The muggle caretaker was listening in the hallway, again. He'd been staring through his curtains at the dark graveyard when he saw the light, turned off his kettle, and dragged the rusted key from the hook beside the door. The house should be empty – cold and dead and empty. But there, in the upper room, two men whispered together. Two men and … something else. Something unnatural. The size of a babe, it was. But this was no babe. This … thing made Frank's skin crawl and his gut lurch. It hissed and the others, those two, pretended to hear words.
Frank's lips thinned. He'd get to his phone. Call the authorities. Someone to take them all away.
The snake startled him – huge thing, belonged in a zoo. And then the scraggly, ratty one was facing him. Hauling the chair around. And he saw the bald, naked thing, the unholy mass of skin and bone, red eyes glaring. The thing spoke – two words, two familiar words –
Harry lurched upright, the room around him bathed in green light. He almost missed the sound from down the hall – his heart beat hard, pounding in his ears – but the growling voice and the sound of the locks on his bedroom door falling open one by one finally registered. His feet tangled in the sweaty sheets as he tried to get out of bed, to get upright, and he sprawled on the floor just as his bedroom door was flung open. The light from the hallway was eclipsed by his uncle's broad form.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, boy?"
One meaty hand gripped Harry's t-shirt and hauled him to his feet. His uncle leaned down, spitting mad. "Waking us all up night after night with your bloody yelling! I have an important meeting in the morning, you freak! A meeting that would put food on your table and clothes on your back! But, oh, no, you don't care one whit about that, do you?"
Harry's teeth rattled as his uncle shook him, his thoughts still trapped by the images of the vivid dream. "No. I mean, I don't –"
Uncle Vernon shoved Harry and he fell half on the floor and half on his bed, his elbow cracking hard against the frame, the skin on the small of his back peeling away as it scraped on the metal.
"I'm warning you, boy." Vernon closed his fist in Harry's face. "If you make one more sound tonight – or any night – I will make you regret it. Do you hear me? Do you?!"
"I – " How could Harry promise that? He'd tried to stay awake, or to tire himself out so thoroughly that he'd sleep straight through for once. But nothing worked. The dream came back - always the same one. The caretaker. The graveyard. The green light.
His uncle lunged forward and took Harry by the hair, pulling him up to shove his huge face into Harry's. "What's that you say, boy? 'I'm sorry, Uncle Vernon? I've been a wretched, arrogant brat and I'll change my ways?' Yes, that's what I thought you said."
Vernon held on for another moment, teeth bared, until Harry stuttered out an agreement. Disgusted, he flung Harry onto his bed, the frame smacking against the wall.
"Now. You will be silent for the rest of the night. Or you I will give you something to scream about, boy, make no mistake."
Harry nodded, swallowing in his dry and aching throat. But Vernon didn't waste any more time – he turned his back and swung the bedroom door shut behind him. As the locks snicked shut, Harry laid flat on his back, one fist pressed against the throbbing scar on his forehead. Sweaty, sore, his back aching and his head pounding, Harry tried to smother his anger. Anger. Disgust. Shame. Dread. Fear. The emotions rushed through him like fiery rivers, burning their way through his spirit.
The old caretaker was dead, struck by the curse Harry knew from his earliest memories. The same curse that had stolen Harry's mum and dad, that had ripped into Harry's head and left an ugly scar. The same curse that had reduced Voldemort to that … thing … in the chair. Bile pushed its way up Harry's throat, but he clenched his teeth and swallowed it all down – all the anger, the hurt, the loss, the pain, the disgust. It piled up inside him, demanding a way out, demanding Harry scream or curse or weep.
He stretched out, arching his back, legs extended and his hands gripping the thin mattress beneath him until he thought his skin might rip. Eyes wide open, head back, Harry screamed silently at the deaf ceiling. Curses wrestled through his mind, frustration fueling their struggles to escape – to find a target, the pain of his uncle's delicate handling lending rage to the mix. His vision blurred, the air around him heating, vibrating.
No. A brush of icy wings against his raging spirit brought a warning. Accidental magic would get him, at best, a beating. At worst? Another ministry letter threatening expulsion. The cool sensation swept through the ratcheting anger and out, away from the core of Harry's fury – acting like a pressure valve suddenly opened. Harry fell back on the bed, muscles slack, tears starting at the corners of his eyes.
He didn't know how long it took for his breathing to steady, for his heart to stop racing, or the buzzing in his ears to diminish. His eyelids were heavy, drooping, but he jerked them open. He couldn't fall back to sleep. Not now. Not tonight. Uncle Vernon was probably waiting, listening, hoping for Harry to make the smallest noise so he could come back in and – and have an excuse to use his fists.
Harry flopped over onto his side, wincing at the pain in his back. He had to figure this out – figure out a way to sleep without dreaming. Maybe he could nap more during the day and stay awake at night. If only he wasn't locked in his room – a room right down the hall from his aunt and uncle's. If he could do magic during the summer and unlock the locks on his door, he could lay on the couch downstairs. Or cast a Silencio spell over himself. But his wand was locked away with his invisibility cloak and his books and he'd sent Hedwig to Ron's with his reply about the Quidditch World Cup.
He stared into the gloom, his eyes scratchy and dry. He had to stop dreaming – dreaming about the old muggle man and the dusty house in the graveyard. Dreaming about Wormtail and that other man and the disgusting wraith that sat in the chair and cast the green-hued curse. He had to stop the recurring waves of despair and anger, the quaking fear and his absolute need for vengeance, the dark depression that dogged his footsteps around Little Whinging and the petrifying anxiety. He could hardly eat even what little the Dursleys were grudgingly supplying him, his long-in-coming growth spurt thinning him to gauntness. Fists tight against his chest, Harry dredged up and dumped scenario after scenario, looking for an answer – he had to stop waking up the Dursleys, stop the circle of sleep-deprivation and loss of control that led to his emotional outbursts.
Harry needed help.
He jerked upright, sitting on the edge of his bed, his head hanging. Where had that thought come from? Help was one thing Harry had learned never to count on. There had been no help for him at primary, where Dudley and his aunt and uncle had poisoned the well long before Harry stepped into a classroom with his cousin's giant clothes hanging off of him. There'd been no help in the neighborhood when Dudley and his gang had chased Harry down and beaten him, or when Aunt Petunia worked him mercilessly in the hot summer sun.
Hogwarts hadn't been any better. Head in his hands, he pressed his palms into his eyes. None of the adults had impressed Harry with their eagerness to help him, or even to listen. Not Dumbledore. Not McGonagall. Even Hagrid made more trouble for Harry than he helped him out of. He snorted. It was Snape who had followed him and Ron and Hermione out to the Whomping Willow and stood between Harry and his friends and a feral werewolf. Of course, that wasn't so much about helping Harry as denouncing Remus and capturing – or killing – Sirius.
Sirius. Sirius would want to help. If only … if only things had turned out differently, if they'd captured Wormtail and forced him to testify, to tell the truth about Harry's parents' betrayal. He shook his head, jaw clenched, the anger rising up again to choke him. But, no, of course that couldn't happen. Nothing helpful worked out for Harry. And now Sirius was far away, distancing himself from the ministry and Hogwarts. From Harry. He had to if he wanted to survive.
A tendril of chilly fog eased through the anger, cooling it before it could flare up into another explosion of accidental magic. Harry leaned back against the wall, wincing. Something about that icy feeling seemed familiar. Like déjà vu. He tried to catch the sensation, to spread it out and examine it. It came eagerly to his inner touch, thickening and lengthening from an ethereal wisp into a handkerchief-sized cloth, and then a cloak, and then a blanket, sliding across his nerves, wrapping him in serenity.
Within his cocoon, the heat of Harry's roiling emotions drained away, seeping down into a puddle in the center of his soul. His mind steadied, the painful memories of loss and pain and guilt, of Sirius flying away on Buckbeak, of Quirrell's face turning into blackened ash at Harry's grip, of the sharp pain of a basilisk fang puncturing his arm were still there, but colorless, standing out in stark black and white, clearer and sharper than ever before. It was as if he could see them, walk around them, examine each detail without his feelings crippling him.
He remembered this.
Harry closed his eyes and the images rose up in his memory. His father's shouts. His mother's screams. A figure rising before him. A flash of green light, a bite of pain and Harry was crying, sobbing, weeping in his crib. Hiccupping for his mama, his dada, terrified. Noises were loud – rushed footsteps, cries of loss and grief – baby Harry had closed his eyes, barely able to catch his breath. And then, slowly, a cool film had enveloped him, quieting his panic, easing his thumping heart. His tears dried, Harry had sat heavily in his crib, blanketed by an inner cloak that kept his 15-month-old mind calm, waiting. His bedroom's bright colors were muted to greys, the details standing out that much more starkly. A moment later a huge hairy figure lumbered in, tears streaming down his face. Hagrid. He'd scooped Harry up in a thick blanket and carried him away. Still, little Harry watched silently from behind his armor of ice.
Hagrid had told him the story. His wide eyes blinking to keep away his tears, the soft-hearted half-giant had shared the tale of how he'd taken Sirius' flying motorbike and come to take Harry away. How Harry hadn't cried or even made a sound during their journey to Privet Drive. Harry had believed it had been shock, but, maybe not. Maybe this feeling, this muffling of his fears was something else entirely. He shifted, easing the scraped flesh of his back away from the wall, his pillow jammed underneath one elbow. Maybe some bit of Harry's magic had been born back in his crib, his parents' bodies lying crumpled on the floor. Maybe it had saved his sanity. Harry's breathing slowed, his hands falling lax at his sides. In another moment, he was asleep, safe within the cool pressure of the mysterious inner shield.
Down the hall, Vernon Dursley waited just inside his bedroom door, his ear pressed to the gap he'd left open. One snore – one word – the smallest noise from that little freak and he'd give him the hiding of his life. He waited, his bare feet turning to icicles against the wood floor. Vernon shivered, screwing up his face in a scowl.
"You're lucky, boy," he murmured as he made his way back to his bed, shivering, pulling the blanket up over his shoulder. "That luck won't last. There's two weeks before your freaky friends are coming for you." Vernon lurched onto his side, away from Petunia, and breathed on his cupped hands, trying to catch some warmth. "I'll have you before then. Oh, I'll have you."
Harry slept on, the pain lines around his eyes smoothing out, his skin losing its pinched pallor. A deep, even breath released a cool mist into the air that hovered over his slim form. It settled over Harry's bed in an arc reaching from the top of his head to his socked feet, muffling the boy's breathing and any natural sounds from changing position. Inside the chill cloud, Harry's lips curved up into a smile.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione downed the last of Mrs. Weasley's hot cocoa and hurried up the stairs to Ron's room. The trip back from the Quidditch World Cup had been rushed, Mr. Weasley, Bill and Charlie had hurried them all from the field where the emergency port-key had dropped them and back to the Burrow like worried sheep-dogs with a pack of wolves on the loose.
The three hadn't had a chance to compare notes since the uproar among the tents – since the Dark Mark had appeared in the sky and the Crouch house elf had been found with Harry's wand. Mr. Weasley had kissed his wife, counted his children again, and rushed off to the ministry with Percy, hoping to help with the clean-up and the investigation into what exactly had gone wrong. Fred and George hadn't even taken the time to tease before disappearing upstairs, their heads together and a Silencio spell keeping their anxious conversation private.
Ginny had wanted to join the three, but Mrs. Weasley had sent her off with Bill and Charlie to help the oldest Weasley boys set up their beds in a tent outside. Harry figured she'd get the truth out of Ron pretty quickly – none of the Weasley boys had much of a chance of standing up to their youngest sibling. Her stinging jinxes were legendary – and Ron's tales of her talent for low-key vengeance had raised the hair on the back of Harry's neck more than once. He wondered, not for the first time, how different his life would have been if he'd been raised with siblings. Surely Dudley didn't count.
"What the bloody hell is going on." Ron threw himself onto his bed, bouncing once before coming to rest on his back.
Harry folded his legs up to sit on the floor, leaving the other bed to Hermione. "Don't ask me, I was out of it during the worst damage, apparently. I was sort of hoping you'd tell me." Harry tucked his hands underneath his thighs, refusing to rub at his scar again. It ached, echoing the sharp pain when that serpent and skull cloud had formed over the forest. His memories were sketchy, his head still ringing from the clout he'd taken by the panicking crowd, but he remembered a figure, dark and shadowy, and a growled incantation. Harry's stomach clenched, anxiety rising up from where it had been kept at bay by his excitement over the Cup, seeing his friends, and leaving the Dursley house two weeks early.
"It was all loud and bewildering, crashes and explosions in the dark." Hermione perched on the edge of the mattress. "Once we realized we'd been separated from you, we kept trying to circle back where we'd last seen you, but the forest made everything confusing. And then the Aurors showed up, only, I guess they weren't all Aurors, were they?"
Ron laughed. "Hardly. Crouch and Bagman and Mister Diggory – and dad – aren't trained Aurors. Just adults trying to help out, I guess."
"Do you really think that house elf – Winky – was to blame?" Harry shook his head. "That doesn't make much sense."
"None at all," Hermione agreed. "I've never heard of a house elf using a wand, for one thing. And conjuring the Dark Mark? Why on earth would she do that?"
"Were the house elves on Dumbledore's side then? In the war?" Harry asked.
"Not on any side, were they?" Ron shoved his hand into his front pocket, digging around for something and extending his long legs over the edge of his bed. "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named hated all the magical creatures – house elves, goblins, centaurs – the only ones he didn't want to gather up into cages were the giants and the werewolves and some of the other nasty, dangerous ones. The ones he could convince to fight for him." He smiled triumphantly as he came up with two squashed pumpkin pasties. Eyebrows raised, he offered one to Harry who waved him away.
"Honestly, Ronald," Hermione sighed, crinkling up her nose in disgust. "But he is right. House elf magic is strange, very powerful, but not like a wizard's magic. They don't need wands or verbal spells at all."
Harry nodded. "I remember."
"Remember what?" Hermione glared. "Oh, Dobby, of course. He did magic in your aunt and uncle's house, didn't he?"
"Well, yes," Harry admitted, "but that's not what I meant." His two friends waited, staring, and Harry continued. "At the end of second year, you were still petrified, Hermione, and Ron was in the hospital wing with Ginny. I was in Dumbledore's office, explaining what had happened with the basilisk and the Chamber of Secrets when Malfoy came in – Lucius Malfoy, with Dobby beside him. Didn't I tell you this?"
Ron chewed noisily. "Sumfim 'bout freeing his elf." Bits of pumpkin sprayed onto his shirt.
Before Hermione could start in on a lecture, Harry nodded. "I took off one of my socks and put it in the diary and shoved the book into Malfoy's hand. It was dirty and bloody and sopping wet, and I knew he couldn't stand touching the thing and would hand it over to Dobby right away. Well, he did, and Dobby found the sock and was freed. Malfoy wasn't exactly pleased."
"What did he do?" Hermione eyes were open wide, both hands rising to cover her mouth.
"He pointed his wand at me and started a curse –" Harry stuttered to a halt. No, it couldn't have been … not even Malfoy was arrogant enough to think he could get away with the killing curse right outside Dumbledore's office. Harry remembered his fear, how he'd wanted to run but the fight with the basilisk had stolen all his adrenaline. "I don't – I don't think I heard what he was trying to curse me with, but Dobby just stepped between us and held up one hand and said, 'You will not harm Harry Potter,' or something like that and Malfoy flew through the air down the whole length of the hallway."
Ron had paused, mid-chew, a frozen expression of shock on his face. "Dobby sent Malfoy flying? I'd have paid galleons to see that."
"That's just more proof of what I said," Hermione continued. "House elves don't need wands to do their magic. And they can Apparate within Hogwarts' wards. Wizards are afraid that, considering how powerful they are without wands, if they got their hands on wizards' wands, they'd be unstoppable."
"So that's why Crouch was so mad?" Harry wasn't so sure. He didn't know the man at all, but last night in the forest he'd seemed almost afraid. Panicky. And looking for a scapegoat. "He wanted to blame us, right? Wanted to stupefy us and take us in for questioning. I mean, he seemed desperate to blame someone."
"Probly because the ministry's gonna be in big trouble after this. Finding someone to blame the whole rotten scene on would go far in getting the ministry out of hot water." Ron brushed crumbs off his shirt and onto his bed. "Even if it's his own house elf."
Harry let Ron and Hermione's voices drift away. Hands rubbing up and down his arms, he fought the chill that now seemed to surround him when he was tired or stressed. Ever since that night at the Dursleys when Uncle Vernon had burst in and threatened to wallop him, the sensation had come more frequently. He should be grateful for it – at least, he assumed that whatever was happening was what had kept him quiet during the nights and out of his uncle's hands. Kept him steady, not flying into tantrums when Aunt Petunia or Dudley were particularly nasty. Yeah, he was grateful to escape more punishment, but finding that there was yet another aspect of his own magic that Harry didn't understand only twisted Harry's gut into new knots.
He'd been close to an answer that night, when Uncle Vernon had left him bruised and angry. But the memory was unclear, muddy, all wrapped up with Harry's dreams of the old man and the snake and his parents dying in a bright green light. He'd woken the next morning more rested than he'd been in weeks, but only the lingering chill remained.
Hermione and Ron kept on, Hermione needing to talk it all out, even if Harry and Ron didn't always follow. Over the past three years, Harry had learned how to let her words wash over him, making interested noises here and there so she wouldn't be offended. Ron, more often, got tangled up in her swoops of logic, always feeling the need to stick up for the magical community, even as backwards and irrational it seemed to those who'd grown up in the muggle world. Harry glanced between them – they were so different; quirky and stubborn, and smart in their own way. He couldn't imagine living without them. But, since about halfway through first year, it had been obvious that Harry would always be the one on the outside, looking in. Without Ron and Hermione, he'd never have gotten to the Philosopher's Stone in time. But, neither of his friends had questioned the fact that it had been Harry who needed to go on – to fight the final battle. The same in second year. Hermione found the clues, Ron encouraged and stood solidly beside him, and Harry faced Tom Riddle and a basilisk alone.
He sighed and shifted around, resting against the bed Hermione was sitting on. Last year nothing had changed. After all, Harry was the Boy Who Lived, the one Sirius Black had been targeting – supposedly. The one everyone in the castle was supposed to protect … up to a point. No Hogsmeade weekends, few trips to Hagrid's hut, and skin-crawling Dementors wandering the grounds that caused only Harry to faint dead away. Harry's friends were great, but they weren't expected to save the wizarding world time and time again. It had been Harry and Hermione who Dumbledore had sent back in time to save Sirius and Buckbeak – not a teacher, not a powerful wizard like himself. Finally, it had been Harry who had faced the hundreds of Dementors in the end, standing on the shore of the lake. Watching Sirius, watching himself fall, near death, he'd managed to conjure a Patronus, shining, larger than life.
Ron and Hermione were Harry's first friends. They'd stand with him through anything. A twinge of guilt lit a low fire in his gut. Even though they'd been hurt again and again, hurt and afraid and traumatized, they wouldn't hesitate. The low fire became a raging bonfire. How could he keep dragging them so close to danger? What kind of friend did that? Voldemort wasn't after them, he was after Harry.
A cool mist twisted along Harry's nerves, dowsing the flames, cooling his anger and worry and guilt. His thoughts quieted, his memories of how talking things over with Ron and Hermione had given Harry his best insights into the threats they'd faced. Harry needed them. Even if it might be better for them to send him off on his own, to draw back, Harry couldn't make that heroic of a sacrifice. He shivered. He wasn't that much of a hero. As quick as he thought it, the new guilt was whisked away, and Harry was left with one clear idea: his friends weren't idiots; they had the right to decide their own behavior and accept the obvious consequences of being best friends with the Boy Who Lived.
"… but I don't understand."
The whine in Hermione's voice pried Harry out of his thoughts. His brilliant friend hated not understanding something. Especially when Ron claimed that he did. Harry glanced at the red-head's body language, leaning back on his elbows, a crooked smile on his face. Uh-oh. This could be trouble.
"Well, you see, Hermione –"
Harry closed his eyes and rubbed at his aching forehead. Ron in "I grew up in a pure-blood household and my dad works for the ministry" mode didn't have the smug disgust of a Draco Malfoy, but it could put Hermione's back up like nothing else. The thing was, Ron was right – his mum and dad had been front and center in Voldemort's war. Even if they didn't exactly flaunt their roles in front of their kids, Arthur and Molly Weasley had grown up wizards, and had been confidants of Dumbledore and friends with Harry's parents. Not to mention Ron's oldest brothers had important, dangerous jobs and always had stories to tell when they visited. Harry glanced up through his fingers at his friends. Deep down, Hermione knew it was logical that Ron had a deeper understanding of the wizarding world, but, ironically, his smartest friend could be really dense.
"Fine." Hermione sat up straight, her chin lifted high. "Tell me why the sight of those Death Eaters made all of the adult wizards panic and run for their lives? I mean, except for your father and the ministry people, the wizards and witches acted like children, running and screaming. Everyone keeps telling us that Voldemort is dead and gone, so why would a few thugs wearing masks and cloaks and tormenting muggles mean the rest of the wizarding world loses its mind?"
Ron's semi-smug expression fell into a frown. "You just don't understand, Hermione. Loads of people died in the war, probably every one of the witches and wizards you're insulting had a friend or family member suddenly disappear or wind up dead in a ditch somewhere, after hours of torture. You don't just get over that stuff because it's been a few years." He pressed his lips together for a second. "I mean, think about Neville. Do you think being reminded of those evil berks would be particularly easy for him?"
"No, of course not." Hermione's shoulders sagged. "Has it happened before? Death Eaters wearing their masks out in public? Since the war, I mean."
Ron's frown grew deeper. "Not that I've heard of."
"So that might be an answer – people were so shocked that anyone would turn up in those masks that they had a sort of knee-jerk reaction."
Harry tilted his head to look up at her. "But, no, if you think about it, if it was just a knee-jerk reaction, why didn't it wear off after a minute? Why didn't the witches and wizards realize what was happening and turn their wands on those Death Eaters? Why didn't they try to capture them instead of running away? I mean, you've seen Neville. He might be scared right off, but he'd have been going at those nutters, trying to tear them to pieces if given half a chance. We've all heard," Harry continued, "how a lot of them got away after the war – how a whole load of Voldemort's followers hid and were never identified. Wouldn't it make more sense for the huge crowd who weren't wearing masks and torturing muggles to stand up to them? To try to stupefy them and find out who they were?"
Ron looked like he'd been hit in the stomach by a bludger – pale and confused and unable to speak or breathe. Hermione simply stared at Harry as if he'd grown an extra head or suddenly announced his love for Peeves the poltergeist.
"What?" Harry demanded. "If this is about saying his name again …"
"It's just – that's very logical, Harry. Rational."
"Yeah," Ron added. "And I'm not sure how much logical thinking goes on when the Dark Mark appears overhead."
"Granted," Hermione agreed, still staring at Harry in amazement. "But what I meant to say was, I'm surprised, okay, not exactly surprised, but impressed."
His lips a thin line, Harry crossed his arms. "What, you're impressed that I can, for once, think things out logically?"
Hermione rolled her eyes and nudged his shoulder with her knee. "You're not exactly well known for your logical, well-reasoned responses to problems, Harry."
Ron collapsed backward, laughing. "She's not wrong, mate."
Harry flapped his hands in the air. "Okay. But even if I tend to run towards danger, I'm fourteen, and a right mess, and I'm expected to save the wizarding world every year." He wriggled his eyebrows. "I've got loads of excuses, but what about grown, adult wizards?"
Suddenly Hermione wasn't laughing. "Are you saying that the Morsmordre – the spell that conjures the Dark Mark - might have some kind of emotional element? That it could affect anyone who looks at it – or is even in close proximity to the caster – with fear?"
"Like Imperius, but instead of taking over a person's will, it takes over their emotions?" Ron made a long face. "That's brilliant. I could ask dad –"
"I think he's already left." Hermione inched to the edge of her bed. "Do you think your mother would know?"
Ron was already off the bed and halfway to the door. "Whatever dad knows, mum knows, too." One hand on the knob, Ron abruptly turned back, making Hermione grab onto Harry to keep from falling backwards. "You both realize, I hope, that my mum is a powerful witch, right? Just because she's not posh, because she decided to raise us instead of staying on at her job doesn't mean she couldn't take down those slimy gits from last night with one wave of her wand?"
Harry nodded. Hermione huffed.
"Of course, Ronald," she replied. "Did you really think that I'd think poorly of your mother because she's a woman?"
"Well, I guess not," Ron mumbled, tucking his head down at Hermione's sharp tone.
"I think she's brilliant," Harry added.
Hermione pushed at Ron to get him moving again. "I would never underestimate a woman who could live in the same house as seven male wizards and not turn them all into something much neater and easier to handle. Like baby pigs. Or puppies."
Ron didn't seem to know whether to be offended or pleased. "All right then," he murmured, trying to keep Hermione from pushing him down the stairs.
They found Molly Weasley standing before her mantelpiece, her eyes glued to the clock there, her wand in her hand.
"Just a minute, dear."
Mrs. Weasley's tone was just as Harry expected it – a little breathless, a tiny bit frustrated, but warm and loving. But putting that together with the waves of color breaking around her, the thick, heavy scent of sparks, and the way the hairs all over his body were standing on end, this didn't seem to be an every-day moment at all. Ron's mum was doing some serious magic.
He focused on the clock. The hands were as usual – each member of the Weasley family represented, including Ron's parents, Bill and Charlie, and – he looked again – Harry and Hermione. Warmth spread in his chest, a smile tugging his lips upwards. It looked like Mrs. Weasley was working on the numbers - or rather, where the numbers would be on a normal clock. She was adding more. There were fifteen, now. To 'in bed', 'in trouble', 'work,' 'garden', 'traveling,' and the worrisome 'mortal peril' Mrs. Weasley was squeezing in 'kidnapped', 'hexed', and 'heading straight into danger like an idiotic Gryffindor.' With a growled curse, she edited that huge label that was hanging off the side of the clock down to just 'Gryffindor'.
"One more," Mrs. Weasley murmured. With a sharp back-and-forth of her wand, one more label popped into place, forcing the ones on either side to shrink to fit. Harry blinked, feeling a flash of heat, like he'd walked under the vent just outside the cupboard under the stairs at the Dursley's house. A second later, he took a step backward.
They were all staring at him.
"Um…" Harry should have been used to people staring by now, but not the Weasleys. Especially not Mrs. Weasley. Not with that look on her face – half worried, half suspicious. "Have I got something on my face?"
Ron was pointing to the clock. All of the other pictures were grouped in front of harmless labels – at work, traveling – but Harry's was all alone on the other side of the clock, standing straight in front of the last label Mrs. Weasley had made.
His picture grimaced back at him before glancing up warily at the words written above its head.
'Voldemort is close.'
"Well," Harry began, his hands in his pockets and his stomach churning, "that can't be good."
Mrs. Weasley gathered the three and sat them around the kitchen table, busying herself with making tea and setting out a plate of sandwiches she must have thrown together earlier. None of them said much. Harry couldn't seem to get any words past the lump in his throat, and Ron and Hermione kept shooting him worried looks, opening their mouths, and then closing them. Harry fingered his mug of tea, tracing a jagged line of cracks that had been mended more than once. They almost formed a pattern, he realized, his fingers going over and over the raised marks that shone a kind of shimmery dark blue on the pale blue cup. It almost looked like – he splayed his hand flat on the table, looking away. It almost looked like a lightning bolt.
"All right then." Mrs. Weasley let out a sigh and sat down between Ron and Harry, patting Harry's arm and shooting him a smile. "That was rather unexpected, but, then again, you've been surprising us for years, haven't you been, dear?"
"Mrs. Weasley." Hermione seemed to take her courage in hand. "Can I ask you, why would you put that label on the clock? That one particularly?"
Lips pursed, Mrs. Weasley poured herself a mug of tea and added four cubes of sugar. "I'll speak frankly, children. Ron?" she added. "You'll not repeat this to your brothers and sisters, do you hear?"
"Yes, mum," Ron answered automatically. "Wait –" he frowned, "not anyone? I mean, I wouldn't tell Ginny, but the others are all older and –"
"I mean what I say Ronald. Keep this to yourself, or among Hermione and Harry only."
Harry had never heard Mrs. Weasley sound so stern and controlled. Her tone certainly made Ron nod and gulp and lean a little farther away from his mother.
"Now then, let's speak the truth. We all know that Voldemort is not dead. He managed to keep some sort of wraith-like existence after that horrible night when you were baby, Harry. You met him, didn't you? At Hogwarts. When he went after that ridiculous stone that Dumbledore insisted on keeping there." She didn't wait for Harry to agree. "You managed to send him running with little help from Albus or Minerva or anyone else. But," she held up one finger, "let's not pretend to each other that he's dead. He'll be back. That ruckus last night shows us that his followers believe it, too. And they would know, wouldn't they?"
Hermione found her voice. "Please, how would they know?"
Mrs. Weasley tapped her left forearm. "The Morsmordre isn't just a dark cloud that hangs in the sky, my dears. Voldemort needed a way to call his followers to himself, to send messages that couldn't be intercepted by the ministry or lost by a confused owl." She glanced over to Errol's perch. The bird was dangling upside down by one knotted claw, gently swinging back and forth on every loud, gurgling exhale as it slept. "His closest followers were marked, right here, with that same image – the skull and the serpent. It was permanently etched into their skin with ink and magic and linked just as permanently to him."
"Like the Protean Charm?"
"The what?" Ron shot a frown at Hermione.
"I've read about it," she continued. "It's an upper level spell that charms a particular object within a group of objects to a thaumaturgic reaction that is instantly felt on all of the objects in the set."
"Oh." Ron nodded. A second later his face screwed up in confusion. "What?"
Mrs. Weasley chuckled. "Don't worry about it. It's not magic you'll be doing for some time. But, yes, Hermione, very similar." She shook her head, her expression grim. "Voldemort was right good at spell creation but he was even better at taking a harmless spell, like the Protean Charm, and turning it into something much darker and deadlier."
Harry leaned forward. "So, Death Eaters all have some sort of … magical tattoo? That sounds like a simple way of figuring out who's who, doesn't it? I mean, the ministry would just have to make every wizard stand there in their vests and the guilty parties would be obvious." There had to be a catch – that was entirely too easy. "Sirius doesn't have anything like that on his arm. Why was he sent to Azkaban?"
Mrs. Weasley was already shaking her head. "Not every one of the Dark Lord's followers were marked. He had his share of spies and agents, wizards and witches who were never suspected, never slipped one toe out of line. Some had hidden away within the ministry, the Wizengamot, Hogwarts and the other wizarding schools, various organizations and houses. Voldemort wasn't stupid enough to risk a slip of a sleeve would reveal one of his spies while they lived their lives." Her eyes blazed. "We'd be fools to think they'd all been caught. Obviously, we made mistakes, sent innocent men to prison, so missing some of his worst agents makes sense."
"And you think it's one of his spies, someone who was never caught and has managed to get close to Harry that's causing your clock to react that way?" Hermione's hands twisted nervously.
"Possibly. In fact," Ron's mom continued, "I'd bet if I'd changed that clock when you first went to Hogwarts, when Professor Quirrell was first taken over by He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named, it would have looked the same."
"Not to mention whenever Harry was around Scabbers." Ron's expression was stormy, his usually bland features dropping into a harsh, resolved mask. "We've got to be dead careful at Hogwarts, then. That's where he's likely to turn up."
"He or she," Hermione warned. "Remember what you just said about your mother, Ronald."
Harry nodded, but something about that assumption sounded … off. Not quite right. He turned back to Mrs. Weasley. "But surely looking for the tattoo would be a good first step to identifying Death Eaters?"
"Quirrell didn't have one," Ron's mother reminded him. "Not to mention that you've heard how some of his followers claimed they'd been subject to the Imperius Curse?" She grimaced and lifted her hands from the table. "Same thing. Those brands could have been created while the wizard or witch was unable to stop themselves. Also, you want to be careful lumping people together like that – some young people might have taken the Dark Mark under duress – family obligation or," her expression clouded, "idiotic juvenile thinking that they later came to regret very, very much."
"Sounds like you knew someone like that, mum."
Ron's mother sighed. "More than one, Ronald. More than one. When Voldemort first began gathering followers, quite a few people you'd think would know better listened and liked what they heard. He spoke about wizard freedom, how stifling it had been to the magical community to have to keep everything we do – everything we are – a secret from muggles. How our society had been kept in the dark too long. He gained followers who, later, resisted him with everything they had."
"Anyway," she continued, "getting back to the point. Those marks went dormant when Harry here," her smile was kind, "survived Voldemort's killing curse and reflected it back at him. Each one faded until it was barely visible. Since Voldemort's return, since your first year at Hogwarts," she pointed to Harry, "the marks have filled in again. Getting darker, standing out against the skin. Sometimes, they even heat up – gently, for now – but it is a direct indication of Voldemort's returning strength. At least, that's what Dumbledore thinks. And I agree."
Harry filtered out Hermione's and Ron's immediate questions, watching Mrs. Weasley's expression and parsing the words she'd used. Gooseflesh erupted all over Harry's skin as his mind gathered up clues and hints and evidence and slotted it all quickly into place. She knew someone with a Dark Mark. And so did Dumbledore. There was someone close to both of them who had been a member of Voldemort's inner circle. Maybe more than one. Unless …
"Does the ministry keep track of the marks on the prisoners? The ones in Azkaban?" Harry shot Hermione an apologetic glance for interrupting.
Mrs. Weasley tilted her head. "That's a good question – I don't know."
Tangled emotions burst through Harry's control. Anger. Frustration. Certainty. Slapping both hands on the table, Harry demanded, "Who is it?" he demanded.
The other three jumped at the loud bang. "Harry, what –"
Mrs. Weasley took in a slow breath, placing her hands in her lap under the table. She turned to face him, nodding once as if convincing herself of something. "There are things I cannot tell you, Harry. Things that are not my secrets to tell. I hope you can underst-"
"It's Snape, isn't it?" Harry wished his voice wouldn't waver like that when he was angry. That his anger could burn tall and righteous instead of turning him into a mass of nerves and quivering muscles. "I knew it. I've heard the rumors. Hagrid told me – before I ever got to Hogwarts – that all Slytherins were evil. And it's not like he exactly hides his hatred for me and for everything involving my parents." He slid his chair back from the table, trying to straighten his back, to get a hold of himself. He peered into Ron's mother's eyes. "What did he do? What did he do to my parents?" He swallowed hard. "I know he hated them. 'You're just like your father,'" Harry sneered in a passable echo of Snape's voice. "If he's said it once he's said it a hundred times. Please. Please tell me."
"Mate, calm down –"
"No." Harry barely glanced at his friends. "This is between me and your mum, Ron. Stay out of it. Please." The air around him thickened, as if a hot and humid cloud had descended over him. The plates and cups on the table vibrated.
On another day, Hermione's quick gasp might have had Harry rushing to apologize. Not today. Not now. Ron's mother hadn't looked away, she hadn't said a word. Her eyes were dry, her hands limp as she stared back.
"Listen to me, Harry James Potter," she finally began. His full name knocked Harry back from the edge of an outburst, the air around him loosening, tea things calming. "Listen to what I'm saying. Listen and think, can you do that? Can I trust you to do that?"
"I –" Harry nodded sharply, licking dry lips. "I think so."
"Now that's an honest answer." Mrs. Weasley smiled. "Good. Now. I'll say this once," she gathered up Ron and Hermione with Harry with a quick glance, "and you'd best not repeat it, even among yourselves. We're safe here, at the Burrow, you think. Safe with no one but family, no one who could possibly repeat our words where Voldemort's spies could hear them. But I'll tell you this," she leaned close, one finger in the air, "others have felt safe. Others have warded their homes with charms and promises and vows, they've kept hidden behind walls of magic and stone, they've trusted few with their secrets – and they've died." She let that word echo throughout the small kitchen until it sank in. "Just like my brothers. Just like your parents, Harry."
She tilted her head as if she expected a response.
"Yes, ma'am," Harry breathed. Ron and Hermione stammered their own agreement.
"Good." Mrs. Weasley sat back in her chair and folded her hands on the table. "Now, there is a story to tell, a story about a young man who had a terrible upbringing, who lost all those closest to him for one reason or another, and who allowed himself to become bitter and angry because of it." She tilted her head towards Harry. "For some, it should be a cautionary tale, I think."
Harry's stomach gurgled warningly. He nodded.
"Anger can lead us astray in many ways. It can't be helped, sometimes," Mrs. Weasley smiled grimly, "especially when we're the age when our emotions are rather closer to the surface. Emotions are a part of us, after all – anger, love, desperation, sadness – we've got the whole lot to deal with and, at your age, well, it seems more daunting than we can rightly handle. And this man, he took all of those emotions and gathered them up inside. Locked them up tight." Ron's mother grimaced. "And that's not healthy. They fester there, inside," she tapped her chest, "curdle like old milk. And what's inside taints what's outside, you know."
Harry exchanged glances with Ron and Hermione. He recognized the man she was talking about, of course. He'd guessed who it was from the beginning. But Mrs. Weasley's words, her steady gaze, sent a sharp stab of guilt through Harry's anger. Harry's thoughts turned inward, examining the well of rage and pain deep within his own soul. Like black, oily water, swirling and boiling sometimes, it made him lash out at friends, at teachers. It made him take risks no one else would, no one who had a brain in their heads, anyway. It burned, swept up through his fingers and into his head like scalding steam that wouldn't let him get his thoughts in order. Mrs. Weasley's kind eyes forced Harry to realize that even though she'd been talking about some other young man – Snape, it had to be Snape – it could easily be Harry.
Mrs. Weasley spoke sharply. "Well, as I said, this young man made bad decisions. Followed the wrong crowd. And was in far too deep when he came to his senses and wanted out. I will tell you one last thing about this man." She nodded. "When he reached the darkest place, the very bottom, he did what others, many, many others refused to do. Even though it cost him, cost him dearly, and continues to bring pain and hardship every day of his life. When his reason, his well-trained mind fought its way through his anger and pain and the charms and hexes he'd been subjected to and the oaths he'd taken, he saw what he'd become. And," her voice softened to a whisper, "and what he might yet become. He faced a choice – he could go on, embrace the Dark – that, after all, was what everyone expected, what he'd expected to do with his life. Or, he could turn away. Turn to the Light. For a wizard pledged to darkness, you don’t know how difficult that choice can be."
Despair fought with Harry's anger. He wasn't perfect, he knew that better than any of his friends or schoolmates, better than those who looked to him for all the answers. He'd made bad choices. He'd been petty and vindictive and proud, him, Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived. He'd been happy to see his cousin Dudley behind the glass at the zoo, furiously ecstatic when he blew up his aunt at the Weasley dinner table. A dark satisfaction grew within him whenever Draco was injured or put in his place. His hands closed into fists, tight and painful. Quirrell had died at Harry's touch. Died.
He tried to shake off the rising sense of his own guilt. Tried to remind himself that, if anyone had the right to judge Snape, it was Harry. But his roiling emotions wouldn't let him lock down that certainty as he had a few minutes ago.
Hermione's voice cut through the swamp of Harry's thinking.
"You're asking us not to judge someone by the Dark Mark. Telling us that it's not as easy as pointing out a magical tattoo to find his true allies." Hermione studied Mrs. Weasley closely. "But, according to your clock, there's someone close to Harry who we shouldn't trust. How do we tell the difference?"
"Let me ask you three." Mrs. Weasley matched Hermione's intensity. "Let's say you suspect someone is connected to the Dark Lord. You see something that doesn't make sense. You have stumbled across vital information that could help people defeat him, or, at least, keep some safe. Maybe it's small things, maybe you've been in the right place at the right time and it's quite a big thing, like the entrance to a secret chamber at Hogwarts. What do you do?"
Ron made a face. "Well, what we normally do is send Hermione off to the library until it's time for Harry to jump in and do something about it."
His mom's face revealed just how utterly ridiculous she found her son's statement. "No, Ronald. You do what that young man I was talking about did. You ask for help. You go to someone who has the wisdom to recognize true facts from suppositions. Someone who has the background knowledge to interpret what you've seen. And who has the power to do something about it. You ask for help."
Before Harry could insist that they'd tried that, Mrs. Weasley continued. " And that's why I'm telling you all this story. Because, instead of rushing on and getting in deeper and making more mistakes, I want you to do what that young man did during the last war. What you three did today. Ask for help. Come to me or your father," she turned to Ron, "or Professor Dumbledore or Professor McGonagall. And, if they don't listen, you make them listen. Calmly, with well-reasoned arguments." She pointed; her eyes narrow. "You come to me, or you go to any of your teachers. And I promise I will listen, they will listen."
"Any of our teachers?" Harry repeated. He thought he knew what she was telling them. Dumbledore. McGonagall. Snape. "How can you trust –"
"You don't know the whole story, Harry," Mrs. Weasley stated softly. "And I can't tell it. I can't, do you understand?"
Her emphasis on that word fought through Harry's lingering despair, his slow-burning anger. Something kept her from telling him, some spell or charm or wizard's oath. He pressed his lips together.
"I know people have shut you out before. Brushed aside your worries." Her smile flashed, lightening her whole aura. "Responded badly. Well, since the World Cup, everything has changed. Everything. We can't hide behind complacency any more. Pretend evil has gone for good. I believe you'll find that the adults in your lives will be taking any threat a lot more seriously. So –" hands flat on the table, Mrs. Weasley pushed herself to her feet. "Do I have your promises, then? To ask for help – to expect help?"
"Yes, ma'am," they all repeated.
She shooed them off, bewitching the tea things over to the counter as Ron and Hermione trooped back up the stairs, Harry following.
He turned, his thoughts hot and jumbled.
Mrs. Weasley glanced over Harry's shoulder, making sure the others were out of ear-shot. "This man I've spoken of. He's made more than his share of bad decisions. He's hurt people, yes, people that I've dearly loved. He's hurt you." Her eyes were wet. "But, listen to me, now," she laid her hand against Harry's cheek, her voice trembling, "there's such a thing as redemption. As repentance. If there was no forgiveness in the world, we'd all be in a sad state, wouldn't we?"
Harry nodded, swallowing the lump in his throat.
"Good." She pulled him into a hug. "Go on, then. And, Harry?" She pointed towards the mantle, where Harry's clock hand had swept to the left, joining a few others. "You remember that."
Harry's hand on the Weasley's clock pointed to 'home.'
The dream unfolded slowly, mist and fog curling grey and dank across a wide grassy landscape beneath a dim dawn sky. Faint shapes grew up from the ground, heaped stacks of stone, a low crumbling wall. Harry's measured steps took him on a rambling course between them, never close enough to see clearly, to let them resolve into meaningful forms. The still air was heavy, promising a storm, and the bleached white sun peered sickly down on him, as if, feeble and powerless, it would warm him if it could.
A shape rose up before him, towering dark and formidable at the end of a long straight path. Harry kept his head bent, his eyes on the ground. He didn't want to see. He'd skirt around the thing, right or left, one way or the other, and leave it behind, unrecognized. Heart thumping in his chest, blood rushing, he knew he only had to pick a path and he could reach the other side, reach the limited safety of the maze, where others waited to help him.
Breathing hard, Harry knew the choice was coming. Right. Left. Right or left. Pick a side. Choose. Make a decision. He couldn't see around the thing – he wouldn't look up to try to peer around it. He blinked, trembling. He wanted to run. To put this place behind him. Either way, it didn't matter. But, he knew, if he took his first steps one way or the other it would be impossible to turn back.
Sounds didn't help. The graveyard was filled with sounds slinking along the ground or buzzing in his ears. The slide of scales across stone. High-pitched laughter. Murmured incantations. Behind him, Harry heard the crack of Apparition. In the far distance, the cheer of a crowd.
His feet stopped as the edge of the towering shape came into his down-cast gaze. A square-cut stone weathered by years of sun and rain and snow made up its foundation, it crouched before him, sunk down into the soft earth on one side. Above it, built on the square plinth carved with names and dates, rose an image. He wouldn't look up at it, stare into its glowing eyes, watch the mouth curl up into a snarl as it cursed him. Harry reached for his wand, but his pocket was empty.
"Harry! Hurry, Harry! I've got him! I've found Wormtail! Hurry, he could get away! We can't let him get away!"
Harry's head snapped up and he stared, wide-eyed, at the left-hand path. Sirius. The mist rolled back to reveal his thin figure dressed in Azkaban rags. Sirius' hair was wild, his eyes blazing as he fired off spell after spell at something only he could see.
Sirius turned back to stare at Harry, one hand flung out towards him, beckoning. "The betrayer! The one who led him right to Prongs and Lily!! We have to catch, him, Harry. Make him pay!" He dodged a dull red curse that flew out of the mist, stumbled, caught himself against a waist-high stone beside him. "Harry! Come on!"
Wormtail! Heat rushed through Harry's muscles, hatred ringing along his nerves. His legs and feet seemed to press harder against the ground, ready to propel Harry into battle at his godfather's side. Catching Pettigrew would free Sirius, would lift the suspicion from the only man who could give Harry want he needed, what he wanted. A home. Love. Support. A real family, not one he'd had to borrow from his best friend.
"Sirius!" he shouted. "I – I don't have my wand!"
"Listen to him, Prongs." Sirius leaned down and brushed a hand over the names and dates carved into the stone. He shot a disappointed look at Harry over his shoulder. "What does it matter? Marauders don't stop to think about things like that. Not when one of us is in danger! We rush in! We help! Don't you want to help?"
"I do –" Harry lurched, his weight shifting back and forth. Run. Go to Sirius. Hurl himself into the fight. But – he glanced to a swirling, lightening column of mist off to his right. Shouldn't he think? Shouldn't he come up with a plan?
"Harry!" More curses aimed themselves at Sirius from the murky distance. "There's no time! It's just you and me, the way it should be – I need – you can't just stand there!"
Harry looked down at himself, his head throbbing. Why was he waiting? Why hadn't he already leapt to Sirius' defense? His trainers had a hole at the toe, his grey-stained sock poking through. Dudley's old jeans fell in folds down his legs, tied tight around his waist with a length of twine under his striped t-shirt. He frowned. He didn't look much like a wizard, did he? He looked like a little kid. He was a little kid. Sirius was older, a trained Auror, who knew so many more spells, who had fought against dark wizards for years. He lifted his gaze, his mouth gaping open. What could he do?
Did it matter?
"Do you think your father would be proud of this? This cowardly waiting?" Sirius cast counter-curses, popping up from the sanctuary of the headstone and then curling against it to wait out his enemy. He was angry, his eyes blazing. "Prongs is still protecting me, you see?"
No. It didn't matter, Harry told himself. What mattered was standing with his godfather, shoulder to shoulder. What mattered was courage and love and loyalty. He turned to the left, eager to help. To do whatever he could.
Another voice, another familiar voice stopped him in his tracks.
"Harry … please … you must listen … the fate of the world …"
Dumbledore waited on the other path, his back bent, his neat grey hair wild around his shrunken features. One arm was twisted, burned black, hanging useless at his side. Even now, his eyes were kind, his voice even and measured. As the mist swirled around him Harry caught a glimpse of the creatures and wizards that threatened him – a huge, thick-shouldered werewolf, drool and blood dripping from its chin, Lucius Malfoy, his wand pointed at Dumbledore's unprotected back, a huge snake wrapped itself around the headmaster's legs, rearing up to strike.
"My wand, Harry. Please."
Dumbledore's distinctive wand lay in the grass just a few steps to Harry's right, quivering, anxious to get back to its master. Harry glanced between the two: the headmaster, vital leader of the fight against Voldemort, and Sirius, desperate, fiery, his father's best friend. Sirius demanded Harry's loyalty - Dumbledore … He asked Harry for something so simple. So easy. He wanted his wand. With that, Dumbledore could fight off all his enemies – his and Sirius' both. Harry wouldn't be in danger. He shifted his weight –
"Harry! Help me!"
Harry glanced back at Sirius. "Sirius! The headmaster is here! He'll help! I can –" He stilled, frozen, as a tall grey shape rose up behind his godfather. Cloaked and hooded, it wrapped skeletal arms around Sirius' chest and pulled him backwards into an unholy embrace. A Dementor.
Sirius squirmed and struggled, grunting, shouting curses at the creature that held him fast. Laughter erupted from the mist, screeching, inhuman laughter. It wasn't Wormtail's petulant voice, it was a woman's, high-pitched, sing-songy, mad.
"I killed Sirius Black, I killed Sirius Black …"
The Dementor dragged its hood away from its face and leaned down towards Sirius. His godfather's features were already blurring, all the light from his eyes draining out, his passion, his fierce spirit dwindling.
"Harry. Harry," he murmured, staring straight into Harry's eyes. "Why? Why wouldn't you help me?"
"Hold on! I'm coming!" Harry shouted back, a fiery determination rising within him to burn his indecision to embers. He could feel the magic tear through him, rushing beneath his skin, bright, glowing – who needed a wand when Harry was filled with magic. He stretched out both hands to incinerate the creature holding his godfather.
"Please, Harry. We must ensure that we defeat Voldemort. That is all that matters."
Harry looked over his shoulder, meeting Dumbledore's cool blue gaze. No. He couldn't be asking –
"You must look to the future, Harry. Please. Which of us is more important? Which of us has the better chance to save our world?"
"But, Sirius!" Harry felt his body turn, his inner fire dying under a cool wash of logic. Dumbledore was right, defeating Voldemort was more important, wasn't it? His parents had sacrificed themselves for that – they couldn't be wrong.
Harry's heart would burst from his chest if it beat any harder. He was stuck, unable to move either way. He'd race to his godfather, the one he'd barely met, barely had any time with. The one who could love him, save him from the Dursleys, who'd known his parents and could tell him all their stories. Sirius was love and passion and enthusiasm for life, raucous laughter and fiery vengeance. But, Dumbledore - the hero, the only one with knew how to defeat Voldemort, the only one who could match him in power and strategy. Harry felt tears wash down his face, his body trembling with the effort to move, to go, to choose a side. He fell to his knees, screaming, sobbing, knowing he would lose them both if he could not make a decision.
"Foolish boy. Even so simple a choice is beyond you, isn't it?"
Harry lifted his head. On top of the square stone before him stood a powerful wizard. His cloak and robes looked royal, thick and velvety, drifting in the slight breeze that twisted the mists into shadows around him. His arms were bare, raised to his sides, one holding a pale wand, the other a sword. Thick, wavy hair fell around his face, dark eyes staring down at Harry beneath wide brows, his mouth red, hungry. The face was too young and too old at the same time, the wizard's power, his great depth of magic shining behind his eyes. Harry shook, his teeth rattling, his bones vibrating, as the two choices rocked through him, fire and ice, passion and thought, love and duty. Trapped between them, Harry couldn't move, couldn't talk, couldn't think.
"Shall I help you, child? Shall I rescue you from your helpless teen angst?"
The wizard stepped down from the stone, his bare feet silent in the dull, dry grass. The sword in his left hand lengthened, the blade curved and razor-sharp. It was a scythe, old-fashioned, its wooden handle the height of the man before him.
"No – no – don't –" Harry panted, choking.
"Quiet, boy. Watch and learn."
The wizard swung the scythe once, twice. Sirius drifted backwards, pulled away by the Dementor. Dwindling. Gone. Dumbledore rushed away from Harry as if falling from a great height, his blue eyes dull and lifeless until he disappeared.
Emptiness rose up around Harry. A huge black well of sorrow that swallowed down love and thought, all of his feelings, all of his courage and will. Harry screamed, one hand clamped to his blazing scar.
Rough hands jerked him upright and then slammed his shoulders against the wall, choking off his screams.
"Wake up, mate!" Ron shook him again.
Dream images tumbled over themselves – voices, familiar and strained, demanding - echoed. Loss tried to choke him, vague, unimaginable loss, but the details … who, where … Harry opened his eyes. "Wha –"
"Bloody hell, Harry." Ron's face was stark white, his eyes huge. He kept one hand on Harry's shoulder as he eased himself down to sit on the edge of Harry's bed. "What the hell was that?"
Trying to swallow in a throat swollen and aching, Harry hadn't managed a single word in answer when loud footsteps shook the floor and Ron's bedroom door burst open. Ron's mum rushed in, wand in the air, magic already expanding around her to form a shield around Ron and Harry. Behind her, Bill and Charlie tried to shove through the narrow doorway at the same time, their shoulders rammed together.
"Harry! What's happened?"
"Where is the bastard?"
"Ron, stay still! Hold onto him!"
The outer edge of the Weasleys' spells strafed hot across Harry's chilled skin and he flinched. Ron's hand clamped hard around his wrist as if he was afraid Harry would be yanked away from his borrowed bed.
