things to discuss, Harry, and I wanted to do so in private."

"Your quarters are private," protested Harry. But it was a weak protest. It was already dark, and the moon wasn't out yet, but he could hear the ocean out beyond them and already it was wrapping him in a comforting blanket of calm.

"Shell Cottage is a more appropriate place for this conversation, Harry," answered Severus. "Sit."

He sat.

"How is Miss Granger?"

"Hermione? Is this about Hermione? Are you sending her here to live while she recovers?"

Severus held up a hand.

"No. She will remain at Hogwarts. I simply am interested in your assessment. I have seen her, of course, and spoken with her, but you know her better than I. How is she doing physically? How are her spirits?"

"She's getting stronger—healing fast. She's in good spirits and glad to be back at Hogwarts. She's bored to death, though, Severus, and wants to get back to classes. She's already talking about signing up for more, since she'll be here full time now. What's this all about? Why are we here?"

He leaned back from the table as Kreacher slid a plate in place in front of him.

"Thanks, Kreacher," he said, watching as Kreacher placed Severus' plate and ambled slowly out of the room.

"And why is Kreacher here? Severus?"

Severus took a bite of roast chicken.

"I'm going to be living here for a while. Kreacher will be staying with me."

Harry's fork froze midway to his mouth.

"Living here?" He put his fork on his plate, food untouched. "What do you mean?"

"I am stepping down, at least temporarily, as Headmaster. We will claim a relapse and a need for a sabbatical to gather my strength again. Minerva will serve as Headmistress in my absence."

Harry stared at Severus, trying to put it all together. He wanted to scream out No! and ask a thousand questions and tell Severus how ridiculous this was. He was fine. Well, tired, to be sure, but he hadn't had a relapse and didn't need to recuperate by the sea.

But he swallowed. Gathered his thoughts. He speared a potato and sighed.

"Just start at the beginning."

And Severus did.

They ate.

They argued.

Severus stayed firm. He would be safely away from his position as Headmaster when any news about his first mercy killing hit the press. Minerva would already be in place as his replacement, with the blessing of the Ministry and the Board of Governors. Any demands made of him by anyone would be made to Severus Snape. And Severus Snape would not be in any position to speak or act on behalf of Hogwarts.

"There will be an announcement in the Prophet tomorrow, Harry. This is it. I am not going back to Hogwarts tonight."

Harry stared at Severus.

But what if I need you? he thought.

You're eighteen, he told himself. You don't need to have your dad around all the time. Your friends don't, do they?

"You can write to me, as you used to," said Severus, somehow understanding the look in Harry's eye. "Give the letters to Poppy. She will be checking in on me daily, to keep up appearances. And you will Floo here, on Tuesdays, and we will catch up on the week."

Harry toyed with the chocolate cake Kreacher had served them.

"What will you be doing here?" he asked with a sigh. "Won't you be bored with nothing to do?"

"I will keep busy and I will look forward to your letters," answered Severus.

Harry nodded reluctantly. He didn't like this.

"You could just deny it, you know," he said. "They'd have to find a Death Easter who was there, someone who would volunteer a memory, to prove anything. And then all they'd see is you giving her that potion. They'd never be able to identify what it was. It could have been Pepperup! She could have had some reaction to it…"

"Harry." Severus' voice was firm. "Think about what you are saying. You are suggesting that someone give the Ministry a memory of a group of Death Eaters torturing and killing a Muggle family—parents and children. And in that memory they will see a young Severus Snape, dressed in Death Eater Robes." He met Harry's eyes and held them, shaking his head. "No, Harry. If the accusation is made, I will tell the truth."

"But they all know you were a Death Eater!" exclaimed Harry, frustrated. "They all know what that means, Severus. And you've been cleared of all crimes you committed while you were in Voldemort's service. They can't stick it on you."

"They can't put me in prison for it," said Severus, calmly. "They can't punish me through the legal system. You are correct. That is what my exoneration has bought me." He held up a hand as Harry once again opened his mouth to protest. "But faced with specific incidents of my past, regardless of my exoneration, they are under no obligation to keep me on as Headmaster of Hogwarts or to guarantee me a job of any kind."

"But…" Harry's voice trailed off. "It's not fair," he said, knowing he sounded childish and petulant.

"Harry, I may be gone for some time. I may, in fact, not return to Hogwarts. I will not be there to watch over you as I had hoped. I believe you are safe at Hogwarts—at least safe from outside forces who may want to harm you. But the only way to be truly safe is to be safe from yourself as well. Safe from acting impulsively. From over-reacting."

"I'm fine," said Harry quickly. "I didn't go jump in the lake to try to talk to the merpeople on Saturday, did I?"

Severus stared at him. "Why ever would you have even considered…"

"I didn't!" exclaimed Harry. "That's the point. It would have been stupid. They couldn't have told me anything about Hilda's death. I can't even speak their language, can I?" His voice was getting louder.

Severus had an odd look on his face. He dropped his head into his hands and rubbed the bridge of his nose as he so often did when presented with this side of Harry. He changed the subject. "You need to control your magic, too. You will promise me to act always as if I could walk in the room at any time, overseeing whatever it is you are doing."

"Well, that will keep Mrs. Weasley happy, anyway," muttered Harry.

"Harry…"

Harry looked up at Severus, ready with another retort, but it died on his lips.

Severus was worried. Legitimately, genuinely worried.

He nodded. "I'll be fine. It will all be fine. You're making too big of a deal out of this. No one will care, Severus. Too much time has passed already. They know a different side of you."

"Says the man who had to leave the castle for several hours when he heard what had happened from my own lips."

"I needed to think about it! To put it all in perspective!" He faltered. "It was just…just that I'd never thought of you like that. Not with those details. Not…not…"

"Not as a real Death Eater," supplied Severus very quietly.

Harry nodded and looked down at his plate.

"And if it took my son several hours to think about it, and another twelve to actually come back to me to talk about it, what do you think the reaction of the general public will be? The people who will read about this in the Daily Prophet?"

"You're a war hero, Severus…"

"The people who do not love me as you do?"

They stared at each other a long time.

"I'll speak up for you. I'll explain it all. They'll listen to me. I'm the Chosen One, right? The Boy Who Lived Again?"

"We will wait," said Severus, forcing calm back into his voice. "We will see what they demand."

And when Harry had been sent back through the Floo, and Minerva had met him on the other side to sit him down again, to discuss the very same things he and Severus had, Severus let his tired body drop into the old hammock on the porch, and fell asleep breathing the salty air and dreaming, dreaming sea dreams of a life that began not in the wretched house on Spinner's End or the mighty halls of Hogwarts Castle or even at the knees of Albus Dumbledore on a windy hillside. No, he dreamt, instead, of a life that began not two and a half years ago on a warm July day when Harry Potter stepped backward into a Muggle street… into the path of his uncle's car.

 

Chapter 13

They had put Hermione in one of the small private rooms in the hospital wing. It held a slightly larger and more comfortable bed than those out in the main ward, a small chest of drawers, a desk that was decidedly not Hermione-sized, and two chairs for visitors. A closed door led to a tiny private loo. There was a window in the room, too, enchanted to show the expansive grounds, as the room was often used for isolation and students – or professors – tended to go stir crazy when cooped up in the infirmary for long stays.

Poppy and the specialist from St. Mungo's had devised a regimen of potions for Hermione to repair the damage from the accident. She also had an exercise routine, and on Wednesday evening, Harry sat on top of the desk holding the parchment that spelled out the detailed exercise instructions while Ron helped her through the movements.

"Take your time," said Ron as Hermione slid her heel up until her knee was bent, then slid it back down until her leg was fully extended. It seemed such a small thing, but it must have hurt, for she kept biting her lower lip.

"Does it say how fast to do it?" she snapped.

Ron, accustomed already to these occasional frustrated outbursts, shrugged and kept his mouth shut.

"Actually, it does say 'slowly,'" said Harry.

"Well, we're never going to get around to discussing the important things if I have to get through all these exercises first," she complained. She looked pointedly at the copy of the Daily Prophet on the desk next to Harry.

"You're almost done, Hermione," said Ron.

"Finished," she corrected, tiredly. "Turkeys get done, Ron."

Ron and Harry both rolled their eyes but neither said a word.

"That's twenty," said Ron a few moments later. "What's next, Harry?"

"Feet," he said at the same time that Hermione said "Foot Rub."

Ron settled on the end of the bed and took one of Hermione's feet in his lap and began the already-familiar routine of flexing and extending her foot while rubbing her instep. Hermione sighed and seemed to settle into her pillows.

"Alright, we're talking about this thing now," she said. "All Madam Pomfrey would tell me is that Severus had a relapse and is taking time off to fully rest and recover this time. So spill, Harry."

"I just found out about it last night," said Harry. He looked at the newspaper with its prominent and surprisingly accurate headline: “Snape Takes Medical Leave of Absence.” Unfortunately, the headline was about the only accurate information in the article. He opened his mouth to continue, but snapped it shut. "Hold on a minute."

A few minutes later, he had put up the kind of charms and wards they'd used when they were moving from place to place on the Horcrux hunt.

"I don't think we needed the Muggle detection charms, mate," said Ron with a grin.

"Old habits," said Harry, settling back on the desk and leaning against the wall.

"Well, go on, then," said Hermione. She adjusted herself as Ron moved to her other foot. She looked better than she had when they brought her to Hogwarts but still pale, drawn and irritated. Harry brought up his feet to sit cross-legged on the desktop. He shifted and pushed a stack of Hermione's textbooks out of the way.

"He's convinced that Estelle – or whoever else is involved in this thing—was going to try to blackmail him and force him to resign as Headmaster. He didn't want to give them the chance to make any demands in return for not revealing the information, and he said he wanted Minerva in place as Headmistress before anyone could demand someone else. He's at Shell Cottage with Kreacher. I was there with him last night."

"He doesn't want them influencing what goes on at Hogwarts, whether he's here or not," mused Hermione.

"Right," said Harry. "He said that now, whatever they demand, it will have to be about him instead of about Hogwarts."

"He values Hogwarts more than he values himself," said Hermione softly. She was looking at the ceiling, studying it as she surely had studied it for many hours in the days since she'd been brought back to Hogwarts.

"Or he wants it to be a safe place for Harry," suggested Ron. "Even when he's not here."

Both Harry and Hermione stared at him.

"I think you're right, Ron," said Hermione.

"Yeah, don't sound so surprised," Ron said, rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, but what he keeps forgetting is that home for me is where he is. It's not necessarily Hogwarts." Harry had picked up the newspaper and was reading it for the umpteenth time, shaking his head. Among the many ridiculous things the paper proposed was that Severus was slowly turning into a serpent as a result of the horrendous wounds he had received from Nagini. That his skin was turning dry and scaly, that his pupils were changing, his tongue beginning to fork. That he no longer ate meals in the Great Hall, most certainly because he preferred his food on four legs and still moving.

"Do you think she'll go public with the accusation about the Muggle girl now?" asked Ron. He had become quite good at giving foot rubs and was now flexing Hermione's toes as the instructions dictated.

"Yes. Probably." Harry shook his head. "Honestly, I don't know. I can't figure her out."

"And that's our problem, isn't it?" asked Hermione, smoothly making Harry's problem all of their problem. "We haven't puzzled this whole thing out. I've been too busy with my parents to be of much help…."

"We couldn't," Harry reminded her. "Severus made me promise. He let me work with Reuben and the Aurors only if I agreed not to meddle in it and to let them do their work."

"Are you still working with them?" asked Hermione. "Even with Severus gone?"

Harry shook his head tersely. "No. He changed that all up last night, too. No direct work with the Aurors when he's not here. We argued about that for at least fifteen minutes. But there was no changing his mind, and he'd already told Reuben, of course. I'm just another student, now."

"Just another student getting letters from a dead woman," said Ron. He began carefully flexing Hermione's foot at the ankle, shaking his head.

"Harry, I really hate to ask this…." Hermione seemed to be fighting with her conscience.

"What?" he said, meeting her eyes, the question in his. They stared at each other a long moment.

"When…when Severus told you that you couldn't work with the Aurors on this case anymore, did he forbid you from working on it on your own? Or with us?"

"Hermione!" Ron nearly dropped her foot. "Harry, stay here with her. I'm going to go get Pomfrey! She's lost her mind."

"Very funny, Ron," said Hermione dryly.

Harry was smiling.

"No. He didn't say a word about it," he said. "I still can't leave Hogwarts, except to visit him. But he didn't tell me not to try to figure this out on my own – or with my friends."

"I know it's exploiting a loophole," said Hermione. "We all know that he wouldn't want any of us to put ourselves in danger, or to interfere in an MLE case, but honestly, I'm bored to tears here and Madam Pomfrey hasn't even let me out of bed yet. It will be weeks before she lets me back in classes…"

Harry and Ron caught each other's eye. Something passed between them, a shared knowledge or realization. Hermione wasn't ready to go to classes – not by far. She got through the regimen of regenerative potions only with the help of pain potions and muscle relaxants. Her legs were still weak and stiff. She'd not yet been able to manage lifting her leg even an inch or two off the bed without the help of Ron or Madam Pomfrey. Magic was a wonderful thing, and it had sped up her healing exponentially from the Muggle methods, but she wasn't ready to rejoin life at Hogwarts yet. She wouldn't be able to walk down the corridor for at least another week or two, and there were still the 142 staircases to consider.

"I think it's a brilliant idea," said Harry, nodding at Ron. "We can bring you whatever you need from the library and you'll figure this out in no time," he said.

"I don't think it will be that easy," she said. "We're dealing with criminals, Harry."

"We've dealt with criminals before," said Ron. "We were criminals. We broke into Gringotts, didn't we?"

All three of them looked at each other. Their smiles were contagious.

"We did, didn't we?" said Harry. He lowered his voice, still looking at his friends. "And we got that cup. If we hadn't…."

"We did, though," said Ron decisively. "We can figure this thing out, too, and maybe even do it without having to make deals with goblins and set dragons free."

"You're going to visit Severus, aren't you?" asked Hermione.

"On Tuesdays," sighed Harry. "For dinner." They could tell that this schedule wasn't exactly enough for Harry.

"Then we'll have to meet on Monday nights," said Hermione. "So we can get Harry prepped to try to get any questions we have answered by Severus."

"He'll see right through me," said Harry, shaking his head. He didn't think that plan had a chance in hell of working.

"Maybe not," said Hermione. "Not if you work in a couple good questions here and there." She tried to push herself up with her elbows so she was sitting more upright in bed. Ron leaned over and helped settle her, then arranged pillows around her. "You're always asking questions, Harry. And arguing with him. You'll just have to work in a few questions that we all come up with together."

Harry grinned. Hermione was right. "Alright. I can try. But if I go too overboard he'll be all over contacting Minerva and Reuben. We won't get anywhere if they start watching us too closely."

"They'll think we're in here studying," said Hermione. "They know how I am. They'll think I have you two wrapped around my finger, bringing me materials so we can get ready for our N.E.W.T.s… which, by the way, we will be doing, too."

More eye rolls. Ron settled back against the wall at the foot of Hermione's bed. "There's a piece of this whole thing I just can't sort out," he said. His head was back and he was staring at a spot on the ceiling. "Is that a spider?"

"It's just a spot," sighed Hermione. "It never moves. I stare at it all the time"

Ron looked relieved. He gave the spot once more critical look and continued. "Let's assume that Hilda Smith is Estelle Smith and that Estelle Smith was born Anastasia Snape. No matter what – she can't be working out there all on her own. She's pretending to warn Harry about stuff—heck, maybe she really is warning him. It just doesn't make sense without her being part of another group, does it?"

Harry frowned. Ron was right. He'd been through this scenario in his head already, and had gone over it a few times with Peace was well.

"I think the Aurors assume she's part of a group of Death Eaters," he said.

"Not Death Eaters, exactly," corrected Hermione. "Well, maybe a couple that somehow made it through the war and to this point without being caught or identified." She pulled on a lock of her curly hair and ran her fingers distractedly over it. "I'd say she's part of a group of family members of Death Eaters, perhaps Voldemort sympathizers. People affected by the Death Eater roundup after Voldemort tried to kill Harry when he was a baby. There's plenty of evidence for that. Estelle Smith was married to a Death Eater who died in Azkaban before we even started at Hogwarts. "

"Is she really trying to help Harry?" asked Ron. "And if she is, why?"

"I don't necessarily think this group is after Harry," said Hermione. "If they were, he would have been a fairly obvious target in Hogsmeade. They didn't have to create a complicated trap like rigging that tunnel to collapse."

"I'd say we're dealing with people who have suffered in one way or another because of the war," said Harry. Like Hermione on her bed, he shifted on the desk to settle himself, as if the topic was making his physical position even more uncomfortable. "They feel that they've paid a price – and that Severus hasn't. They can't believe he was really on Dumbledore's side all along because they remember things he did when he was a Death Eater – when he was still loyal to Voldemort, and even after he began spying. They see him here at Hogwarts as Headmaster and think he's come out of it all smelling like a rose."

Ron choked back a laugh. Hermione smiled.

"And don't forget that your letter writer is probably Severus' sister," said Hermione. "And we have no idea if she knows she was born a Snape."

"Remember that her sister died while she was at Hogwarts," Harry reminded them. "And that the boy she had been with the night she died turned up dead in that tunnel."

"I need a Muggle notebook," said Hermione. "And a regular ballpoint pen." She looked at Harry. "Owl George and have him send some. It's too difficult to use parchment and quill in bed." She looked at Ron. "We need someone on the outside to get us back issues of the Prophet and such. George seems like the best choice. It won't seem suspicious that you're corresponding with him, considering…."

Ron nodded and squeezed her foot. "Yeah. It will be good for him. We can trust him and it will give him something to do. Take his mind off of…things."

"Ginny is going to have to know, too," said Harry. "But no one else."

"What about Neville and Luna?" asked Ron. "Seems off to leave them out."

"It's not been quite the same this year, has it?" said Harry, smiling fondly. "Not since last year when it was just us three."

"I don't think we should keep it from them, necessarily," said Hermione. "But while I'm cooped up in here, we can't have all of us holed up in here for hours at a time. That would be rather obvious."

Harry stood up. "Speaking of being cooped up… I'll leave you two alone for a while, since Poppy will be back here to force us out any time now."

By the time he un-warded the room and closed the door behind him, Ron was already settling down on the bed beside Hermione.

Dear Severus:

It's Friday and classes are done for the day. Or is it finished? Hermione's going to make a proper English speaker out of me one of these days. Let's just say 'over' and be done with it. Finished with it. Whatever.

It's been an odd week without you here, Severus. Everyone is still stopping me in the corridors, asking me what's going on with you. Lots of people read the Prophet, but not too many believe you're actually turning into a serpent. Maybe a few of the first and second years who don't know you too well, and are small enough to be eaten whole by a man-sized python. But most people accept it. Most of the seventh and eighth year girls have confided in me now that they were worried about you because you were so pale and you acted so differently than you did last year, and in years before that. I think they all believe you were nicer than usual because you weren't feeling too well and didn't have the energy anymore to be a right bastard.

(Can you still take points for language? I'm hoping not.)

Minerva made an announcement on Wednesday morning at breakfast. I know you know this already, because you probably fire call with her about a dozen times a day because she's still trying to figure out your filing system (she told me so when we had tea together yesterday). Anyway, she told everyone that Nagini's venom had affected you more than they had realized and the constant activity had taken its toll. She said you'd likely be taking the rest of the term to recuperate, but that they'd let everyone know more about your return schedule as time went on.

No one seemed to think any of it the least bit odd, though there are the doom-and-gloomers who seem to think you're dying (or turning into a snake). I even heard about a group of third-year Ravenclaws who went to Flitwick (sorry…Professor Flitwick) to ask him if you'd still have your magic if you were a snake, and if so, how would you hold your wand? And where would you keep it? Leave it up to the Ravenclaws to waste time thinking about that kind of thing. No one knows I can't speak Parseltongue anymore, so they were all joking with me that if you did turn into a snake, at least you'd have someone else to talk to.

Oh, I guess I should tell you that I proposed to Ginny and we're going to get married in August when she turns eighteen, or even at Christmas if her mum and dad allow it. Do you mind if we move into Shell Cottage? I figure it has room enough for four kids, but we'll have to find a bigger place or add on after that because the bedrooms are pretty small. Ron and Hermione might move in with us at first, though they aren't going to get married for a few more years. Only thing is that Mr. and Mrs. Weasley are pretty old-fashioned about all that so we're going to pretend it's only Ron living with us and Hermione is still living with her parents.

Yes, having you gone has sure opened up some interesting possibilities around here.

Alright, you know I'm having you on. I'm afraid that kids are pretty far in the future since Ginny wants to try to get picked up by one of the professional Quidditch teams and if she gets on, she'll want to play for a few years before thinking about a family.

Well, you must have really made an impression on Reuben because he's been happy to talk with me about Quidditch and about how to best prepare at school to be an Auror (Defense, Charms, Potions, physical fitness) but not about the case. He won't let me inside the ready room anymore, of course, but I hung out in the corridor enough that he took pity on me and invited me to go running with him every morning. We started this morning. Ron went with us, too, like we used to in sixth year, and it about killed us but we couldn't let Reuben know that. Ginny is going to go with us tomorrow. She's actually pretty serious about this Quidditch thing.

Anyway, you'd know by now if I'd heard anything from Hilda/Estelle/Anastasia. I haven't, of course, but tomorrow is Saturday. I've already got instructions on when to come to breakfast and what to do if an owl comes. In fact, I have a shadow guard all day tomorrow. If Hilda was smart she'd send an owl today or Sunday and not be so damn predictable. Do you think I'll get to read the letter first this time? I doubt it. By the time I get to read it – if I even do – it will probably be full of holes where they'd censored it.

I mentioned that I had tea with Minerva yesterday. She seemed to want to really know how I was doing, if there was anything in particular that was bothering me (other than the obvious, I guess), how I was getting along with my friends, and in my classes. She's not quite as clever about getting information out of me as you are, but I know she's worried about me and about how I'm going to be with you out of the castle. I told her I was going to write to you, and she of course already knew that, and she asked me to bring the letters to her so she could send t hem through the secure Floo connection and not by owl. And she suggested I have a letter by tonight, as you were apparently anxious to hear from me. Well, I had already planned to write this before she reminded me, so there. Well, Minerva asked me last night if I would be willing to babysit Teddy tonight. She said she was going out to dinner with Andromeda and thought there was no reason that I couldn't look after my godson in the castle for a few hours. She's letting me use your quarters since I'm familiar with them and know where stuff is kept (like first aid supplies, which I assured her I wouldn't be needing) and she even suggested I ask Ginny to come and help out. I think she thinks Ginny must be more maternal than she is. She never had little brothers or sisters to take care of and really, she's always liked sports more than babies.

But of course I said I needed Ginny's help. I'd be foolish not to, wouldn't I?

Hermione is doing better. Poppy has her up and sitting in a reclined chair next to the bed a couple hours a day now, but she won't let her walk or even put any weight on her legs at all. She's told Hermione's parents that she plans to keep her out of classes for at least a month. That about killed Hermione. That was yesterday, and by last night, Hermione had talked Minerva into letting her use the Pensieve. She then demanded that Ron give her his memory of Charms class. She can't bend enough yet to watch the memory from inside, but she swirled it up and tried to watch it but it ended up in a big row between her and Ron because he obviously wasn't paying attention and the focus kept leaving Flitwick…PROFESSOR Flickwick…and drifting over to me or Dean or Neville. Fortunately for Ron, he watched me a lot during the class and saw me performing the Disillusionment Charm on the turtles we were practicing on and making it totally disappear. I cancelled the spell so Professor Flitwick wouldn't notice but now Hermione is all over me about controlling my magic before people get any ideas that I'm too powerful. Anyway, we both have marching orders now to PAY ATTENTION during class, as she plans to attend all of our classes using our memories. I pointed out that maybe we needed our memories ourselves if we planned to pass our N.E.W.T.s, but she said that vague memories of a class where we actually paid attention are better than full memories of classes where we spent most of our time daydreaming or staring at Susan Bones' breasts.

Are you bored to tears yet at Shell Cottage? Have you had Kreacher clean the place from top to bottom? What are you doing to pass the time? I hope you're at least getting some rest. You have been overdoing it and you did need some time off, so you'd better be spending some time on the porch in that hammock and breathing in some of that fresh sea air.

And I hope you're having sea dreams, too, Dad.

I miss you.

Regards,

Harry

ooOOOoo

Severus placed the letter from Harry on top of a letter from Minerva. They were both resting on top of the Daily Prophet.

It was Saturday afternoon.

“Death Eater Snape Killed Muggle Child!” screamed the headline. The entire front page, in fact, was covered in bold headlines, each with a short paragraph following with directions to "See Page 16" or "More on Page 4" following.

“Mercy Killing or Barbaric Act?”

“Minister of Magic Reacts to Accusations”

“Hogwarts Board of Governors Stands Behind Snape”

That article, though promising on the outside, had claimed that the entire Board of Governors was made up of pureblood Voldemort sympathizers.

The accuser, the one who had brought the story to the Daily Prophet, was not anonymous. The case was strengthened by that fact and the inclusion of not just a name, but a photograph – a recent photograph – of Prudence Carson and a photograph of the letter she had left with Rita Skeeter, along with her signature.

Prudence claimed that the information she revealed about Severus and the Muggle child was well known among the Dark Lord's followers. She cited that she had lived in Malfoy Manor as Draco Malfoy's nanny for a number of years, had been briefly married to one of those followers, and that any number of persons, including Lucius Malfoy himself, could corroborate her story.

But what had left Severus shaking – with rage, with disbelief—was her explanation of her motive.

"I did it for the Lily, t" she had written.

He'd read it once, twice, three times.

" the Not many people knew that Lily and I were friends. I was in Slytherin and she was in Gryffindor, of course, but we had a lot of classes together. I dated her boyfriend's best friend's brother – Regulus Black—and got to know her even more then…"

Rubbish. Regulus never dated Prudence Carson. And even if she had, Sirius and Regulus acted like the other didn't exist. There would never have been an occasion for Prudence and Lily to bond because of Sirius and Regulus.

" the It's Lily's boy, see? Harry Potter. He's gone through so much and now he's nearly declared openly that he thinks of Severus Snape as his father. His father! Severus Snape doesn't have a paternal bone in his body. He's after something with that boy, and I wouldn't discount any possibility. Any. He was in love with Lily Potter. Everyone knew that. And she spurned him for Harry Potter's father. He'd do anything to get back at her, at James Potter, at Harry himself. If you ask me, he's got plans for that boy and the Ministry should be taking a good, close look at what he's up to."

Rubbish. All of it rubbish. He knew Harry wouldn't believe any of it, but it was plausible, wasn't it, to the Wizarding public? To the parents of the students at Hogwarts? To the students themselves?

Reuben had already been there to see him, at eight o'clock in the morning, just after Minerva had handed him the paper through the Floo along with her letter and Harry's.

"We think the Prophet got the letter yesterday afternoon," he told Severus. "They had time to contact the Board of Governors and they've started a search for you."

"They won't find me here," Severus had said. "Is Minerva's position secure?"

"So far," Reuben had answered. "They haven't yet publicly questioned the timing of your sabbatical and this news."

Severus refilled his tea then picked up Minerva's letter. She had written it the night before, so she didn't mention the news in the Prophet.

Dear Severus:

When you return, I will be sitting down with you in this office and helping you devise a logical filing system that does not rely on alpha-numeric coding derived from the Latin names of plants and animals used in medicinal potions.

But honestly, Severus, I do not know how you have managed to keep up with the demands of this school and with keeping track of Harry and this lunatic woman creating such havoc. You are younger than I, that is true, but I am definitely going to recommend that the Board add another full time administrative position to keep up with the filing alone.

I am including Harry's letter. He handed it to me last night when Andromeda and I left young Teddy with him while we went to London for a well-deserved girls' night out. I am quite sure that his letter would contain much more regarding his experience watching a six-month-old child for four hours had he not turned over the letter to me before the experience. It was my idea, actually, to give Harry and Miss Weasley a taste of child rearing lest they think of babies as bundles of love and not bundles of …well, other things.

Teddy Lupin is six months old now, and has learned both to crawl and to pull himself up to a standing position. He is also not accustomed to being left with anyone and, while he has met Harry on several occasions, he is only six months old and does not remember him in any significant way. I had Poppy on call, of course, and monitoring charms on your quarters just in case things got out of hand. Oh yes, Severus, Harry and Ginny watched young Teddy in your quarters. I believe the stain from the mashed beets will come out of the sofa, so no worries.

They were both all smiles and laughs when we left. Harry was entertaining Teddy with a biscuit and a plush lion. When we returned, Teddy was asleep on Harry's shoulder, naked save a nappy. He had beets in his hair. Harry did, I mean. And everywhere else. I expect he found them in his ear when he showered. They had, at least, taken care to clean up Teddy before we got there. He'd obviously had a bath. I didn't check your bath, Severus, but will make sure the house-elves sop it up this weekend. Surprisingly, Teddy's nappy was clean but, according to Harry, it was the fourth he had worn that evening. According to Ginny, Teddy had spent the first hour cooing and playing, crawling and being followed around by Harry, also on his knees. The next three hours were filled with pooping and crying. The young lad had fallen asleep only twenty minutes before our return. According to Poppy, Miss Weasley did try to Floo call her mother, but I had the Floo locked down to the infirmary, so she reached Poppy and had to describe Teddy's diaper rash, in detail, to Poppy instead of to her mother, including the application method and the importance of rubbing it in under his scrotum.

It was rather cruel, I know, to engineer a baby-sitting experience that was designed to fail, but I'm game for doing whatever I can to convince our young lovebirds to wait a few years before they procreate.

