Next to Harry, Professor McGonagall cleared her throat and rearranged her robes. "First things first. There is one apology that must be stated. Mine to you, Mister Potter." She took a deep breath. "My words to you in my office last week were pure nonsense. Spiteful and demeaning. And, I must say, your response was quite controlled, refusing to argue further with a woman who had clearly lost her mind." Her tone grew bitter and angry as she explained. "The truth of matter is, I hope you realize, that I believe none of the foolishness I spouted at you and your friends."
He frowned. "Then why –"
"Because Professor McGonagall's mind was tampered with," Snape replied. "And hers is not the only one."
Mind control. The Imperius Curse. Moody. The ice walls slammed down across Harry's tumbling emotions, cutting off his knee-jerk reaction to shout, to leap to his feet and tell McGonagall off, to say he'd warned her, didn't he? Like it had met the sharp edge of a guillotine, Harry's fury was severed, trapped behind frozen shields. He straightened in his chair, shoulders back, and considered Snape's words.
"You're talking about me. About my mind."
Snape stared, unblinking. An odd sensation, like the flutter of wings, launched itself against Harry's inner barriers. He opened his mouth to speak but Sirius' sudden surge to his feet blocked off his sight of the teacher.
"A talk, first. One honest conversation." Sirius' expression was grave as he glanced around at the others. "Let's not rush into things."
First? Harry wondered. He watched the others nod, settle themselves. He flicked his gaze towards the only stranger, the woman with the bangles and the bare feet, as she dropped to kneel on Snape's rug close to Harry's right. Eyes closed, she held both hands before her, palms towards him.
"Sirius?" Harry asked.
"Ah, this is Ischel, a healer. My healer," Sirius added with a smile. "She's the reason I'm doing so much better. She's going to monitor, to make sure you're okay while we talk."
A slight movement of the woman's bare head reflected the firelight, almost as if she'd raised an eyebrow at Harry's godfather.
He swallowed. He'd never much liked doctors or medi-wizards – Madame Pomfrey was too quick, her hands strong, a little too firm, a little too grabby and eager. She always made Harry think he was interrupting her, irritating her – purposefully – by getting injured or cursed or sick. This lady, however …
She didn't touch him. Didn't order him around. There were no dramatic sighs or pinches or disgusted frowns. Ischel carried some kind of aura around her – a combination of calm and concern and … happiness. Harry found himself nodding back at Sirius, the tight strain of his shoulders easing.
"Good." Sirius waved one hand and a chair backed away from Snape's dining table to set itself behind him. "Let's start with some basics. You've asked Severus and Minerva for help regarding this blasted tournament. That seems," his mouth jerked up in a half-smile, his eyes twinkling, "a bit out of character. Severus has explained a little – told us that Dumbledore has refused to interfere, that he told you you will have to compete. From what I've seen and heard, you tend to accept his word and jump right into things with both feet." His voice was gentle, undemanding. "What's different this time?"
Harry's thoughts were doing it again, shuffling themselves into an order he hadn't imagined before. Images flitted in and out until they fit together like puzzle pieces. He stared down at his empty teacup and began. "Every year ever since I came to Hogwarts, something happens. Some –" Harry searched for the proper words, "- some bizarre attack aimed at me or my friends. Some puzzle that I'm supposed to solve. Quirrell and Voldemort's wraith. A troll. A Cerberus. A sixty-foot basilisk. Pettigrew wandering the castle. And every year I don't know what I'm doing." Potter opened his hands and raised his eyes. "I'm fourteen. Why am I expected to know what to do or how to protect people?"
Snape shook his head. "You are not expected –"
"That's rubbish and you know it," Potter interrupted. The snap of his accusation was sharp and insistent, but without the childish anger they all must have expected.
Harry tilted his head and studied his Potions' teacher, his mind working faster and faster. He observed little things, took in small movements and facial tics that he'd never noticed before and then drew immediate conclusions. Snape was nervous – his movements not as graceful and determined as usual. His sneer was like a mask pulled on to hide curiosity, or even sincere concern about what Harry was saying. He was surprised that Harry Potter had spoken to him with such honesty. Harry wondered what else he'd never noticed about Snape before. It was as if, with the rage and fear and sorrow drained away, Harry's rational mind had sparked to life, eager for the chance to take over.
Words fit themselves together, quick and insistent, organized into a tight argument as if they were afraid Harry's emotions would come rocketing back and toss them back into unorganized piles. "It seems to me that because Voldemort's killing curse failed when I was a baby, I'm now expected to defeat him or his followers every year. Others assume I have some kind of vault filled with spells or, or tricks, or nine lives like a muggle cat. And," he shrugged, "maybe I do have those things, but no one has ever pointed them out to me or shown me how to use them. More likely," Harry continued, "the reason I'm expected to muddle through these dangers is because I have no family to stand up for me – or a legal guardian who knows what's going on here and cares if I live or die."