"Mum! It was a nightmare!" Ron tried to shout across his mother's and brothers' questions and demands. "It was only a nightmare! Harry has them all the time at school."
The knife that seemed to be embedded in Harry's scar withdrew, little by little, leaving a sharp ache throbbing between his eyes. He kept still, afraid to move or speak or do anything that distracted the powerful Weasleys intent on finding Voldemort hiding under the bed. He and Ron sat, shoulders pressed together, until Mrs. Weasley and Bill and Charlie calmed down.
When Ron's mum sighed and shooed her oldest boys away, Harry felt like he could breathe again.
"It was that clock again, wasn't it, mum?"
"Well," Mrs. Weasley collapsed onto Ron's bed, opposite them, "that and the blood-curdling screaming." She shook her head, expression dazed. "Are you telling me that this happens at school? All the time?"
"Not all the time," Harry began, but Ron's answer drove right over his.
"Often enough for me to be used to it, I guess. Me and Neville and Seamus, anyway."
"What? All of you?" Harry tugged on Ron's hand, finally getting his friend to let his arm loose. "I didn't think it happened that often."
Ron's expression was sheepish. "We take turns waking you up. It's no problem, really. You'd do the same thing for me – I mean, if I was targeted by an evil madman who sent me dreams where he tortured my parents to death."
Harry snorted. "Thanks, then."
"Sorry, mum, but I think you set that bloo- um, wretched clock wrong. The Dark Git isn't up here. If you've got it charmed to go off when Harry's just dreaming about him, no one's ever going to get any sleep."
"I suppose so." Mrs. Weasley was regarding Harry through narrowed eyes.
Ron gestured. "Mum! Harry's not hiding him! I promise!"
"Yes. Yes, of course." Mrs. Weasley nodded, smiling. "Still hurting? Your scar?"
"It's better now, thanks," Harry replied. "Just aches a bit."
"And this dream, do you remember it?"
Frowning, Harry tried to reach back for the images. Dark figures. Fear. Anger. Voices reminding him of his duty. They'd already faded to grey mist, swirling in little dust storms to carry away his reactions. "No. Just – just –" he stopped, shaking his head.
"Just what, dear?" Ron's mom leaned forward, grasping his hand. "Go on."
"Just feelings, that's all." Harry gripped the over-stretched neck of his t-shirt. "You know, like how you feel you've forgotten something important, but you can't think what." Harry knew from experience that trying to dredge up the scenes from his nightmares wouldn't do him any good.
"Blimey, Harry," Ron leaned against him, almost knocking Harry over, "if I had nightmares that made me scream like that, I wouldn't want to remember them."
"No. I'm sure it's for the best." Mrs. Weasley squeezed Harry's hand and then stood. "It's early, but if you boys are up you might as well help with breakfast." She nodded towards Bill, still hovering, frowning, in the doorway. "I'll bet your brothers and sister – not to mention Hermione – won't be leaving you alone to go back to sleep after all that, anyway."
Ron's shoulders slumped. "Yes, mum."
After Ron had headed towards the hall bathroom, grumbling about all the others waiting to ambush him for answers, Harry realized Ron's mother hadn't moved. He blinked up at her.
Her expression had turned grave again. "In a few days you'll all be back at school, Bill and Charlie will be back at work. But, Harry," she seemed to be trying to communicate something to him without saying it, "I'll be here. Just an owl away. Hedwig will be back soon, I shouldn't wonder." Mrs. Weasley sent a smile in the direction of the empty cage, Harry's owl off with a letter to Sirius. "Or ask Professor McGonagall to use her Floo. Without this lot around to fill my days with nonsense," she tried a half-smile, but it came and went like a flash, "I'll have plenty of time to talk. About anything. Anything you like, dear. Worries or wonders or anything that bothers you. You understand?"
Harry swallowed, his throat closed and his chest tight. He nodded. No one had ever – nobody but Ron and Hermione and, sometimes, Hagrid – had made Harry an offer like that. "I – thank you," he managed to whisper.
"There." She laid one hand on his shoulder. "Nothing to thank me for. About time someone offered, if you ask me. Now," she tugged on his over-sized t-shirt, "let's get washed up and ready for breakfast."
Harry scrambled off the bed, the neck of his shirt slipping down over one shoulder.
Mrs. Weasley clucked her tongue. With a flick of her wand the shirt shrunk down to fit him, wrinkles gone, fabric springing into shape. "That's better." She winked at him and hurried into the hallway. Harry heard her stop dead just outside the door.
Bill's voice was low, filled with concern and dread.
"Not now, Bill," she murmured in reply. A second later, she was shouting. "Oh, for goodness sake! Fine, you can all help with breakfast if you're awake enough to badger us with questions!"
The smile hadn't quite left Harry's face as he yanked on his socks and followed the Weasley brood downstairs to the kitchen.
Canon teen-aged boy sulking.
Dress robes. Malfoy's hints and sneers. Bill and Charlie's odd glances and remarks at the breakfast table before Harry and his friends had been whisked off to King's Cross in taxi cabs. Something was changing – Harry could feel it. Something at Hogwarts. And changes never seemed to end well for Harry.
Harry glared out the window at the driving rain as the Hogwarts Express chugged on into the grey world. Rain was supposed to be calming, cozy, reminding him that he was safe and warm inside the compartment with his best friends headed towards his true home. Not tonight. The wind blew the water into sheets that drove hard against the windows, so loud that conversation was impossible. His aching forehead pressed against the glass, Harry figured that was okay. Ron was mad. Mad about his ugly, lace-fringed dress robes. Mad that Fred and George had avoided him for the past two weeks, refusing to take part in their usual Quidditch games in the garden. Mad that Harry had listened to Hermione – for once – and spent some time on his summer homework, even asking Bill and Charlie to help him with his Potions essay. And he was especially mad that Malfoy and his goons had burst in a few hours ago to taunt him about his dad's uselessness at the ministry.
He could feel Ron shooting jealous looks at Harry across the carriage – it had started with the robes and only gotten worse when the snack trolley came by. Harry closed his eyes, wishing some of the icy rain could get through the charmed glass to cool his face, to cool the sharp sting of anger that had been growing for hours. He knew Ron hated being poor, hated that his clothes were almost all hand-me-downs from Fred and George who'd gotten them in turn from Bill and Charlie. Harry didn't flaunt the gold his parents had left him – he didn't waltz around like Malfoy turning up his nose and buying nothing but the most expensive fabrics and cuts. Harry couldn't care less about his school clothes and always took whatever Madam Malkin suggested. But shopping for school supplies at Diagon Alley had turned from an exciting day out with his friends to a depressing chore every time Harry held out his money to the shopkeeper and Ron sighed behind him.
Sometimes, Harry understood. Sometimes, he could ignore Ron's murmurs and little grunts. All he had to do was take a glance at the huge, worn, faded clothes that used to be Dudley's in his own trunk to know what it felt like to never have anything of his own. But then Harry would remember Mrs. Weasley's hugs, the way Ron's brothers and sister laughed and took each other on, how Ron's dad listened so intently to whatever one of his children wanted to tell him. Stuffing all of their trunks and cages into taxis outside the Burrow, Mrs. Weasley had hugged her children tight, afraid to let them go even an arm's length from her protection. Harry had managed not to cry when she treated him the same way.
Ron didn't understand – he'd never understand how richly he'd been blessed. A family that loved him. Brothers and sisters to play with and learn from. A living mother and father who were so much more than legends, pictures in a book, heroes pinned up to inspire their followers. James and Lily Potter had turned from a man and a woman, a dad and a mom, into reminders, mentioned to Harry again and again so that he'd be sure to live up to their sacrifices. To have Ron's life, Harry would give every inherited galleon stained by his parents' blood, he'd wear lacy robes every day in every class – hell, he'd wear them to do detentions with Snape or Filch or to clean the Slytherin Common Room with his own toothbrush under Malfoy's scornful gaze while Colin Creevey took pictures.
When the trolley had come by, Ron had sulked, refusing to share in Harry's haul. Fine, then. Unlike Ron, Harry knew what it felt like to be hungry all the time, to try to fall asleep with that aching emptiness under his ribs. The food at the Weasleys might be plain, porridge in the mornings, sandwiches at lunch, stews and hearty soups at dinner, but Harry cleaned his plate gratefully every time. At Hogwarts, Harry didn't have to go without – and he wouldn't, no matter that Ron only had a little spending money to see him through until Halloween. Harry refused to feel guilty about it.
Hermione tried to talk to him when Ron left to use the loo. "You don't understand," she'd said. Or, "imagine what it's like for him. Of course, he's a little jealous."
This time, Harry didn't listen. "If Ron thinks he would trade for my life, I dare him to live it for a month – a week – especially during the summer," he'd hissed back at her. "He'd change his mind bloody quick."
She'd kept her mouth shut after that.
They'd fallen back into familiar patterns as they approached Hogwarts, resentment on both sides giving way to their usual rock-solid friendship. Ron and Harry talked Quidditch, discussing the other House teams and their skills and shortcomings. Hermione tried to get them interested in revising their summer homework which she'd had out on her lap for the past few hours, frowning and mumbling over the tricky Transfigurations Essay. Harry was relieved that he'd paid more attention to his summer work this year – Bill's clear explanations of ingredient interaction ended up being more than Harry had learned in three years of Snape's horrible classes. And, it turned out, Mrs. Weasley had taken NEWT level Transfigurations – and graduated at the top of her class. Hermione could have sat in with them if she wasn’t so busy turning up her nose and calling it cheating.
The rain soaked them through as soon as they stepped off the train, drenching Harry's eagerness. The horseless carriages deposited them at Hogwarts, Hagrid collecting up all of the familiars and pets that the students had brought on the train. Harry had smoothed Hedwig's head feathers through the bars of her cage, earning a few soft chirps and a playful nibble on his finger. Pig, Ron's crazy ball of fluff, banged back and forth in his cage, taking even Hagrid aback with his antics. Hermione refused Hagrid's help, as usual, holding her giant half-kneazle on her lap until they reached the castle.
"Crookshanks will find his own way." She assured them, letting the cat jump down and wind his way through the students' legs on his way who-knew-where.
Peeves' water balloons outside the Great Hall sent Harry's anger back into swirling, curling flames that licked at the edges of his control. Stupid. It was stupid to let the poltergeist get to him. He closed his eyes, fists clenched at his sides, reaching for the cold, the icy cloak that could muffle all his fears and resentments and help him think straight. Teeth clenched, Harry shut out the others' yelling and screaming, the ghosts chasing the cackling poltergeist up and down the stairs, Ron's whining complaints and Hermione's utter fury that her drying hair was promising to frizz up into a bowtruckle nest. Harry's emotions had been out of control all day, leaving him trembling with a sick feeling in the back of his throat. He should be happy, content to be with friends, to be home. Heart beating hard and fast, Harry could barely keep himself from shouting.
He kept his head down as they entered the Great Hall. He loved Hogwarts, he reminded himself. But, this part – this part he did not love. The staring. The whispers. The assessing gazes of older students, as if they were sizing him up for future alliances or targeting him as an enemy. The way the teachers eyed him from behind their own agendas. His fellow Gryffindors were blunter and more obvious, throwing out questions and greetings. Colin rushed up to him, camera in hand, chattering on about his brother, Dennis. Seamus droned on about Quidditch as if their last conversation in the spring had never ended. Tonight, the loud hall, the creaking of benches and the scuffle of feet strafed along Harry's skin like fingernails up his spine.
The sorting went by, the school song, Dumbledore's welcome – all in a blur of voices. Clouds heaped up across the ceiling, charmed to reflect the outside sky. Harry felt it clear through to his bones – something was coming. A storm. A fight. He hugged himself, arms around his waist. It had started at the Quidditch Cup this year, the warnings, the violence, the promise of worse. Even Mrs. Weasley's honest conversations hadn't dispelled Harry's dread.
As soon as Dumbledore opened his mouth after dinner, Harry was ready. Shoulders back, chin high, he met the headmaster's blue gaze already braced, prepared. "Yes, let's get it over with," he murmured to himself.
Hermione leaned closer. She'd been sending him more concerned glances all during dinner. He shook his head, nodding once towards Dumbledore.
An ear-splitting crack of thunder and blinding flash of lightning hurtled from the troubled ceiling. Harry was one of the few who didn't flinch or cry out. His wand was in his hand, heart in his throat. The odd-looking man who lurched around the teacher's table and thrust his wand out to break up the clouds had no idea how close he came to being stunned by Harry's instinctual reaction.
"That's Mad Eye Moody!"
Harry barely glanced across the table at Ron's shocked words. His wand was still aimed at Moody's chest, his legs braced to leap to his feet to fight. "Who?"
Behind Harry, Neville spoke quickly. "Alastor Moody. Ex-Auror. He's famous, Harry. All those scars, his leg, his eye, he got them all fighting dark wizards. You-Know-Who's followers." Neville swallowed hard. "He's scary, but he's on our side."
Is he? Harry considered the wizard trading hugs with Dumbledore. Powerful. Experienced. Dangerous. A formidable Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Someone clearly on Dumbledore's side with more than made-up stories about his past victories. Finally. Harry took a deep breath, the tension that had knotted his shoulders and curdled the welcoming feast in his belly releasing. He stared as Moody grunted and took his place behind the staff table, giving Snape a wide berth. If anyone could prepare Harry for his future, for whatever was coming, surely this man could.
Harry slumped, weakened by the fleeing stress. He took a huge swallow of pumpkin juice and settled in to listen to Dumbledore.
What the bloody hell was the TriWizard Tournament?
Remus stood quietly in the garden, gazing up at the house that rose up like a child's awkward pile of blocks. Comfort. Understanding. Welcome. The Burrow had meant all of those things to Remus during some of the darkest moments of his life. No matter how thin the Weasley's wallets, no matter how far the family had drifted from the regard of the wizarding world, from the center of power and the respect of others, Molly and Arthur never closed their door to Remus. To a werewolf. A pauper. The last survivor of the Marauders, of James and Lily's friends.
Last year, at Hogwarts, had been a true gift. A time for healing, for the renewal of friendships long dissolved. Remus had clutched each moment with his colleagues, each meal taken with bright young witches and wizards and old friends around him, and each galleon added to his dismal savings with joy and gratitude. Dumbledore had granted Remus so many unlooked-for treasures, including each moment he'd been able to spend with Harry.
The fact that Remus had been given Sirius back – innocent, free – still took Remus' breath away.
He laid one hand against his chest, pressing the letter he kept in an inside pocket against his thin shirt, convincing himself, again, that it was real. Sirius had written before, but this letter was different. Rushed. Scrawled in a still trembling, but recognizable hand, using words and revealing attitudes that Remus knew from long ago. Sirius was healing, had enjoyed the rest, good food, and free air of the remote vacation Dumbledore had sent him on. But, at his heart, Sirius would always be a Marauder – the staunchest supporter of James and his son, fiercely protective, courageous, and self-sacrificing.
And Remus would always be the one to stand between Sirius and his worst Gryffindor impulsiveness. With Molly and Arthur to help him, Sirius back from the dead, and his own new-found confidence, Remus was ready to step back into Harry's life, into wizarding society. At least as far as each would let him.
His smile growing, Remus stepped towards the Weasley's door. His presence would have already started Molly's formidable wards jangling, alerting her to his identity. She'd have been quick to set another place at the table and Floo-called Arthur to make sure he was coming home from work on time. Barely ten years older than Remus and the other Marauders, the two had acted more like parents than friends for years. With the sorry state of most of his friends' birth-families, none of them had minded a bit.
"It's about time you came in." Molly greeted Remus with her usual combination of concern, affection, and assessment. She grabbed him by the arms and looked him up and down before gathering Remus into a quick hug. "I thought you were going to stand out there in the garden until you put down roots!"
"Just admiring the view," he answered, dropping into his usual chair at the table. It was useless to ask if she needed help, of course. Even without most of her large brood in attendance, Molly would refuse. Remus had learned not to ask.
He counted the place settings. Molly, Arthur, Remus, and Percy he had expected. But there were two more. "I'm sorry, I didn't know you were already expecting guests."
"Guests," Molly snorted. "Bill and Charlie aren't exactly guests, Remus. And they'll thank their lucky stars if they remember to show up on time and with clean robes for once in their lives." She'd raised her voice on the last sentence as if her two oldest children were upstairs.
Remus tilted his head, but his extra senses didn't detect a whiff of any other presence but their own. "Are they Flooing in for any particular occasion?"
Busy at the stove, Molly shook her head. "In the country at the same time is a miracle in and of itself, so I suppose you could call it an occasion." She turned, both hands on her hips. "Your visit will make it a bit of a party for all of us."
Tucking his chin, Remus felt his cheeks grow warm. The Floo chiming kept him from embarrassing himself.
"I'm going to be late, mom, don't wait dinner for me."
Molly had already been hustling towards the fireplace before Percy's voice rang out.
"Again? Percy you are working far too many hours for it to be healthy." She bore down on her son's disembodied head like a mother dragon. "This is every night this week! And we have a guest!"
Percy lifted his chin, arrogant, defiant – which looked odd without a neck and body attached. "It can't be helped, mom. Mister Crouch needs all hands on deck while we prepare for Halloween. He's traveling again, trying to tie up loose ends with Durmstrang, and he expects me to be here and deal with issues as they come up. It's a complex and rather perilous diplomatic situation, you must admit."
Molly growled and then flicked her wand towards the kitchen. "Hold on, then. I'm not letting you go without dinner at a reasonable hour one more night." Behind her, meat, potatoes, veggies, and rolls gathered themselves into a large napkin which folded itself up, tucked in the edges, and tied itself in a knot.
"Mother, really –"
"Here." Molly conjured the napkin in front of her son. "Come on, now. It's your favorite," she wheedled, "roast, roasted potatoes, my homemade rolls."
"Fine." Remus heard the eye-roll from across the room. Percy grabbed the heavy napkin with his teeth and vanished before his mother could insist on him taking dessert along with him.
"That boy," Molly muttered, making her way back to Remus' side. She laid one hand on his shoulder. "I'm proud of him, of course, but I tell you, Remus, sometimes I wish some of Fred and George's sense of fun and adventure could be siphoned from the twins and directly into Percy's spirit."
"They wouldn't miss it," he replied, smiling up at her and patting her hand. "Sometimes James felt the same way about me and Sirius."
Molly shook her head in mock disapproval. "If anyone was ill-named it was that boy," she laughed. "Sirius. I mean, really. I knew Walpurga was deeply devoted to her coven's reverence for the zodiac, but naming her children after stars," she clucked her tongue. "She'd have been better off picking Cosmo or Pluto."
Remus chuckled. "Well, Pluto would have been a dead giveaway for his animagus form, at least."
Molly frowned down at him.
"Oh," Remus tapped himself on the forehead for forgetting, "it's a muggle thing. In some of their moving stories, Pluto is a faithful dog companion to the hero."
Hustling back to the stove, Molly laughed. "Something else to tell Arthur about. I swear, you two should arrange a trip to the muggle world. A week or two, just the two of you. While it's a shame you felt you had to leave us and go live among the muggles after – well, after the worst of it," her voice took on a sorrowful tone, "I'm sure it did you good. And Arthur could get some of his curiosity satisfied." Her wand made short work of slicing the mushrooms for the sauce. "Merlin knows I'd relish the quiet around here. A week, all to myself!" She laughed. "Imagine the trouble I could get in."
"Imagine the trouble we could get in," Remus responded. Dragging Arthur through muggle London pubs and museums, riding around on the tube, keeping him from buying up all the souvenirs he came across and diplomatically Obliviating the poor unsuspecting folks Arthur couldn't help himself from talking to – it did sound like fun. "Sirius would love it," he whispered.
Mushrooms and shallots sautéing in the pan, Molly turned, leaning against her countertop. "We've been kicking ourselves for months, Remus, Arthur and me. Going back over it in our minds, trying to remember why we believed it could be Sirius who betrayed them. Why we wrote him off so quickly and easily. Never questioned why there was no trial, no Veritaserum, no proper investigation." She rubbed her arms. "To find out we'd been giving sanctuary to that rat, that evil –"
Magic swirled through the kitchen, rattling the pots and pans on their hooks, making the fire blaze up under the pan. She gathered it back without a thought, as if she'd grown used to her magic flaring up.
"You're not the only one." Remus rose and slid one arm around Molly's shoulders. "I was his best friend – after James." Those days, after James and Lily – after Voldemort – when the worst of the war was over and the rest of the world was taking in its first deep breath of fresh air in countless years, Remus had been barely able to think. To function. The wounds of his body had been nothing compared to his shattered soul. He'd been grateful that the other members of the Order had bundled him off to the continent to heal, away from the questions and demands and insufferable curiosity of the press and the ministry. He'd stayed in seclusion for years afterwards, living with muggles, earning a living giving private lessons, locking himself away every full moon. He'd refused all contact with the others – not just Molly and Arthur, but Filius, Minerva, Augusta, and Albus. He didn't want to look in their eyes and see the doubt, the suspicion. If Sirius Black, gifted Auror, stalwart opponent of dark wizards, out-spoken enemy of evil, could have masked his own internal darkness from Remus, from the other Marauders, what could a werewolf like him be hiding?
"I'm glad you came, Remus. It's past time we had a talk, past time for the old gang to get back together and compare notes." Molly, one arm looped around his waist, squeezed tight. "Raising seven children took up all of our attention for a long time and I've not have it any other way. But," she lifted her wand, her magic swirling around it, red and gold, brightening to a nearly unbearable glow, heating the air, "we were not given our gifts to have them sit, unused, wasted, on the mantelpiece while our friends and allies sit, unmourned, abandoned, in prison. Or in a terrible muggle home, lonely and despairing."
Remus raised his own wand in the familiar gesture, relishing the rush of power as the two wands touched, magic bursting brighter as the wands recognized each other. Molly was right. It shouldn't have taken Sirius' release, his letter, to give Remus a reason to call the Order, to reach out to Molly and Arthur and the others. To clear his head and try to mend his heart.
"We took oaths once," Remus said. "Oaths to fight evil. To stand against the darkness." Their linked magic beat an agreement with every statement. "Oaths to the Light." He closed his eyes, letting the memories and magic fill him, outside in and inside out, to the outer surface of his skin and down to the depths of his being. "None of those oaths mentioned allowing a child to fight our battles and waiting on the sidelines to pick him up when he fell."
Beside him, Molly shivered. They allowed their magics to mingle for a few more seconds before unlinking. Their wands separated with a sad whine.
"I can't imagine James or Lily's reactions to our actions – our lack of actions, Remus."
"They would not be kind," he agreed. "We wouldn't deserve it if they were."
Arthur and the boys' arrival interrupted Molly and Remus' guilty wallow. Remus was greeted warmly by the Weasley men, with shared hugs and pats on the back before he and Arthur joined in making fun of Bill's newest piercing.
"I always thought he had enough holes in his head, but," Arthur threw up his hands in mock wonderment, "what do I know?"
Bill rolled his eyes – a Weasley mannerism Remus had forgotten about – and fingered the jade balls on the ends of the 'industrial' rod stuck through the top of his ear. "Jade can provide an effective counter to some of the worst Egyptian burial curses," he explained. "You wouldn't be poking fun if you knew how many times one of these absorbed an old necromancer's spell."
Dinner was light-hearted, full of the typical catching-up type of chatter in between mouthfuls of Molly's delicious cooking. In the aftermath, dishes stashed in the sink and the four of them ensconced on delicate iron-worked chairs in the garden beneath a net of fairy lights, Remus set down his brandy and caught Molly's eye. "Wards of the Order, please," he announced.
Her eyes wide, Molly nodded once and raised both hands, her wand glowing dark red. With a few murmured spells and practiced motions, the Warden of the Order of the Phoenix lifted four glittering walls around them and roofed the magical enclosure securely. With a flick of her wrist, she bound the wards together – they glowed like burnished bronze for a scant second before they disappeared, but each one could feel their vibrations along his skin.
Molly Weasley had been their Warden for years, seeing to privacy and protection wards for every Order meeting, setting up safehouses, and drawing protective runic circles wherever the members might be at risk. She had set up the Potter's house in Godric's Hollow, trusting Sirius and James to complete the Fidelius Charm after she had finished. Remus recognized the flash of guilt behind her eyes and he fingered the scar on his cheek. They all had scars from their past - visible and invisible.
"Have Bill and Charlie been officially inducted?" Remus asked. Protocol. He didn't have any trouble sharing his news with the oldest Weasley boys, but, if they had not taken the proper oaths, they wouldn't be protected by them if they fell into an enemy's hands.
"We have," Bill, the oldest, answered. He sat forward in his lounger. "Mom and dad insisted in June. After Ron came home with the news about Sirius Black and that worm Pettigrew."
"Family honor required it," Charlie added, his features grim. "The Weasley family had – unknowingly – harbored the Potters' betrayer. We owe it to Harry, to his and Ron's friendship, and to the Light to take steps to catch the bastard and bring him to justice."
That felt right. Remus nodded. He'd been a NEWT student of Arithmancy just has Molly had and had taken his vows to the Light at his father's knee. He understood the need for maintaining the proper balance in order to fuel his core. All Light mages were required to compensate for any use of dark magic, or any intentional or inadvertent furthering of the Dark's agenda or they'd risk damaging their own magic. Remus, infected with lycanthropy and forced, each month, to devolve into a dark creature, worked steadily for the Light, not just because it was his calling, but to make sure his magic was not compromised. A chaotic inner core led to diminished power, and unresolved internal conflicts between dark and light could only end in madness.
They only had to study one of the Order members in particular to see the effects, the year by year erosion of the man's strength, his reason. Remus shuddered. Severus Snape must contain a core of magnificent depth and power in order to have survived as well as he had. Still, he looked years older than his numerical age, and had been forced into a nearly constant state of Occlumency to control the worst of his emotional chaos.
Remus drew the letter from his inside pocket and laid it on the table in the center of their circle. "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good," he murmured and tapped the parchment with his wand.
The parchment shimmered, sparks rising, coalescing into a column of light that quickly became recognizable – a full length image of Sirius Black.
"Oh, he looks good," Arthur exclaimed, clasping both hands together.
Arthur was right. Sirius no longer had the gaunt, pale look of a wanted criminal who had been deprived of food, sunshine, love, peace, joy, and everything that made life livable for the past twelve years. Dressed in casual muggle clothes, his scraggly hair had been trimmed to fall to his shoulders, and his beard was cut into a neat goatee. And there, right there was the gleam in his eye that Remus had never realized how much he'd missed.
"Hallo, Moony. Surprised to hear from me?" Hands in his pockets, Sirius rocked back and forth from heel to toe, obviously pleased with himself. "You didn't think I'd stay out of the way here for long, did you? I mean, I love a beach and tropical drink as much as the next man, but I've been out of touch for long enough. Far too long, actually." He dropped the easy-going manner, shadows gathering behind his eyes. "The rat needs catching. Now. Before he can do any worse than he's already done. That's our job, don't you think? Yours and mine? We owe it Prongs and Lily. Not to mention Harry."
Remus nodded. He'd agreed readily when he first received Sirius' letter.
But Sirius wasn't finished.
"Harry's sent me a letter. Bright bird he chose, that Hedwig," he added quickly. "Took her awhile, but she made it all the way here, dodging every Mapping charm and Tracing hex anyone tossed her way. Anyway, here's the situation." Sirius set one foot on an unseen box or piece of furniture and leaned his elbows on his bent knee. "Harry's been having dreams. The same dream, over and over again. And Wormtail is in it. Wormtail and Voldemort. They're together and they're up to something. And targeting Harry. My godson. I will not take this lightly, Moony, and neither should any Light wizard."
"Before this finds you, I'll be on my way back. I'm headed for Hogsmeade – it's as close as I can come to Hogwarts, to Harry, without setting off the wards there and alerting everyone to my presence. But I need you, Moony, and as many of the old gang as you can round up. The Death Eaters have roused, coming out of hiding to attack at the World Cup. And yet the ministry is clueless, as usual."
Arthur winced at Sirius' criticism, but Remus knew the man would not disagree.
"Meet me at Aberforth's place one week before Halloween. Bring Molly if you can. I need to secure a place with the best wards we can raise so I can be on the spot for Harry." Sirius blew out a frustrated breath. "I don't like the signs, Remus. I don't like them at all. They seem all too familiar."
Her lips set in a grim line, Molly's agreement shone clear in her fierce gaze.
"You may be thinking that the first thing I've got to do is clear my name. To take back my power as a Black and my standing in the wizarding community. Well, get that right out of your head, my furry friend. I don't give Wormtail's arse for my standing. As long as you know I'm innocent, as long as Harry and Molly and Arthur and the gang understand what happened that night in Godric's Hollow, that's all that matters. That and Harry's safety. So." Sirius clapped his hands together and stood straight. "I'll see you in a week. And, together, we'll figure out how to take the bastard down once and for all."
Before the image dissolved back into sparkling light, Sirius pointed. "Don't let me down."
The silence that drifted around the gathering held traces of regret and determination. Each one here felt that last command as a reminder of personal failings – as well as an opportunity to do better. To protect and defend, to stand together and fight tooth and nail against darkness. Remus had come to terms with his own mistakes, the way he'd nursed his private grief and allowed his oaths and vows to fall away in the new, peaceful world that Voldemort's downfall had created.
Arthur spoke first. "We've been complacent for too long. Happy to raise families or get on with our lives and careers as if that night in Godric's Hollow had eliminated every evil in the world. Blind and deaf to an enemy within our own house is bad enough, but how could we have left Sirius to rot? Allowed Lucius Malfoy to gather as much power and influence as he has or sat by while Cornelius Fudge announced the nonsensical loosening of rules and regulations meant to protect us all?"
His back straight, Arthur leveled his gaze at Remus. "We've already discussed our responsibilities, Remus. How the Order of the Phoenix must be revitalized, each member reminded of oaths taken and promises made to the Light."
"You – you have." Remus frowned. He'd thought he and Sirius would be the first to raise the alarm. "I know you displayed a lot of discipline and leadership at the incident at the World Cup, Arthur. That Bill and Charlie have taken their oaths. But, if I may ask, what brought the Weasleys to this decision?"
Arthur took Molly's hand. "Tell him."
Molly's eyes were no longer filled with sorrow nor guilt. Now they blazed, bright and clear. "I know about Harry's dreams, Remus. He stayed here for two weeks this summer and I heard and saw for myself how they affected the boy. I'm convinced, as Sirius said, that these are not normal dreams, nor even nightmares. There's something terribly wrong, more than Harry's lifelong trauma causing worries and fears to bubble up at night – that much we'd all expect. This," her head shook slowly back and forth, "this is different. Sirius feels it, too."
"I agree," Bill chimed in. Glancing towards his mother for permission he continued. "Halfway through his second week here, mum had me do a deep-level scan while Harry was sleeping."
The statement knocked the wind out of Remus, and he sat back in his chair, his inner wolf crouching and snarling.
"I took every precaution," Molly leaped to assure him. "Harry does not know, he didn't feel a thing and, well, Ron would sleep through a troll attack. Bill is a professional. He knows his business. He stood right in the doorway, never touched him." She swept her hand sideways, as if to brush away Remus' concerns. "Harry's fine, really, Remus. We'd never put him at risk."
"I know that, I do," Remus answered, tugging on his sleeves. "You just took me by surprise." He flashed them all a smile, careful not to show the teeth that wanted to snap, to threaten. "And here I thought I was the one bringing the staggering news. Please," he flapped one hand towards the others, "go on."
"Sirius – and mum – are right. These aren't dreams. They're, well, in our trade we call them Sendings," Bill said.
"I know I've heard the name, but –" Remus broke off, settling the wolf inside to listen.
Bill had apparently prepared for this discussion. "We come across them in certain tombs. In my experience, when a particularly powerful witch or wizard dies a sudden and violent death, completely unexpected, some part of his thoughts, his essence, can be preserved. Captured within the stones. The muggles call them evil spirits and laugh at them. Tell stories to frighten children about them." His face took on a closed-down, solemn expression. "Curse Breakers know better. These Sendings linger in tombs or in homes that have been destroyed in calamities and become their own tombs - like the homes around Pompeii when the volcano exploded. Depending on the emotional state of the deceased – and their latent power - they can be extremely strong, latching onto the first living person they encounter. Strong enough and they can ride that person out of the tomb and back into life."
Remus rubbed both hands across his face, hiding for a moment behind them. His stomach tight, he peered across at Bill again. "You've seen this? Witnessed it happening?"
"Once," Bill nodded. "When I was first starting out. Even experienced Curse Breakers didn't recognize the problem right away. It wasn't until the nightmares started -" He bit off the words, unwilling to continue.
Molly leaned across Arthur to pat her son's arm. "Please, Bill."
The solid, confident Curse Breaker gathered himself. "When that person the Sending has grabbed a hold of is tired – or asleep – the Sending creates a scene within the person's mind that plays out the dead person's hopes or fears or deepest desires." His jaw clenched. "Strong emotions – fear, rage – they're communicated easily. And once the Sending has latched on, they are very difficult to get rid of."
"'Sendings.'" Remus repeated, the word like bitter bile on his tongue. It was new to him. New and utterly horrible.
"The older Curse Breakers all had different names for them, depending on the country of origin. I don't remember them all."
Remus waved away Bill's explanation. It didn't matter what they called it. "And we believe this Sending is from Voldemort? His dying spirit attaching itself to Harry? When? When he was a baby? Then why is he only experiencing these nightmares now?"
"Actually," Molly spoke up, "Ron said that Harry has had nightmares for as long as he's been at Hogwarts. We don't know much about his earlier life, now, do we?"
Molly wasn't the only one to be rightfully frustrated when Albus had refused to allow any of them access to Harry over the years. Remus had his own guilt about his absence to deal with – he had made promises to James and Lily when Harry was born, promises to always look after the boy should the worst happen. And he'd broken each of those promises by remaining in Europe for years after the Potters' deaths.
Bill threw back the rest of his drink, drawing Remus back from his self-flagellation. "We have a lot of research to do. There really isn't an expert on Sendings alive right now – about a hundred years ago the Curse Breakers finalized a set of spells we send into newly discovered tombs before any living person sets foot inside in to eliminate these kinds of situations. Sloppy work, overconfidence, and stupidity led to the incidence of Sending Syndrome I witnessed."
"You're sure?" Remus demanded. "Positive that a Sending is what we're dealing with?"
"No. As the new guy, I wasn't involved in the scan in Egypt, just sat through the subsequent lectures by the older Curse Breakers," Bill answered. "But, if it isn't a Sending, it's something very close. Something dark. Something I have no experience with."
"It's the best idea we could come up with on our own," Molly said. "Harry should be examined by a Mind Healer from St. Mungo's, someone from the Dark Magic Ward – immediately –" her eyes narrowed, "and that's exactly what we recommended to Albus."
Good. Remus was happy they hadn't waited, even if his inner wolf wanted in on anything and everything pertaining to Harry. Especially something like this. "And?"
Molly's great sigh hissed out her frustration. "As with any suggestion I've ever given the man with regards to Harry, Albus patted me on the shoulder, offered me a lemon drop, and told me that he knew exactly what Harry was dealing with. That I could trust him to handle the matter."
Albus knew. Remus examined his reactions and realized that he wasn't the least bit surprised. "Even more of a reason for us to call the Order of the Phoenix. We've been scattered too long, left to discuss events, signs, with just our closest friends. I think each of us would agree that trusting Albus to handle anything and everything related to Harry, to the fight, denies our own oaths and piles up every burden on the old man's shoulders." He caught each Weasley's gaze. "While I value your help and your wisdom, we need more minds on this. More than just ourselves."
"And definitely more than just Albus'."
Arthur rarely spoke critically of their leader. It seemed to pain him to do so now, but he'd made up his mind.
"We cannot allow Albus to keep all of his knowledge, his suspicions, and especially everything he knows about Harry and his troubles to himself. Speaking perfectly practically," Arthur tugged on his vest, "he's not getting any younger. We must encourage him to share information. We've been happy to be strung along by his leadership, his strength and purpose, for far too long."
"And now," Molly thrust one hand towards the parchment still lying on the table, "with Sirius back in the picture, Harry's godfather," she huffed out a breath, "well, Sirius has the absolute right to see to Harry's health, well-being, and protection. Legally. Albus may not like having his elbow jogged, and we know that for a fact," her smile was thin and cold, "but I'll not have the man treating Harry like one of his chess pieces."
Charlie fidgeted in his chair. Remus waited, knowing the steady, thoughtful wizard would speak when he was ready. Finally, Charlie leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped together.
"I'm heading to Hogwarts in a week. I'll be there through November, at least."
Molly bit off a curse. "This ridiculous Tournament will at least allow us to mask comings and goings to Hogwarts among all the chaos."
"Whether that will prove to be good or bad is yet to be seen," Arthur interjected.
"I will happily check in with Sirius and become a go-between for him to contact Harry," Charlie continued. "I'm trusted to make sure the proper names and magical signatures are added to the list of handlers and assistants accompanying us. It wouldn't be hard to add him under a pseudonym. That way, he could not just visit Harry, but check out the situation around the castle, and meet with Professor Dumbledore." Charlie's wide brow was creased as he turned to Bill. "And I have certain contacts on the continent that might be helpful about these Sendings. Contacts with wizards and witches who might have some knowledge of the Dark Arts."
"Charlie?" Arthur was obviously concerned.
His son's smile was reassuring. "It's not like that, dad. There's a coven in Romania, one of the witches who works with me is a member. They are a balanced coven, dedicated to neutrality. They step into the shallow waters of both sides, Dark and Light, and have taken vows to keep their spirits bound to neither side entirely. They cannot perform great works of either, that's a part of their oaths, but these oaths allow them to do in-depth research into both sides. They might have some resources Light wizards like us cannot touch."
"Good." Once the Weasleys' chatter had worn down, Remus gathered up Sirius' parchment and slid it back into his pocket. "I take it we're agreed? We can each one reach out to friends and colleagues about calling the Order. Molly, you'll meet with Sirius with me as he's asked?"
"Bill and Charlie can gather any information from their sources." The boys' nods offered their agreement. "Arthur, I'll leave contacting Shacklebolt and the others still associated with the ministry to you. Molly, we'll need your contacts among the surviving Order marshals." Remus took a deep breath. "I'm headed to Hogwarts. I'll deal with the members there."
Arthur's eyebrows rose in dismay. "All of them?"
"All of them," Remus answered. "Even Severus."
At a gesture from Remus, Molly released the wards and stood to hug Remus good-bye. "Do take care of yourself, Remus." She leaned back to smile up at him. "And tell Sirius not to do anything stupid. He's not alone anymore."
Remus had a feeling that discussion would be even harder than his anticipated reunion with his old school-chum, Snape.
Harry had been nervous about the Gryffindors' first DADA class. He couldn't keep from wondering if Moody would turn out like the others – like Quirrell and Lockhart, anyway, Remus had been great. He'd been a mentor to Harry, a man who understood Harry's loneliness like few others could. And he'd had real memories of his parents to share. That Remus been forced to leave – by his own conscience, yes, but mostly because of Snape – had hurt. Harry had gained two mentors last year, Remus and Sirius, and had lost them both just as fast. Harry knew the logic of it, he understood that Sirius' survival had to come first, and Remus himself had been targeted by hate and discrimination. He rubbed at the scar on his forehead. He couldn't help but wonder how his life would have changed if Sirius and Remus could have stayed close. If Sirius hadn't been framed by Pettigrew. If Harry could have grown up in the wizarding world with a godfather who loved him.
If, if, if.
Those fleeting wishes always brought a resurgence of guilt. Guilt that ate away at Harry, that sent him up to the Owlery to send Sirius another letter insisting that his nightmares had stopped, that he was doing great, with no worries to bother his godfather about. As much as he wanted Sirius close, to talk with him, to share his concerns about the tension and headaches that lingered, day after day, the odd feelings of distance that chilled him from time to time, he couldn't risk it – he wouldn't risk Sirius' capture and imprisonment. Not for anything.
After the first class, Harry had been torn between respect for the ex-Auror, and shocked by his use of those three Unforgiveable Curses. After two classes, Harry had decided that Neville had been right, Moody was dangerous. In each successive class he'd become convinced that there was something horribly wrong.
The curses Moody described and demonstrated were not text-book examples, they were curses the ex-Auror had used – and had used against him. He didn't apologize for it, didn't make excuses or avoid hard questions about guilt or right and wrong.
After five weeks of classes, the students had started asking questions. Today it was a hesitant but insistent Hufflepuff, raising one hand and a tremulous voice to question how Moody could justify trying some of the curses out on students. It was a good question, Harry figured. Moody had told them last time that seeing the curses from outside wasn't enough – that, just like a dueling club, Moody would train them through experience. Obviously not the killing curse, but Harry and the others had decided Moody had far more damaging curses than that one at his disposal.
Moody pursed his lips and hitched one hip onto the desk, staring down the Hufflepuff. "Black and white, dark and light. There'll be people who divide you all up into one or the other. One that doesn't use these curses, that won't touch 'em with a dragon-prod, and one that hugs them tight and can't think to use anything else. Poppycock!"
Moody scanned the classroom. "Grey areas. The world is full of 'em. Spells are spells, no dark, light, or middle. It's you who determines that. The wizard. The witch. The one doing the casting. Are you casting Imperius to control a woman who's just lost her child and who's magic is about to go wild, to hurt the people all around her? Or are you using it to get a pretty girl to kiss you? The same spell, but two very different shadings if you ask me." He huffed, shaking his grizzled head. "There'll be some that tell you you're too young. Too young to fight. Too young to be targeted by the other side. To know that these curses even exist. That your family will protect you." His shoulders shook with a dark chuckle. Leaning forward, Moody's expression was dour. "Don't you believe it. Families, friends – the adults who keep on saying, 'it's for your own good,' or 'don't you worry about it, boy,' they're the dangerous ones in the end. The ones who want you to turn a blind eye to reality. To the danger behind every rock and tree."
Harry shivered as the man's magical eye stared straight through him.
"You, every one of you," Moody jabbed his thick, twisted finger around the silent classroom, "no matter what House you're in, or where your family's loyalty lies, you've got a couple of years grace. You're fourteen. Three years from now," he swept his hand towards the windows, "you're gone. Out there. Among 'em. And no matter the alliances your family's made or if they've taken vows to Light or Dark, or who they've decided to serve, you will be making your own decisions. Do you really want to step outside these walls with nothing between you and what's coming for you but a jelly-legs jinx and a half-decent Expelliarmus?" Moody sat back, a smile like a snarl on his face. "I sure as hell didn't."
Hands curled into fists on his desk, Harry nodded. Moody knew – he'd survived the first war against Voldemort. He could help Harry do the same thing. Harry was eager to learn, but tension strummed a warning within him. His emotions told him to throw himself into Moody's training wholeheartedly – but his mind insisted that he hang back. That he watch. Wait.
Harry helped his fellow Gryffindors clear the desks and chairs to the side of the room. Neville and Ron shifted towards the back, nervous. Harry grimaced, remembering Neville's pale, trembling reaction that first day, when the spider had curled up and screamed under Moody's Crucio. It had been Neville's nightmares that had awoken them that weekend. Harry caught Neville's' worried gaze and shared a nod. Inside Neville, there was a continual grief, an aching emptiness right in the center that matched Harry's.
He watched Neville swallow hard and set his jaw. Neville pulled himself together, standing taller, moving one step towards the center, nearer to Harry. Oh, yes, Neville was going to learn what Moody had to teach, even at the risk of more pain, of nightmares and grief. Over Neville's shoulder, Ron and Hermione bent their heads together, murmuring. Hermione had her doubts about this curriculum. Her doubts kept Harry's own thoughts whirling between acceptance and uncertainty. Ron's initial fan-boy reaction had been tempered by his focus on the TriWizard Tournament. Pestering his twin brothers for ideas, Ron was far more worried more about figuring out a way into the ridiculous contest than real threats that seemed to find their way into Hogwarts year after year.
Harry shook out his hands, trying to collect his wildly churning thoughts. Whether he trusted Moody or not, whether he agreed with the wizard's brand of preparation, Harry wouldn't be hanging back. Locking eyes with their teacher, Harry felt a rush of victory. Moody would teach Harry how to survive, how to protect himself and his friends – even those mentors he cared so much about, Sirius and Remus. Everything else – Harry's other studies, the excitement about the other schools coming, the lack of Quidditch, his doubts – they all fell away to mere annoyances. This – this was about Harry's life. And, let's face it, he told himself, hanging back had never been an option for the Boy-Who-Lived.
"In today's lesson, we're going to deal with what we're told is the least damaging of the Unforgivables. Anyone care to guess which one the idiots at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement have deemed 'least damaging'?" Moody snorted, tongue licking out like a snake.
"It must be the Imperius Curse," Hermione piped up from the back. "Because it doesn't really hurt the wizard, not directly, anyway."
"Doesn't hurt him?" Moody bared his teeth, his magical eye spinning. He clunked forward on his peg leg as if he'd grab Hermione and shake her. "And Dumbledore tells me you're supposed to be he brightest witch of your age?"
"Professor!" Harry stepped into Moody's path, almost colliding with the much bigger and bulkier wizard.
Bristling, Moody halted, backing off a pace. "You watch your tongue, girl," he snarled. "I'll chalk that moronic remark up to a head full of book knowledge that has nothing to do with real life. Unlike your other teachers, I will see your heads filled up with reality, you mark my words."
The students seemed to take a collective deep breath behind Harry, but Harry was still focused on Moody. The fury remained behind the wizard's eye. It shimmered along Moody's skin, blurring the edges of his jaw, rustling through his patchy hair. Harry's instincts told him to back off, to put some distance between himself and the dangerous wizard. To go see if Hermione was okay, to give her some support. Curiosity held him in place. Curiosity and suspicion. The deep crevasses along Moody's forehead and throat looked smoother, his stooped posture straighter. Harry lowered his hands, brushing against the outline of the wand in his front pocket while his mind turned the facts over and over.
Some movement dragged Moody's gaze to Harry. Frowning, the wizard's tongue flicked out nervously. "Volunteering to go first, Potter? Fine, fine. Let's show Miss Granger just how 'harmless' the Imperius Curse is." He spun on his metal peg and limped off to the front of the classroom, jerking out the flask on his belt and taking a long swig of whatever spirit he kept there.
A familiar scent drifted towards Harry. He'd smelled it before. Not fire whiskey. Not the dark-smelling scotch Professor McGonagall preferred. Something that stuck in Harry's throat. That made him swallow repeatedly. Strange, it reminded him of Draco Malfoy. He shook his head.
"Now then. The Imperius Curse. Insidious. Elegant. It is both. It is also assault, assault of the mind, of the will. It doesn't just cause pain, it doesn't just kill, it turns the wizard against himself, turns him inside out. Under Imperius, a wizard will kill his best friend, he'll break oaths, he'll sleep with another man's wife, he'll betray those he's sworn to honor." Moody's expression was thunderous, all the lines and scars and wounds he'd earned sharp and clear. "And he'll do it smiling, his mind calm and serene. While, deep down," he banged one fist against his chest, "he'll be screaming. Night and day, forever screaming."
His heart thumping, Harry dismissed his worries and took in Moody's warnings. The wizard was right. Imperius sounded worse than all the other curses. "What –" Harry cleared his throat and started again. "What happens when it's lifted? Do you –"
"Do you remember? Remember everything you've done and said under the Imperius? Oh, yes, Potter," Moody chuckled, the sound like daggers cutting their way out of his mouth, "every drop of blood, every tear." He touched one finger to his temple and made to screw it in. "Preserved for all time in your memory. So clear that many a wizard or witch who suffered under Imperius recovered only to take their own lives."
Silence gripped the students tight. Moody let it stretch out into a deep dark emptiness where everyone had plenty of time to imagine the worst. The worst thing they could say to a good friend. The worst thing they could do to their families. Finally, Moody took up his usual pose perched on the edge of his desk and gestured towards Harry.
"I'll teach those capable how to throw it off. How to fight against the damned curse. How to focus your mind and your will so that you can interpret the other wizard's orders in so many ways that they become meaningless. If your enemy is skilled, he'll word his commands to take that option away, but," he bit off the word sharply, "if he's in a hurry, or unskilled, even youngsters like you will be able to exhaust him with your internal struggles." He slapped one hand onto the desk. "Enough talk. Let's begin."
By the end of the class period, Harry was soaked with sweat, every muscle and tendon aching. But he'd done it. The ninth time Moody had laid the Imperius Curse on him, his thoughts, so calm and happy to obey every other time, had slipped into a clear flow of logic that cut through the wizard's orders.
'Why,' he'd asked himself. 'Why should I dance around the room with Ron? Do I feel like dancing? Am I trying to make everyone laugh at me?' He'd stumbled, letting go of Ron's arm and blinking up at him. 'Ron's angry, embarrassed. I don't want to embarrass Ron.' Harry had managed a half-step backwards, shaking his head like Padfoot in the rain.
"Yes!" Moody had crowed, triumphant. "That's it, boy. Hang onto that feeling."
Turning cold eyes onto Moody, Harry tilted his head, examining his teacher's antics. The Imperius Curse was evil. It was Dark. There was no question about it. It allowed a strong wizard inside his mind, inside the mental shields that every young wizard had been taught to construct. Used often enough, the Imperius built a secret entrance to another wizard's mind, left open and waiting for the next command, the next order. Moody had targeted Harry for a reason. Mental gears spinning, steaming, Harry took his wand from his pocket and aimed.
Moody rocked backwards and Harry felt the compulsion drop away. That didn't stop him. Wand still pointed at the other wizard, Harry gestured in a wide circle. "Protego Maximus," he snapped, conjuring a glowing gold shield to stand between Moody and the rest of the class. He shifted sideways, glancing quickly at Ron and jerking his chin to make sure his friend stepped behind Harry. Feet planted wide, Harry held onto his spell, teeth clenched, so that his shield came between Moody and the students.
Yes. He felt it, then. A narrow opening, left by Moody's constant curses, had remained. A string tied around Harry's consciousness leading back to Moody. With a flick of his wrist, Harry severed it.
"Don't. Just don't," Harry warned.
Moody's disfigured face was pale, but he tried a smile and a laugh. "Calm down now, Harry." He glanced over Harry's shoulder towards the other students. "It's all right. It can sometimes take a wizard like this. I know I'd be downright furious if another wizard tried to take control of my mind."
Hermione stood behind his left shoulder, not daring to touch him, but close enough to lend him some support.
"It's all right, Harry. It's just Professor Moody. We're safe here. At Hogwarts."
"Are we?" That cold logic was still heaping up memories and clues, facts and observations in Harry's mind. "We never have been before. Why should this year be any different?" he asked. "Attacks have nearly always come from inside the school, Hermione, you know that. And each DADA professor has had a hand in them, even Remus."
"Now, Potter, time to put down your wand." Moody stood up, clapping. "Next time we'll see if another of you can throw me off like Potter here did."
"No, you won't," Harry stated, keeping the protective shield steady. "You will not curse another student. In fact, I'm going to Professor McGonagall right now to make sure it doesn't happen." He held Moody's gaze while he spoke over his shoulder. "Hermione. Ron. Neville. Make sure everyone gets out. And don't make eye contact with him," he shouted over the din of the students' clomping feet. When only Ron and Hermione were left, standing right behind him, Harry released his spell.
His hands were shaking.
"All right, Potter," Moody began. "Don't you worry about it. I'm not a man to take points or threaten you with detentions for protecting yourself." The teacher's voice was calm, almost comforting; it sounded a lot like when Moody had approached Neville after that first class.
Harry frowned, his clear thoughts jumbling together, sudden exhaustion making him sway until Ron caught him around the shoulders.
"Harry, you okay, mate?"
"I think, uh, yeah," he mumbled. "Tired." Why had he been so angry?
"Of course he is." Moody huffed. "Off to lunch, you three. Get him something to eat, something sweet. I want twelve inches on odd reactions to this curse from all of you next week. Tell the others." He turned away, making his lurching way up towards his office.
Harry watched him go, trying to grasp what had alarmed him, why he'd threatened a teacher, of all things. He shivered, his thoughts staggering through the fog and muck clouding up his mind. A single pure ray of light, cold and sharp like a blade, cut a pathway and he stumbled backwards. Mind control. Attacking students. Tying Harry to him.
"Do you still want to talk to McGonagall?" Hermione asked.
"Yes. Right away." Shoulders sagging, Harry turned to his friends. "I feel like I've been dragged along a Quidditch pitch by a rampaging Hippogriff."
Ron laughed nervously. "I'll remember to use that as one of my examples for homework." His face fell into concerned lines. "You sure you're okay? Bloody hell that curse is anything but harmless."