The letter had continued, of course, and Minerva had assured Severus that Harry was doing well in his studies, was attending all of his classes, and had, at least in Transfiguration, been gaining control of his growing magical abilities.

Severus stood up and walked to the windows that overlooked the ocean below. The ocean was rough today, and waves crashed against the rocks below and flooded the small circle of beach. He had expected to be bored here, to pace before the windows, or down at the Oceanside. He hadn't imagined that he would sleep eight hours every night instead of his customary six. That he would spend hours reading in the hammock, hours more reading the documents Albus had left him, notes about Hogwarts, about Voldemort, about Harry, and the Horcruxes. That he could find so much pleasure walking along the gravel lane, or along the seashore, picking up rocks and shells.

It would get old, he knew. He would grow tired of the solitude.

But for now, he could tolerate it. He hadn't known how very tired he was, how deeply the exhaustion of the past few years had seeped into his bones.

And Harry would be here again on Tuesday. By then…by then there would be fall-out from the tripe in the Prophet. Perhaps, by then, the Aurors would have found this woman, and they could figure out who was behind her.

"Potter."

Harry was sitting on the floor in front of the sofa in the eighth year common area, working on his Charms essay. It was Saturday evening, the end of a miserable day where the Prophett had printed a load of shite and a letter had come for him from Hilda – a letter he had yet to see. Minerva had been no help when he had barged into her office. "All in good time, Harry. Patience," she had said.

"Hey, Malfoy."

Draco Malfoy walked over toward him and settled on a chair facing him.

"What's really going on with Snape?" asked Malfoy. He managed to sound almost polite, but his voice was more tired than haughty.

Harry looked around the common area. They were the only ones there. Ron was down with Hermione and it wasn't curfew yet, so most everyone else was still out.

"Pretty much what the Prophet said," Harry tried.

Draco gazed at him. It was clear he didn't believe Harry.

"Try again, Potter. Who do you think I'm going to tell, anyway?"

Harry shrugged. "He doesn't want me talking about it," he said, keeping his voice down. "He didn't say to make an exception for you."

"You might want to anyway," said Malfoy. He spread out a copy of the Prophet on his lap. "It's pretty clear—to me, anyway—that Severus knew this might be coming out."

Harry carefully placed his quill on the table beside his essay and textbook. He took off his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt, thinking. He looked around the common area again and made a decision, glad that Ron and Hermione weren't around to talk him out of it.

"Alright. Yes. He didn't want whoever is doing this to be able to blackmail him and demand anything having to do with Hogwarts," he said. He stared at Malfoy, waiting for his response.

Malfoy's mouth was set in a thin line as he stared at the newspaper.

"This is Prudence Carson in the photo," Draco said. "But she didn't write this letter. It's not her style." He frowned and shook his head. "Someone is trying to bring Snape down, Potter. My guess is that it's personal. It always is with that group."

"That group?" asked Harry. "You mean…?"

Draco's voice was tight as he answered. "Death Eaters. Former Death Eaters. Reformed Death Eaters. It's all the same. Listen, Potter. I'm only going to say this once." He raised his head and Harry saw immediately that this was not easy for Malfoy. "If he did kill that…Muggle—that girl. If he did…he did her a favor."

The two young men, enemies for so many years, locked eyes. For once, they understood each other perfectly.

 

Chapter 14: Malfoy's Advice

Harry didn't know whether he should be pleased or worried that Severus was not alone in Shell Cottage when he stepped out of the Floo on Tuesday afternoon.

Since Minerva hadn't mentioned that Kingsley and Reuben would be there, he had to assume she hasn't known. She had been working at her desk when he'd come up, a few minutes early and eager to see Severus. She's nodded at him. She'd looked harried and tired every time he'd seen her the past few days. "Go on through, then. I've a pile of paperwork to get through tonight and will be here when you get back."

Severus was sitting on the sofa, dressed comfortably, for him anyway, in trousers and dress shirt. The chess set was set up on the table in front of him. Reuben and Kingsley were each occupying one of the upholstered chairs across the table. They all turned and looked at him as he stumbled out of the Floo. Damn. He really wished he could learn to step out of the Floo gracefully one of these days. Why anyone preferred it to Apparating he'd never know.

"Harry."

Severus sounded almost relieved to see him.

Harry brushed off his robes and looked from Severus to the others.

"Hey, Reuben. Kingsley. What's going on?" he asked at once. He walked over and stood beside Severus at the end of the table, nodding to the others. Severus reached out and took his hand and pulled him forward.

"Sit," he said.

"What?" He let himself be pulled down onto the sofa beside Severus, then looked at the other men, feeling vaguely alarmed.

"Kingsley and Reuben have just delivered some news," Severus said, looking at them instead of at Harry.

"News?" Harry repeated. He was already less worried. Whatever it was must not be too exciting, or awful. Both men looked fairly calm.

"We've got Prudence Carson," said Reuben.

"You've got her?" Harry exclaimed. "Well, tell me! What did you find out?"

Severus' hand came down on Harry's leg. "Let him talk, Harry. He'll tell you what he can tell you."

"We brought her in early this morning," Reuben continued. Harry noticed that Kingsley was looking at him, not at Reuben. "She's being held as an accessory to murder and attempted murder. She's admitted to delivering the letter to the Ravenclaw girl for her friend Estelle, and to giving the Prophet the information about Severus. But her handwriting doesn't match either of the letters and interestingly, whoever is writing the letters to Harry didn't write the letter to the Prophet."

"Are you sure?"" asked Harry. "Couldn't they have used some sort of spell to disguise the handwriting?"

"We are the Ministry of Magic, Harry," said Kingsley, speaking for the first time. "We have a number of resources at our disposal to investigate these things." He sounded tired. Harry wondered if he could use a sabbatical just like Severus.

"The letter delivered to the Prophet was handwritten, then altered with a spell to appear similar to your letter writer's, Harry," explained Reuben. "But it was most likely written by a man. The writing style would indicate an adult man from a traditional Wizarding family."

"You can tell that from handwriting?" asked Harry. "Pure-blood wizards write differently to others?"

"Often, yes," answered Reuben. "Their writing patterns tend to resemble Old English more, with the 's' appearing more as an 'f,' for instance."

"Handwriting experts can often pinpoint age, gender, social standing," explained Severus. He turned his head toward the entryway as Kreacher appeared in the doorway with a tea tray. Kingsley swept the chess set to a side table with a wave of his wand. "And the Ministry has some of the best available."

"Prudence Carson revealed a bit more than she intended, and that was even before we had enough evidence to use Veritaserum." Reuben accepted a mug of tea from Severus and added a sugar cube. "This group is obviously protected by Fidelius – there was quite a bit she couldn't say and talked around, even with the Veritaserum – but it's obvious to us that there are at least two others involved, possibly more." He glanced at Kingsley and frowned. He stirred his tea and tapped the spoon against the edge of the mug. "She's been Imperiused. Frequently. Don't misunderstand me, though. There is no evidence that she was forced to deliver the letters to you or to the Prophet. She spoke willingly enough about those activities, and even seemed proud of her role."

"A Death Eater would not hesitate to use an Unforgivable, even on a fellow follower of the Dark Lord," said Severus. He had poured for Harry and Kingsley and was now preparing a cup for himself. "It is an effective way of getting what one wants."

Kingsley stared at him curiously. "Death Eaters routinely Imperiused each other?" He said it in such a way that Harry knew he was not entirely serious.

"Not necessarily each other," answered Severus. He sounded as he always did when talking about his past as a Death Eater. Tired. Wanting to be done with it but forever having to dredge back into it for one reason or another. "But on people like Prudence Carson? Certainly. Those of lower status, who aspired to be in the higher circles. They were…eager to please." He had hesitated before speaking, and he looked slightly disturbed by his statement.

Reuben was staring at Severus now. "Well," he said, breaking his eyes away from Snape and looking back at Harry. "Let's just say that there is evidence of repeated use of Imperius on her. Enough that it's damaged her brain somewhat. She's…easily compliant."

"That happens," said Severus with a sigh. He looked uncomfortable, as if admitting his knowledge regarding the use of Unforgivables made him culpable by default. "The more often a person is subjected to the Imperius Curse, the less it is actually needed." He took a breath and released it, looking at Harry. "I wish I did not have to bring this up, but the curse was often used to gain sexual favors."

Harry's hand jerked and he spilled hot tea on his leg. He hardly noticed the burn.

"Sexual favors? People use the Imperius to get sex? You can do that?"

"Yes, one can." Severus' voice was tight. "We are speaking of Death Eaters, Harry. We are speaking of those who would use the Imperius curse to further their own ends. We are not speaking of law-abiding witches and wizards."

"Oh." Harry looked down into his tea, his face pale. The fact that he, himself, was guilty of using that very curse to further his ends remained a hidden secret. He hadn't discussed it with anyone, except Ron and Hermione – and Ron was as guilty as he was. He'd never discussed it with Severus.

"Let's get back to our case," suggested Kingsley. "Prudence Carson. What else did you learn?"

"The most important evidence for our case is that she refers to Estelle Smith by name. But at the same time, there is some indication that Estelle is not necessarily a willing participant."

"What do you mean?" blurted Harry. "Is she saying that both she and Estelle are pawns? Both of them are being forced into this?" He scoffed. "I can't believe that both of them are being duped here."

Reuben Peace held up his hand. "She talked around it, Harry. She obviously can't give us the straight story because of the Fidelius. The Fidelius charm can be altered in a number of ways. It might be protecting more than just their location. But it was clear to the team that interviewed her that Prudence believes Estelle is not operating under her own free will. It's possible she's being blackmailed, or heavily coerced some other way."

"If she is being blackmailed, they must have something against her," said Kingsley.

"Or something that she wants, that they are holding just out of reach," said Severus.

"We have no idea what that might be," said Reuben. "But we're holding Prudence Carson and taking her out of the picture. They'll need another messenger now."

Kingsley and Reuben left after finishing their tea, and Harry moved over to Kingsley's chair, collapsing back into it. He looked tiredly over at Severus.

"Well, let's start with Saturday's paper. You don't look much like a snake to me – not yet, anyway." He grinned. "Has there been any fallout?"

Severus gave Harry a half-smile, rubbing his neck. "Surprisingly, very little. Minerva has dealt with the Board of Governors, who, for now anyway, are standing solidly behind me. They have asked her to carry on and let this matter blow over. There have been the expected letters and Howlers from parents, and she has certainly had her hands full with addressing their justified concerns."

"She's been pretty snippy the last few days." Harry understood, now, why she was so brusque lately. "What's she telling them? Are you going to make some sort of statement?"

"For now, no," Severus answered. "If it becomes necessary, yes, I will. But for now, Minerva is stating that it is well known by all that I joined the Death Eaters after I left Hogwarts, that I repented and began spying for Albus Dumbledore a short time after that. She ends by stating that the war is over, Voldemort is dead, the Death Eaters are disbanded and it is time to move on and focus on the future."

"That's good," said Harry. He loved Minerva even more right now.

"Isn't it?" Severus helped himself to a biscuit. He leaned back and looked at Harry thoughtfully. "I enjoyed your letter. I will expect one every Friday."

Harry smiled. "I enjoyed writing it. It's been a while – hope you could read my handwriting."

"It left something to be desired, but yes, I could read it." Severus shook his head fondly. "I will need notice before you move here with your wife and brood of children and establish a commune with your best friends. I intend to be far away and protected by the Fidelius before that day comes."

Harry grinned. "After watching Teddy this weekend, I doubt Ginny will want that brood after all. Even I'm having second thoughts about wanting more than one or two."

"Ah, yes, young Mr. Lupin." Severus smirked. "Minerva mentioned you had a babysitting engagement. I understand that she and Andromeda went out for dinner."

"I don't know how someone that small can be so much work," said Harry, rolling his eyes. "Oh, he's cute. But he's not used to being away from Andromeda and he cried for her half the night. And he gets into everything, and threw beets in my hair. And for some reason, Ginny was determined that nappy changing should be my job, since I'm the godfather."

Severus thought Ginny Weasley was quite the clever witch.

"But you know," Harry continued. "That last thirty minutes, when he was finally asleep, I had him on my shoulder and was walking around your quarters. He seemed to like that." He paused. "Minerva did mention she let me watch him in your quarters, didn't she?"

"She did. I can assume that nothing was damaged permanently?"

"No. It's all good. Minerva said she can get the beet juice stain out of the sofa." Harry toed off his shoes and drew his feet up onto the chair. "Anyway, while I was walking with him, I saw our reflection in the mirror and stopped to look at him. He looks so much like Remus…." He stopped, voice beginning to break. "I didn't notice so much when he was smaller and just looked like…well, a baby, I guess. But he's got his dad's face, you know. And Tonks' eyes." He studied his hands, not looking at Severus. "I know he's their son. Of course he's supposed to look like them. It's just…well, it's hard." He fiddled with a biscuit, twisting the top off of a cream-filled one.

"Harry, I know."

He looked up. Severus had a look on his face that Harry didn't see too often. A look of empathy.

"We see living reminders of those we loved every day, Harry," he said. "As Teddy grows older, the reminders will be even stronger."

Harry stared back at Severus, stared back at him with Lily's eyes in James' face.

"But fortunately, your relationship with Teddy will grow, too, and his own personality will develop so that you will see him more, and his parents less."

Except when he's sleeping, or has just that look on his face, or pushes his hair back behind his ear.

"Until he trips over an umbrella stand," Harry said. But his smile was sad, and slightly wistful.

ooOOOoo

Severus didn't give him the letter until after dinner.

"I want to discuss this with you after you read it," he said as Harry took the letter with the familiar handwriting. "It is not long. But her tone has changed considerably, and we are beginning to understand what may be at play here."

Harry nodded as he began to read.

Dear Harry:

Ah. So Severus Snape has taken the easy road, as expected. He is hiding from the world instead of facing his sins. Well, the end result is the same, or nearly so. He is no longer in direct contact with innocent children at Hogwarts, and he is no longer having a daily influence on your life. I hope that his absence will make you more aware of the casualties of war, and of the other options you have for friendship and family.

Family, Harry, is a precious thing. Some people give birth to their children, and others acquire them along the way. There are many undeserving people who have children, and some very deserving ones who do not, or who have lost what they once had. And there are some, like Severus Snape, who should take a look into their own pasts and realize that they are not parenting material. People like Severus Snape should not be allowed to influence children in any way. I do not know what you know, Harry, of Severus Snape's own childhood, but it was a miserable one, filled with abuse and neglect. The man you hold up as a father figure was damaged irreparably as a child. With no appropriate parental role models, he was unduly influenced by peers, and led by unfounded promises of a way out of his miserable existence. The Severus Snape of my experience is a hateful, spiteful man who could not win the heart of the woman he desired and cannot, absolutely cannot, love the child of his enemy. Do not pity him because of his miserable past. Others have suffered horrific childhoods and gone on to greatness. Others, Harry, such as you yourself. But Severus Snape simply cannot have suddenly turned a lifetime of darkness into a beacon of light. He is like a shadow, Harry. A darkness that follows you wherever you go. And as you well know, you can never, ever, escape your shadow.

I realize you will likely not agree with me. Not yet. I ask you only to keep your eyes and ears open, Harry Potter. Severus Snape does not deserve to call you his son. He deserves to suffer as he has made others suffer. He deserves to lose what he has taken away from so many others.

In these next months while you finish your education at Hogwarts, I hope you grow into an independent young man, and that you find your strength in your own roots, as the son of a man and a woman who died to give you life.

I remain, your humble friend,

Hilda Smith

Harry kept staring at the letter long after he finished reading it. He did not want to look up at Severus, even though he knew Severus was watching him, and waiting.

"Harry?"

He folded the letter and handed it back to Severus. "What are we having for dinner? Do you think Kreacher needs help?"

"A pitiful try, Harry. We are having fish and chips and no, Kreacher does not need help, as you well know, and would not accept help if you offered it."

"She's mental," said Harry, looking up and catching Severus' penetrating gaze. "She acts as if she knew you, Severus. Like she grew up next door to you or something." His voice got louder as he released some of his frustration. "And she doesn't know me either! Does she think I had better role models than you did? Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia? And what business is it of hers, anyway?"

"It is none of her business." Severus spoke calmly and evenly. Unlike Harry, he had had some time to process this particular letter. "But nonetheless, I wish to discuss this letter with you. Undoubtedly, you have questions…."

"Is she telling the truth about your childhood?" Harry blurted out the question before he lost his nerve.

"No."

"You weren't abused or neglected?" He looked hard at Severus.

"I did not have a happy childhood," Severus answered carefully. "You know this. I was not neglected. My parents did not have much money, and I did not get all that I wanted, or sometimes all that I needed." He lowered his voice and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I will admit that my father's treatment of me at times was abusive." He held a hand up as Harry began to interrupt him. "But my mother loved me, and cared for me as best she could. It is not true that I had no appropriate parental role models." He paused, then stood up and walked to the window, looking out into the twilight and the sleeping gardens as he continued to speak. "But she is right in a way. My childhood experiences, especially with my father, and my reluctance to return home, in many ways influenced my decisions at Hogwarts." He turned to Harry again. Harry thought his face looked pained.

"Don't worry about it. It's just a load of shite, if you ask me. She's got a bone to pick with you for some reason and is trying to poison me against you. But she can't, Severus, because she doesn't know me. She doesn't understand what you mean to me."

"Oh, she does, Harry. And I think that is the crux of the matter. She understands the attachment of a child to a parent. This is all rooted in her own past, somehow. Do not forget that she is an adopted child. My guess is that she knew she was adopted, but knew nothing of her birth family, and that her adoptive parents took care to discredit the Snapes when she got to Hogwarts and came into contact with me, especially when her sister was sorted into Slytherin. If the relationship were somehow discovered, she would keep well away from us. And if they spoke of me to her in the summers, she would have watched me, and judged me." He poured himself another mug of tea and stirred it almost idly as he spoke. "I was not a kind person, Harry. I was insolent, and unhappy. I had a reputation – of cruelty, in how I spoke, in cutting people down with my words."

"You had a crappy home life, Severus…."

"You did as well. Did that make you insolent and unhappy?"

"My home life wasn't so crappy…."

"No?" Severus cocked his head slightly and stared hard at Harry.

Harry sighed.

"Alright. It wasn't great. But Uncle Vernon didn't beat me. And he didn't drink."

"The point is, Harry, that we came from similar circumstances, as Albus Dumbledore pointed out on too many occasions for me to count, yet we followed very different paths."

Harry stared at Severus but did not say anything. It was true, and he knew it, but there was so much else involved, so many other things that influenced them both.

"My father was a Muggle who hated magic," began Severus.

"So was my uncle," challenged Harry.

"Indeed," said Severus. "But the difference was that you did not know that. He knew of the existence of magic and you did not. You did not resent him for being a Muggle who hated magic, who was somehow resentful of your heritage, or jealous of it, or who thought it unnatural. You resented him only for treating you unfairly, and harshly, when he so easily lavished love and attention on your cousin. You did not grow up to hate Muggles, Harry, despite the fact that a magic-hating Muggle made your childhood miserable."

"Look, I know what you're getting at," said Harry. "But who's to say that if I had grown up just the same way twenty years earlier, I wouldn't have joined Voldemort, too? It wasn't exactly an option when I came to Hogwarts, you know."

"You wouldn't join Voldemort. It is not in you to harbor that kind of hatred, Harry. I know this."

"It isn't in you either, Severus."

Severus sighed. He gave Harry a tired smile.

"Perhaps not anymore."

ooOOOoo

The next evening after dinner, both Harry and Ginny joined Ron in Hermione's room in the infirmary. Ginny had done a fair job transfiguring one of Hermione's many pillows into a fair copy of her bed, and Harry sat beside her on the new bed, backs against the wall, facing Hermione and Ron. Ron was working on Hermione's feet again, while Harry retold the story of the previous evening at Shell Cottage.

"And after dinner, we took the letter out again and talked about it – but this time, not about whether it was a bunch of shite. We tried to use it to figure out what she wants."

"Well?" Hermione had finished reading the letter and looked up at Harry, eyes bright.

Harry smiled back at her.

"Well, you were right, first of all. I was able to get Severus talking just by being my old impetuous self."

Hermione grinned. "Told you so. So, go on. What does he think?"

"It's also helpful that he's alone all the time and felt like talking last night…"

"Harry!" Ginny elbowed him in the side and he tightened his arm around her as Hermione rolled her eyes.

"Alright. He thinks she must have grown up knowing she was adopted. And that maybe things weren't all sunshine and roses with her family, either."

"That might explain her oblique references to family, and her resentment that Severus seems to have walked into a ready-made family with you. She clearly thinks of him as undeserving, and of herself as deserving. So obviously, she's either lost a child, or been denied one somehow."

They all stared at her.

"How did you…?" began Ron, shaking his head and looking from Hermione to Harry and Ginny.

"She's good, isn't she?" said Ginny. She leaned her head against Harry's shoulder, puzzling out more. "But what about what Reuben told Harry – that they think Hilda's not necessarily in this all willingly. If she's being blackmailed to send the letters and to help ruin Severus, what could they have on her?"

"I think that depends on who 'they' actually are," said Hermione. "Maybe she's done something illegal and they're threatening to expose her. I could see her reacting to that, especially for a cause she believes in."

"Severus says we can limit the search to Slytherins and their families," said Harry. "He says I'd never be able to solve this because I don't think like a Slytherin."

"You know, he may be right," Hermione said. She struggled to sit up again and puffed out a frustrated breath. Ron easily adjusted her position and tucked a pillow on either side of her. "We're not Slytherins. And if disgruntled Slytherins with an axe to grind because Severus seems to have gotten out of the war clean and sweet are behind this…."

"There may be quite a few who fit that description," Harry said, voice subdued how. "Look how many Death Eaters died. And most of them left behind families. Nearly everyone lost something they loved. And on top of all of that, it isn't exactly the same world they're living in now, is it?"

"Now you're making me feel sorry for the Death Eaters," said Ron, frowning.

"Not the Death Eaters – not necessarily," Hermione said. "People associated with them, perhaps. Or traditional pure-blood wizards. Or people who sympathized with their cause."

"The losers," said Harry, suddenly understanding. "The people whose lives would have been just fine if Voldemort had won."

"Now you're thinking more like a Slytherin," said Ginny, breaking the solemn moment. He grinned and tickled her, and she launched herself at him, rolling him over onto his back and straddling his stomach. The transfigured bed gave a strange jiggle, then collapsed into itself with a rush of air, leaving Harry and Ginny piled together on the floor.

Ron laughed heartily as Harry and Ginny rolled away from each other. The door to Hermione's room burst open, proving that no wards they erected here could override those of the matron of the infirmary. Poppy stood in the doorway, glaring at Harry and Ginny.

"Out! All of you! Miss Granger needs to rest, not to be a spectator at a wrestling match." She gave them her most official glare, and Harry scrambled to his feet and pressed a kiss to Hermione's cheek.

"You're brilliant. And I have an idea."

"It had best be a good one," she sighed.

"Oh, it is," he assured her. It is.

ooOOOoo

Harry Potter was not a Slytherin. He did not think like a Slytherin.

But Draco Malfoy was, and did.

He stood now in front of a closed door. Malfoy's door. He took a deep breath, then knocked softly.

He thought Malfoy might be asleep, because he didn't hear any response for a long while. He raised his hand to knock again but didn't get a chance. The door opened. Malfoy stood there, dressed in his uniform trousers and shirt, but without his school robes. It was odd seeing him in such a casual setting. He stared at Harry with his cool grey eyes.

"May I come in?" asked Harry, careful to be as polite as possible.

"Why?" Malfoy didn't bother with pleasantries.

"I'd like to talk to you…about this thing with Severus."

Malfoy's gaze, if anything, grew cooler.

"This thing with Severus, Potter? Could you be more specific?"

Harry bristled, but managed to tamp down his annoyance. He needed something from Malfoy, so he had to play along.

"Alright. Who's trying to bring Severus down and why?"

Malfoy stared at him, still not budging. "I believe we already had this conversation, Potter." He began to close the door and Harry quickly reached out and grabbed it before it shut completely.

"They found Prudence Carson yesterday, Malfoy."

The door opened again. "And?" Malfoy's voice was still cool and indifferent, but Harry knew he was interested now.

"Look, can I come in or something? I shouldn't be talking about this at all, and especially not out here in the corridor."

Malfoy stepped away from the door and pulled it open a few more inches so that Harry had just enough room to slip in. He glanced around. Neat as a pin, as he'd expected, but not opulently decorated. It was a plain room, ordinary, much like his own, but with a touch here and there that left no doubt that Malfoy was….well, Malfoy.

He had at least a dozen well-pressed robes hanging in the closet space, and a half dozen pair of boots and shoes arranged on the floor beside them. The ink jar on the desk sparkled. It was probably cut glass, and extremely old and valuable. His school trunk, tucked against the rear wall, looked like a turn-of-the-century steamer trunk and was fitted with ornate fittings and scrollwork and a series of locks that reminded him—unpleasantly—of Moody's trunk. His eyes skimmed across the shelves. They were packed with books. The lower shelf held textbooks and the one above it was lined with books that appeared to be at least a hundred years old.

"Well?"

Malfoy remained on his feet. Harry wasn't sure how or where to start.

"You were right. Prudence Carson didn't write that letter."

Malfoy shrugged. "I told you that."

"I know. I'm just saying that they've confirmed it." He stopped, suddenly worried. "Look, can I trust you not to tell anyone else? The Aurors are still investigating all of this and technically I'm not supposed…."

Malfoy cut him off with a laugh. "You don't get Slytherins, Potter, do you?"

Harry stared at him and bit back a grin. "No. And that's why I'm here, actually. Severus says I don't think like a Slytherin."

Draco sat on his bed and pointed to the desk chair. "He's right, of course. Sit, Potter. And spill it."

It wasn't easy. Not at all. Harry Potter had grown up hating Draco Malfoy. Hating him and not trusting him. It felt odd – even dangerous – to tell him about the letters he'd been receiving. He didn't like repeating the things that Hilda had said about Severus. It felt more natural to tell Malfoy about Estelle Smith's background, though he omitted the part about her being Snape's sister. That her sister had died at Hogwarts, and that she herself had been married to a Death Eater who had died in Azkaban.

Finally, he told Malfoy that the Aurors didn't think that Estelle was acting alone, and that the information Prudence had revealed seemed to point to some sort of coercion, perhaps even blackmail.

"You do know that Severus must have this all figured out, don't you?" asked Draco when Harry paused for a breath.

Harry stared at him. There was no way that Severus knew who was behind this. If he did, he'd have told the Aurors, and they'd have this case closed.

"No, he doesn't," he said, trying not to sound aggravated. "He had ideas, and he's working with the Aurors."

"I don't mean that he knows who it is," Malfoy said. He was leaning against the headboard of his bed. While Harry had talked, he'd taken off his boots and lined them up beside each other on the floor at the side of the bed. He was wearing very dark green socks with a black pattern running up the outside. "But he knows what it's about. And he probably knows more than he's telling you, or the Aurors."

Harry swallowed a retort. This was a power play. He was up against the king of the Slytherins, and someone who had known Severus a long time, who had interacted with him as a Slytherin for years. "Why do you think that?" he said at last.

Malfoy shrugged. "Snape has managed to piss off a lot of people over the years, Potter. Whoever is behind it wants to take him down. No – let me rephrase that." He stared at Harry, looking quite comfortable propped against the pillows of his bed while Harry squirmed uncomfortably on the wooden chair like a witness being interrogated. "Whoever is behind this wants to ruin him. They want to take everything from him that makes him happy. His job. His family. His reputation. You do know what's next, don't you?"

Harry shook his head slowly. He didn't think like a Slytherin.

"He's a Potions master, Potter. They'll go after his work. Try to discredit some of his important research, like on the effects of the Cruciatus."

Harry looked down. He didn't know that. He didn't know anything about Severus' research, in fact. He felt like an idiot. He forced himself to look back up at Malfoy.

"Who's doing this, Malfoy?" he asked. "Do you have any idea?"

"Someone who's lost what Severus has. Their reputation. Their job. Their child. Their reason for living." His gaze bored into Harry's and Harry somehow felt Malfoy's own losses. "Unfortunately, Potter, that could be nearly anyone associated with the Death Eaters. But from what you said is in those letters, I'd look for someone who lost a child."

Harry nodded. He'd thought that, too.

"And Potter – don't limit yourself to the last couple of years. There were just as many who went down the first time around – back when we were too young to care."

Harry nodded. His gaze drifted from Draco to where Draco was staring—the bookshelves next to the desk. There were photographs there that he hadn't noticed at first. Just a few, all in plain silver frames. Draco with his parents on Platform 9 ¾. Draco with Pansy Parkinson. Draco with Crabbe and Goyle. One more – of all of the Slytherins in his year, with Severus, grouped together in the Slytherin common room.

He pulled his gaze away from the photos and stood up.

"There is one more thing you might try, Potter."

"What?" Harry walked toward the door, feeling oddly like a voyeur on Draco's private pain. He hadn't thought of Crabbe and Goyle in months.

"Flitwick. Sprout. Slughorn. McGonagall. They've all been here forever. They might remember this Estelle Smith and her sister. They could tell you what she was like, whom she hung out with. Maybe point you to someone you're missing."

"Thanks, Malfoy. That's a good idea."

"I'm not doing this for you, you know." Malfoy's voice was quiet and low as Harry opened the door.

"I know," said Harry. "But thanks anyway."

He stepped out into the corridor, back into comfortable reality, and closed the door behind him.

 

Chapter 15: Owl Post

Prudence's incarceration seemed to but a stopper in everything.

Everything became quiet. Everything.