Before Sirius could speak, or McGonagall could insist on the myriad of people on his side, how Dumbledore and the teachers and his friends were staunch supporters, and before Snape could snarl or roll his eyes and claim Harry had more sycophants than any teen idol, Harry continued.
"Whatever the reason, the truth is that I don't know what to do. I never know what to do. Not first year when I touched Quirrell's skin and he burned alive." He swallowed the bile that rose at the memory – the smell, the pain, the fear curling up to muffle his logic. "Not when I pulled the sword of Godric Gryffindor from the Sorting Hat in the Chamber of Secrets or when the basilisk fang sank into my arm." Pain. The hideous creeping sensation beneath his skin as the poison spread. "Not last year when Dumbledore gave Hermione a Time Turner and then ordered us – two thirteen-year-olds - to save Sirius and Buckbeak." Hundreds of Dementors swooping low, sucking away life and breath and joy. Watching the spark of life leave Sirius …
This list of Harry's experiences at Hogwarts, of facts and circumstances with little emotion attached, added up to a strange sum. Harry's mind ticked off boxes, slotted the enemies he'd fought, the injuries he'd taken, and the expectations stacked on his shoulders as if they were ingredients and instructions in his potions book. Swirled together in a heated cauldron, these situations could only brew a horrible concoction.
Harry met Sirius' comforting gaze. "All I know is that it doesn't make sense. There can be no explanation for expecting a child to deal with monsters like these. I can't keep up."
The memories wouldn't let him go, the muffled emotions crying out from deep inside. He remembered the self-loathing that had washed over him after Quirrell's death and Pettigrew's escape. The sharp stab of fear that had cut through him when he saw Ginny's stiff, pale body. The barrier around his mind was dissolving at the edges and Harry found his hands shaking in his lap. "I- I can't trust to luck anymore or believe everything will work out all right just because I'm some Hero of the Light. I don't know why I thought this year should be different, but I did. I shouldn't have to compete in this tournament, no matter who's manipulated me into it. I don't want to."
Harry set the teacup down before he dropped it and rubbed at his aching forehead. The ice was melting, draining, leaking away. Dread, anxiety, horror rose up. The certain knowledge that nothing would help, nothing could help. Harry would have to do it, he'd be forced to take part in the tournament, shuffled onto a path that had only one exit just like every year before. One of his friends would be in danger, or the school – Harry's home – would be threatened. Just like always, there was too much that he didn't know, too much going on behind the scenes for him to have a clue how to proceed. Not just because he was a teenager and the rest of them were adults, but because he didn't know the rules. He didn't know anything. His stomach gurgled, a sick taste growing in the back of his throat.
The swirling of Snape's robes brought Harry back to the moment. The potion master jerked his wand and muttered an Accio, sending a small green vial floating into his hand. He lifted it towards Harry.
"Drink this, Potter, before you descend into a teen-angst-filled tantrum right before our eyes."
"Severus," McGonagall chided, "I think Mister Potter has presented himself and his requests quite well – there is no need to begin berating him."
Snape sighed heavily and grabbed Harry's hand, slapping the potion bottle into it. He stared into Harry's eyes while he shot his reply towards the other teacher. "Calming Draught," he stated. "Frankly, Minerva, I never expected Harry to do half this well. You all realize why, don't you? Why suddenly one of our most hot-headed and impulsive Gryffindors has been able to take a hold of himself this evening? The boy is Occluding."
Caught up in Snape's stare, Harry couldn't glance away to see any of the others' responses. The vial in his hand was cool against his skin, as if the pale green liquid could begin the process of calming his emotions before he'd even taken it. He frowned at Snape's fierce gaze. "What's Occluding?"
"Drink your potion and perhaps I will tell you." At Harry's continued defiance, Snape stepped back, arms crossed. "It will help you maintain the control you so desperately need, idiot boy."
Harry felt his face flush, anger slithering out to dance across his nerves. The icy shield was vibrating with the power of the emotions crowding back to the surface. Teeth clenched he managed to rip the stopper from the bottle and put it to his lips. His hyper-rational mind tried to break through the static of his anger and worry, telling him that it was unlikely that Snape was trying to poison him. Not now, not in front of Sirius and Remus. He swallowed the potion down.