Hermione's face flushed. "I'm never going to live that down, am I?" She tugged on Harry's sleeve, urging him to walk with them. "I know I should trust Professor Moody, that it's probably just a reaction to that curse, but," she shook her head. "I don't like the idea of Moody doing this to me, or to anyone else. Do you? Ron, do you think you could sit in class while he targets another student? Even for our own good?"
Harry's stomach turned over. Ron looked grim. "No. I guess I don't."
"That settles it then. McGonagall, then lunch." Hermione tucked her arm into Harry's, steadying him.
Ron slipped the strap of Harry's bag over his shoulder. "Even if the man is brilliant, there's got to be some rules about hurting students."
Harry stared at his friend. If even Ron, Moody's biggest fan, was willing to talk about putting some limits on him, then things must be even worse than he thought.
Severus stood between the narrow windows of the Staff Room, frowning down at the students enjoying the crisp fall afternoon. Student robes had been left behind, but the houses of Hogwarts did not mingle easily, even without the outward show of color and crest. He spotted well-dressed, pureblood Slytherins perched on the low stone wall, heads bent together. Rough-garbed Hufflepuffs, simple tools in tow, were hurrying towards the student greenhouses, anxious to see to their independent Herbology or Potions projects. A few Ravenclaws had abandoned the library and had spread a bright blue blanket on the sunny grass beside the lake. They were studying, of course, or at least making a good show of it.
The flash of gold caught his eye and his frown deepened. Brooms in hand, a gaggle of Gryffindors were racing down the pathway, intent on the Quidditch pitch. The golden glint had been captured in Potter's gloved hand – a practice snitch, Severus realized. Four Weasleys, know-it-all Granger, and a slightly out of breath Longbottom surrounded the arrogant prat, smiling and laughing. Severus crossed his arms over his chest, a thin smile stealing across his face. They were going to be very disappointed to find that the Quidditch pitch had been disassembled. He clucked his tongue in mock sympathy. Hilarious.
Warned by a heightened magical aura interacting with his own, Severus turned to greet his colleague.
"Severus." She bent her head and then glanced out the window over his shoulder. "Oh, dear. Has no one warned the students that the Quidditch pitch and the area around forest are off-limits?"
"They'll find out soon enough." Severus couldn't quite conceal his satisfaction. "The ministry officials will be turning them back any moment now."
Minerva's lips thinned. "You don't have to be so smug about it."
"Oh, but I do," Severus breathed. "With all of the activity around the school this year, I believe your favorite Gryffindor might find it difficult to sneak around unnoticed. In order, for example," he shrugged one shoulder, "to listen in on adult conversations, steal potions ingredients, or meet clandestinely with a certain mangy cur. How dreadful." Within him, his spirit undulated between satisfaction and disapproval; a mild ripple, almost comforting. Familiar.
The Head of Gryffindor House neither scowled nor laughed outright at Severus' obvious glee. Instead, she shifted closer, twisting to glance at their fellow staff members, still busy on the other side of the room. "We must talk, Severus." She flattened her hand and lowered it towards the floor, the gesture hidden from Filius and Pomona by her body. "Not here." She raised her voice from a whisper. "I've found a copy of Lobhawk's Portals and Potions during my summer in Glasgow. Interested?"
Behind him, Filius and Pomona were drifting towards the tea table, their discussion at an end. "Indeed," Severus tilted his head in the semblance of a bow. Interested did not begin to describe his attitude towards Minerva's request. He examined her under the guise of seeking more information on the legendary tome. "I believed no copies had survived. Shall I bring the bottle of Glenmorangie I'd set aside?"
Minerva's eyes lit. "Oh, by all means. Something tells me we'll be finishing that bottle this year, with this bloody tournament throwing all of our lesson plans into the broom closet." She sighed. "I must remember to send a notice to the Quidditch Team Captains." One eyebrow twitched upward. "I'll expect you at seven, shall I?"
Severus nodded and the two joined their colleagues. Minerva had covered herself well, pretending that the slight hunch of her shoulders and the narrowness of her eyes had to do with the upheaval the TriWizard Tournament was wreaking on the school. Some deeper fear or anger lay beneath, visible to a well-trained eye like Severus'. That alone sped Severus' thoughts towards suspicion, towards darkness.
Filius performed a Tempus charm. "Late, as usual," he muttered. "Albus understands that we have things to do, do you suppose?"
"I'm sure he does," Pomona answered. "Believing that our tasks aren't nearly as important as his own? That is another question entirely."
Severus snorted. "Well put." He took in the assortment of teapots, cups, and accessories crowded together on the small side table. "Hmm. I see that he's already preparing for our international guests." A Russian samovar sat front and center, puffing steam. A powder-blue, delicate and dainty set of cups huddled to one side, as if afraid the big bad English Wedgewood would shoulder it onto the floor. "Are we still on schedule for a week from Monday?" He sent the question out into the room, aimed at no one in particular.
"So I've been told," Pomona sighed. She picked up the tiny Russian tea cup and inhaled the dark, bitter aroma. "You know Bagman has sent very insistent requests for a number of different and dangerous plants to be at their disposal during the year. I have it under good authority that I'll be quite busy with this tournament nonsense in the springtime. Busy enough that Albus had already asked me to recommend someone else to teach my classes." She puffed up her chest, scowling. "He seems to think it's some kind of great honor. Ridiculous."
Filius had a sour look on his face. "Someone is going to have to assess the two wings the ministry has added to the castle." He took a large gulp of tea. "I wouldn't trust any of my students to live and sleep in dorms so hastily assembled by that band of muttering dunderheads. And I can't imagine Olympe or Igor will feel any differently."
"Indeed," Minerva agreed, her short, sharp tone displaying her dismissal of the ministry's wizards.
Fudge. Crouch. Bagman. Three of the most mediocre wizards Severus had ever met. If he were Karkaroff or Maxime he would make sure to have the two new Hogwarts wings tested extensively before any student set foot inside.
"Not to mention that we're going to have to assign a few teachers to go over Filch and Hagrid's plans to enforce the out of bounds instructions. Students must understand that any attempt to circumvent the new wards will result in lack of points for not just their house, but for their school's champion." Severus would be more than happy to help enforce the boundaries. Settling heaps of detentions on Hogwarts' students was quite appealing. He bit into a shortbread as if biting off the head of an enemy. "Information should not be disseminated to students via rumor or the notorious Hogwarts' grapevine. It should be clearly and effectively spread to every class by every teacher."
The headmaster's arrival coincided with Severus' statement.
"I quite agree with our Potions' Master." Albus swept through the group, greeting each head of house with a nod and a word. He stood before the assorted tea and biscuit offerings, undecided for a moment, before conjuring a rather large ceramic mug and filling it to the brim with English tea and adding three teaspoons of sugar and half a pint of cream. He gestured towards the waiting table and five chairs. "Shall we?"
After discussing the usual beginning-of-term problems and discoveries, Dumbledore set down his mug and folded his hands in front of him. "Now, I believe there is a … concern among some of the houses about our new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher." His flat blue gaze drifted from Filius to Minerva. "Comments?"
Interesting, indeed. Severus breathed in, slow and steady, strengthening his Occlumency shields to guard his reactions.
Minerva shifted in her seat. "I'm happy to allow Filius to proceed first."
Severus turned his frown into a raised eyebrow. Minerva ceding her rightful place as Deputy Headmistress was rare enough, but, based on her whispered comment to Severus earlier, perhaps she had something more sinister on her mind than Alastor Moody's unprecedented curriculum. Something more vital than how Moody had hurt some poor Ravenclaw's or Gryffindor's feelings.
Filius voice rang out at once. "Unforgivable Curses, Albus? Putting our students under the Imperius? Since when does our curriculum include torture and mind control? I don't believe I saw that in any DADA syllabus I've ever encountered." Filius rapped his knuckles on the table, insisting on each one's serious attention. "This is neither approved nor wise. If you'd like the school sanctioned by the DMLE, by all means continue."
"I entirely agree," Minerva added.
"Alastor's practices may be eccentric," Albus began, but Minerva's patience had apparently run out.
"No one doubts Alastor Moody's skill as an Auror. His reputation and history should be respected and admired. However," she lifted her chin and stared down her thin, sharp nose at Dumbledore, "when Gryffindor students, some of the most pig-headed, reckless, absolutely fearless students, mind you, who we could all name here very easily, come to me, refusing to take part in their professor's daily classroom practical demonstrations, well, it has clearly gone too far."
"So, my Slytherins are in no way overreacting," Severus remarked, his tone cool and languid. "I had heard wild stories from the fourth years, but they have, as yet, only seen the spells demonstrated on various creatures." He turned to spear Filius with a hard glare. "Your students have been subjected to this curse?"
Filius regarded Severus across the table with narrowed eyes. "They have."
"As have mine." Pomona raised her hand. "I had decided to wait to see if Alastor would calm down, but I am definitely not in agreement with this." She leaned forward, her amply padded bosom pressing against the table. "Albus, I've already spoken with Alastor about this. Mister Longbottom was genuinely shocked by the demonstration of the curse that damaged his parents beyond recovery. I'd thought – well, I'd hoped he'd listened to reason."
Severus' control wavered. No, he held no love for the Longbottom boy – his utter ineptitude at potions was one of the banes of Severus' existence. However, for Moody to stick the boy's nose in the horror of Frank and Alice's plight …
"Alastor realizes that his actions in that case were a mistake, my dear," Albus replied. "I believe Alastor's intentions are good, excellent even, hoping to prepare our students for the resurgence of old evils, of attacks like the one we witnessed at the Quidditch World Cup."
"His 'intentions' bloodied a poor boy's spirit unnecessarily, Albus." Minerva nodded in agreement with Pomona. "Young Mister Longbottom watched and listened as the Crucio curse was cast on an innocent creature right in front of his nose. And that does not take into account how Professor Moody," she laced the wizard's title with bitter disdain, "demonstrated the killing curse in a classroom of underage wizards and witches that included Harry Potter."
"Short-sighted, indeed," Albus agreed.
Severus listened, putting the details together. Moody had, apparently, done more than demonstrate. According to the others, he'd tested out the Imperius curse on students - students of every house except Slytherin. Why? Why would the man who had been more than vocal about his doubts about Severus' loyalty refrain from abusing his students? This was decidedly odd – unless a Hogwarts' teacher had ties to Slytherin – like himself and Madame Sinestra – his house was almost always targeted for the worst type of 'demonstrations.' It was one reason Severus felt so free to favor his snakes in his Potions' classes – to balance the scales. Moody favoring Slytherins seemed unbelievably out of character - unless he was saving something worse for the Slytherin students, perhaps?
"You mentioned students' complaints." Severus turned to Minerva. "I will assume that you are referring to Potter and his brood of fan followers when you mentioned reckless Gryffindors." He scoffed. "What type of special treatment is the boy insisting upon now?"
Minerva did not rise to the bait. "After their class yesterday, Potter, Weasley and Granger approached me for permission to refuse to be placed under the Imperius Curse by their teacher. Potter was particularly grim." A momentary shadow of something darker than concern crowded her features. "Allegedly, Moody is claiming to be teaching them how to throw off such a curse."
Filius pushed back from the table and hopped to his feet. Unfortunately, that defeated his purpose since he disappeared beneath the edge of the table. Filius paced away from his colleagues, hands behind his back beneath his robes. A habitual gesture; one that Severus recognized from Filius' days as an International Dueling Master. Filius Flitwick had made a name for himself by appearing harmless while readying a spell behind his back where his opponent could not see it. Severus' jaw clenched. Filius must be far more concerned than Severus had suspected if he'd fallen back into that particular habit.
"Not even experienced, highly trained Curse Breakers can regularly throw off the Imperius," Filius continued. "If anyone was capable, it would not be an underage student! Full grown, well-trained adults are susceptible! Our world would be a much safer place if that were not the case! We would certainly no longer believe any Tom, Dick, or Merlin about deeds performed while Imperiused!"
Severus sat up straight. He assessed his fellow heads of house and then Albus' seemingly serene countenance. He was missing something. Severus did not like to consider himself an unobservant individual, but, apparently, the others saw something in Moody's behavior that Severus did not.
Wheeling on the spot, Filius aimed an empty hand at Albus, his reddened cheeks and sparking eyes making it very clear that he'd rather be shooting off a curse at the headmaster. "I will not condone this behavior, Albus. In fact, immediately after this meeting, if this is not resolved to my approval, I will be sending an owl to the Board of Governors and tasking my Ravenclaws to write to their parents on the matter. If you'd like an influx of Howlers, please, continue to do nothing to rein in that madman."
"Oh, Howlers will be the least of his worries." Pomona sniffed disdainfully. "With all of the media presence attached to this idiotic tournament, reporters will be available to any student – or staff member," she added with a lazy smile, "who cares to describe some of what is going on here."
Severus placed one hand over his mouth. Oh my. If Pomona Sprout intended to battle Albus on this matter, the headmaster had better gird up his undoubtedly brightly colored shorts. She might look soft and cozy on the outside, but beneath that harmless covering hid a badger's sharp claws and teeth – and, once committed, Pomona could be just as lethal.
Albus smiled, both hands waving aside his staff members' threats. He seemed utterly unaffected, causing Severus' teeth to grind in irritation. "Please, Filius, sit down. Have a biscuit. I've spoken with Alastor and it is all under control." A sad little head-shake followed. "I had thought that my senior staff would be a bit more helpful to our newest teacher. Less likely to fly off the handle and react so violently when a word or two in his ear might have resolved the situation."
The old man's 'disappointed and hurt' act was as irritating as always. Severus scowled. "If the paranoid maniac would allow anyone to get close enough to him to make the smallest suggestion, that advice would be useful. However, since he continues to keep to himself, refusing to meet with any one of us, let alone all of us together …" Severus lifted his hands and allowed them to fall to the table.
"Be assured, I have spoken with him. There will be no more attempts to put our students under any Unforgivable Curses. However," Albus tilted his head, staring across the table at Minerva, "I have given him permission to begin an advanced class, after school hours and with participation completely voluntary for those students who are interested in more … cutting edge instruction. I would suggest that certain students, students who are likely to find themselves in difficult situations, avail themselves of Alastor's expertise."
Beside him, Minerva stiffened. "I will pass on your recommendation, of course, Headmaster."
As Albus smiled and released the staff, Severus caught his colleague's eye. Minerva's features were calm, collected. He glanced down. In her lap, she had crushed her fragile teacup into a pile of sharp porcelain shards. In one blink, she'd wordlessly banished the mess and rose gracefully to her feet.
"Seven, then?" Severus repeated.
"I shall expect you," Minerva replied. Head high, she swept from the staff room.
Severus hoped she treated the mass of cuts on her hand and the bloodstain on her robes before any students noticed.
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Severus arrived at the door to Minerva's private rooms earlier than he'd expected. He stopped abruptly, annoyed with himself, allowing his robes to settle around his body after his break-neck rush down the castle corridors. Since the staff meeting, his circling thoughts and nervous expectations had led him to a tangled nest of frustrated reasoning, nearly exhausting his mental control. After sitting through a long, irritating dinner in the Great Hall, Severus had retreated to his rooms, warded them tightly, and spent an hour in rigorous meditation to reset his internal shields. Apparently, it had not steadied him nearly as well as he'd hoped.
Severus would not allow Alastor Moody's mad contempt for Hogwarts policy to interfere with his own precarious balance. Year by year, Hogwarts had become less sanctuary and more battlefield for Severus' battered soul. Potter's arrival at the school four years ago had been the beginning of long years of struggle. Severus had known that seeing Lily's son on a daily basis, the child looking up at him with her eyes and his father's brash temperament would be no end of torment. His internal balance had swung back and forth, teetering, causing emotional outbursts, accidental magic, and a tumult of dark thoughts that had threatened to undo his Occlumency completely.
Albus' ridiculous strategies had destabilized the school quite enough. Laying in traps and tricks to supposedly guard the Philosopher's Stone had barely slowed down a bunch of eleven-year-olds, let alone the Dark Lord's wraith. And the following years, he'd hired the worthless lump Lockhart, and then set Black's accomplice right inside the castle's wards – it was as if the headmaster thrived on the chaos his machinations brought here. Severus would bear no repeat of that because of a crazed old ex-Auror like Moody.
A deep breath steadied Severus' mind and dispelled his growing sense of dread. During the summer months after Potter's first year, Severus had fled from Hogwarts, from the interference of his awkward but well-meaning colleagues and the obvious manipulation of the headmaster, Severus' savior and keeper. He'd returned to Wales, to the Forest of Dean and the hidden conclave of spiritualists who had saved his soul all those years ago. Who had trained him to balance the Light and Dark within himself after Lily's death and Severus' breakdown.
He'd needed every skill, every ounce of power and meditative technique he'd renewed that summer to survive Potter's second year, Riddle's cursed journal, and Slytherin's basilisk roaming the castle. Severus had removed himself from the center of that battle, making sure to keep an eye on Potter – and the useless Lockhart – assuming others would step in to protect the students from the ancient evil Malfoy's idiotic plan had released. Severus shook his head, his lips pressed tight. His colleagues' best intentions had left the Potter boy to find the chamber on his own. And Severus had learned that his own mental stability must come second if he was to keep the vow he'd made over Lily's grave. He could not remove himself from the boy's struggles and expect others to step in - no matter how deeply the constant battle between Light and Dark wounded him.
Last year, Severus had remained vigilant. He'd set his own wards around Gryffindor Tower, setting the portraits around the entrance to keep watch. He'd brewed potion after potion and stood over Lupin as he drank them, to keep the werewolf within him quiet and secure. Black should not have been able to set foot within the school's grounds, let alone wander the castle, unnoticed. If Lupin had been honest with him, if he'd revealed that both of his former friends had become unregistered Animagi, Pettigrew would not have been lost and Black -. Severus bit off a growl. Black may be innocent of the Potters' betrayal, unjustly imprisoned, but Severus' old soul would never see the man as blameless.
At the chiming of the hour, Severus considered his emotions well in hand and raised his fist to knock on Minerva's door. Invisible to any onlookers, familiar wards flared red and gold, shimmering in Severus' inner eye. He hesitated, his hand a mere breath's distance from the solid wood. If Minerva had felt the need to raise wards within the very walls of Hogwarts, this conversation would be much more serious than even Severus had suspected. Unless …
The door opened. Over Minerva's shoulder, Severus gazed into the eyes of a man he did not expect. And, no doubt, the reason for the Order wards.
The werewolf stared back at him, head unbowed, poised and relaxed as Severus had rarely seen the man before. Severus watched him, hesitating before he stepped across the wards, wards that warmed his skin as they tested his aura and identity. Only a member of the Order of the Phoenix could step across the barrier or see or hear what lay behind it.
"And that is quite enough of that," Minerva stated, sweeping past the two wizards to close the door and drop into the middle of three armchairs positioned around a central tea-table. "We are all sworn allies, gentlemen, tied together by the vows of the Order." She murmured an Accio and the cut crystal decanter flew out from the crook of Severus' arm, three glasses from Minerva's sideboard joining it on the table. "I expected this kind of behavior when you were schoolboys, but, honestly, you make me want to assign Mister Filch to resurrect Old Stumpy and give you both a hiding."
Severus was relieved that he was not the only one to flinch under Minerva's stern tongue-lashing. 'Old Stumpy' indeed. The mythical wooden paddle hinted about in Common Room whispers since time immemorial had never been seen by student or teacher. "Hiding in the Chamber of Secrets, under a basilisk scale, was it?" he murmured, drawing his robes close around him as he slid past Lupin and took his usual seat.
Lupin chuckled, what looked like an honest smile lightening his scarred face. He dropped into the third chair with a sigh.
Beneath his shadowed brows, Severus flicked a glance at Minerva's hands. Relief added another layer to his recovering balance – she had, at least, seen to healing the bleeding gashes. Only a very observant individual would notice the network of tiny white scars spread across her palms. He slipped one hand into his pocket and laid the jar of Scar Eradication Potion on the table between them.
Minerva did not acknowledge the gift but stared for another long moment into the charmed fire of her hearth. The flames were silent, flickering bronze and gold, reflecting from the glass held between her hands.
"This is not about Moody, is it?" Severus prompted. It couldn't be that simple, not with Lupin waiting for him behind Molly Weasley's strongest wards. Not with Minerva speaking of vows and invoking Severus' – and Lupin's – loyalty to the Order of the Phoenix.
Lips pursed, Minerva shook her head. "Not directly. Alastor's behavior … concerns me, yes. He's changed, Severus. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was succumbing to Nulanger's Dementia. The childishness, the lack of any kind of self-control – they are obvious symptoms of mental instability. He's drinking almost constantly, even during classes."
Severus considered his contacts at St. Mungo's. He knew the top-ranked Mind Healers there well – he grimaced to himself – too well. His own mental stability had been a work of years of study and therapy, but few at Hogwarts would suspect how Severus spent so many weeks of his summers. "I know a few … experts …" he offered. "I will be happy to send inquiries?"
"I suppose it could be any sort of dementia," Lupin responded. "Alastor was an Auror for a long time. He's been subjected to more than his share of hexes and curses, not to mention poisons and dark creature attacks." Lupin sat on the edge of his chair and folded his hands, elbows on his knees. "I was very surprised to hear how he's targeted the students."
"As was I," Severus agreed. "Especially since he has, as of this moment, neglected to use these curses on any of my snakes. Knowing his history, I'd have expected him to start with Slytherin House. However," Severus' irritation made his tone terse, his consonants clipped, "since you believe this other concern of yours requires the assistance of not just myself, but of Lupin, here, I believe we should put aside Alastor Moody for the moment and get to the heart of the problem."
"Actually, this discussion is more on-topic that I want to admit. And Remus' visit is altogether serendipity, Severus. I was not expecting him. After hearing his concerns, however –" Minerva twisted her hands together in her lap. She took a deep breath clearly gathering the nerve to speak. "It's another's behavior that worries me more." She snorted. "As if we need more to deal with than a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who is losing his mind. And one as dangerous as Moody, no less."
Severus crossed his legs and settled in to listen.
"Have you noticed anything peculiar in any of your Gryffindor Potions' classes, Severus?"
He grunted. "Not unless you consider Longbottom still being unable to follow a simple list of directions in his fourth year peculiar." When his quip did not lighten her expression at all, Severus frowned, scouring his memories. Gryffindors were notoriously poor at potions – impatient, less than meticulous in their preparation, and eager to blame their failings on either their hated teacher or some interference by another student. There had been exceptions, of course. Severus set his gaze on Lupin. He had been extraordinarily talented at potions, nearly on par with Severus himself. The twin red-headed school pranksters were also excellent brewers when they put their minds to the task. Granger would excel if she could perhaps keep focus on her own cauldron instead of feeling it necessary to correct her classmates. Potter was hopeless, of course.
"Please. Consider the matter seriously," Lupin urged.
Severus leaned back in his chair. He sent his mind back to the double potions class he'd supervised just yesterday – Gryffindors and Slytherins. He had not been looking forward to it. With both houses in attendance, Severus could not allow even a moment's ease in his usual surly manner. Young Malfoy scrutinized him constantly, ready to report on any strange behavior to his father. Draco was growing into his role as Lucius' apprentice in the Dark Arts and was practically frothing at the mouth to see Severus reprimand Potter and his friends. Add to that tension the utterly ill-fated attempt Longbottom would certainly make of his recipe and Severus had dreaded the double class.
When he put his mind to remember details, however, he realized the class had not been as horrific as he'd expected. Now, why was that?
He'd prepared a lecture on the seven uses of bicorn horn in stabilizing healing and growth potions. The students had been attentive, naturally, since, as fourth years, they had better understand what Severus was liable to assign if they were not so. When it was time for the practical, he'd displayed the recipe on two boards in the front of the classroom and set them on their way, watching and listening for the usual shenanigans. For overboils. A hiss of pain or an indrawn breath of fear.
Closing his eyes, Severus recalled each student's location. Weasley and Granger had taken a table together on the left, Potter, pairing up with the ill-fated Longbottom closer to the center front. The directions for this particular potion had been intricate – Severus had set it for the students as a high bar, reminding them that, although Albus and others were far more interested in the excitement of the tournament, Severus would not stand for any slacking.
Unable to come up with any particular revelation, Severus opened his eyes and shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I cannot recall a single thing that happened to disturb me during the Gryffindor classes."
Minerva snorted. "I'm afraid if I'm more direct, I'll truly be leading the witness. But, if I must." She flashed a pained smile. "How did Mister Potter's potions turn out this week?"
Severus grimaced. "He received two O's this week – truly a banner event in the life of the Boy-Who-Doesn't-Know-Clockwise-From-Counterclockwise."
"Two O's. Harry Potter received two O's. From you." Lupin's smile was narrow, constrained. "That may not sound odd to you, but I remember Harry's grades from last year. I assure you it is a week for the record books."
"Indeed." Severus stirred restlessly. He should have noted that himself. At least to ensure that the boy hadn't cheated under his watchful eye. No. Impossible. Not in Severus' classroom. The charms he'd woven around each desk and cauldron would have set off an alarm that only he could hear. He caught Draco helping his two gorilla-like minions time and again and Granger regularly took over for her partners, insisting on completing the potion correctly. Not cheating per se, but enough to earn a loss of points. With the thick web of alarm spells Severus had cast around Potter, surely any cheating would have been impossible to miss.
Why, then, hadn't Severus considered the change in the boy's accomplishments?
Minerva stood and swept behind them to reach a tall cabinet, closed off with a pair of rounded doors. She murmured a code-word and opened the cabinet to reveal a silver Pensieve, a handle on each side sculpted to resemble a rampant unicorn, thistles entwined around the rim.
Eyebrows raised, Severus waited as Minerva set the magical item down on the low table between them. He would grant her access to his memories of the Potter boy in his classroom if she asked for it. Lupin, however… Severus would have preferred a warning so that he could unlatch the memories from any inner dialogue he had unconsciously layered onto the scenes. Occlumency was one of his higher skills, but proper preparation and meditation was necessary in order to provide a sharp, clear memory that began and ended with a clean edge.
Minerva's next words brushed away his concerns – and added others. "I would like you to view a few of my memories, Severus. Remus."
Severus leaned forward. "If you believe it is necessary, I will. However, if your intent is to somehow change my attitude about Prince Potter, I should warn you that others have tried and failed." He gazed steadily in Lupin's direction.
"Nothing would please me more than to have you eat your words and attitudes towards a young child in your care. In fact," Lupin's smile was distinctly feral, "I'd prefer to shove them down your throat with both hands, but, alas, no." He shook his head. "Minerva has explained the situation to me. I suggested the use of the Pensieve – we want your untainted observations, Severus. You are a very observant man – you have to be in order to survive this double life you lead. And, while I do not approve of your teaching methods or your insistence on paying back personal grudges on eleven-year-old children, I do admire your skills."
The back-handed compliment caught Severus across the chin and he flinched backwards. "Cutting, but accurate," he admitted. Now was not the time to reflect on his failings – he did not insist on a perfectly clear conscience, how could he? The worst mistakes of Severus' life had resulted in torture and death for a woman he'd claimed to love. Nothing he could do now would hope to lift his soul from utter damnation, nor could vile behavior force it any further into the depths of hell. Trapped forever in Purgatory was the best Severus could hope for.
Lupin waited a moment for more, for a more specific admission or, perhaps, for a long-expected hair shirt to materialize over Severus' robes. Severus simply nodded.
"Remus has his own reasons for using this method. And, frankly," Minerva breathed out a shaky breath, "the situation is far more dire than I imagined when we spoke earlier."
"It must be. You're claiming it to be Order business. The wards have been renewed. Believe me," Severus intoned solemnly, "I will do my best."
Minerva's expression cleared. "Your best is good enough for me. Shall we begin?"
You are all so kind with your comments, kudos, and bookmarks! The story is coming along, just finished writing chapter 17. I hope you'll let me know your thoughts on the continuing story!
Minerva touched the tip of her wand to her temple and closed her eyes. A slim thread of memory trailed from her wand to float into the Pensieve. Her features grave, she invited the two to join her in the memory.
Eleven-year-old Potter, Weasley, and Granger rushed into Minerva's classroom, the door banging against the castle wall. Out of breath, eager and excited, the trio began talking all at once, claiming to know that Severus himself was in the process of sneaking into the third-floor corridor in order to steal away the Philosopher's Stone. Childish voices high-pitched and rising, they insisted that their Head of House do something to stop him. Potter's cheeks were pale, eyes huge behind his mended glasses, his hands gripping his robes as if to hold himself together. The other two were no less affected by their panic, but Potter looked ready to either hex Minerva or shout threats a la Malfoy about telling his father. If he'd had living parents, the boy might have done exactly that.
On his left, the phantom of Lupin stared despairingly at the child. Minerva, on his right, raised one hand. "Watch, now."
At memory-Minerva's refusal to take the children's warnings seriously, desks, books, quills, and odd papers set about the classroom began to vibrate, raising dust motes to flicker through the air. Potter's jaw was clenched, his features set into grim fury. Accidental magic. Severus expected an upheaval, a rush of power to cast the classroom into chaos. In another second, Potter's face cleared, and the items settled. Composed and calm, the boy nodded, rounded up his cohorts, and took his leave. Politely. In control.
"Interesting. But not that uncommon." Severus nodded once they'd exited the memory. "Most students' accidental magic is linked to their lack of emotional control and quiets once they attend classes and perform actual spells and incantations, bleeding off the excess."
Lupin had taken a large swallow of his scotch, forehead creased in a frown and his gaze distant. Apparently, seeing the boy affected him more than Severus would expect. Regrets and self-recriminations shone clearly in the wolf's body language. Severus managed to stifle a snort. In his experience, hindsight rarely brought anything but trouble.
"Nor did I give it much thought at the time. However," Minerva retrieved the silver strand and set another to float in the bowl, "well, you'll see." She raised a warning hand, insisting on both wizards' attention. "This contains my memory of someone else's memories, of Harry's own memories of certain incidents, so you will notice the sharp-cut edges and the difference in tone and feel."
Severus smirked at her professorial tone and entered the memory with Lupin.
A small muggle dining room appeared, with three monstrous human beings barely contained by their creaking chairs huddled over heaps of food. The fourth figure, tall and skinny, with a face screwed up like a pale prune, took Severus aback. That face he knew. Would never forget. Petunia Evans. So, Severus considered, this was Tuney's family. Husband. Large, flabby son. And another grown woman who resembled the husband down to the sprouting hair on her upper lip and the wideness of her girth.
This was Potter's memory of his adoptive muggle family. Fascinating.
Potter's vantage point was removed, perhaps standing in the kitchen of the small home. Severus frowned, noticing that there was no chair for him at the table. Dursley's sister was speaking, a dark gleam in her eye and a large glass of brandy in her hand.
"What are you smirking at, boy?"
Severus couldn't help smiling at the woman's sharp comment to Potter who was cleaning up the family's dishes. Perhaps a punishment of some sort.
"Where did you say you sent the boy, Vernon?" the woman demanded.
"Uh, St. Brutus'. It's a fine institution for hopeless cases."
Oh, my. The boy's muggle relatives had chosen a particularly nasty cover story for Potter's magical schooling. Lupin, he noticed, was not in the least bit amused.
"Do they use a cane at St. Brutus' boy?"
Potter's response was glib, of course. The woman took his tone badly. Severus felt for her. He'd been the focus of Potter's sharp tongue more than once.
"…you don't have to explain yourself as to how this one turned out, Vernon. It's all to do with blood. Bad blood will out."
Hmpf. The boy did resemble his detestable father. Severus couldn't argue with that.
"What is it the boy's father did, Petunia?"
"Nothing. He didn't work. He was unemployed."
Lupin took a jerky step forward, as if to speak up. Severus frowned. Petunia was never quick nor clever, but certainly by the time Potter was thirteen she should have had a background story for Potter and Lily arranged. Some noble profession she could display for all of the boy's fans. Of whom, Severus reflected, Dursley's sister was clearly not one. Severus might have to ask for her address to begin a happy correspondence.
The lights in the Dursley home flickered. No, Potter didn't like his aunt's explanation. The boy's messy hair rustled, his shoulders tensing, hands in fists at his side. Potter's fury grew as this talk progressed.
"And a drunk too, no doubt," the aunt added.
"That’s a lie." Potter turned, advancing on the table, his magical aura vibrating around him, nearing visibility even to muggles.
"What did you say?"
"My dad wasn't a drunk."
The glass in the woman's hand exploded.
Petunia shrieked and Vernon flung a string of curses towards the boy, obviously sure where that surge of power had come from. The woman was unconcerned, demanding that the Potter boy clean up the mess and mentioning something about her 'firm grip.'
"Actually," the bloated woman continued as Potter wiped away the stains and collected the sharp pieces of glass, "it's nothing to do with the father. It has to do with the mother."
Severus stilled, all amusement at the boy's situation draining away.
"You see it all the time with dogs. If there's something wrong with the bitch, there's something wrong with the pup."
Potter's explosive reaction mirrored the storm of fury within Severus' soul. How dare this – this muggle, this sorry excuse for a human being speak the slightest slur against Lily? Severus' wand was in his hand, regardless that this was a memory – the memory of a memory. Potter's rage matched his own, furniture clattering, dishes dancing across the table, bulbs from the chandelier bursting one by one.
When the woman's body began to expand, Severus felt an unholy glee at the boy's accomplishment. When she floated away from the table, he nearly cheered. At Minerva's pointed clearing of her throat beside him, he gathered himself and watched.
The boy stormed up the stairs and through a doorway lined with locks on the outside and a cat-flap cut into the bottom. Potter swept his belongings – his wizarding belongings – from various hiding places around the room into his battered trunk and hauled it down the steps, his aura still flashing in and out of sight around him. Accidental magic in the pubescent wizard came and went with rushes of emotion, when confronted with danger, or when the youth was in a particularly stressful situation. Potter's had not dwindled a bit since his attack on the horrible woman at the table.
His uncle found this out when the boy drew his wand, practically poking the man in the chest with the business end. Dursley moved quickly out of the way. Potter fled.
Fled. From the home that Severus had been sure was a haven for the pampered little prince. A place where he was worshipped and coddled. Severus' spirit curdled into a tight ball, denial stripped away by the true memories presented before him. His competing oaths and vows rose up to demand Severus' attention, that he stand up beside either Potter or his tormentors. Severus locked down his inner shields, wrapping the iron bands of his control around his tortured spirit. Not now, he promised himself. Later.
The memory swirled and Severus found Potter on a dark street, a sunburned park at his back, staring into the dark, snarling eyes of a huge black dog. A dog that Severus recognized immediately. Black. Black's Animagus form. The escaped prisoner had been in Surrey, lurking around the boy's home. Severus managed to rein in his disgust to observe the boy's reaction.
The anger that had encompassed the boy's frame faded. The furious red aura, hot enough to raise a sheen of sweat on the boy's skin, cooled immediately. And, oddly, it was not replaced by fear. Fear would be expected, logical. Instead, the boy's aura shifted along the spectrum from red to green to silver, all emotion suddenly choked off. Removed. Repressed. The boy watched the dog with an assessing stare, his awkward step backwards, stumbling over the curb, laying him out flat on his back. It wasn't terror that had caused the boy's fall, Severus observed. No, not at all. Simple childish awkwardness.
When he emerged from the memory, Severus was frowning, his mouth open, eager for explanations.
"One more." Minerva put off his questions. "We'll have time to discuss this all later."
Later, again, Severus sighed to himself. "Very well."
Minerva arranged the last memory in the Pensieve, unwilling to meet either wizard's eye as they fell within.
Ah. This was the scene Minerva had alluded to in the staff meeting. Potter of the present, with Weasley and Granger in tow, entered her private office after a sharp knock and Minerva's word. Potter stood in front, the other two huddled behind him, as if worried. Frightened. But, frightened by Moody's behavior or Potter's, Severus wondered.
Because this Potter, the one who stood solidly before his Head of House, was one Severus barely recognized.
Severus circled the three students within the memory. He took in their postures, their open, revealing expressions. After a few seconds he dismissed Weasley and Granger – there was nothing new here. Weasley was there to support his friend, shifting uneasily as if not quite sure what to say or do. Granger, to Potter's left, frowned, appearing to listen intently to Potter's words while, Severus was sure, her thoughts were focused on coming up with her own explanations and demands.
It was Potter who claimed Severus' attention. This Potter was not panicked. Angry. Liable to make the room and all of its contents vibrate with his emotions. This Potter stood casually before his Head of House, hands relaxed at his sides. His eyes were clear, a bright green that seemed to sear directly into Minerva's. Not with passion or childish insistence, but with cool regard. Yes, this was the Potter who had shown up to Severus' classes this week. A Potter that Severus' usually pinpoint attention brushed past without raising a single snide objection or dark intention.
Potter's powerful aura, red and gold, a roaring lion of power and pride ordinarily hidden just beneath the skin was simply … not there.
"Professor McGonagall." The boy began with an almost regal nod of his head. "For the past hour and a half, Professor Moody has cast Imperius Curse after Imperius Curse on me, allegedly in the hope that I'd learn, with no advice and no examples to follow, to somehow throw off the curse. I don't know how, but I managed to slip away from his control for a second and throw up a protection charm to shield my mind – and the rest of the class – from another curse. I'd like your permission to refuse to allow the professor – or any other teacher, honestly – to invade my mind like this again."
"Potter, you must be mistaken," Minerva had replied, standing to face the trio. "No professor here at Hogwarts has permission to invade a student's mind at will. Not even in the name of teaching defense against that very curse."
"He's not mistaken, Professor," Granger answered. "Professor Moody had Harry obeying his every command for the entire class period." Granger's hands were twisted together before her. "It was horrible."
"It was illegal," Potter corrected her. "And, I believe, if I had any guardians who cared about my welfare, they would be meeting with the Board of Governors and the ministry on my behalf. My father may have been a Marauder at school, but can you imagine how he would feel to know his son was subjected to Unforgivable Curses? And my mum – I don't know a lot about my mum, but I don't think she appreciated bullying."
Lupin's expression was pinched and pained. Severus' face probably looked worse – he most definitely felt worse. Images chased each other across his mind's eye. Lily's fierce anger at Potter and Black's constant teasing, their nasty little attacks on those they found to be annoying or somehow in their way. It wasn't just Severus she'd protected; it was any student who'd been subjected to bullying, any student in any house. Potter was right – Lily would have stormed into Moody's classroom, a curse ready on her tongue, red hair flying. Severus' heart pounded, his teeth clenched so hard his jaw ached and his head throbbed. Potter's earlier memories had already called up the specter of Lily Evans Potter, they'd already opened old wounds and released Severus' locked-away emotions. Now the boy was speaking her name, hauling out his parents and their sacrifices as he never had before. Never once had the boy mentioned Lily, Severus was sure of it.
Before Minerva could respond to Potter's level accusations, the boy continued. "I don't know the protocols, Professor. I wasn't raised as a wizard like Ron, nor have I read the books I probably should have like Hermione. But I'd appreciate it if you find that you're either unable or unwilling to act, that you'd let me know which ministry office I should approach for permission to refuse to participate in any more of Moody's practical sessions."
The boy was controlled, calm, but a hint of emotion trickled out from behind his chilly attitude. Not anger, nor childish whining, as Severus would have expected. It felt like disappointment. A hint of arrogance. He radiated an expectation of compliance on the part of his teacher.
"If I could, as an underage student, I'd call into question Moody's fitness to teach, especially considering his drinking problem. But I have a feeling no student without adult guardians to back him up would get very far." Potter tilted his head. "Perhaps that's why I was targeted in the first place."
Great Merlin, Potter sounded less and less like the reckless Gryffindor Minerva had described him to be and more and more a young pureblood wizard raised to insist on suitable manners and behavior by those around him. One who looked beyond his immediate feelings and saw the bigger picture. By all that was holy, Potter - thoughtless, rash Potter- had made a well-reasoned argument as well as an appeal to older, adult wizards to help him. He sounded downright Slytherin.
Severus gestured towards his colleague and Minerva raised her wand, freezing the memory before them. "You had a question?"
"A few. First, did you immediately take the child to the infirmary – or to Dumbledore – to check that his mind had not been warped in some way by Moody's cursing? That this was, in fact, Potter you were dealing with and not a Polyjuiced facsimile?" Indeed, Severus had noted a jar of lacewing flies had wandered off between his last inventory and yesterday morning's monthly follow-up. Polyjuice was not the only potion they could be used for, of course, he'd considered his NEWT students' practice with landscape transfigurations and Fidelius Charms and decided one of them must have taken the item without letting him know. Now, however…
"Anything else?" Minerva prompted him.
Severus turned to a strangely silent Lupin. "Why are you not surprised? Utterly stupefied that the boy is insisting on appealing to the correct supervisory authorities?" Eyes narrowed, Severus took in the wolf's tense status, the flaring of his nostrils and his hunched posture, as if he could use his supernatural senses to assess the boy within the memory.
Lupin nodded. "I'm not surprised because of the information I came to speak with Minerva about. Your first question, about getting Harry to a healer, that's my intention."
"If I could, gentlemen." Minerva drew both wizard's attention back to her. "Mister Potter needs assessment, that much is true. However, there is another's behavior that worries me even more."
Severus glanced at Weasley and Granger. Nothing about them rang alarm bells. "Who?" he demanded.
Minerva flourished her wand to begin the memory again, her skin a pasty white. "Mine."
Severus snapped his gaze towards the Minerva within the memory. What the devil had she done? Or not done, perhaps? Surely, she hadn't brushed off Potter's accusations as she'd done before. Durmstrang and Beauxbatons were arriving on Saturday – two days from now. This situation must be resolved before these schools – and the ministry – descended on Hogwarts en masse. Moody must be put in check – and Potter, well, hopefully Lupin had the boy's needs well in hand. Lupin must be in touch with Black, who, Severus believed, retained the legal guardianship of young Potter. Although Albus would not let go of the boy's reins easily.
Minerva lowered her wand.
"You're right, Mister Potter," memory-Minerva began. "Questioning the curriculum of Hogwarts, the ability of its teachers, and the integrity of its headmaster is neither your right nor your responsibility." She flapped a hand in the air. "Feel free to send an owl to whomever you'd like with your complaints – I assure you, childish whining about too much homework and nasty professors who don't like you are nothing new. You will simply be heaped into a pile with all the other young people who feel that life should be fair or easy or without the least bit of conflict." She clucked her tongue. "I will say that I am both surprised and ashamed to hear this sort of drivel coming from you of all people. I'd thought you'd have learned better. Life isn't fair, is it? You should have learned that lesson one Halloween night from your cot. And conflict comes when you least expect it. Even for children."
"Did you believe that the sympathy and concern of a man like the Headmaster gave you free access to his office? That Professor Dumbledore should clear his extremely busy schedule each and every time you have the slightest hiccup in your life? That his kindness in the past makes a way for you to sweep straight to the head of the line of students, teachers, officials, and even heads of state who are required to wait their turn? Well, of course you do," Minerva drew back her head, looking the boy up and down. "You're Harry Potter."
Severus would not have been surprised if Potter had turned bright red and his head had exploded after that nasty lecture. Instead, the boy simply nodded, as if he'd expected the heated sentiments that had spouted from Minerva's sharp tongue. Behind Potter, Weasley's face matched his hair, the boy obviously feeling soundly put in his place. Granger's skin, in contrast, had turned milky, her mouth open in shock.
She was not alone. The words Minerva had spewed at the Boy-Who-Lived were harsh even by Severus' own standards. Accusing the child of pouting, of whining, well, even Severus knew Potter rarely complained, not even when his punishments and detentions were far out of balance with whatever petty offenses he and his friends committed. Severus glanced at the witch in the memory. She was correct, of course. No childish rants about unfairness or dislike from his teachers could be countenanced. If they began, there would be no end to students' demands, just a constant stream of laments designed to allow children to get away with as little as possible. However, her personal attack on Potter seemed altogether out of character.
"Now, as to Professor Moody's practical lessons –" In her memory, Minerva frowned and seemed to take herself in hand. She moved back behind her desk – Severus glanced down to see that her hands were shaking. "There is a staff meeting on Thursday for the heads of the four houses. Any early problems will be addressed there." Minerva's faint eyebrows lifted. "I hope you will trust us to make correct decisions for our students."
"But, Professor –" Granger took a step forward, determined to have her say even in the face of Minerva's obvious dismissal.
Potter stopped her with one hand on her arm. "Never mind, Hermione. Clearly, Professor McGonagall has no interest in this issue." The child shook his head sadly. "I don't know why I thought this time would be any different. Honestly," the boy's here-and-gone smile was self-deprecating, "you'd think I'd have at least learned that lesson."
Minerva, caught in the motion of seating herself, stilled, frozen in shock at Potter's tone. There was bitterness there, yes, but it was bitterness smoothed over by a particularly adult type of discernment, as if Potter had checked off a box on some inner list of his duties and was preparing himself to go on to the next item. Severus took a step closer to the child, wishing above all else that he could Legilimise a memory.
The boy interrupted Minerva with a perfectly measured bow. "Forgive me for selfishly taking up your time, Professor."
Before he could make it out the door, Minerva spoke again. "Harry. What –"
Potter did not turn. Weasley, glancing back and forth between the door and his head of house, shrugged his shoulders and hurried after his friend. Granger, however …
"Professor. I don't understand. Are you –" the girl took a gulp of breath and began again, "are you hoping Professor Moody tortures more students? Harry in particular? Why?" The word was breathless, desperate. "Why would you do that?"
When Minerva pressed her lips together, refusing to answer, the girl spun on her heel and slammed the door behind her.
Exiting the memory, Severus turned on his colleague. "Why indeed?"
Minerva, her cheeks tinted pink, eyes blazing, lifted her chin. "I'd think the answer was obvious, Severus. I've been hexed. Compromised." Her voice shook with fury. "Someone has bound my mind and my will when it comes to Potter. There is no other explanation."
Severus allowed his thoughts to spin out the possibilities while he took a sip of his forgotten scotch. Minerva McGonagall was one of the most powerful witches of her generation. Wise. Discerning. Not only did she have a great magical core at her disposal, untainted by darkness, but the blood of remarkable Scottish ancestors flowing in her veins. She was a natural Animagus, her transfiguration skills were second to none. Beyond that, she had been a student of wizarding nature for years, quite able to spot a liar, a sham, a smooth-talker at first glance. It was Minerva who had first raised a question at Quirrell's change of behavior three years ago. She had berated Albus soundly for allowing the Lockhart fraud into the castle. He held his glass up to the light and considered his colleague's statement. Unfortunately, Minerva had flaws – as did they all.
"I am at your disposal to diagnose any interference with your mind or will," Severus offered, hoping to put off her natural defensiveness for a moment. "However," he continued before she could suggest a method, "have you considered that you were simply tired, frustrated after another long day of putting up with childish moaning and complaints, having been responsible for not only your own teaching curriculum and duties this year, but also for all of the headmaster's overflow since he has been focused, primarily on the tournament? On that blasted Goblet to be revealed on Monday night? Perhaps you acted badly because Potter's intrusion, how shall I say it," Severus stated with bitter sarcasm, "raised every sensitive hackle on your spirit? Because the boy threatened to go over your head and use his fame and notoriety to receive special treatment?"
Cold fury shut down the camaraderie building among the three. "Do not mistake Minerva for you, Severus," Lupin stated.
"Oh, was it I who refused to believe the boy in his first year when Quirrell was possessed?"
"No," Lupin shot back, "but since Minerva knew that you had a large part in protecting the Stone, how could she take Harry's suspicions of you seriously?"
"I do not require your excuses on my behalf, Remus," Minerva replied, a soft glance tossed in the wolf's direction. "Hindsight tells me I should have stepped in, yes, but this time," she pressed her lips together. "I have no explanation for this occurrence. Not for my reaction nor for Potter's extremely out of character attitude."
Severus allowed a nod of agreement. "I gather this situation is what caused your violent reaction during the staff meeting? You seemed to respond most strongly to Albus himself. You don't believe –" No, surely not. Minerva had been a staunch ally of the headmaster's for years. She was not unwilling to question him, to draw Albus' attention to something he'd overlooked or misinterpreted, but she'd followed his directives – even those pertaining to the Potter boy.
"I suspect everyone," she countered. "If I didn't know the lengths you go to in order to keep your spirit balanced, the oaths you have taken, Severus, I would suspect you." She crossed her hands at her waist. "Your tongue may be sharp, but your magic is reserved for the Light. Now, let me answer the obvious questions. Do I have any memory loss? Any time that is unaccounted for? No. Have I ventured out into dangerous or risky locations where I might have been attacked by those who stand against us? I have not. I have been here, at Hogwarts, since before the students returned. In fact, I Flooed directly here from my summer home two weeks before term began. I did not attend the Quidditch World Cup." She sniffed and looked back and forth between Severus and Lupin. "Anything else?"
"Have you checked your private kitchen? Any food or drink you prepare for yourself rather than have brought in by the elves? Or personal products, creams, lotions, scents?" Lupin, eyes narrowed, searched the small sitting room as if he could detect a poison or potion through the locked doors that led into Minerva's more private rooms. "My senses could be useful, checking for herbs or potions."
Minerva's hands rose and fell. "I have already used the strongest revelation charms on not only food and drink but my clothing and personal possessions. There is nothing within these rooms or my office to explain this."
"It was done elsewhere in Hogwarts, then." Severus rose to pace around the room, turning over the possibilities as he moved. "Or you would have found an echo, a trace of the dark magic."
"It would be fruitless to perform the kind of search we need here at Hogwarts." Lupin rose to meet him at the fireplace. "Too many years of spells gone right and wrong among the students and teachers would warp any spell we cast." His pale gaze did not hesitate to meet Severus'. "Many of us have tried to pinpoint dangers and darkness hidden within these walls over the years. To find Death Eaters, dark objects - even the Chamber of Secrets remained hidden."
"Wild goose chases," Severus murmured in response. He straightened. "You do know what the two of you are asking, Lupin?"
"It's the only way." The wolf was tense but resolved. "We need a Legilimens. One we can trust and count on." He turned to glance back at their colleague. "And not just for Minerva. Harry is going to need you, too."
Ah. This was the other shoe that Severus had been waiting to hear fall. "Potter? Potter has been tampered with?"
"That … remains to be seen."
Severus drew back. "What has Albus to say about the matter?" Surely the old man would not hesitate to make the Boy-Who-Lived's welfare his highest priority. Above Moody's, above Minerva's, definitely, or it would be Albus standing here, being urged to look into her mind, to find the taint. Is that why he had been so offhanded about Moody's behavior? Was Albus wrapped up in some greater plot centered around Potter himself?
Minerva cleared her throat pointedly. "What Albus has to say is what he always has to say, I'm afraid. 'Leave it to me.' 'I am aware of the situation.' And, of course, 'Harry must learn to make his own way.'" She snorted. "You know as well as I do that the headmaster has tied our hands concerning Mister Potter on every occasion when we would have intervened. This is no exception."
"Molly and I are meeting with Sirius on Monday night to discuss the situation." Lupin bent his head and rubbed at the back of his neck. "Sirius will make the decision about how to proceed." He looked up. "We may need those contacts with St. Mungo's you offered earlier, Severus. But, for now –" he gestured vaguely towards Minerva, "- this is one situation we can resolve without him."
"Very well." Severus would not argue further. He drew his wand from his sleeve. "You are sure that you would not rather have Albus perform the Legilimens?"
"After that ridiculous Staff Meeting?" She snorted. "No thank you." Minerva lifted her chin and gazed steadily into Severus' eyes. "I shall attempt to keep my mind open and accessible. However, you know my training."
Severus raised one eyebrow. "Indeed." Occlumency had been drilled into his colleague by Dumbledore himself when she joined the Order of the Phoenix in the last war. Relinquishing control to another, well, Severus knew very well how painful and disturbing those sensations could be. He could storm her shields, tear down her mental barriers – yes, his power could turn any defense into rubble – but he did not want to leave Minerva without future protection. He took a long, slow breath and readied himself, drawing his wand. "I shall attempt to keep my interference focused, Minerva."
She was already shaking her head. "Severus, I don't care if you find out how old I was when Connor McPherson and I first played medi-wizard behind my father's potting shed. You have my permission to do what is necessary – no matter how sharp or painful the spear of your attack may become." Her hands were clenched tight around the arms of her chair. "This cannot continue. I will not allow it. Do you hear me?"
He bowed his head. "I do." Of course. Mind meddling – Potter had been right about that much. No wizard should invade another's mind, or feel free to tamper with the very foundations of thought and attitude. It was anathema. Wholly disgusting. If it had been Severus, he would demand they scour every inch of his spirit to find the source and drive it out. Based on Minerva's fiery stare, she would expect nothing less.
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"Nice try, son."