Two weeks passed, and the only letters he saw were the ones he wrote to Severus and the ones Severus wrote in response. He devoured these, even though he had regular Tuesday meetings with him. He visited Hermione every evening, studying with her when she wasn't too exhausted from her physical therapy, from learning to walk again. Together, and with Ron and Ginny's help, they talked about Draco's advice to ask their professors about Estelle Smith and her sister, and put together a plan of attack. The secret, Hermione thought, was to be honest and direct, to ask the teachers to help him so that he could help get Severus back to Hogwarts where he belonged. He decided he'd start with Professor Sprout after class on Monday, since double Herbology was their last class that day, and Professor Sprout was friendly and easy to approach.

He was beginning to feel as if his life was a long waiting game.

But Monday came. They'd had a brutal Quidditch practice on Sunday, and he was still sore and his hands were blistered, so he asked Professor Sprout if he could stay late and harvest some of the sap Madam Pomfrey needed for the blister balm.

Professor Sprout helped out, sitting across from him at the worktable and pushing each plant in turn toward him while she held the bowl he was using to collect the sap.

It didn't take much to get her talking. She helped by asking about Severus first, and he didn't lie when he told her that he missed him, and was worried about him, and hoped he'd be back soon.

"This is all so unfortunate," said Professor Sprout, with a sad smile. "Severus has been through so much." She pushed another plant toward Harry and lowered her voice. "We all know that he has a past he's not proud of, but he's paid his dues, hasn't he? We need him back here, Harry. How is he doing? Minerva said you visit him from time to time?"

Harry smiled over at her. "He's doing great. He's resting. He looks good, too. I think he's finally really recovering from the snakebite."

"Well," said Professor Sprout, rather conspiratorially, "there doesn't seem to be much uproar going on after that article in the Prophet. Perhaps he can return soon." She smiled kindly at Harry.

"Well, actually, there's a lot going on behind the scenes," said Harry. He had just squeezed sap out of a fat pustule on the stem and was prodding around on the plant looking for another. "Did he tell you about the letters I've been getting?"

Professor Sprout pursed her lips. "Severus didn't tell us directly," she said. "But Auror Peace interviewed us when they first started—after the incident in Hogsmeade."

"Well, they know who's writing the letters now," said Harry. "The woman signs the name Hilda Smith but we know it's really her older sister, Estelle." He watched her for a reaction but she didn't seem to recognize the name. "Do you remember her? She was a year behind Severus at Hogwarts. You were here back then, weren't you?"

"Estelle?" Professor Sprout frowned, then shook her head. "I'm sorry, Harry, there were so many students. Was she in Hufflepuff?"

"No, she was a Ravenclaw," Harry replied as he continued to work on the plant. "Estelle Smith. She was the older sister of the girl who drowned a few years later."

"Hilda Smith." Professor Sprout seemed very certain of that name. "Poor thing." She sighed, looked puzzled for a moment, then brightened. "Stella Smith. Of course. We called her Stella. Bright thing. Very serious, and such a hard worker. But so unhappy…."

Her voice trailed off and Harry stared at her, the plant in front of him forgotten.

"Unhappy?" he said, trying to keep his voice casual. "What do you mean?"

His professor sighed again. "Problems at home, dear," she said. "I don't recall the details, and really shouldn't tell you even if I did, but I do remember that she didn't like to go home over the holidays, and didn't get on too well with her sister. Just didn't fit into that family, if you ask me. They pushed that girl hard and didn't take it well when she got into trouble…."

"Trouble?" Harry repeated, trying not to sound like he was too interested.

Professor Sprout wrung her hands and sighed again.

"Boy trouble. The family didn't approve of her boyfriend. I don't remember what happened – just that they came here and there was a confrontation. The Headmaster managed to defuse it…." She hesitated, then smiled benignly at Harry. "Professor Flitwick was her head of house. I'm sure he'll remember more than I do. Though I'm not sure how any of this will help Severus – it was such a long time ago."

Harry wasn't so sure. Professor Flitwick wasn't the head of Ravenclaw by accident. He was smart, and clever, and not easily fooled. Harry had enough experience in his class to know that he wouldn't be swayed by emotional stories.

So Harry played the honesty card.

He waited until Wednesday, after spending Tuesday evening at Shell Cottage with Severus. The evening had turned into a study session, with Severus reading Harry's Charms and Transfiguration essays, then grilling Harry on the magical theory behind each, then waiting patiently while Harry rewrote both of them. The essays were ultimately better but, by the end of the exercise, there was time only for a game of chess before Harry had to return to Hogwarts.

On Wednesday afternoon, in the study hours between the last class and dinnertime, Harry peeked into the Charms classroom and found his professor at his desk, perched on the high stool behind it, marking homework. Harry stepped into the room, rapping softly on the open classroom door as he entered.

Professor Flitwick looked up and nodded at him.

"Mr. Potter. Your essay showed marked improvement over the last. Did the Headmaster help you?"

Harry frowned. Was Professor Flitwick accusing him of cheating?

"I suppose so," he said carefully, walking forward a few paces. "He read it last night, then grilled me on the theory behind the Disillusionment Charm. We discussed it for a while, then he asked me to rewrite the essay."

Professor Flitwick still had his head bent over the essay he was marking. "You are fortunate to have Severus Snape as a mentor, Mr. Potter. He has the mind of a true educator. And while we measure by marks, your success in life will be determined by what you learn—what you retain. And how you apply that knowledge to the problems in life you encounter."

Harry considered his answer. "Well, actually, I have a problem now. And I'm hoping you can help me out."

"Come in and sit down then, Mr. Potter. Give me just a moment or two to finish up here."

Harry slid into a desk at the front of the classroom. He watched as Professor Flitwick wrote something across the top of the essay. He then placed his quill carefully to the side, capped the inkbottle, folded his hands and looked up at Harry.

"Go on then, Mr. Potter."

Harry took a deep breath, then started in on his story.

"So we're sure that the woman writing the letters is Estelle Smith, Hilda Smith's older sister. But what we don't know is who's behind this plot, only that the Aurors don't think she's the mastermind of the operation. And I know it's not my job to worry about it, but I can't think about much else. And it does affect me – she's targeting me, and Severus. I just want to understand her motives. Why is she doing this?"

Professor Flitwick stared at Harry a long while before speaking. "I appreciate your honesty, Harry." Harry relaxed a little. The professor's use of Harry's first name was a good sign. "And I also believe I have the answer to your problem. Unfortunately, I cannot share it with you directly."

"Directly?" Harry, leaning forward. "What do you mean?"

"Well, as a faculty member, I am prohibited from openly discussing private information about any student, past or present."

"Oh." Harry knew this, of course, but had hoped that Professor Flitwick, like Professor Sprout, would let something slip out.

"Well, can you tell me anything? Maybe something not so private? What was she like?"

The professor fixed his eyes on Harry and he felt a bit like a bug under a magnifying glass. "You do realize, Harry, that you're asking about a student who left Hogwarts nearly twenty years ago?"

"I know it's been a long time. But this is important to me – she's writing to me. And I told you what the letters say. She's trying to drive a wedge between me and Severus. She's trying to discredit him."

"I realize that, Harry." Flitwick smiled, and Harry saw that he did understand. "And while I cannot reveal anything private to you, I am allowed to speak to those in authority, such as the Aurors. If you believe I can help advance this case, you should ask them to contact me."

"Oh, I will," said Harry. "Definitely. But is there anything...?"

"Estelle Smith was….you know we called her Stella? At her request?"

Harry nodded. "I heard she went by that," he said carefully.

"I can tell you about the sorting," Flitwick said. "It is—or was—common knowledge, after all, and was witnessed by hundreds."

"What happened?" asked Harry. He wondered if Severus remembered. He'd only been a second year then, so he may not have noticed anything amiss.

"It went on and on," continued Flitwick. "She sat there with that hat on her head for five minutes at least, face getting more and more red as she argued with it. She seemed quite determined that what the hat wanted was absolutely wrong. I remember that she folded her arms in a snit and just sat there until finally – a full ten minutes later, the hat called out 'Ravenclaw' but before she could take it off her head it corrected itself and screamed out 'Slytherin.' Albus took pity and let the girl choose for herself. She chose Ravenclaw."

Harry didn't think it wise to mention that he had had a similar – yet very brief – discussion with the Sorting Hat himself.

"Wow," he said instead. "She really didn't want to be in Slytherin, did she?"

"No, she apparently did not," answered Flitwick. "And that was unusual. Her parents were Slytherins, after all. And later on, her sister as well." He paused. "Stella Smith was a sharp girl."

Harry gave him a small grin. "Most Ravenclaws are," he said.

"They are." His professor nodded. "But Miss Smith was brighter than most. That the hat chose Slytherin for her, or wanted to, speaks clearly of her other personality traits, particularly her ambition." He picked up his quill, uncorked his inkbottle, and dipped the quill in it, holding it poised over the next essay. He was clearly finished speaking.

"Well, thank you," said Harry, standing up. He hesitated a moment. "There's more, isn't there?" he asked.

Professor Flitwick smiled but didn't look up.

"The Aurors, Mr. Potter," he said.

Harry nodded. "Right."

ooOOOoo

As he expected, Professor Slughorn was perfectly willing to talk, privacy statutes or not. However, Harry was less inclined to trust what he had to say.

"Brilliant in Potions, simply brilliant! Would have loved to have her in my club, of course, but she was a shy thing and never accepted my invitations."

Given what Harry already knew about Estelle Smith, this did not surprise him.

He left Professor Slughorn's office on Thursday afternoon with another invitation to a Slug Club meeting and knowing nothing new save that Estelle Smith was brilliant at Potions.

He knew he wouldn't get anywhere with Minerva, so on Friday afternoon, after a quirky day with his magic in Charms, he stretched out on one of the squishy sofas in the Gryffindor common room with Ginny nestled in at his feet, and wrote to Severus.

ooOOOoo

Dear Severus:

Minerva told me to write this and give you my version of what happened today in Charms. I know you've probably already heard about it from Minerva or Professor Flitwick, but she thought you'd like my side of it, too. I think she just wants to make sure I write to you. You must be really annoying her lately. Are you getting bored with all that rest and relaxation?

You know we've been working on the Disillusionment Charm. I wrote to you about that in my first letter, and of course you helped me with my essay this week. Well, we had our practical exam today. He's had us practicing on turtles, but for this test he asked everyone to come to the front of the class, then asked us if we'd be willing to try it on each other.

After seeing Ron test it on Neville, I realized that Professor Flitwick was giving the class some entertainment since it was Friday afternoon and we'd had a really long, hard week in class. Ron hit Neville with the spell and it worked—kind of. It worked on his head, anyway, and it took on a kind of see-through look but the rest of him was still there. Seamus laughed so hard he choked on his gum. I know – he's not supposed to have gum in class. Professor Flitwick took five points as soon as he started breathing again.

So Parvati was up next, and she used it on Padma. It worked better that time, but it still only made it about halfway down her body. She was leaning against the chalkboard and it looked like the chalkboard had legs. Then he asked me to come up, with Malfoy. Malfoy hit me with the charm first and it was perfect. It felt exactly like it did the last time someone used it on me—like an egg cracking on my head and running slowly all the way down my body. He knew it was a good and had this stuffy, smug look on his face. Professor Flitwick was so excited he jumped off his chair and knocked over all his cushions.

Well, this is the part when things get a little messy. Really, Severus, Malfoy should never have laughed at me and said "Go on, Potter. Hit me with everything you have."

I'd been practicing controlling how much power went into the spell. I wasn't making the turtles disappear anymore. But Malfoy—he's such a prat, Severus. I mean, he can be fine sometimes, and I almost feel like he's just trying to get through the year the same as the rest of us so he can get on with his life. But he stood there with his arms folded in front of himself, looking bored as can be, and I must have used too much power again. All right – I did use too much power. I made him disappear. Just like the turtle. Only it wasn't a turtle. A turtle wouldn't much care if he were invisible.

Malfoy cared. He started to panic. And to scream. Then he whacked me in the nose. I'm not sure he did it on purpose, but Ron says he did. It wasn't like I could see it coming or anything….

Professor Flitwick used a Finite on him while I was trying to stop the bleeding. Only it didn't work. Not quite, anyway. That's what Ron said – apparently, I was still curled up on the floor holding my nose. Ron said Malfoy went from being practically invisible to looking like he'd been hit with a regular Disillusionment Spell. Professor Flitwick tried it again but nothing. By now a couple of the Ravenclaws were trying to keep Malfoy from pummeling me again.

Anyway, Professor Flitwick managed to get the bleeding to stop, then gave me my wand and I cast the Finite and then everything was fine. Professor Flitwick did a pretty good job covering for me. He said he'd seen that happen before, and it was certainly nothing to panic about.

Only…he hadn't seen that before. Not really. He kept me after class, bloody nose and everything. And by the way, he didn't dock points off Malfoy. Said it was natural to panic when you were suddenly pretty much invisible. Anyway, he told me that a recognizable spell can be cancelled by anyone who knows how to perform the spell. So, as long as you recognize the spell and could have done it yourself, you should be able to cancel it. He says he has a theory about what's going on with me. He thinks I'm changing the spell somehow when I'm casting it. He looked at me really oddly and asked me a lot of questions about intent. What did I intend the spell to do when I cast it? What does he think? That I wanted to turn Malfoy invisible and make him disappear off the face of the earth?

Ron was waiting for me when I left. He dragged me to the hospital wing and Poppy yelled at me and made sure my nose wasn't broken. I don't think she had to wiggle it and prod it quite so much.

And you know – the weirdest thing was what Malfoy did later. When we got back to our common room after supper, Malfoy apologized for punching me. He also laughed at my swollen nose but he did apologize.

Sometimes this year, Severus, I feel like I'm living in a different world.

I'm supposed to stay after Charms class on Monday. Professor Flitwick wants to do some tests with me. I thought you'd like to know about that.

We've got a Quidditch game tomorrow – we're playing Ravenclaw. They've got a pair of brutal beaters this year and Ron is all worked up over them. We watched them practice last weekend – and Ron went and shut himself up with Hermione afterward for a couple hours. Needless to say, the Ravenclaw Chasers are really good too.

One more thing. Professor Flitwick might know something about Estelle Smith that would help the Aurors on this case. He wouldn't tell me – but he did say he would tell the Aurors if they asked. One thing he did tell me is that the Sorting Hat wanted to put her in Slytherin, but she argued for Ravenclaw and got her way.

I miss you. But I won't ask you to come back even though I'd love to have you back here. I figure you'll know when it's time. In the meantime, I'll try not to do anything stupid to make you have to come back before you're ready.

Regards,

Harry

P.S. Professor Slughorn says Estelle Smith was brilliant at Potions. Imagine that.

ooOOOoo

The owl didn't make it.

it should never have been there to begin with. Not flying on the Quidditch pitch in the middle of a Quidditch match, no matter that the recipient of the letter it carried was currently engaged in a death match.

But it was a post owl, and had but one duty in life. It identified its goal and pursued it. It was a barn owl, darker than most, and difficult to see with the sun and the figures on brooms zooming about the field.

It had the decency, at least, to fly into Harry Potter's face at the exact moment that his hand closed around the Golden Snitch, and while he was only twenty feet above the grassy earth.

As it was, Harry Potter was exhausted. He'd been up late the night before, unable to sleep as he worried about what had happened in Charms. The game had been brutal today, the teams evenly matched. The Ravenclaw Seeker had been on his tail most of the game and he'd just shaken him off before he spotted the Snitch.

In the instant that his hand closed around the winged ball, he angled his broom back up, raised his hand and looked up.

The owl hit him in an explosion of feathers. He never saw it coming.

He didn't fall off his broom. Not precisely. He held onto it tightly as he made for the ground, hitting too hard and toppling off as he made contact. He was cradling his face, still conscious, when Ginny reached him.

It was Ron who picked the envelope with Harry's name off the ground after Madam Pomfrey and Professor McGonagall pushed into the throng and ordered the students back. The envelope was pink, crumpled and flecked with blood. Ron stared down at the envelope, not understanding at first.

"What happened?" Neville was suddenly there at Ron's side.

"Owl," said Ron. He grabbed on to Ginny as she tried to push back in.

He didn't have the chance to explain more, because Professor McGonagall was suddenly there, giving him the password to her office and instructing him to Floo to Shell Cottage to fetch the Headmaster.

He shoved the envelope in his pocket and took off at a run.

ooOOOoo

Harry awoke to the sound of the ocean and the smell of the sea air.

And while he knew exactly where he was, it was disconcerting. His head hurt and it was dark. Very dark. He lay there for a moment, trying to get his mental bearings. He remembered the Quidditch game. He had a vague recollection of something hitting him, and of crashing with the Snitch in his hand. He opened his eyes. They were heavy, swollen. Slowly, he reached toward his face with one hand and felt the bandages.

"Severus?"

He spoke softly, wincing as his head pounded even with that small effort.

"Gryffindor won 300 to 140. They ruled the game complete as you managed to hold on to that infernal Snitch even after you crashed. Ravenclaw, however, is protesting."

"Let them," he replied weakly, smiling. He touched the bandages again. "What's wrong with my eyes?"

"Glass fragments in your left eye. Poppy has removed them all and it will heal quickly but requires complete rest."

"Right," said Harry. He concentrated on his eyes. They both hurt, the right more than the left.

"And my other eye?"

"The owl that hit you scratched your cornea. Deeply. Likely with its talon. It will heal as well. Poppy wanted to put you in St. Mungo's and keep you sedated for a week. I convinced her to bring you here instead."

"Thanks." He meant it, despite how pitiful he sounded. He would have hated being at St. Mungo's. "That answers my second question. So that's what I hit, then? An owl?"

"Indeed. A post owl. Sadly, it did not survive the collision with your head."

"Very funny." He inhaled, trying to breathe evenly and ignore the pounding in his skull.

"You need another headache remedy. It will likely put you to sleep again."

Harry continued breathing evenly for a moment. The pounding didn't let up. He couldn't think and everything seemed grey and fuzzy. He wanted to close his eyes and sink back into quiet unconsciousness.

"Alright. I'll take the potion."

Severus held it to his lips, careful not to touch his head. Harry let the potion slide down his throat and within five minutes, with Severus rubbing the back of his hand, had drifted off to sleep again.

Severus tucked the duvet around Harry's shoulders. The weather had turned cool but it was nothing like the damp cold of the old castle. He placed the empty pain potion vial on the side table, noting that the eye drops would have to be applied in four hours. It would be midnight then. He'd try to get through the pile of paperwork he'd taken from Minerva between now and then.

But Reuben Peace was waiting for him in the parlor when he returned downstairs.

"How is he?"

Severus didn't show any surprise at seeing the Auror in his home. "He has survived much worse. Poppy assures me he will recover quickly if we can keep him in bed and resting for at least a few days."

"Is he asleep?"

Severus nodded as he dropped onto the sofa. "With the help of a strong sedative in his pain potion. He should be out for several hours."

"That kid just can't catch a break," said Reuben.

Severus picked up a sheaf of parchment from the pile on the table in front of him. "I'm assuming you've spoken with Filius?" he asked. He had sent a message off to Reuben last night after reading Harry's letter.

Reuben nodded. "The pieces are falling together. Estelle Smith was pregnant during her sixth year. She had the baby in the summer after her sixth year and returned in September to finish."

Severus sighed. "Well, that would explain things, wouldn't it? What happened to the child?"

Peace shook his head. "We've already had Minerva go through the registry. It was a boy – he was down in the registry to start in 1989. But he lived only days."

"He would have been only two years older than Harry," mused Severus. "They would have attended Hogwarts together."

"Harry's life might have been quite a bit different had that child lived," said Reuben. "For one, he probably wouldn't have inherited the Black Estate.” He leaned in toward Severus. "The baby's father was Regulus Black."

Severus stared at Reuben, unable to mask his surprise.

Regulus?

Chapter Text

Chapter 16: The Demand

"Regulus Black was my friend." Severus sipped the drink Reuben had pressed into his hand a few minutes after he had revealed that Regulus Black was the father of Estelle Smith's baby. "I don't remember that he was seeing anyone special, though I admit that it was a bad year for friendships, what with N.E.W.T.s study and..." He frowned and looked at Reuben. He still marveled that he could now speak so openly. "I joined the Death Eaters that year. I was … preoccupied."

Reuben fiddled with a framed picture on top of the bookshelves. "According to Flitwick, Smith's parents found out she was pregnant when she was home for half-term break. They hauled her back to school and had a confrontation with the Headmaster and the heads of Ravenclaw and Slytherin and demanded that the father be expelled. The boy’s parents got involved, of course, and insisted on paternity tests. The girl was adamant that Black was the father. And the boy readily admitted the child was his."

"What was the family's objection to Regulus Black?" asked Severus, puzzled. "The Black family was one of the old families – wealthy and respected in pure-blood circles."

"The girl was already betrothed," answered Reuben. "Flitwick said she was supposed to marry that LePonte fellow – the man she eventually did marry. He's from an old French family – attended Beauxbatons, not Hogwarts."

Severus shook his head, remembering his old friend. "Well, it would be just like Regulus to go after what he absolutely could not have. He didn't think anything was impossible." He swirled his drink. "I imagine you've sent someone to St. Mungo's to find out what happened to the baby?"

Reuben straightened the picture frame and dropped into the seat across from the sofa. He took a biscuit off the plate he'd brought in with the drinks. "Parker's down there now."

"Do you suspect…?"

"No." Reuben shook his head. "You never know, and I've certainly been wrong before, but Flitwick recalled that the baby had a heart defect of some sort. Congenital. We'll confirm it, of course."

"I started working toward my Potions mastery the summer after Hogwarts," Severus said. "I don't think I saw Regulus for another year – not until he left Hogwarts." He didn't tell Reuben that the next time he'd seen Regulus had been at Regulus' initiation, when he'd taken the mark. It was not a pleasant memory, despite it having occurred before he turned spy for Albus.

Reuben stood. "Are you going to tell Harry?"

Severus nodded. "Yes, I think he should know. It will explain quite a bit."

But he didn't tell Harry at midnight when he woke him to administer the eye drops.

Harry woke up readily enough, taking a moment or two to get his bearings in the unfamiliar room, in complete darkness.

"I need to apply the eye drops," Severus said quietly. He slid off the gauze holding the bandages to Harry's eyes and lifted the padding over the left one.

"Do not try to open your eye," he warned.

"How are you going to put drops in if it's closed?" Harry asked sleepily.

"I am going to gently lift the lid with my thumb, apply the drops, then immediately reapply the padding," explained Severus. He brushed Harry's unruly hair back from his forehead. "This is likely going to hurt."

Harry tensed, gripping the sheets.

"Relax, Harry. I don't want to force the eye."

He waited until Harry relaxed marginally, then, with the drops in one hand, he pushed open Harry's eyelid and quickly administered the drops. He was thankful Harry couldn't see himself. The whites of his eyes were almost completely red and his lids were swollen and bruised.

In the brief moment that Harry's eye was open, he protested the dim light, flinching and biting his lip to keep from crying out.

Severus quickly re-covered it, glancing over at the single oil lamp burning on the bedside table. He had not thought the meager light would affect him so, but was glad for the proof that Harry could see. He repeated the same treatment in the right eye, then wrapped the gauze back around his head and secured it.

"What time is it?" asked Harry.

"Midnight," answered Severus. "Are you sleepy?"

"I feel like I've been sleeping all day," answered Harry. He shifted, trying to push himself up against the headboard.

"Not yet," Severus said, easing him back down again. "Are you thirsty?"

He brought Harry water and helped him drink it, then settled down on the chair beside the bed.

"I brought a book up from downstairs. Would you like me to read aloud?"

Harry's face stretched into a tired smile. "As opposed to reading quietly to yourself?"

"Brat," said Severus, glad that Harry felt well enough to tease.

"You're not planning to read Hogwarts: A History, are you?" asked Harry.

"I should. It will lure you directly back to sleep. But no, I've brought something else. Albus loved tales of King Arthur. I am not about to start Le Morte d'Arthur , so have picked up another of his favorites, The Once and Future King."

Harry nodded, smiling at the memory of Albus. "All right."

Severus opened the book. "‘Part One. The Sword in the Stone.’"

He read for nearly an hour before Harry's breathing evened out into sleep. And he read another chapter himself after that, then closed the book and placed it on the bedside table.

He stood and looked down at Harry for a long while, thinking that he was not at all the child he had been a mere two summers ago, when Albus had sent them here to Shell Cottage together. This Harry took up a lot more of the bed, because he didn't curl up onto himself. This Harry felt safe.

And he needed a shave.

Severus smiled and blew out the lamp.

ooOOOoo

Severus could not have been more astounded when Ron Weasley Flooed into his sitting room at eight o'clock on Monday morning.

Severus had had only five hours of sleep before Harry woke up at 5:45. He'd helped him to the loo and back into bed, then made him a very early breakfast and stayed with him while he ate, helping him when he lost track of what food was where. Harry was already frustrated. Severus knew it would be a very long week of forced rest for the young man.

He didn't feel too guilty – yet – about lacing Harry's pain potion with the sedative. He'd heal faster if he had real rest, and boredom would be the real enemy this week. By 6:30, Harry was sleeping again but Severus was, unfortunately, wide awake. He'd catch a nap later but for now would try to make headway in the latest stack of paperwork from Minerva.

He was on his third cup of tea when the Floo flared and Ron Weasley stepped out into the room, dressed in his Gryffindor school robes.

"Mr. Weasley." Severus pushed the papers to the side and stood. "I'm afraid Harry is sleeping. And I'd prefer that you schedule your visits in advance. Besides which…" he glanced at the mantel clock, "it is nearly time for your classes to begin."

"I found this," said Weasley, looking nervous as he held up a familiar-looking envelope. "I found it in my pocket this morning and Professor McGonagall sent me through to you."

"Where did you get that?" Severus was on his feet, holding his hand out for the letter. "Did you read it?"

"No." Weasley's hand was shaking. He sounded defensive. "I picked it off the ground on the pitch yesterday after Harry's accident. But Professor McGonagall sent me after you and I shoved it in my pocket and forgot it. I found it again this morning when I was getting dressed and went straight to Professor McGonagall and she told me to take it to you myself." He had handed the envelope to Severus and backed up toward the Floo. "How's Harry? His eyes are going to be all right, aren't they?"

"He's in a great deal of pain. I'm keeping him partially sedated." Severus was staring at the letter as he spoke. He looked over at Harry's best friend, realizing that he wasn't doing much to ease his real worry for his friend. "He'll be fine. His eyes will recover as long as he rests them this week. Why don't you arrange with Professor McGonagall to send someone over after classes for an hour or so to read Harry his homework? Starting tomorrow. It will be something he can look forward to."

The young man nodded. He looked relieved. "That'll be good. Ginny'll want to come. How many can come at once?"

"We will start with just one tomorrow," Severus replied. "You or your sister. I will consider having two visitors at once as the week goes on."

"All right." Ron turned toward the Floo then hesitated.

"Is there something else, Mr. Weasley?" asked Severus.

Ron turned back to face him. "That letter – it's different, isn't it? The handwriting, I mean."

Severus nodded, staring down at the letter. "Yes," he admitted. "The envelope is the same, but the handwriting is different."

"Different color of ink, too," said Ron. "What do you think it means?"

"I think it means the game has changed, Mr. Weasley," Severus replied, smiling wanly. "And that means the Aurors will be here when I open this letter."

"But it's Harry's letter…." He trailed off, cowed by the look on Severus' face. He blushed. "Sorry. Old habits," he muttered.

"Understood. You are accustomed to protecting Harry, to looking out for him. And I appreciate that." Severus held up a hand as Ron started to reach for the Floo powder. "Mr. Weasley—please."

Ron turned—again. He waited for Severus to speak.

"Thank you – for bringing the letter here, and for making it your business to look out for Harry. We are – all of us – in need of friends throughout our lives."

"I'm glad to have his back, sir." He straightened. "And to know he has mine, too."

He left then, in a swirl of ashes, and Severus fervently hoped that the business of looking out for Harry would get easier sometime soon.

ooOOOoo

By the time Reuben arrived, nearly two hours after Severus sent a note out with McKenzie asking him to Floo to Shell Cottage as soon as possible, Harry was awake, in pain and irritated.

Poppy wanted him flat on his back for forty-eight hours. That would coincide with Ginny Weasley arriving after classes tomorrow, but he doubted they'd make it that long. Harry had tried to talk him into letting him come downstairs to lie in the hammock. It was such a ridiculous idea all around – from the trip down the stairs to the motion of the hammock—that Severus said no without bothering to give an explanation.

The administration of the eye drops was as painful this second time around as it had been the first. This time, with the daylight filtering in the curtained windows, Severus had a better look at how the damage was healing. Reasonably well, he thought, given the extent of the injuries, and Harry blinked when he removed the padding, again indicating sensitivity to even the muted light.

He let out a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding.

After Severus refused Harry's request for a shower, despite agreeing with Harry that he could use one, he uncorked one of the special pain potions.

Harry took one sip, then pushed it away.

"Look, I'd rather not be drugged out of my mind all day. I'll listen to the wireless, or revise in my head. I don't know – I'll meditate. Practice my Occlumency shielding."

Severus popped the cork back in the potion and placed it on the bedside table.

"That's actually a very good idea, Harry," he said. It was a wonderful idea. It would help Harry relax, reduce the pain and most important, keep him perfectly still.

"It will be easier with the water bed," suggested Harry.

"I won't risk dunking you. In a day or two, when we can get you down on the porch, I'll try to transfigure it."

"Fine," grumbled Harry, but it was a good-natured grumble.