The sharp, mint-flavored liquid did more than close down Harry's seething emotions – it reached out from his mouth and throat, speeding in through the delicate flesh to the nerves beneath, bypassing his stomach altogether. The magic dulled the rage and fear and linked up with the barrier that had been wavering, ready to collapse, shoring it up. It formed some kind of inner layer between Harry's spirit and the shields – defending them from within. Harry was able to draw in a deep, even breath and sit back, relaxing, his hands unfurling from their tight fists, revealing half-moon shaped marks on his skin.
"Thank you," Harry sighed. He shook his head, wondering, again, why this icy calm had failed him when he'd faced Snape so many times before.
HP HP HP HP HP
Severus dared to peer closely, again, at the boy's green eyes, but his gaze skittered away from the icy mirror of the Occlumency shield. The image reflected there must be some trick of the light, some interaction with the boy's glasses and the firelight and candles of his lounge. The reflection Severus saw was not that of Potter's stiff and sneering professor, but a black shape hovering over the child. A carrion-eater, waiting to pounce. The image was blurred, hair melding into his robes as if it were a hooded cloak, its edges fluttering, pale face a bright white contrast that peeked from the shadows. A Dementor hungering to lean in and suck out the boy's soul. A Death Eater, cloaked and masked.
It was an image Severus recognized at once – one side of his divided soul. The self-image that Severus kept pushed to the forefront of his thoughts during each encounter with the Dark Lord. This was Severus Snape, Death Eater, minion of Voldemort, hidden spy against the Light, heaped up with shadows and masks, barriers to keep out the Dark Lord's powerful Legilimency. Severus drew his robes close around him as if to chase away the chill.
The child would not be able to sustain Occlumency shields of that thickness for long. Not without exhausting himself. As he'd said, he was a mere fourteen and under enormous strain – both emotionally and magically – and had been for years. It was a wonder the boy had grown up reasonably sane, that he had managed as well as he had in his classes, considering the Dark Lord's soul piece embedded within the boy's scar. Since his parents' deaths, Potter's magic had been fighting the Horcrux, fighting to keep it contained, to force it out, battling day and night to build walls separating Potter's own magical core and Voldemort's parasitic infestation. It was no wonder the child was slight, his power erratic, his concentration limited. Severus sent a short glance at Sirius, nodding towards the healer's unmoving position.
They had agreed, the two of them. Agreed to allow Ischel to lead their actions. To give the healer time to explore Harry's aura as well as his physical symptoms before making any final decisions. Sirius' eyes were dark with concern, with worry, but he managed to constrain his need to take Harry up and spirit him away to the Mind Healers immediately. Irritatingly, he was doing better than Severus in this regard. With every moment that passed and every new realization about the child, Severus wrestled with his own emotions. His anger at Dumbledore's hidden knowledge. His fear for Lily's son should this connection between Harry and the Dark Lord prove to be too tight, too unassailable, for removal.
At least Albus was, at the moment, distracted. The ministry, Bagman and Crouch, the uproar Potter's entrance into the tournament would cause – it was the perfect opportunity for the headmaster to gather the other players in this drama into his net. Albus had agreed to tackle the knotty problem of Alastor Moody. The revelation of Minerva's geas had hit the old man hard, his utter confidence in the loyalty of his Hogwarts' staff carved into ribbons. Severus knew that Albus had intended to test the ex-auror this evening, while the students and teachers were swamped by the excitement surrounding the chosen champions. He would use every ounce of power and subtlety at his disposal to find out if Moody had been turned, or hexed, or, at least, if his many injuries had finally corrupted his mind. With Potter's name bursting from the cursed Goblet, Albus might be scrambling – but Severus had every confidence that he would move quickly and decisively to make sure of Moody's place within the great strategist's greater scheme.
He trusted Albus to see to Moody. What he did not trust him with was Harry Potter. Not anymore.
There was no plausible comforting explanation for Harry's powerful Occlumency. The source of Potter's sudden skill was the most disturbing aspect of this entire scenario. One could make a beginning at shielding one's mind by instinct and reason, but this was not a hastily constructed barrier of reeds and twigs that Severus had found, over the years, in other children. It was a mighty bulwark of iron and ice, one that Severus had no hope of penetrating – at the moment. The combination of the Calming Draught and Potter's dwindling physical resources, well, time would tell.
This would take delicacy. A characteristic that both Severus and Sirius had never been accused of having. He tilted his head towards Lupin. The wolf, somehow, appeared to understand.
"Harry," Lupin began, flashing a comforting smile at the child, drawing his attention from Severus, "how about we start right here. With tonight. From what Severus and Minerva have told us, you're acting very rationally, logically, when that is not what your teachers here have come to expect when you are faced with upsetting situations." His smile widened.
Minerva tilted her head, staring over her glasses. "In the past, you've generally run off to throw yourself into challenges difficult – impossible, even - for adult wizards. What is different about your thinking this time?"