That's what Sirius' response to Harry's letter had implied. Sirius was on his way back. Back to Hogwarts. Back to skulking around as Padfoot, hiding in caves and forests, eating rats and other dead things, all so that he could be closer to Harry. Harry was torn between feeling elated, warm and wanted, and guilty. His letter had brought Sirius back. Writing about his aching scar and the violence at the World Cup had brought Sirius close enough to be found out. To be caught.
He pulled his cloak tight around him. Propped in one of the narrow archways of the Hogwarts' courtyard, the chill late-October wind managed to find its way through Harry's layers to raise goosebumps on his skin. From his vantage point, he could see both the Beauxbatons horses in their pen as well as the Durmstrang ship. The other schools had arrived yesterday, during a freezing rainstorm, twelve students from each shivering their way into the Great Hall without fanfare or drama. Dinner in the Great Hall had been strained, the students from Beauxbatons huddling at the Ravenclaw table, complaining loudly of the castle's chill and the heavy English food. The Durmstrangs – led by Ron's favorite, Viktor Krum, of all people - had taken seats with the Slytherins. Ron had even missed a couple of mouthfuls, staring across the hall like the fanboy he was.
Harry shifted, pulling his knees to his chest. Dumbledore had greeted the headmaster and headmistress as if they were old friends, assuring them that the two new towers that had been added to Hogwarts were ready for them. The other schools wouldn't mix much with Hogwarts' students; they'd sleep and study and have private classes with Karkaroff and Maxime for the duration of the tournament. Which, apparently, was officially starting on Monday night with the revelation of some magical entry system overseen by Minister Crouch, the man who'd accused Harry and his friends of summoning the Dark Mark at the World Cup. No one else seemed surprised. No one else watched the schools arriving and wondered why he'd never heard of them before. Harry grunted, the cold wind twisting up into dusty tempests in the paved corners, reflecting his own restless thoughts. Every day Harry was finding out more and more that he didn't know, that he didn't understand.
He'd been playing catch-up in the wizarding world since he was eleven, running as fast as he could to figure things out on his own. Everyone else was far ahead of him, over the next hill. It was only Harry who was clueless. Stupid. His fists clenched so tight they ached. Why hadn't anyone ever told him anything? Could they be waiting for him to ask? To figure it out? How could he possibly know what to ask when he'd been shoved in a dark muggle cupboard for eleven years? Anger flared. Not to mention that every time he asked for help it got shoved down his throat that he was not entitled to it.
Voices carried in the foggy morning air. Students in blue and red hurried back and forth between the gilded carriage – stored in a hastily assembled carriage house behind Hagrid's hut – the pirate ship and the castle. Unnoticed, Harry had watched Karkaroff escort Krum and two other students back to the ship a few minutes ago, their heads bent, whispers hissing across the stones. He used to love this time of day; early Sunday mornings had been his lonely refuge when too much weighed down Harry's heart. He frowned down at the spelled walls surrounding what used to be the Quidditch pitch and the huge trees that had been grown up to keep students from sneaking a peek to check out the tournament preparations. Faint shouts carried through the cold morning air. The sounds of hammers and saws. The prickle of magic, sparks rising above the wards made it clear that Hogwarts was crawling with people. Students, ministry officials, workmen, creature wranglers, and curse breakers, there was no corner safe for Harry's musings. And certainly, no hidden paths that would be safe for Sirius.
He closed his eyes, resting his head on his bent knees, Moody's voice echoing in his memory, lecturing him about constant vigilance. "Sorry, professor," he murmured. Exhaustion blurred Harry's thinking, turning his rigid fear for Sirius, his frustration with McGonagall, and his resentment of the general Gryffindor excitement about the tournament into dread. Harry hadn't slept well since Moody's Imperius Curses and McGonagall's insults. He hadn't been able to focus on his studies, either, not with all the chatter in the Common Room, or the way Hermione kept shooting concerned glances in his direction.
It was too much. Too much change, too much upheaval. Harry felt like his spirit was worn thin, exposing every single nerve ending to the slightest breath of wind or casual remark. He pressed his forehead against his knees, wishing the pain would cut through the fog and offer him some answers. Why should this year be any different than the past three? Why did it feel so wrong? And why did he feel so unsettled?
Harry's past experiences included stress, fear, terror, despair - the whole run of emotions. This year, his feelings were volatile, low embers burning constantly in his gut that took only one tiny spark to set off. He'd found his wand in his hand after unexpected noises too many times. A grim sense of doom had settled across his spirit, his dreams and those odd periods of cold, when his mind spun into fast-forward and threw up explanations and reasoning that seemed foreign both worrying at him. Why had he rushed to refuse Moody's training, angry and suspicious? Harry had to learn – he had to know more spells, more magic, more about what weapons Voldemort and his followers could use against him. And, just as concerning, why had he turned his back on Professor McGonagall, practically accusing her of not doing her job?
He could tell that Ron and Hermione were confused, too. They were his staunchest supporters, good friends, always willing to walk into the traps and puzzles that only Harry could untangle, apparently. But lately, Ron had drifted off to join in Fred and George's frantic preparations for the tournament, resentfully dodging their teasing about his crush on Viktor Krum. Thankfully, Hermione was even less interested in the tournament than he was, but concern about losing points in Moody's classes for their refusal to cooperate has making her testy and anxious. She'd fallen back on poking and prodding at Harry to study, to do his homework. To concentrate on actual schooling while he was at school. Studying was a comfort to Hermione, losing herself in knowledge, in poring over words and information. She'd never understand that it wasn't like that for Harry.
Blowing out a sigh, Harry opened his eyes and propped up his chin, teeth grinding. He wanted to visit Hagrid. To vent. To tell his first wizarding friend all about it. To lay it out, without logic or reason or organization, yell, scream, cry, whatever. Hagrid wouldn't judge. He'd make tea and offer Harry a boulder-sized, inedible rock cake and tell Harry a story about his parents. But Hagrid was busy. Busy with the tournament, with the Beauxbatons' massive horses. Harry lifted his gaze to the horizon. And there was Karkaroff, striding up the hill from the lake. Harry shivered. He wouldn't want to meet the Durmstrang headmaster alone, no matter how chummy he seemed with Dumbledore.
There was another option. One that Harry had mulled over all last night in his bed. Behind his drawn bed-curtains, the idea had come to Harry with a rush of embarrassment. But, once he'd considered it, the thought wouldn't leave him alone. Mrs. Weasley. Ron's mum had insisted again, just as they got into their taxis to head to the train station, that he could write her anytime. That she would love to get his letters, to help him puzzle things out. This summer, she'd done more than any other adult had; she'd listened, she'd explained some of the history of the Death Eaters and other followers of Voldemort. She'd talked to Harry like he deserved to know, like he'd earned the right for explanations.
It was more than Dumbledore had ever done. Harry found that his head was shaking back and forth, his chin drilling into his knee. Sure, he'd thought of taking his worries to the headmaster. Thought that, maybe, maybe this time, Dumbledore would tell Harry what to do. But McGonagall's nasty speech had echoed, growing louder and louder in his memory, telling Harry that, if he went to the headmaster, he'd be the whining, complaining little snot that McGonagall thought he was. Prince Potter, looking for special treatment, insisting that life be fair and that he deserved some kind of higher standing than all the rest of Hogwarts' students. Access to the very busy and important headmaster with every little twinge. Permanent admission to Dumbledore's office - inside access to the great wizard's thoughts and advice.
Finally, Harry had drawn open his bed curtains, and set his feet on the floor, headed towards pen and ink to ask Mrs. Weasley's advice. In the next bed, Ron had murmured in his sleep and flopped onto his side, one arm hanging over the side. Harry froze. What would Ron say if Harry started up a correspondence with his mother? What would the twins say? Or Ginny?
"No – get off –" Ron mumbled, brushing at his bedclothes. "Spiders…"
"No spiders, Ron," Harry had whispered, leaning over the gap between the beds. "Spiders are gone. It's just butterflies."
His friend had relaxed back into sleep, smiling. "Butterflies."
Harry drew in a deep breath. Ron's friendship was just like that. Harry dragged Ron into dank dungeons, secret tunnels, or spider-infested woods and Ron followed. He sat on a chess horse and sacrificed himself so that Harry and Hermione would be safe to go on. He'd been stuck guarding Lockhart with a finicky wand and had nearly been buried alive. And then last year he'd had his leg broken by Padfoot, dragged off to the Shrieking Shack without any clue what was going on or whether he was going to live or die. Even Ron's mother's Howler she'd sent after the car incident had probably been Harry's fault. But at a word from Harry, Ron would do it all over again, put himself in danger, take on all the spiders in the world, believing Harry that there would be butterflies at the end.
He'd leaned back against his pillows. He couldn't go behind Ron's back; he couldn't write to his mum for advice without asking Ron about it first. Keeping secrets from Ron – that wouldn't be fair. Ron hadn't hesitated to come with Harry after Moody's class, to tell McGonagall about the Imperius Curse, and Ron had backed him up after McGonagall had ripped into him, urging Harry to eat, to brush off the professor's nasty attitude. Ignoring his churning worries and his gurgling stomach, Harry had made his choice, watching his friend sleep this morning: he'd talk to Ron at breakfast, maybe check with the twins, too. And then, if they said it was okay, he'd write to Mrs. Weasley.
Decision made – and sleep not an option – Harry had sneaked from his bed to shower and change. At least, he'd thought, he could get some fresh air and away from his stifling, circling thoughts. He snorted into his bent knees, huddled against the chill in the courtyard. Yeah, that had worked out well.
"Sneaking off on your own, Potter? How very in character."
The snide comment slid across Harry's reddened cheeks like a slap. Naturally, he sighed to himself. The person to find him here would have to be Snape. Harry couldn't think of anyone he'd rather see less.
Well, maybe McGonagall.
"Sir?" He raised his gaze to Snape's flinty black stare and then up and over the man's shoulder. Karkaroff had reached the edge of the courtyard and halted, watching them.
Snape, wand in hand, clasped his hands together before him. "How long have you been traipsing around the grounds, Potter? Student curfew has been set for a reason. Or course, you are much too important to bother about that, aren't you?" Snape's words grew slow and even, as if the man's thoughts were working out a problem. "Naturally, so early on Sunday, you nearly have the grounds to yourself, don't you?"
Harry grunted. "If you don't count all the extra ministry people and workmen and Headmaster Karkaroff over there and all the other wizards getting ready for Halloween night. Sir." He winced. Halloween was not a night Harry ever wanted to celebrate.
Snape hummed under his breath. "Indeed. You'll have to find another way to sneak out for your … private conversations," he drawled. "Of course, you have quite a bit of practice at that."
"Private –" Harry's mouth snapped shut as he caught on. This wasn't the first time Harry had come upon Snape unexpectedly. Late this week he'd noticed it - the long-nosed potions' teacher seemed to be there every time he turned around. In random hallways. Near the Gryffindor tower entrance. Friday, Snape had been passing Moody's classroom when Harry's class had let out – which was odd since Harry was sure the Ravenclaw NEWT students had a potions class at the same time. And Snape had shown up whenever Harry – alone or with company – had headed outside.
"Do you," Harry flicked a glance towards Karkaroff, knowing how easily sound echoed in the empty courtyard, "do you really think I'd risk that, sir? Risk any 'private conversations' being overheard? I wouldn't trust a dog to be safe this close to Hogwarts these days." His eyes narrowed. "Is that what you're doing? Following me around, nosing into my business –"
"Have a care how you speak with me, Potter, unless you find it attractive to attend a term's worth of detentions in my laboratory." A slick smile curved across Snape's face. "Hindering your penchant for wandering close to danger is not my idea, I assure you. If, however," he straightened, tugging on the cuffs of his robes and strafing the courtyard with his dark gaze, "I come across any dangerous … creatures straying too close to my students, I have a responsibility to make sure they have no opportunity for mischief."
Heart thumping, Harry stood. Snape hated Sirius. He'd turn him over to the ministry in a heartbeat. A sick dread rose from his gut - he was ready argue, to match the snide man, taunt for taunt, risking as many detentions as Snape could stand when a cooling breeze swept across his skin. No, it wasn't a breeze. It didn't come from outside at all. Teeth clenched, Harry fought the strange sensation of calm, of mentally stepping back from the brink of explosion. He'd rather hex Snape than … Harry's thoughts shuffled into order, packed into straight rows and columns. He played Snape's words over again, pricking the ugly tones to drain away the man's obvious hatred.
Snape was always aware of his surroundings; his narrow eyes never missed a student trying to cheat or Malfoy, for example, flinging extra ingredients into Harry's cauldron. He must know that Karkaroff was watching, listening. Whispers Harry didn't remember hearing lined up in order – Durmstrang was dedicated to the Dark Arts. Karkaroff had been a Death Eater. They couldn't be trusted. Was Snape trying to send Harry a message?
Images from the past hurried forward. First year. Quidditch. Snape murmuring not curses, but counter spells as Harry's broom bucked and twisted beneath him. Volunteering to referee the next match, not out of a need to bring Gryffindor down, but to protect him. Confronting Quirrell in the hallway. Last year, Snape had thrown himself between Harry and his friends and an out-of-control werewolf.
Harry felt himself turning to stare accusingly at the Durmstrang headmaster. "Professor Karkaroff. Can we help you?" His tone was icy, politeness a mask pulled down over his turbulent thoughts.
"No, no." The man smiled, showing his crooked, yellow teeth. He trudged forward. "I did not want to interrupt my old friend." He eyed Snape speculatively. "You always had a way with your students, Severus."
"Igor," Snape answered, dry and distant. "I believe Albus is looking for you." He waited, head tilted in the direction of the castle.
"Of course. Excuse me." Karkaroff had no choice but to hurry away.
Snape turned back to face him, but Harry spoke first, his insights too sharp to hold back. "You've been watching me – protecting me. Since the beginning. Since I came to Hogwarts. Someone asked you to do that. Dumbledore, I'd guess." It was obvious. Inarguable.
Snape frowned, shifting back a step. "Do not twist my words –"
"I'm not." Harry's mind ticked over the hints and clues, drifting away from his usual disgust at Snape's attitude, his continual belittling remarks and utter joy when Malfoy tainted Harry's potions. "You hate me, have since you laid eyes on me. So only someone as powerful as the headmaster could convince you to protect me. Even now, you'd love to catch Sir – Padfoot – you clearly hate him, too, but that's not why you're following me."
"For the last time, I am not following you, Potter. Do try to keep that oversized ego in check."
Harry shook his head, lips pressed tight.
"I do," Snape added, the words strained, "have a message for you."
"A message?" Who would give Snape a message for Harry?
A scroll appeared, gripped between Snape's thumb and forefinger as if it was slimy, or electrified, or otherwise nasty. He dropped it into Harry's outstretched hand. When Harry hesitated, flicking a suspicious glance between the scroll and Snape, the Potions teacher huffed and turned to the side, arms crossed, very obviously staring into the distance and not over Harry's shoulder.
"Mister Potter," the note began, in Professor McGonagall's loopy handwriting. "I would like to make my apology to you in person, but could not wait until our schedules allowed us to meet. Although there is a compelling explanation for my horrible behavior towards you this week, I am sorry to have so badly reacted to your concerns. There is no excuse for such language or attitude on my behalf. I hope to win back your trust, at least a little, by the enclosed."
A thick card fell from the lower curve of the parchment, stamped and sealed with McGonagall's Deputy Headmistress seal. It read, Any and all Gryffindors who do not wish to take part in Professor Alastor Moody's practical application of dark curses, are hereby exempted. See Deputy Headmistress McGonagall for further explanation.
Clutching the 'get out of curse class free' card, Harry went back to the scroll.
"Please come to see me Thursday, at eight o'clock. I will have much more to tell you by then. Until then, please be careful. Keep close to your friends. Something is decidedly wrong here at Hogwarts. As always, your devoted Head of House, Minerva McGonagall."
"I've felt it, too." Harry ignored the warmth uncurling the knots in his twisted and churning stomach, McGonagall's words of support working with the cold chill to back down his anger. "I knew something was wrong." He shook his head. "This tournament – Moody – the World Cup - something is off." His gaze shifted to the upheaval on the grounds, the churned landscape. "Everyone is so excited, but …" He blinked and turned back to his startled teacher. "The last time I got to attend an important tournament, Death Eaters showed up."
Snape's eyes were slits beneath his crumpled brow. "And that, of course, has everything to do with you, you assume?"
Last year, first year – any other time Snape would snarl insults, Harry would have been angry, spitting fury, earning himself and his friends detentions and lectures for insubordination, for disrespect. This time Snape's question might have been edged around with a hint of contempt, but Harry heard the concern beneath it. The real question at the heart of Snape's comment.
"Yes," Harry answered calmly, eyes closed as the image of the Dark Mark glowed against the night sky in his memory. "That has been my experience."
"Look at me, Potter," Snape insisted, his dark tone bearing no room for refusal.
Harry refused. He tucked the scroll into his pocket and brushed dust and gravel from the back of his cloak as he turned away. "Thank you for bringing Professor McGonagall's note, sir, but I'm late for breakfast Please excuse me."
A rough hand clamped around Harry's shoulder, strong fingers like talons digging into his skin. Harry froze. His wand dropped into his hand.
"Potter – foolish boy. Turn around. Look at me," Snape hissed.
Harry's spine straightened, his chin lifting in what he'd describe as a regal tilt if he'd been watching the scene unfold. A surge of defiance, of disbelief at Snape's utter impudence at laying an angry hand on Harry, of daring to speak to him in that way rushed through him. Harry's response was unthinking and immediate, just like in Moody's classroom. A quick flick of his wrist sent a protective shield up from his wand and out along his skin like an expanding bubble. When it reached his shoulder, Snape's hand snapped backwards, leaving bruises on Harry's skin from the man's callused fingertips.
"Do not touch me again," Harry warned. He marched towards the castle entrance without looking back, his cloak billowing around his small figure as if he stood six feet tall. Cold steel formed along his backbone, disgust wrestling with pride in his spirit.
If Snape could have seen Harry's eyes, he would have fallen backwards in fear. For a single moment, they glowed red.
Sirius came out of the meditative trance between one breath and the next. He kept his eyes closed, his body relaxed, trying to quell the feeling of satisfaction that threatened to overwhelm his control. Finally. Finally, he'd achieved it. The healer had broken through his defensiveness, led him past his wounds and scabs, and into a calm place at the center of his being. Here, Sirius could heal. Here, he could believe, at least for small moments, that he could be whole. Well.
"Deep breath in," Healer Ischel murmured. "Hold. And out. One more time. Feel your chest expand to its limits, trust your lungs to fill, your heart to move the flow around your systems. Trust. Expect wholeness. Embrace life. And out."
Sirius couldn't help the smile, the bubble of laughter that burst out with his breath. He opened his eyes to find a matching smile on his healer's face. "Well done, you," he stated. "Thank you."
If she had eyebrows, Ischel would have raised them. "It's you who have done well, my friend. Your levels have returned to normal. But this is a long journey. A lifelong study of yourself. Eight weeks is not long enough for true healing."
"I know. Or, at least, I’m learning that." Sirius placed his hands on the floor on either side of him, not quite ready to stand yet. "I can never repay you for your kindness. For putting off your other clients to follow me here."
The healer tipped her head. "How could I do other? You put yourself in my hands on the island. My oath directed me to finish what we had begun there."
"Still, I'm very grateful."
"As am I. Grateful to the universe, to magic, for the opportunity to set your soul at ease. To right a great wrong."
Sirius laughed again. "You just cannot accept my thanks, can you?"
Ischel pressed her lips together. "I accept on behalf of the Light." A moment later, she threw back her head and laughed, long and deep. "So very solemn and professional, am I not?"
Sirius laughed with her. When they'd both calmed down, he shook his head. "That felt good." He touched his chest. "It's been a long time."
"More laughter. More Light. More love." Ischel rose to her feet, settling her long loose skirt to swirl around her bare feet. The delicate ornaments on her wrists and ankles tinkled as she shuffled forward to offer Sirius a hand up. "All these heal."
He let her haul him to his feet but kept her hand caught between his. "If you stay here much longer, we're going to have to find you some shoes. And a coat." He leaned close. "Scotland. In winter. Brrr."
She made a flippant noise. "I travel by Floo. Use owl-order for my needs. Shoes and sleeves and coats feel like a cage." She looked Sirius up and down in his thin summer robes. "You are good host, keeping your home too warm for the thin blood of European wizards to make a guest comfortable. I survive."
"It's my pleasure." Sirius raised her hand and kissed her knuckles. "My few guests have gotten used to it. And, frankly, if it forces most of them to keep their visits short, that's a plus." Remus. Molly. Aberforth. Minerva. The facts of Sirius' arrival in Hogsmeade and his purchase of a small estate on the outskirts of the village had been kept to a minimum of allies. Soon, that number would need to expand. Soon, Sirius would have to take further measures to ensure the safety of those inside. Soon, he'd have to cast a Fidelius Charm. Sirius closed his eyes for a second and let that truth sink deep, past barriers, bad memories, and the scars of his soul's wounds. First and foremost, came the ritual. The ritual renewal of oaths that would reset the foundation of his being. Sirius must renew his oaths to the Light.
Ischel's hand gripped his tightly. "I stand ready when you are. Only then," she insisted.
"I know." He opened his eyes and smiled at her. "But it has to be done. Before Harry comes here, it has to be done."
Ischel nodded, drifting around Sirius' study to take her usual seat beside the fire. "Necessity drives, it is true. Especially when a child must be protected. But," she added, "it must be remembered that healing the self is not some selfishness, some greediness of the spirit. It is the first necessary thing before healing others."
That realization was still a struggle for Sirius. It hadn't been in his nature to do anything but throw himself into his friends', his family's battles. To disregard his own state if there was danger or difficulty threatening. Ischel had begun teaching him that, perhaps, he could add himself to the list of those people he should protect at all costs. And, maybe, he should not be at the bottom of the list.
He paced his usual route around the room, letting one hand trail along nearly empty bookshelves and drift across the backs of mismatched chairs left by the previous occupants. Sirius had few of his own possessions after twelve years in prison. Few things could hold a place in his heart anymore. People, well, that was different. If he had his way, his closest friends would all live within arms-length of him. Especially Harry.
Molly and Remus' news about Harry's situation had nearly destroyed all the progress Ischel had made. Sirius' first reaction had been to storm Hogwarts and demand his godson's removal to St. Mungo's immediately. It had been Minerva's arrival with her own disturbing story that had made him think twice. He still wanted Harry out of there. Under this roof or far away, hidden by the strongest magic Sirius could put his hands on. But, Minerva was right – if Dumbledore knew, if he truly did understand what was happening with Harry and had it under control, would Sirius' involvement put Harry at even more risk? The fact that Minerva's mind had been tampered with had added another layer to the puzzle. Who would want to turn Harry's head of house against him? What could the purpose behind that be? Without better understanding of the risks and powers ranged against Harry, any action could make the situation worse.
He came to a stop behind the desk Minerva had given him. It had been her great-grandfather's. Sirius smiled to himself, tracing the scars and stains along its surface. She'd had it stored at Hogwarts for years, along with a few other furnishings that now lived at Sirius' home. Couldn't force herself to get rid of her family's things when her belongings outgrew her home near Glasgow. Her memories of a carefree childhood had been locked inside these things, and she was pleased to see them in use again.
Sirius took in the small group of objects he'd placed on the desk, close to hand. Reminders of those who had a place in his heart, who'd touched his soul – who wanted him to heal. Friends. Family. Two things he'd believed he'd never have again. He snorted and shook his head. Even Snape had left a token there.
Remus had brought him an ornately decorated box, Russian, Sirius knew, that held James Potter's snitch, the one he'd caught in the final game of the House Cup Championship their last year at Hogwarts. Remus had found it in the wreckage at Godric's Hollow and had taken it with him when he fled to the continent. He'd found the charmed box in a rundown trinket store in old St. Petersburg. All these years Remus had kept it safe and then he'd left it here for Sirius without saying a word, letting Sirius find it and allow his tears to fall in private.
Next to it, Minerva had propped a three-paneled photo frame. The central photo showed Sirius holding a sleeping Harry, Lily and James on either side. Even then, with the baby barely 24 hours hold, Sirius had been smitten – his love and devotion sparkling in his eyes. On either side, Minerva had placed a more recent picture of Harry. On the right, Harry posed with his two friends, Ron and Hermione, arms wrapped around each other, at the end of their first year at Hogwarts. On the left, she'd caught Harry and Remus during one of their study sessions last year. Harry stood ready, wand extended, his expression determined as he faced the boggart chest. So much of his father and mother blazed from Harry's being in that moment – James' stubbornness in every line of his body, and Lily's poise and fearlessness shining from his eyes. In the background Remus waited, excitement and expectation lighting up his features as Sirius had rarely see him.
The potions' case Snape had sent with Minerva was plain brown leather, utilitarian, without any shine or embellishment – much like the man himself. In it, Sirius had found a range of nutrition and healing potions, made specifically for Sirius. Snape had linked it to his private, heavily warded laboratory at Hogwarts, so that he could replenish the bottles as Sirius emptied them. It was an amazing gift, especially when one considered the history between the two men. Snape still could not bring himself to speak civilly to Sirius, and Sirius had to force himself to call the potions' master by his correct name instead of the childish label the marauders had invented. He credited his own manners with Ischel's healing and Snape's with his Order vows.
The last item took pride of place in the center of the blotter and both repelled and attracted Sirius. Old yew wood, darkish brown with a purple hue, twelve inches. Hard yet amazingly flexible. Its core was made of a single raven feather. Sirius swallowed, letting his hand drift to a fingers-breadth above the wand. His own wand had been broken, destroyed, when he'd been sent to Azkaban. This one had been handed over to him by Aberforth the night Sirius met with Molly and Remus at The Hog's Head. Aberforth, gruff and curt as always, had taken a warded mahogany box he'd kept on his mantlepiece, brushed off the dust, and lifted the lid. The wand had called to Sirius at once, glowing as he approached it, as if anxious to be out and useful again after a sentence much longer than Sirius'. As of yet, Sirius had not been able to bring himself to touch it.
"This was my father's," Aberforth had stated. "The ministry lackeys never found it when he went to Azkaban." Holding the open box against his chest, Ab met Sirius' gaze. "He was a powerful wizard, dedicated to the Light. A man with enormous control. He lectured me and Al many times about power, about its seductive nature, how power can corrupt the soul. He loved my mum dearly, taught us well, but Ariana was the jewel of his eye. I never envied that – neither did Albus. But, when she was attacked, something broke inside him and a well of power, uncontrollable and destructive was released from its slumber." Aberforth tilted his head in Sirius' direction. "I believe you'd be a good match to take over his wand. To master it."
Sirius had been touched and alarmed by Aberforth's trust. He could feel the last few spells Percival Dumbledore had cast through the wand still vibrating along the length of its core. Dark spells, designed to hurt and maim. Seductive, indeed. It was a princely gift, a trust Aberforth did not give lightly. Sirius had frowned, uncertain as to what Ab had been trying to say to him.
Remus had stepped in, the voice of reason, as always. "You've touched darkness, Sirius. Been forced to keep your soul safe from some of the worst dark creatures - Dementors - for twelve long years. You've been a dedicated warrior, fighting for the Light, targeted by evil. By your own family. By Peter. Malfoy. Carrow. And you've survived." Remus shook his head slowly back and forth. "You're far from perfect, my friend, and, for that reason, you understand control more than most."
"Understand it, but have rarely embraced it," Molly had added. Her expression considering, she'd crossed her arms and jerked her chin towards Aberforth. "I'm not sure you should take this, but I am sure that, whatever you decide, your healing must come first."
"Right again, Molly," Sirius murmured, his thoughts returning to the present. Controlled had never been a word used to describe Sirius. More like impulsive, instinctual, impetuous, thoughtless, reckless. Irresponsible.
"Your thoughts are dark."
He tore his gaze from the wand to Ischel's wide, honest face. "It's raven feather."
She rose from her seat. "The core? Yes, I am aware."
"Not just a normal raven, though." Sirius frowned, allowing the wand's power to penetrate further past the outer layer of his awareness.
"Of course not. The wand maker would not use such a common thing." Ischel stepped to the other side of the desk, facing Sirius across the wand's fierce presence. "Which bird allowed its feather to be used for this wand?" She shrugged. "Does it matter? What matters is the symbology, yes?" She waved her hand above Sirius', still poised over the wand. "Intelligent. Protective. Teachers – ravens are all these things. Whether this one was Noah's, finding safety, or if it guarded holy men, or served Odin as eyes and ears, it is here now. On these islands. Where it must always stay. Where it will be called upon to protect. Do you feel it?"
"I do." Sirius tightened his jaw. "I’m almost ready." Almost ready to take it up. To master the lingering darkness within the wand's raven core. "I'll call Remus. It's time for me to retake my vows." Time for Sirius to step back into life, to stand up to the dark as he once had. To stand up for Harry.
Ischel breathed out a sigh. "Yes, good. Call your friends. Tonight we will walk forward into your future, my good friend. Into Light. Into your call."
HP HP HP HP HP
They gathered in the study at nine. Friday night at Hogwarts usually came with the understanding that the teachers and staff were free of their student responsibilities – at least for the few hours between dinner and bed. Only the most dedicated – or desperate – students felt the need to seek out help and advice on Friday evenings. Most teachers, Sirius knew, took the opportunity to visit The Three Broomsticks or another favorite pub, to pursue private interests or even, as amazing as the knowledge of teachers' personal lives would be to students, go out on a date. Everyone who knew Minerva understood that interrupting her Friday night spa treatment would be met with stern words and some reactionary cursing.
Sirius was grateful that his friends had all put their personal needs aside tonight. He paused in the doorway, a shiver rippling down his bare arms. Cleansed inside and out, he was dressed as a new disciple, in a plain, sleeveless white tunic and pants, his feet bare and his hair loose against his shoulders. The small room smelled of sage and burnt briars, cleansing herbs with more sense-memory than magical use. Sirius' mind was quiet, disengaged, as he regarded those who had gathered here to help him. He glanced towards the black-robed wizard standing silently at the desk, frowning down at Percival Dumbledore's wand. Even Snape had agreed to come, to assist with the ritual.
"That dreadful tournament begins on Monday night." Molly was shaking her head, frowning, as she shared her growing concerns with Minerva, across the room. "It's all Percy can talk about when he does bother to come home. Oh, I know the students must be excited, but, frankly, I remember hearing about all the horrors in the past tournaments that the ministry decided were acceptable to throw at children. And the deaths. What we don't need right now are more complications, more access to our children. Not after the events at the Cup."
"Considering what has already gone on at Hogwarts, I couldn't agree more." Minerva nodded towards Snape. "Severus and I are on guard, as are Filius and Pomona. But I can't help feeling that we're not doing enough. We've raised the red flag, told them about the interference with my mind and Harry's odd change in nature, but," she clasped her hands together, "I'm happy that Sirius is taking steps to make himself available to his godson, and that so many of the other members of the Order have answered our calls. Has anyone heard from Mundungus?"
Snape snorted and tore himself away from his study of the wand to join them. "Not that he'd be greatly missed if he did not attend the Order meeting we've set for next Friday." He raised one eyebrow. "I'm more concerned about Albus."
"Keeping him the dark, you mean? Until it's too late for him to dismiss our concerns?" Minerva smirked. "I, for one, am enjoying it immensely."
From his lonely vantage point at the edge of the room, Sirius continued to encourage his shallow meditative state, allowing the others' voices and concerns to wash over him without response. He watched as Ischel directed Remus and Shacklebolt as they finished sketching the ritual runes in fiery images on the floor, setting each wizard or witch's position within the square. Kingsley's casting was easy; his friendship with Ischel had been a surprise, but, watching the two moving through the ritual preparations Sirius could see that they had done this before. Their accents were similar, he realized, their heads, both shaved of all hair, bending seamlessly to their work. The casual touches and anticipatory movements suggested a deep connection. Coven members, perhaps. The knowledge settled deep, waiting for another moment for thought and discussion. It didn't matter now. Nothing mattered but Sirius' devotion to the Light.
Remus stepped away from the center and set his taper into the last of the four head-high candlesticks set at each point of the square. He glanced up and caught Sirius' eye. "We're ready."
Sirius waited as the others took their places. Remus, his closest friend, stood solidly at North, acting as the lodestone of his soul and oath. At South, Ischel planted herself before her candlestick, feet wide and arms held at her sides, hands open, prepared.
At East, Minerva stepped into place, taking up the ritual dagger and holding it across her palms, the sleeves of her robes rolled up past her elbows. Protector, loyal guardian of Light, she would demand Sirius' oaths be soaked with blood.
West, the shadowed point, veiled and watchful was taken by Snape. It was the only point of the square that the former Death Eater could hold, the only position that did not demand a soul unclouded by any dark intent. Even this, Sirius acknowledged with a grateful tilt of his head, would be difficult for Snape. Tiring. Painful. Only a true master of the art of Occlumency and Legilmency could hold the Western point.
Kingsley gestured Sirius to his side in the Center. Sirius walked forward, butterflies dancing in his empty stomach. He was ready, Ischel had assured him. He knew she was right, but the importance of this step, of retaking his vows, joining his magic to the Light, made him nervous. Lily and James' murders, Pettigrew's betrayal and Sirius' long imprisonment, barely holding onto sanity as he succumbed to the darkness of Azkaban, had left their marks. His bare feet made swishing sounds against the stone floor. As he passed over the runes and into the square, they glowed, reaching up to cushion his steps.
Molly, their Warden, passed behind him to close the wards, to make doubly sure that no spark of energy, no hint of their purpose could escape. Just before the wards dropped solidly behind him, Sirius heard her whisper.
Thank you all for your patience! Was away most of the week, will begin updating more regularly as we go forward! Thank you so much for all of your encouraging words, kudos, and bookmarks! PS. Ravens have a special mythology in Britain.
Kingsley raised his wand and began chanting the ancient words that would call the attention of the Light. Sirius had heard them before, each time he had stood as one point of the compass for another's vows. Right now, he could only think of the first time he'd stood in the Center, James' father at his side. James' family had welcomed Sirius, had sponsored him, a child of one of the darkest houses in the wizarding world, and had sealed Sirius' vows to the Light on his sixteenth birthday, with James grinning from his place in the North. With another lurch of his gut, Sirius remembered the last time he'd heard the opening words, spoken by Albus at Snape's oath-taking. It had been a much grimmer and bloodier occasion.
Sirius steadied himself as the words soaked in through his skin, in through his open eyes and ears, burrowing down through layers of bone and tissue to the very core of his being. The words became shards of light and drove into his soul, sharp spears, seeking out any evil purpose, any lie or deceit in Sirius' motivations. His head thrown back, all Sirius could do was stand while he was tested and tried. At his first oath-taking, this seeking had been warm and comforting, over too quickly. During Snape's, the man had shaken and bled and screamed for hours as the Light tried his sins. This time, Sirius welcomed the Light, willing it to destroy any last strongholds of darkness, to cleanse him. To prove him.
Behind him, he heard Ischel sigh as she caught the light energy flowing out from his back, still pristine after its journey through Sirius' soul, unmarred by darkness. "Spotless," she breathed.
"Welcome, disciple." Kingsley bent his head.
After long moments, Sirius' awareness rose to the surface. His breathing slowed back to normal, his heart beating steady and strong. He blinked away tears and caught Remus doing the same thing, relief shining behind the moisture. Sirius nodded, ready to continue.
"Light's son, we will receive your pledge. Pledge your soul, magic and honor," Kingsley recited, his voice low and solemn." Speak your vows so that all can hear, those here with you now, those who came before, and those who will carry the Light into the future. Speak and be recognized."
Sirius faced North and placed his open hand on Remus chest, over his heart. "Brother and friend, I pledge my heart to the Light, to loyalty, truth, and purpose. I pledge to raise others up, help the weak, and sow the seeds of life and honor. Accept now this pledge."
Remus flattened his hand against Sirius' chest. "Brother and friend, heart to heart I accept your pledge and speed it towards the Light."
Sirius' heart thumped. An image appeared at Remus' side – a glowing figure, light dripping down in beads that built up into a beloved form. James Potter, young and strong, eager for his best friend to join his family. James grinned at him as his figure coalesced, solid and strong for one second before the beads of light dissolved with a muted chiming sound.
"Welcome back, Padfoot."
Tears washed down Sirius' face.
"Past," Kingsley intoned, his deep voice trembling with emotion.
Swallowing hard, Sirius turned to face East and saw matching tears on Minerva's face. He took the dagger from her trembling hands and made a clean slice across his bare forearm. "Sister and teacher, I pledge my blood to the Light. I offer a life of sacrifice, of duties sought and faithful promises kept, no matter if my blood, my life are forfeit. Accept now this pledge."
Minerva bowed and took the dagger. She laid the blooded edge against her own arm and made a matching cut. "Brother and student, blood to blood, I accept your pledge and send it flowing towards the Light."
Around and behind Minerva, the candles' smoke rippled, drifting into the familiar shape of Hogwarts. As soon as the castle formed, it fell apart and reformed into the inside of the Gryffindor Common Room. Harry and his friends were crowded around the fire, doing homework. At Sirius' indrawn breath, Harry looked up as if he'd heard, green eyes seeking for Sirius'. As soon as their gazes locked, the image dissolved back into smoke.
"Present," Kingsley announced.
Another turn brought Sirius face to face with Ischel at South. He reached for her hands and clasped them firmly, eager to finish what he'd started. "Sister and healer, I pledge my hands to the Light. Sweat and work, untiring and unbowed, I offer muscle and grit to do what I am able and beyond. Accept now this pledge."
"Brother, wounded one," she answered, "hand to hand, I accept your pledge and pass it on to the Light. Joined we are and joined we will be."
Unseen hands joined theirs, one after another. More and more presences crowded close, gripping, holding on, with Sirius and Ischel in the center. The press of a crowd built up around them, shoulders squeezed tight together, the air close with heaving breaths of many others until Sirius and Ischel could barely struggle to find footing and air. Finally, when Sirius had no more room to breathe, the presences began to fade, each hand gripping once more before drifting away, leaving behind the knowledge that Sirius was not alone. That he would never be alone.
Kingsley's voice cracked. "Future."
Sirius licked dry lips and shared one more moment with his healer before he finally turned West. Snape's black eyes pierced him through. There were no words to be spoken to the West, no verbal pledges, no whispered promises. Sirius laid his mind open and bare, all of his inner barriers released. 'Mind to mind' – he sent the thought out into the universe and Snape did not hesitate.
Snape's mind sped through Sirius' not like a blade or an axe, chopping and digging. It sped like a rushing river, uncontrollable, unquenchable, turning over every rock, finding the smallest chink in any internal armor. It swept along at breathtaking speed, washing away doubts, fears, excuses, self-pity, and childish grudges. Sirius could barely follow Snape's course through his thoughts and memories let alone try to direct or divert him.
Images and scenes popped up, some silent and static, some racing by so quickly that the dialogue and movement reached Sirius' awareness as afterthoughts.
Sirius' mother cursed him as he stood between her hexes and his sobbing brother. As Padfoot, Sirius herded a confused, snarling werewolf to the safety of the Shrieking Shack. His cousin Bellatrix screamed in rage as Sirius stole a victim from beneath her wand and Apparated away. Sirius took his Auror's Oath on bended knee. Duels flashed past, the eyes of dark wizards staring defiance even after death. Battles. Smoke. Blood. Scars. Alexander Chollis dropped dead at his side; throat slashed. Sirius stumbled on the bodies of a mother and two children, tortured to death by Voldemort.
The torrent rushed on, back through his life.
Beside the Black Lake, Sirius watched himself, puffed up with pride and teen-aged stupidity. At James' elbow, he pranked and bullied others, laughed too loud, threw nasty, cutting remarks, making girls – and boys – cry. Snape hung upside down, caught between their spells, helpless. The Slytherin stood, cut and bruised, before Dumbledore, after a near miss with Remus' werewolf form.
Sirius took a deep breath. 'Not perfect. Far from a perfect soldier of the Light,' he admitted. Regret and remorse swirled up into a black tempest that dragged the images away. Sirius knew he'd failed his calling more than once, and far more horrifically than he had in his immature and childish hatred.
His worst failure dumped Sirius at the Potter's home, screaming, shouting, bursting through the door with certain dread a weight in his stomach. Sirius dropped beside James' body, hot tears blurring his vision. A faint cry jerked him around as if he was a puppet and he half-crawled, half-hurdled up the stairs to Harry's bedroom. The child stood in his crib, his eyes wide, one thin line of blood dripping down his face.
Sirius tried to close his eyes against the memory. Snape's presence in his mind seemed to do the same, shuddering, trying to turn away, to man-handle the rush of images away from this moment. Neither was in control – the Light would not let them go. Not now. Not so close to the end.
Red hair fanned out like a pool of blood; Lily lay in a crumpled heap at the foot of the crib. Dead. Gone. Panting, his magic a great cloud of black sparks at the edge of his vision, Sirius stared down at her.
Harry's baby voice caught at Sirius' heart. He took a step towards the tiny arms reaching out to him, absently speaking calm to the new orphan. "It's okay. It'll be okay."
Another failure. He should have taken Harry. Guarded him. Held him close and protected him from any and all threats. Instead, in his memory, Sirius turned away. He'd heard Hagrid's sobs, his massive footsteps behind him.
"I've got to go, Harry. I'll find him, stop him, make him pay." Rage, thick and choking, swamped him, blackening his vision, casting out the Light and welcoming the darkness.
Facing Peter across the muggle street, Sirius would have cast the darkest curses, would have renounced his oaths and torn his own soul to pieces. But Peter was faster, he'd planned everything down to a single detached finger. And Sirius was left with a heap of muggle bodies and no will to live.
Shaking, held firmly around the shoulders by Kingsley's strong arm, Sirius felt Snape begin to withdraw. The river flowed backwards; its flood reversed to creep back to its source. Outward-looking eyes blinked once, twice, until Sirius could focus on the black-haired, pale-faced wizard at West. Snape's Occlumency protected him from any backwash of Sirius' mind into his, but his emotions were written plainly across his face. Despair. Sorrow. Guilt. Horror.
Sirius' own failure was reflected there.
"My sons, failure is not enough to snatch you from my side."
Sirius felt Kingsley stiffen, his wand half-raised in defense. Molly, visible just over Snape's shoulder outside the wards had stopped circling them, mouth open as if she meant to shout a warning. Snape snapped to attention, forcing his emotions down, to face this new threat.
Within the center of the square, another sparkling image rushed to take form. There was no gentle coalescing of light, no faint glimmer of power – this spirit took form with flame and heat and a thunderclap. The wizard was tall and broad, his brown hair curling down from a garland of silver oak leaves wound around his brow. In one hand, his wand blazed, in the other, a longsword gleamed. His eyes were fire and ice. His gaze burrowed beneath Sirius' sensitive skin as he stared. With one nod of his head, the wizard's spirit turned to spear Severus Snape with the same assessing gaze.
"Do you think I have not failed? That I did not allow my rage and jealousy to taint a kingdom? To hasten the greatest warrior of the Light towards his doom? And yet still I bear the Light's sword, still I claim my sons and send them forth to fight." The wizard snarled, lips pulled back from his teeth. "I laid claim to you both, Severus and Sirius, and have not yet opened my hand to let you go. Do not be foolish enough to believe your simple, human failures could tear you from my hold."
Merlin. By all that was holy, Merlin stood before them. The greatest wizard of these isles and many others had come to reclaim Sirius at his oath-taking. To reclaim them both.
Merlin took in all those ranged around the square. "My sons have chosen well. Chosen these other warriors to seal their souls. Here I charge you all - their sorrow and regret cannot be allowed to keep these two from their duty to the Light. The ritual is complete – it is past time to be done with words and chants and thoughts and time to be. To act. To fight." He raised well-muscled arms to lift wand and sword towards the sky. "Your enemy has taken my mantle. He pretends he carries my name and my blessing. I will have no part of this Riddle, this self-styled Lord. If permitted, I would reach out from my tomb and cast him from life for his arrogance."
The great wizard lowered his arms, his expression curling into one of great compassion. "My hands are tied. Not by his might, but by his ignorance. By his unknowing hold on my third son. Third and greatest. Though still a child, his is a greater mind than Severus' and a greater heart than Sirius'. It will be his choice that either destroys our enemy or sets him free to destroy the world."
"Save him. Show him. Teach him. Love him. It is my third son's oath, his choice, that will save. Or that will doom."
Merlin touched his wand to Severus' chest, the glow of its power enveloping him, wind beating back his robes and hair. "Severus, my son, teach him. Teach him discipline, to control his power, to gather the reins of his hurts and failures as you have done. I adjure you. You have pledged to the Light; will you bear this new burden?"
Dark eyes unmarked by shadows, Severus spoke. "I will."
The sword came to rest on Sirius' shoulder, its weight forcing Sirius to his knees. "Sirius, my son, love him. Fill him with the love of his father and mother, build on their foundation until he will never doubt it. I adjure you. You have pledged to the Light; will you bear this burden, old and new?"
Sirius felt his heart become whole, the wounds left by his failures sealed tight. "I will," he answered.
Wand and sword came together in a clash of magic and metal and wood. "The three sons of Merlin, Severus, Sirius, Harry, are so claimed. I send you out now, with power and love and will. To save these isles – or to doom them." Merlin's voice rang out, his image imploding, taking air and candle flames and the glow from the runes with him. "So mote it be."
Readers rock! Thank you again for your great comments, subscriptions, and kudos. We're halfway there!
It had been a strange week.
Sunday morning, Snape had delivered McGonagall's apology along with the disturbing realization that the man had been looking out for him for years. Talk about turning Harry's world upside-down. It hadn't turned Snape into some heroic figure in Harry's eyes – let's face it, nothing could do that – but the knowledge had taken root inside of Harry and set him thinking. Remembering. Snape had been nasty and cruel from day one, and Harry, as well as every other Gryffindor, hated and distrusted the man. Now, Thursday evening in the Gryffindor Common Room, Harry could not resolve the two facts. Snape hated him. Snape protected him. He shook his head and closed his Potions' book, rolling up the half-finished homework assignment.
Setting his bag where he'd collect it tomorrow morning, Harry knocked over a teetering pile of tiny knitted sweaters. Sunday afternoon, Harry and Hermione had discovered that Mr. Crouch's house-elf, Winky, was Dobby's best friend and had taken refuge in the Hogwarts' kitchen. This, of course – Harry rolled his eyes – sent Hermione off to research house elves' rights and start up a crazy cause called SPEW which absolutely no one but her thought was a good idea. Harry looked down at the huge orange cat that was winding its way around his ankles. Even Crookshanks had taken to grabbing the poorly knitted scarfs and hats that Hermione had been leaving around the Common Room and tearing them to pieces.
"Yep, she's gone balmy, mate," Harry whispered to the half-kneazle. He leaned down to scratch Crookshanks behind his ears. "Just don't eat the yarn. I don't think that will end well for you."
Rising, Harry checked around the Common Room. As if the arguments about elves' rights wasn't bad enough, the rest of the Gryffindors seemed to have lost their minds. Ever since Monday night, when Mr. Crouch unveiled the Goblet of Fire, every student had given up studies and games and talks of Quidditch and how much they missed it to huddle with Fred and George to try to figure out a way past Dumbledore's Age Line. Tonight was no different. Fred, George, Lee, Ron and Angelina sat before the fire, the rest of the Gryffindors huddled around them.
"No, Fred, Polyjuice takes an entire month to brew – you've got four days until Monday. Besides," Ron went on, "I'm not sure changing yourself into Snape would go well."
"He's definitely old enough," George answered. He suddenly frowned and narrowed his eyes at his little brother. "And how do you know how long it takes to brew Polyjuice?"
A smug smile played along Ron's face. "Wouldn't you like to know?"
"I still think it's our best bet." Fred shook his head, patting a tattered bag that lay between his feet. "And I'm not making the Polyjuice, you twit. Why go to all that trouble when you can just lift some from a scruffy, distracted professor?"
Ron's eyebrows tried to climb up into his hair. "You stole Polyjuice from Snape? Are you bat-shit?? He's going to kill you."
Fred grabbed Ron by the back of the neck and pulled him in close, hissing in his ear. Harry picked up the words 'shut it' 'giving us away' and 'not Snape' before he let Ron go and turned to Lee Jordan who was sitting on his other side.
"You still think an aging potion would do it?"
Lee was nodding, his gaze flicking between the Weasley brothers warily. "For the three of us. I mean, we're going to be seventeen in the spring. We'd only need to age ourselves a few months…"
"And you've brewed it before?"
"Me and my cousin," Lee replied with a grin. "Of course," his expression crumpled into a frown, "it didn't last. Long enough for us to get one bottle of firewhiskey from the barman at the Wizard's End, though. You've just got to step across the line – take a couple of seconds, at most."
"We'll keep the Polyjuice as a last resort, then. Gerd, I believe it's time to visit our private brewery." Fred waggled his eyebrows.
"Forge, I'm ready when you are."
"Hey!" Ron grabbed his brother by the elbow as he tried to rise. "I'm coming, too! I'll have to make the potion stronger, but I want to enter!"
Fred shoved Ron back into his seat as Angelina snickered. "You wouldn't stand a chance. A fourth year? No way."
"Oh, yeah? Well I've faced a lot more danger than any of you have. Tell 'em, Harry."
Harry had been on his way past, aiming for the portrait hole when Ron had spied him. "Uh –"
Ron jumped up as if he would latch on to Harry and drag him into the Weasley's craziness by his hair. "Tell them about all the traps and tricks I've helped you with. All the insane danger we've faced. If anyone could win this tournament, it's one of us, you and me – and Hermione if she wasn't going on about house elves." His eyes were wide and glittery, filled with imagined fame and glory and the promise of thousands of galleons of prize money. "You want to find a way to enter, don't you, Harry?"
Stunned, Ron stopped trying to haul Harry into the Weasley's circle and dropped his hand. "What'ya mean, 'no'?"
Harry really didn't want to talk about this. "I've got a meeting, Ron. With McGonagall – remember?" He took a step away. "I've got to go."
Ron shook his head. "But, Harry …"
Frustration rushed through Harry, heating his blood. "Ron. Think about it. Think about all the stuff you want me to tell your brothers about." He flipped a hand towards the others who had stopped arguing and were frowning up at him. "All the crazy shite you've faced just because you're my best friend. Giant man-eating spiders. A Grim breaking your leg. A werewolf attacking us. That concussion you got in first year playing a life-sized game of Wizards' Chess. The troll. Fluffy." Harry gestured, as if shoving all of those memories away with both hands. "As if that wasn't enough, I've faced worse. Dammit, Ron, I've faced Voldemort's wraith, I've killed a man with the touch of my hand. I was bitten by a basilisk and almost died."
"Well, brag much, Potter?" Lee Jordan looked Harry up and down with a mixture of disgust and approval.
Arrogant spoiled brat. Snape's voice rang in Harry's head. "No," he almost hissed, "I'm not. Don't you get it? I've gotten into trouble before by charging in when other people – adults, teachers, the stupid ministry – has tried to warn me off. When they've told me I'm just a kid and I should get help when I bloody well need it rather than racing off with Ron to tackle a bloody Mountain Troll." Fists clenched at his sides, Harry felt his magic rising. "All those things, they happened. And I lived. With Ron and Hermione's help and far more luck than I deserved. But I'm trying to do better this year."
"So," Harry wrestled his anger back from the surface, "why in Merlin's name would I want to volunteer for that kind of danger again? They're calling it a game, Ron, but you," he spun towards his friend, pointed his finger and jammed it into Ron's chest, knocking him off balance, "you know better. Or you should. I don't find being targeted for pain and death very much fun. And neither did you at the time."
Silence dropped over the chattering Common Room as if it had been drenched in cold water. Fred was the first to rise, to face Harry, to put a hand on his shoulder.
"Mate, you should try to be a little more enthusiastic. Seriously," he pumped his fist, "tell us how you really feel. And that little tap to Ronnie's chest – I mean, come on, Ginny did better when she was two."
Rage fought with Harry's urge to laugh in Fred's face. He swallowed a shout, trembling. It was the light behind Fred's eyes that shook some sense back into him. The quick shake Fred gave his shoulder. Ron's crestfallen expression at his brother's side.
The emotion drained away. "Yeah. Good advice, Fred. I'll try to work up a bigger head of steam next time Ron asks me a simple question." He smiled. "I don't know if you've guessed, but no, I don't want to enter the tournament, thanks."
Fred drew back in mock-surprise. "No!? I'm shocked I tell you. Surprised. Dazed. Shaken. Stunned." He turned back to his brothers and took his seat. "Outraged. Knocked for six…"
George leaped on him, hands clamped tightly to Fred's mouth to try to smother the continuing litany of synonyms. As the rest of the Gryffindors egged on the twins' fight, Ron walked the few steps to the portrait hole at Harry's side.