"I'll be back up in an hour to check on you. Do not get out of bed for any reason. Call for me if you need to use the loo. I'll make lunch then and we can spend an hour or two this afternoon reviewing where you are in each of your classes. Minerva was kind enough to send your books over last evening."

"I'd rather have the book you were reading last night," said Harry, but it was a weak and futile protest and he knew it.

"We'll continue that this evening, and again if you can't sleep through the night." He had every intention of making sure Harry had the potion at bedtime, however, even if he had to slip it into his pudding.

Severus stayed until he was reasonably sure Harry was tucked behind his shields, then made his way downstairs again. He had to devise some more activities to keep Harry busy – activities that did not require eyesight or walking. Perhaps he could have Harry work on one or two simple non-verbal spells until he could do them wandless as well? Opening and closing the bedroom window, perhaps?

He was still in the kitchen putting on the teakettle when the Floo flared. Reuben came through a moment later.

"What's going on, Severus?"

Severus got out a mug for the Auror and set it on the tray.

"Minerva sent Ron Weasley by this morning. He picked up something from the Quidditch pitch just after Harry's accident yesterday – a letter."

Reuben whistled.

"So the post owl had business on the field, then. I assume it's another letter from Smith?"

Severus shook his head. "I don't think so. Perhaps. Same envelope –but different handwriting. That's why I called you. I wanted you to be here when I opened it."

"Did you tell Harry yet?" Reuben asked as he followed Severus onto the porch and settled at the table.

"No. He's awake and already not too happy about not being able to get up. I tried the pain potion with the sedative but he took one sip, then refused it – he's had plenty of pain potions in his life and could obviously tell it wasn't a standard one."

"He's got the makings of a good Auror, Severus."

Severus gazed past Reuben at the shoreline. "I know. He's tenacious, too. He never gives up without a fight."

"The letter, Severus?"

Severus pulled the pink envelope from his pocket and placed it carefully on the table between them. Reuben leaned over for a look.

"Different handwriting and a different quill," he said, glancing back up at Severus. "Didn't even try to pass it off as Estelle's writing. Blocky handwriting." He turned the envelope over. "You've checked it?"

"Thoroughly. But as benign as it seems, I would still suggest caution."

"I'm the Auror, remember?" teased Reuben. But he cast a protection spell on his hands nonetheless before he took the letter opener from Severus.

The parchment within the envelope matched all the other letters. Reuben laid it on the table and unfolded it. A second piece of parchment of a different color was folded inside. He set it aside. Severus didn't try to read it upside down. He watched the Auror's face instead. It stayed remarkably impassive, though his mouth tightened as he reached the end.

"Well then," he said carefully, looking up at Snape. "I'd say they've upped the ante."

Severus reached for the letter.

Dear Mr. Potter:

He frowned. "Mr. Potter?"

Reuben Peace didn't comment, opening the other document instead, and Severus returned to the letter.

Dear Mr. Potter:

My friend 'Hilda' has taken great pains to communicate with you these last months, lauding you for the admirable job you did in disarming the Dark Lord…permanently. She has certainly been looking out for you – wanting the best possible life for the Savior of the Wizarding World, for the young man that she certainly looks at as a beloved nephew.

Yes, Mr. Potter. A nephew.

She does not know how close she is to the truth in that sentiment.

She does know, of course, that she was adopted as an infant, by parents who had long tried to conceive and who found that not even magic could give them the child they desperately wanted. She believes her biological mother to be an unwed daughter of a Slytherin pureblood family, a family not wanting to sully the reputation of their daughter, who was undoubtedly betrothed, from birth, to a man of the family's choosing.

How surprised would she be, Mr. Potter, to learn that her mother was Eileen Prince Snape?

The knowledge would likely drive her insane – or even to suicide.

There is a reason she wants to save you from Severus Snape. She hates the Snapes – hates Eileen with a passion, in fact, for she has been told that Eileen Snape was the trollop that bedded her mother's father and then, later, along with her Muggle husband, attempted to blackmail him. The rift between her grandparents never healed. They died before 'Hilda' was old enough to remember them.

More's the pity. She even succeeded in being sorted into Ravenclaw to keep herself out of her rightful house at Hogwarts, all to avoid contact with Severus Snape.

Why Eileen Snape chose to give up her daughter is anyone's guess. Perhaps she feared bringing another child home to the hovel in which she lived. Perhaps her Muggle husband would not welcome a daughter. Perhaps the child was not his. Perhaps she feared having another child as pathetic and weak as the first. Perhaps she sold the child for Galleons to put food on the table for her husband and son.

Or perhaps…perhaps…she feared bringing a daughter into the house with her lecherous husband.

But, Mr. Potter, the truth of the matter is that your correspondent is, in fact, Severus Snape's natural sister. She has had a hard and sad life, indeed, having lost everyone near and dear to her. In that vein, she lives vicariously through you, finding the lost possibility of family in you.

It would not be incorrect to say that her life is in my hands. She depends on me fully, but I can no longer care for her adequately with my limited means. I require assistance, Mr. Potter, and am sure you will do what is right to ensure your aunt's continued health and wellbeing and will transfer the sum of 10,000 Galleons directly from Gringotts to account 17778830, in their Swiss banking division. I assure you that this allowance will be used for your aunt's needs. If the transfer is not made, I cannot say what will become of her. I am quite certain that a gift of this sort will not overly tax you, Mr. Potter, given your access to the sizable Black family fortune.

Please refer to the enclosed document for proof that Estelle Smith (you didn't really think Hilda was writing to you from beyond the Veil, did you?) was born Anastasia Snape.

I will look for the deposit by the Friday following the delivery of this letter. Return owls are not at all necessary.

LP

Severus' hand was shaking as he reached out for the other document.

"The Adoption Certificate, I assume?" he said, his voice unnaturally calm.

"Yes. And it looks legitimate. Not that we had any question, of course."

They were both silent as Severus stared at it for a long while.

"What he says about my mother is untrue." Severus' voice caught slightly. He cleared his throat.

Reuben nodded. "Most of the letter is untrue, I'm sure."

"Who is this?" Severus let the certificate drop from his hands. It floated down to the table and slid across the surface. "He certainly has access to a good deal of information – the family's legal documents, at the very least. Didn't the father die recently? Could this be the solicitor in charge of the estate?"

"If there was an estate, why are they asking for ten thousand Galleons?" asked Reuben. He picked up the letter again. "LP. Not much to go on."

"It means nothing to me," said Severus. "And this letter is not from a barrister – at least not a legitimate one. There is no letterhead, no seal, not even a real signature. A threat from a barrister would not be so…." He trailed off.

"Veiled?" finished Reuben.

"You do read it as a threat, do you not?" asked Severus. "He is threatening to harm Estelle if he does not receive this money?"

Reuben nodded. "I'd like to have one of our specialists read this, Headmaster."

"Of course." Severus scanned the letter again then pushed it across the table toward the Auror.

"We may be able to buy time, you know," Reuben said thoughtfully as he warmed up his tea. "You did see the Prophet article this morning?"

Severus rolled his eyes. "I did. The photographic reenactment of the accident using lookalikes was…unusual."

"It may work in our favor this time, though," Reuben answered. "Clearly, Harry can't get to Gringotts and authorize a transfer when he's confined to bed."

"Speaking of transfers, I assume there is no way to trace a Gringotts Swiss account?"

It was Reuben's turn to roll his eyes. "None. Trying to convince a goblin that it's a matter of life and death is…futile. They play by their own rules, and their rules have everything to do with profit and nothing to do with the health and wellbeing of magical folk." He tapped his fingers on the table then shook his head. "Life and death – don't forget that the person that wrote this letter is responsible for Alex Sanders' death and likely for Hermione Granger's accident as well."

"Someone is going to extraordinary lengths – but to what end?" asked Severus. "Could it be as simple as extortion?"

"Money, power, lust, control, revenge…." Reuben ticked off the list on his fingers. "Our…." he trailed off and looked at the signature on the letter again. "Our LP could have…." Now he was staring at the letter. "LP…could this be LePonte?"

Severus frowned, his expression grim. "LePonte is dead. He isn't writing any letters."

"So is Hilda Smith," said Reuben. He got quickly to his feet, not trying to hide his excitement. He grabbed the letter. "I'll have one of our profilers analyze this, Severus. They'll have advice on how we handle the reply. And we'll dig into LePonte – see if he had family."

Severus stood to follow Reuben into the parlor. "Wouldn't Estelle's father have left a sizable estate to her? Ten thousand Galleons is a considerable sum but would certainly not rival the estate of one of the old families."

Reuben stopped with his hand in the Floo powder jar. He turned, excited. "Another thing for my team to check out. We've been to that manor looking for her – it's not Malfoy Manor by any means but ten thousand Galleons wouldn't buy a new chandelier for the ballroom."

"I recall you saying she's not been seen there since her father's funeral. Is it possible she can't get in?"

Reuben stared at Severus.

"Headmaster, you should have been an Auror."

Severus huffed. "I was too busy being a spy. And spies – good ones, anyway – think like Aurors. Why hasn't she been back to that estate? I suppose we all assumed she's in hiding. But if she's not the heir, she might be forced out. Even the house-elves would refuse to serve her."

"Department of Records, then," said Reuben. "We can easily track inheritances." He grinned at Severus. "They're taxed, after all."

He turned again.

"Wait—what did you find out about the baby?"

The Auror turned around. "It was like Flitwick remembered - the baby was born with a heart defect. They tried to repair it but the infant died during the procedure. He didn't respond well to the magic. It was too early to know, of course, but the child was likely a Squib."

Severus stared at him, then shook his head sadly. "Thank you, Reuben."

Reuben stepped into the Floo and whirled away.

Severus stared into the fireplace. He frowned.

He knew – he was absolutely certain now – that this was not a simple ploy to discredit or even harm him or Harry. It was more than that. Two different plots were at play, woven together just as his life and Harry's were woven together. Estelle hated his mother – and him by extension. She had legitimate reason to hate him as well, he knew. Her husband, a Death Eater, had been captured, tried, convicted, and sent to Azkaban where he had died. He, on the other hand, despite carrying the mark, had been cleared not once, but twice. And Harry. Estelle had lost a child who, had he lived, would be close to Harry in age. Who would have been heir to the Black estate. Just as Harry now was. Was she mentally sound? Had she, perhaps, come to think of Harry as her son?

And this man – this LP – he, too, was interested in Harry as heir to the Black estate. But while Estelle might see her son in Harry, LP saw Galleons. Severus was sure he would not stop at ten thousand.

It was an intriguing puzzle, but a dangerous one.

Alex Sanders was dead. Harry and three of his friends had been injured.

Prudence Carson had been Imperiused – multiple times. She had insinuated that Estelle was not free to come and go as she pleased.

Estelle. His sister.

He had only a vague memory of her from Hogwarts. She had excelled at Potions, and he had half a memory of her in the Potions lab, dark head bent over a cauldron in the back of the lab while his N.E.W.T. study group met with Professor Slughorn. Try as he might to recall her face from memory, the only face he could dredge up was the one in the photos he had shown Harry.

Lies. All those lies about his mother. He couldn't fault Estelle, and imagined her adoptive mother had wanted to assure that her daughter's loyalties stayed with the Smiths and never strayed. What kind of parents had they been to her?

Had she had a better childhood than he had?

He closed his eyes. He had pleasant memories of his childhood, but most were sullied by the general unpleasantness of poverty, his father's hatred of magic, and his alcoholism. Most – but not all. For there was Lily, beautiful Lily, and the times his mother had taken him into the magical world, into Diagon Alley.

And of course, there was Hogwarts. He would never forget his first sight of the castle, sitting in that boat with Lily, the silhouette all lit up against a backdrop of shimmering stars.

Hogwarts.

Regulus.

Now that was a surprise.

He didn't think of Regulus often anymore. They had been friends at Hogwarts, and beyond, until he had gone to Albus, and Regulus had disappeared. Knowing that Estelle had been betrothed, promised to another, he had still pursued her. Had fathered her child. Had he loved her?

"Severus – I really need to use the loo."

He was jerked out of his musings by Harry's voice.

What the….?

Harry's Patronus, fully corporeal, was in the parlor with him. He jumped to his feet and shook his head. He had told Harry to call him if he needed to use the loo. He smiled wryly.

Show off.

But as he was climbing the stairs toward the bedroom, it occurred to him, suddenly, that Harry was flat on his back on his bed.

And his wand – his wand was on Severus' bedside table.

 

Chapter 17: Rocking

Harry was lying in bed, flat on his back, holding his wand.

"Severus?"

Severus took a deep breath. "How did you get your wand?" he asked, pulling it out of Harry's hand and tucking it into his robes.

"I Summoned it," said Harry. "Are you going to help me? I really have to go."

Severus helped him sit on the edge of the bed then held both his hands as Harry stood.

"Your wand was in my bedroom. The door is closed."

"Really?" asked Harry, grimacing as they walked very slowly across to the loo. "That's why it took so long, then."

"For your wand to turn the doorknob from the inside, you mean?"

Harry shrugged. He was obviously not concerned about how the wand had maneuvered itself to reach him. Severus guided him to the commode and held on to him while he lowered his pajama bottoms. Harry sat and sighed, looking toward the door even though he couldn't see a thing. "You're staying, I suppose?"

"I will be right outside the door. You are not to attempt standing without me in this room. When I have you back in bed, we are going to have a long talk."

Before they had the long talk, however, Severus took Harry's wand back to his own bedroom. He set it on the desk, then left the room, closing the door behind him.

"Summon your wand, please."

Harry was lying flat on his back in bed. Severus would have said he was staring at the ceiling, but Harry's eyes were impossible to see beneath the bandages.

"Summon my wand? You just took it." Harry sounded mildly annoyed.

"I have put it back where it was before you summoned it. Summon it again, please. I'd like to see how it gets through that closed door."

He stepped back into the corridor just as he heard Harry say, "Accio Harry's wand!"

The wand hit the closed door with a thump. Severus smiled and shook his head. The wand didn't give up. It hit the door five or six times before Severus heard it roll on the hardwood floor and work its way under the door. As soon as it was clear, it launched into the air again.

"Ouch!"

Severus stood in the doorway and watched Harry's hand scramble around on the bed.

"Just to the right of your right elbow," Severus said.

Harry located the wand and picked it up. "Forgot to hold my hand out for it," he said. "It hit me in the leg – tried to skewer me."

Generally, Severus knew, wizards summoned things they could see. They decidedly had to have a general idea of where the item was located. Stronger wizards and more deliberate magic could yield better results – standing in a library, for example, and summoning a specific title or category of book.

"Your wand," said Severus, dropping down to sit on the bed beside Harry, "worked its way under my bedroom door to get here."

"Oh?" Harry looked bored. "Good thing there was room, then."

Severus decided not to continue this particular conversation. Harry obviously did not realize that magical objects did not have brains and could not plot courses through houses. One more thing to add to the list of should-be-impossible things Harry was doing this year.

"Good thing," said Severus. "For a moment, before I saw you had your wand, I thought you summoned that Patronus wandlessly."

"Wandlessly?" Harry laughed. "No, never tried an Expecto Patronum without a wand. It's hard enough to do with one." He considered, then asked. "Do you think I could, Severus? Should I try?"

"No." Severus reached forward and removed the wand from Harry's hand – again. "I actually want you to start with something much smaller. Wandless and non-verbal. Things like opening and closing the bedroom windows." Actually, he planned to start with a Snitch. He'd let it go in the bedroom and instruct Harry to pluck it out of the air when it was within reach. This exercise could last hours and get Harry through some very boring, sightless afternoons.

"Do we have to start now?" Harry asked. "Couldn't we have lunch first? I could come down and lie in the hammock while you make it."

"Nice try," said Severus with a smile. "I'll bring lunch here. Then we're going to have a long talk. Then you can have a nap."

"Then I can go downstairs?" Harry fidgeted with the fringe on the edge of the coverlet.

"Tomorrow," said Severus. "One of your friends is coming after classes with your homework."

"Who? Ginny?"

"Or Ronald. The other will come the following day."

Harry seemed so happy to hear that particular piece of news that he didn't even ask why they both couldn't come at the same time.

Lunch was simple. Cheese on toast. Apple slices. Crisps. Things Harry could eat easily with his hands. Severus sat on a chair beside the bed while they ate and told Harry that if he could make it through another twenty-four hours of lying flat on his back, he'd take him downstairs after lunch tomorrow and let him recline on the hammock. If things went well enough, he could spend several hours in the late afternoon and evening with his friends.

And then he brought up Harry's last letter to him – the one he'd read just before the fateful Quidditch game and the accident with the owl.

"Let's talk again about your magic," he said. He had finished his sandwiches and set the plate on the floor behind his chair. Harry was still toying with his crisps. There were crumbs scattered over the sheets and his pyjama top.

"My magic?" Harry replied with a small frown. The crisp he was holding crumbled between his fingers. "What about it?"

He was being deliberately obtuse and Severus knew it. He gave him some leeway, however, knowing Harry was in pain and out of sorts.

"Your magic. Specifically, you turning Draco Malfoy invisible last week. You do recall telling me about that in a letter, do you not?"

"Being blind doesn't mean I have amnesia," said Harry. Severus was absolutely certain that, behind the bandages, Harry was rolling his eyes.

"Stop with the cheek. Now humor me. What happened?"

"I told you already – well, I wrote it. I tried a disillusionment spell on Malfoy. It worked. Really well, in fact. He panicked and punched me in the nose." Harry had abandoned his crisps. His fingers started playing with the fringe on the coverlet again.

"Actually," said Severus, "I'm more interested in what happened after that. How Mr. Malfoy became visible again."

"That's the weird part," said Harry. "I thought I put it in the letter. Professor Flitwick couldn't cancel the spell. And that made Malfoy panic even more. Only I could do it."

"Why couldn't Professor Flitwick cancel the spell, Harry?" Severus asked the question as casually as he could, but he wanted Harry to think about the answer. Being sightless and confined to a bed took away most of the distractions Harry typically faced.

Harry thought about that. His fingers worked and worked the fringe of the coverlet.

"He should have been able to," Harry said at last. "Anyone – any witch or wizard – can cancel a spell if you know what the spell or curse was and the proper counter."

"Right. So why didn't it work? Why couldn't Professor Flitwick cancel your spell on Draco?" he asked, simply rephrasing his earlier question. "It was a common enough spell."

"I suppose," said Harry, speaking carefully now, "I suppose the counter didn't work because Professor Flitwick didn't know the spell that I used."

Severus let Harry think about his answer for a few moments before responding.

"You used the disillusionment spell. Others heard you, correct?"

"Sure." Harry bit his bottom lip. "We were all doing the same spell – practicing it. That's how class usually works. He teaches us a Charm, we practice it."

"I'm only not taking points for your cheek because you're ill, you know."

"I'm not ill – I'm blind," countered Harry.

"Temporarily," insisted Severus.

Harry had the good sense to grin.

"So…why is it that Professor Flitwick could not make Draco Malfoy fully visible again?" Harry could not see Severus staring at him, fingers steepled, chin resting on his thumbs.

"I must have changed it – somehow." Harry sighed. He reached to his side for a second pillow and arranged it, with difficulty, under his head. "It's my magic. It's still too…much." He seemed apologetic about it. "I should have controlled it better, but I wanted to show Malfoy," he said. "He was being such a prat. I just wanted the spell to work."

"Congratulations, Mr. Potter." Severus was smiling. The smile reached his voice. "Your longstanding feud with Draco Malfoy has helped us understand what is happening with your magic. You should thank him when you see him."

"Right – I'll be sure to do that," answered Harry. But he smiled as well, in Severus' general direction. "I'll send him an engraved note and some flowers. But Severus," he added quickly, " I'm not doing anything different, or on purpose."

"Professor Flitwick's theory is correct, Harry. You – your magic - is somehow altering the spells you cast. Changing them into something slightly different. An ability such as this is rare – phenomenal, really. When you are recovered, I will want to explore this more fully with you. But for now – for now – there is something else we must discuss."

"What?"

"Two things, actually. Reuben spoke to Professor Flitwick, as you suggested."

"About Estelle Smith? What did he find out?" asked Harry eagerly. He was much more willing to talk about this than his errant magic and obviously welcomed the change of subject.

"First of all, he asked me to pass on his thanks – to you," said Severus. Harry had one knee bent, foot flat on the mattress. He leaned forward and pressed the knee slowly down. Harry grumbled but kept his legs flat.

"Tell him you're welcome," said Harry. "Now, what did he find out?"

"He found out that Estelle Smith had a baby between her sixth and seventh years at Hogwarts," said Severus carefully, adding, "The baby did not survive."

"Oh…." Harry raised his knee up again. He tilted his head toward Severus, out of habit, Severus knew. He couldn't stare at Severus' face, read it to learn even more. "Was it a boy or a girl?" His voice was soft.

"A boy."

"So…the baby, if he had lived. How old would her be?"

"He was born in 1978. Two years older than you."

Harry's mind was obviously trying to work through the puzzle. "Tell me the rest," he said. "I can tell there's more."

"How can you tell that?" challenged Severus. "Perhaps that is all there is."

"No – it's got to all tie together," protested Harry. "That's how these things work. Besides, I can tell from your voice, Severus. You're using your 'guess what's coming next' voice."

"I do not have a 'guess what's coming next voice,'" groused Severus. He punctuated the sentence by pushing Harry's knee down once more. "But yes, there is more to the story. Reuben believes that, for whatever reason, Estelle Smith identifies with you as a mother. You would have been at Hogwarts at the same time as her son – had the baby lived."

"So would a lot of people," said Harry. "Why me?"

"There is a reason, Harry. Estelle Smith was betrothed to a Frenchman that her family had chosen for her when she was a young child. But the father of the baby was a Hogwarts student in her form. The baby was Regulus Black's."

"Regulus? Sirius' brother?" Harry was struggling to sit up. "Damn it Severus! I need to see you when you tell me things like that!"

Severus slid off the chair and onto the bed, sitting beside Harry and taking his wrists in his hands. He held him still until Harry relaxed back onto the bed again, sighing as he sank into his pillows. "Would you rather wait to hold this conversation until these bandages come off?" he asked.

"No," grumbled Harry. "Of course not. It's just…frustrating." He raised his hands to his eyes and made a motion as if to rub them. Severus reached out for his wrists again.

"It's been quite a while. You need another pain potion, don't you?"

"No," Harry said. "Just tell me the rest of it."

Severus frowned. "When we are finished discussing this, you will take a potion and get some sleep. Agreed?"

Harry nodded. "Thanks, Severus."

Severus shook his head. He touched the back of Harry's hand. "You are more stubborn than is good for you," he muttered. He settled himself more comfortably on the bed. "If that child had lived, he would likely have inherited the Black fortune instead of you. Estelle knows this, and someone else does as well."

"Who else?" Harry asked, rather tensely.

"Her caretaker," explained Severus. "Harry, there was another letter. The owl – the owl that hit you during the match – was carrying a letter for you from a man who signed the letter with the initials LP. Ronald Weasley found the letter on the pitch and brought it to me. It was written on the same style stationery that Estelle uses. Reuben came by this morning – we read it not much more than an hour ago."

"Well, read it to me," said Harry. "What does it say?"

"Reuben has the letter," replied Severus. "I will read it to you when he returns. In short, the letter contains a lot of rubbish, and a demand for money."

"Money?" asked Harry, frowning. "How much money? And what for? Is he threatening to hurt someone? What's Reuben doing to stop him?"

"One question at a time, Harry," said Severus. "I merely wanted to fill you in on what has transpired since your accident. This is not an interrogation."

"Fine. What did the letter say?"

"The letter writer revealed that the woman writing to you is not Hilda Smith, but her sister Estelle."

Harry nodded. "We already knew that. What else?"

"Yes, we knew– or surmised that. We now have confirmation from a second source. He also revealed that Estelle Smith was born Anastasia Snape…."

"We knew that too."

"But Estelle does not," said Severus. "Apparently, the Smiths instilled in Estelle a deep hatred for my family. The man who wrote that letter insinuated that the knowledge that she herself is a Snape would drive her to insanity or suicide. She believes that my mother had an affair with her grandfather and then tried to extort money from him to keep it quiet. All absolute rot, but apparently Estelle Smith believes it."

"What?" Harry pushed himself up on his elbows again.

"As I said, absolute rot," repeated Severus, pressing Harry back down. "Do I need to use a Petrificus Totalus on you?"

"You wouldn't," said Harry. He relaxed, but not without effort.

"I would. Better yet, one of my special pain potions."

"Just tell me the rest of it – about the money."

"He is asking for a bank transfer of 10,000 Galleons into an untraceable Swiss account. He insinuates that Estelle cannot care for herself and that, if he does not get the money, he cannot guarantee what happens to her."

"He's threatening to kill your sister?" Harry's voice rose though he remained, with great effort, flat on his back.

"It would appear so," answered Severus quietly. "But we know very little of this man. We know nothing of the relationship between him and Estelle Smith, and should not take what he says at face value."

"But…" Harry was trying to interrupt, but Severus ignored him and continued.

"We know from Prudence Carson that Estelle Smith is likely being kept against her will – or that she is not free to come and go as she pleases. With that in mind, we have reason to believe that this 'LP' could harm her in some way. Though the whole thing may be a complete sham."

"But why?" blurted out Harry. "Why would he think we'd give him ten thousand Galleons to protect someone we don't even know? Not to mention someone I don't think I'd like very much even if I did know her!"

"He's asking you for the money, Harry," explained Severus with a small sigh. "He obviously believes you will do this – that you will do anything for family."

"But…."

"And Harry – you cannot do this. Nor should you. Giving the money even once will be no more than an invitation for this extortionist to ask for more. Requests will become demands. He will…"

"But Severus," said Harry again, his voice more insistent. His hand scrabbled on the blankets and landed on Severus' knee.

"What?" Severus placed his hand atop Harry's and squeezed it.

"Estelle isn't family," Harry said. "Why would he think I cared?"

Severus' mouth had dropped open. Harry had completely surprised him.

"Estelle is my biological sister," he explained, eyes focused on Harry's unseeing face. He had never realized how much he relied on watching Harry's face when they spoke, how much Harry communicated with his eyes. "And I, for all intents and purposes, am your father. By extension, Estelle would be your aunt." He felt ridiculous having to explain this to Harry, and the meaning behind Harry's statement was just becoming apparent to him.

"Just because she's related to you by blood?" asked Harry. "Just like Aunt Petunia." Harry's mouth showed his displeasure.

And Severus, understanding, felt the corners of his mouth lift just as he felt that still-foreign feeling in his chest.

Harry Potter understood family in a way few people did. For Harry, whose only living blood relatives never showed him love or affection, family had nothing to do with blood.

He reached out for Harry's hand and squeezed it.

"You are right, Harry. But many people think about family in a way you do not."

They were quiet for a moment, Harry mulling something over. Finally, he spoke.

"Do you want me to send the money? For your sister?"

"I…." He began to speak, but faltered. Of course he didn't want Harry to send money to an extortionist. But neither did he want something to happen to his sister, despite her opinion of him and of the Snapes in general.

And that surprised him.

Greatly.

ooOOOoo

Harry slept fitfully that night. He'd insisted that a normal pain potion was all he needed. Severus had acquiesced, telling Harry that they were both likely to be sorry – Harry for being so stubborn and Severus for giving in. They would pay for it tomorrow with a poor night's sleep tonight.

Reuben had come back, and this time Severus had brought him up to Harry's room so Harry could hear the letter read to him and learn firsthand how the investigation had progressed.

He hadn't liked what the letter had to say. At all.

It was full of ridiculous lies. It didn't make Harry feel sorry for Estelle Smith at all. From the looks of things, she was never likely to be anything to Severus, even though she had the same parents as he did. He didn't seem too fond of his father to begin with, and though Harry knew Severus had loved his mother, she'd been gone a long time.

Reuben, however, had suggested that they respond to the letter. A delay might help them move the investigation forward. There was a chance – however slight – that they could find this man before he could do anything to Estelle. If he thought money was forthcoming, after Harry recovered sufficiently to get to Gringotts to make the transfer, it would buy the investigators some time. In the end, they had had Reuben write the letter, but Harry dictated it to him. They asked for two weeks – telling the man that Harry would be confined to bed for that time while his injuries healed.

Harry didn't know that Reuben had added a few extra sentences to the letter, in direct response to the threats. "You'd better not do anything to her," for example, and "You know nothing about Severus' parents – I bet his were saints compared to yours." Proper indignation from Harry Potter.

Harry had scratched his messy signature to the letter with Severus' help, and then Reuben had told them about the inheritance.

The Smith inheritance.

There had been a will. In Pureblood families, there was always a will. And the will clearly left the estate to Estelle.

Unfortunately, a cousin had turned up claiming that he was, in fact, not a cousin at all, but Harper Smith's son.

Harry frowned as he lay in the middle of his bed. The window was open and the cool, salty air filled the room. He could hear the waves outside, and the sound and the smell any other time would have lulled him right to sleep. But not tonight.

This man – Isaac Smith – claimed that he had proof that Harper Smith was his biological father. That he had had an affair with his brother's Orville's wife – Isaac's mother – that resulted in Isaac.

And unfortunately for Estelle, the paternity test proved that Orville Smith, who was still alive, was not his father. They had then exhumed Harper's body – against Estelle's wishes – to prove that he was Isaac's father.

By Wizarding law, he had the right to claim the family name and what came with it – the manor, the grounds, the house-elves, and all the possessions.

Estelle's solicitors were fighting to at least keep her monetary inheritance, and in the interim, the entire estate was locked up in litigation. The Aurors were digging into the case now, identifying who was representing Estelle in the hopes of finding out who might be hiding her, or keeping her prisoner, or whatever.

Earlier in the day, Harry had felt no sympathy for a woman whose only connection to Severus was through blood.