Harry seemed to struggle to gather his thoughts. "I guess … it seemed like how I'd reacted before didn't work. I mean, I'm still upset – angry," his fists tightened and opened, but purposefully, not out of sheer emotion, "but it's deep down somewhere, behind the ice. That's how it started," he met Lupin's gaze, "with ice."
"When was that?"
"This summer." The boy's frown deepened. "When I realized I needed help. Help with the Dursleys. Help with the dreams. Just … help."
The Dursleys. Severus remembered watching the boy's memories of previous summers. How his so-called family had been neither supportive nor even tolerant. The evil sneers of Dursley's sister had gone unchallenged by Petunia, Lily's flesh and blood. The uncle had been a greasy ball of rage and fear. Harry had needed help then, obviously, but had never reached for it. No, he'd fled back to the wizarding world on his own, only met there by the minister because of Black's escape and the underage use of magic recorded at the ministry.
Why was it this year the boy's attitude had changed?
"Perhaps a different question," Severus suggested. "When did you realize that you required help with your … situation?"
"At the end of the summer." Harry nodded. "The icy shield appeared at the Dursleys for the first time, after a week of dreams – dreams about graveyards and snakes and green flashes of light. About Voldemort. And Pettigrew." The boy's voice dripped with venom. "It came more frequently after that. At the Burrow. After the Quidditch World Cup."
"Wait –" Sirius raised a hand. "That's when you wrote to me for the first time, right? You told me about the dreams and the Dark Mark and Death Eaters. Was that the first time you'd asked for help, Harry?"
The boy glanced at Minerva, a flash of resentment clear in his green eyes. Gradually, over the past few minutes, the boy had lost the tightly controlled mask that had fallen across his features. Sitting there now, he looked more like an exhausted fourteen-year-old than a stoic forty-year-old. Soon, Severus told himself. Soon he might be able to slip behind the barriers and get some answers.
"I'd tried before," Harry mumbled.
"I know that," Lupin replied, his voice quiet but firm. "You'd come to me last year. Minerva before that. This time was different, though. You not only wrote to Sirius, but you talked to Molly Weasley, didn't you? And she told you about the Death Eaters and the Dark Mark?" When Potter nodded, still staring down at his hands, Lupin continued. "It was the dreams that caused those discussions, wasn't it, Harry?"
Severus shivered, the cold armor the boy had drawn up around his mind seeping out into the room as the boy lost his grip on it. Potter was struggling – exhaustion and stress winning. Perhaps a nudge was all he needed. "Bad dreams," Severus drawled, mocking the child. "Oh, dear. Most Slytherin children stop fearing their nightmares around their eighth birthday. How sad."
Harry's head snapped up, his eyes blazing. "I'm not sure anyone else has dreams like mine, Professor. I certainly wouldn't wish them on my worst enemy." Bitterness and anger twisted in the child's throat, coloring each syllable. "Do your eight-year-old Slytherins dream of the night their parents were murdered? Or of muggles killed by the same curse that killed their mother in front of them and left them scarred?" He touched his forehead gingerly. "Do they wake up with blinding, shooting pain that leaves them sick for hours? Pain that makes them want to do anything if it would keep them awake all night? Every night?"
"Pain, boy? Physical pain?" Snape's coal-black eyes narrowed. Almost. The shields were slipping.
"I've gotten used to pain, Professor. There's always been pain. In first year, whenever Quirrell focused on me, or in the Forbidden Forest where Voldemort's shade or wraith or whatever was feeding." Potter's lips were white with tension. "The Dementors brought pain in third year."
The child's voice quivered and quaked, tears very close to the surface. Tears of rage, Severus realized. He readied himself, drawing the symbols for Legilimency in his mind's eye to flow between Potter and himself, shaped like an arrow on the bow.
The child was trembling. "I don't know why, but this summer's dreams have been … different. Almost –" he choked, shaking his head.
"Almost as if they are not dreams at all." Snape finished his thought. He breathed deep, his wand pointed at Potter. "Legi –"
Ischel's barely whispered command disrupted Severus' spell and he was thrown backwards. Every adult eye was focused on the healer, on the power she'd collected between her hands, now visible in waves of blue and green that swept out to surround Potter, buffering him from Severus' spell, from any magical contact with the others. Severus coughed, grimacing as the magic he'd gathered was shunted back into his system, searing hot. Before the healer spoke again, he'd managed to smother it with his own internal shields.
The healer murmured, "Sleep now, child."
It seemed, for a moment, as if Potter would fight her for control. The green eyes narrowed and then widened, an amazed expression on the boy's face dissolving into calm, peaceful relief. "Oh," Potter breathed, as he slumped, limp, into the armchair's cushioned back.