"Sorry. I didn't think –"
"Ron." Harry rolled his eyes. "Considering the stupid ideas and risks I've pulled you into over the past three years, it's fine. I won't blame you if you want to try to enter. But I will think you're not right in the head."
Ron laughed. "You've known that for years, mate."
The warmth of his unshakable friendship with Ron and his brothers kept Harry smiling until he'd climbed down three flights of stairs towards his goal. The Weasleys had all been happy to hear that Harry wanted to write to their mum – if a little confused. Harry hadn't quite got up the nerve yet, but it was nice to know they wouldn't make a fuss. His steps slowed as he reached the corridor that led to McGonagall's private rooms. He hadn't been dreading this meeting – not since he'd received her note on Sunday morning – but, still. How could she explain why she'd been so dismissive of Harry's concerns? Why she'd insulted him so thoroughly just a week ago? Why was Mrs. Weasley the only one who seemed to understand?
"Ah, Harry, I was hoping I might find you."
Harry turned at the unexpected voice. "Professor Dumbledore?"
The headmaster had a cloak thrown over one arm and was wearing boots and olive-green robes made of thick material – like military fatigues that Harry had seen on muggle television. His long hair was tied in a plait down his back. It was definitely a weird look for a man who preferred lilac and rose and twinkly bobbles. Harry frowned, his hands sliding into his pockets so that Dumbledore didn't notice they were shaking. A clanging alarm was ringing in his head – a warning – this wasn't – this wasn't right.
Dumbledore gestured to a hallway on the right. "I've decided to attend Professor Moody's after-hours Defense class today as well. As a show of support for our newest teacher, of course, but also to settle any concerns that the students might have as to his chosen curriculum." His smile widened. "So pleased that you've put your concerns behind you, my boy, and are preparing yourself properly."
Harry found himself walking at the headmaster's side. "But – I've got to –" He'd forgotten about Moody's announcement in class and the flyer McGonagall had posted in the Common Room. Since Harry had no intention of meeting with Moody, of leaving himself open for more mind control or hexes or whatever else the Defense teacher had in mind, he'd ignored it. He knew some of the other Gryffindors had talked about going, but they were all tournament-mad this week. He didn't think they'd be able to tear themselves away from plotting and planning.
"That's all right, Harry. I've spoken with Minerva about Professor Moody." He set one hand on Harry's shoulder and steered him on. "He's a bit blunt, a bit rough around the edges, it's true. But we should be very grateful and respectful of your teacher, you know." Dumbledore's voice was low and confiding. "He's sacrificed so much in order to protect the Light. Put his own life and health on the line time after time to trace down dark wizards and bring them to justice." He shrugged. "If that has made him less than diplomatic in his approach to teaching the next generation – you and your friends – we must accept that. After all, all he wants to do is make sure you are prepared, Harry. To give you all the tools you might need to protect yourself."
"Yes, sir." Frowning, Harry tried to put Dumbledore's remarks into some kind of order. Dumbledore had talked to McGonagall? She knew Harry wouldn't be coming to the meeting? She approved of Harry going to Moody's Defense class? "But – Professor McGonagall wanted to talk to me."
"I'm afraid I've had to set both Professor McGonagall and Professor Snape on a rather vexing task this evening. Between the demands of the ministry and the press, Hogwarts has been challenged to make everyone attending over the next few months feel welcome without it impacting on our greatest goal – teaching. Our heads of houses are stretched thin, as am I. In fact, it may take them a few days – or even weeks - to sort it all out." His face set into grim lines. "This tournament has made our time too short – and since we only have until Monday night to arrange things properly, it has taken some doing." He smiled down at Harry. "Be assured, you will be in no trouble for not meeting with your head of house. I'm sure whatever she has to say to you can wait, don't you think?"
Harry nodded. She'd already apologized. That was the main thing, wasn't it? But her note had given Harry permission to distance himself from Moody, from his insistence on hurling curses at his students. He couldn't believe something as petty as setting up rooms for visitors would have changed her mind. Unless … "Has something changed then, sir? Something outside of Hogwarts and the tournament?" He frowned up into Dumbledore's twinkling eyes.
"Oh, I can think of many things that have changed in recent days, young Harry." Dumbledore smiled. "But to answer your specific question –" He came to a stop before a classroom door. "Yes. You've felt the changes yourself, seen them with your own eyes. I believe what is left of Tom Riddle is gathering allies and weapons. The attack at the World Cup was not just a few hooligans making life difficult. It was open warfare – the first open warfare of this new war."
Harry shivered, his shoulders hunching as if he expected an immediate attack.
"It announced a new phase of Tom's strategy." Dumbledore turned Harry to face him, both hands on his shoulders. "And I don't have to tell you that it will be dangerous and deadly and that you, my dear boy, will be right in the thick of things. Now," he continued, "your teachers are doing everything in their power to help you, to protect all of our students. We cannot allow our differences in method to divide us, not now, not when evil is on the move. Our friends and allies have been gathering." His hands squeezed tight. "I intend to take my place among our brothers and sisters, to bring all of my skills and powers to bear and stand up against this evil, to bring an end to Tom's threat. Tell me, Harry, what do you intend to do?"
Harry opened his mouth, stunned, and then closed it again. Inside, the Gryffindor lion in his soul roared, eager to declare himself, to straighten his shoulders and claim his place at Dumbledore's side. But another part of him resisted. A cold voice whispered, urging caution, reminding Harry that Dumbledore and his allies were adults, wizards with decades of training, and that Harry was just a boy. A teenager. Cold fingers rose up around the fiery lion, grasping its mane, urging it back.
"What would your father say, Harry? Or Sirius? What have you learned from their examples?"
Red and gold rose in a furious wave, melting the ice. "You're right, Headmaster," Harry replied. "I've got to be ready, don't I? I'm not always going to have someone else to help me. I didn't in the Chamber of Secrets, or with Quirrell."
Dumbledore was nodding, his expression kind but stern. "That is correct."
Harry shook his head, angry with himself. "It would be selfish and lazy of me to not take the training Moody is offering, wouldn't it?"
"I would never call you either of those things, Harry. You are an amazingly strong young man, growing into your power." He shrugged one shoulder as if to brush off Harry's self-recriminations. "These regrettable moments of rebellion are a part of every young man's life. But now you see, don't you? You see that you must take all the help we can offer?"
"I do, sir." Of course. How could Harry think any differently? If he'd learned anything over the course of his life it was that he would always be alone when it really mattered. Alone with the Dursleys. Alone against Voldemort. Remus and Sirius couldn't come close enough to stand beside him, and other adults had always let him down. He took a deep breath and let it out. Maybe he'd been right to not let Moody into his mind – Dumbledore had said it had been a mistake, hadn't he? But to continue to turn his back on the ex-auror, the wizard who had faced more dark wizards and survived than anyone else Harry had ever heard of – that would be monumentally stupid. Suicidal.
"I'll take Professor Moody's extra class, sir."
"That is very good to hear." Dumbledore nodded gravely. He gestured towards the closed door. The sound of locks opening was loud in the deserted hallway. "I will be here beside you in case you have any questions or concerns."
The first face Harry saw when he stepped into the unused classroom was Draco Malfoy.
"Potter. Decided you weren't afraid to learn advanced spells after all?" Malfoy looked him up and down, sneering. "I'm surprised you're not hiding under your bed clutching your precious excuse card. Finally found some balls, did you? Had Granger taken them? Knitted them into a tea cozy?"
The Slytherin, bracketed by two of his favorite cronies, Parkinson and Nott, had waited until Dumbledore had moved off to talk to Moody before starting in.
"Oh, I see. Dumbledore had to drag you here kicking and screaming. Maybe once he looks beyond his pampered pet Gryffindors he might realize there are other students at Hogwarts with far more talent. And a hell of a lot more nerve."
Malfoy swung around to stalk towards the front of the classroom before Harry could come up with a reply. Harry fidgeted towards the back of the small crowd of students. It was a rare mix of houses – about half-a-dozen Ravenclaws, two older Hufflepuffs, Cedric Diggory – who caught Harry's eye and nodded – and another seventh-year boy who Harry didn't know. There were a lot of green and silver robes. Slytherins, it seemed, were interested in dark curses. Yeah, not a big surprise, that. What surprised Harry a bit was that almost all the students were sixth and seventh years.
Harry swung around as Neville gripped the sleeve of his robe. "Neville. I didn't know you were interested in Moody's extra defense class."
"I thought for sure you wouldn't be, either." Neville let out a nervous laugh. "I'm happy you are, though. Everyone else in Gryffindor was too excited about getting into the tournament to come along."
"Yeah, that wasn't exactly my problem," Harry replied, still taking in the crowd. His thoughts caught up with him a moment later. "Hey, I thought Moody freaked you out, Nev."
"Yeah." The other boy nodded, his hands buried in his pockets. "He did at first. But we've been talking, and he's shown me some cool ways I can use herbology for defensive spells and potions. It's a whole lot more than Snape or even Professor Sprout has taught me." Neville jerked his chin towards Harry. "What about you? I thought you were trying to get away from Moody? Thought he was dangerous."
Harry found himself staring, following Moody and Dumbledore with his gaze. His gut hadn't stopped churning. The two powerful wizards, famous for their dedication to the Light and their opposition to Voldemort, still raised red flags inside him. "I know," he answered. "I guess I still do. But –" he shook his head, frowning, "can I really afford to not learn what he's teaching? I mean, if Dumbledore trusts him…"
Neville grunted, drawing Harry's gaze momentarily back to his face. "Professor Dumbledore trusts Snape, too."
Yes, Harry said to himself, his gaze returning to his teachers as if drawn by an outside force. Harry might never like Snape – and vice versa – but it was clear that he'd been wrong about the Potions teacher. What if he was wrong about Moody, too?"
One thing was for certain, adults were much more complicated than Harry had ever realized.
"All right, let's get started." The Ex-auror banged his gnarled cane on the stone floor, sparks flaring up to nearly waist high. "Before I can set a course for you lot, I'm going to have to see just how far behind your previous defense teachers – and I use the term loosely – have left you. Now, two lines, there – form yourselves into two lines, facing the targets I've placed against the walls. Hurry up, now!"
Wizard-shaped targets appeared along each side wall of the long, narrow classroom, each one holding a wand and painted with concentric circles on its chest and wand hand. The Slytherins headed for the right-hand wall, Malfoy in the center, staring arrogantly around as if daring the other houses to try to join them.
Neville and Harry managed to squeeze in at the end of a line of Hufflepuffs.
"All right, Harry?"
"Hey, Cedric. Yeah," Harry answered, twirling his wand nervously. At least standing next to a somewhat friendly seventh year, Harry should be able to learn a few new spells.
"Now, students." Dumbledore's voice rang out, silencing the muttering crowd. "These targets are set to record the strength and the accuracy of your spell casting. The target you have before you now will be yours for the duration of these classes, that way Professor Moody and I will be able to chart your growth. At the end of the class period we'll have you sign the label on your target – that will bind you to it so that wherever you find yourself standing in future weeks, your target will find you." Hands linked together before him, Dumbledore bounced up and down on his toes. "A neat bit of magic, if I do say so myself."
"Right then, enough chatter." Moody stomped into the center of the room, his magical eye whizzing in circles. "When I say the spell, you cast it – at your target! If I see any spells just happen to fire off in the wrong direction, at, say, another student, well, you'll not like serving detentions with me." His chuckle was particularly dark and nasty.
Even though Harry couldn't see where the blue eye was pointing, it seemed obvious it was staring at the Slytherin line – and at Malfoy in particular.
"Right! Easy first – Expelliarmus!"
Harry took a deep breath and cast, relieved and encouraged that his target's wand-hand lit up bright red. His feeling of accomplishment didn't last long. Up to third-year spells, he was fine, but nothing Moody had taught them in fourth year so far was much use. He exchanged embarrassed glances with Neville who settled in beside him to watch Cedric light up his target like a Christmas tree.
An hour and a half later, Harry and Neville, each clutching a two-foot long scroll of spells they were to study before their next session in two weeks, hurried back towards Gryffindor Tower.
"Blimey, Harry. I never realized how far behind we were."
Harry nodded, unable to speak. He was wavering between disbelief and utter fury. Moody had showed him, right enough. Showed Harry that he was an idiot. A fool. Arrogantly sure that he was able to stand up before Voldemort and Malfoy and every other dark wizard that was out to get him, just because something happened when he was a baby that sent the Dark Git reeling. Maybe Snape had been right about Harry all along. Pampered Prince Potter.
The inner coldness swept over him, unknotting his muscles, untying his strangled throat, soothing his thinking from dark storm clouds into calm, logical lines. He quickened his pace. "We've got to talk to the others, Nev." He imagined Ron still sitting in the Common Room, so utterly convinced he could possibly stand with seventh years in that bloody tournament. Not if Harry could help it.
I firmly believe that Albus Dumbledore would dress for every occasion. ;)
Severus Portkeyed into calm from the raging storm. He flung back his sopping wet hair and let the rain run down from his cloak, soaking the small plot of garden beside Sirius Black's back door. He felt ice crack from his shoulders as he shook out his arms. Sharp pain flared in his right arm and he caught his breath, stilling his abrupt movements until the feeling receded back into numbness. The sky above him was a thick black, the stars bright and cold. It was no warmer here, on the outskirts of Hogsmeade, but he'd left the cutting sleet behind on the Isle of Skye, thankfully. He rubbed the fingers of his left hand across the jet brooch that pinned his cloak together at his throat. It felt strange to owe his arrival, his thanks – anything, really – to Sirius Black.
Since Black's renewal ritual, since Merlin had appeared and linked the two together by magic and oath, Severus' attitude towards Black had undergone an upheaval. He snorted. There had been little choice in the matter. When one of the greatest – dead - wizards of all time makes a personal appearance and charges one to put off the past and get down to work, even Severus' tortured soul must answer. He and Black were linked now, linked in service and in loyalty. They had been claimed as Sons of Merlin, two of the three that were promised to rise at the need of these British Isles, with Potter being the third. That ended the matter.
Sons of Merlin. It was a story told by purebloods and halfbloods alike. Handed down through Light and Dark families over generations, some with excitement and anticipation and others with dread and fear. Merlin, the father of Britain's own magic - not spell work and craft carried here by other countries and cultures - had promised that when the land was on the brink of devastation, when Britain was threatened by ultimate darkness, up would rise three sons to take on his mantle and stand for the Light. During Grindelwald's terror, children had prayed for the rising of the Sons. When the bombs fell and the evil on the continent targeted these isles, everyone watched and waited for the Sons. Now, unlooked for and unexpected, Merlin had claimed his own. And, against all logic and wisdom, Severus was one of them.
Severus had not bothered to put on his usual dismissive attitude toward the great wizard's words. He had not argued nor denied his calling. For the first time since his childhood innocence had been ripped away by his father's hard hand and his mother's death, Severus felt his spirit healing. Not cleansed of darkness, no, but the two halves now rested, at peace, acknowledging his past, his willful union with the Dark, while embracing his new oaths to the Light.
Albus had not been pleased. The headmaster was, by far, the most powerful Legilimens Severus had met; next to Dumbledore, fooling Voldemort was child's play. The changes within Severus' soul might as well have been written on his skin; with one piercing glance the headmaster had taken Severus' measure. He'd then begun to do his best to undermine Severus' newfound balance.
Karkaroff. Albus had set Snape on Karkaroff the moment he'd returned to the castle after the ritual. Substandard mealy-mouthed excuse for a dark wizard that he was, Karkaroff had managed to derail Severus' attempt to talk to Potter on Sunday morning. The timing couldn't have been worse – finding the Death Eater lingering in the courtyard had forced Severus to wear his ill-mannered disguise of hate and dismissal of the child. No matter his oaths to Merlin and the Light, he could not, in good conscience, give up his double life. Not now, not when Death Eaters and other supporters of the Dark Lord were rising, daring to be seen in public, gathering followers. Not when the war was truly beginning again.
"Enough," Severus breathed. He was late, but he was here, no matter the headmaster's intentions. He stepped to the door, already unclasping his cloak and yanking it off his shoulders. He rushed down the hallway, tossing it over a hook beside the kitchen doorway. "Kimmi, hot coffee, please." He spoke kindly to the house elf as he hurried past, knowing the warming cup would be waiting for him in Black's study where the others had gathered. He knew he should take a moment to banish the water and blood from the robes that clung to his legs like tentacles, cast a warming charm around his body, heal the slashes on his right hand and arm, and dry his hair before he entered the meeting room. Seething, he did no such thing, his temper carrying him through Black's house and towards the Order meeting.
Oh, no, he would not waste one second to appear more presentable to the wizard he intended to confront. His anger would not allow it. Severus would stand before Albus Dumbledore clearly marked by the tasks the headmaster had set before him. Tasks Severus had not been expected to complete in time for him to attend the meeting tonight. Severus felt his lip turn up in a snarl. He couldn't wait to see the old man's face.
The wards on the door to Black's study flared once and then retreated, responding to Severus' billowing aura as if it was a cowering student in one of his potions' classes. He hit the door with one hand, sending it to crack against the wall beside it and bounce back as he stormed into the room.
As he'd expected, Albus had usurped pride of place, standing before the crackling fireplace facing the others as if he was in a schoolroom. Or, perhaps, he saw himself as the general of this tiny army. Or, rather, a king facing his subjects.
"… afraid he may not be able to attend –"
"On the contrary," Severus interrupted, "I would not have missed this meeting for the world."
"Oh, Severus, very good then," Albus greeted him. "I was just saying –"
Eyebrows raised, Severus stood before the man, blood and water dripping on the stones. "What, exactly, headmaster? That you ordered me to accompany Igor Karkaroff on his sorry journey tonight? That you bade me shadow the man? To put myself into his inner circle and claim a bond with the Death Eater because of our old allegiances? To renew my duties as the spy of the Order, no matter that my vow to the Light compels me to act, first and foremost, in Potter's defense?"
The silence within the room lasted only long enough for Sirius and Ischel to notice the blood.
"Severus! You're hurt!"
"It is nothing –" he'd barely bitten off the words when the healer had conjured a chair behind his knees, and he was forced to either sit or fall over. "Calm down," he urged when Sirius knelt beside him, dragging his wand up Severus' arm to slit his sleeve and get a better look at the deep gashes.
"Calm, yes, but urgency as well," Ischel replied. Her dark eyes narrowed as her wand cast a diagnostic spell. "Claws and teeth," she murmured. "What beast made these?"
Severus snarled. "Karkaroff and his … coven is too grand a word for his little gathering – his gang of miscreants had captured a manticore. In the excitement and confusion of their infernal rutting, I managed to cast a rusting spell on its chains. Unfortunately, the beast had not been as cowed by its torture as I'd assumed and broke free when I was still in range."
"Dear heavens," Molly Weasley gasped. "Those are venomous, aren't they?"
"Only the tail," Severus answered. "I kept well away from that, believe me."
Ischel was deft, quick to summon her potions and creams, and to assure the others that Severus' wounds would heal. He watched closely as she worked, nodding at her choice of herbs and the cadence of her chanting. He'd rather watch the slow closing of the ugly gouges than stare into Albus' no-doubt assessing gaze.
A warm breeze washed over Severus and he glanced up. Remus Lupin caught his eye and smiled grimly, having dried his robes and hair. "Can't have you catching a cold, Severus. Imagine your nose dripping into your potions – who knows the strange concoctions that would result in."
Severus barked a laugh. "Indeed."
Minerva pressed the steaming cup of coffee into his left hand. "I see we have a similar tale to tell, Severus. Shall I begin while you rest and collect your thoughts?"
He pursed his lips, considering. "Perhaps it would be best. Please," he gestured towards Albus' stiff figure still standing before the fireplace.
Minerva strode to the center of the study, turning to face those members of the Order still seated in chairs around the perimeter. "Right, then. The Marshals of the Order have called you here tonight to relay some important information concerning Hogwarts, the latest Death Eater attacks, and Harry Potter."
"Excuse me, Minerva," Albus interrupted. "Not all the marshals were involved in sending out those notices. In fact," he adjusted his glasses, "I regret that I was not consulted. I may have saved you all the trouble."
"And excuse me, Albus," Minerva replied, her voice sickly sweet, "but this is the exact reason that you were not told." She opened a hand in Severus' direction. "Because we knew you would interfere. Just as you have kept the two of us from meeting with Harry this week and have done your best to make sure Severus and I would not attend this meeting." Hands on her hips, she smiled. "Fortunately, both he and I have more than a sprinkling of brain cells and knew what you were trying to do. You have worked against us in our duty as it pertains to Harry, but you will not keep us from holding to our oaths to protect him."
"My dear –"
"What's going on with Harry?"
"He kept you from meeting with the Potter boy? Why?"
"What the hell is going on at that school?"
Chatter and questions rose up around them, some Order members rising from their chairs, others huddling close together to share concerns. Arthur Weasley gripped Bill by the arm and hauled him back as he made to step up and confront Albus. Doge conjured a large glass of whiskey and gulped down a mouthful, seething. Diggle frowned, leaning to speak in Shacklebolt's ear while Tonks puffed up, indignant, her hair turning bright red.
Sirius huffed a laugh and patted Severus on the shoulder as he stood.
"Order, please," he stated evenly. "Please allow Minerva to finish. In fact, allow her to start." He shoved his hands into his pockets. "It's a long tale, but you must be made aware of the facts and of our suspicions. Please hold your questions until the end. And," he turned to face Albus, "if you'd please take a seat, Headmaster. I'm sure we all have quite a few questions for you, but, until we are finished relating the relevant facts, you have nothing to tell us."
"Sirius, you seem to be laboring under a false assumption. That I am somehow keeping you all from attending to –"
"Oh, shut up and sit down," Aberforth rumbled. "You've lost the plot, Al. Time to play catch-up."
"One question, please, before we go on?" Hestia Jones raised a hand. "Where is Alastor?"
"Yes, thank you, Miss Jones, I'd like an answer to that question myself." Albus bowed his head and lowered himself into a squashy armchair he'd conjured. "I am very surprised that one of the most powerful wizards of our Order is not attending."
"He wasn't invited." Severus murmured thanks to the healer before rising, his bandaged hand held against his chest. "The reasons for that will be explained directly." He allowed Sirius to lead him to a chair near the fireplace before turning his attention back to his colleague. "Please, Minerva."
A born teacher, Minerva related the facts in logical order. She began by distributing Molly and Bill Weasley's written reports on the curse-breaker's examination of Potter's aura. After the Order members had a chance to review Bill's findings – and their exclamations and murmurings died away – she explained how she, Severus, and Lupin had exposed the manipulation of her own mind. The shock of that fact silenced them all.
After describing the three Gryffindors' visit to her office – and her own atypical reaction – Minerva paused for a sip from the steaming cup Molly handed her.
"Severus and Remus were able to untangle the geas that had been attached to my mind. It had, apparently, been lodged there during the first week of class and laid there like a trap ready to be sprung the first time Harry came to me with any concerns about his treatment or any requests for assistance."
"To be triggered by Potter himself? No others?" Shacklebolt's rumbling voice pointed their attention to the sticking point.
Minerva nodded. "Just Potter," she replied. "We should not be surprised that Harry is being particularly targeted – it has happened before. And from within Hogwarts. However, to know that I myself had been hexed –" her shoulders rose up around her ears, "- is extremely disturbing."
It had been recently planted, that much had been clear to both Severus and Remus. The geas had been woven over the space of perhaps a week, sometime in the previous month. It had been built up from one single instant of honest frustration when Minerva had been forced to sit in on endless meetings with ministry officials concerning Potter's safety at Hogwarts after the events of the Quidditch Tournament. The geas had been layered with precision, built on that one negative emotion linked with Potter – his name, his face, his voice – all set to prick Minerva, to annoy, to slide through her careful professionalism and her genuine fondness for the boy to that memory. The irritation had been amplified; the frustration multiplied. It had taken hours for Severus to pick it all apart.
"Whoever left that geas covered himself – or herself – quite well." Remus lowered himself into a chair at Tonks' side. "Neither Severus nor I could trace the magic back to its source. Neither of us recognized the wizard's markers or the style of the casting."
"So, besides the curse – or whatever it is – attached to young Potter, we must assume we have an enemy at Hogwarts." Doge was frowning fiercely. "An enemy who arrived before the other schools. I am assuming we're in agreement that this person – or persons – attained access to the castle through this blasted tournament?"
"Unless…" Severus allowed the s to hiss out menacingly, "we consider the newly arrived teachers as possible enemies."
Albus scooted forward in his chair. "Are you actually accusing Alastor of treason, Severus? Of turning? That is absurd! I will never believe it."
Severus narrowed his eyes. "Did you make the same grandiose rebuttal when Sirius was accused of betraying the Potters?"
Silence dropped over the Order. Guilty expressions grew on each member's face and awkward glances were directed at Sirius.
Sighing, Albus continued. "I did not. And I regret that most deeply. I'm sure I speak for all of us when I ask for your forgiveness, Sirius."
Black nodded silently.
"But, don't you see," Albus hurried on, "our knee-jerk reaction to the Potters' murder should inform our choices in this circumstance. We should not rush into judgment, nor will I allow it. Not again."
"That is … actually good advice," Shacklebolt stated. "We must investigate, of course. Tonks and Elphias and I will tackle the ministry officials who have been working at the school. Minerva – you and Severus, and Albus, perhaps, must do your best to confirm Alastor's continued loyalty. As for the crowd of reporters –"
"No." Severus set his hands in his lap.
All eyes turned towards him.
"My first responsibility is towards Harry. I will not allow his problems to be swept aside so that we might pursue other quarry." He stared pointedly at the headmaster. "Nor will I allow myself to be sent off on errands that have limited usefulness, leaving the boy to suffer under whatever curse or hex that Mister Weasley has uncovered." He nodded at Bill.
Albus chuckled, the sound piercing straight through Severus' soul. "That is, if I might say, quite a turnaround, my boy. I believe each of us has, in the past, taken you to task for your nasty treatment of young Mister Potter. Your replies usually involved telling us to mind our own business."
Lips pursed, Severus tilted his head, accepting the censure. "Circumstances have changed."
"In what way, exactly?" Albus' head tilted, his eyes glittering over his half-glasses. "Is he no longer the son of your youthful enemy? Does he not remind you of your past failings? Your sins? Does his very presence not cause your divided soul to churn with anguish? Really, Severus," he shook his head, clucking his tongue, "I don't mean to sound unconvinced, but, no matter your intentions, I don't believe you have the ability to change your nature regarding Harry." He lifted his hands, inviting the others to agree with him.
"I agree …" Lupin began.
"You see?" Albus leaned back in his chair as if vindicated.
Lupin cleared his throat. "As I was saying, I agree with Severus." He waited for the murmurings to die away. "Harry is our first priority. Mine, Severus' and Sirius'."
"Well said," Sirius whispered, moving to stand behind Severus, one hand on his shoulder. "Regardless of his standing as The-Boy-Who-Lived or the Chosen One or Merlin's Son, he is a child. My godson. And, as a student, he is a ward of Hogwarts and all its staff. I will not be kept from his side by some tangled desire to set our future strategy to combat Voldemort. Harry needs help right now. Immediately."
"But, don't you see?" Albus rose to stand before them. "Those are not two different priorities – they are one and the same. Harry's problem is not unknown to me, Sirius. It is the very reason we must not interfere. That Severus cannot change his treatment of the boy or offer his help openly. Believe me, I wish it was different, but Harry must be left alone."
The old man continued, his words at first vague and then merely horrific and stunningly disturbing, discussing intentional murder, the splitting of a wizard's soul, and Horcruxes. Severus felt the blood rush from his limbs, leaving him pale and shaking. Sirius' hand on his shoulder gripped tightly. Across the room, Bill Weasley looked as if he might faint.
Not Sendings as they'd assumed; not hauntings of wizards who found themselves severed from their lives too quickly. No, Harry housed, instead, a sliver of Voldemort's own soul. Damaged. Torn away by the powerful charm of Lily's love. Dear Merlin. Severus covered his eyes with one hand. The others had fallen silent before Albus' harsh recitation of facts.
"Do you see? Severus, you must not appear as anything but Harry's enemy simply because we cannot be certain who is looking out of the child's eyes."
As the discussion raged around them, Sirius took the seat beside Severus, moving his grip from shoulder to forearm, his hand purposefully placed to cover the Dark Mark. A brush of awareness against Severus' perpetual Occlumency shields was not unexpected. Severus turned to lock eyes with the wizard beside him.
'Harry.' Sirius sent. 'All this time.'
'Yes,' Severus replied, unable to restrain his disgust, his utter horror at the boy's circumstances. 'This changes everything.'
'It does. We cannot wait, Brother.' Sirius' mind sent images, fully realized, blazing with his intentions. 'I will not wait.'
Severus returned Sirius' images, inserting one possible change. 'Monday night. After the Champions are chosen. When all the others are celebrating.'
Sirius nodded. 'And Albus?'
Severus allowed his gaze to drift to his mentor, the great strategist, the most powerful wizard of his age. 'He must not know. We need –'
"A distraction." Sirius was smiling when Severus glanced back, their mental link growing dim. "I have the perfect idea."
*waves* Hope some of you are still with me!
The cheering and yelling had been deafening. Every student and teacher from every house as well as Beauxbatons and Durmstrangs had clapped and stomped their feet for the Tournament's announced champions. The Hufflepuffs were beside themselves – recognized, finally! Professor Sprout was practically glowing. Fred, George, Ron and their thwarted cohorts were as excited as the others. Harry was just happy it was over.
Until it wasn't.
The headmaster's voice trailed away into the sudden, stunned silence of the Great Hall. Two words had been spoken. A name. A fourth name spat out by the Goblet of Fire like the thing was disgusted. Hundreds of faces turned, eyes glittering in the candlelight, mouths open. Harry's excitement of a moment ago, his eagerness to see the champions, to cheer for Hogwarts' own like everyone else – cheer for something that had nothing to do with Voldemort or fighting evil or HIM, where he could talk endlessly of the tasks with Ron and Neville and generally stay out of the way – it was all burned away with a sickening rush leaving him empty.
Thick iron doors swept down to trap Harry's emotions. His eyebrows pricked together for a moment, just a moment, before the last trace of any reaction or denial dropped away. Anger. Curiosity. Fear. Disgust – all gone. Buried so deep that he couldn't find them under the ice that began to build up along his nerves like toys left out under a thick coating of snow. His fingers slid along the smooth edges of his robes, his skin frozen, insensitive, seeking for any texture – a fray, a hole, any tiny knot or crease to latch on to. Nothing. It was a familiar feeling. But this time, he knew, it was different. This time it felt foreign. Like an invasion. Until he felt nothing at all.
He rose and walked through the door behind the teachers' table in the Great Hall, clamoring voices rising up as he passed, demanding answers, claiming "Cheater!" or "Fraud!" until they were muffled by distance and indifference. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Momentum kept Harry moving through the strange room behind the hall. He slid between the ticking and steaming and whistling devices until he stood in the shadows beyond the fireplace's light, like a wraith haunting the vibrant, gleaming figures gathered there. Fleur. Krum. Diggory. Bright and strong and beautiful. They belonged in the light.
"What are you doing here, Potter?"
"Do ze teachers want us?"
Krum was silent – glaring.
Harry met their gazes fleetingly and then turned away.
They all arrived together – the headmasters, the teachers, Bagman and Crouch, loud, insistent voices barely registering. Karkaroff and Madam Maxime shouted pointed barbs that would have cut straight through to the heart of any normal fourteen-year-old. But Harry wasn't normal, was he. No, Harry could not possibly be normal, or have a normal year at Hogwarts, learning, growing, watching older students compete from the sidelines. Harry was Dumbledore's boy, busy deciphering the headmaster's hints and clues and then standing up to take on whatever danger threatened. Class Protector. Golden Boy. Future Savior. He'd faced Quirrell and Voldemort when he was eleven years old and won. He raised his hands, staring coldly at them back and front. He'd burned the man alive with just his touch. At twelve, Harry had been the only one standing between Ginny Weasley and death. Alone with Voldemort's wraith in the Chamber of Secrets, he'd fought a basilisk, spearing it with Gryffindor's sword. And, last year, he and his friends had faced a werewolf and Harry had been forced to rescue his godfather from hundreds of Dementors.
He didn't think there was anything normal about a boy and his friends confronting dangers like those.
The iron doors kept the adults' remarks from hitting him, from making him bleed. Harry wondered if he had any blood left to spill. At the far edge of the ice shield around Harry's being, the ugly words hissed and steamed, like fiery darts. Melted. Disappeared.
McGonagall's eyes were wide, her cheeks pale. Concern wrinkled her forehead and Harry had to look away. It didn't matter if she might believe him – might listen as he denied putting his name in the Goblet of Fire. She would never overrule Dumbledore – in fact, in the next moment she was defending the headmaster. Snape's narrow-eyed regard was almost refreshing in comparison – he might not believe in Harry's innocence, but he would never believe his most hated student had the skills or brains to deceive an enchanted object like the Goblet of Fire.
Harry answered their questions with simple denials. 'No, sir.' 'I didn't.' 'I wouldn't know how.' Explanations would do no good – they barely listened to him anyway. It wouldn't matter in the end, Harry knew. Nothing ever mattered. Events, people, manipulators, dark wizards and helpful house elves would all conspire to make sure Harry was twisted and turned and aimed like the weapon they all wanted him to be, no matter what.
Harry glanced up when Dumbledore stepped between him and the rest of the room. The headmaster carried power with him, his robes glittering with it. But the power wasn't loud or explosive, it didn't snarl or billow like Snape's. It was silent. Patient. It listened and watched. Dumbledore brought with him another kind of buffer between Harry and the world outside, one that invited Harry to a special, private club. Dumbledore's Minions, Harry thought with an inward flinch.
Dumbledore's voice was soft, gentle, as if Harry was some trapped animal instead of the Boy-Who-Lived, the stalwart Gryffindor honed to sharpness by all the attacks and abuses that had been sent his way since that day in Godric's Hollow. Since his parents' murder. His orphaning. Days and nights spent in a cupboard, accepting scraps of food and attention, abuse disguised as proper scolding. He blinked, trying to focus on the headmaster's face. To stay in the moment instead of burrowing further under the ice.
"Harry, did you put your name into the Goblet of Fire?"
One simple question Harry didn't bother to answer. He met the headmaster's gaze, impassive. Something fleeting, like a stroke of wings, touched the frozen iron around him and then flew away.
"No, of course not." Dumbledore laid one hand on Harry's shoulder. "I'm so sorry, my boy."
Of course, he was. Dumbledore was always sorry. Genuinely sorry for everything Harry went through. But that wouldn't stop the powerful wizard from dumping Harry into the middle of the TriWizard cesspool and then watching to see if he would swim or drown. He'd be awfully sorry if Harry died.
Binding magical contract. The boy will have to compete. Set Harry up as bait. Let the situation unfold. The adults talked and talked, with Harry barely aware of their comments. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed when the three real champions were ushered out. When Bagman laughed and slapped Harry's back before hurrying away it felt like a gunshot. Moody's eye wouldn't stop glaring as he limped off.
And then it was just him. Just Harry and McGonagall and Snape. The two constants in Harry's Hogwarts existence. Opposites, in a way, but also, somehow, the same. One old, stern, insistent on her students doing their best and representing their house well. Her attitude could be grandmotherly – not the grandmothers Harry had read about, the ones with soft laps and ginger cookies and smelling of home-baked bread, but the other kind. The ones who would hide a shotgun under the mattress and take the heads off anyone who threatened them. The ones who looked soft but had sharp minds and spines of steel.
Snape was younger, snide and strict, insistent on his students excelling and never embarrassing their house. His attitude was cynical and mocking, his tongue sharp. He'd stand between his Slytherins and true danger, Harry was sure, and make sure any rule-breaking was glossed over – unless it was by a different house. Snape was strong, though. Strong in magic, in spirit. Ruthless and cruel where McGonagall could be kind. Indifferently kind, Harry reminded himself, thinking back on their last conversation.
He wondered which one he'd rather deal with, now. It had always been so clear – McGonagall was his head of house, friendly, a paragon of the light. But a distant light, cold and sharp, someone who had ignored Harry as many times as she'd helped him. Snape – Harry assessed the man from behind his curtain of ice. Snape's fierce hatred was like a tether between them. He was tainted. Slytherin.
Harry never had to wonder where he stood with Snape.
"Come along, Mr. Potter." McGonagall sighed. "I'll walk you back to your Common Room. It's late and I'm sure your housemates will want to congratulate you." The bitterness in her voice told Harry how stupid – but expected - that kind of reaction from his fellow Gryffindors would be.
Harry's skin crawled and he flinched away from her hand. Apparently, he'd decided which attitude he preferred to deal with. He ignored McGonagall and squinted up at Snape.
"I'd like to know my options. If I have any."
Snape's chin jerked up, his head tilting a quarter of an inch. A huge reaction for the rigidly controlled man, Harry noted.
"You wish to discuss this with me, Potter?"
Disbelief, but not sarcasm. After their last meeting, Harry's comment must seem bizarre. Unimaginable. But, just there, underneath Snape's usual hatred of everything Harry was and stood for, was a thread of eagerness. Of interest.
Behind Harry, McGonagall stirred. "You wish to – Mister Potter – " Harry heard her mouth snap shut before she began again, hesitantly. "Severus?"
Harry frowned, twisting to stare at her. "Can't I talk to my professors? Get their advice?" Harry's heart thumped hard in his chest, threatening to awaken his frozen emotions. "Isn't that what you've all asked me to do when I get into trouble?" He flicked a sharp glance at Snape. "Not to go running off on my own, arrogantly thinking I know best?"
Snape snorted, folding his arms across his chest. But he didn't leave. He didn't argue. He was watching Harry, watching closely.
McGonagall pulled her head back like a turtle. "Very well, we shall all three speak of this … unfortunate state of affairs. My office or yours, Severus?"
Lips pursed, Snape's eyes glittered. "I doubt if any insistent Gryffindors will be knocking down my door in order to find out what's happened to their classmate, Minerva. We will have far more … security in the dungeons, don't you agree?" He swept out one arm, his tone cool, his face absolutely bland.
Something sparked in McGonagall's eyes. Harry frowned – she looked almost relieved by Snape's invitation – nervous, excited. "Yes. Yes, of course," she stated. "Come along, Mister Potter."
Harry followed McGonagall, making sure to keep a few steps behind her. Snape brought up the rear, like a dark-winged raven flapping behind its brood, urging them on. They descended the stone stairs, the chill of the dungeon rising around Harry like another layer of protection from what should have been his roiling emotions. He sank into the sensation with relief. Cold. Unmoved. Impervious. They were new words, words that had never been used to describe Harry Potter before.
Maybe it was time to get used to them.
Severus never took his eyes from the boy walking before him. The boy who had heard his name belched from a sophisticated magical object had stood, silent and composed, while staff and ministers accused and insulted him, and had then turned to Severus, of all people, for much needed assistance.
Since Friday night, since Albus had, reluctantly, advised the Order on the state of the Dark Lord's soul, the existence of several – several! – Horcruxes including one already destroyed by the boy in the Chamber of Secrets, Severus had rushed to prepare himself. Here he was, ex-Death Eater, compelled by his mother's family into taking oath to the Dark as a child, faithful follower of the madman Voldemort, and then traitor to those oaths and pledged to the Light after Lily's murder, spy and turncoat. Severus Snape. Verbal torturer of children, Slytherin snake, who had no choice but to remain hopelessly caught between the two camps, his soul tattered and scarred by the constant internal struggles. It had been his personal hell - well earned. And now he was revealed to be Merlin's Son in this age – a great Warrior of the Light.
Albus had stunned the Order with his knowledge, with his information about Voldemort. Arthur and Molly – even Bill – had to be issued calming potions by Severus and Ischel to get through the discussion. Minerva had sought out stiffer spirits, her heart monitored closely by the healer. Shocked silence had greeted the headmaster's descriptions of Tom Riddle's reckless intent on immortality. He'd divided his soul many, many times, purposefully, seeking out the ultimate protection for his stunted life.
Severus and Sirius had lingered after the Order had made its plans – such as they were. The others had decided to wait for Dumbledore's word, to allow their leader to find the truth of the matters facing them. As usual, the Order found itself at the edge of action, never quite stepping over the line Albus had drawn. But the others had not been sworn to Merlin to protect Harry and train him in the Light.
Severus had studied Sirius as the two spoke into the small morning hours and he'd wondered what similar thoughts had been whispering and wrestling behind the other man's shadowed eyes. Sirius Black. Renegade from a Dark family, devoted to the Light, school-boy bully and torturer of his classmates, convicted traitor and yet loyal friend. Most of Black's sins and misdeeds could, at least, be charged to a foolish young man who worshipped the ground his best friend walked on. Severus' sins, unfortunately, remained ugly, festering sores on an adult soul who had knowingly – arrogantly – turned to evil.
The two had laid out the facts over cups of bitter coffee. They'd talked and theorized until dawn. And then, finally, they had set their minds to the real task ahead of them. The task they had taken vows to accomplish – vows beyond Severus' ties to Albus, the wizard who had rescued him from his sins; vows greater than Sirius' desire to chase Pettigrew and Voldemort into the very grave where they had sent his best friend. They had parted resolved. Resolved that, with Albus concentrating on Moody, they would act. Act now, to protect, teach, and lead Harry. With every ounce of skill, power, and knowledge at their disposal, they would stand as Harry's guardians and make sure he survived. Make sure, as far as they were able, that he was safe, his childhood preserved, and his mind and soul safeguarded.
Little had they realized, Severus considered, how those actions would begin tonight.
Severus had felt Dumbledore's power billow in hot, angry gusts in the Great Hall. His shock at seeing Potter's name expelled from the cursed Goblet had been real, for a moment breaking through the wizard's careful Occlumency. That was enough to snap Severus' well-honed barriers into place. Occluding his own mind, separating himself from emotion that might lead a skilled Legilimens like Albus in past his shields to reveal pathways to his new secrets – it was the only way. The only way to make sure Severus was not removed from Harry's side by the old strategist, not until the child was safe – as safe as Severus could manage.
Eyes narrowed, Severus watched the boy's slim shoulders and determined stride. The Potter boy had always been transparent as glass. Eager to jump into conflict. Emotional. Arrogant. So ignorant of the real risks to his own life that he disregarded rules and advice and any reality that did not fit in with his limited understanding of events. Nothing of his behavior over the past two weeks, since the incident with Moody and the Imperius Curse, had been in character. Harry had neither ranted nor raved this evening. His eyes did not blaze with their usual fury, fists clenched, ready to lash out. Nor did he petulantly demand to voice his objections to the adults' decisions concerning his situation.
In fact, Harry's manner, his expressionless face, his steady, even tone, was oddly familiar. It felt like – but, no. The boy was extremely lacking in magical discipline, unable to brew an acceptable potion with both hands and Granger whispering in his ear. His mind was a jumbled morass, thoughts flying here and there, often engaging long after the boy had taken impulsive action.
Albus' bombshell explained quite a bit about Harry's problems with his magic. Severus, a disciplined, mature wizard had developed difficult and tedious skills in order to master his divided soul. He could not imagine a young boy – a child's – efforts to come to grips with a foreign, willful, largely insane soul-piece invading his thoughts and emotions.
But, still, the boy had been strangely controlled.
The door to his private quarters opened as Minerva raised one hand to the latch. As she crossed the wards, her image shimmered in and out of focus, the room beyond her intentionally appearing dark and shadowed to anyone's sight who had not been invited. The boy hesitated at the doorstep.
Severus came up next to Harry and handed him a thin slip of parchment.
"Professor?" Harry raised his gaze to Severus'.
"Read it aloud, please."
Frowning, the boy read in a murmuring voice, "Harry James Potter, son of Lily and James Potter."
When the child glanced up, red and gold light had filled the door frame, thick tendrils reaching out to him. Held fast before he could step away, the magic of Molly's wards sank into the boy, rushing down through his chest and out into his arms and legs. The child gasped as he rose from the floor a scant inch, the tips of his shoes scraping the stone, and drifted through the doorway. One last gust of red and gold swirled around him before gently setting him upright and vanishing.
Severus followed the stunned boy inside and closed the door behind him, the wards snapping closed at his back. He circled around the two and strode to the fireplace, tossing in a handful of Floo powder and speaking two words into the green flames. "It's time."
Minerva, her limited patience already at an end, clucked her tongue, transfigured three straight-backed chairs in Severus' lounge into overstuffed monstrosities and called for a house elf.
"Tea and biscuits, Mintsie," she ordered when the creature appeared. She raised her eyes to the boy. "Potter? Juice? Milk?"
"Tea's fine, Professor." The boy sat on the edge of the chair at Minerva's right, his hands folded together in his lap. Composed, even after what the wards had just put him through.
After Minerva's snack appeared, the tray hovering equidistant from the three chairs, Severus threw up his hands, re-transfigured the chair he was, apparently, meant to be swallowed by into something more comfortable – winged-back and leather, much better – and settled in.
Minerva handed them each a cup, going back to place two more biscuits on Potter's saucer after a look at the boy's pale face.
"Sir, ma'am," Potter began, nodding to each of his professors as if he was a respected colleague. "Can we get on with this? I mean, I appreciate the tea, but I'm not sure how long it will be until Professor Dumbledore …" he searched for the right word.
"Interferes?" Severus drawled, helpfully. "Arrives to steal you away and back to your protected Gryffindor tower?" He crossed his arms. "You are not wrong, Potter. However, the headmaster is sufficiently … distracted, for the moment, and we are waiting for a few more to join us." He raised a hand to still Potter's obvious objection. "I assume you'd like to avoid repeating this story more than once?"
The boy tilted his head in acknowledgement.
The Floo roared and a dark-cloaked wizard strode forward, a barefoot healer and a less-scraggly-than-usual werewolf at his back.
"Harry." Sirius held out both arms.
HP HP HP HP HP
His eyes suddenly teary, Harry launched himself towards his godfather and fell into his embrace. He felt Sirius' laughter through his chest, closed his eyes and reveled in the comfort and support, and held on tight. He barely noticed the rustling of robes and the low voices of others behind him. Remus' outcry at Snape's curt explanation about the Goblet of Fire drifted across his awareness and Sirius hugged him tighter. All Harry cared about was that Sirius was here. Alive. Healthy. Safe.
Embarrassment finally forced Harry to step away, but Sirius kept a protective arm around his shoulders. "I can't believe you're here." He stared at Sirius. "Isn't it dangerous? I mean, what if–"
"It's all right. We're protected here. Safe as houses."
Harry's heart felt like it would beat out of his chest. The calm, the iron control, had deserted him as soon as Sirius stepped through Snape's Floo. His head spun and his legs turned to jelly – no hexes required.
Professor McGonagall must have noticed because a moment later Harry had been stuffed back into the squashy chair with a cup of strong tea being guided to his lips. The warm, sweet liquid helped, giving him time to take a few breaths and let his circling thoughts slow down.
Sirius crouched before him, a worried frown creasing his features. "Welcome to the Order of the Phoenix, Harry." He patted Harry on the knee. "Sorry for surprising you like that, but, well, we didn't have much of a choice. Not with this latest news. Our wards are very strong – they have to be, you see. I'm just sorry I couldn't come to you sooner."
"Um, sure. I understand. Well," Harry corrected himself, "I don't really understand at all. I guess it has something to do with Dumbledore – phoenix and everything – and the fact that Professor Snape has been protecting me. And the red and gold sparks that sucked me through the doorway. But -" he was babbling, his tongue outracing his thoughts. Sirius' calm explanation hit him all at once and his forehead screwed up in disbelief. "What's going on? This is more than that stupid Goblet, isn't it?" Harry straightened in his chair. Order of the Phoenix. That didn't sound like a group that was newly formed; all these people Harry thought he knew had obviously been working together for years. Even Snape. And they never told him. He'd been left out of the loop, again. A familiar anger and frustration tried to rise to the surface, but Sirius' steady gaze kept Harry from erupting.
"Harry, we've made a lot of mistakes –"
Professor McGonagall interrupted him. "We have. Far too many. And we've paid in blood and pain, with a magical world in torment and the loss of those we loved." She had taken the chair next to Harry. "Shall we list them all? Do penance?" Her lips were pressed tight. "While that might purge some of our consciences, we've been told in no uncertain terms that it is time to look forward, not backward."
"Indeed," Snape intoned from his perch at the far edge of group, one hip hitched up on the edge of a small kitchen table. "Not to mention that we have taken vows of fidelity and silence. To have immediately taken a child into our confidence from his first appearance would have been idiotic." He looked down his nose at Harry. "Trusting any eleven-year-old boy with every secret of the Light would have been foolishness itself."
"But –" Harry tried to get a grip on his emotions. "You're a member of this Order, Professor?" He shook his head, trying to settle the memories and attitudes about the man he'd held for years into new places. "You have been from the beginning - my beginning, anyway." Harry shot the words out like an accusation, catching the fleeting glance Professor McGonagall sent Snape's way. Secrets again. Harry rounded on her. "If you'd told me in first year that I could trust Snape, that he was on our side, maybe Ron and Hermione and I would have figured out the real enemy that much sooner."
"We did tell, you, Harry. Professor McGonagall and Headmaster Dumbledore told you that Professor Snape was not your enemy. I told you. Don't you remember?" Remus nodded at him, encouraging him to think.
They were right. They had tried to tell him. Without quite saying it, they'd urged Harry to put aside his feelings against Snape. To ignore the nasty git's bullying. This summer, Mrs. Weasley had said more than anyone else, urging Harry to not be so quick to judge. "Mrs. Weasley," he murmured, eyes screwed up at the sudden pounding in his head. "And Mr. Weasley, too, I guess. Bill and Charlie. They're members of this Order. Who else? Who else that I've known for years?" How many of his friends, his teachers, were hiding things from him? All of them? Irritation clacked his teeth together and shut off the warm feelings Sirius' arrival had kindled inside him.
It was Snape's cold, clear voice that cut through the rising anger. "You've asked for adult help, Harry, acknowledging – for perhaps the first time – that you do not know how to proceed. That you lack information and the power to change things in your favor. Giving you this information about the Order, we have begun to change that. Do you intend to erupt with accusations each time we reveal difficult truths or can you listen?"
Harry bent his head, hands clasped behind his neck. "Sorry," Harry murmured. The bubble of anger burst, leaving him uncomfortably teary and exhausted. His feelings were all over the place – up, down, fire, ice, ready to scream one minute and relieved the next. He'd never felt more like a child surrounded by smarter, wiser adults. Inside, he squirmed. He didn't know how to be a child. To put himself into others' hands had never worked out for him. Maybe it was too late to learn how.
A hand ruffled his hair. "Hey. Don't apologize."
Sirius' voice was low and kind and eased some of Harry's inner ache. He managed to look up through his fringe at his godfather.
"We have some answers for you – some explanations – but, Harry, you've done the best you could all these years alone. Done pretty damn brilliantly, from what I've heard. Minerva spoke for all of us when she talked about mistakes. If we all started apologizing, we'd be here all night." Sirius considered. "And probably tomorrow night, too." His expression turned stern. "All those explanations will come, I promise. You deserve them. But, for tonight, we're going to hope you'll listen and understand that they must wait."
Remus huffed a bitter laugh and set his chin on his folded hands on the back of the chair he was straddling. "A lot has happened over the past few weeks, Harry. We're here to talk, to give you some information that others don't want you to have. And to assure you that you are not alone. The Order – we five, specifically – are going to be here, in the castle, to support you from now on. Or, if you'd rather, we'll take you away, take you to somewhere safe, somewhere beyond the reach of the ministry, Albus, everyone." He waved a hand through the air. "There is a lot to talk about." His eyes darkened, his gaze flicking to the scar on Harry's forehead. "Some of it will be difficult. But you've handled difficult things before. Too many."
"Fourteen is too young an age to be burdened by this knowledge," Sirius stated, gripping Harry's knee hard when he would have rushed to disagree. "But the fact is, knowledge is power. And we will not allow you to be powerless no matter how young you are. It has been proven that you are not safe, proven since you were fifteen months old. We cannot ask you to remain in the dark any longer."
Heart pounding, Harry took a deep breath and met the concerned gazes around him. "Okay. I –" he swallowed, the squirming in his gut slowing, "I want to know." He didn't thank them. His gaze drifting from Snape to McGonagall, past Remus and back to Sirius, the words locked up in Harry's throat. He couldn't thank them. Not now. Not yet. "I promise I'll listen." He stared back at Snape's assessing gaze. "But I can't promise much besides that."
The professor pursed his lips. "Good enough."
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.
Onward - faster now, I promise. Thank you all again for your kind comments and kudos!
Warnings for nasty people thinking nasty thoughts. Albus is put in his place.