Now, he felt sorry for her that because she didn't share her own father's blood, she was being barred from an estate that was rightfully hers.

The world confused him. It was bad enough that he knew someone was trying to ruin Severus' reputation, and pull him away from the only family he'd ever really had, but the added insult of wanting a financial payoff was like salt in the wound. He was tired of lying flat on his back. He was tired of not being able to see. He was tired of getting attacked. Why couldn't people just leave him the hell alone?

He finally managed to calm himself down, using the Occlumency techniques he had practiced earlier in the day. He didn't quite manage the protective bubble, cocooned in the peaceful calm of the restful sea, but he did imagine himself on the porch downstairs, rocking in the hammock with Ginny, pressed up comfortably against her side.

In the end, he drifted off to sleep with the beginnings of a smile on his face.

ooOOOoo

Severus Snape was not smiling.

Reuben and his team had wasted little time in finding out who this second mysterious letter writer was.

The Death Eater, Jacob LePonte, the man betrothed to Estelle Smith, had been arrested after Voldemort's first fall and had died in Azkaban. Jacob was a known quantity. Severus had known who he was, though he had few if any dealings with him. He had been easy to trace. The Aurors had dug up a brother, Jean-Louis LePonte, two years younger than Jacob. Their father had been a long-time associate of Harper Smith, Estelle's father.

The Aurors had ready access to all sorts of documentation: wills, estates, birth and death records, betrothal contracts.

Jean-Louis LePonte had been betrothed to Hilda Smith.

Two sons of one family engaged to two daughters of another, assuring that the two families remained locked together. That their wealth, their property, their bloodlines, would be merged and strengthened.

Except that Jacob had gone to Azkaban and had lost everything there, including his life.

Except that Hilda Smith had died at Hogwarts, that like her sister before her, she had been seeing someone other than her betrothed.

Hilda Smith had died mysteriously at Hogwarts.

And now Estelle Smith was very likely being 'cared for' by her sister's fiancé.

Reuben was digging further – of course – having his Profilers work through the night.

But even though it was progress, it put Severus on edge.

While he had never doubted that he had a sister – once the evidence was brought to light, of course – he had never given a lot of thought to her. She existed, but she had not grown up with him for a reason he would never be able to verify. It was likely that it had everything to do with his father – with his dislike of magic, of children, his drinking, his intermittent unemployment.

He had not yet regretted that she hadn't grown up with him. He couldn't imagine that life would have been better for any of them had there been one more mouth to feed, one more magical being in the Muggle house. His father would have been even more of the underdog than he was – the only one of four who could not remove a stain in a shirt with a Scourgify, put out the lights with a flick of the wand and a simple word or travel across the country with a turn and a crack.

Severus imagined that his mother had thought, when he was born, when she was still carrying him even, that a baby would knit the family together. Perhaps she had imagined that her husband could not help but love something he had made, something that was as much his as it was hers.

He hoped that Estelle Smith had had a better life with her adoptive family than she might have had she been raised a Snape. For the first time, he found himself wondering about that life.

And wondering about a little sister in the house at Spinner's End. How different would his life have been with a sister? A playmate?

Someone to share the weight of their father's bad moods? The excitement of a Hogwarts letter?

Someone to mourn with him the loss of their mother.

Perhaps…just perhaps…someone who knew him, really knew him, and who would have convinced him that joining Voldemort was not such a good idea?

No. He hadn't listened to Lily.

Would she have been Lily's friend too?

If Severus Snape had had a sister at Spinner's End only a year younger than himself, would Lily have been his friend at all?

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Severus Snape did not believe there would be a happy ending to this story. He should not care about the fate of Estelle Smith. She would never see him as a brother, never come to Christmas dinner or dance at Harry's wedding.

Yet…he couldn't be unconcerned about her fate. Something inside him, something foreign and unfamiliar, wanted to know her.

He'd wring her neck, of course, if it turned out that she was behind the accident at Hogwarts, or if Prudence Carson or LePonte were doing her bidding.

But something told him that she was an insect caught in a spider's web, a fly in a trap.

He stepped quietly into Harry's room on his way to bed. Harry was sleeping, one arm up, cradling his head, one foot outside the covers. Severus pulled the cover down over the foot, then slipped away, across the corridor, and disappeared into his own room.

Back in his room, Harry let out a long sigh.

In his dreams, he was in the hammock with Ginny, rocking, rocking, rocking, but then he was a child of four or five, and the pretty redheaded lady was his mum, and she rocked him, rocked him, rocked him, until morning came, keeping the monsters at bay until the sun kissed the sky.
Hello Readers: I've confused myself a few times, gotten some names wrong, and have to refer back to notes so often that I am sure you're all getting pretty confused. In fact, several comments on Chapter 17 confirmed this suspicion of mine. So I've compiled some of my notes below and hope they help you out. I have the feeling that the introduction of Isaac Smith may have just toppled the tower, so to speak.

________________________________________

TIMELINE: The events of "Tuesdays with Severus" occur in the late summer and fall of 1998, the term following the Final Battle. “Tuesdays” will end around Christmas, 1998.

Estelle Smith, born Anastasia Snape in 1961. Graduated from Hogwarts in 1979. Daughter of Eileen and Tobias Snape, adopted daughter of Harper and Margaret Smith. Sorted into Ravenclaw after convincing the Sorting Hat she did not want to be in Slytherin.

As a young child, Estelle was betrothed to Jacob LePonte, the son of her father's business associate, and married him in 1980, a year after leaving Hogwarts. However, while still at Hogwarts, she became pregnant with Regulus Black's child. This child, a boy, was born in the summer of 1978 and lived only a few days. Jacob LePonte was a Death Eater and died in Azkaban.

Estelle worked at Gringotts for a few years after Hogwarts but left to care for her parents. Estelle writes letters to Harry using her dead sister, Hilda's, name (Hilda Smith). In the letters, she praises Harry but tries to convince him that Severus Snape is not worthy of his love. It is later discovered that she may be somehow controlled by Jean-Louis LePonte, her would-be brother-in-law, and may not be acting entirely of her own will. At this writing, Estelle Smith's true motivations in writing the letters are not clear.

Hilda Smith: Hilda is the biological child of Harper and Margaret Smith. She was born in 1965 and died at Hogwarts under mysterious conditions in 1981. She was found dead in the lake and her boyfriend, Alex Sanders, was found sleeping/drunk on the Quidditch pitch. Hilda's four close friends are mentioned in the story: Mary Amberhurst, Camilla Foster, Rhonda McMillan and Honor Carson. It is later revealed that Hilda Smith was betrothed to Jacob LePonte's younger brother, Jean Louis LePonte. She died before she was able to marry him. At this writing, the reader still does not know 1) exactly how Hilda died and who was responsible and 2) what kind of relationship Hilda and Estelle had (were they close? not?).

Jacob LePonte: Husband of Estelle Smith (married 1980). He was a Death Eater who was arrested and imprisoned after Voldemort's "first fall" in 1981. Jacob LePonte died in Azkaban in 1986. He attended Beauxbatons and was quite a bit older than Estelle.

Jean Louis LePonte: Jean Louise is the younger brother of Jacob LePonte. He was promised to Hilda Smith, but never married her, as she died at Hogwarts. Like his older brother, he attended Beauxbatons. Jean Louis LePonte, at this point in the story, is apparently controlling Estelle Smith and has just written a letter to Harry, demanding money so he can care for Estelle, who, as Severus' biological sister, he regards as Harry's family. He obviously has access to family information (files, documents, etc.) that Estelle does not.

Prudence Carson: Prudence is the older sister of Honor Carson, who was one of Hilda Smith's Hogwarts friends. She was in Severus' year at Hogwarts and was in Slytherin House. Like Estelle, she was married to a Death Eater who died young. She was Draco Malfoy's childhood nanny.

Prudence is the one who reveals to the world (through Rita Skeeter) that Severus was "responsible" for the death of a Muggle child. Severus, knowing that the revelation must be coming, takes a leave of absence from Hogwarts for health reasons and is living at Shell Cottage when Harry is injured by the owl at the end of Chapter 15. Prudence also delivers the "warning" letter to Emerald Williams in Hogsmeade, who delivers it to Harry shortly before the tunnel collapse.

Prudence is arrested by the Aurors and appears to be under some sort of Fidelius charm. She can speak only obliquely about Estelle and appears to have been Imperiused repeatedly. Draco Malfoy tells Harry that Prudence is not smart enough to be the mastermind behind the plot and is more a bit player or taking someone's direct orders.

Note that with Prudence arrested, there is no ready courier for Estelle/Jean Louis. Jean Louis resorts to writing a letter to Harry himself after Prudence is arrested.

Alex Sanders: Alex Sanders is Hilda Smith's boyfriend at Hogwarts. He was found sleeping/hung over on the Quidditch pitch the morning Hilda turned up missing, and could not explain her disappearance. He is a Gryffindor and is a year older than Hilda. Alex Sanders is found dead at the bottom of the collapsed tunnel in the Hogsmeade accident early in the story. He was placed there, already dead, according to the Auror's report. At this writing, we do not yet know who killed him, or why.

Reuben Peace: The Lead Auror assigned to the case after the Hogsmeade incident which resulted in students (including Harry, Ron and Ginny) being injured and Alex Sanders being found dead in the collapsed tunnel. Reuben is fairly young and has a newborn son, born after the Final Battle, that he and his wife have named Harry, after Harry Potter.

Emerald Williams: The student who is given a letter (by Prudence Carson) in Hogsmeade to deliver to Harry Potter. She is a third-year Ravenclaw and does not figure prominently in the story.

Harper and Margaret Smith: The couple who adopted Anastasia Snape and raised her as Estelle Smith. They later had a biological daughter, Hilda Smith. Margaret Bancroft Smith was in Eileen Prince Snape's class at Hogwarts. She is thirty-five years old when she adopts Estelle and forty when Hilda is born. It is assumed that she had not been able to have children when she adopts Eileen's baby, but later does produce a biological daughter.

According to what is revealed in the last chapter, Harper and Margaret Smith spin horrible tales of the Snape family for their daughters, ostensibly to keep them away from Severus and his parents and risking Estelle learning the truth about her parentage. They create a story to explain their hatred – telling their girls that Eileen Prince had an affair with Margaret's father (their grandfather) and later, with her Muggle husband Tobias, tried to extort money from them.

Margaret died in 1995, Harper in 1998, about the same time as the Final Battle.

At this writing, we do not yet know (and may never know), the true reason Eileen (and Tobias?) gave their daughter to the Smiths to raise.

Isaac Smith: Isaac Smith is introduced in Chapter 17 as a contender for the estate left by Harper and Margaret Smith to their daughter Estelle. He grew up as Estelle's cousin, the son of her father's brother Orville. However, he produces proof that his actual biological father is Harper Smith, making him Harper's biological son. As Estelle is not a biological daughter, a portion of the Smith Estate, under archaic Wizarding law, would stay "in the bloodline" with Isaac. Estelle has solicitors engaged to try to salvage some of the estate for herself. In the meantime, the manor is inaccessible to her and she is living elsewhere, her whereabouts unknown. Is this a red herring? Is this critical to the plot and to Estelle's or Jean Louis' motivations?

The Magical Registry: Almost a character itself. This is the book that records the names of magical children when they are born. It is used to generate "Hogwarts" letters to potential students.

A note on Harry's "special powers:" The dramatic intent of the "Special Powers" subplot is to provide plot conflict and to give Harry and Severus something not murder-related to work out. Harry really prefers to be normal.

A note on Harry's future career: Readers who have been following this series since "Moment of Impact" may recall that Harry, at the end of “Moment of Impact,” is an Auror and is married to Ginny. This follows canon. However, there is wiggle room here to give Harry a specialty field within the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. A lot of people prefer non-Auror Harry, but I stuck as close to canon as possible.

 

Chapter 18: Captured

"Your eyes are healing well, Mr. Potter."

Harry fidgeted as Poppy carefully replaced the pad over his left eye, pressing it down gently. The brief glimmer of light, even as subdued as it was so early in the morning, had been tantalizingly hopeful.

"Do you think I can take the bandages off early?" he asked.

"No."

That was Severus. His voice came from the end of the bed, where he was standing, carefully watching Poppy's examination. "You have three more days – you've made it more than halfway through…hey! Catch that blasted thing and put it in the drawer, Harry!"

He'd brought Harry a Snitch on Tuesday and Harry had passed quite a few boring hours listening for it and plucking it out of the air when it got close enough for him to hear it and grab it.

Somehow, unbelievably, Harry had got to Thursday – four nights and four days gone by already since he collided with the post owl on the Quidditch pitch and ended up here at Shell Cottage with Severus, recuperating. The owl had managed to scratch his eyes with its talons, and they were insisting he keep them covered and closed for an entire week so they could heal.

Three days had passed since Severus had read him the letter the owl had been bringing him – the letter from Estelle Smith's apparently self-appointed caretaker, "LP," the letter that demanded that they – that Harry – send ten thousand Galleons so that LP could care for Estelle. Auror Peace had asked Harry to respond to that letter, and Harry dictated a letter to him, and Peace had owled it on Tuesday but, as of the night before, they hadn't heard a word.

Ginny had come to visit Tuesday after school and Severus – probably thrilled that Harry wasn't complaining for the first time in two days – had left them alone on the porch for two hours. She'd got him all caught up on what had happened at Hogwarts since his accident, and they swung together slowly on the hammock, shoulder to shoulder.

He told her about the letter Severus had read to him and what they'd found out about Estelle's baby and about how the man who she apparently was with now had been betrothed to her sister, Hazel, the girl who had died at Hogwarts when she was sixteen and whose body had been pushed out of the lake by the Giant Squid.

For the moment, he was just glad to be there with Ginny, relaxing and rocking in the hammock together as they had so often over the summer, when the grief over the losses – Remus, Tonks, Fred – was still so fresh and raw, and the ocean air felt so healing, calming.

"So she had Regulus Black's baby." Ginny was holding his hand now. He loved to hear her voice, soft and low near his ear, and wished he could see her as well. In the near-blackness of his imposed blindness, the loss of his sense of sight made him crave it all the more. "And she was just my age. Seventeen. I can't even imagine going through that – all that time pregnant, worrying about it, being scared, living with your parents' anger and disappointment, then after all of that - losing the baby."

"Yeah," said Harry. What else was there to say? He squeezed her hand.

"And then having to come back to Hogwarts and finish school like nothing happened," she added sadly.

"From what Professor Flitwick said, she hid the pregnancy. Her parents didn't find out about it until Easter break and there was a big row. I doubt anyone else knew except maybe her friends."

"Betrothal contracts are serious business," Ginny said with a frown. "Her parents would have been really angry to find out she was so serious with Regulus Black – even if she hadn't been pregnant. The family of the man she was betrothed to could have cancelled the contract – even made her family pay them something for their public humiliation."

She slipped her hand under the hem of Harry's t-shirt and ran it lightly over Harry's stomach. He groaned and turned on his side, facing her, then kissed her chin.

Ginny laughed.

"That was my chin, you know," she said.

"You're a tease and I'm blind," he said. He reached out with his left hand and managed to connect with her ear.

She pressed down on his chest until he was lying more or less flat and leaned in to kiss him properly.

"Severus will have my head if you move around too much," she said.

"He worries too much," said Harry, returning her kiss and running his hand through her hair.

"Get used to it," Ginny said. "At least in our family there are seven of us…" She trailed off and Harry tightened his arm around her and pulled her in closer.

"It's alright," he said. "There are seven of you, aren't there? It's just that they only have six to worry about now."

"I guess that's one way to look at it," said Ginny. She snuggled down next to him again and he led the conversation back to Estelle.

"So, let's say you were betrothed to someone when you were a baby – hmmm, let's say Malfoy…"

"Let's not say Malfoy," said Ginny. "Let's say Dean."

"It wouldn't be Dean," said Harry. "He's not a pure-blood."

"Michael Corner then," said Ginny, giggling.

"Malfoy," said Harry, poking her in the side.

"Fine. Malfoy. My parents could move into their servants’ quarters and take a big step up in the world."

"Their servants are house-elves," Harry pointed out.

Ginny gave an exaggerated sigh. "Your point?"

"Actually, we need to get you betrothed to someone older – someone not at Hogwarts the same time as you. Let's say Lucius Malfoy."

"Git," said Ginny, squeezing his hand. "Fine, Lucius. He's actually nicer looking than Draco anyway, not that Draco isn't…hey!"

Harry had tickled her this time and she grabbed his other hand and held it still.

"Fine," he said, in feigned resignation. "Right – so you're at Hogwarts, and you're promised to Lucius Malfoy. Can you date anyone else? Is he supposed to come to Hogwarts and be your date for the Yule Ball? Meet you on Hogsmeade weekends at Madam Puddifoot’s?"

"Oh, you can go to a dance with someone else," Ginny explained. "But there's an understanding that it will never be serious. Other boys will know that – they'll stay away from anything serious at all, knowing you're betrothed. And it's your responsibility to tell them, of course, though most would know. So it doesn't make sense that Regulus would have got anywhere close to Estelle. His family would have murdered him."

"Maybe he didn't know," suggested Harry. "Maybe she didn't tell him."

"How could she not?" said Ginny. "Everyone would know."

"But she and her sister were promised to boys that didn't go to Hogwarts – their families weren't even in the UK," said Harry. "And they were older, too. Isn't it possible that no one knew?"

"Hmmm." Ginny appeared to consider. "It is possible, actually. You're right. There wouldn't be that obvious connection. But still – what was she thinking?"

"Maybe that you sometimes can't help who you fall in love with," said Harry, squeezing Ginny's hand.

"Harry Potter – hopeless romantic," teased Ginny.

"Love is blind," Harry quipped.

He couldn't see Ginny roll her eyes, but he knew she did so.

ooOOOoo

Ron had come Wednesday. Severus had Harry settled on the sofa before he got there, and Harry's schoolbooks were stacked up on the table.

"I've reviewed your professors' class notes for the week and left Ronald instructions on what to cover with you," Severus told him. "Two hours – solid – and then I'll have Kreacher bring you supper. You can catch up with all the Hogwarts gossip then."

"I caught up yesterday," said Harry.

"In between all that snogging, I imagine," Severus said.

Ron had Flooed in just then, and had gamely picked up their Charms textbook and started right in. It was a very long – and boring – two hours, but they got through it and, over dinner, with Harry's plate balanced on his stomach and food ending up all over his clothes, the sofa and the floor, they caught up on everything else. Ginny had already told Ron and Hermione the newest details of the case and Ron added his own two Knuts about purebloods and betrothal contracts.

When Ron left, it was with the promise that both he and Ginny would come after classes the next day.

But shortly after Poppy left on Thursday morning, just after Severus got Harry settled in the hammock on the porch, all hell broke loose.

It apparently started with an owl from LP, addressed to Harry. The Aurors had handily intercepted it and, in a stroke of good fortune that hadn't been with them on this case so far, they were able to trace the return owl to the point where it disappeared inside the Fidelius-protected property.

Which, if the Aurors’ research could be trusted, was a country cottage owned by the family of Prudence Carson, Draco Malfoy's former nanny, the woman the Aurors already had in Ministry custody. It had been Prudence who delivered the warning note to Harry in Hogsmeade via the Ravenclaw girl Emerald Williams.

After they identified the owners of the property under Fidelius, the Aurors found the weak link within an hour.

They started with Honor Carson.

Honor was Prudence's younger sister, and had been one of Hilda Smith's good friends at Hogwarts. She had been interviewed by the Aurors after the Hogsmeade incident and had cooperated fully. They brought her back in.

It was evident immediately when they asked about the cottage that she was under Fidelius as well, and couldn't speak directly or voluntarily about it, but now that they knew of its existence, they were able to ask around it and get the information they needed.

By noon, they were inside the property.

With Prudence and Honor's father – the secret keeper.

He had been guaranteed his daughter Prudence's release in return for access to the property.

Reuben had come by at three o'clock to take Severus to the Ministry – they didn't give Harry all the details he wanted to know, only that they hadn't apprehended Leponte and that Estelle had been taken into custody. Severus waited for Ron and Ginny to arrive at three thirty before he Flooed out to meet Reuben.

"Are you sure that was Severus?" asked Ginny, walking on one side of Harry as she and Ron helped him to the porch and into the hammock. "He didn't give us any instructions."

"Or tell us not to do anything idiotic like take a swim in the ocean or shine bright lights in your eyes," added Ron. He'd nabbed a few biscuits as they went through the kitchen and chewed one thoughtfully as he looked out the windows at the breaking waves.

"They've got Estelle," said Harry. He'd been waiting for a break in the conversation to interject this small bit of news. "The Aurors – they found her this morning."

"What?" Ron whirled around to face him.

"Why didn't you tell us right away?" asked Ginny. "Is that where Severus was going? To the Ministry to press charges?"

"Press charges?" Harry repeated. He hadn't really given a lot of thought to why Severus was going.

"He won't have to press charges, Ginny," said Ron, giving her a look that told her to tread carefully. "Harry's an adult – they won't allow a statement from Severus to stand in for Harry."

"But he's the Headmaster," said Ginny, glancing first at Harry, who looked a trifle worried. "He'll represent all the students who were injured in Hogsmeade."

"Well, I guess I won't have to worry about cleaning out my vault and sending money to LePonte to take care of her," said Harry. He was clearly getting agitated. "You know, Severus is going to be gone for a while, I bet. Why don't we walk down to the ocean?"

"Oh, you're nutters, Harry," said Ron with a solid laugh. "We wouldn't take you outside if the cottage was on fire. Severus would expel us."

"After he killed us," added Ginny.

"Some friends you are," said Harry. "I'm either dying of boredom or burning up in a fire."

"Entertain him with some homework, Ron," suggested Ginny. She'd wiggled onto the hammock next to him and Harry looked decidedly less bored than he had. "How about Herbology? That chapter about acidic skin-eating fungi might perk us all up a bit."

"I wouldn't touch that mushroom with double dragon-hide gloves," said Ron, sorting through the books on the porch table. "It was purple. And slimy."

"And smoking," added Ginny, with a small shudder.

Ron began to read the chapter on the acidic skin-eating fungi aloud, much to the amusement of Harry and Ginny, since he read it in a fair imitation of Professor Sprout's voice. Harry couldn't swear that he actually retained anything from the reading, but it was entertaining, at least, and helped to pass the time while they waited for Severus to reappear.

Except that he didn't.

Harry was getting antsy by six o'clock. He'd asked Ginny for the time three times in twenty minutes. They'd abandoned studying at five, and Ron had found a bag of crisps and some old rhubarb and raspberry biscuits and passed them around.

At six thirty, Arthur Weasley, not Severus, appeared in the doorway that led from the kitchen to the porch.

Ron's voice faltered. He had been reading their Transfiguration review questions aloud, this time in Hagrid's voice. Ginny drew her arm out from beneath Harry's bum and shifted away from him quickly.

"Dad!" she exclaimed.

"Dad? What are you doing…?"

"It's my dad, Harry," said Ginny.

"Mr. Weasley? Where's Severus?"

Harry was struggling to get up and out of the hammock.

"What happened? Why are you here?" Ron was on his feet as his father approached.

Arthur Weasley held up his hand and smiled at his children, but addressed Harry.

"Severus is fine, Harry. There's just been a bit of a …" He faltered.

"A bit of a what?" Harry was sitting up now, head turned toward Arthur.

"A ruckus, I suppose. At the Ministry. Well, and at St. Mungo's too."

"Just tell us what happened, Dad," said Ginny, "before Harry tears out of here going after Severus."

"Oh, no reason to do that!" Arthur pulled a chair over and sat next to Ron. "Severus said that Harry will have told you about the break in the case." He looked at Ron and Ginny, who nodded unapologetically.

"Of course he told us," said Ginny.

Arthur shook his head, a small smile on his face. "Well, the Aurors took Estelle Smith to St. Mungo's. She was in pretty bad shape as I understand – roughed up quite a bit. She'd apparently been kept a prisoner for some time. The Aurors hadn't even had a chance to question her after she was treated before the hospital was crawling with reporters. Someone had tipped off the papers that there had been a major arrest in the Hogsmeade case, and that the woman arrested was Severus Snape's sister."

"But who would have done that?" asked Ron.

"LePonte," said Harry. He lifted his chin. "Right?"

"Apparently," said Arthur. "The evening Prophet ran a story already – they'll have plenty more by tomorrow."

"They'll probably run a special edition," said Ron.

"Does she know, then?" asked Harry. "Estelle, I mean. Does she know she's a Snape?"

"No one's told her yet, but they've asked Severus to break the news to her this evening."

"Severus?" Ginny, Harry and Ron all voiced the same surprised exclamation, more or less at the same time.

Arthur smiled. "I don't know all the details, but that seems to be the general plan. Someone has to tell her, and he seems the logical choice, I suppose." He stood. "Now, back to Hogwarts, Ginny. I'll Floo with you and have a word with Professor McGonagall, let her know Ron will be staying here with Harry."

"I could stay," volunteered Ginny, rather quickly. "Ron should get back. He'll want to check in on Hermione."

"Hermione will be fine. You can drop in on her when you get back and fill her in," said Arthur. "Ron can study here. Severus seems to trust him with Harry."

"And not me." Ginny's pout was entirely artificial.

"Of course not you. Though at least we'd be assured Harry wouldn't freeze to death if we left you with him." He looked pointedly at his daughter.

"When will Severus be back?" asked Ron, glancing at Harry worriedly. "Will he be back in time to put the drops in Harry's eyes?"

Arthur shook his head. "Possibly, but unlikely. He assures me that you are fully capable, and that Harry knows the dosage and the schedule."

Ginny kissed Harry goodbye and Arthur followed her out through the Floo a few minutes later, leaving Harry and Ron alone in the cottage.

Ron made them sandwiches and they ate on the porch, Harry with the plate balanced on his stomach, as always, and Ron lying back in one of the lounge chairs, pulled around to face Harry.

"This is weird," said Harry when they'd finished eating and Ron had just reached for their Defense Against the Dark Arts textbook. "He could have asked your dad to stay, or sent over Poppy. You know what this means, don't you?" He had his hands behind his head, on the pillow, and the hammock was swaying gently.

"I don't know – maybe he felt sorry for you – thought he'd give you a break for once," answered Ron. He opened the Defense book and idly paged through to their current chapter. "Guess we should read Defense now," he said with a sigh.

Harry smiled. "See? He trusts you, Ron. Look at you – studying with me when there's no one here to check on us. Close the book. We don't need to read Defense. There's nothing in that book you don't already know."

He said it quietly, and his voice reflected both resignation and pride.

Ron stared at the book, then closed it.

"You know, you're right. Reckon we learned pretty much everything we needed to know about defensive magic last year."

"And then some," said Harry. He listened to the sounds of the cottage – the wind outside, the waves hitting the shore, the rustle of the grasses, the chirping insects. He wanted to say that being out here, on the porch, reminded him a bit of camping. But he didn't say it. Instead, he said something unexpected.

"So, are you in love with Hermione?"

He couldn't see Ron staring at him. There was no way for him to see the stunned look on his face.

"In love with her?" Ron managed.

"Yeah. That's what I asked," said Harry with a quiet smile. "Are you in love with Hermione?"

"Are you in love with my sister?"

Harry took it in stride. "I don't know. I like her – a lot. I like to be with her. I want to keep seeing her –see where it goes. I can definitely see myself with her in the future – and not just because she's a Weasley," he assured Ron, thinking about it as he spoke. "But because she's Ginny. She's great. She's definitely the smartest of all of you, and the prettiest…"

"Ha ha," said Ron. "I'd throw something at you but it wouldn't really be fair, seeing as you're blind and all."

"Well?" asked Harry, when Ron didn't volunteer anything else. "Hermione?"

"We're only eighteen," said Ron, sighing.

"You're eighteen. She's nineteen. I was born when my mum was twenty."

"My mum was nineteen when Bill was born," said Ron, smiling vaguely.

"So your parents knew they were in love when they were your age," said Harry.

"Well look at you and Ginny – why should we be any more serious than you two?"

Harry laughed. Ron stared at him. It was so hard to read Harry with his eyes covered. He'd never really realized how much of a conversation with someone was held with the eyes.

"What's so funny?" Ron asked, poking Harry in the leg with his foot.

"You are," answered Harry. He turned on his side, folding his pillow in half and resting his head on it. "Ginny and I – well, we have to get to know each other all over again. Yeah, I know. We've been back together since May….but this summer – this summer wasn't about us, was it?" He spoke quietly now. "It was about Fred, and Remus, and getting to know Teddy. It was about getting to know Severus again, really, about him getting better. And me and Ginny – we'd each missed so much of what the other went through. It takes time to work through all that." He paused, considering his words before he spoke again. "But you and Hermione…" He smiled wistfully. "You were together for all of it – well, for nearly all of it, anyway. You saw what each other went through, nearly every piece of it. I just can't imagine you wouldn't come out of that either hating each other or…or in love."

Ron was staring at Harry.

"I don't think mates are supposed to have these conversations," he said slowly.

Harry laughed.

"You wouldn't believe the shite that goes through my head all day when I have nothing to do but listen to the waves break on the sand."

"We'd better get those bandages off soon or you'll be wanting to talk about your feelings," quipped Ron.

They were quiet for a long, drawn-out moment. The hammock rocked gently and Harry sighed.

"Well? Are you?" he asked at last.

"Yeah," answered Ron, smiling at the ceiling. "I am. Totally." He grinned, and shook his head as if he himself couldn't believe what was happening to him. "We want to move in together next year, when we leave Hogwarts. Mum won't like it, but we're going to do it. Figured you might want to share with us, make Mum think we're all just flat mates."