Barty followed Dumbledore and the other two to the headmaster's office, thumping along in Moody's contorted and tortured body as quickly as he could. Elation and bitterness twisted together in his soul – that particular sweet and tart combination that simmered beneath his false skin and tasted of delicious promises to come. His tongue darted out to taste the sweat beading on Moody's lips. Laughter – dark joy – intense satisfaction tried to smash their way through his facade and send him into a raving, dancing, giggling fit, outing Barty Crouch, Junior, to Hogwarts and old Dumbly and his be-cursed-forever father in all of his glory.
Soon. Not soon enough. Months away. Remember the Dark Lord. Remember the red eyes looking down at you with such pride, such love. More of a father than Crouch could ever hope to be – that was Voldemort's promise to Barty. A father. A master. A mentor that he could please while he pleased himself. A leader who urged his followers to satisfy their inner longings as they served him, never to deny themselves the joy of blood and pain and torture of their enemies.
Barty shook out his arms, muffling the proper raucous celebration this masquerade denied him with Moody's own twitchy mannerisms. The ex-auror had enough issues – he nearly spat the word his sainted mother had whispered to him over and over again through his childhood – that Barty's expected and understandable mistakes in his portrayal were written off as 'paranoia' or 'suspicious nature' or 'bad memories' time and time again. Even putting the stupid brats under Imperius had been explained away -by Dumbly himself. Now that he'd forced Potter into the Dark Lord's Tournament, Barty would spend the better part of the night delighting himself with his potions and fantasies, locked behind wards strong enough to keep even the headmaster out. Could he allow himself a new victim? One that would stimulate his unholy joy more completely than the battered near-corpse of Moody? A child? A student?
The morose Longbottom whelp's pale face swam into Barty's fantasy. Oh, yes. Warmth boiled in his deepest, darkest regions. Torture of the boy's parents was an oft-remembered delight. Imagine putting their only child under the same searing magical whips and curses. Comparing the screams. And then Obliviating the boy so that Barty could enjoy his startled realizations over and over again.
"Really, Albus, I don't know what more we have to discuss."
Barty swiveled Moody's spelled eyeball to take in his father's determined stride and the tight look of concentration on his face. First things first. When the old fart was finished with his talk, his never-ceasing ruminations on 'what could this mean' and 'I didn't foresee this' and 'we must protect the Chosen One' filth, Barty must see to his dear father. See to his own Imperius curse. Make sure the man had not wiggled his way around any of Barty's commands. He clutched Moody's staff, allowing his palm to rest over the end of his own wand hidden in a sunken channel there – his mother's wand. Images of her sickness-wracked body, lying down in his cell, taking his place so that Barty could escape Azkaban rose up, stark and piercing, cutting ragged holes in his inner celebrations. Her wand, her sacrifice, her love – Barty would not let her actions go to waste, late as they had finally come. His father and that stupidly loyal house elf – Barty's newer jailers – had already been taken care of. Dumbledore was well on the way to trusting 'Moody' above all others. Bagman was no obstacle. Snape and Karkaroff were pissing themselves in fear of the Dark Lord's return. And Kitty-cat McGonagall, well, he jerked his smile into a grimace, she'd lapped up Barty's geas like a good old cat at the cream pitcher.
"Please, Bartemius," Dumbledore said, his steps not slowing as he reached the griffin statue that guarded his office, "I'll only need a few more minutes."
As Barty rode the staircase, suspiciously bringing up the rear, he allowed the smile to escape. He'd done it. The Potter brat was well and truly trapped and would be on his way to the Dark Lord's ritual, pushed and prodded by Barty himself. Nothing could stop him.
Screwing up his eyes – eye – Barty grunted in pain as he stepped into Dumbledore's office. The residue of raw magic, the screeching colors and sounds of the old man's collection of magical trinkets and tools, the heavily auraed portraits of former headmasters, Fawkes himself, his blazing presence blinding, stunned Moody's false eye. The ex-auror had spelled the thing to pick up the smallest trace of magic. Barty did not know how the crazy bastard lived with the jangling sensations, the constant hammer of information, of input. Hogwarts itself was overpowering, but this office was blinding, deafening torture, clawing against Barty's mind and magic. He breathed deep and ratcheted the spinning eye down to dormancy, to visible sight only, as he was forced to do when he caught the few hours of sleep he allowed himself every other night.
"Now." Dumbledore rounded his desk and took his seat. "Let us continue this discussion, gentlemen."
"There's nothing to discuss, Albus, as I've been trying to tell you," Barty's father's voice was clipped and insistent. "The Goblet has made a binding magical contract with all of the champions. It cannot be edited or deleted without dire consequences for the boy's magic."
'Binding magical contract' had been one of Barty's more brilliant ideas. And the magical transfer paper attached to the practice dueling dummies in his Advanced Defense classroom created the perfect venue to send Potter's name into the Goblet. The boy's signature, obtained willingly, without spell or needless convincing, sealed up his participation in the tournament quite neatly. And by old Dumbly's hand, no less.
"Considering Harry's current attitude, I wonder if he would mind those consequences, Bartemius." Dumbledore folded his hands on his desk. "Have you considered that? That, overwhelmed and convinced of another year of pain and horror and trials much too advanced for him to face, Harry might be willing to throw his magic to the wind in order to escape these tasks?" The headmaster threw up his hands. "And where would the wizarding world be then?"
Bagman scoffed. "Nonsense. The children all were determined to find a way to enter – even first years! Harry is no different. As soon as his house offers him its congratulations and backing, he will be as excited as the other three champions!"
Dumbledore stared at the man over his half-glasses, his gaze cold. "Harry Potter is not like other students, Ludo. He does not seek the limelight that others cannot seem to live without. I believe he would tell us that he has quite enough on his young shoulders as it is."
"Of course, of course." Bagman backed off, hands raised. "But surely we can buck the kid up. Remind him of the possibilities! The reward! The recognition – for the school if not for himself."
"The ministry must remain neutral to all of the champions," Barty's father chided his colleague. He clenched his hands around the rim of his ugly bowler, holding it tight before him. "We cannot be seen to indulge one child at the expense of others. Surely Hogwarts could embrace both of its champions."
Barty snickered. "Oh, I doubt that's going to happen." Both hands on Moody's staff, he shot a contemptuous smirk at his father. "There's liable to be some nasty teen-aged squabbling coming out of this, you mark my words. Hufflepuffs will rally around Amos' son, and probably the Ravenclaws, too – wasn't Amos' wife a Ravenclaw?" At Dumbledore's nod, he continued. "And the Slytherins will never support a Gryffindor – let alone Potter. And then there'll be the jealousy. All those other Gryffindors who didn't get past the Age Line." He shrugged. "The boy's in for a rough time."
"Yes, Alastor is right. And that does not take into consideration the press's likely focus on young Harry. Special rules for the Chosen One, et cetera. Slights against his character aren't exactly new to the Daily Prophet." Dumbledore sighed. "And we have yet to discuss the fact that a fourth year could not possibly be up to the tasks required by the tournament itself."
"Ah, the boy needs a bit of coaching, that's all." Before his father could spout more ministry rubbish, Barty stepped into his father's space, his aura crackling. "Nothing illegal in a student coming to his teacher for help now is there, Bartemius? Especially since my advanced class was established before this ridiculous Goblet erupted. Eh?" Watching the man's eyes squint and his mouth pucker as he tried to draw up behind his government position, all proud and correct, widened Barty's grin. His tongue flicked out to touch its edges. Oh, yes, it felt good to stand up to the man who had abandoned him to Azkaban and then, in a fit of condescending guilt, had done the same to his dying wife. Who had kept his only son imprisoned, Imperiused, hidden away and forgotten, guarded by a house elf. To stand up to him without fear or dread or the possibility of being punished? Oh, it tasted fine. Soon, old man, Barty promised silently.
"No, no, I suppose not." His father stepped back, clinging to his hat as if it was a life buoy. Frowning, he turned back to the headmaster. "Keep in mind that Hogwarts will come under intense scrutiny if there is even a whiff of favoritism, Albus. From the press as well as the ministry."
"Oh, I am keeping many things in mind right now."
The headmaster rose, dignified and quiet, the old faker. Barty knew better. After hiding in the great man's shadow for the past two months, he could tell that Dumbledore was angry. It was the deadness in the bright blue eyes, no trace of that merry twinkle to be seen.
"I believe you have made your point, Bartemius. Ludo. Thank you for coming," Dumbledore dismissed the two ministry officials. "Alastor and I have much to discuss."
"Very well." Barty's father flicked a nervous glance around the office. "I hope you aren't planning on interfering with the conduct of this tournament. You or your allies within the ministry." He wagged a finger at the headmaster. "Even you will not be able to hide behind your position – nor will they."
Barty had heard enough of the man's pompous pronouncements for a lifetime. He snatched at the connecting thread between them, the Imperius curse having bound them together as they never had been outside of the spell. "Time to go, Bartemius," he ordered, making sure the command echoed along their magical link.
"Indeed, indeed." His father jerked a nod in Dumbledore's direction and swept towards the door. "Come along, Ludo."
The door closed on his father's stiff back and Barty had half-turned back to face whatever new orders Dumbledore had for the Chosen One's loyal teacher when the spell hit him. His staff flew to Dumbledore's hand and red and gold flames rose up around Barty's form, hot and brilliant, searing his robes, singeing the ends of Moody's thin hair, and forcing his magical aura into a tight, form-fitting skin.
Fury surged, carving Moody's face into a feral scowl. "What is the meaning of this?" he bellowed. Barty stretched out his fingers, testing the edges of the powerful wards, forcing his magical aura to expand, grunting at the effort. "Albus! What's come over you?!" He growled and grunted, the effort to break free sending racking tremors through his limbs, his head pounding, his heart skipping. "No!" The slim tether connecting him to his father's mind shattered, sharp shards of power hurtling back towards Barty's core.
Blind, deaf, shaking, Barty felt the spittle on his chin, the magical eye dropping away to spin uselessly on at his feet. Voices broke through his awareness, a woman, another man, voice deep and throbbing. With an audible snap, a window opened in the wards that had him trapped. Before Barty could send a wandless spell through it, Dumbledore's command hit him between the eyes.
HP HP HP HP HP
As soon as this false Moody had stepped into his office, Albus had known that he was facing an imposter. The Order members had been right – and Albus had been wrong. Again. Wrong about something that could have been devastating to this school, to its students, and to the Light's struggle against Voldemort. An imposter had slipped into his sanctuary, the place he'd built and shaped for decades in order to keep the future of the wizarding world close, to gather the most powerful young wizards and witches out of the world and into his arms, into his subtle discipline. His training.
The subtle – silent to everyone but himself – charms he'd hung just inside his door had revealed an intruder. An enemy. Dark magic. Albus had rarely been reduced to such awkward, obvious alarms on his private office – he'd told himself for years that his own observations and senses were so highly evolved to make such wards unnecessary. He was a fool.
The alarms were not the only clue, of course. No, if this had been Alastor, he would have seen through Molly and Kingsley's Disillusionment spells immediately; such simple Notice-Me-Not charms would have had his eye spinning, his suspicions rousing him into defensiveness. Alastor would have greeted his colleagues at once, if only to prove that they would be fools to try to get the better of him with such school-child tricks. Alastor Moody was not failing mentally; he had not been turned or Imperiused into following Voldemort and infiltrating Hogwarts. Captured, Albus nodded to himself. Captured to ensure that fresh hair or skin cells would be available to whoever had Polyjuiced himself into Alastor's form.
Rage warred with self-loathing, urging Albus to strike, to utterly destroy this intruder, this enemy who had made a fool of him. This was a familiar temptation, one that, in his younger days, Albus would have acted on at once. Long ago, it had taken just one surge of resentment, of tattered ego and wounded spirit, one blast of emotion-driven magic to steal Albus' peace, his pride, his sister's life and his family's bond. He had trained himself better, since. He gathered his reactions into a fierce bundle and sent it to power his Occlumency. No trace of his emotion reached his face or hands; his voice was level as he spoke warnings to Crouch and Bagman and then dismissed them – from his mind and his office.
Molly and Kingsley struck instantly from each side of the room just as Albus summoned Moody's staff to his hand. The wards burst into flames, scalding the air and stunning their captive. They held the imposter easily, allowing breath and thought, but very little else.
"Alastor hasn't stood that straight in years, Albus," Molly snarled as she circled the imposter. "Look at him! I can't believe you were fooled for a moment!"
"Now, Molly," Kingsley chided. "None of us would have suspected him. We see what we expect to see, don't we?" He eyed the staff in Albus' hand. "May I?"
Albus kept his eyes and magic trained on the trapped wizard still wearing Alastor's form while Kingsley examined the staff. The wizard was squirming within his bonds, bellowing his resentment in a very good imitation of the ex-auror's voice. Powerful, yes, the wizard was quite gifted, but Albus had no doubt that he would be no match for the three Marshals of the Order ranged against him.
"There is a wand hidden here. It has a muddled signature – this is not its first user. No." Kingsley was murmuring at half his normal volume as if talking to himself. "Neutral, willow and ouroborous scale. It has been used for dark magics but lately. Turned from its original purposes."
"I believe we will find all the answers we need in a moment," Albus responded. He caught Molly's stern gaze. "Hold him."
"Have no fear of that," she replied, both hands raised, her magic arching between her wand and their captive.
Albus slid his wand before the false-Alastor's face, opening a momentary breach in Molly's wards. "Legilimens," he spelled, his aim focused, sharp and deadly. He would not toy with this one or bother to wrap his mind magic with comforting softness. His awareness sped through the wizard's tissue-thin shields and plowed deep into his memories.
It took barely a minute for Albus to dredge the depth of Barty Crouch's black soul. To tear through the boy's anger and hatred and denial and find every scrap of knowledge, of Tom Riddle's plots and plans, Bertha Jorkins' torture, Moody's location, as well as the foolish complicity of Bartemius Senior. Foolish man. Proud. Stubborn. And caught, now, in his own twisted spells.
Albus was thorough but careful. There were hidden pockets of foreign magic there, within Barty's core – convoluted charms left there by Riddle, no doubt, in case of capture. They might well only kill the boy, or Obliviate him, erasing all evidence of Riddle's location and strategies, but the consequences of tripping these dark spells might be much, much worse. Albus set warnings around the hidden traps and walled them off from interference – by anyone but Albus, including Barty himself.
As his awareness spread within Barty's psyche, Albus found himself tempted as he rarely had been before. He saw the depth of the wizard's evil, the plans he'd made for the Longbottom boy, the others – children and adults – the Death Eater had targeted. It sickened him. Albus could reach further, deeper, all the way to the foundation of Barty's being. He could lay his own raw power against Barty's core and strip him of every ounce of magic, shredding his magical systems, leaving him a broken, confused muggle, his teeth pulled, his evil without resources. He traced the Death Eater's channels and conduits that radiated from his core to his skin and brain and heart, stroking them with a single fingertip of his will. Albus could strip them, cauterize all the pathways of power, burn them to ash. Justice, he told himself. It would be justice he performed on the cunning, malevolent wizard, not rage-filled, reactionary punishment.
No one - not one wizard would lay a charge of crime at Albus' feet. No one would dare.
His power dipped, breaching the first of Barty's inner paths. The Death Eater screamed, his true voice higher, shriller, than Alastor's baritone. Head thrown back, Barty's mousy brown hair and tall, emaciated frame burst through the false form and figure of Moody, every muscle strained, bones rattling. The peg leg and magical eye spun away, out through Molly's wards as if shot from a muggle gun.
"Albus! That is not allowed!" Kingsley grabbed at Albus' wand arm.
"Stand aside," he growled, shaking off the auror's hold. "You have not seen what I have seen. Barty Crouch will hurt no one else with his magic."
Beads of power poured down from Albus' ceiling, drawing a thick curtain between Albus and Barty, smothering the blaze of Albus' wrath even as the wards around the Death Eater solidified, becoming solid walls of crystal.
Molly stumbled backward, staggered by the backlash of the release of her wards. She braced herself against a chair, panting, her eyes wide. "It's him," she murmured, hands clasped before her.
Kingsley caught his breath and took a step forward, his interest in Albus refocused on this new … threat? Interference? Enemy?
Albus' long-denied rage burned through his control. "Who dares? Who would stand against me here, within my own castle? Who would deny me the justice my hand alone can bring?" Albus called to the wards he'd sunk into the walls and floors, the stones and planks of Hogwarts over the years of his mastery. He readied the trigger words for the spells that would tear his enemy to pieces. "I am the Master, here."
"In another castle, I once claimed the same, Albus Dumbledore. With the same petty hubris wrapped all around my dark, selfish intentions."
A figure emerged from the light – tall and broad, armed with wand and sword. Its power engulfed Albus, swallowing his spells and hexes and charms, words scrambling inside his mind, twisted to meaninglessness before they could release the castle's magic.
"I once convinced myself that the height of my power gave me the right to judge, to act, to punish. That the breadth of my knowledge made me wiser than my peers. And the length of my experience made me superior to my king and sworn liege lord."
"Merlin," Albus breathed, his rage clotting into a swamp of hunger and denial and disbelief. "Is it – is it time, Merlin? Finally? To draw your sons to power?"
"Indeed," the spirit answered. The wizard's fierce eyes turned warm and compassionate. "My sons are here, Albus. They, even now, are gathering for the final battle of this age."
"Yes." Albus nodded, clearing his throat, anxious to begin. "Of course." He was here, ready, anxious to begin – who else could Merlin have chosen? Kingsley? Minerva? There must be three.
Albus' heart thumped, words catching in his throat at Merlin's sorrowful tone. The wizard's meaning was clear – his head tilted in kind refusal. Albus stumbled backwards, reality spinning into new shapes, unexpected – unwanted - truths. "No. I must – who else but –"
"You have played your part, Albus Dumbledore. You have set aside your life, your living, heart and soul, family and love, conscience and care in order to gather power. To give the Light a rallying point," Merlin explained. "But I see too much of myself in you. My darkness. My shortened sight. The denial of those better parts of me that I willingly sacrificed for more power, more influence, more potential. Empathy. Care for others. I, too, turned my back on those suffering. On children. I spent lives like worthless coins to serve my purposes, all the time convincing myself that my way was the only way."
Albus trembled, sinking down to his knees as the wizard condemned him. Tears started in his eyes, blurring the edges of his sight, of Merlin's towering spirit, Kingsley and Molly, young Crouch, everything into a grey-colored mass. No. No.
"You have served, Albus Dumbledore. You have worked and bled and sweated. But you have ultimately served yourself, using others' sweat and blood and tears. Now, I bind you. I bind you here, at the center of your web. You will not interfere with my sons. You will not spend innocent lives as if you own them. You may remain as headmaster of the school of Hogwarts, but I have broken your charms and controls on these stones, on the spirits that have been commanded to remain here, on the children who you've drawn to yourself and the adults standing in your shadow." Merlin glanced backwards at Barty's rigid form within the crystal prison. "I will not do what you would have done to this broken child. I will not strip you of magic. But, know this." Merlin's arms rose, a sudden hot wind whirling through the chamber, the school, the hallways and dungeons, classrooms and kitchens, grounds and forest and gardens, "Hogwarts is no longer yours. It belongs, as it always should have, to the Light. No other shall ever collar and chain its magic to himself."
Hunched and shriveled, Albus crouched before the wizard. Falling away – cut – severed – all of the many strands of Albus' webs fell to pieces, his thick chains of spells reduced to tiny, tinkling jewels that dropped all around Hogwarts, bouncing, piling up in mounds, ringing in a new day with sound that echoed from the top of the Astronomy Tower to the deepest dungeon. All of the restrained power Albus had clutched tight to himself was caught and absorbed back into the living, breathing castle. Hogwarts shook off the last filament of control, her towers straightening, her corridors warming, each Common Room and dormitory suddenly filled with hope, comfort, acceptance.
Before Albus' tear-filled eyes, the castle's ghosts appeared. The Bloody Baron bowed to Merlin, glowing green and silver, his protective oaths to Slytherin House renewed. Sir Nicholas' form sharpened, his bright red and gold robes shining with new intent. The Fat Friar looked down his hooked nose at Albus for one searing moment before the ghost drew a long-handled mace from his robes to lay at Merlin's feet.
The Grey Lady drew close. Facing Merlin's imposing form, she did not bow or kneel, but, instead, lifted her arms and embraced the legendary wizard.
"Sister," Merlin greeted her, kissing her cheek. "You have held here for so long, walking your protective glyphs and runes into the stones. Thank you."
She smiled – something Albus had never witnessed before on the dour face. "Have you come to release my burden?"
"Your darkest charge will be found and destroyed, that I promise you. As for the rest?" Merlin laid his hand against her cheek. "That is for you to judge."
She stepped back, into the arms of the Bloody Baron.
Peeves was last. Hovering above Merlin, the poltergeist seemed to be trying to drag something – or someone – into view. "Come now, girl. He won't bite. Not even a nibble."
With a loud plop and a spray of water, the figure of a young girl appeared, sopping wet, tears falling freely.
"Thank you, Peeves." Merlin reached out to take the girl's trembling hand. "Your name is Myrtle, isn't it?"
"Yes, your honor," the young ghost curtsied awkwardly.
"I wonder if you'd like to help us, my dear, as you have helped my son before." Merlin kissed the back of Myrtle's hand.
"Oh." Eyes wide, the ghost's cheeks glowed red. "Harry? Yes, I – I'll help Harry. He was nice to me, you know."
Patting her hand, Merlin nodded towards Peeves. "Go with my jester, then. He will show you the way." He leaned closer. "He will, when properly commanded, treat a lady right, won't you Master Peeves?"
The ghost doffed his hat. "With a good will, Master."
"And you could do with a bit of laughter before you move on, my dear." Merlin smiled kindly at the girl. He turned, gesturing, encompassing each of the four house ghosts. "Faithful friends, to your houses. The children must not be harmed by spell, family, or backlash. Heal. Protect. Bring good dreams. Bring hope. Bring cunning and loyalty – to house and friend and school. My sons are preparing for war."
The great Albus Dumbledore could only watch as others took up Merlin's mantle and answered the Light's commands.
Harry leaned back on his elbows, his face lifted to the sun. It was warm here on the lake, warm and peaceful. The wooden swimming platform moved up and down sluggishly on the easy waves, stirred to life by the warm breeze. He closed his eyes and tried to draw the comforting scent further into his lungs, the feeling of the sun on his skin, the platform beneath him absorbing the heat to echo it back to him. He couldn't remember ever feeling this peaceful, this relaxed – this free.
He opened his eyes, his gaze drifting from sky to lake – both were a strange color of bluish green with no clouds or clots of land in the distance. Not the dark black of deep water or the bright blue of a summer sky or even the greenish taint of algae-filled shallows. The color was like a jewel, like magic, like what it must feel like to be happy.
Smiling, Harry looked down at himself. He was dressed for the beach – at least, this was what he'd seen in pictures in books and magazines, turning the pages of photos that caught smiling, laughing families rushing down the sand. He wore knee-length swim shorts covered with bright patterns of yellow and green and a white t-shirt bearing the image of a dragon. He lifted one hand to trace the image across his chest, the sparkling green scales, the unusual spiral horns growing from the beast's head, the golden crown caught in the long claws. He wondered if this looked like grown-up Norbert, or if Charley Weasley could identify the breed.
He'd never gotten a chance to write to Mrs. Weasley, Harry realized. To ask her about Voldemort. About Dumbledore. To talk to her about his dreams or Mad-Eye Moody or the icy shields that had been popping up more and more frequently. Maybe when he woke up he'd have time – time to warn her that the twins were trying to enter the TriWizard Tournament with an aging potion. That Ron wouldn't listen to him about the dangers and how their spell-casting skills were so behind the seventh years. Or, wait, Harry frowned. That had already happened, hadn't it? It hadn't been Ron's or Fred's or George's name that the Goblet spit out – it had been Harry's.
He rose to his feet. When had he fallen asleep? Where had he fallen asleep? In Snape's rooms? With the members of the mysterious Order of the Phoenix all around him? His stomach lurched. Snape had given him a potion – but, still, even if Harry hadn't really slept in weeks, even though his stress levels had never been higher, he wouldn't have dozed off with Snape's black eyes staring at him like that.
Harry's heart thumped as he hurried to the edge of the large wooden deck. He scanned the distance, trying to make out a landmark. The old, decrepit house. The graveyard. The huge snake. Nothing. Nothing was familiar. Not the sights, the sounds, or the scents. This wasn't one of his dreams – his dreams were never this peaceful. This … nice.
"This isn't normal," he said to himself, his anger swirling to life, heating his skin past comfort. He reached to his back pocket for his wand – his hand closed on nothing.
"Wake up, wake up, wake up." Harry muttered the words – half demand and half plea - over and over as he paced around the edge of the platform. Whatever had trapped him here – whoever had trapped him here - might be along any second. He was not going to be caught lounging around this pretty lake while his enemies made their plans. He stopped, startled, and looked at the smooth water. "Okay." He took a deep breath. "I can think of one way to wake myself up." He stood at the very edge of the platform, his toes hanging over. "Don't they say that, in a dream, if you're falling, you'll wake up before you hit the ground? Or the water?"
Shaking out his arms, Harry took a few more deep breaths. It was only water. He could swim. A little. He nodded to himself. "Okay, one, two, thr-"
The voice behind him curled in through Harry's hearing and down into his heart, dispersing his near panic. He stumbled and fell to one knee. The hand on his shoulder kept him from splashing face-first into the water.
He looked up into the smiling face of his godfather.
"Sirius. You found me." Relief swamped him.
"My healer brought us both."
Over Sirius' shoulder Harry saw the bare-foot lady with the tinkling bangles, her steps on the wooden platform making little waves in the lake around them.
"You remember her?"
"Um, hello," Harry mumbled, taking Sirius offered hand and rising to his feet. He could feel his cheeks reddening. Okay, so he'd overreacted. A bit. With his history, it wasn't exactly stupid to immediately think he was under attack, was it.
The healer seemed glad to see him. "Harry."
"I thought – we aren't dreaming, then? I'm not dreaming this place?"
"No, but it's nice, isn't it?" Sirius looked around and filled his lungs with the warm air, arms out. "I wanted to stay here forever."
Harry looked out across the calm lake. "Where is here? It's not in England, I'm pretty sure of that."
"The water is the waters of my home," the healer said. "Color and stillness and beauty. But, you know, it is not one place where we stand. You will not find it in the world." She waved a hand towards some vague, distant place, her bracelets chiming. "Sirius came to a place like this as a teen, with his friends, his true family. Free and happy. But the water was cool, and the sun of the north does not quite warm the soul. And so," she opened her hand as if offering Harry – and Sirius – this quiet place as a gift. "We take our healing places from memory, Harry, and build them up with love and care and comfort. You are safe here. Do you feel it? Do you feel the difference?"
"No – I –"
Sirius' hand tightened on his shoulder. "Give it a minute. Now that you know you're here with me, take a look around. And then take a look at yourself. We've got all the time in the world, here." He shook his head, smiling. "No pressure."
"No pressure," Harry repeated, trying to make himself believe it. "I don't have a lot of experience with that."
Laughing, Sirius gave him a little shake. "Good point. C'mon." He tilted his head towards the center of the platform. "Let's relax. Ischel?"
Clucking her tongue, the healer lifted both hands in a great circle. Beneath Harry's feet the rectangular platform expanded into a long oval. A hole appeared in the center, widening until it exposed two meters of blue/green water that slapped lazily at the edges. Sirius urged Harry towards it with a press of his hand. He transfigured his robes into white linen pants and a bold Hawaiian shirt and sat down, his bare feet dangling in the water.
"Ah, that's more like it." Sirius raised his face up to the sun.
Harry followed suit. The warm water was so soft against his calves that he barely felt it. Ischel, an indulgent smile on her face that reminded Harry of Mrs. Weasley, sank down to sit opposite them, legs crossed beneath her wide skirts.
"Your godfather speaks wisdom. Think about how you feel."
Harry couldn't help thinking this was some kind of test. Another hoop he had to jump through to prove himself. His forehead creased and he lowered his gaze from the healer's calm face to the clear water. There were no fish, no clumps of kelp or water plants, no grindylows or mermen or giant squids. As the sun and water warmed him, the breeze playing with his hair, he began to relax. To let go of his worries.
Deep down, there were glints of light in the water – sparks, silver and green. They gathered into a pattern – a web of light – a net of magic that sank down, deeper and deeper, until he could barely see it.
"Magic," Sirius whispered, leaning into Harry's shoulder.
Harry felt laughter bubble up in his chest. "It's brilliant."
"I've always thought so," Sirius agreed. "Of course, growing up with it might have made me a bit jaded in my callow youth."
"I remember when Hagrid came," Harry began, a sensation of lightness, of pure joy expanding in his chest. "He told me I was a wizard. And, even though it sounded crazy, I believed him. I knew it was true."
"Your magic responded. And, why not? You've been doing magic since you were a tot." Sirius' smile grew nostalgic. "Couldn't keep that little stuffed wolf Remus got you out of your crib. No matter where we'd left it, it showed up there, clutched in those pudgy little fingers." He waggled his hand at Harry.
"I don't remember." A squirm of sorrow twitched in Harry's stomach. "I wish I did. Wish I remembered more than –" he closed his mouth on the words, his mother's scream echoing in his mind. For some reason, it seemed more distant, dimmer, as if it was a memory of a memory. Dwindling. Thinning.
And then there were more. One memory after another appeared before Harry's eyes. His mother's green eyes and warm arms. The younger, happier faces of Sirius and Remus floating stuffed animals just out of his reach. Why hadn't he been able to remember before? Baby Harry giggled and clutched at Sirius' hair. Laid next to a shaggy black dog, his head pillowed on the dog's side. His mother took him from Remus' lap, shushing him so he wouldn't wake the drowsing man.
When Harry looked up Sirius' eyes were dark with unshed tears. "I do remember. You. Mum and dad. Remus." Sorrow choked off Harry's words. "Why – I couldn't – "
"Your sorrow is a part of you. Sorrow. Grief. Longing. This is Harry Potter. Child of love and loss. This is your heart, for the first time, free."
The healer's words washed over Harry as his mind was filled with images of his mum and dad. He trembled at the strength of the sights and sounds of his home. They shook him, filling up dark empty places Harry didn't realize lay at the heart of him.
Strong arms held him, Sirius' comforting words whispering against Harry's sobs, holding him together, reminding Harry he wasn't alone. Never alone. Not again.
The storm passed. Warm breezes brushed the tears from Harry's cheeks and cooled his aching eyes. Sirius held his head against his chest, tucked beneath his chin. Harry should feel too old to be held like this but didn't. Not here. Not today. Long fingers brushed through his hair, rubbed the back of his neck. Harry sighed.
He snorted, nodding. "S-
"Don't you apologize," Sirius interrupted, holding him close for one last moment before releasing Harry.
As Harry straightened, Ischel began to speak.
"How you feel is not right or wrong. It simply is. You are you – you are not Sirius' memories. Not Remus' or Severus' or Minerva's. Not Albus Dumbledore's. You are not their expectations, well-meaning or other. You do not exist for their reasons. Each of us, himself, herself, itself. Created as one. Individual." She placed both hands against her chest, over her heart. "I am Ischel." She held them out to him. "You are Harry. For the first time since a baby. Only Harry."
"Am I?" he whispered, not trusting his voice. "Who is he?" He shut his eyes tight, denying any more tears.
Ischel hushed him when Sirius would have spoken, given Harry the answer. "We find out together. Here. Safe. Warm. No one staring or prodding or expecting. No whispers. No urgings. No right, wrong, no one to call you silly fool or bumbling ninny. No one to judge or stand critic. Can you do that? Find Harry?"
Harry's hands twisted in his lap. "Shouldn't I already know?"
A rustling, tinkling noise made Harry curious and he opened his eyes. Ischel had moved closer, skirts tucked up, feet in the water.
"Tell about the ice, Harry. When did it start? How did it feel?"
Images spun out moments of his life, speeding him back to his crib again, each one soothing a sore longing, filling an empty place. It felt good to describe them, to tell these two about his home – his mum and dad. His father's laughter. His mum's soft hands. Red hair curling around baby fingers. Another baby with dark hair and wide eyes held by a slender woman who looked a lot like Neville. Toddler Harry crawled up the steps, watched over by Sirius who climbed with him, hands and knees. Remus read him stories. An older couple, hair grey and faces lined with creases, cooed at him.
Those sweet images dissolved into tension. His mother's movements were quicker; his father lost his smile. The visits stopped. When Harry cried out for his Paddy, for 'emus, his dad's eyes grew shadowed. His mum tried to carry on, to smile and laugh and play, but Harry felt her fear.
Harry knew what came next. The screams, the cloaked figure, eyes blazing red, the flash of green light. Those memories were still there, but, this time, Sirius' hand on the back of Harry's neck and the warm sun and water of Ischel's healing place held him. Steadied him. Muted the horror.
Baby Harry stood in his crib, his hair as dark and messy as his dad's. One line of blood trickled from the jagged cut on his forehead and his face was screwed up in fear and pain and the anguish of an abandoned, hurt, scared child. He let out a single, echoing, devastated cry. And then, tears dry, breathing settling, he stood in his crib as the ice crept up within him. Around him. The thick covering cooled the air and stifled Harry's emotions. Locked them away. Locked them up with his pain and grief and love. He stammered, trying to describe the feeling.
"Severus was right." Sirius nodded, blinking hard to stop his own tears. "Occlumency."
More memories caught at Harry and summoned him backwards. Lying in his cupboard under the stairs, his body aching from chores or his tummy rumbling with hunger, Harry had tried to smother his crying, hands crammed into his mouth. Crying was no good. They didn’t like to hear him crying. The old baby blanket was pulled over his head, the scent lingering, reminding him of something. Something he missed so much his heart skipped. As he sobbed, the blanket grew, thickened, wrapped him tight. No sound could escape to bring a beating or worse - unkind words stabbing at him. Cold fog condensed from his breath, blowing out in a cloud that pillowed him from head to foot and all around. Eventually, he slept, ice sheathed.
As he'd grown, the blanket thinned and frayed, but the magical covering had changed into armor, thick and strong, sliding across Harry's skin to protect him from angry fists and slaps. Sometimes it muffled his ears, a buffer against the words his aunt and uncle hurled at him. Other times, it stopped up his lips when he wanted to scream or swear or tell the Dursleys exactly what he thought of them. Later, when Harry had gone to primary school and seen other families, seen how children were supposed to be treated – even children of blended or adopted families, like his - Harry's shield changed again. It was in those days that it became a cooling breeze against his fiery temper, a glaze of ice across the deep well of his emotions. It drew itself around Harry when his rage and fear and grief and upset would have flown out in all directions – hurting others, hurting himself.
Silence fell and was swept away by the breeze, taking Harry's shame with it. He swung his feet in the water, his memories settling into place, filling him. The ice shield. The armor. The cool breeze. What had Sirius called it?
"What is Occlumency?"
Sirius shared a glance with Ischel before he spoke. "It's a power of the mind, Harry. It helps wizards keep their thoughts safe, it helps them with self-control, helps us set our feelings aside so that we can think straight about difficult things." His grin felt like he was sharing secrets with Harry. "I don't think you'll be surprised to know that I never really mastered the skill."
"'Keep their thoughts safe?' Can wizards read each other's minds?" Harry shivered. "I don't like that much."
"Very few," Sirius answered. "Those who have studied mind-magic can be healers," he nodded towards Ischel, "counselors, good witches and wizards who only want to help people. But there are others…"
"Bad people. Like Voldemort."
"Some. Voldemort is a Legilimens, someone talented at mind-magic. He taught some of his followers how to sneak into another wizard's mind. Or plow through it for their answers."
Harry's memory spun. Dark eyes met his. A brush of wings against his iron shields. "Snape? Snape can do that?"
Sirius met Harry's accusing gaze evenly. "Yes. Severus is very skilled at mind-magics. It's how he has survived. How he could become a spy for the Light inside Voldemort's own camp. Anyone else would have been exposed the first time Voldemort drilled into his mind."
That sounded awful. Harry rubbed at his arms – not because they were cold, but because the idea of someone rooting around in his brain, sifting through his thoughts and memories, made the hairs on his arms stand right up.
Sirius continued. "In fact, right now, Severus is using his own mind-magic to help you. To help us." Sirius' nod was solemn. "To make sure we can talk to you here, alone, for as long as it takes."
Severus. He was calling him Severus. "Everything is changing," Harry murmured.
"It feels like that," Sirius admitted. "I think, though, that it's more like waking up from a long sleep. We've believed certain things for a while. People thought I was a betrayer, guilty. People thought Wormtail was dead. That Severus was evil, through and through." His voice was low and intense, but not filled with anger or bitterness. "Many thought Voldemort was dead, gone, that you, that Lily's love, had destroyed him. That Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived, lived a charmed life, a young hero riding off to right wrongs with his loyal sidekicks beside him. Untouched and untouchable by evil."
Harry felt tears in his eyes again. They all wanted so much of him. He'd never been able to refuse them, not any of them. Moody. Dumbledore. "I thought – before – that I wanted to wake up. To leave here. Maybe I don't." Not if it meant playing hero in the TriWizard Tournament. Obeying Dumbledore. Putting himself in Moody's hands.
The healer tilted her head and looked Harry up and down. "You are tired. Very tired, yes?"
Leaning forward to trace one hand through the blue-green water, Harry nodded. "I could sleep for a week. A month." His mouth twisted. "That's not going to happen."
"Maybe, instead of sleep, maybe we take away what is making you so tired? Maybe you stop fighting so hard," Ischel offered.
"This … Occlumency. You said it's hard." Harry shook his damp hair from his face. "Is that what's making me tired?"
"In a way." Sirius squinted, tilting one hand back and forth.
"How could I be doing something that difficult? I've never even heard of it before. Were mum and dad good at it? Did I inherit it or something?" Harry clenched his teeth. Another aspect of his magic he had no clue about – great.
"Or something," Sirius agreed. "Not from your mum and dad, though." He sighed, wiping his hands on his thighs, and turned to the healer.
Ischel stilled for a moment and then clasped her hands together before deliberately moving them apart, slow and steady, glowing threads emerging between them like a magical cat's cradle game. Harry watched, fascinated at the colors, blue and white and green, each one merging into the next as she wove a pattern like the magical net he'd glimpsed beneath the waves. "You are safe here, child. Remember that. Nothing can harm you; no one can reach you from within or without."
Harry nodded, swallowing hard. "Okay." He couldn’t look away from the weaving light – he didn't want to.
"Severus told me much about you. About your talents. Quidditch Seeker. Defense against the Dark. You have a quick mind. A cunning one."
Harry agreed without thinking.
"You speak Parseltongue. Believed yourself to be the Heir of Slytherin. Why is that?"
The threads shifted in and out, pale and bright, soft, caressing. "The Sorting Hat wanted to put me there. It said I could be either – Gryffindor or Slytherin."
"You inherited your father's skill on a broom. Your mother's soft heart and quick temper." Ischel murmured, her hands moving. "You inherited your cunning, Parseltongue, and Occlumency from another. From the one known as Voldemort. Tom Riddle. Through his curse and your scar." Calm. Easy. She didn't sound like she pitied Harry or accused him. "He left a bit of himself, a piece of his soul, broken and senseless, within you."
"Oh." Harry should be upset. Angry. He should deny the connection, the very thought that Voldemort could be tied to him. It was disgusting. Unthinkable. He raised one hand to touch the scar on his forehead. Had his parents' killer been with him, attached to him, all his life? Had Harry helped sustain the evil man past his certain death? Given him a place to hide?
"I have a load of questions," he announced.
"Naturally." Ischel wove, the strands between her fingers sparking bright to draw Harry's gaze back. "Many we can answer here. Some we cannot. We will tell all we know, young Harry, without secret-keeping or arrogance." She clucked her tongue and shook her head. "Only arrogance could claim you have no right to know."
That felt – refreshing. "Thank you. It feels like people have been keeping secrets from me – about me – my whole life. You," he shifted his gaze towards Sirius, "you haven't known this my whole life, have you?"
"I just found out. There was only one man who even suspected. I'm guessing you won't have any trouble figuring out who."
"Professor Dumbledore." That was the only right answer. "He's always known?"
"Even Albus took years to figure it out. In fact," Sirius' expression was grim, "it wasn't until you and Miss Weasley found Tom's old diary and you killed the soul-piece he'd placed there, that he realized the truth."
Tom Riddle's specter rose up in Harry's memory. "He wasn't a ghost then, or a memory. He was a –" Harry glanced back and forth between the two adults for the word.
"Horcrux," Harry parroted. He blinked, his mind trying to catch at feelings, thoughts, worries or concerns. They passed too quickly for him to latch onto any one. Ischel's weaving drew his attention again and his thoughts seemed to bend and fold with her movements. "Why – how – hang on," Harry tore his gaze away from the gleaming net and stared accusingly at Sirius. "What is she doing? Is she trying to hypnotize me or something?" Bitter anger rose up from his gut. "Trying to keep me calm?"
Sirius' expression was patient, focused. "Why don't you ask her?"
Harry tried to get up, to scramble to his feet, but Sirius' hand on his shoulder held him. "People don't explain things to me, they just do things and expect me to take it. Like Moody. And Dumbledore."
"Sometimes," the healer explained, "a child needs adults to protect him first and explain later. When he can understand."
"I'm not a child – I haven't been a child for years." Harry swept one arm out. "If you two are just going to, to manipulate me like the others then maybe I do want to wake up. Go back and figure this out on my own, with Ron and Hermione, like I always bloody have."
"All I said," Sirius leaned closer, intent but not angry, "was that you should ask her. If you don't get an answer that you like, we'll talk about it. Okay?"
"Fine." Nothing about Sirius' words made Harry feel better. He crossed his arms over his chest. "What are you doing to me?" He jerked his chin at the magical net. "What is that thing?"
"This is peace. Protection." She tilted her head, dark eyes meeting Harry's. "Consider: your friends, their families, they do not say the name of the enemy."
"Voldemort. Right. How is that –"
"Magic can reach far beyond the world, this you know. It can find pathways through the universe, hear and see across distances, feel the call of a master from afar. So, as with powerful names also powerful curses." Her hands moved steadily, tightening the gaps in the growing net. "Its power vibrates along the channels and pathways of the universe. We speak of the deepest magics here, of Voldemort. Horcrux. Even the wisest hesitate to say the words aloud. And you?" She bowed her head in Harry's direction. "You, who hold a part of the enemy's soul within you, are most susceptible to his awareness."
Harry's frown plowed deep creases in his forehead. "I don't understand." He dragged the words out through his clenched teeth. He really didn't want to admit that.
"And so, I did not first explain," Ischel answered. "I weave as Severus, too, weaves outside here. A net to catch awareness. A barrier to protect. A gleaming trap to hold the enemy if he bends his will towards you. Now. See."
She gestured and the net slipped off of her fingers, spreading out impossibly wide above their heads. It hung there, huge and sparkling, a canopy, lining the entire sky.
"When Severus, a warrior, a strategist, weaves such a net it protects and distracts. It is armor and trap and charm. Strong and mighty. You saw it in the water, beneath us. When Ischel, a healer, weaves, it is different. Brings peace. Shields emotions and smothers worries. Of all who live beneath."
"This is Ischel's kind of Occlumency, Harry." Sirius squeezed and then dropped his hand from Harry's shoulder. "This kind helps others keep their minds clear, not controlled. Okay?"
His lips still tight, Harry considered the others' words. Okay, maybe she hadn't been controlling him. He'd been distracted by the tangled light, but he'd still felt his emotions, still got angry and confronted them. He jerked a nod at his godfather but resolved to stay on his guard. This was all new to Harry, new, disturbing information. About Voldemort. About himself. And something told him he'd better come to grips with all of it bloody quick.
"He can find me through this?" He touched his scar again. "Look into my head? Change the way I think and react whenever he wants to? Can he make me do things? Like the Imperius?"
"Let us speak of Horcrux. What we know we learned just days ago. And we shall tell you all."
"Yes," Harry demanded. He took a deep breath and tried to unclench his fists. He remembered Snape's words. "I'm listening."
Sirius straightened. "A Horcrux is made when a wizard deliberately rips a part of his soul away in a particularly dark way. His aim is to cheat death. To keep himself safe. You see, you can't kill a wizard without killing his soul – his entire soul. And if it's not in his body," Sirius lifted his hands.
Harry frowned. "What 'particularly dark way?'"
"It is the darkest of magics, painful and horrible. It's whispered about in the oldest, darkest books. Tom collected those books, sought out the magic. In order to perform the spell, the wizard must take a life and use the person's life energy to fuel the magic."
"You mean –"
"Murder. Once the wizard has collected the object he will use, something dear to him or filled with symbolic purpose, he kills. It is the killing curse that rips his soul." Sirius' expression was closed-off, clouded. "I don't know what you've been taught, but the killing curse isn't something to trifle with. None of the Unforgiveables are." He lowered his gaze. "The darker spells, they affect the caster almost as much as the target."
"Magic finds balance." Ischel spoke gently into the silence gathering around Sirius. "Intention, Light or Dark, must be balanced. Loss of life balanced by sacrifice. Control by chaos. Physical pain by maiming of the wizard's mind. Each Unforgiveable taints our world – and the caster."
Harry thought back to Moody's classes. He hadn't talked about balance. He hadn't mentioned the cost the wizard himself paid to cast those curses. But Ischel's explanation felt right. True. Sirius had said that Avada Kadavra, the killing curse, tore off a piece of the wizard's soul. Imperius – the healer had said it was balanced by chaos. When you controlled another person's actions, did the caster's own actions become chaotic? Out of control? Did casting Crucio twist the wizard's mind into insanity? "If that's true, why can Professor Moody cast those spells? How could he dare?" Harry whispered.
Sirius exchanged glances with the healer. "We promise to tell you about Moody when we hear back from Dumbledore. The headmaster is dealing with him right now." Sirius leaned towards Harry. "I know we promised to answer all your questions; we just don't have definite answers to give you."
"That – that seems fair." Harry didn't know how much his attitude was influenced by the healer's net, but he couldn't really ask for answers that Sirius didn't have.
"To continue, Tom perfected the Horcrux spell while he was a student at Hogwarts. We think the diary was his first successful use. He killed a girl named –"
"Myrtle," whispered Harry. "In the girls' bathroom. She didn't even see him coming."
"That's right. After that, Tom used it more than once. Obviously." Sirius pointed to Harry's scar. "Once unexpectedly."
"How many –" Harry swallowed in a dry throat. "Are there more still out there?"
"Albus is sure of it."
"And I'm – part of him is here now, listening?"
"No. I don't think that's how it works, actually, but to be sure, while we're here with you, Severus is dealing with Tom Riddle. With his Horcrux, anyway." Sirius didn't smile, but his eyes were alight. "Here, you're just Harry. No ice, no shields, nothing else. Nothing that isn't pure you. Because you're tired, because your magic has been fighting him for so long, fighting to keep him contained, to keep him from hurting you, you probably don't feel much like yourself. But you will."
"It was him," Harry said, glancing up at Sirius' distraught expression. "The ice. The Occlumency. It wasn't me at all. Tom Riddle gave me the ice. Or," he corrected himself, "he did it for himself, I guess. He couldn't stand baby Harry's grief and loss. The love for my parents that rose up, that reached out for them. Tom didn't like it, so he gave me the ice. To protect him from my sorrow. My memories. I guess it protected me, too. And then, when I got my Hogwarts letter – when Hagrid came – it was gone."
Harry remembered. Hagrid. Diagon Alley. The joy of finding out he was a wizard. The Great Hall, candles floating beneath a night sky. Ron and his family, a friendship taking hold instantly, joining the two from the moment they met. Hermione – that was a friendship that had grown, slow and steady. That first year, he'd taken off on a broom after Malfoy, angry at the boy's taunting of his friends. He'd rushed off to warn Hermione about the Mountain Troll and hurried past Fluffy to save the Philosopher's Stone. Quick to act, to stand up for his friends.
Ron and Hermione and Neville. The twins. Seamus and Dean. Hagrid. Ginny. The fierce ties of their friendship were like the tendrils of light in Ischel's hands. A net to hold him up and keep him safe. Ron and his brothers had saved Harry from barred windows and barely enough food to sustain a cat that next summer. When the school was bent on finding the Heir of Slytherin and Harry had spoken Parseltongue and made himself a target of gossip, he still had them all. When Snape was cruel and Harry was trapped in detention, Ron and Hermione were waiting for him. Even Hagrid made sure Harry had all the clues he needed to find the answers. To open the pipes and find the basilisk. To save Ginny.
During those years, Harry had battled Voldemort twice. Once he'd kept the wraith from taking the Philosopher's Stone. He'd touched Quirrell and watched him die, shaking and crying and trying not to throw up the whole time. No icy covering kept Harry calm and cool; not a thing slipped between the possessed man and what Dumbledore had called Harry's love. His mother's love coating every inch of his skin. In the Chamber of Secrets, Harry had stood up to Tom Riddle, running, hiding, finally finding the sword to kill the monster. He'd been scared. Terrified. So sure he was going to die as the venom crawled through his blood. No helpful cloud of mist had countered that poison.
It was during that summer that he'd finally felt the ice again. When he'd blown up Aunt Marge. Threatened Uncle Vernon. When the sight of the black dog hadn't frightened him.
"Hogwarts," Harry murmured. "It's always stayed away from Hogwarts. Not this year, but always before."
Ischel smiled. "Riddle has always been afraid of Albus Dumbledore. Afraid he would be seen, looking out from your eyes."
"This year is different, isn't it?" Sirius prodded. "You've said as much, Harry."
"It's come with me, this year. Followed me from Privet Drive to the Quidditch World Cup to the Weasleys'."
Sirius huffed, a frustrated sound, his hands flexing as if readying a spell. "We believe Tom is closer, now. Getting stronger. Gathering his followers. Pettigrew. Others." Sirius spat out the name. "The attack at the Quidditch Cup told us as much. Your dreams confirmed it." Sirius tapped his own forehead. "He's planning something big."
"Something to do with me."
"Oh, yes." Sirius patted Harry's hand. "Tom was vanquished by a baby. The wizarding world has made Harry Potter a synonym for his defeat. A symbol of victory. He's not about to let that go."
"Sirius – I went to Snape for help to get out of this stupid tournament. Something tells me that's the least of my worries." The worst dark wizard ever was after Harry. Targeting him. Voldemort was some kind of undead, unkillable thing who had hidden followers everywhere. Heart thumping, Harry twisted to face his godfather. "What do I do? What can I do?"
"Not 'what can I do,' Harry." This time Sirius grabbed Harry's hand and wouldn't let go. "It's 'what can WE do.' You're not alone. You'll never be alone again. We've sworn it."
"You and Ischel?" Okay, that was good. But even so, they couldn't hide Harry away here forever. His spirit churned, that red and gold lion inside rearing up. No, hiding away here, that wasn't right. It wasn't … Harry.
Sirius' mouth quirked into a half-smile. "All of us, the entire Order of the Phoenix, the most powerful light wizards and witches I've ever met. We're all here, beside you. And, even more than that, Severus and me. We've taken vows, Harry. Vows to keep you safe, to teach you what you need to know. To stand with you and bring down the bastard once and for all." His eyes blazed. "And, when you're ready, we, the three of us, are going to kill him."
Severus and Minerva held the wards, weaving the magic into a tight net as they walked the edges of the square that Remus was drawing. Severus, on the inside, skirted the three figures sitting within the rune-square, raising walls and shields, drawing in traps, blind alleys, and increasing loops even as the net closed tighter and tighter. If they'd had access to Molly, the wards would have risen more quickly – more securely – but she was busy elsewhere. They would have to make do until other members of the Order could arrive.
'Make do.' Severus nearly snorted and ruined the braided cord of power he and Minerva were building. One did not seek to 'make do' when facing the Dark Lord – or even a small, twisted part of the wizard's soul. Behind him, through the healer's blue/green waves of healing, Severus could hear the thing. He could hear it chittering, as if gnashing its teeth at its capture. He could feel it, black ice creaking and creeping around the edges of Ischel's power, attempting to get to the boy, to strengthen its grip on its prisoner. Severus must stop, soon, and face it. Whether or not the others arrived, he could not let the thing tear at the child's psyche and soul any longer.
Remus stood, finishing the last rune just as Severus and Minerva's magic met, sealing Severus inside and him and Minerva outside. Crossing behind Minerva, Remus took up the chanting, adding his support to her efforts. He caught Severus' eye and gave a slight nod, communicating his readiness to hold the net while Severus dealt with the Horcrux. Severus wanted to trust the wolf's efforts but allowed himself one more pass around the square to test for any weakness before releasing the net into their hands. Bracing himself, settling his mind and will, he turned to face the true challenge. No matter what happened to him, the Horcrux would not escape.
The three sat close together in the center of the square, Harry still slumped in the armchair, Ischel and Sirius kneeling on either side, one hand each clasped firmly with Harry's and each other's, forming a triad. Not as stable as a square as Arithmancy taught, but the triad was a memorable number for Harry. One that resonated with the pitch and roll of the boy's soul. Single child of two loving parents. Center of a now-famous trio of friends. One of three prophesied sons of Merlin. Held forever in the hearts of three unfailing friends – James Potter, Sirius Black, and Remus Lupin. Even the boy's adopted family, the Dursleys, as unacceptable and abusive as their care, or lack thereof, had turned out to be, were three.
All three had their eyes closed, their breathing steady, their consciousnesses … elsewhere. Severus understood the healer's methods. The two had discussed each and every possible way to approach the Dark Lord's infestation in Harry's being – some they had discarded as too damaging to the child, some too hesitant to be of any use, and some so outlandish that neither of them had the first idea how to go about the incantations. Guarding Harry's soul and mind within Sirius' healing place while Severus worked was the best solution. This struggle would not be easy. Nor painless. For either Severus or the boy.
He breathed, slow and deep, his Occlumency shields at their peak. The healer's protection sat like another layer of skin across Harry's body, thin and sheer along his arms and legs, but a thick, opaque shield from his waist up and across his shoulders and over his head. Only the lightning-bolt scar was free of the blue/green hue. The darkness of the boy's scar seemed blacker, deeper, sucking away all the light from Severus' rooms, dimming the glimmer of the magics as they neared the Horcrux's refuge.
Bowing his head, Severus sank down into the straight-backed chair that faced the boy, their knees almost touching. He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing and his heartbeat, his awareness sinking towards his center even as his wand remained pointed at the opening in Ischel's protective barrier. The physical world melted, color and sound and sensation dripping away like candle wax, until Severus walked out of life and into the spirit world – the soul-place he'd created long ago. His place of hiding, of safety, of reflection. As he moved within himself, he whispered a word of warning to the healer, informing her that it was beginning.
Opening inner eyes, Severus felt immeasurable relief. Here, everything was familiar. Here, Severus was in control. No one intruded here – no power or expectation or command could reach him without his consent. His boots stood on solid ground, built of rock and stone. Tall walls rose up on either side, the vaulted ceiling barely visible above. Severus' consciousness stood between the two sides of his divided soul.
Black and white. Dark and light. On one side the stone writhed, warped with bitterness, striving to break free and embrace his old oaths of selfishness and revenge and hatred. The other shone brighter these days, warmer, its stillness offering peace and purpose and joy. Severus tightened his resolve and moved down the hallway to the fork set at the end. Turning left, he would surround himself with light and burn away any lingering taint from his dealings with the Dark Lord. Turning right, darkness would smother his internal light.
Severus faced the light, braced against his soul's eagerness to dive inside. Instead he tuned his mind to sharpness and knit a barrier into place across its glow. Fire and ice, fueled by a magical core of lean muscle and steadfast will that had kept him sane all these years, he made the barrier thick with cords of magic, impenetrable, woven so densely that not one tiny ray of light could shine through. He tested it. Tried it. Once. Twice. Three times. No murmur of ease, no spark of light or warmth could pierce his weaving.
Between one breath and another, Severus found himself engulfed by darkness, the black writhing mass of evil that remained surging forward at the absence of light to gather him in. This too was familiar. He'd made it his home between childhood and Lily's death. He still knew every twist and turn of its icy pathways, remembered the locked caves and heavy chests where he'd hidden his meanest thoughts and cruelest desires. He turned to face his darkness, his hands braced against the ice-coated, rough-hewn walls that would lead to his destination. One foot in front of the other, Severus stalked forward along the only pathway, black flames rising up to greet him, to separate greater from lesser darkness, giving length and breadth and form to the shadows around him.
He stepped into a chamber that was the echo of one he knew in life so long ago. The Prince family ritual room. Man-sized fireplace at one end, runes and squares cut deep into the stone floor, the walls were lined with shelves restraining tomes of black magic that wrestled and snarled against their chains, weapons poised to strike, and potions glowing in readiness. His mask and hood awaited him, hanging in midair as if a servant held them, awaiting his return.
Before he could consider too closely, Severus pulled the deaths' mask over his features and slid the hood over his head. One last time. Turning to face the only entrance, Severus threw back his sleeve and touched the tip of his wand to the faded tattoo, the Dark Lord's mark.
"Here, my lord." Severus spoke the words that would invite whatever was left of his former master's soul to this safe haven.
The magic of the Dark Mark billowed out, bringing fear, guilt, dread, hopelessness, all of the emotions Tom Riddle had imbued within the ink every time he'd marked another of his followers. It had reminded each Death Eater of his oaths, of his servitude, of his slavery, an emblem of the corruption of his own soul every time Riddle had summoned them or left his banner in the sky over his victims. Since Harry's birth, the ugly scar on Severus' skin and soul had been fading – until recently. Karkaroff and his perverted gang had been right about one thing – the darkening of the Mark was a foreboding omen.
Severus, stolid and stoic behind his mask, looked up and braced himself an instant before the Horcrux appeared, huge and writhing in this setting, putrid and howling. The gale-force wind plastered Severus' robes against his body. Cold, bitter, it bit at any exposed skin, threatening to break off pieces of him if it continued. The unearthly noise rose, screaming, moaning, chittering in a high-pitched squeal of rage and despair. A visible aura followed, the green of mildew, of rot and gangrene, lighting the rocky passageway as it neared, smelling of corrupted flesh and burning blood.
Severus stood strong, shoulders back, hands clasped before him, waiting through the dramatics. The Dark Lord did so love his dramatics.
The aura, stench, and howling coalesced into form, dark robes, elegantly cut, orc-hide boots, a high-collared cloak, barely visible runes sewn black-on-black all along its length, set off Riddle's unnaturally pale skin and jutting cheekbones. His hair was cut shorter than the average wizard's, a white-shot brown lying in waves across his skull, receding from his high forehead. Severus knew that the boy had been handsome in his youth, his sparkling eyes inviting others to listen to his words and thankfully accept his friendship. By the time of his attack on Lily and the Potters, Riddle had delved so far into darkness that its marks were quite visible. Rail thin, skin sunken against his bones, Riddle's eyes were no more than tiny sparks of red and silver.
"Severus, my faithful follower. What have you done?"
The Dark Lord's words hissed, his thin lips moving out of rhythm, twisting his face into further ugliness.
"You are at risk, Master." Severus bowed deeply. "Your strategy has been revealed. Even now they seek to remove you from the boy."
His movements erratic, uncoordinated, Riddle's image paced nervously around Severus' safe place. "What is this – I cannot –" He jerked to a halt, eyes closed, and raised one hand to his head. "Still there, good." Riddle opened his eyes and peered at Severus. "I retain my hold on the simpering twit, but there is interference. Stop them, Severus. I cannot lose another –"
Severus cocked his head. "Another?" he repeated.
A rictus grin grew across the pale face. "You know what I am. Do not pretend otherwise."
"My lord." Severus bowed again. "I had not considered how many of these … spells you had accomplished before you were unbodied."
Snarling, Riddle pressed forward. "Did you think I barely survived, Severus? That I managed to place one single whimpering remnant of my soul into the cursed child by the skin of my teeth? Did you really give Lily Potter, the object of your filthy fantasies and ugly obsession, credit for that kind of power over me?" His voice dripped accusation.
"It is difficult to imagine even a wizard as formidable as yourself attempting to make more than one Horcrux, my lord." Severus colored his response with a large measure of awe to cover his anger at Riddle's slurs. "I don't believe anyone could have expected it."
"Of course not, blind fools, all of them. Too afraid to study the darkness as I have." He pulled his robes around his slim form, putting on a frightened demeanor. "'Oh, no,' they'd all say, 'those spells might hurt me, I could be damaged.'" He snorted. "There is no reward without risk, Severus. And, believe me, my rewards have been great and will be greater, still."
"If these interfering wizards succeed in removing you from the boy, are there others that will keep you safe? Are you in contact with these others?" Severus feigned eagerness. "Can you confirm that they are all intact?"
The Dark Lord smirked. "They will not succeed. Not if they want the boy to live. Removing me from my receptacle would damage him – mind, body, his own soul may tear apart and be lost to eternity. I've made very sure of that."
It was as Severus suspected. Removing Riddle's Horcruxes could not be their goal – destroying them was the only option.
"Even so, the others – are they protected?"
Riddle's eyes narrowed down to blazing red sparks. "All but one. My first."
The diary. Albus had been disgustingly pleased with himself when he related the tale of Harry's battle with Riddle's Horcrux and Slytherin's basilisk. "You are sure?"
"We feel the loss, each one of us." Riddle tapped one long finger against his chest. "It diminishes us." Riddle barked out a dark laugh. "I had thought my devoted follower would be more careful with the diary. Happily, it was the only one I trusted in someone else's hands."
"My lord," Severus laced his tone with regret and dread, "the wizarding world has changed since you've been … delayed. Many of the old lines have been choked off by death or imprisonment. Old places, revered by our brothers and sisters, have been razed by our enemies. Even if you can sense that the others have not been destroyed, do you know which hands hold them? If they've been taken from safety?"
The eyes flickered, uncertainty replacing the arrogance on Riddle's face. "I cannot be removed from the boy, but, even so, I cannot directly affect his actions. Not yet. Nor can I, in this state, warn my living being of this danger." Lips pursed, he regarded Severus. "You must be my hands and eyes, sweet Severus. You have taken my mark." He gestured at the darkness that surrounded them. "At your very center, you remain a creature of the Dark, your true nature hidden as well as it can be from the outside world, from that dimwit Dumbledore. You must find my Horcruxes. Make sure of their safety." Riddle raised one finger before Severus' face. "One warning. Touch them at your own risk. They are warded, their resting places cursed with spells stronger than you can imagine. But, you, my true son," Riddle moved forward, one hand resting on Severus' chest over his heart, "you alone can be trusted." A slim, cold smile slid across Riddle's face. "Within limits."
Severus drew his Occlumency shields tight, hiding the flinch as Riddle's soul grazed his own, biting cold and sharp. Darkness. He let it swallow him, drew it around him, hiding deep within. Only darkness.
Riddle hissed; his spell, incanted in Parseltongue, cracked through the center of Severus' being, tying his soul into a complicated knot fixed in place, commanded to do the Dark Lord's bidding or die. He felt it, knew it for what it was. Imperio. Severus did not fight it. Instead, the darkness accepted Riddle's Imperius curse, absorbed it into the black depths. There would be only one way to go, now. One pathway allowed for Severus. He had no choice but this one.
"Now," Riddle stepped back, satisfaction fueling his sickly green aura, "I will trust you with the locations of my treasures. And treasures they are, Severus. Keep them secret, keep them safe. They can no more be removed from their placements than I can be from the Potter brat."
Hufflepuff's cup. Ravenclaw's diadem. The Gaunt family ring. Slytherin's locket. The snake, Nagini. Harry. The images flashed before Severus' inner eye, Riddle's Legilimency planting the locations within him. The LeStrange vault. The Room of Requirement. Buried beneath a ruined shanty. Hidden in a sea cave. The snake, close beside her master. The boy buried beneath healing shields in Severus' own lounge.
Severus bowed his head, cutting off the Dark Lord's access to his mind before the knowledge could drive itself any deeper than his short-term memories. A smile danced across his lips. This knowledge would not – could not be lost. Not even by his death. He'd made sure of that.
"We must go," Severus announced, gesturing towards the rocky entrance. "I must be about your work, my lord. And you must return fully to the boy before the healer can cause any damage." Damage to Harry, that is, he added to himself.
Riddle lifted his chin. "Walk beside me, dear Severus, as you will again, soon. Soon my body will be returned to me. Eager servants are even now making sure that I will walk the world, strong, resurrected, unassailable."
Severus stepped to the Dark Lord's side. "I cannot wait for the day I can stand beside you once again."
The two marched down Severus' inner corridor towards the intersection, Severus one step ahead. Even now Riddle did not trust his servant not to lead him into a trap. Severus' smile grew, his mind calm, at peace. He reached the edge of his barrier and did not hesitate.
"Finite," he whispered, jerking his power from the massive shield he'd woven across his inner light.
Light. Heat. Truth. Lily's love. Merlin's claim and Severus' oath. A sirocco of magic burst out of its chains, white-hot, pure. It filled Severus' soul-place, burning, cleansing, reaching wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor, all-encompassing. The rocky walls became clear crystal, magnifying and echoing the light into every corner and crevasse.
His eyes open wide to receive his fate, Severus welcomed the pain, the scouring sand and blinding heat. Behind his right shoulder, the Dark Lord's Horcrux screamed, held to perfect stillness while the light dissolved it from outer edge down to the tiniest drop of darkness at its very center.
Fiery tears burned in Severus' eyes as he felt the Horcrux die. His last emotion was gratitude, thanks for this gift, this boon granted to such a one as he. To see the end of Harry's curse.
As Severus burned, he sent out one last thought into the universe, towards Ischel and Sirius. "It's done."
A/N: So, so, so sorry - the trip to NoWIFI Land has come upon me and I haven't finished. Please forgive me. I'll be back ASAP to upload the final chapters. Thank you all for your patience.
Has Severus survived? What will happen to the Sons of Merlin? Will the author recover from jet lag before the readers come for her with flaming torches and pitchforks?? Tune in to this new chapter to find out! (And thank you all for your comments!!)
Harry awoke, lazy and warm, every muscle relaxed in the woven hammock Sirius had created for him. The healing world Ischel had brought him to had already begun to react before he opened his eyes – just like always. The sun began as a dim glow on the horizon and, before he sat up to rub the sleep from his eyes, it would already be overhead. The rough-looking crates stacked at one end of the platform would be filled with food, Harry's favorites. Sirius and Ischel would be waiting for him, sitting across a low table halfway through their tea, always ready to talk or listen or set up training matches for Harry whenever he was ready.
It was a bit embarrassing. Only Harry needed to eat or sleep here, apparently. Only Harry felt tired or restless, hungry or thirsty. Sirius had explained it that first day, but Harry couldn't seem to take it in – to make it real.
"We're not really here, remember?" His godfather had waved one hand in an arc, leaving a streak of red fire in the sky that turned into a phoenix and then a dragon and then Harry in his Quidditch robes riding his broom at break-neck speed. The image of Harry circled the lake twice before disappearing with a bang and a sizzle like fireworks. Sirius had laughed and laid a hand over Harry's heart. "While we sit in Severus' rooms, Ischel has brought our spirits – our awareness – into this place. We're within you, Harry. Deep down where your magical core is healing. It's taken a beating from Riddle's Horcrux. Keeping you here, making you recharge your magical energy by simulating food and sleep and exercise – that's your core's way of getting what it needs."
"And it's still right after the Goblet spit out my name?" Harry loved magic but putting aside his logic still took some effort. "Because it's been days. Weeks."
"Seems that way to you. Ischel and I have more experience, so time's movements are easier for us to sense. For instance," Sirius had explained, "I can feel my physical body kneeling on the rug beside you. I haven't even had time to get a cramp in my legs yet."
Harry had closed his eyes and tried to sense his body, the feel of the chair beneath him, Sirius holding his hand. He'd finally given up. The sun and water were more real than his true body, apparently.
"Harry, your core has been worked to the bone keeping Riddle at bay all these years. Here, safe and protected, you're finally getting what you need. Your core is lapping up the healing energy Ischel is providing. Let it lead you, for once, without worrying about what might be going on out there." Sirius had jerked his head in an arbitrary direction. "You're not missing anything, I promise."
Harry grabbed the edges of the hammock and levered himself upright. The two had told him that the healing would take time. More time than they could provide in this one session – no matter how long it seemed to go on for Harry. But they'd also explained how resilient a wizard's core could be – how a little time and training could make significant progress – was already making significant progress. And, Harry admitted to himself, Sirius' training was fun. Unlike Moody's dark, tense classes, it felt like play as Sirius set up targets and walked Harry through some of the spells he'd seen Cedric and the older students cast.
Harry couldn't wait to show Ron and Neville. Hermione? He shrugged. She probably already knew them.
Sirius looked up when Harry stood, but he didn't beckon him or hurry him along. Harry didn't know how many times he'd fallen asleep, how many 'meals' he'd eaten or day/night timeframes he'd experienced here, but Sirius and Ischel had always been waiting for him. Patient. Calm. There was none of the eagerness he expected, or the anxious rush to get Harry ready for the next crisis. They acted as if they had all the time in the world. That attitude had annoyed Harry at the beginning – he'd never been the most patient student – but now it felt good. Great, even. Like he was being taken care of for his own sake rather than being prepared for battle.
He stripped off his shirt and moved to the edge of the platform. He didn't need Sirius to swim beside him anymore. A few swimming lessons were all it had taken for Harry to gain confidence, to learn that he was as at home in the water as he was on a broom. It was a lot like flying, actually. Weightless, drifting, alone. Free. Harry dived in, the warm water welcoming him, cradling him as he swept beneath the sparkling surface, his muscles flexing, bunching, propelling him forward. Far below he glimpsed the protective net that held this inner world in place. He pressed upward, breaching the glimmering waves and swam hard for as long as he had breath.
Treading water, Harry wiped his eyes and then turned to wave at the others, pleasantly surprised at how far he'd been able to come. Mental muscles, Sirius called them when Harry asked about his physical body. For years, ever since Voldemort had lodged a piece of his soul inside Harry, his mind and magic had been fighting the dark magic leaking through. Now that the Horcrux had been locked away, his energy needed retraining. Sirius had explained it like a man who only ever lifted weights with one arm – that arm was pumped up, huge with muscles, while the rest of his body was skinny and weak. One reason Harry was so good at Defense Against the Dark Arts, apparently, and so pants at Transfiguration, Potions, and Charms.
"Out in the world we know that the act of swimming works out the entire body – arms and legs, heart and lungs, chest and core," Sirius had told him. "Here, the mental exercise you are doing as you visualize swimming has the same results – it strengthens all of your systems, magical, spiritual, and mental. It's the perfect metaphor for a balanced approach to training all of you." He'd grinned. "I used the same image when I was healing from Azkaban. It works."
Harry slid sideways to begin his laps around the platform. Front, back, side, he swam on, knowing from experience that his long, circular course would take him gradually closer and closer to the platform, his magic tracking his mental exhaustion, making sure he didn't overdo it. Swimming, Harry had decided, was even better than flying in one respect: it freed his thoughts. Rather than concentrating on speed or strategy, Harry could let his mind sketch its own path, pursuing memories or worries or rehearsing the spells Sirius had been teaching him. Over the past few days, he'd been replaying his new memories of his parents and their friends over and over again. Sometimes he dwelt on the Horcrux, on Voldemort's hold on him, the ill feeling he got when he thought of the Dark Wizard's powers seeping into Harry over the years. Sometimes he wondered about Snape's work, how he was keeping the soul-piece occupied while he sought a means to dislodge it.
Lately Harry had relived his own choices, from his earliest memories to yesterday in the Great Hall, examining each one for taint, for manipulation, and trying to figure out who exactly Harry Potter was. Was he the arrogant, impulsive boy who raced after Lucius Malfoy to face the powerful man and steal away his House Elf? Was he the angry, bitter orphan who had stunned Snape in the Shrieking Shack so that he had the chance to find out the truth about Sirius and Pettigrew? Was he the brainless daredevil who'd drunk Polyjuice potion brewed by a second year so that he could sneak into Slytherin and spy on Draco? Or was Harry the cowed, depressed boy shoved around by the Dursleys, trying to stay silent and pretend he didn't exist? Which of those attributes were truly Harry Potter? How could he know how much of his behavior had been determined by his own choices and which acts had resulted from the manipulation of Riddle's curse?
Harry flipped over onto his back, arms digging in and legs kicking hard. He'd been avoiding one topic – all three of them knew it. When he'd last awoken, Sirius had stated the facts plainly. "You'll have to face your feelings before we return. Your feelings," he'd emphasized. "Not your friends'. Not mine. Not anyone else's in the wizarding world. It's important, Harry. Or, it will be." When Harry had tightened his jaw, stubbornly refusing to meet his godfather's eyes, Sirius had looped an arm around his shoulders. "You are important in this battle, no matter our desires to keep you safe and protected. It's not something we can simply ignore. And," he'd warned, "more importantly, the three of us have been chosen to stand together during that battle. To take the brunt of it on our shoulders. Your attitude towards Severus must be sorted out before that can happen."
Snape. It was the last sticking point, the last hurdle Harry had to overcome before he returned to Hogwarts. To the castle, to his friends, to the Tournament, and to the battle with Voldemort that was now inevitable. Three Sons of Merlin – Harry, Sirius, and Snape – would bring the fight to Tom Riddle and eliminate him. That fact didn't scare Harry half as much as opening up to the wizard who had made his life miserable from the moment he'd set foot in Hogwarts.
Even facing Dumbledore wasn't as intimidating. The headmaster's manipulation at least seemed … indifferent. According to the other adults, Dumbledore had begun shifting all of his pieces into place before Harry was even born, completely focused on choosing allies and bringing them into line at the proper place at the proper time, uncaring of whether they had any idea what was going on around them. Or if they were children. Or wrongfully imprisoned. The wizard who had formed the Order of the Phoenix, who had fought against Voldemort during his first rise to power, had been gathering intelligence for decades. Harry was just one piece of Dumbledore's puzzle, one pawn on his board. Harry might be bitter, mistrustful of the headmaster, but it didn't feel personal. Pointed. Not like Snape's words and actions had been.
And now Snape and Harry – and Sirius – were supposed to be joined by powerful magic into a close, trusting, magical bond, a bond that had been prophesied for hundreds of years. The three Sons of Merlin. Three wizards who would save the world. Three acting as one.
All Harry knew about Merlin was the stories of King Arthur he'd found in torn and dirty paperbacks in Dudley's second bedroom. A mystic. A magician. A Roman bastard. An absent-minded wizard who changed Arthur into different animals to teach him lessons. At Hogwarts, everyone seemed to know that Merlin was a real wizard – the most powerful British wizard ever – but Harry hadn't learned anything else about him. Just like so many aspects of the wizarding world, people seemed to just assume that students raised in the muggle world would somehow 'catch on.'
Sirius' stories mirrored the Arthur legend Harry knew from the muggle world. Not the ridiculous parts, of course. In fact, a lot of the stories of the Round Table were ugly, violent. Stories of family betrayal and trickery and murder. Stupid knights who didn't care who they hurt if they could win the lady or the prize or claim to be the best. Magic – real magic, not some muggle author's confused ideas – made the difference between Sirius' tales and the Arthur legend Harry knew. It wasn't Arthur who would return to save Britain from some nebulous future fate – it would be Merlin, Merlin and his three chosen sons. Sometimes it was three brothers, dispersed as infants who found their way back to each other at the right moment, sometimes even after their deaths. Other times it was father, son, and grandson of a noble family. Often, Sirius had explained with a twinkle in his eye, it was told that the three sons would be bitter enemies who had to put off their hatred of each other to work together.
A cold wave slapped into Harry's side, snatching his breath and propelling him towards the platform. He gasped, barely managing to keep from inhaling a lungful of water. Grabbing onto the wood, Harry looked up. The jeweled net Ischel had thrown up into the sky was visible. Bright. The weaving tightened until the only light was the light of her charms. The magic gleamed, ringing like alarm bells inside Harry's mind as if some force from outside had slammed into it. The water around him churned, bubbling fiercely. The net that he'd glimpsed below him was rising towards the surface, dull black, dead. Before Harry could panic two hands reached down from the platform and snatched him up.
"Sirius, what –"
His godfather's face was blanched white, his eyes dark holes. "Something's wrong."
Harry found himself holding hard to Sirius to keep him from stumbling and landing in the water. Ischel appeared at his side, her skin dusky, almost grey.
"What is it? What's wrong?" Harry demanded.
Sirius sagged, his hands covering his face. "Severus, what have you done."
HP HP HP HP HP
Harry opened his eyes to stern voices and bright flares of red and gold. He tried to grab at the arms of the cushy chair to haul himself to his feet to face this new threat, whatever it was. He wanted his wand. Now. Something had hold of his hands and he tugged at the restraints, frowning down to see Sirius and Ischel still gripping him tight as they knelt on either side.
"Remus – what –" Sirius squeezed Harry's hand once and then let go. As he turned, Harry followed his line of sight to the heap of black robes on the floor next to the chair opposite him. "No," Sirius breathed. He lunged towards the figure Harry now realized was Professor Snape. Collapsed. Lifeless. "Ischel." The quaver in Sirius' voice made it less a command and more a plea.
The healer was already moving. She threw herself down beside Snape's form and gathered the man up, his head pillowed on her breast. "Collapse the wards," she ordered. "We need help." Her head bowed over Snape's pale face, she began to chant, waves of healing energy streaming from her skin to envelop the wizard in a glowing cloud.
Sirius leaped to his feet and faced Remus across the fiery wards. Both men were grim, eyes wide with fear. Professor McGonagall had collapsed into a chair, one hand pressed against her mouth and tears in her eyes.
"Is he –" Harry couldn't get the question out. His heart thumped, his ribs aching at the hard, fast tempo. Snape couldn't be dead – dying – not from helping Harry. From wrestling with the Horcrux. He tried to swallow down his fear, but it seemed lodged in his dry throat. Hands clenched, he rose and stepped nearer the healer, anxious to see any movement of Snape's chest. Harry had never felt more useless.
Sirius and Remus struck the wards at the same time, releasing a rush of air and magic that swirled around the room.
As the fiery walls fell to nothing, Sirius grabbed at Remus. "What happened?"
Remus shook his head back and forth in denial. "I don't know. All I know is that Severus drew the Horcrux into himself somehow and then –" he shoved a hand towards the unconscious wizard, "after a time, he started glowing. Bright white. Blinding. I think the light would have melted the walls to glass if it weren't for our wards." Remus grabbed back at Sirius. "I felt it die, the Horcrux. Heard its screams. But, Sirius, I'm afraid Severus sacrificed himself to do it."
Harry backed away, past the dying wizard and the healer. 'Severus sacrificed himself'. It echoed in his mind, other faces swarming his memories. Mum. Dad. Ron and Hermione. Snape beneath the Whomping Willow. Dobby standing up to Lucius Malfoy. Even Remus and the Boggart. They'd put themselves between Harry and danger time and time again. He blinked, frowning down at Snape's lifeless figure. Maybe that's what adults did – what parents did. Protected children. But Snape – why would Snape …
He didn't understand. Maybe he'd never understand Snape. How he could be hateful and cruel one moment and surrender his life for Harry the next?
The adults were talking in fits and starts. They wanted facts and had none. Talked to hear their own voices, alive and well, Harry figured. McGonagall wanted to call Dumbledore or Madame Pomfrey. Remus started searching nearby cabinets for healing potions. Sirius just stood there, staring down at Snape and Ischel without a trace of hope or a flicker of confidence in his eyes. As if Snape was already dead.
"Fear not, my son."
The voice swirled up from somewhere inside Harry. Head swimming, his knees buckled, and he thrust out his arms to try to break his fall. Magic beat him to it. A curtain of light surrounded him, a blanket that warmed his chilled skin and shored up Harry's spirit. It expanded into a wider circle and within its folds a man appeared. Brown wavy hair and beard, a garland of silver oak leaves around his brow. A sword was belted at his waist – a fighter's sword, not some tiny thing like Harry had seen in movies. Its hilt was wrapped in leather, stained and worn. One glance at the wizard's hands revealed calluses and scars. He held a holly wand in one, gleaming, but it was his eyes that fascinated Harry – blue, blazing, fire and ice.
Merlin. Harry would have recognized him from Sirius' description alone, but that wasn't necessary. It was Harry's magic that reached out to the spirit, welcoming his touch, his voice, and accepting his closeness as if he was a long-lost friend or member of Harry's family. Harry's magic bloomed, expanding from its small, narrow place deep inside to swell his chest, to drive away fear, to heal deep bruises on body and spirit, to smooth out twisted channels that had fought Voldemort's Horcrux for all those years. Harry gasped in air and magic, arms thrown out to the side to catch as much of the magic as he could. To gather in more of Merlin's healing presence. Love. Gratitude. Joy. They all rose up in Harry, flooding him, returning him to childhood for just a moment. This, his spirit cried, this is Harry Potter. Whole. Cleansed. Complete..
For the first time since he'd witnessed his mum's murder, since Voldemort's spell and Harry's loss, Harry knew who he was. Fire and ice. Intuition and logic. Eagerness and stealth. Storming bravery and quiet watchfulness. It wasn't a matter of picking Gryffindor or Slytherin after all. Harry was both.
Across the blanket of light, Sirius and Remus startled, turning to stare at Harry and Merlin. McGonagall gasped, rising. Ischel did not pause in her chanting, hands moving above Snape's chest, pressing down, trying to fill the wizard up with her own energy.
Merlin waved one hand and the light curtain parted, expanding to include Sirius and Snape.
"Lord Merlin." The healer, tangled up with Snape, seemed to be trying to excuse herself.
"Stay, healer. Do your work." The spirit of Merlin breathed out and a green and golden mist settled along Snape's body. His chest rose and fell in a strange rhythm, unnaturally slow and deep. "My second son is wandering," he stated. "No matter what this healer does, how his body recovers, he believes himself lost. Only you can summon him back into this world." His blazing eyes searched Harry, assessing. "Only you."
Harry touched his chest, ready to deny Merlin's words. "What can I do?" he whispered. "What can I do that Dumbledore or, or Sirius can't?" Harry shook his head, the denial tasting like ashes on his tongue. He knew the answer. Knew the truth of Merlin's words. But this, this was too much. The burden of Snape's life shouldn't be heaped on Harry's shoulders. "I'm fourteen."
"This is not a matter of strength, young one," Merlin insisted. "It is a matter of will. My second son has accepted his death. You," he pointed his wand at Harry, "never have. No matter the enemy, no matter the odds." He smiled. "The young cannot imagine death or a world without them. Even in the Chamber of Secrets, wounded, poisoned, you held hope and spoke life to another. You have been faced with death since you were a child. You know that death is real – but your will is undaunted. Your faith undefeated. It stands tall. It survives. Faith in your friends, in your mentors, in yourself when you've had no one else. Severus has learned that his own will is suspect, his faith unreliable. That one such as he could not possibly survive pure light. You will teach him otherwise."
"Harry." Sirius cupped the back of Harry's neck. "No. This isn't something you have to do, this is something that you are. This isn't another burden we're heaping on your back. I promise." Sirius shook his head slowly back and forth. "I would not do that to you."
"Okay," Harry answered, trying to take his godfather's words to heart. "Just – it seems like it is."
Merlin's laugh startled him. "Even now you trust yourself to ask, to demand answers. How far you have come, my son." He raised his wand. "No, child. It is not your actions that are needed, there is no spell or argument or achievement that might bring Severus back to us. No dragon to fight, no chess match to win, no maze to navigate. There is only your stalwart heart."
Merlin's spirit grew brighter, light reflecting from his face, his robes, his wand. All around Harry the light blazed white, every person, thing, wall, floor, blurring into nothingness. Sounds dimmed to silence until Harry stood in a pure white world without sky or floor. Snape stood before him, his eyes closed, his face unlined by creases and a smile on his lips.
Merlin's voice followed him. "Have faith," the wizard murmured within Harry's spirit. "In your mother's love, in your godfather's perseverance, in yourself. You are enough, Harry Potter. You have always been enough."
Warning: gross stuff ahead. Torture. Bodily fluids.
"Professor Snape. Professor –" Harry sighed. He'd been trying for what seemed like hours, but the wizard was motionless, standing in the empty white space with his eyes closed, ignoring him. For one fleeting moment, Harry thought he saw the man frown, but then that unfamiliar expression crept back out and stole across his features – the one that looked like peace. Or happiness. Harry had never seen anything like it on Snape's face before.
"Okay. You seem to know I'm here, but you don't want to talk to me. Or look at me." Harry huffed a laugh. "And I thought I was pretty good at pretending I didn't exist – I got an awful lot of practice at that at the Dursleys, after all. But this," he waved one hand up and down at his professor, "this is really impressive. Your most annoying student – most blatant Gryffindor – is blathering on and on and you don't move a muscle to snap at him or order detention or …"
Nothing. Great. "Look, Professor, Merlin told me to come here and …" Harry lifted his hands and let them drop in frustration, "not do anything. Which felt pretty good at the time but actually makes no sense. How am I supposed to save you with my will or my faith or whatever it is that some powerful, dead wizard from yesteryear says is most important?"
Harry turned in a circle, trying to find anything he could recognize or use. A door. A wall. He stomped one foot against what must be some kind of floor, but it made no noise. "I'm standing here, you're standing here, breathing, I suppose, so it must be one of those worlds like the lake. And since I didn't make it and you were already here when I got here, I'm guessing you made it - that it's your place." Harry shook his head. "Although why an empty world would be peaceful or comforting to you, I have no idea."
He paced around his professor. "No students, that's probably peaceful for a teacher. Nobody blowing up cauldrons or tearing their lacewing flies into shreds rather than nice, even slices. No Gryffindors asking annoying questions or Slytherins sneaking extra ingredients into the treacle tart at supper." Harry halted, considering. "Quiet. Solitary. No papers to grade or detentions to oversee – yeah, I guess that could work. But, really, Professor," he darted back to face Snape, "is this all the afterlife is to you? Peace and quiet?"
Snape's brow twitched into a frown. Okay, Harry could work with that. At least it seemed like the professor heard him. "So, heaven or hell? Merlin says you don't think you deserve heaven. I think I agree with him, honestly, and I probably don't know half of the things you did when you served … him. But," Harry continued, "if this is your idea of hell, it's really lame. Boredom, is that it? Boredom for eternity?" He snorted. "I can think of a hundred worse hells off the top of my head."
That was definitely a frown. Something was getting through – Harry wished he knew what it was. Merlin and Sirius told him it wouldn't be an argument or anything Harry could say that would bring Snape back, but he really couldn't help talking. Arguing. Trying to poke at the man to provoke a response. Snape had never held back doing the same to Harry, after all. Hopefully his near death hadn't changed him that much.
"Hearing my mum die over and over again, for one. Running for my life from a sixty-foot basilisk. Being chased by a Mountain Troll or a swarm of huge, venomous spiders. Oh, wait," Harry paused dramatically, "that's not hell, that was just the past three years of my life." He crossed his arms over his chest. "So, tell me, Professor. Why do you deserve such a nice, comfy hell as this one?"
The space around them darkened, the white mist parting, forming up into shelves and worktables, a hearth, torches lit at even intervals around a chamber Harry had never seen before. There were half-a-dozen cauldrons set on various tabletops, some simmering over low flames, others caught in statis spells, and one coated in what looked like green ice. Along the walls, cabinets and shelves were filled with bottles and tubes and beakers, large bags and tiny chests.
"Okay," Harry breathed, "now we're getting somewhere. Potions ingredients," Harry murmured as he moved towards the closest line of stoppered glass bottles. "Oil of fluxbird. Powdered snake fang. Green salamander bile," he read. "Yuck." His words had done something, that was good, he guessed. But a potions' lab certainly didn't seem like hell for someone like Snape.
Snape was stirring a bronze-colored mixture, his glass rod moving smoothly, once clockwise, twice anti-clockwise, and over again. His long white cuffs were turned back to his elbows, his outer robes discarded somewhere. A book lay open on the table, the pages filled with cramped writing and diagrams squeezed to fit in the margins and curl all around the printed words.
Harry shoved his hands into his pockets and leaned back against a high counter. This Snape was younger, his dark hair pulled back severely and bound at the back of his head into a short tail. Harry peered closer. Good god, was that a moustache? It looked like Snape had drawn it on with a black pen. His wrists were thin, forearms lean muscle, and the black jeans he wore were belted tightly and bagged around his legs.
After a few more stirs, Snape lifted the glass rod from the potion and allowed one drop to fall on a delicate pink flower laid on a scrap of parchment on the table. The blossom shivered and turned transparent, stem and leaves still showing a hint of green. Snape smiled and waved one hand, extinguishing the flame. He picked up the flower and tapped it with one fingernail. A delicate chime rang out.
"Crystal," Harry muttered, his eyebrows rising. "That's pretty cool – we never made anything like that in Potions' Class."
Snape spent the next few minutes decanting the potion into six tiny metal flasks, careful not to spill a drop on his dragonhide gloves.
A knock on the door that appeared between bookshelves didn't surprise Snape.
Harry's wand was in his hand before he knew it. The man standing in Snape's doorway was Tom Riddle.
"My – my lord," Snape stammered. "I was not expecting you."
Riddle stepped into the laboratory and closed the door. He touched the tip of his wand to the wood, hissing – Parseltongue, Harry realized – to set a locking and muffling spell. The wizard was dressed in expensive-looking robes, but, beneath them, well, if Snape was thin, Riddle was skin and bones. His hair was receding, shot with grey, and his fingers looked like the talons of a predator bird.
"No, of course not," Riddle replied, his smile reminding Harry of a death's head. He glanced around at the plain walls and wooden tables, a look of distaste on his face. "One such as I does not make a habit of visiting establishments like this one." He ran one finger along the edge of a plain pewter cauldron. "How long have you worked here, Severus?"
Snape drew himself upright, hands folded before him. "Six months, my lord. Since I took my Mastery."
"So small, so dingy – someone with your skills belongs in a palace, Severus. A pureblood manor house with a laboratory filled to the brim with the best ingredients and tools, everything at your fingertips." Riddle brushed his fingers together as if getting rid of dust or grime. "Not in this shabby little shop."
"I have much of my time to myself here, my lord," Snape was quick to respond. "And can devote myself to the tasks you've given me." He gestured towards the row of flasks. "I've perfected the potion you asked for."
Riddle's eyes lit. "Already?"
"Indeed." He lifted the crystal flower, the torchlight catching a glimmer of pink remaining in the petals.
"Ah, a lily." Riddle's tone was treacly, smarmy sweet. "How … predictable."
A lily. Harry frowned. Was it significant? That it was Harry's mum's name? Riddle seemed to see a deeper meaning.
Riddle plucked the bloom from Snape's fingers. "And how very appropriate for our discussion today."
"My lord?" Snape had gone still, wary.
"The time of the prophecy is at hand, Severus. Yesterday, the seventh month died. Last night, near midnight, my enemy was born. Now I know who it is."
Prophecy? Enemy? What was Riddle talking about? Harry's stomach churned, a sick taste crawling up his throat to choke him. "What's he talking about, Professor? What prophecy? What –" Harry stumbled. Seventh month. July. July 31st. Riddle alive. Lily. "What year is it?" he whispered.
Snape flinched, but Riddle didn't seem to notice. "Earlier this year, you overheard our enemies, Severus, before you were foolish enough to be seen and ejected from the Hogsmeade pub. You brought me the words, kneeling at my feet, begging me to accept you into my inner circle. Do you remember?"
"Of course, my lord."
"Yes." Riddle hissed out the word between his teeth. "You gifted me with your memory. I keep it close to me," he laid a hand across his breast, "safe. Protected. So that I might watch it again and again." He tilted his head. "Let us review it now, shall we?" He gestured and a cabinet banged open behind him, revealing a plain stone basin. It rose and floated towards them, settling down on the bench at Snape's right hand.
Harry, heart pounding, stepped towards them. He didn't want to see. He didn't want to know.
Riddle snatched a tiny bottle from his pocket, unstoppered it, and tipped the glimmering liquid into the bowl. He waved his wand over the swirling mist and a grey scene rose up to hover just above the rim.
The memory grew form and shape, depth and color. Dumbledore's back was to Harry, but he recognized the headmaster. Across a table from him sat a younger Trelawney, huge glasses, curly hair, and scarves all in evidence. The scene was framed by a doorway that hid half of each person as if the onlooker was peering through a half-open door.
Trelawney stiffened, just like she had in the Divination Classroom last year. Her voice came out in an eerie monotone that Harry recognized at once.
"The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches … born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies …"
"Here now!" The door slammed shut on the scene and the memory fell back into the basin.
"I remember, my lord." Snape had turned towards the basin, both hands holding tight to the wooden tabletop, his knuckles white, eyes wide and staring. Staring straight into Harry's eyes.
"Me. It's about me." Harry shivered, cold and hot flashing along his nerves, strangling his voice.
Somehow, Snape heard him – saw him. "It might not have been you. I fought; I made every effort to convince him that it was another. Anyone else – anyone but her son."
"Lily. My mother." Harry glanced at the crystal flower in Riddle's hand and felt like vomiting. "You knew her. You – " he couldn't say it.
"I loved her. I loved her badly, selfishly, obsessively. You will not be surprised to know that I was unworthy of her friendship. That I took out my own disappointments and frustrations on her, not their true sources. And that I ridiculed her when she chose another. Hated her – and him – and you because of it."
"You joined him –" Harry jerked his chin towards Riddle who seemed unaware of this conversation. "And you helped him kill them."
Tears fell silently down Snape's cheeks. "Yes."
Harry's fists were clenched tight. He wanted to swing, to hit him, not with a spell or a hex or even an Unforgiveable. He wanted to strike, to feel bone crunch and see blood flow.
Behind Snape, Riddle's eyes narrowed, a half-smile drawing his lips back from his teeth. "Your sweet Lily had a son last night – did you know? They've named the little half-blood Harry James Potter after your old friend." His smile died. "Three times the Potters have come against me, Severus. Three times they've defeated my followers and ruined my plans." He snarled. "I will relish destroying their child, this prophesied Chosen One."
Snape didn't turn, but he seemed unable to stop from playing out the scene.
"Was he the only one, Master? The only child born last night that fits the prophecy? We should – we should be sure."
"Oh, how you'd like for it to be another, my dear Severus. How you'd love to show your dear Lily how you could save her from my power."
"I merely wish to be certain –"
"But in all honesty," Riddle continued as if Snape hadn't spoken, "there was another child born last night. Just an hour before little Harry. A Longbottom." Riddle laughed. "Neville, I believe."
Snape's eagerness was obvious to Harry. "Alice and Frank Longbottom have also stood against you, my lord."
"Three times, yes. But I am sure, Severus. Positive. The young half-blood is the one. Of course, it is a half-blood, like myself, like you." Riddle snarled, instantly furious. "The child must die, Severus. This," he spat, "Chosen One. They cannot hide him from me."
"Neville," Harry's mind reeled. "It could have been Neville he went after." His fury grew. "Did you think that would be better? If you'd convinced Voldemort to kill Neville would you have felt better about yourself? Forgiven yourself for your evil and treachery?"
"I would have." Snape's admission seemed easy, effortless. "I cared nothing about you or Longbottom. All I cared about was –"
"Lily." Riddle twirled the crystal flower between his fingers, its edges catching the light. "How ironic. That a potion I charged you to make could create such beauty. A poison, undetectable in liquid, but when a single drop touches living cells, turns all around it to crystal – lips, tongue, throat, airways. Even in death, those who drink this potion will be beautiful, don't you think?"
Harry closed his eyes. It wasn't a beautiful potion, it was a poison, made for Riddle. A weapon. Of course. In their hands, beauty could only be a mask for corruption and death. No wonder they hadn't taught that potion at Hogwarts – the tiniest drop would kill.
"Dear sweet Lily Potter. I will do my best for you, Severus. I will preserve her beauty for you, one way or the other. I will leave her alone if she will give me the boy. As for Potter –"
"I don't care," Snape snapped. He shut his eyes, trying to deny his words, but the tears still fell. "About Potter or the child. Do what you will."
"You bastard. My mum would never –" Harry was shaking with rage.
"No, she wouldn't," Snape agreed. "I was a fool to believe for a moment that she would save her own life at the risk of her son's."
"Look at me, Severus," Riddle demanded.
Snape convulsed, falling to the floor, gasping, crying out. Good, Harry thought. He deserved it. Worse. Snape had doomed his parents to death. Had admitted he didn't care if Harry and his father died – or Neville and his parents. He was a monster.
"This is a much better hell," Harry snapped, heat rising up his spine, shivering along his skin. He swiped the back of one hand across his eyes trying to get rid of the sweat, the salt spiking his eyes to tears.
Snape winced, flailed, spittle and blood on his lips. Seconds passed – minutes – the pain unceasing. He vomited, bile smeared across his chin and neck, his bones grinding together as his arms and legs contorted. Moisture pooled in a messy stain across Snape's lower body. He couldn't breathe, couldn't speak, couldn't beg for mercy. Not like Harry's mum. She'd begged – the memory of her cries, of her last words, trying to get Riddle to leave Harry alone – grew into deafening screams, echoing in Snape's hellish vision.
Harry's stomach churned and he swallowed it down, teeth and jaw clenching against the bile. This was ugly. Horrible. Righteous. Snape was paying now, paying for what he'd done. For who he'd chosen to follow. Damn it. Harry wiped at his eyes again. Where was all this wetness coming from? Little muffled sobs gradually grew louder, drowning out his mother's screams. Harry peered closer at Snape's face. No. Not him. Blood suffused the professor's face, like he was about to explode, his mouth was wide open, tongue black and rigid, but no sound or breath or screams came out.
It was him. Harry. He was – he was crying. Those were tears in his eyes, splashing down his face. Why – not for Snape. He dashed the tears away again, sobs tearing their way from his throat. He couldn't be crying for Snape. Shouldn't be – He deserved it, didn't he? Deserved the pain. Harry should feel good, happy that Snape was suffering even a little taste of his parents' pains. Why – why –
Riddle stepped in close to Snape, too near to Harry for comfort, even in a memory. His eyes blazed red as he smiled down at his victim, drinking in the professor's contortions, his pain and tears and loss of control. "My, my," he clucked his tongue, "so weak. So filled with emotion for your lost love. It doesn't suit you, Severus. Emotions like love and affection – they are not for us. You should have learned that lesson as a child as I did. They rob us of our strength, our cunning, cloud our minds until we cannot think or reason. Just as you, somehow, believe you should have a say in how I conduct my business. How very foolish your emotions have made you." Riddle's tone grew dark and menacing. "It's time to remember that your oath is to me, Severus Snape, not mine to you. You will not question me, ever, nor claim any right to 'allow' me to touch a single hair on your sweet Lily's head." Riddle flicked his wand and Snape drew in a choking breath. "Do you deny your oath?"
Snape's head jerked back and forth.
"Are you quite sure?" When Snape didn't answer, Riddle nudged Snape's chin with his boot. "Severus?"
"I … humbly … beg … pardon …"
Riddle smiled. "Well spoken, my friend. But," his expression fell into an obviously false regret, "you've proven so good at lying, I'm not quite convinced." His wand sliced through the air and deep cuts appeared along Snape's skin, across his chest, his cheeks, oozing black blood.
Riddle's skin was flushed, sweat standing out along his brow as he peered closer, gasping in pleasure. He was trembling. Merlin, the man was ecstatic, excited by Snape's pain.
Harry closed his eyes. "Stop," he whispered. "Stop it." No. No one deserved this. This … torture. This humiliation. Snape's pain was fuel for Riddle's dark pleasure. It was … disgusting. Awful. The words were yanked from deep in Harry's soul. "Even Snape doesn't deserve –"
"Yes. I do. And more." Snape's voice boomed from the walls, the floor, the surface of his vision vibrating, cracking.
"Crucio." Riddle cast again, doubling Snape's agony. "Oh," he moaned, "that's lovely."
"Stop it!" Harry couldn't just stand here – he couldn't watch this. He threw himself towards Riddle, but the memory was unaffected. It parted like mist and then reformed with Harry back in his original place and Riddle crouching over his victim, his eyes gleaming with joy. "Stop! Snape, make him stop!"
"No. Never." Snape's voice was filled with grief. "You were right - this is hell. This is the hell I deserve. "
"You don't!" Harry shouted, his magic bursting out of every pore like a tidal wave of gold and red.
Riddle jerked his wand up and the spell stopped, Snape's moans, the cracking of bone, the sobbing pants silenced. He crouched down and placed his hand on Snape's cheek, wiping off sweat and froth and blood and then lifting it to his own lips to drink it down. "Your pain is an acceptable offering, Severus. This time. But remember this." He held the crystal flower in front of Snape's eyes. "My will is your law. My words, your breath. My commands, your life. And your Lily –" he dropped the flower and it burst into tiny pieces against the stone floor, "she is mine. I will decide who lives, who dies, and who is pardoned."
An instant later Riddle was gone, and Snape was standing before the cauldron again, stirring slowly, the living flower on the table beside him. He tipped a drop from his stirring rod onto the lily, turning it crystal.
Harry tried to catch his breath, to keep his thumping heart from beating out of his chest. Snape's cheeks were smooth, unmarked. His bones whole. "What – what's …"
A knock sounded at the door.
Again. It was happening again.
"Stop. Just stop, Professor. You can't keep doing this –"
Snape's adult form coalesced from nothing and stood behind his younger image's left shoulder. This was the Snape Harry knew – older, his hair unbound, his robes pristine, chalky skin and hands callused and gnarled by his work.
"I can. I must," Snape stated. His eyes were clear, serene. "Thank you, Harry, for reminding me. For giving me this gift. Showing me what I deserve. But you don't have to watch. You shouldn't watch. They shouldn't have made you come, Harry. Go ahead," Snape tilted his head, a smile glancing across his lips, "go back."
He might be the professor Harry knew, but the eyes – the eyes were different. Warmer. Kinder. Without a trace of Snape's cruelty or vindictiveness.
"They didn't make me. I wanted to come."
"Ah, of course." Snape sighed, but it wasn't sarcastic. It was as if he found himself forgetting an important point. "You deserve to know my eternal journey will be a painful one, filled with torments. It won't make up for your mother's – your parents' deaths, of course, but –"
"No. Stop it." Harry lurched forward and grabbed Snape's sleeve. "I – I said you deserved it, I did, but now that I see it." He shook his head and shook the man's arm as well. "No – nobody deserves this."
Snape caught Harry's hand with his free one and leaned down, whispering. "I deserve it, Harry."
"You don't – you can't." Harry felt the catch in his throat but refused to cry. "Missus Weasley tried to tell me, to explain, but I didn't get it. Not then. Not until –" he tore his gaze from Snape's to take in the scene playing out behind him. Riddle taunted the younger, stupider, malicious Snape, shared the memory, and then cast his curse. "Ron's mum said we all do bad things, hurtful, terrible things. That we all need for forgiveness. I -"
Snape tore from Harry's hold, backing away. "Don't you dare. Don't you dare forgive me, Potter."
"Now that's the Professor Snape I know," Harry replied, moving in to close the gap between them. "Ordering me around. Calling me 'Potter,' as if you could pretend I was only my dad's son and had no part of my mum. The one you loved." He followed Snape, confronting him, not letting him turn away. "The one you – you still love her, don't you?"
Snape stilled, all the fight draining away. He closed his eyes. "Always."
Behind him, Harry heard the torture scenario playing out – it would play out over and over again for eternity if Snape had his way. Snape would be caught here, reliving the memory of his betrayal and what it had cost not just Harry, but everyone who had known and loved James and Lily Potter. Remus. Sirius. Professor McGonagall. Neville's parents. The Weasleys.
Merlin had sent Harry here for one reason, to bring Snape back. Maybe Harry's forgiveness could do that, but Harry didn't think so. Not now. Not yet.
Harry drew his shoulders back, standing tall as Snape regarded him through anxious, tear-filled eyes. He didn't have to win an argument – he didn't have to fight Snape to get him to understand. Harry just needed to be himself. Slytherin and Gryffindor. Cunning. Forthright.
"I don't forgive you," Harry snapped.
Snape's mouth fell open. "You –"
"No," Harry repeated. "I don't forgive you. You may be willing to destroy your soul, to live in this hellish nightmare for all eternity, but that's not good enough. In fact, that does me no good at all."
Snape frowned and shook his head. "I don't understand."
"Because of you, my parents died. You took away the two people that loved me most. That were my foundation. My mum and dad would have taught me all about magic and power and love and discipline. They would have raised me to trust myself, my magic, my worth. And then you and Pettigrew made sure neither Sirius nor Remus would be fit enough to help raise me." Harry stepped in close and prodded Snape in the chest. "You stole them from me. And you owe me, Severus Snape. You owe me years of teaching, years of safety and comfort I didn't have at the Dursleys. Years of mentoring, of helpful advice and trips to the seaside and bedtime stories. You owe me a listening ear when I have girl trouble and advice about cars and, and someone I can call at any hour of the night when I'm in trouble. You owe me protection and comfort and training to be not just a great wizard, but a good man. That's what you took from me and I want it back!"