"Your mum won't be fooled," said Harry. "But yeah, I might like that. If you two can put up with me, anyway."

"Put up with you?" Ron laughed. "It will be like old times. Except that we won't be moving to a new flat every day, or having to put up charms to keep Muggles away."

They sat quietly for a few minutes.

"I'd suggest a game of chess but I have a feeling I'd trounce you," said Ron.

At eight o'clock, Ron got the eye drops and some fresh gauze pads and managed to get two drops in each of Harry's eyes without too much fuss.

"Tell me the truth – how do they look?" asked Harry, frowning against the burning sting.

"Right one's not too bad – bloodshot. Just looks like you're tired, really."

"The right one doesn't hurt anymore," said Harry. "So what about the left?"

"I'm sure it will be fine. Madam Pomfrey told us you'd get full use of your eyes back," assured Ron.

"That bad?"

"Yeah," said Ron, grimacing. "It's swollen and goopy. The eye itself is still really red – not much white on it at all, really."

"I can see out of it," said Harry. "Poppy was here this morning. She didn't seem worried."

"It's fine," said Ron. "You've had worse."

"So've you," said Harry, remembering how much blood there had been when Ron had been Splinched.

They talked a bit about Estelle Smith, and what could be keeping Severus so long, and Ron wondered what it would be like to meet the sister you didn't even know you had. And they both wondered why Severus was the one who had to tell her. They questioned how much of the information in the letters was true. Maybe she already knew she was a Snape. Maybe she wasn't really being held against her will. Maybe she really was the mastermind behind the crime in Hogsmeade, and Hermione's accident.

They fell asleep on the porch, Harry first, wondering if Severus would wake him when he came home. Ron drifted off soon afterward.

It was late- very late – when Severus roused him. He could hear snoring, and it took him a minute to remember that he was on the porch at Shell Cottage, and that the snoring was coming from Ron. Severus helped him stand, the led him upstairs. He used the loo, then settled gratefully into his bed.

"'What time is it?" he asked.

"Nearly one o'clock," answered Severus.

Harry pushed himself up on his elbows.

"One? Where've you been all this time?"

"At St. Mungo's," answered Severus, speaking quietly even though Harry was now fully awake. "Arthur told you that."

"He told us you were at St. Mungo’s and you were going to talk to Estelle," said Harry. "He said the media was tipped off that Estelle is your sister. But you've been gone for hours – were you talking with her this whole time?"

Harry felt the bed dip as Severus sat down.

"Ronald administered the eye drops?" he asked.

"Yes – of course. Eight o'clock. We're down to just twice a day now, right?"

"Right.” Harry heard rustling as Severus checked to be sure Ron had put the drops back on the bedside table.

"He said my left eye looks horrible," said Harry. He was annoyed that Severus wasn't answering his question about Estelle.

"It looks quite a bit better than it did four days ago," answered Severus calmly. "It is healing well."

"That's what I told him, too," said Harry with a sigh. "So…Estelle?" He was bunching pillows up behind him to get more comfortable in his semi-reclined position.

"Don't get too comfortable," said Severus. Harry could hear how tired he was. The pillow on his right shifted as Severus, despite his insinuation that they wouldn't be talking long, helped arrange it for him. "I met my sister – yes. She is not well, Harry. I still don't know what to think – what to believe. The Aurors, at this point, have enough evidence to charge her for what part she played in the Hogsmeade incident. But she has confessed to something else. She made the confession freely – she must feel a great deal of guilt over it."

There was a deep sigh in his voice.

Harry almost didn't want to know. But he thought he already did – or might.

"Not the baby…?" he said.

"The baby?" said Severus, surprised. He obviously had not been expecting that response. "No, not the baby," he assured Harry, laying his hand on Harry's arm. "Estelle confessed to brewing a potion– years and years ago. A potion that lowers inhibitions, makes a person unreasonably brave – fearless. Makes him disregard consequences." He paused, watching Harry, waiting for Harry to put it together. "It was a potion often used by Death Eaters before a raid," he added, almost apologetically. "We used to call it the suicide potion."

"Suicide? What do you mean?" Harry asked.

"It was virtual suicide to take it before a raid," explained Severus. "You'd be on the front line, directly in the line of fire. You felt invincible – but certainly were not. No fears – and no inhibitions." He paused. Harry could not see the troubled look on his face. "The potion wore off over time, after a great surge. You felt drained and inevitably fell asleep. You'd wake with virtually no memory of the time you were under the potion's effects, feeling like you had a horrible hangover."

Harry made the connection instantly.

"Her sister – the boyfriend. Alex Sanders. She gave the potion to him, didn't she? But why? Why would she do that?"

"She claims to have made the potion at LePonte's request – and delivered it to him."

"And he gave it to Alex Sanders…or made sure he got it. He knew Hilda was seeing him. He must have."

"Estelle claims that Hilda was desperately trying to break the betrothal agreement," Severus said. "Their parents were having none of it, however."

"So he has his sister-in-law brew a potion for him," mused Harry. "Her husband – LePonte's brother – must have been in Azkaban already then. He somehow got the potion to Sanders and got him to take it. But what did he think would happen? Did he think Alex would kill himself and that Hilda would forget about him?"

"I suppose he hoped he'd humiliate himself," said Severus. "We can't really know – Estelle claims that she had no idea why he wanted the potion, but she made it for him nonetheless. But under that potion's effects, Alex Sanders could have – most certainly would have – done something that would have gotten him killed or expelled."

"But he didn't die," Harry said. "Hilda did."

"With that potion working in him, going for a swim in the lake might have sounded like a perfectly fine idea," said Severus. "Perhaps wrestling with the Giant Squid, or challenging one of the merpeople. One of the potion's physiological effects is a huge surge of testosterone and adrenaline. But the real beauty of it, from LePonte's perspective anyway, is that the aftereffects mirror an intense hangover. LePonte would have had to have mixed the potion into alcohol – perhaps Firewhisky, or mead."

"But if it was in a bottle of Firewhisky, Sanders could have shared it with all his mates. It could have ended up with all the Gryffindors in his dorm thinking they could fly and jumping off Gryffindor Tower."

"It could have ended even worse than it did," admitted Severus. "From the evidence we have, the final result was that Hilda Smith died that night and Alex Sanders survived with little or no memory of what had happened. And from that point on, LePonte was able to control Estelle – by constantly reminding her what part she had played in her sister's death. That she had brewed the potion that had made Alex take her into that lake."

"I don't understand," Harry said. He drew his knees up under his chin and wrapped his arms around them. "I mean – I can understand how she blames herself. But brewing the potion wasn't a crime, was it? What did he have against her, really?"

"Guilt," said Severus. "Blackmail. She wasn't worried about being arrested for her part in her sister's death. But she didn't want her parents to know. They were devastated – as she was – when Hilda died. Knowing that their other daughter had had any part in that death, no matter how small, would have broken her parents all the more."

"How do you know all this?" asked Harry. "I thought Estelle hated you. Did she tell you all of this herself?

Severus laughed. The sound was rather raw, and hoarse, and Harry reached out and fumbled for his arm.

"What? What aren't you telling me, Severus?"

"Estelle wasn't only willing to speak with me, Harry. She demanded to. I don't for one minute doubt that she was used and ill-treated by LePonte, but she's not weak, and she's not entirely innocent in this whole affair." He shifted on the bed again.

Harry couldn't stand it any longer. He reached up and pushed up the wrap that held his bandages in place and carefully began to remove the eye pad from his right eye.

"Harry! What are you doing?" Severus reached for his hand, but Harry yanked it away.

"Leave it," he said. "I need to see your face – just for a minute." His voice was heavy with emotion. "Please, Dad."

When Severus didn't grab his hands again, Harry carefully opened his right eye. He blinked several times in the dim moonlight.

"Lumos," he whispered.

His wand, sitting on the chest of drawers across the room, glowed with a warm light. Harry looked up at Severus' face. Severus was eyeing him speculatively. His face was worn and drawn, and he had scratches across his left cheek.

"You look awful," said Harry, blinking some more. He stared at the scratches on Severus' face, beginning to understand. "Tell me what happened. Were you the one who told Estelle that she's your sister?"

Severus' mouth stretched into a thin line.

"I didn't have to tell her. Turns out she's known for quite some time."

"She knew?" asked Harry. Everything he thought he had known, that they'd deduced, suddenly made less sense.

"She knew," said Severus. "It's very complicated, Harry, and it's very late. We'll continue this in the morning."

"You can't just stop there!" protested Harry.

"I can. And I must. I'm tired, and there's quite a bit on my mind. Get some sleep – we'll have to get Ron up early to get back to Hogwarts."

There was something about the look on his face that gave Harry pause. He wanted to protest more, but he didn't. He simply nodded and watched as Severus left the room.

It occurred to him only when he woke up hours later with his right eye gummed shut that he'd forgotten to put the bandage back on his eye.

But as he rubbed it carefully to loosen his eyelashes, he was even more troubled when he realized Severus hadn't said a thing about it when he'd left the room.

Something big was on Severus' mind. He seldom – never – put Harry and his health and welfare second to anything. But this thing with Estelle had rattled him.

Harry needed to use the loo. He was awake, and he could see, so he stood carefully and made his way to the corridor.

Just outside the door to the loo, he froze. He heard voices downstairs.

"She says she'll cooperate fully if he agrees."

Harry was fairly certain that was Reuben Peace's voice.

"I can't allow it," said Severus. "What does she have to say to him that she can't say to you?"

"No idea. But she's even agreed to Veritaserum without a preliminary ruling – if she can speak with Harry first."

Oh.

"Alone."

That was Severus.

"She did request that she see him alone," said Reuben. "When do the bandages come off his eyes?"

"Sunday morning," Severus replied. "Though his left eye is healing slowly – it may need another few days."

Ha. No surprises there, despite what Poppy had said. He pressed his right ear against the wall, continuing to listen. The voices rose up the stairwell so well in this cottage.

He wasn't sure what he thought about speaking with Estelle.

"Will you at least ask him? We could really push this thing forward with carte blanche to ask her anything under Veritaserum."

"No." Severus' voice was firm. Harry bristled, almost forgetting he was eavesdropping. But Severus was continuing.

"You ask him. It's your case. He's eighteen, Reuben. He can give his legal consent. I don't want his decision colored by my wishes."

"Thank you, Headmaster. Really. I'll come back after breakfast and speak with him. I need to pick up the Prophet. Should I bring your copy?"

Severus laughed harshly. "Most certainly. I need to start working on my libel suit."

"It may not be that bad."

They both laughed.

"You will have ears in the room, Reuben?" Severus asked, going back to the original topic. "She's…wounded. She may seem sincere enough, but there is something unstable about her. I don't trust her with him."

"Yet you're not interfering with his decision."

"He's made plenty of important decisions on his own," answered Severus. "And he's going to be out of Hogwarts in six months. I need to stop hovering over him."

"I've spent quite a bit of time with him, Severus," said Reuben. "And honestly, I don't think he minds."

Harry ducked quickly back into his room, arranging himself in bed even though he really, really had to use the loo.

It was strange hearing himself talked about like that.

Stranger to think about leaving Hogwarts in six months. Being on his own. Maybe sharing a flat with Ron and Hermione while he started Auror training.

But for now, he really needed to use the loo. He found the gauze pad for his eye and slipped it back on, sighing as the dim light faded to darkness, and called for Severus.

 

Chapter 19. The Visit

Reuben came after breakfast, just as he'd said he would, and asked Harry if he'd be willing to speak with Estelle at St. Mungo's.

Harry hated not being able to see.

He knew Severus was there, sitting on his chair across from the sofa, and he wanted to see the look on his face. He knew what his answer was – that he was willing to speak with Estelle – he was far too invested in this case to refuse at this point.

"What do you think, Severus?" he asked. "You've met her already – do you think it will help for me to do this?"

"Help who?" asked Severus. Harry thought he was being sarcastic, and could imagine the look he was giving Reuben.

"Help the case. Help the Aurors figure out what's going on – what LePonte really wants, and where he is, maybe."

"You so easily believe her?" asked Severus. "You're ready to drop all claims against her and believe that LePonte is the real criminal behind all of this? The accident in Hogsmeade that almost killed you?"

"It wasn't an accident and it didn't almost kill me," said Harry, resolutely.

"You know what I mean," said Severus.

"I think I'd have a better shot of understanding what's true and what's not if I spoke to her," said Harry. "And no, I'm not predisposed to believe everything she says. She's been lying to me since the first letter, and even if she wasn't the one who set the whole thing up, she definitely was involved."

"I'm encouraged that you remember the lies," said Severus.

"Why wouldn't I?" Harry said, trying to keep the anger from his voice. "You just told me this morning that she claims to have known since she got married that she's a Snape. What's that – twenty years? She's obviously done nothing to find you and reconcile with you and she's had plenty of time to do it."

"Harry – while true, those are not the specific claims I have against her," said Severus. "You've been seriously wounded twice. Your friends have been injured – Hermione quite seriously. At the very least, the very least, Estelle Smith is an accomplice in these crimes."

"Stockholm syndrome?" Reuben's voice surprised Harry. He'd almost forgotten he was in the room.

"I thought of that," Severus said. His voice was not forgiving. "But I find it very hard to believe she's been held a virtual prisoner for twenty years."

"We've no real evidence that she had any sort of public life since her sister died," Reuben replied.

"What did she say to you, Severus? When you talked with her? Was she horrible? I'd like to know before I give Reuben an answer. And I want to know what you think I should do. You know I can't see you – if I could, I'd know without asking."

Severus and Reuben exchanged a look. "I think you should see her," answered Severus after the kind of long pause that eventually gets uncomfortable. "I think it will advance the case against her – or better said, clarify her role in the events – assuming she submits to Veritaserum willingly as she has promised."

"She won't see him until we have her signed agreement," promised Reuben.

"And you will know what is happening in that room at every moment – you will have it monitored."

"Monitoring spells are on all of our hospitalized prisoners' rooms at all times," said Reuben. “We'll hear everything that is said, and see everything that goes on."

"So it'll be at St. Mungo's?" Harry asked.

"If we can manage it in the next few days," answered Reuben. "I think we'll get more out of her while she's at St. Mungo's – before she's moved to a cell at the Ministry."

"I can see pretty well out of my right eye," volunteered Harry. "If you think I should go before Sunday, I'm sure…"

"Sunday," said Severus, very firmly. "Poppy will arrive at ten to give you a final check-over. We will leave from here for St. Mungo's and then go directly back to Hogwarts."

"We?" asked Harry. "You're going back, too?"

"I am," answered Severus. "The Board of Governors has asked me to return, given the recent developments in the case."

"Wow – that's great." Harry's face expressed his relief. "Maybe life can get back to normal again – maybe we can get back to those Tuesday evening father and son dinners."

"I'd like that very much," answered Severus. Harry heard the sigh in his voice, could sense how tired and stressed Severus was.

"I'll start making arrangements for Sunday afternoon," said Reuben. From the direction of his voice, Harry could tell that he'd stood up and was preparing to leave. "Extra security, of course."

"I'll check the room myself before the interview," said Severus.

Harry rolled his eyes – to little effect behind the bandages.

"We don't plan to move her, Severus. She's in a tiny room – not a lot larger than a cell. You've seen it. We'll have a guard outside the door…."

"Good – that will make three, since you and I shall be there as well."

"You know I wouldn't ask this of Harry if…."

"I know," interrupted Severus. Harry could imagine him holding up his hand and glancing at Harry, silently asking the Auror to let him take the lead. "I've explained this to Harry – that if Estelle submits to Veritaserum of her own free will, without protest, that things could progress more smoothly for the prosecution. Some evidence is not admissible in court if the defendant was forced to take Veritaserum."

"I'm fine with it," said Harry. He heard Severus stand, too, to see Reuben off. He didn't see Reuben pass Severus the morning's Prophet, though he wouldn't have been surprised at Severus' scowl when he read the sensational headlines.

ooOOOoo

Severus had a bit of a surprise for Harry that night. Instead of Ron or Ginny coming to keep him company after classes, Ginny Flooed in with Luna and Neville.

"Ron's staying with Hermione. They're revising, " said Ginny, rolling her eyes.

"We'd be revising , too, if you'd come by yourself," laughed Harry. He reached out and grabbed the air where he thought her arm would be.

"We can leave," said Neville. "But the Headmaster promised us homemade ice cream."

"And Firewhisky," added Luna brightly.

"Um…I don't think…"

"I said nothing about Firewhisky, Miss Lovegood, as you well know," said Severus. "And the ice cream is not going to churn itself."

"It will with a spell," said Ginny under her breath.

"And you shall be the first to crank, then." Severus paused in the doorway. "Come – bring Mr. Potter with you. Carefully. He's been a bit overconfident lately."

They sat together on the closed-in porch, taking turns cranking the ice cream. Severus made fish and chips and they ate a casual supper topped off with the homemade ice cream.

"So, Mr. Longbottom, what are your plans when you leave Hogwarts?"

It was a question that seemed to come from nowhere. Severus was standing at the window, looking out into the moonlit night, holding a bowl of ice cream.

"Professor Sprout is helping me find an apprenticeship – I'd like to continue my studies in Herbology. Sir."

"You have contacted Dr. Hugo Greenside in Dublin?"

"You know him?" Neville's voice rose in excitement.

"I worked with him for several months during my Potions mastery. Yes, I know him well. He's been known to take on an apprentice now and again. Do you know his work?"

"Of course! He's practically a legend! I didn't know he took on apprentices."

"I will speak with Professor Sprout on Monday. We'll send him an official request – I'll put my name on it as an endorsement." He gave Neville a half smile. "There are no guarantees, mind you. But he would be a fascinating master." He paused, glancing at Harry. "You are sure this is the proper course for you? You do not want to join the Aurors? Or study Defense? You are quite gifted in that discipline as well."

"I'm sure," answered Neville. He looked utterly comfortable in his skin. "I've always been sure."

"Maybe you can teach at Hogwarts one day," suggested Luna. She had made soup out of her ice cream and was drinking it, rather than spooning it, from the bowl.

"And what about you, Miss Lovegood?" Severus turned his attention on Luna. "What are your plans once you leave Hogwarts this summer?"

"I'll start working with my father," she answered. "But it's very nice of you to ask. Were you going to offer to help me like you're helping Neville?"

Harry hid a grin behind his hand and Ginny pressed her knee against his.

"I don't know. Perhaps," answered Severus. Harry heard just a trace of amusement in his voice. "What will you be doing at the Quibbler?"

"Oh, we're not going to work at the Quibbler," Luna explained. Harry could imagine both the serene smile on her face and the look of confusion on Severus'. "We'll be traveling for an entire year – he's got an expedition arranged to Madagascar, and a safari, and we'll be working at an archaeological dig in Nicaragua."

"I think you have your next year or so covered," Severus said.

"You're next, Gin," said Harry, nudging her with his shoulder.

"I have already spoken to your parents, Miss Weasley," said Severus. "I understand you will be entering the exploratory program at St. Mungo's – to determine which medical career best suits your interests and abilities."

Harry was suddenly very glad his eyes were bandaged. He sat very still, waiting for Ginny's response, not giving anything away.

It turned out that everyone was sitting very still. Looking at their hands. Everyone except for Luna.

"Oh, no. Ginny isn't going to be a healer or a mediwitch! She's going to play professional Quidditch – aren't you, Ginny?"

Harry tightened his hand on Ginny's. He could feel her tense as she bravely lifted her eyes and faced her Headmaster.

"Well, actually, yes. I'm hoping too. I haven't exactly told Mum and Dad yet, though. Mum's got her heart set on me being a healer. She wasn't happy when Charlie tried out – he was picked up as an alternate by the Wasps but didn't make the cut the second year."

Harry tucked his arm around Ginny. This wasn't exactly how Ginny had meant for the adults in their world to discover her plan.

"Applications are due for the St. Mungo's program by March 1st," said Severus in his Professor voice. "Quidditch tryouts do not begin until July. I assume you would like my guidance on this matter?"

"Of course she does," said Harry.

"Miss Weasley can speak for herself, Harry," admonished Severus.

"Of course I can," said Ginny, giving Harry a look which he could not appreciate. She turned to Severus. "What do you think I should do, Headmaster?"

"Ah," Severus answered, with a smile. "I will not fall into that trap. You will do what you want to do, ultimately, what will make you happy. I suspect you feel that a career in professional Quidditch will make you happier than a career in lime-green St. Mungo's robes."

He held up his hand, indicating he had more to say, as they all laughed.

"However, there are no guarantees that you will be picked up by a professional team. The teams are small, and the competition…."

"She'll make it, Severus," interjected Harry. "She's fantastic – fast, accurate, smart – and she's already been contacted by scouts from two teams."

"She might make it," Severus insisted. "There are no guarantees. Playing Quidditch requires excellent health and no injuries. Even a minor injury or illness could ground her during tryouts."

"She'll make it," Harry insisted.

"You need a backup plan, Miss Weasley," said Severus firmly. "What will you do if you are not selected by one of the teams?"

"I suppose I could work in the shop with Ron and George until the next round of tryouts," Ginny said.

"You can go on safari with us," said Luna brightly. "You'll need a hat of course, one with netting, You can all come along, really. I don't think Daddy will mind."

"You and your father need to spend time together," said Severus. "Alone. The others will have plenty to keep them busy. Miss Weasley, since you asked, I would recommend that you fill out the paperwork and apply for the program at St. Mungo's. It begins in September. You'll know in July if your Quidditch career will get off the ground or not. If it does not, you will most certainly have a place in the St. Mungo's class. You may find that you quite enjoy it."

"It's a good idea, Ginny," Neville volunteered.

Harry didn't particularly think it was a good idea.

"You don't want to be a mediwitch or a healer," he said. "That's your mum's idea – not yours."

"She doesn't want me to be an Auror," said Ginny. She glanced over at Severus and half-scowled. "She's forbidden it. Says it's too dangerous and she's already lost enough children."

Severus frowned. Harry was fidgeting. "Do you want to be an Auror?" he asked, glancing from one of Harry's friends to another.

"I'd be a good Auror," Ginny answered.

"That's not what I asked," Severus said. "Do you want to be an Auror?"

"If I can't play Quidditch – then yes," she answered. She glanced at Harry then back at Severus, and sighed. "But I can't. I can't do that to my parents. Quidditch is dangerous enough, and I haven't even had the courage to tell them yet that I plan to try out."

Even though Ginny was speaking, Severus' eyes were on Harry.

And Harry…Harry was still fidgeting.

"Almost every Auror has parents that worry about them," Harry said. He'd raised his head toward Severus, even though he couldn't see him. "But the Wizarding world needs Aurors. Just like we need healers, and teachers, and Potions masters, and newspapers."

They both realized they were not talking about Ginny's desire to be an Auror.

"Be that as it may," said Severus, frowning just a little, "Ginny needs an alternate plan." He turned once again to Ginny. "If a medical career is not what you want, you had best come up with an alternate." He lowered his voice, and Harry knew it was Severus speaking to Ginny, to Harry's girlfriend, not the Headmaster lecturing. "And I think your parents deserve to know your plans. In fact, they may be able to offer you some guidance. You know they have your best interest at heart."

"You're the only one of us here who has two parents involved in your life," said Luna out of the blue. She tilted her head, just a bit, and looked at Ginny with a small smile. "Some days I'd give my wand to smell my mother's hair again."

I wonder why my mum's hair smelled like, thought Harry.

Ginny sighed.

"You're right, Luna. I should be grateful."

"You should just love them while you have them," said Harry.

"Their concern for your health and welfare will persist your entire life, but you need to weigh it against your own happiness, and your own goals," said Severus, surprising everyone. "Do not choose a path in life because someone else points you in a direction that seems easy, or that seems to lead to immediate gain. Think about where you want to be in five years, and ten, and twenty, and fifty."

Severus gathered up the ice cream bowls and left the room.

"Wow," said Neville after a moment. "Severus Snape… who knew?"

/

Sunday could not come fast enough for Harry. He'd managed to get through the longest Saturday of his life by sleeping through most of it, so he wasn't much tired at night and tossed and turned until the early hours of the morning. When Poppy arrived, she made him submit not only to an overly thorough examination of his eyes, but to a general all-around health-check as well.

"We must be doing something right at Hogwarts," she said with a smile as she jotted some notes in his chart. "You've gained five pounds and grown an inch and a half."

"Really?" he said. He didn't care much about the five pounds but an extra inch or two wouldn't be a bad thing.

"It's not terribly unusual for some boys to have a last spurt at eighteen," she said. "But I expect you're about finished – taller than your mum, a bit shorter than your dad."

Harry glanced over at Severus. "Quite a bit shorter," he said.

Poppy grinned at him, and Severus rolled his eyes.

"You're getting pretty good at that eye roll," said Harry. "I think you've been hanging around me too much."

"You're going to have to leave the left eye bandaged, Harry," said Poppy. "At least another week. You can take it off at night – no bright sunlight at all. But the right is back to normal and should be able to carry you along."

"No Quidditch then?" he asked. Ginny was going to have his head.

"That question doesn't even merit a reply," said Severus, scowling at him.

Poppy left him with an eye patch that fit around his head with an elastic strip.

"It's white!" protested Harry. "It looks ridiculous."

"Oh, I'm sorry, Harry. I didn't bring my school-colors eye patches with me this morning." Poppy was packing up her things and bit back a smile.

"Why, in times like this, do you always forget you're a wizard?" asked Severus. "If you do not like the color, change it."

Harry's eye patch was black in no time, fitting easily over the padding she'd fitted against his closed eye.

"Your depth perception will be off with only one eye," said Severus. "Distance assessment will be difficult. Exercise caution – please."

"Why don't you take the bandage and the patch off and take a long shower," said Poppy. "Your hair could certainly use it. It won't hurt to get the eye wet now – but try to avoid it. And keep the light low in the bathroom."

He was more than glad to go and hurried up the stairs.

"And pack your things up when you're finished," Severus called up. “Kreacher will take everything back to Hogwarts while we're at St. Mungo's."

Harry went back down a few stairs.

"Can we have dinner in London before we go back – maybe Indian?"

"That sounds acceptable," answered Severus. "Now go on – Reuben is expecting us at one o'clock."

ooOOOoo

They Apparated directly to St. Mungo's, with Harry traveling side-along with Severus. They'd had to step outside of the wards around Shell Cottage, and Severus had extended his arm to Harry.

Harry had opened his mouth to protest – to say that he could do it on his own – but capitulated quickly when he realized Severus was being practical, not unnecessarily protective. He'd likely be unsteady on the landing with only one eye.

At St. Mungo's, Reuben was waiting for them outside the secure wing where Ministry prisoners were kept.

"We've got a full house," he said. "Bit of a riot at Azkaban this morning – two dead and a dozen wounded – four of them so seriously they were brought here. We've still got Estelle in the room next to the supply room so we can monitor from that side too." He led them to a table under a window in the waiting area, and they sat and were joined by one of the Aurors Harry had seen at Hogwarts after the tunnel collapse in Hogsmeade.

"She's still refusing to talk until she sees Potter," said the Auror as she pulled out the chair across from Severus. "Pardon my language, but she's a bloody pain in the arse."

Severus chuckled. "I spent some time with her last week," he said. "I echo your sentiment."

"Harry, the room is completely monitored, of course. We'll be recording everything that is said. Severus and I will be just outside the door. There are Aurors all over the wing guarding the other prisoners, so we'll have plenty of backup, though I assure you we won't need it. You can leave at any time. You are under no obligation to stay in there longer than you feel comfortable."

"Right," said Harry. He rubbed his sweaty palms against the robes Severus had insisted that he wear. He'd have been just as comfortable in jeans or trousers. He was suddenly nervous. He hadn't been – he'd been too focused on being able to see again. He swallowed and looked up at Reuben. "How will the room be arranged? Is she in bed? Is she restrained at all? Will there be a chair for me?"

"Excellent questions – situational awareness. Top marks," answered Reuben, smiling at Harry. "Estelle is improving quickly, but will be in her bed for this visit. She is restrained with a spell that immobilizes the lower half of her body – she will not be able to leave the bed on her own volition while you're in the room. You can stand while you're in there, or sit in the visitor's chair. You can move the chair anywhere you like in the room."

"How much time do I have?" Harry asked, thinking that he'd like to be standing at the end of her bed, most likely. "And it's alright for me to ask her questions, isn't it?"

"We've told her she may have up to an hour with you, if you're willing to stay that long, but that you may leave at any time if you feel the visit isn't going well or is upsetting. And yes, of course you can ask her questions."

"Do you have any advice, Severus?" he asked, looking over at his father. Severus was drumming his fingers on the table, clearly impatient for this visit to be over.

He did.

"Keep in mind that Estelle is ill, Harry. Physically – and mentally. Take everything she says – everything – with a grain of salt. Do not take anything personally – especially anything she might say about me or about my parents. Do not get into arguments with her – they will go nowhere. Do not reveal anything about yourself or your life you would not want an enemy to know. Do not talk to her about your friends. It will be best if you can gain control of the conversation early on – ask her your questions. This may be the only time you will be in the same room with her, Harry, unless her case goes to trial. Do not talk about me – if she wants to rile you, to get a reaction from you, she will do it by bringing me into the conversation…."

"Severus –"

"Headmaster –"

"Dad!" Everyone turned to look at Harry. "Are you sure you don't have any advice?"

Reuben laughed and Harry grinned as Severus shook his head.

"I'm nervous about this meeting," he said. "I think Estelle can do quite a bit more damage before she's through."

"The sooner we can administer the Veritaserum, the better," said Reuben. "She won't be a threat once she's either in prison or in a secure psychiatric center."

Severus stood.

"Let's finish this, then." Harry saw his wand slip into his fingers. "You have your wand, Harry?"

Harry put his hand in his pocket to feel it. "Of course."

"You won't need it," assured Reuben as he stood.

Three minutes later, after Severus took one final sweep of the room, and after steeling himself outside the door, Severus' comforting, warm hand on his shoulder, Harry stepped inside Estelle Smith's hospital room with Reuben Peace at his side.

The room was small and was nearly empty save the bed and the visitor's chair. The woman in the bed stared at him, ignoring Reuben, through round spectacles that were remarkably similar to his own, the lenses only slightly more oval. Harry thought she looked older than Severus, though he knew she was younger. He had seen old photographs of her, of course, but in person the family resemblance was more obvious. She had a less generous nose than Severus did, but the same sharp gaze, the same long-fingered hands. Severus had said that she favored their father, with the implication that he, Severus, favored their mother, but Harry could tell, even at this first glance, that they were siblings.

"Miss Smith – Harry Potter." Reuben's hand was on his shoulder. "As we discussed, he can stay up to an hour, but is free to leave at any time. There will be guards outside the door, of course. Do you need anything from one of the medical staff before I leave?"

Estelle hadn't taken her eyes off of Harry the entire time Reuben was speaking. When she answered, she looked only at Harry. Her voice was weak, and reminded him a bit of Severus' when it was rough with sleep.

"I'm perfectly fine. I've signed your papers. You may leave."

"Harry?" Reuben's voice was in his ear but he didn't turn his head. "Alright then?"

"Alright," said Harry. He gave Reuben a small smile. "I'll be out in a bit."

Reuben nodded and left, closing the door lightly behind him. Harry remained standing at the foot of the bed, one hand in his wand pocket. He had a million questions running through his mind to ask this woman, this woman who had more or less turned his life upside down these past months, but he couldn't think of a single one of them in the face of this woman who was Severus' sister.

Estelle broke the silence herself.

"So. Harry Potter. We meet at last."

It was like a line from a movie.

Harry nodded. Take control of the conversation, he heard Severus say in his head. But no words came.

"Your eyes. I would have liked to have seen them both. I've heard so much about them."

Harry frowned. That was odd.

"I've got to keep this one covered for another week," he said, raising his hand and brushing it against the bottom of the eye patch.

"Ahh. Later then, I suppose." She stared at him unabashedly, then a smile softened her face. "Harry Potter, I have been waiting so long to meet you." She held out a hand toward him, but he made no move to approach her and take it.

"Why did you want to see me now?" he asked. This was unreal. He was standing alone in a hospital room with Estelle Smith – Severus' sister – in front of him. With the woman who had been writing him those odd and disturbing letters for several months. Who had warned him – or tried to - before the tunnel cave in at Hogsmeade. Who knew – something – about Hermione's accident. Who had lost a baby, and a sister, and a husband.

He took a step closer, almost involuntarily, as Estelle smiled.

Her eyes, so sharp when she had first regarded him, had a different look now. Softer. Far-away. He thought, for a moment, that she was looking right through him, to another time, another place.

"Your mother," she said, voice as far away as her eyes. "Your mother would have liked me to be your godmother."

"You were friends with my mum?" he asked.

Don't believe her, Severus' voice said.

"I was," she said. She smiled and held her hand out again. "Come closer, Harry. I just want to see you. I really have waited a long time."

He took a tentative step toward her, then another.

"Oh, you do have her eyes, don't you? I don't need to see them both. They were precisely that shape, and that color. But the rest of you is all James, isn't it? "

"Did you know my godfather, too? Sirius Black?" he heard himself saying. He was baiting her, of course, planning to bring up Regulus, but somehow he really wanted to hear her answer.

"Of course I knew Sirius," she answered. She closed her eyes and rested her head back against the pillows. "He was quite something – all the girls in my form liked him. He was always getting in trouble, you know – he and your father both."

"He had a brother. In your year." He paused, and she opened her eyes and looked at him. "Regulus."

She smiled. It was a sad smile, and he was surprised –and a bit horrified – when tears began to run down her face. Within seconds, she was crying in earnest, shoulders heaving.

Harry stared at her dumbly. Bad move, he thought. He fumbled in his pocket for a handkerchief but of course didn't have one with him.

She'd taken her glasses off and had found a tissue and was dabbing her eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said. "Did you…did you know Regulus?"

She shook her head and blew her nose, then held out her glasses.

"Put these on the bedside table, won't you please?" she asked him, her voice thin.

He reached out without thought, barely hearing the whispered Portus as his hands touched the spectacles, feeling the horrible hook of the Portkey grab him behind the navel, watching in horror as Estelle's eyes widened in glee.

Thinking, Nooooo!

Fighting it. Instinctively. Fighting the pull of the Portkey even as the room warped around him.

Not seeing Severus and Reuben run into the room.

Not seeing the look on Severus' face as he watched the swirl of color pull Harry and Estelle away.

The look of horror. Of pain. Of murderous rage.

Harry fought the pull with all the magic he had, fighting until his hand – the hand touching the eyeglasses that were whisking them away – was free.

Free of the Portkey.

Free of Estelle.

And he was falling. Falling in a rush of blurred colors, with an eerie whistling of wind in his ears, and landing. Hard. Knocking the wind out of him.

Sitting up after a long moment trying to suck in a breath, rubbing his hip, standing on a twisted ankle.

Where was he?

His glasses and his eye patch were gone. Everything far away was blurry. His eye hurt. He closed it against the bright light.

He reached a shaky hand inside his pocket for his wand. He had no idea where he was, or if he had gone too far to Apparate safely back to St. Mungo's. He didn't know if there were houses around him, or people who would see him.

It didn't matter. Severus would be worried. No – not just worried. Frantic. He had to get back.

But what if he wasn't in the UK? How far could he Apparate safely?

Slow down, Harry. You're alright. You've gotten out of worse.

He took a deep breath.

He'd send his Patronus. With a message for Severus – he'd done that before, he knew the spell. He'd let them know he was alright – that somehow he'd fought free of the Portkey and gotten separated from Estelle.

A dog barked nearby just as he lifted his wand, startling him so much he almost dropped it.

"Hello? Can I help you?"

He hurriedly stuck his wand back in his pocket and turned toward the voice.

 

Chapter 20. The Muggle

Severus Snape sat half fuming, half shaking, in a straight-backed chair against a wall painted a soothing pale green.

He was not alone.

A large, red-robed man, an Auror past his prime but not lacking in bulk or brawn, sat in a chair only a few feet in front of him, arms crossed over his considerable bulk. Another Auror stood in front of the open door, and a third stood just outside the door, in quiet but urgent conversation with Auror Reuben Peace.

Severus was livid.

It had been twenty minutes – TWENTY – since Harry had disappeared in a whirl of color with Estelle Smith, sucked right out of the secure criminal ward at St. Mungo's on a Portkey that the bungling Aurors hadn't managed to identify when Estelle was admitted.

Severus had been tackled to the floor by Reuben himself when he'd charged into the room, wand in hand, screaming, "No, Harry!" just after they'd heard – through the surveillance spells - Estelle asking him to put something on the bedside table.

"We have a tracking spell on her, Severus! They'll have their location within minutes! Let us do our work!"

He'd sat on the floor, head in his hands, feeling entirely helpless, for the ten minutes it had taken before the first Patronus had come in, informing Peace that they had Estelle in custody.

Severus ignored the Auror in front of him, and the Auror guarding the door. His eyes were on the Auror in the corridor who had appeared thirty seconds ago and who was currently engaged in a tense conversation with Reuben Peace. He was gesturing wildly with his hands and glanced sidelong at Severus more than once. He was absolutely unsettled and looked vaguely afraid. Severus glared at him.

Peace finally dispatched the Auror with a firm pat on the back. The Auror glanced one more time at Severus. He looked relieved to be leaving without a confrontation. Severus was on his feet in an instant as Peace entered the little room where he was sitting.

"What happened? Where is Harry?" Severus demanded while simultaneously glaring down the bulky Auror guard who rose from the chair as he did.

"We've got Estelle," said Reuben. "And LePonte." He nodded at the Auror, motioned sideways with his head, and the man frowned but moved back toward the door.

"And Harry?" Severus' voice wavered from hopeful to threatening. "You've got Harry too? And he's fine?"

Reuben frowned, shook his head.

"He wasn't there, Severus," he answered, looking Severus in the eye. "They claim he never got there."

"Never got there?" Severus was shaking – with rage, with fear, with helplessness. "What do you mean he never got there? They took the same bloody Portkey! "

Reuben put both hands on his shoulders. "We're administering Veritaserum now, Severus. We've already taken both of them to holding and we have an entire team combing the area looking for Harry."

"Take me there. Now. I will help search." Severus hissed out the demand. He was tired of waiting.

"Why don't you go with me to observe the Veritaserum questioning?" Peace countered. "Our team was on the ground within five minutes, Severus. They had to stun LePonte to get him off Estelle. He was in the process of beating her to a pulp for showing up without Harry."

Severus ignored his suggestion. "They left together. There was only one Portkey." He dropped into the chair, covering his eyes with his hands. This could not be happening. Absolutely not. It was the worst of his fears, all bundled together in an untidy package. He knew Harry's magic was strong and unpredictable. But this

"I realize that, Severus. I admit this is…unprecedented."

"Where did the Portkey take her?" Severus demanded. "He has to be somewhere between here and there."

"Ireland," answered Reuben. "And are you suggesting that Harry somehow…?" His voice trailed off.

"Ireland! There's a sea between here and Ireland!" Severus leapt up again and pushed past Peace in a single fluid motion, but Peace signaled quickly to the Aurors in the corridor and they blocked the door.

"Severus! Harry has his wand with him. If he did manage to – to break away from that Portkey somehow – he'll try to get back." Severus pushed around him and stopped at the guarded doorway. "Severus – he has his wand!"

Severus whirled around.

"But can he use it?" he hissed, giving in to the fear that gripped him, constricting his heart. "What if he broke away over the sea? What if the wand broke? What if he lost it? Or his glasses? He can barely see with them!" He was working himself into a frenzy. "What if he was injured?"

Or killed?

A glimmering white mist pushed through the wall just then, coalescing into the shape of a Labrador retriever.

Severus' heart had skipped a beat when the form appeared, but sank with disappointment as the dog's mouth opened and an unfamiliar voice spoke.

"Veritaserum confirms Smith's earlier statement – the boy never made it to the Portkey destination. We've got the trajectory plotted as you requested but it's nearly five hundred kilometers, nearly a third of those over water. And Flanders wants me to remind you that it's impossible to break away from a Portkey. Awaiting your orders, boss."

The Patronus faded away and Severus kicked out at where it once had been. He squeezed his eyes shut, praying to any god that would listen, calling out to Harry.

Think, Severus!

He had tracked down Harry once before – in the Forest of Dean. He had prepared a potion – containing his blood, Harry's hair, the burned ashes of something they both had touched – and poured it over the feather from an eagle owl to create a locator Portkey.

It was Dark Magic. He had done it then, in the most desperate of times. He would do it again. He had nothing – nothing – to lose.

He raised his eyes. Reuben was staring at him, frowning.

"I know how to find him," he said, his voice tight and determined. "I need a general location – something more than what we have. Where in Ireland did you pick them up?"

"Lucan," answered the Auror, stepping toward Severus cautiously, hand outstretched. "Just west of Dublin."

"Good – further inland." Severus took a deep breath. "I must go on the assumption that he did manage to break away from the Portkey. As he has never done this – as no one has ever done this – he probably didn't mange it until well into the journey. He wouldn't have known how to do it and it would have taken some time for his magic to react. I am banking on him having landed in Ireland. After that, the greatest likelihood is that he went into the water."

Reuben put a hand on Severus' arm. "How…?" he began, but Severus shook off his arm.

"You don't want to know," he growled. "Just keep looking for him."

He turned on the spot and vanished, disobeying without thought the hospital's non-Apparition policy that he was earlier striving to mind. He reappeared just outside the gates of Hogwarts and, breaking his self-imposed ban against flying in the manner of the Dark Lord, disappeared in a tangle of robes and smoke and streaked across the sky toward the castle.

ooOOOoo

"Hello? Can I help you?"

Harry squeezed his eyes shut, then open again, and strained to look at the person who was approaching.

"Um…hello," he said.

"Are you hurt?"

The woman – the voice was definitely a woman's – was approaching him quickly through the grass. In the distance, he heard the sound of Muggle cars as they passed by on a roadway.

"No – I don't think so," answered Harry. The woman's voice reminded him a bit of Seamus’. He thought he might be in Ireland, if that was even possible.

"It's a bit late for Uni pranks, isn't it?" asked the woman. She had a certain sternness in her voice, a tone that told Harry that she definitely disapproved of whatever these Uni pranks were. "Look at you, lad! You're a mess, you are! And this costume." She clucked in disapproval yet again. "I've seen worse, I have, but..." Her voice trailed off and she leaned in, looking closely at Harry. "What happened to your eyes? Have you been smoking the weed, boy?"

"What?" Harry sputtered. "No! No – I had an accident – they've been bandaged. I…I've lost my glasses and my eye patch."

"Ahh. Hold on, then." The woman, efficient and businesslike, began searching on the ground. Harry didn't tell her that his glasses could be anywhere from here to London. But soon, she let out a triumphant "Aha!" and then a sad tsk.

"Not much good, though, are they?" she said, handing Harry a mangled pair of glasses which, he immediately knew, were not his own. He sighed and put them in his pocket, feeling his wand in there as he did so, and wishing he could use it.

"I can't see much without them," Harry said, trying to be as polite as possible. He smiled tiredly. "Where am I, anyway?"

"I'm going to contact the Uni myself and have a word with them," the lady groused. "Leaving you out here along the N4 on a Sunday morning – probably after a long night of drinking, if my guess is right…"

Harry went with it. The woman obviously thought he'd been dumped on the side of the road by his school chums and left to make his way back on his own.

"Actually, I wasn't drinking," he said, trying to keep a respectful tone in his voice. "But they were. I don't know them very well and was hoping to make a few friends…"

"Those aren't the kind of friends you need, nice boy like you," she said, softening a bit. "London, right?"

Harry smiled. "Surrey," he said. "First year of Uni, actually. I'm Harry."

"Well, Harry, do you have your identification on you?" she asked, still a bit suspicious, he thought.

Harry obligingly fumbled in his pockets for the wallet that was not there – could never be there, in fact. He looked up at the woman with what he hoped was a helpless expression, holding up two Knuts.

"That's all I have," he said. "They must have taken my wallet."

"Did they take away everything valuable that you have?"

Harry, thinking of the wand in his pocket, nodded. "I guess so. Not really friendly blokes, are they?"

"I'd say not. Well, come along, then. I've got a mobile phone in the car. I'll drive you into town and you can use it to call someone to come fetch you."

Town? Harry had no idea where he was.

"Which town is that, ma'am?" he asked.

"What? Did they have you blindfolded too?" she asked with a disbelieving laugh. "You're making it a bit hard for me to believe you weren't drinking too, lad." She sighed. "Palmerstown. You're on the road to Lucan, but we're almost to Palmerstown. I've not time to take you back to Dublin so you'll have to make a call for someone to come fetch you. Come now. I don't have all day."

Dublin. He was in Ireland. Ireland! Harry began limping after her, wincing as he put weight on his foot and trying to think up someone's telephone number – anyone's at all. But all he could come up with was the Dursleys’.

He swallowed, thinking of Severus back at St. Mungo's. Severus…Severus would be out of his mind by now. Especially if they'd had a tracking spell on Estelle and had found her…but not him. He had to get a Patronus to Severus and soon.

"I haven't been quite honest with you," he said as he dropped into the front seat of the car after she opened the door. His already-bad eyesight was even blurrier than usual without his glasses and his left eye was beginning to throb. He knew he'd have to phone someone, and couldn't figure how he was going to explain why he didn't know the phone numbers of any of his friends.

"Oh?" replied the woman as she waited for Harry to put on his safety belt before starting the car.

"I was just visiting here, taking a look at the school. I'm still in seventh form back in Scotland. Met up with the wrong crowd after a few drinks at the pub." He sighed and looked down into his lap, hoping to affect the appropriate apologetic look. "I'm really sorry, Ma'am. But I'm going to have to call my family in London. They have friends here in Dublin – they can get someone to come for me."

"And those strange clothes?" she asked, her voice a bit softer. Harry thought she had doubted him all along and appreciated the truth.

"I don't remember," he lied.

She sighed. "You look like a good lad, Harry. You're not doing yourself any favors taking up with a crowd like that. I'm sure your family trusted you'd be on your best behavior while you were visiting here."

Harry hung his head. "Yes, Ma'am."

"Well, here's my mobile. Go ahead and make your call. I'll take you back to my place until someone can come for you."

Harry stared at the phone. He had to try, for show at least, until he could get away. Sighing, he squinted at the keypad and tried to dial the Dursleys’ phone number.

Nobody answered. He wasn't even sure he'd dialed the number correctly. He had a hard time seeing anything without his glasses. He closed his left eye against the glare of the sun through the car window.

He had hung up and was staring at the phone again when it rang.

No! Don't let that be the Dursleys calling back! he thought. But the woman took the phone from him quickly and barked into it.

"Margaret here. Oh? That bad, eh? Ah. Willowshire, then? Fine, fine. I'll be there in a bit."

She glanced over at Harry. "You'll have to come with me then, lad. I've got an out-of-season cow calving twins and she's having a hard time with it."

Harry nodded dumbly as she sped on her way.

Could this get any more ridiculous?

"May I use the phone again?" he asked.

"Of course. What? They didn't answer before?"

"Right," he said. He reached for the mobile then, grateful for the first time that he'd been raised in a Muggle household and knew the phone number for information, dialed it and asked to be connected to the Granger Dental practice.

"You're calling your dentist?" asked Margaret. "I think you'd do better calling your eye doctor. And I doubt you'll get anyone there on a Sunday."

The phone was answered – incredibly – by the Granger's answering service. Harry left a cryptic message. He was Harry, their daughter Hermione's good friend from school. He was in Ireland – near the town of Lucan and heading toward Palmerstown, and needed to get in touch with someone from school. Yes, this was an emergency. Could one of the doctors Granger please contact the school and let the Headmaster know that he might be delayed getting back? He'd have his ride drop him off in the village square in Palmerstown.

When he hung up, he was still ill at ease. He had no idea how fast the Grangers could contact Severus, but it was the best shot he had until he could safely use his magic.

He squeezed his eyes shut again. His right one was sore now, too. His ankle was throbbing. He was stuck in a car with a Muggle veterinarian in Ireland heading to a farm – he reckoned it was a farm, anyway – to help a cow give birth to twins.

Fifteen more minutes passed as Margaret sped along the rural roads. She took another corner at high speed and started down a rough gravel road. Five minutes later, she turned sharply into a drive and they bounced down a long lane and parked in front of a low house. An assortment of dogs greeted them, barking, baying, yipping, and Margaret honked the horn three times then got out of the car.

"I'll be around back," she said. "Stay put. You shouldn't be walking on that ankle."

The dogs followed her off. Harry heard her call out and heard an answering beckon.

He waited five minutes, then opened the car door and carefully climbed out, holding onto the door for support.

Could he Apparate back to London? To Scotland? How far could one Apparate safely? Or should he send his Patronus? How far could a Patronus go? Would Margaret search for him if he simply disappeared?

He decided, at last, on the Patronus. He didn't quite trust himself to Apparate across the Irish Sea.

It was harder than it should have been to focus on a happy thought. He finally settled on Severus' face when he realized Harry was safe. Prongs took his message and disappeared and Harry slid back inside the vehicle and closed his eyes.

A voice outside the door roused him a few seconds later.

"What in the name of the holy Christ child was THAT?"

ooOOOoo

The Portkey deposited Severus on a rutted and wet gravel road in the middle of nowhere. There was a farm road to his left, curving up to a scattering of buildings a quarter mile off the main road. To his right was a stock gate. A herd of cattle dotted the field behind it. The road ran on before him, and back behind him.

He glanced up the farm lane, squinting.

A man was hurrying across the yard toward a green car.

As Severus watched, the man yanked open the car door, pulled back his fist, and started pummeling someone inside the car.

The car horn started blasting.

The man did not seem pleased by this. He reached in again and pulled a figure out of the car by the arm.

Severus stared.

Was that Harry?

The dark-headed, robed figure stumbled and fell to the ground while the man stood over him yelling.

Severus was heading up the road – at a full-out run – when the yelling stopped and the brute started kicking Harry.

Severus' wand was in his hand in a heartbeat. He hit the man with a stunner while he was still running. The man crashed forward, hit his head on the car, then collapsed on top of Harry.

Severus reached them a minute later. He hauled the heavy man off Harry and rolled him to the side, then dropped to his knees beside his son and turned him over on his back.

It was Harry. Missing his glasses. Face bruised and bloody. Eyes closed.

What the hell had happened here?

"Harry!"

Harry groaned.

"Dad?" His voice was weak. Blood dribbled down his chin.

Severus leaned forward when Harry's voice rang out from behind him.

"Dad, I got away from Estelle and ended up in Ireland near Palmerstown outside of Lucan. A Muggle woman picked me up but she had to make a stop. I'm not sure if I can Apparate all the way back. I'll have her drop me off in the town square as soon as she can. I'll wait for you there."

Harry's Patronus, dispatched to Severus just before Severus' Portkey brought him to Harry, had reversed course and had found him.

The Muggle must have seen Harry cast it.

Prongs vanished, dissipating into a thin mist, and Severus wiped the blood off of Harry's face with his hand.

"This isn't how I expected this day would turn out," he said quietly.

Severus gathered Harry up in his arms, straining under the weight as he stood, and, not caring if the entire countryside – cows and all – could see him, turned on the spot and Apparated to St. Mungo's.

ooOOOoo

"Severus? I brought you some tea."

Severus gave Arthur Weasley a tired smile and accepted the steaming mug.

"Thank you, Arthur."

"Harry's sleeping, then?"

Severus shook his head. "Not yet. I couldn't convince them to release him tonight. He was not happy about staying here. They're checking his teeth now and administering more Skele-Gro."

"He's had quite the day. You both have."

Severus sipped at his tea. "At least this particular saga has come to its end. Both Estelle Smith and LePonte are in custody. And while it may take a while to unravel their motivations, at least I am more or less reassured that the imminent danger to Harry is over."

Arthur took a seat beside Severus. He sipped at his own tea. "So do you want to talk about Harry's magic?" he asked at last. "It's not every wizard that can break free from a Portkey."

"No, it's not," agreed Severus. "And the fewer that know about it, the better." He looked sideways at Arthur, and Arthur grinned.

"My lips are sealed, Severus."

Severus sighed.

"He's going to have to figure out the limits of his magic. Somehow – somehow he is changing core spells when he utters them, Arthur. The spell acts similarly to the spell he thinks he is casting, but often is more powerful. And most significantly, it cannot be undone by the standard counter spell unless Harry himself utters the spell."

"You realize that some may think he's inherited some of the Dark Lord's power, don't you?" said Arthur quietly, voicing the fear Severus kept hidden inside.

Severus nodded his head jerkily. "Yes. I'd hoped to shield him from that faction until we determined what is happening."

"You've already determined what is happening," said Arthur. "But not why. "

"Harry is extremely capable," said Severus. "He's particularly skilled at defense. Most wizards and witches have one area in which they excel above others. But I do not think he is a supremely powerful wizard." He looked out the door into the corridor and was silent for a long moment, then he turned to Arthur and lowered his voice. "I think the presence of the Horcrux may have affected how he learned magic. It may have actually acted as an inhibitor of sorts. Positive spells, especially, like healing, may have been more difficult for him to cast successfully with the Dark Lord's soul fragment working against them."

"So he needed more focus – more power – to complete them successfully?" said Arthur. He smiled. "Brilliant, really. And now when he utters those same spells, without the inhibiting factor of the Horcrux…"

"He cured Filius' lumbago with a general healing spell," said Severus. "And he wasn't even directing the spell at Filius."

"And the Portkey today? How would you explain that?" asked Arthur.

Severus smiled. "That, I believe, is different. Mind over magic, really. Harry very much wanted to go home. He can resist the Imperius, remember."

"He can be quite stubborn, can't he?" said Arthur with a fond smile.

A healer came out of Harry's room and informed Severus that the other healer was removing the roots of Harry's two broken teeth so the Skele-Gro could work more effectively.

Severus sat back down and shook his head.

"This day will never end. I'd like to see Harry before I go back to Hogwarts."

"I'll wait with you," said Arthur.

"Molly was good to send you," said Severus. "Thank her for me, please."

Arthur smiled. "Have the Aurors released the Veritaserum reports yet?" he asked.

"I've read the transcript," confirmed Severus. "It's not pretty. She's been virtually LePonte's prisoner since her husband died. The crux of the matter is that she never really got over the loss of her baby. LePonte convinced her that Harry should be hers, as her baby would have been the heir of the Black estate had he lived, and Harry is the current heir."

"So she thought that in the end, she'd be a mother to Harry?" asked Arthur, a bit incredulously. "Harry is eighteen, Severus. How could she think…?"

"She's watched him since Sirius died," Severus answered. "Since all the press about him inheriting the Black estate."

Arthur shook his head. "So, she's had her eyes on him since Albus made you his protector."

Severus knew that Arthur was referring to the accident the summer after Harry's fifth year – the accident that saw the two of them summering in Shell Cottage, Severus teaching Harry Occlumency, Harry slowly, slowly, wrapping himself around Severus' heart.

And even though Severus could have said no – that Albus made him Harry's protector when Harry wasn't even a year old, he just nodded.

"What did LePonte want out of this?" asked Arthur. "I'm assuming financial gain?"

"Money. Power. Control." Severus smiled ruefully. "The man was not much of a wizard, it turns out. He'd lived on the wrong side of life for so long that the only magic he could muster was dark. But he was brilliant with mind control – the kind that didn't require magic at all. He controlled Estelle for years by blackmailing her and threatening to expose her part in her sister's death. He made her doubt herself and trust him, and promised her the one thing she'd never have –a child of her own. And even if this child was nearly grown, he'd give to her that piece of herself she'd lost when Regulus was taken from her, when her child died."

"If they had succeeded – if Harry had got close to her and heard her story, developed the kind of love for her he has for you – Harry would have turned over the Black estate to her without a second thought," said Arthur. "He has a big heart, Severus."

"I've no doubt that he would have," said Severus. "But from what Reuben Peace tells me, Estelle will be in treatment for quite some time. The healers believe she can recover, with intense psychotherapy and mind retraining. LePonte should be in prison for the rest of his life. He's admitted to killing Alex Sanders and engineering the Hogsmeade collapse, and to setting up Hermione's accident. The owl on the Quidditch pitch was a happy accident, if you will." He sighed, glancing at the door to Harry's room. "What is taking so long?"

Arthur smiled. "It hasn't been that long, Severus. You know they'll let you in as soon as they can." He sipped his cooling tea.

"I've already been approached by the head mind healer," Severus said a moment later, the statement coming without preamble. "They believe I could be a part of Estelle's treatment. And possibly Harry as well." He sighed. "I don't quite know what to think of that."

"You need to do what's best for Harry, and for you," Arthur replied rather vaguely.

"We have some time to consider," said Severus. "She'll be in isolation with her healers for several weeks. They simply approached me to gauge my willingness, should they determine my assistance would help her recovery."

"Let Harry heal first," said Arthur.

"Wise advice," commented Severus. He stared at his hospital-green tea mug for a long moment. "Should we ever share grandchildren, Arthur, I will bow to your superior knowledge of parenting."

Arthur laughed. It was a hearty sound, rich and full, and Severus found himself grinning.

"As if we'd ever get the time of day with them while Molly is around," Arthur said. "But honestly, Severus, I think you've learned more in the few short years you've had with Harry than I have in nearly ten times that."

The door beside them opened at precisely that moment, and a healer emerged and handed Severus a small potion vial.

"A sleep aid. He could use it – but refused to take it until he had spoken with you. He's had Skele-Gro and the ocular potion. Both will cause a great deal of pain."

"He can leave tomorrow?" asked Severus. He glanced into the corridor, where an Auror guard sat on a chair on the opposite wall, facing the door.

"Late morning," she said. "After we check his eyes. He'll need to take it easy with his foot, and those new teeth will be sensitive for a time."

Severus nodded his understanding and Arthur left him, ambling out into the hallway and nodding politely to the Auror.

ooOOOoo

"Severus?"

Severus smiled at the whistling sound that accompanied his name through Harry's missing teeth. He closed the door behind him and dropped into the chair beside the bed, reaching out and squeezing his son's hand. "We've got to stop meeting like this," he quipped.

"Very funny," said Harry. "They're not letting me out tonight."

"No. Of course they are not. You are missing your front teeth and have a broken foot."

"I've had worse," Harry said.

"You have," agreed Severus. "But as you are never leaving Hogwarts again, this should be the end of your maladies."

"Ha ha," said Harry. "You do remember that my last injury happened on the Quidditch pitch, don't you?"

"Point taken," said Severus. "You are never again going outside."

"Right." Harry fidgeted and readjusted his pillow. "So, are you going to tell me what happened or not?"

"Estelle and LePonte are in custody. They've both been interrogated under Veritaserum. Their motivations are fairly complex, the result of a years-long psychological game of sorts. Suffice it to say that LePonte won't be seeing the light of day again, and Estelle is being treated in a secure mind-healing institution."

Harry remained quiet. He turned slightly on his side and bunched up his pillow. "So was LePonte behind the whole thing?" he asked.

"Yes," answered Severus. "Estelle was involved, of course, and certainly had knowledge of the crimes, but he was behind it. The Aurors are trying to unravel the rest of it now."

"He couldn't have done it all alone," said Harry. "The tunnel…Hermione."