Swallowing hard, Snape grimaced. "I cannot give those years back to you, Harry. Those loving parents. I wish – I wish -"
"No, but instead of hiding here you could start trying to make up for their absence. Not completely, no, but, starting now," Harry nodded decisively, "you could make an effort. You'll never be dad material, Severus Snape," Harry laughed darkly, "but what I need right now is a mentor. A much, much older brother. Someone to advise me. To fight alongside me. To fight that insane madman." Harry gestured at the images behind him. "To stop him. To make sure we win. And to do that, we have to go back. Both of us."
Severus felt his body grow up around him, strong, healthy, centered as he hadn't been for years. It was a heady sensation, charging his emotions to wild swings from elation to deep grief. He found his hands and realized they were held – one on each side. One of the hands was strong, callused in familiar places, not unlike his own. The other was smaller, softer, but seized him with an even tighter grip. There was solid stone beneath his feet, and, beneath that, foundations that reached to the center of the world. Hogwarts. Hogwarts was awake. And so was Severus.
Alive. Awake. Cleansed from inner darkness by the Light he'd released in order to destroy Riddle's Horcrux. And summoned back from his own particular hell by the insistence of Lily Potter's son.
He opened his eyes to find the familiar green ones staring into his. Harry. No longer a reminder of Severus' own sins, of the woman he had betrayed and the man he had hated and never once grieved. Harry had also been reborn – released from the Horcrux's clutch to grow and mature and find his own individuality amidst others' memories. It was Harry who had uncovered Severus' darkest sins, and then, against all odds, had not uttered a foolishly noble word of forgiveness, but demanded the debts be repaid.
"Harry," Severus began, "are you well? Did the Horcrux –"
"You are all well."
Severus turned to face the ancient wizard standing on the opposite corner of the runic square. Merlin smiled back at him.
"Healed. Whole. Each of my sons has been tried by fire, each has been tested, tempted. Each conscience has been twisted, honed to sharpness by exposure to evil, to grief, to family abuse that no child should be forced to withstand. Each took a different path to this place, this time, this state of being, but each journey led you here. To the final battle."
"One, innocent, has been wounded and tainted, but is returned pure."
On Severus' right, Harry stood taller, a rush of magic surrounding him with light. Robes of gold descended from his shoulders, cut close and short in front and long in back, revealing dark trousers and boots that would be at home on a muggle street. A crest spilled like blood onto his right breast – lion, rampant, gules on or. The boy's shoulders seemed broader, his eyes clear, not a child but not yet a man. Half-blood. All wizard. Severus blinked away tears; James and Lily would be proud.
"One whose pride and anger had sealed his fate is healed, humbled, and restored."
On his left, Sirius was dressed in sable black – appropriately. A dueler's robe, leather, belted tight. On his left breast, his crest: a dog, sable on argent, passant guardant. Faithful protector. Sirius' nobility shone from his face, from the hand cocked on the sword at his hip. The man was solemn as Severus had rarely seen him. Only the slight crook of his mouth revealed his inner amusement.
"One, guilty, steeped in evil, his poisonous soul has been doubly cleansed. Let none dare to bring a charge against him."
Severus gazed down at the rich, grey robes that enveloped him, the collar high, sleeves bound close to his skin up to the elbow. A Potion Master's robe. On his left breast another crest grew. A basilisk, statant, vert on sable. It opened its mouth to reveal fangs dripping with poison. Deadly defender. Severus caught Sirius' eye and nodded. Merlin's son, Sirius' brother, and Harry's mentor. This was Severus Snape as he was and as he always would be.
Before anyone could speak, a deep, echoing clang shook through the room, like the sound of an enormous bell tolling. The stones vibrated, the air rippling at the deep, resonant sound. Severus' bones, his blood, sang in harmony. Hogwarts echoed and reechoed the bell's peal like a muggle alarm but charmed to reach every corridor, room, and passageway – far into the grounds, into Hogsmeade and farther. The sound reached straight through Severus, Sirius, and Harry, through every witch and wizard at Hogwarts, in England and Scotland and Europe. A call to arms. A warning. The wizarding world had been given notice.
The Sons of Merlin were going to war.
Harry, Severus, Sirius, and Merlin stood within a glowing set of runes, a new square drawn on the stone floor. Severus extended his magic. No, not just drawn on the floor, the runes were sunken deep into the foundation of the castle. He breathed in the magic. These weren't warding runes; it wasn't any kind of trap to keep him and the others inside. This was Hogwarts' own magic reaching within him, testing him, recognizing him and welcoming him – them all – sweeping Harry and Sirius and Severus into a warm embrace and offering them her allegiance.
It had never felt like this before.
"You have never truly been yourself before, my son. None of you have."
At once, Severus knew it to be the truth. Harry Potter had never stepped foot into Hogwarts without the taint of Riddle's Horcrux. Sirius had borne the weight of the Black family's dark curse and his own guilt. Severus had been half-hidden by his inner darkness until it had all burned away.
With a gesture, Merlin dissolved the runes. One sweep of his wand and Severus' modest furniture had been banished and a heavy, claw-foot table surrounded by twelve chairs appeared. Severus raised one eyebrow at the design. A round table. Naturally.
"Our allies are coming, and I have little time. I cannot lead my sons to battle – that is barred to me." Merlin's frown was thunderous. "I will not make myself into the great manipulator again, raising myself in my pride to lord it over others. You have had enough of that, have you not?"
Severus nodded, catching the same thin-lipped agreement from Minerva and Remus across the room.
"I charge my sons and their knights. Use your hearts as well as your wands, and do not let any fall between the cracks – neither friends nor foes nor innocents caught between." His dark eyes pierced each one he caught with his gaze. "Hogwarts is filled with those who would lend their aid – discount none because of age or size, race or species."
He pointed. "Ghosts." Severus' eyes widened as the House ghosts appeared, one at each point of the compass around his rooms. "Elves." Two House elves sprang into being beside Harry – one wearing a tiny set of Gryffindor robes and one a dirty tea towel, clutching a half-empty bottle of butterbeer. Harry sank to one knee, curling his arms around the two as if to protect them.
"Wise creatures of the forest," Merlin continued. Firenze the centaur stamped his front hooves and then knelt to the ancient wizard. "My lord goblin." Merlin bowed to Flitwick, hand over his heart and received a regal nod in response.
"Others," Merlin added with a grin, "are waiting without, some brought here against their wills by foolish adults, eager to entertain at the expense of the children who Hogwarts should protect. Use them well, use them kindly, and with great respect. Now –" Merlin opened his arms as if to embrace them all, "I leave my sons with gifts. Gifts of power, of friendship, of clear thinking. You have all the information you need to rout out the evil from these isles." He shook his head. "The time to keep your knowledge to yourselves like a dragon hoarding its gold are over. I trust that you will make this land safe for centuries to come, that I may sleep soundly in my grave."
Merlin sighed, his impressive figured suddenly diminished. The old wizard wore his years, his centuries, his hair now stark silver rather than brown, his shoulders hunched, hands gnarled and knotted. As he crossed his hands across his chest, sword, wand, and oak-leaf circlet disappeared, his rich robe thinning, fading until he was dressed in a burial shroud. "I have chosen well, my sons of this generation. Be blessed by Light's own magic at our hour of need. Be faithful. Be wise. Be strong."
The ancient wizard lifted his eyes, his being dissolving once again into beads of light. This time, the curtain parted, separating into braided strands that sought out those within the chamber. Harry. Sirius. Minerva. Remus. Flitwick. Firenze. Ischel. Other wizards appeared, hauled from wherever they had been by Merlin's final call. Shacklebolt. Molly. Aberforth. Charley Weasley. Hagrid. And then, of all people, Hermione Granger, still dressed in her nightclothes, materialized between Minerva and Molly, her eyes wide.
When the last thick golden filament touched Severus' chest, his mind spun with images, with knowledge, and his spirit with power and confidence. He felt the circlet on his own brow, Sirius held the sword, and Harry lifted a new wand – oak wood, burnished to a golden glow. Magic rushed through Severus' veins, filling him, and he knew his brothers felt the same. Heady with knowledge, his mind brimming, Severus raised his wand and light flooded his dungeon rooms.
"There is much to be done," Severus stated. "Much to be revealed."
"Well, let's be about it, then." Sirius sheathed Merlin's sword where his had been and gestured, summoning a Pensieve to the center of the round table. "Harry?"
The boy met Severus' and Sirius' eyes for a moment. Severus heard his voice clearly.
'This is weird. I feel like I know what to do, but –' Harry closed his eyes. 'Is this real?' His inner voice was a bare whisper.
'It is real. This is you, Harry. Merlin gave us all information, yes, but this is your talent, finding all the clues, all the pieces of the puzzle, sorting them and picking out the truth. This is your mind and magic, freed.' Sirius' eyes were warm, his tone reassuring.
'You are not alone,' Severus reminded his young brother. 'We will not allow you to fail – no one here will. You do not carry the weight of Merlin's power and prophecy on only your shoulders. That would be unbearable for even the ancient wizard himself.
Harry's eyes opened clear, without their clouds of doubt. 'We're going to defeat Voldemort, he stated.
'We are, the two agreed.
After a deep breath, Harry stepped to the table, his wand bright in his hand. "I summon all thoughts, all memories of Horcruxes, of Tom Riddle and his plans and strategies to this place. I call for all those oath-bound to the Light to give up their knowledge. To tell us their secrets. To join their thoughts with ours so that we all share the truth." He pointed to the stone basin. "Albus Dumbledore," he commanded. At once a cloud of silver mist dropped into the bowl. "Harry Potter." A great gust of mist left the boy and floated towards the Pensieve. "Severus Snape."
Severus nodded, the memory of his meeting with Riddle's Horcrux stirring, flying from his mind to hurl itself in with the others.
Harry's gaze darted around the chamber. "Teachers. Professors. Ministry workers. Aurors. Elves. Centaurs. Friends." He smiled once at the Granger girl. "Bring your wisdom." The basin filled to the brim with silver strands.
A slim, ghostly presence appeared at Harry's side. It was the girl – Myrtle.
"Take my hand, Harry," she said, smiling. "And call the dead – they have memories to give, too."
"Thanks, Myrtle." Harry did as he was told. The four Hogwarts ghosts gave up great plumes of smoke that combined with the wizards' memories into a stormy sea. Then Severus' eyes were awash with tears as Lily Potter and her husband appeared on either side of Harry, ghostly hands hovering over him, whispering words of love, giving up their memories before disappearing.
The stunned wizards took their seats. The ghostly Myrtle remained at Harry's side. Dobby, the house elf, settled his friend beside the hearth and then joined them. Firenze and Hagrid crowded one side of the table, Severus, Sirius, and Remus the other.
"Now," Harry stated, pale but steady, "let the past unfold." The swirling, writhing memories grew calm. One rose to hover over the mist. Two figures emerged - Helena Ravenclaw, the Grey Lady, trembled with anger and sorrow and watched a young Tom Riddle sneer over his shoulder before placing the Ravenclaw diadem into a box within the Room of Requirement. Harry's memories of fighting the basilisk came next, the wizards and witches flinching as he yanked the poisoned fang from his arm and plunged it into the diary. The memory that followed must have been Flitwick's – a gathering of goblins discussed Bellatrix Lestrange's odd demands to safeguard her vault and the dark miasma that had sunk into the stones all around it. Sirius seemed surprised by the image of his brother, Regulus, wearing an ugly locket around his neck, the boy's aura drowning in darkness that crept across his being like an oil slick across a pond. For a mere second the image of a long-nosed, droopy-eared house elf receiving the locket from his master's hand shone clear.
Thoughts, memories, theories rose one after the other, revealing information like points of light in the darkness. The points grew, gathered into a blaze, and the wizards and witches nodded, understanding the depth and breadth of Tom Riddle's evil.
Severus' memories of Riddle's demands were the second last to appear. Each Horcrux described, identified. Book. Ring. Cup. Diadem. Locket. Snake. Every eye turned to Harry, peering at his forehead.
"It's gone," Harry announced, glancing towards Severus. "So, that's two."
"The diadem remains," the Grey Lady stated. "I have been warding it for … a very long time."
"As does the cup," Flitwick added.
"Grimmauld Place." Sirius rubbed one hand across his eyes. "No wonder the old house is so mouldy and dark with the locket there."
"The Ring is buried at the old Gaunt home. And the snake –"
"One more," Harry whispered, nodding towards the Pensieve.
These must be Dumbledore's memories. Sharp, with crisp edges, he'd forced Barty Crouch to reveal everything. Voldemort's status and location, the snake always at his side. His strategies pooled out before them like a sinister swamp – his intention to draw Harry into the tournament, to make sure he won, and Portkey him away and use the boy to return to his body. Those around the table muttered, angry, incensed that Crouch had fooled them all and had come far too close to succeeding.
"Shall we all collect basilisk fangs, then?" Hagrid asked, a little too eager to be about it.
The ghost of Myrtle laughed and flung one hand towards the table, scattering poisoned fangs across it like dice. "Peeves and I have already thought of that."
Severus shook his head. "Have a care – dragonhide gloves would be best." He waved his wand towards his storage cabinets and sent each wizard and witch a pair. He murmured an 'Engorgio' towards those pinched between Hagrid's thumb and forefinger at the half-giant's look of disdain.
Sirius had already drawn on a pair of gauntlets. "Team One – Shacklebolt, Charley, Filius. Find the remaining Horcruxes. Eliminate them."
Charley's grin was feral. "I know just the beast to carry us." He glanced sideways at Hagrid. "Brought him from Romania. His name is Norbert."
Severus snorted. Merlin's command to 'use the creatures outside' now made sense. "Aberforth, Ischel, Firenze, Hagrid, Remus," he acknowledged the werewolf with a solemn nod, "– hold the castle. Allow all who feel threatened to enter but keep the students to their rooms. The house elves," he gestured, "will assist you."
"Wait –" Ischel raised a hand, "where is Bartemius Crouch?"
Severus frowned. "Crouch, Senior?" The circlet warmed against his skin, images flickering into being. Crouch laid out near the Entrance Hall, a blubbering Bagman at his side.
"Yes. He needs healing. Under the Imperius for so long," she shook her head, "damage will be great."
"And Alastor." Remus spoke up. "Crouch's memories tell us that he's locked in a cabinet in the DADA office. The man's been tortured for months –"
Severus shared his knowledge across their bond with Harry. The boy reacted at once.
"Dobby." Harry turned to the house elf beside him. "Can you and Winky help Mister Crouch? Do you think she'd be willing to –"
The elf near the fire teetered to her feet. "Master? Master needs Winky? Oh, please," she clutched her tea towel, "please, sir. Winky must go – Winky must help Master."
Harry was back on his knees. He took the elf's hands in his. "That's very kind of you, Winky. You and Dobby go ahead. Make sure he gets to the hospital wing."
"But, Harry Potter –" Dobby tugged on the boy's robe, "Dobby cannot protect you if he goes with Winky."
Severus shook his head. Even house elves were drawn to Harry. He took another glance around what was once his very familiar sitting room, filled now with all manner of witches, wizards, and creatures. Could Harry – could the three of them – actually unite this disparity of individuals? Could the Wizarding World put off its racism and speciesism, its hatred of the different and its suspicion of those with powers so very different from their own? And, more importantly, could such a grand alliance last beyond Voldemort's downfall?
He found himself smiling at the scene before him – young Harry embracing two elves, encouraging them, relying on them. Yes, indeed. With Harry at the center of this group, anything could very well happen.
Harry glanced up and caught Severus' eye and then Sirius', nodding gratefully at their quick reassurances. "That's all right, Dobby, I'm okay. I've got loads of people who are protecting me now," Harry assured him. "Professor Snape and Sirius and even –" he raised his wand. "You know who gave me this, right?" At the creature's wide-eyed nod, Harry whispered, "We all have our roles to play – I think helping Mister Crouch and Professor Moody - and taking care of my friends here at Hogwarts would be the best help of all."
Aberforth pushed himself back from the table. "Hogwarts herself has called. She will be a rallying point and safe haven for anyone who fears, anyone harmed or targeted by evil. Firenze –" he pointed across the table, "All creatures are welcome. Remus – any dark ones who would flee from Voldemort's side. I leave their welcome to your wise discernment. Hagrid – take word to the tournament's creature handlers in the forest; they must be warned."
Remus and Sirius came together, clasping forearms, and stared fiercely into each other's eyes. "Take care of Pettigrew," Remus growled.
"No fear," Sirius replied. With a one-armed hug and thumps on the back the two parted.
The loud crack of the elves' departure coincided with the roaring of Severus' Floo as all left on their various errands. Not quite all, Severus realized at once. Minerva, Molly, and Miss Granger had their heads together, low voices murmuring. As Harry rose to his feet and stood with Severus and Sirius, the three women swept around the table towards them, dressed suddenly in green silken robes. Miss Granger's was the bright green of new leaves reflecting the sun of spring. Molly wore the green of midsummer, glowing gold at the edges. Minerva's robes seemed almost black, the heavy green of leaves turning towards the end of the year. Each one showed a crest centered over her heart – the woven Crosog Bride, Brighid's Cross.
As the three women approached, wands raised, a green aura enveloped them and then grew to embrace the three wizards. Around them, Severus' rooms dissolved and were replaced with the stark black and white brick walls of the Department of Mysteries.
You are all amazingly encouraging!! Thank you!
In the last day, Harry had been shrouded with ice from a piece of Tom Riddle's soul, his best memories hidden from him. He'd been reunited with Sirius and Remus. His spirit had been transferred to a healing place, protected from evil. He'd watched Snape – Severus, now - live his own private hell and had drawn him back to life. He'd had his magic and his physical body restored by Merlin himself. His mind had been opened as it never had been before, allowing Harry access to magic, to knowledge, to how the spirit, the mind, and the body worked together fueling his wizardry. He'd acquired a new wand that fit his hand like it had always been there. He'd connected to Sirius and Severus and had taken the lead in uncovering Tom Riddle's plans for his resurrection.
All because Harry had asked for help.
With all of the crazy, weird, powerful, amazing, utterly unbelievable things that had happened to Harry in the last few hours, being transferred to this new location by Mrs. Weasley and Professor McGonagall and Hermione didn't bother him at all. Fear seemed to have been left behind in the Gryffindor Common Room or the false Moody's DADA classroom. Sunk beneath the blue/green waves of Ischel's lake. Or, maybe, left curled up on the floor of Severus' hell-place with the wizard's screams.
The group of six sped down a black-and-white tiled hallway and through a thick door into a large, circular chamber. Mrs. Weasley, Hermione, and Professor McGonagall stood together in the center, hands clasped, hair wild around their heads as if a sudden storm was breaking. They laughed, rich and long, and Harry's answering smile was so wide it hurt his cheeks.
"A moment, please," Professor McGonagall bowed her head towards Harry before turning away. The three women drew together, wand-tips touching, before murmuring a spell and then moving apart in an intricate and slow dance across the circular floor. A web of runes fell from their wands, like green vines growing all across the stones, dividing the open floor into small partitions before sinking into the stones. Harry, Sirius, and Severus, still joined through their magic and their minds, moved as one to the edge of the chamber, flattened against a low wall that circled the floor, separating it from rows and rows of seats that rose up behind.
Sirius, his face grim, did not take his eyes from the women as he spoke. "This is a Wizengamot chamber. A place for criminal trials."
"Did you –" Harry didn't know how to ask the question.
"No." His godfather flashed him a smile. "I never got a trial. But I was witness in many when I was an Auror."
"I, however, did."
Severus, his lips pursed, had crossed his arms and was staring at the wide empty floor.
"I – I didn't know that." Harry stared hard at Hermione and the others, not wanting to look directly into Severus' shadowed eyes.
"Neither did I," Sirius added, half-turning to glance across Harry at the other wizard.
"It was not public – not as circus-like as most Death Eater trials. Dumbledore made sure that my status as spy remained hidden from most of the wizarding world."
'Circus-like.' Harry could see that. This huge room looked a lot like an arena, like photos he'd seen of the Roman Coliseum where people would cheer lions on to tear men apart.
"A dozen Wizengamot judges watched my testimony under Veritaserum, the questions asked by Dumbledore himself." Severus' lips twisted. "His wording was extremely deliberate and precise, believe me."
Harry could imagine. He'd learned a lot about Severus' motivations in the man's hell-place. About the depth of his hatred, the careless way he'd dealt life and death to others. He was sure Dumbledore would have very deliberately phrased his questions to hide Severus' darker secrets.
"Dumbledore and the Wizengamot are not perfect, Severus. I would be the last to claim that. But," Sirius nodded towards the witches, "better to have a council of those deemed wise than to rely on one man – or three women – to judge those that will be brought here tonight."
As he watched the three witches finish their work and come back together, Harry felt a memory swirl up from Severus' mind. It was Old Knowledge, a connection to the Wizarding World's history that Merlin had left them – knowledge of the ancient powers of these isles. Older than Merlin; sunk deeper than the blood Arthur and his knights had shed. As strong as the sun, as comforting as thick mantle, as basic as birth and death. A goddess, a triple goddess, ruler of transformation, of childbirth, of fire and invention. She'd had many names through the ages, but always – always – she came as three women, one in each stage of life.
Mrs. Weasley looked formidable, her red hair like flames. Professor McGonagall, the stern transfiguration expert, had her greying hair loose down her back and a wild look of victory in her eyes. And Hermione …
Hermione's eyes, naturally a warm brown, were now glowing amber, and the look of expectation, of fierce exultation on her face made her … "Beautiful," Harry whispered.
His friend blushed, blinking and turning away.
"Of course, she is – always has been, really," Mrs. Weasley clucked at Harry. "We've always known that Hermione was gifted, didn't we?"
"Brightest witch of her age," Sirius boasted, rising up on his toes. "Told her that last year."
Severus hummed in agreement. "Brightest witches of three ages." He pointed, "Mother, maiden, -"
"If you say crone, I will hex you, Severus Snape," Professor McGonagall snapped.
"Widow – I was going to say widow," Severus insisted quickly.
Harry snorted at Professor McGonagall's raised eyebrow of disbelief.
"Regardless of my title, we three have been blessed with the aspects of the goddess. We've been tasked with two specific purposes this night. To remove fear from the battleground and to find those who have allied themselves to evil before they can flee. Or pretend innocence as so many did before." Professor McGonagall's dark gaze pierced through Severus. "You know who I mean."
Harry's mind flashed with images from the potions' master. Lucius Malfoy and his wife. Professor Karkaroff. Peter Pettigrew. Many, many others. Severus placed his right hand over his left arm, where his Dark Mark had once burned.
Mrs. Weasley pointed her wand towards Severus. "You've been cleansed of your Mark, Severus, but I can still trace the echo of Voldemort's magic to every other who has worn his sign. The goddess seeks out the secret and is at home in both the darkness and the light. All those who have taken oath before their Dark Master without any outward symbol cut into their skin will not be safe tonight."
"You said, 'to remove fear from the battleground,'" Harry interjected as Severus unbuttoned his cuff and turned it back along his pale skin.
"Remember this summer, Harry?" Hermione prompted. "Ron and you and I talked about the Dark Mark? About why the wizards at the Quidditch Cup had all run off, screaming?"
Harry nodded, relieved that Hermione sounded so much like herself. "You said maybe the Mark caused it."
"And she was right," Professor McGonagall looked proud of her Gryffindors. "Voldemort set his Morsmordre to provoke fear, even in his followers. Fear fed his ego and reduced strong witches and wizards to blubbering fools looking for the strongest to ensure their safety. Now, we can, through our connection to Severus and the three of you, use Voldemort's own spell to draw all the Death Eaters, all of his followers to us, here. And we will make sure, first and foremost, to strip away the emotional nature of the thing. No one who approaches Tom Riddle and his allies this night will feel fear."
"We'll be perfectly safe, dear," Mrs. Weasley assured Harry before he could open his mouth in protest.
Harry believed her. Mostly. "Hermione?"
His friend smiled at him and raised her wand. "Watch this."
"Ignis Obice." Hermione drew a swirl in the air and then flicked it towards the runes. The lines blazed with light, cutting the chamber into small, contained cells, hundreds of cells, each barely big enough for a slim wizard to stand upright.
Harry blinked. Well, that should do it.
"You look very pleased with yourself, Minerva," Severus murmured as Mrs. Weasley cast a series of spells across his arm and a dark, tumbling mist rose up from his skin.
"Oh, I do love it when the heroes win," Professor McGonagall stated, hugging herself. "All of this build-up over the years – it has been getting very tiresome, Severus. You know I've always favored an all-out attack rather than these unending little battles that barely make any headway against our enemies."
"Yes," Severus drawled, "regardless of the body count."
She threw a lock of hair over her shoulder, one hand flung out as if to remind Severus of the power of the witches and wizards they'd assembled. "As long as the casualties are on the other side, I'm quite content." She leaned in as if to share a secret with him. "It is not in my aspect of goddess's nature to be merciful. That," she nodded towards Ron's mum, "I will leave to our Mother."
Sirius watched the two, chuckling. "You'll be calling Dumbledore, then? And the Wizengamot?"
It was Hermione who replied. "Judgment will be needed – proper judgment, with each accused Death Eater bound to speak the truth and each man or woman on the Wizengamot charmed to selfless objectivity." Hermione crossed her arms. "For some reason, my aspect of the goddess is devoted to fairness and balance."
Harry coughed, swallowing a chuckle. 'Fairness' had always been one of Hermione's watchwords. Hermione eyed him suspiciously but allowed him to get away with his stifled response.
Finished with her spell, Mrs. Weasley opened her eyes as a great cloud of mist, flashing with green lightning, billowed up to fill the ceiling of the chamber, hovering over the glowing runes. It swirled, taking on the shape of the familiar skull and serpent. "I'll hold it in stasis here. When the time comes, we will tell Kingsley to destroy the Horcruxes. You three, however, must be in place before Voldemort has any warning. Before he notices he's lost any more of his soul pieces."
"Indeed," Severus responded. He touched the circlet on his brow. "Once we appear in Voldemort's presence, you'll know through our link to act."
Professor McGonagall tilted her head and gazed at Sirius over her glasses. "The snake is the last, remember. It must be destroyed before Voldemort will be vulnerable."
"Got it." His godfather's hand tightened on his sword hilt.
All three witches turned to face Harry. He swallowed, his nerves buzzing with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. He lifted his chin.
"Mister Potter." Professor McGonagall's stern expression softened. "Harry. The goddess bless you with power." She touched the tip of her wand to his. He felt her magic, her pride, her admiration – she was so sure of his success.
Mrs. Weasley was next. "Harry, dear. The goddess bless you with protection – hers and ours." She placed her hand over his heart. Warmth, love, fierce, motherly protection. Harry blinked away tears.
Hermione didn't hesitate – she threw her arms around Harry's neck and held on tight. "The goddess bless you with insight," she whispered in his ear. "With ingenuity. Trust yourself – and, and take care of yourself, Harry."
The friendship, affection, and pure confidence that wrapped around Harry's aura promised to stay with him, no matter how far away he went from his friend. "I will, I promise." He held onto her just as tight. "You, too," he added as she pulled away. "Please. Be careful with," he flapped his hands in the air, "all this."
The women backed away, and the three sons of Merlin drew together.
"How are you doing?" Sirius asked, leaning down, his light tone breaking up the dramatics of the witches. "Ready for the last act? The big showdown?"
Harry frowned. "I should be afraid. Terrified. But I'm not." He shrugged. "I was right before, wasn't I? Everything has changed."
"You especially," Severus agreed, buttoning up his sleeve. "You are not afraid because, for the first time, you have powerful wizards all around you. Wizards who should have taken on the brunt of this fight from the beginning, protecting you while you grew up. Protecting your family."
"Well," Harry said, "you're here now. You're all here now." He slipped from outward speech to inward. 'Now, we're going to end this, once and for all. Together.'
'Damn right,' Sirius agreed.
'Obviously,' Severus drawled with an inner smirk.
The three linked arms and Severus set the image of where they were headed before them. A run-down manor house with a foggy graveyard next door. An upstairs sitting room with a wing-backed chair. Harry could smell the dust; he could hear the brush of scales against the bare wood floor. A whining, subservient voice pleaded. A figure turned its hairless, malformed face, two red sparks flashing fire, in his direction.
Before the three had completed Apparating, Harry had drawn on all the power at his disposal – the blessings of the goddess, the knowledge of Merlin, the love of Sirius, and the determination of Severus. He snapped off the one spell he needed.
The end - finally. You are all brilliant, wonderful people for sticking with me and my story. So grateful for all the encouragement.
Before the pale creature could turn, Harry's spell hit him. The wand burst from Voldemort's hand and struck the fireplace, end first, splitting down its length. The glimmering feather inside frayed into broken wisps of light, disappearing with a far-off, but familiar, cry. Without a word, Harry moved his wand in a complicated rhythm, creating a path of red and gold beads of light that swirled around Voldemort, falling towards the shrunken wizard to lay like a shimmering cloth along his skin. He'd learned the spell from Ischel at the lake, the web of light sustained by his own magic, deep and strong, available to Harry for the first time in his life. This wasn't a net of healing or of protection. Harry smiled at the sensation of a hand on his shoulder, a soft cheek pressed against his. His net was fueled by Harry's mother's love. It lay across Voldemort's being like a burning caul, absorbing any of the wizard's attempts at magic.
To Harry's left, Severus lunged for Pettigrew, grappling with the shorter man, each one wrestling the other's wand-arm up and away. Severus was taller and stronger, but the rat was desperate, his rodent-like squeal and frantic scuttling to and fro keeping Severus occupied for the moment.
On his right, Sirius unsheathed the sword, flames dancing up and down its length. He held it in a two-handed grip, using the tip to herd the swaying snake away from her master. The snake hissed, venom dripping from her fangs to steam on the flagstone floor as Sirius menaced her into the room's far corner.
Harry faced Voldemort alone. Or, what was left of Voldemort. The misshapen, hairless thing crouching in the chair gripped the padded arms with bony hands, its narrow chest heaving. Thin shoulders shaking, it poured hexes and curses into the air. The magic it expended fueled Harry's net, its glow bright and clean against the backdrop of stagnant evil.
"Harry Potter," the thing snarled. "And I see you've brought both your faithful dog and my faithless snake." Voldemort spat. "It will do you no good, I'm afraid. You cannot kill me, you stupid, stupid boy, no more than I could kill you. Not even sweet Lily's love could accomplish that. Or has your lying, manipulating headmaster convinced you otherwise?" Voldemort clucked his tongue. "I don't see him here, of course. He's got you dancing on his strings so beautifully, tossed out before me like a sacrifice. Well," he sat back against the chair, pretending to be at ease, in control. He set one hand on his chest and tilted his head, "I accept."
The wand in Harry's grip grew warm, comforting. He felt Sirius' grip on the back of his neck, heard Severus' rueful comment, smelled the scent of fresh bread he always associated with Ron's mum, and the chamomile tea Professor McGonagall had offered him in her office. A whisper of sound made him grin.
'Honestly,' Hermione sighed, 'does it ever stop talking?'
No - Harry straightened. He wasn't alone after all. He'd never be alone. Just as they'd promised.
"My brothers and I haven't come on Dumbledore's order, but at the command of someone far greater, Tom. Someone you, yourself, have pretended to revere." Harry raised the wand. "He's given us everything we'll need to –"
"To kill me, Harry? Are you going to use an Unforgiveable? A cutting curse across my throat and leave me to bleed my life out on this floor?" Voldemort gestured with one arm. "Will you break my bones with your fists like a muggle or have your dog tear me apart?" Voldemort pursed his thin lips, red eyes flashing. "Is the young Saviour of the Wizarding World about to become a murderer? To embrace his inner darkness?"
Images rose up in Harry's mind – images of torture from Severus' hell-place. He nodded. Voldemort couldn't imagine any other way to deal with an enemy. Pain. Fear. Torture. Blood and broken bones and pleas for death. Harry knew that Voldemort's words were meant to stay his hand, to make him question himself, a young boy thrust into a battle too horrible for him. To make him hesitate one moment too long. Before Harry had been healed, before Merlin had completed what Sirius and Ischel had started in him, before he'd witnessed Severus' hell, it might have worked.
"No, Tom. We're not going to kill you. In fact, we're going to make sure you live as long as you can, live with the single piece of a wrecked and damaged soul you've left yourself. You think you've chosen immortality, deathlessness. But what you've really chosen is an unnatural prison. The prison of this deformed flesh, twisted by hate, by fear –"
"I do not fear –" Voldemort snarled, leaning forward.
"You do. You fear death. You are so afraid of it that you would rather crawl through the world, stealing sips and tastes of life from others, from unicorns, from weak wizards and witches, from children like Ginny Weasley to sustain you. You coat yourself with ice so that you don't feel anything – no love, no affection, no hope, no single moment of doubt is allowed to bubble up inside before you freeze it over. That isn't life, Tom." Regret – sorrow – filled Harry. Sorrow that there truly was no hope for what was left of Tom Riddle. "Life is hard and joyous and surprising," he whispered. "It's drudgery one day and soaring excitement the next. It's studying for OWLs and flying on a broom. It's dealing with all kinds of people and creatures, muggles and magical, on their own terms, not trying to force them into some strangled reality you've created in your own mind. It's the bravery of Gryffindor and the discipline of Ravenclaw, it's the cunning of Slytherin and the loyalty of Hufflepuff, all mixed together. It's love and fear, friends, family, narrow souls like Filch and great, larger-than-life characters like Hagrid, all thrown into the potions' cauldron into a messy, wonderful stew." Harry shook his head. "I'm only sorry you tore yourself apart and refused to experience it."
The others were with him, each one helping Harry put all the truth that he'd learned into words. Every one of the adults who'd been drawn by Merlin's command and so many more attached to them. He felt the numbed sorrow of Dumbledore. The fierce loyalty of Ron. Charley Weasley stood at a dragon's shoulder with Professor Flitwick beside him. Madame Pomfrey had her arm around the shoulders of Colin Creevey. Neville, in the Gryffindor Common Room, spoke quiet encouragement to the students gathered there. Luna, her blond hair like a beacon around her head, read children's stories to young students in Ravenclaw. Through all of them Harry felt more and more wizards and witches, all connected to him through the Light. Through family oaths and long histories and complicated genealogies, personal struggles and deep-seated longings for truth and justice. The magical world was coming together for healing.
Harry raised his eyes to find Sirius'. To share a glance with Severus. 'It's time.'
With a nod, Sirius stepped left, giving the snake an opening. As she launched herself forward, mouth open, eager for his blood, Sirius swung the sword. The fiery blade sliced through the thick scales like paper and the snake's head landed with a thump before bouncing to rest at Voldemort's feet.
In the same instant, Charley Weasley asked Norbert to flame the objects gathered on the rocky plateau. A cup. A diadem. A locket. A ring.
Severus threw Pettigrew into a full-body bind, forcing him to stand erect, his backbone creaking. Spittle splashed across the rat's cheeks as he cursed, his voice turning to inarticulate squeaks as the black ropes tightened around his neck. Severus waved his wand and Pettigrew's left arm was released. Severus ripped the sleeve from wrist to elbow to reveal the ink-black Dark Mark. He plunged the tip of his wand deep into the skin and Pettigrew shook his head back and forth in fear and denial.
More connections rose up through the silver circlet. Mrs. Weasley, Professor McGonagall, and Hermione held hands in the Wizengamot Chamber, its upper seats filled with witches and wizards in dark red robes. The Dark Mark overhead writhed. At the three witches' command, Death Eaters appeared within the charmed wards, filling the floor of the chamber from side to side and end to end.
Igor Karkaroff shouted denials. Blond head bowed, teeth clenched, Lucius Malfoy slowly raised his eyes to glare at the witches and wizards before him. On his left, in the only open cell, Peter Pettigrew appeared, his bonds falling away as the wards took over.
"We can trust the goddess with these," Severus stated, breathing hard from his struggles.
Harry blinked and released his hold on the image of the Wizengamot Chamber, lingering for just a second to touch Hermione's mind. "Almost done," he assured her. Still focused intently on the dangerous criminals held in the witches' wards, she sent a single spear of pride and joy back at Harry.
The sons of Merlin waited through Voldemort's tortured writhing. Sirius sheathed his sword and turned Severus towards him with a frown, his wand moving slowly across the bleeding slash across Severus' brow just beneath the circlet, closing the wound from Pettigrew's claws and cleaning up the blood.
What was left of Voldemort curled up into itself, arms that were more bone than flesh gripping its knees to its chest. It whimpered, eyes closed, rocking in the chair, small and shriveled. The bright membrane Harry had laid across it solidified into a thick covering, stained red as if suffused with blood.
"Can it survive like that?" Harry whispered. Perhaps it would have been kinder to kill it after all.
"For a time," Severus answered. "It is a mere sliver of soul housed in Riddle's manufactured, decaying flesh, with less awareness of itself than an infant."
"Will it grow, can it –" Harry swallowed hard, "can it grow to be a man again? To threaten our world again?"
Sirius' smile was grim. "No. There can be no growth without a soul, neither physical nor magical. That was one of Tom's problems – as soon as he began tearing apart his soul, he stopped growing. His mind could not take in any wisdom, any new knowledge. New thoughts were dismissed out of hand, not because he believed he had achieved perfect intelligence, but because he simply could not open his mind – or his heart – to embrace them."
"Darkness stifles growth," Severus added. "Whether in the greenhouse or in human and wizard life." He turned to meet Harry's gaze. "Hiding in the darkness can never lead us to life."
"Nor can hiding in the light," Harry reminded the potions' master. "If there's anything I've learned this year is that we need both. Light and dark. Flame and shadow. Fire and ice."
"We do," Severus agreed with a slow nod of his head. "But Light prevails, Harry. Light must always prevail. Shining into all the dark corners we keep hidden, warming the soul. It is all that allows us to greet each new morning with the hope of the better day."
"So philosophical." Sirius chuckled. "Practical matters come first, my friends. First, we deposit this … creature … with its new caretakers. Then," he spun, grabbing Harry and Severus around the shoulders, "I believe a celebration is in order. What do you say?"
The Great Hall was lit with a million hovering candles, gold and black streamers and banners hanging from every column and wall, with Cedric's embarrassed face beaming from some of the larger ones. The entire school was celebrating Cedric's victory, every House stomping and cheering and waving homemade signs and wearing Hufflepuff colors. At the head table, the Diggory family were, in turns, blushing, waving their arms to direct cheers and songs, and grinning at everyone around them. Professor Sprout looked like she might burst at any moment.
It had taken a few months, but Sirius was finally getting his celebration. Harry couldn't help a smile as he watched his godfather slip another splash of firewhiskey into Severus' goblet. Remus and Sirius might never get over James Potters' death, but they sure had someone in mind to fill the missing Marauder's shoes. And, strangely, Severus was only putting up a token resistance.
He caught Professor McGonagall's eyeroll and shared a sad shake of his head. "I'm too old for this," was the clear message she was trying to send him. Sometimes Harry missed the internal communication he'd had with so many of the adult witches and wizards, but, then again – he rubbed at the fading scar on his forehead – having his mind, his spirit, and his magic all to himself felt good. Really good. The circlet and sword had vanished when Voldemort had finally died, just before the third task. The wand – Harry brushed his fingers against the holster he'd bound to his wrist – the wand was his forever.
"Harry – Harry –"
He turned back to Ron.
Ron pointed with a dripping slice of beef towards the podium where the TriWizard Cup stood in all its glory. "Skeeter's trying to get your attention."
The witch was gesturing frantically with one arm, the other hand gripped around Victor Krum's thick bicep.
"Trying to get one last photo of the Champions, probably," Hermione huffed into her cup of pumpkin juice. "Poor Victor – he's just too polite to tear himself away."
Harry pursed his lips, finding Fleur and her sister at the Ravenclaw table and raising one eyebrow. "I think we can help him out with that, don't you?"
Silent, wandless magic had come quickly to Harry since his healing. He sharpened his will and sent a stinging hex into Skeeter's buttocks just as Fleur stood, drawing the woman's attention. Skeeter yelped and spun on her heel, letting go of Victor in the process. Like a good Seeker, Victor used the move to his advantage and darted away to slide in between Fleur and her sister.
The Slytherin table was crowded again, Draco, Blaise and Theo sitting at one end with a few others, not quite reintegrated with the students whose parents had never embraced Voldemort. At least they were all back in school. The last sentence had been carried out a month ago – the last Dementor's Kiss. It would take time for true forgiveness, for true changes of nature to result in changes in how the Death Eater children were treated by their classmates. It was a start.
"And to think it could have been your picture up there, Harry." Seamus clucked his tongue, a look of sheer exasperation on his face. "I will never understand why you didn't even try. I mean, with what we've seen you do in class since you took on You-Know-Who you could have won the tournament with one hand tied behind your back."
"I told you not to bet on him," Ron smirked around a mouthful of mashed spud. "Told you he wouldn't put his stupid name in that stupid goblet."
Harry's eyebrows rose at Ron's apparent amnesia about how he really felt about the Goblet spitting out Harry's name. Ron's anger hadn't lasted, of course – it never did. But the twins had told Harry about Ron's little fit in the Common Room before Hogwarts had woken up and the Order of Phoenix had told the school about Merlin and the end of the war.
"I'm happy Cedric won," Harry announced for what felt like the millionth time. "At least we have a Hogwarts Champion."
It had been the easiest decision Harry had ever made.
Harry and Sirius and Severus had left the broken infant Dark Lord with a nest of Dementors in the Black Forest where the other soul-broken beings accepted it as one of their own. Unspeaking, unseeing, the creatures recognized the corrupted soul, tucked it away in a warm corner with their own young, and cared for it until it took its last breath. When the three returned to Hogwarts, when the trials were over, the new prison built, and the executions performed, Harry had come back to Gryffindor changed. He couldn't refuse the tournament – not after Crouch, junior had tricked him into entering – but he could make sure he was never in the running for Champion.
He'd enjoyed the First Task, chasing around Hogwarts with the dragon. Flying free, Harry had kept the dragon chasing him all around the castle, Hogsmeade, and the forest until the thing had drooped with exhaustion. Finally, it had turned away, back to its fake egg. Most of the spectators had left the stands by then, hungry and bored, and Harry had accepted his last place finish with a grin. After that, he had joined forces with Cedric – once he'd convinced the Hufflepuff that, no, Harry really didn't want to win, thank you. The two, with Hermione's help, of course, had planned out a winning strategy for the other tasks and made sure Cedric was far ahead of the other two in points.
The funniest part of the whole ridiculous tournament had been when Severus Snape was stolen and hidden away beneath the lake as Harry's 'treasured belonging.' He didn't think his potions' professor would ever stop scowling. While Harry swam laps on the surface, the other three champions had rescued the hostages and, long after time had expired, Severus had bobbed to the surface, pruney skin, wet, bedraggled hair hanging in his face, and the entire school not daring to laugh. Well, not a lot, anyway. Not where Severus could hear them.
Harry shoved the half-eaten tart away, setting down his fork with bit too much force. The Ministry had 'adjusted' the final task after repeated attempts to coax, bribe, and finally demand that Harry make a real effort to win. Even with the huge point differences between Harry and the other champions, the idiots at the Ministry, Bagman in the lead, wouldn’t leave him alone. They'd put off the final task for two weeks, changing the configuration of the maze until each champion had his or her own separate compartment, charmed with anti-Apparition and anti-Portkey wards. The creatures and traps set inside had been tuned to each champion's magical signature, making it impossible to help each other. The interfering, sadistic officials had made sure that each one faced 'boggarts' designed to set off deep-seated fears and challenge each student's weaknesses.
He admitted he might have lost his temper when the shade of Tom Riddle rose up before him, one hand around the throat of the image of his mother. Harry had claimed that his Patronus had simply gotten away from him, trampling the maze and menacing the magical creatures waiting to pounce until Harry's area lay flat and smoking, manticores and sphinxes fleeing in all directions.
Harry's stag Patronus had faced the crowd of silent spectators, antlers lowered, steam churning from its nostrils, its skin shivering in rage until a silvery doe and a tail-wagging phantom dog had appeared. They pressed close on either side, calming the stag, staring at the officials who had been ranged around the maze, daring them to speak one word in censure or reproach. The three Sons of Merlin, power billowing around them like coronas, had met before the three Patronuses, Harry walking across the flattened hedges, the ancient wizard's wand gripped in a white-knuckled hand. Sirius, Severus, and Harry had bowed to their Patronuses. The three manifestations of their souls, their magic, had quieted under their hands.
Harry had accepted his disqualification from the tournament with a regal nod. It was Ron's whoop of delight from the stands that had finally broken the tension and reduced Harry and his mentors to head-shaking laughter.
Dumbledore rose from the head table, lifting his hands to ask for the students' attention. After the last verse of 'Cedric is our King,' died away, the crowd grew quiet, expectant.
Harry leaned into Hermione's shoulder. "Yeah." Dumbledore was no longer the spider at the center of the web of power, the great strategist hunched over his chessboard. Merlin had cut the headmaster's strings, freed all of his puppets – students, witches, wizards, ghosts, even the castle itself. Hogwarts' halls shone with magic, the portraits calmer, more constrained and less interfering in students' lives while the ghosts were brighter, more visible, more protective of their houses. Harry tilted his head, considering the grey-bearded wizard. "Honestly, Hermione, I think he looks better, somehow." He shook his head. He couldn't put his finger on it –
Harry turned towards Neville, sitting across from him.
Neville nodded at the headmaster. "Dumbledore. He looks like he's actually happy, not like he's putting on a front or pretending. That stupid twinkle in his eyes is gone – I think it was a mask he wore, Harry. Something to confuse people. Now?" He shrugged. "Looks like a great weight was lifted off his shoulders. Kind of like you, mate."
"Me?" Harry drew back. When the entire Gryffindor table erupted in great guffaws and choking laughter, he felt his cheeks heat. "Hey!"
"Come on, Harry." Ron wiped tears from his eyes. "You don't think you've changed? I mean, you only lost a nasty piece of Voldy's soul, got your childhood memories back, and finally have a hold on your magic for the first time."
"Not to mention gaining a couple of mentors and the confidence to tell Fudge and ministry to push off," Lee snorted.
"And, of course, not important at all, got rid of the psycho who had been trying to kill you for years." Hermione made a face. "Of course, you've changed."
At a pointed – and loud – clearing of the throat from the head table, Fred and George stood straight up and saluted. "Sorry, Professor Snape! Won't happen again, Professor Snape!"
"Oh, if I could only believe that," Snape drawled in reply before giving all of his attention to Dumbledore. "You were saying, Headmaster?"
"It has been an exciting year. Our friends and families are, for the first time in a very long time, safe and well. A great evil has been eliminated. Those who would have forced us into slavery and servitude have been dealt with. And Hogwarts has crowned a new TriWizard Champion!"
Applause, shouts, cheers erupted all over again from every corner of the Great Hall. Slytherin to Gryffindor, students and teachers roared, house elves peering in from the hallway and around the legs of the tables grinned, ghosts nodded in delight. From outside, hoots and calls of forest creatures joined in. Even Peeves – and Myrtle – whooped, darting amongst the floating candles – every part of Hogwarts was celebrating.
"Now," Dumbledore folded his hands across his belt, "there have been many, many changes. It will take more than a summer, I believe, to adjust, for our world to heal, for our broken families to learn what it means to live in a world where fear is not our constant, where our children are not forced to focus on battle, on defense. Hogwarts' Board of Governors will have quite a workload, along with her teachers, to update our curriculum. To bring new ideas of science and technology in from the muggle world, to embrace areas of study long neglected." He leaned towards the students. "You may find you have many more subjects to decide among when you plan your fall schedules."
Next to Harry, Hermione was vibrating with excitement.
"But, as you leave us for your homes, remember this." Dumbledore raised his wand and the Hufflepuff-centered decorations faded into the colors and designs of all the houses, scattered around the hall. "Here, at Hogwarts, all are welcome. To learn. To grow. This year, our castle has awoken and accepted her role as protector of the magical youth of these isles. All of them." He stared at the Slytherin table. "And while this has made for some, ah, uncomfortable changes," he adjusted his glasses, "for some of us, myself included, know this: Hogwarts shall always stand between its students and danger." With tears in his eyes, he continued, his voice trembling. "While I regret that it has not been true in the past, from now on, you are safe here. From now on, these teachers, this staff, from headmaster to smallest house elf, are vowed, first and foremost, to raise up strong, confident wizards and witches who are free to study and grow in peace and safety. All life comes with stress and moments of anxiety and trial, but no longer will the adults of Hogwarts turn a blind eye to real danger."
The response was tentative at first, hesitant clapping from a few tables. Harry caught his godfather's eye and rose to his feet, Severus also standing. The applause died away.
Harry raised his new wand and was joined by his mentors. "Students so pledge," he stated, a steady stream of red and gold bursting to arc over the hall.
"Parents and Guardians so pledge," Sirius added, his own rainbow-colored light joining Harry's, knitting both together into a net.
"Teachers and Staff so pledge." Green and silver, Severus' magic rushed out to join the other two.
Ghosts and house-elves joined in next, Firenze, from the head table adding the oath of all magical creatures; Professor Flitwick swirled out black and grey magic for the goblins. Remus and his younger cousin rose, the werewolf boy's hand on Remus' wand, blue and white magic marking him as Ravenclaw. Amos Diggory and Amelia Bones added Hufflepuff yellow and made their vows for the ministry.
Dumbledore spread his hands, his white light spreading out to join all the magics into an impenetrable shield that spread and lifted, encompassing all of Hogwarts, the forest, the grounds, the dungeons, and on into Hogsmeade.
Every student and teacher and parent rose in a surge of answering magic. "So mote it be."
HP HP HP HP HP
Harry leaned against the headboard in his room at Sirius' home in Hogsmeade. His wand lay across his lap. Oak, eleven-and-a-half inches, strong yet pliable. Its core was made of three strands, braided into one – dragon heartstring, thestral hair, and Cerberus tail. Mister Ollivander had raised both eyebrows at the combination and immediately handed the wand back to Harry when he'd sought out the man's insights.
"I have a feeling you already know more about this wand than I do, Mister Potter."
He'd been right. Harry had known as soon as the wand appeared in his hand, knew it reflected his new life, his soul freed from evil and tied for all time to Sirius and Severus. He didn't know what happened to his old wand, but he didn't miss it. He didn't miss much at all from his former life as Voldemort's vessel. Not the Dursleys – Obliviated of all memories of Harry since he'd moved in with Sirius. He didn't miss the nasty, petulant relationship he'd had with Severus or the doubts that had swirled in his heart about himself, his father, and his abilities. He didn't miss speaking Parseltongue or the nightmares. He sighed. He didn't miss the secrecy and manipulation of Dumbledore or being the target of Draco Malfoy and his pet Slytherins.
The knock at his door made his lips curl up in a smile. What he did not miss most of all was the loneliness. The certain knowledge that Harry was on his own – to live or die or exist somehow in between. Alone behind the ice. He would never, ever yearn for those days, not even if, every minute of every day Harry was now bound to two others so tightly he sometimes forgot where they left off and he started.
"Come in, Severus."
Harry's mentor smiled more, now. Not frequently, not by any other person's measure, but, like Dumbledore, weights had been lifted. Weights of guilt and regret and self-doubt. He was still the Dungeon Bat, snarky and sarcastic to those who failed at Potions. But, even as Severus might lecture and snarl, his eyes were filled with light.
"What is it tonight?" Harry asked, sliding down under the covers, laying his wand close to hand on the side table.
"'Little Dorrit and the Crumple-Horned Snorkack,'" Severus answered, seating himself with a flurry of robes on the chair at Harry's bedside, the children's storybook open on his lap.
Harry eyed him with vexation. "You got that from Luna, didn't you?"
Severus tipped his head, eyes wide. "I have a limited library of children's books, Harry. Of course, I have asked for suggestions from your friends. Believe me, the Weasley twins' suggestions are even more … interesting."
Chuckling, Harry closed his eyes and settled himself to listen. After another moment of silence, he opened them again, catching Severus' fond, assessing stare. "You don't have to do this every night, you know."
Laying a hand on the page, Severus pursed his lips. "I believe 'bed-time stories' was one of your specific requests of me, Harry. Right before dating advice and learning to drive a muggle car which we will apply ourselves to this summer." He dropped his amused façade, a shadow curdling behind his eyes. "Please, Harry –" he began before Harry could cut him off.
"I'm looking forward to it," he whispered solemnly. "To the driving, not the dating advice," he added.
"You asked for it." Severus took a deep breath and began. "'Most little girls don't have best friends with horns and hoofs and long, forked tails. They don't play among giggling bluffberries and singing mushrooms. And they certainly don't live in windmills in the middle of dense, ancient forests. But Dorrit did.'"
Harry fell asleep, warm and comfortable, loved, cherished, and protected, eager for whatever came next. Someday, he told himself, Severus would let Harry forgive him.
He could wait.