"They're working on it, Harry," assured Severus. "Now, perhaps you'd like to explain to me how you ended up in a Muggle car and what inspired that brute to kick out your front teeth."

So Harry explained. Being mistaken for a Uni student whose friends had pranked him. Calling the Dursleys. Calling Hermione's parents’ answering service. Margaret the country veterinarian. Losing his glasses. Finally sending off the Patronus to Severus and not knowing the Muggle was standing outside the car on the lawn.

"Did you just leave him there? What if they track me down from the phone calls?"

"Reuben sent an Auror over to deal with it," said Severus. "They Obliviated both Muggles. And speaking of that call you made to the Grangers…"

"Yeah – about that," said Harry. "How did you get to me so fast?"

"I had other means," said Severus, not wanting to tell Harry he'd used a form of Dark Magic to find him. "But the Grangers used the Muggle parent hotline to reach Tom at the Leaky Cauldron. He Flooed to the Three Broomsticks and got the message to Minerva. By that time, I was already gone. It caused a stir up at school. Your friends were quite upset."

"But they know I'm alright, don't they?" asked Harry.

"They do," answered Severus. "You'll need to take this potion now, Harry. I'd like to get back to Hogwarts and speak with them."

It was an underhanded trick and he knew it, but Harry needed to sleep and he could very much use something stronger than tea and a chat with Minerva.

He stayed there, sitting beside Harry in this all-too-familiar position, until Harry took the potion and closed his eyes, falling into sleep with a sigh. Severus watched his shoulders relax, watched the worried look melt off his face. In sleep, Harry looked younger, and he could not help but think of the fifteen-year-old Harry he had watched, standing beside Albus in the Hogwarts infirmary, arms folded over his chest. It was the evening they'd brought Harry to Hogwarts, after that idiot Dursley had broken both of Harry's legs by running over them with his car.

"This is your chance, Severus. To make it right again."

Albus bent down over the boy to brush his wild hair out of his eyes. His beard grazed the child's face, and Harry's mouth twitched, as if a fly had alit on his pale face. In sleep, Harry looked younger than his almost sixteen years.

"It was never right, Albus. He is not his mother, despite your claim to the contrary."

"No, he is not his mother, is he?" Albus took a step back from the bed and sighed. "Nor is he his father. He is Harry and Harry alone, and he has a job to do. A job larger than any job either of his parents took on in their brief but bright lives. And you, Severus…you must help him."

"I have been helping him for fifteen years, Albus. Perhaps it is someone else's turn now. Ask the werewolf, or one of the Weasleys. I've done enough."

"You must teach him Occlumency, Severus. You know none of the others…"

"Occlumency!" exclaimed Severus. "The boy is incapable of learning Occlumency! We have been through this. I will not submit myself to that torture again. Is it not enough that I go to the Dark Lord? That his mark burns on my arm?"

"The mark would burn on your arm whether you answered the call or not," said Albus, quietly. He turned and looked Severus in the eye. "The mark is not there because I asked you to take it, Severus. Be honest with yourself. If you want the mark to cease burning altogether, you have but one option."

They stared at each other for a long time. Albus' blue eyes were deceptively bright, the twinkle an artifice at best. They were deeper than the dark night of Severus', older, wiser. Severus knew then that Albus would sacrifice anything – anyone – to defeat Voldemort.

And he understood.

Harry…Harry was not so different than he was after all.

"Fine. I will teach him. But you are to send us away from here. Away from Hogwarts. He cannot learn here from me, not with our past."

And he turned and left the room, left Albus, left Harry, fled without fleeing, without flying, to his own quarters.

Where he sat on his chair and pulled up his sleeve and stared at the ugly mark on his forearm, then fell asleep, until it burned once again.

He reached out now and brushed the hair off Harry's forehead, out of his eyes.

The last time he'd felt the burn of the Dark Mark was on the second of May, not long before he felt the crushing death of Nagini's fangs in his throat.

Nearly six months ago.

They had both succeeded, hadn't they? Albus and himself.

Albus had meant to use Harry, to sacrifice Harry, in order to save the world. In the end, Severus saw what that did to the old headmaster, but Albus never – ever – faltered.

But Severus…Severus had only meant to save Harry.

To Be Continued…

Author's Note: Skip if you aren't sentimental, please. Some autobiographical details here. I lost my dad on June 27, 1988. Last week, my family marked twenty-five years since his sudden and unexpected death. With that anniversary following another Father's Day, I've thought a lot lately about fathers and their influence on our lives. My own dad was, and continues to be, the most influential person in my life. After a fandom friend lost her father after a very brief illness a few weeks ago, my advice to all is to let your fathers and father figures know how important they are now, while you still have them. And to that end, in the spirit of the previous works in this series, I give you Mike and the Mechanics…The Living Years. My first son was 11 months old when my Dad died, on a Monday morning in June, and I was living 250 miles away, so the "I wasn't there that morning when my father passed away" lyric is particularly salient to me. I had talked to my mom the night before on the phone, telling her that my son had said "G'ma." The last thing I heard my dad say – in the background – was "Tell him to say 'Grandpa.'" He never got to hear it from my son, or any of the ten grandchildren born after he died.

You can find the video performance on YouTube, of course. The lyrics are below:

Every generation
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door

I know that I'm a prisoner
To all my Father held so dear
I know that I'm a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thought
Stilted conversations
I'm afraid that's all we've got

You say you just don't see it
He says it's perfect sense
You just can't get agreement
In this present tense
We all talk a different language
Talking in defense

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It's too late when we die
To admit we don't see eye to eye

So we open up a quarrel
Between the present and the past
We only sacrifice the future
It's the bitterness that lasts

So Don't yield to the fortunes
You sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective
On a different day
And if you don't give up, and don't give in
You may just be OK.

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It's too late when we die
To admit we don't see eye to eye

I wasn't there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn't get to tell him
All the things I had to say

I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I'm sure I heard his echo
In my baby's new born tears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It's too late when we die
To admit we don't see eye to eye

A/N: I've told the story I wanted to tell and am ending “Tuesdays with Severus” with this chapter. The challenge of writing a story like this one, with an original plot, but on the tail of the previous character/relationship developing stories in this series, was more than I anticipated. With real life events (chiefly an unexpected upturn in business requiring many more hours of my time each week) vying for my time and affecting my creativity, I couldn't get chapters out regularly, and keeping details together became a challenge. I'm not a fan of WIPs that never seem to end. Thank you to all who have read the five stories in this series. I appreciate all of your comments and encouragement. When things calm down in my life, I'll start something new and will certainly post it here.

My task over the next few months is to reread these stories chapter by chapter, correct glaring errors and inconsistencies and all the Americanisms that crept in, then move to my account on AO3 as single-post stories so they can be turned into PDFs for off-site reading. Some of you have PM'd me to point out inconsistencies and I've gone back and corrected some, but if there are any that bother you, please PM me and I'll correct them.

Again, my heartfelt thanks to all who have reached this point in the story arc. These stories have kept me going through some hard times, but I am nothing without you. 3

SS

 

Chapter 21: The Wall

May 2, 1999

Harry sat on the great stone staircase leading to the castle doors, watching the sun slowly push up against the fading darkness over the Forbidden Forest.

He sat there, elbows resting on his knees, chin resting on his clasped hands, eyes on the horizon.

It was the second day of May.

Six months had passed since the Portkey had whisked him to Ireland; six months since he'd been released from his overnight stay at St. Mungo's following his week with Severus at Shell Cottage.

And exactly one year ago today, he'd walked up these stairs to face Voldemort for the final time.

The castle was just beginning to stir at this hour, but he'd tossed and turned all night, and had finally given up the fight for sleep and had wandered out here to watch the day begin.

This much anticipated day.

Time was going by so quickly that it nearly made his head spin.

With Hermione's cussed determination – he had to love her, admire her, for pushing him, for pushing herself – they'd both succeeded in catching up with their classes after their respective accidents. When it was all said and done, Harry had missed two full weeks of classes while Hermione had been out more than a month.

By the time he'd finally gotten caught up with his work, the term had ended and Christmas had been upon them.

Christmas.

Christmas came that year in a world without Voldemort.

And while the missing faces, the empty chairs, stood out even more starkly during the holidays, there had been so very much to celebrate.

Three weeks after Harry had broken away from the Portkey that nearly delivered him to LePonte, Severus had gone to the mind-healing ward where his sister, Estelle Smith, was being treated, to meet with her healers. They'd asked him to come, and one of the counselors at Hogwarts that was still on assignment to work with students following the events of the previous year had met with him and suggested – strongly – that he at least give it a try. A week later, Severus began participating in weekly sessions. Family therapy, they called it.

And just after Christmas, Harry and Severus started spending their regular Tuesday evenings together at the Imelda Loftburg Wing at St. Mungo's where Estelle was being treated.

Christmas.

Harry's eyes were still focused on the horizon. The trees seemed to be glowing as the sun fought to rise above their branches. The air was still, the grounds quiet. A curl of smoke rose like a puff of breath from Hagrid's chimney.

Harry smiled.

Christmas had been so…normal.

Not that Harry had experienced a lot of normal in his life, but he thought he was learning to recognize it when he saw it.

He thought, just for a moment, of his previous Christmas. The Christmas of the year of the Horcrux hunt. How it had started – on Christmas Eve, in Godric's Hollow. Bathilda Bagshot. Nagini. How it had ended – on Boxing Day, in the Forest of Dean, with Ron's return and the destruction of the locket.

With Severus hiding in the trees. With his doe Patronus. With the Sword of Gryffindor.

There would never be another Christmas like that one. Never another Christmas, he hoped, with doubt and fear and cold so deep that it bored into his bones and chilled his very heart.

This year, he and Severus had stayed at Hogwarts and had Christmas dinner with the few faculty members and students who'd remained at the castle over the holidays. There had been Christmas crackers – Harry had pulled one with a second year Slytherin and had worn the silly train conductor's hat that popped out for the rest of the meal.

They'd gone to the Burrow for Boxing Day, and had tramped out in the new-fallen snow in the moonlight for a snowball war.

In previous years, Fred and George had always chosen the sides, each of them a team-leader by unspoken consensus. And while Harry doubted there'd been any snowball fights the previous Christmas, Fred's absence was still loud and stark and painful.

Until Ron stepped in.

As naturally as if he'd been doing it his entire life, he stepped right up next to George, who was facing the rest of them looking as if he was only half there, had pointed his finger at his sister and announced, "Ginny."

"Ginny!" Hermione had exclaimed, pretending to be put out. She picked up a handful of snow and side-armed it at Ron. He dodged it and grinned.

"You throw like a girl," he explained, putting his arms over his face instinctively.

Harry and Ginny ended up on opposite teams and, in the midst of the brawl, she tackled him, rubbing snow in his face, and they had the best snog, rolling in the snow in each others' arms, cold and warm and safe and happy and alive.

He'd given her a top-of-the-line broom for Christmas. It was an extravagant gift, and Severus had frowned, but she had her heart set on trying out for the professional leagues this summer and was being actively scouted by several teams. She needed a broom, the kind of broom neither she nor her parents could afford, to put her on even ground with the other contenders.

And Harry had given her that broom, even though he knew it could be her ticket to a career that would take her away from him for long stretches of time. He'd be in London at the Auror Academy, then on active duty as an Auror, and she'd be traveling all over the world playing Quidditch.

That same Christmas, Severus had given Harry two small carved wooden figures – a buck and a doe. They stood on Harry's bookshelf now. It didn't matter that those deer meant different things to Harry and to Severus. No matter what, they were a shared symbol, and they meant family.

The sun was above the trees now, and the air was beginning to warm a bit. Harry watched as Hagrid left his hut and lumbered off toward the Forbidden Forest, the ghostly shape of Fang running circles around and through him while the young Corgi strayed away, coming back to him when he held out his dustbin sized hand behind him and casually snapped his fingers.

Harry smiled. All these years later, Hagrid, his first introduction to the magical world, still often brought a smile to his face.

He took his wand out of his robe pocket and did a quick Tempus.

Six twenty-five.

The shadowy outlines of the hour and minutes melted back into the air like the smoke from Hagrid's chimney.

Magic – magic had gotten more normal for him too.

Normal.

He'd hoped for a bit of normal when the term started in September, but then the letters had started up, and the trouble in Hogsmeade soon after, and the problems in Charms with his magic.

When he'd got back from St. Mungo's after the attempted kidnapping, Severus had set up a meeting with himself, Minerva and Professor Flitwick to discuss his theory about Harry's magic and how learning and performing spells had been affected by the Horcrux. How Harry had had to use a lot more power to overcome the effect of Voldemort's Horcrux, especially for positive spells such as healing. Of course, since the knowledge of the Horcruxes wasn't widespread, Severus had told them that Harry's magic had been affected by his connection to Voldemort.

Professor Flitwick and Minerva had argued back and forth about whether it was possible to unlearn and relearn magic. Flitwick, looking more excited than Harry had ever seen him, told them about a deprogramming routine that was sometimes tried on witches and wizards who leaned toward the Dark Arts. Minerva knew of magical training techniques parents sometimes used on children who showed little or no magical ability.

"But what Harry needs, I believe," Professor Flitwick had continued, "is to un-learn and re-learn only certain spells. Severus, you might consider some localized Obliviate spells. You'd have to be very precise…"

"No."

Harry and Severus had spoken at the same time. Harry smiled at Severus, happy to not have to argue. If Severus said no, the answer was no. Period.

"Spell theory, then," said Professor Flitwick, frowning.

"And control," added Minerva. "Limits. Skilled witches and wizards innately understand how much power to put in a spell – Harry can learn to moderate the kinds of spells that will cause trouble."

And since they didn't yet know exactly what those were, he'd spent nearly an entire day performing spell after spell after spell for them. Ginny and Ron were brought in as controls, while Hermione watched and took notes. No one asked her to take notes, but once she'd heard Severus' theory, she'd been so certain that he was right that she spent an extra hour every day in her already tight schedule researching ways of relearning basic spells.

Ron and Ginny, who had been pulled out of a half-day of classes each for the exercise, enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

"You want me to blast that bookshelf apart? Really?" Ron had asked, a broad smile on his face. He'd pulverized the shelf with a well-placed Reducto. He had, however, hesitated when asked to stun the Headmaster.

"We must test the spell," Severus had explained. "Professor McGonagall has already performed a cushioning spell on the floor around me."

"Wouldn't you rather have me stun Harry?" asked Ron. He glanced at Harry, shrugging. "Sorry, mate."

"Actually yes, I would. However, we need to test your spell against Harry's, so you must both use the same target."

"Ginny wouldn't ask twice," Harry muttered. He felt rather proud of that fact for some reason.

In the end, it was obvious that constructive spells of any sort were far stronger when cast by Harry than by his friends.

"There's nothing innately wrong with having the ability to heal, or to repair," said Severus the Tuesday evening after that long day of spell work. "As long as you are aware of the effect of those spells when you utter them, we really do not have to undo anything."

Harry had looked up from his books. "I know," he'd said. But he'd gone back to reading about spell theory. He didn't have to say I just want to be normal for a change for Severus to understand what he wasn't saying.

He'd worked hard, and he'd had Hermione and Ron and Ginny's help. Hermione buried herself in theory, and Ginny and Ron tried to unlearn spells right along with him, then relearn them, too.

"I can't just not do it," Ron had complained. "I don't even remember anymore not being able to do a levitation spell."

But now, Harry's spell work was almost back to normal.

His healing spells were still powerful, but they were generally only effective on the target and not on everyone else in the general vicinity. His Patronus would always be strong; he hadn't even tried to unlearn that one. But his cheering charm no longer had the entire castle humming in the hallways when he cast it. The Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement had pulled him aside a couple of weeks ago when the Ministry had come to Hogwarts to give the practical tests to new applicants, asking him if he was interested in specialty course in emergency triage and healing.

He looked over at Reuben Peace, standing off to the side beside Severus, and Reuben gave him a thumbs up. Harry hadn't even realized there were trained Aurors who were also healers.

Today, though, on the first Anniversary of the fall of Voldemort, he thought he might need that powerful cheering charm for Ginny and Ron.

The Ministry had designated today, this day, as Remembrance Day.

As if we could ever forget, Harry thought.

And despite how fast the time seemed to have flown, sometimes it was hard to believe an entire year had gone by. Riding that dragon out of Gringotts seemed like a century ago, not just a year. Facing Voldemort – was it even in this lifetime?

He let his gaze move over to the spot of lush green grass beneath the Astronomy Tower. Was it his imagination that the grass here was thicker, greener, taller than elsewhere on the grounds? Had it been only two years since Albus Dumbledore died?

Dumbledore.

Hallows or Horcruxes.

Harry rubbed his scar, glad that the choices in his life were a bit less critical now, if just as complicated.

He'd sit his N.E.W.T.s in a few weeks, then a few weeks after that, leave Hogwarts for good.

He and Ron had found a flat close to Diagon Alley, where Ron would be working full time with George at the joke shop as soon as school ended. They'd gone out flat hunting with Severus and Molly and Arthur over Easter break, and had looked at seven flats that Hermione had researched, settling on one, in the end, that was only a block away from the Leaky, a third-floor walk-up with high ceilings, a wizard-worthy fireplace, a solid wall of bookshelves in the sitting room and a pantry large enough to satisfy even Ron. They'd be outfitting the flat with cast-offs from Grimmauld Place and the Burrow.

Harry would start with the new class of Aurors in August. Ginny was trying out with the Harpies, the Wasps and the Tornadoes in July, and had the healer training program as a backup plan.

Neville would be studying for his Mastery in Herbology. Luna was going off on a trip to Africa with her father.

Hermione was going to travel with her parents for the summer then start Uni in the fall. While she'd be living with her parents – officially – Harry knew he'd see her most days at the flat.

His eyes wandered over to the Quidditch pitch, around to the Lake. Behind him, he heard the stirrings of life in the castle as students began arriving in the Great Hall for breakfast.

He imagined a life where he'd wake up every morning to the sound of London traffic. Where he'd make his own breakfast and sit at the table in his pyjamas reading the morning Prophet before realizing he'd forgotten to hang up his training robes the night before, and having to sort them out because there would be no Hogwarts house-elves picking up after him. A life of running to the market for bread and peanut butter and cooking on a stove and throwing out the sour milk from the refrigerator.

He'd be doing normal things.

He smiled vaguely, thinking of falling asleep with Ginny on the sofa, of waking up with her in his arms. A life where no one was checking to see that everyone was in their proper bed after curfew.

He and Severus had had a plan when this year started. A plan for a normal year, of meeting on Tuesday evenings to have dinner, to catch up on each other's activities, to talk about the day. In that dream world, there hadn't been a sister for Severus, mysterious deaths, unfulfilled dreams of a family by a woman who had lost every remnant of family she'd ever had. Severus had had Harry, and Harry had had Severus, and they'd been a team of two, father and son, heroes both who preferred to fade back into the woodwork and go on with their lives now that they'd done what they had to do.

But now Severus had a sister and Harry had an aunt.

They might never know why Eileen Snape had given away Severus' sister just after she was born, or even if Tobias had known about it, or known about the baby at all. Severus had been back to Spinner's End several times to go through boxes and look for clues, but even he admitted that there would likely never be any real answers.

LePonte had admitted that he'd planned to hold Harry hostage and demand a ransom for his release. Even under Veritaserum, he hadn't admitted that he'd planned to kill Harry. He seemed to think he'd be able to control both Harry and Estelle, giving Estelle the son she'd always wanted, though she may not have bargained for a nearly full-grown man with a very determined mind of his own. Now, LePonte was locked up in Azkaban, and though conditions there without the Dementors were certainly more humane than they had been, it was no party, either, and he was no longer a concern for any of them.

Estelle, however, was.

Without the consistent, if controlling and even brainwashing, presence of Jean LePonte, she was unanchored. She'd unwittingly participated in her sister's death by brewing the potion that had made Alex Sanders foolish and brave, the potion used by Death Eaters before a raid. She had lost a lover, a baby, a husband, a sister, her parents. The man who had controlled her for years was locked in prison. The only family she had – cousins by adoption – were challenging her claim on her adoptive parents' estate.

Before Harry had ever gone to see Estelle in the mind-healing ward with Severus, before their visits had become a weekly occasion, Severus had sat down with him one Tuesday evening, not long before Christmas, and had spoken to him about closure.

They'd started by talking about Albus Dumbledore, and how he died.

Some deaths were expected. Peaceful. Others were sudden, unexpected. They left one stranded, seeking answers, going through what ifs and if onlys.

Albus Dumbledore had been dying. The people that mattered had known this – could see this. Albus himself knew this and as such, made plans for his own end.

But Severus led Harry through all the deaths. Harry's parents. Cedric. Sirius. Dumbledore. Moody. Remus and Tonks. Fred.

While Harry might wonder why they had to die, or question why both Remus and Tonks chose to stay and fight when they had an infant son at home, or even blame himself for suggesting that Cedric and he take the cup at the same time, or for leading Sirius to the Ministry, he didn't have unanswered questions about how they died, or even why. Good reason or not, he understood – and accepted – what they had given, what they and sacrificed, why they had died.

But Stella – Severus was calling Estelle Stella now, as those closer to her always had – Stella had had Regulus Black's child. And she had nothing left of Regulus, and no closure. No idea how he died, or where, or even why.

This had come up in a joint session, because Estelle had known Regulus and Severus were friends of a sort, and Severus had told them that Harry knew Regulus' story. That he had heard it from the Black family's house-elf, who had been there – been with Regulus. He told them it was not a pleasant story but still Estelle wanted it. Needed to hear it. And her healers agreed.

Harry had agreed to share it, but had surprised Severus by appearing at his door that Tuesday evening with Kreacher at his side.

And Kreacher had told the story, nearly word for word as Harry had first heard it, with all the emotion intact. And afterward, as Estelle sobbed, Harry's heart had caught in his throat as Kreacher removed the precious locket from around his neck and gifted it to the mother of his beloved master's lost son.

Harry didn't always enjoy their joint visits to St. Mungo's. They weren't really just visits. They were therapy. He soon realized it wasn't all about Estelle, either. It was about adoption. And finding family – making family – when you were already all grown up, or mostly so. He didn't think he needed this particular type of therapy. He didn't feel as if he needed closure with the Dursleys, for example. But Severus always thanked him for going to see Estelle, and in his eyes Harry could always see how grateful he was that Harry was there with him. They presented a united front, were proof positive to Estelle that family meant a lot more than blood.

And while Severus and Estelle shared a certain family resemblance, they were not easily marked as siblings by appearance only. But as Harry got to know this new aunt, he began to notice other similarities – in how they laughed, infrequent as that was, and in how their mouths twitched when they were trying not to smile.

It was hard for Harry to accept Estelle as Severus seemed to, but on a Tuesday when Severus had a horrible cold, Harry, realizing he sounded just like Madam Pomfrey, made him tea and lectured him for doing too much while he was ill, then bundled him in his chair with Potions Quarterly and went off to St. Mungo's on his own.

That was the afternoon Harry learned that Estelle would be leaving the hospital for a flat in Diagon Alley. She'd been given a job in the apothecary there, where she'd be on probation until she proved herself stable. She told him about the small flat, and said she hoped he'd come visit her from time to time. They'd played gobstones together then, though he'd always been pants at it, and when the hour was up, he'd been surprised when she took his hand in hers and looked him in the eye and apologized for turning his year upside down.

And that niggling grudge he'd been holding on to, the resentment that Severus had been too ready to forgive her, disappeared just like that.

Because that look in her eyes – that was Severus. The way she held his eyes so intently, the way they spoke to him as clearly as her voice did.

He figured he'd be going by to visit her fairly often after he left Hogwarts. He'd be living right next to Diagon Alley, after all.

The sun was climbing its way into the sky when the castle door opened behind him. He heard Severus' soft chuckle but didn't even have time to turn around to see him before the headmaster was lowering himself to the top stair beside him.

"Morning, Severus," Harry said, scooting over a bit to give Severus and his robes more room.

"You go back and forth between Severus and Dad all the time," said Severus in response. "On a day such as today, I think I prefer Dad."

Harry smiled. "Right, Dad," he said. Then, even though Severus didn't ask for an explanation, Harry gave one. "I remember the sunrise on this day last year. I remember when it was all over, how the sun was shining through the cracks in the walls, into the Great Hall."

"I don't remember that sunrise," said Severus. His hand strayed to his neck and he ran his fingers over the scarring there, his own daily reminder of what the war had almost cost him.

Harry reached out and squeezed Severus' other hand. "No, you wouldn't, would you? Trust me. It was the best sunrise I've ever experienced, and the absolute worst."

He blinked, and in the space of that blink, saw the devastation of a year ago, the boulders, the uprooted trees, the bodies, the blood. He let out a slow breath, picturing Remus and Tonks lying dead, hand in hand, lined up in the Great Hall with the other casualties.

"Teddy's coming today," he said. "Andromeda was responsible for Tonks' and Ted's stones, and Remus' too, and she had Teddy put his handprint on Remus’ and Tonks’."

A section of a courtyard wall would be rebuilt with the memorial stones, some simple, some ornate, all of them contributed by those who lost someone they loved to Voldemort's regime.

"Stella is planning to come as well," said Severus. "She and Kreacher worked together on a stone for Regulus."

Harry glanced over at Severus. He was watching Hagrid make his way back to his hut with what looked like a pair of fox kits in his arms.

"More pets," he said, shaking his head.

"I have an idea what Regulus' stone is going to have set in it," said Harry.

Severus nodded. "No doubt."

"Kreacher has taken to Estelle," said Harry. "I've asked him to keep her company this summer – to check in on her and help her out. Ron and I don't need a house-elf, and there are plenty here at Hogwarts already."

Again, Severus nodded.

"Are you going to be alright without me?" Harry's voice was quiet. He was looking out past Hagrid's hut again, unable to meet Severus' eyes.

"I suppose I will," answered Severus. "I am told that it gets easier over time and that before too long I will enjoy having the fledgling bird out of the nest."

"You've been talking to Molly and Arthur, haven't you?" laughed Harry. "And I'm hardly a fledgling bird. I've survived on my own before."

"You have," said Severus. "But I'm hoping your life is about more than just surviving in the future."

He stood. Harry watched his keen gaze move about the grounds.

"It's going to be a long day. You should come in for some breakfast."

Harry nodded. "I'll be in soon," he said.

But he sat on the stairs looking at the horizon for a very long time.

ooOOOoo

It was a long day.

It was a day full of ceremony, and family, and friends. Of Ministry officials, and speeches, and visitors to Hogwarts. Teddy Lupin ran to Harry, arms stretched wide, and Harry scooped him up and carried him on his hip as if he'd been carrying little boys around for half his life.

There was a formal dinner, and a speech by the Minister of Magic.

The special plaque was laid in the floor of the Great Hall, on the spot where Voldemort fell.

Neither Harry nor Severus had liked the idea of marking the spot, especially given that it was in the middle of the Great Hall of Hogwarts, but the Ministry had proceeded anyway. At the very least, the plaque was small and set into the floor tiles.

"On this spot, Harry James Potter defeated Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort." It was followed by the date of the battle, and the phrase chosen by Severus.

"And the world will live as one."

But the plaque was not the only Memorial of the Battle and the years of Voldemort's terror leading to it.

Outside in the castle courtyard, the Wall of Remembrance had been built using stones designed by the family and friends of those lost in the War.

Above the courtyard, unseen and unheard, Headmaster Severus Snape walked the Headmaster's walkway.

He stopped his pacing and looked down into the empty courtyard.

It had been full of people at sunset, people young and old, watching as the Ministry masons set the final stones into the wall.

Harry had designed stones for his parents, for his godfather, and a final stone, smaller than the others, surface polished and smooth, for the house-elf named Dobby. Severus had thought it had seemed cathartic for him, watching as each stone was sealed into the wall, building something solid and lasting, something integrated with the castle itself, from the names of the fallen.

And he watched as Harry hung back, as groups walked along the finished wall, grazing their hands along the polished stones, stopping to read, to admire, to exclaim, to weep.

Then finally going forward himself, flanked by the two friends who had accompanied him into the darkest of nights.

Pausing to study nearly every stone. Reaching out and tracing words with his fingers.

Constant Vigilance.

Dobby – a Free Elf

Our Cedric –So Much More than the Spare

My brother…myself

A grey stone with black veins with a golden locket set into it.

Two stones, side by side, with a child's handprint in each. Teddy Lupin would fit his hand to those stones for years to come, marveling how small he had been on that first Remembrance Day.

And as Severus had watched, Harry, Ron and Hermione had stopped, at last, before the largest stone, offset from the center of the wall, pure white marble.

Watched as Harry leaned in, pressed his cheek against the cold stone. Closed his eyes and remembered.

He allowed his friends to pull him away then, allowed them to turn his head, redirect his thoughts, away from the past, toward a future of hope and life and love.

ooOOOoo

Severus Snape stands in the courtyard now, alone.

It is nearly one o'clock in the morning, and the castle is silent.

Upstairs, in the eighth year dormitories, Harry Potter sleeps. His arm is flung over his eyes. His window is open. He is physically exhausted and emotionally drained.

But he is alive, unhurt, whole.

Severus stops in front of the stone he has designed, the white stone, the cornerstone of the war, of Harry's life, of his life.

Severus is not a demonstrative man. He is not overly emotional. He neither cries nor laughs easily. He believes himself stoic.

But what he loves, he protects fiercely.

And what he honors, he obeys.

He traces the words he has engraved with his own wand on this smooth stone.

Death is but the next great adventure.

He sighs, then smiles, thinking of Harry, and his future, the children he will have, the lives he will touch.

Not yet, Albus, he thinks.

Not yet.

Fin