Harry woke with an unintelligible shout and heaved forward on the couch, nearly toppling before he caught himself.
"Are you quite all right?" Snape asked.
Harry stared at him. He felt like someone had taken a giant fork and torn shreds from his midsection.
"Harry?" Snape asked, setting aside a scholarly journal to stand up.
His pure tone of concern gouged the tatters out farther. Harry tried to grab hold of something: his plans, Fudge's misery, the Dursleys' fear, but they all slithered free of his grasp. His servants hovered in the midfield of his mind, unhappy with their lot, poison more than nourishment. What was he doing wrong?
Snape bent close to look him over. "Do you need a Healer?"
"I don't want a Healer," Harry growled. He looked around the room, feeling the last of himself threatening to slip away but not at all confident what exactly would take over. He teetered, but had to ask: "Where's Candide?"
"Upstairs. Napping before dinner, which will be in an hour or so. Or I can fetch you the lunch you missed."
Harry stared at him, not understanding. The undercurrents should oppose the surface deceptions, this he knew well, but this world made little sense interpreted that way.
"Harry?" Snape's voice rose from absolutely level.
Harry could not bear to be confused any more; he might tear in half. He may plummet through the gap inside himself. "Leave me be," he whispered. When Snape's far too intent gaze did not waver, Harry added, "You betrayed me. I don't trust you."
Speaking these words gave Harry a foothold on the world around him and he could draw air fully into his lungs.
Snape said, "I would be disloyal not to point out that you would feel better if you ate something."
"So you can potion my food?" Harry snarled. Snape's face did not even flicker. Harry added, "You are capable of obscuring anything from me. I was unwise to believe you were on my side. Why I let you fool me again . . ." He ran out of energy. He was just talking to hear his voice.
Ignoring Snape, Harry tilted his head back. Staring at the ceiling made him feel like his body was spinning on a merry-go-round. He squeezed his eyes shut. He longed for the oblivion of a strong potion, and had to clamp his lips together to resist asking for one. He heard Snape retreat to the other couch, heard the crinkle of the tissue-thin paper of his journal as he opened it again.
"Harry?" a new, familiar voice roused him with a start.
Harry tipped his head forward to find Hermione approaching across the hall, hair askew, eyes showing the whites all the way around. Her cloak fell around her shoulders as she caught herself on the couch arm. "Harry . . ." She did not seem to have the breath to go on and stood there, clinging to the furniture, shoulders curved downward, defeated.
Snape sat forward but did not speak.
"Harry, what did you do?" Hermione whispered. "You didn't really . . .?"
Harry blinked at her, befuddled by the parallel reaction he had to seeing her, one of warm emotion, the other of calculating alarm. He caught a vision from her wild gaze, of a lightning bolt over Vineet's honey-warm skin. Harry's scattered wits coiled together possessively and filled his limbs with energy. He stood to face her.
"What?" Harry whispered, dismissive.
"What!?" Hermione blurted. She came at him and grabbed the front of his robes and jerked on them. "What are you doing?" she demanded. "What do you think you're doing?" she reiterated when he did not reply.
Harry pinched the bones of her fingers together to remove her left hand. "It's none of your concern," he heard himself say. The words clicked out of him, certain of the effect.
"What?" she blurted while exhaling. Her wide gaze remained fixed on him, but she let go and stepped back. She sent a glance over to Snape, whose expression remained studious.
"What?" she repeated, then swallowed hard. She shook her head, gaze falling far away. "Harry, you . . . can't . . . " Her breath ran out again.
"Can't what?" he prompted. "I certainly can. Shall I Summon them here and show you?"
"Them? Harry, HOW MANY ARE THERE?"
Harry matched her alarm with outward steadfast calm, and her entire demeanor shifted. She panted through her parted lips and surged forward to grab his robes again, firmer this time. Her brow lowered. "I won't let this happen," she growled, accentuating each word with a tug on him. "Harry . . . You. Can't. Do. This."
They stood nose to nose. Her thoughts no longer held Vineet and recent shocks and instead streamed with old memories and fears for a much smaller version of himself, one that did not listen to wiser counsel nearly often enough, regret-infused events where she and Ron were the only things standing with him against all else. Disliking these visions, Harry again pinched her hands but she held fast, face tightening with pain.
Harry glimpsing himself hearing the Basilisk in a corridor at Hogwarts when no one else could, fearing so many things beyond their understanding, fearing that something was very much wrong with him then and seeing that realized now like a cold wash of lagging panic. Regret washed behind those thoughts that something had not been done sooner, that Dumbledore was not here now to help, and that everything else had already failed, that their options were running out, may already have run out.
"NO." Hermione's voice broke and wavered. "Not until you undo what you've done." Her eyes were watering, from the pain or emotion; Harry was not certain.
Her brutal hopelessness was infectious. "I can't. This is who I am. This is who I've been since the night my parents died."
With her entire weight, she alternately pushed and pulled on his robes, rattling him with her quick ferocity. "NO. It. Isn't!"
Her swift bursts of violence made his heart race. His robes cut into his shoulders she hung on them with such force.
With a jerk, Harry struck out with a mild Debilitating Hex to release her grip and they stumbled apart. Hermione immediately launched at him again, but stopped, hands raised, when he leveled his wand at chest height. He could read in her face that she thought him terrifyingly immutable. But in reality, he felt he was defending the last shreds of himself. He refused to grab hold of the instincts that whispered absurd ideas about what spells to use next. So he merely stood there, yearning to warn her away, but unable to force the right words through. His instincts wanted her there; they had ideas.
With abstract casualness, Snape rose from the couch opposite and stood so that the three of them formed a triangle.
"You let this happen," Hermione snapped, tilting her face toward Snape. Her hands drifted down to the sides, limp.
"He has no choice in the matter," Harry said, again feeling that clicking into place of careful calculation, that possessiveness rearing up.
"Everyone always has a choice," Snape intoned.
To Hermione, Harry managed to say, "Go away."
Hermione's shoulders fell forward and her mouth trembled as she said, "No."
Harry wavered, feeling the emptiness yawning below him, filling him. He had to get her away, had to get her to give up.
"Don't make me Summon your lover here to kick you out," Harry said.
Her brow furrowed again and she shook her head. "I don't believe you."
"I can take him away from you, you know. He's mine."
She swung an arm as if to grab at him, or strike him, but changed her mind. "Harry . . ." she pleaded.
Her face pulled back from displaying utter misery and she stated, "No."
Snape's mouth parted to speak, but he pressed his lips together and remained silent.
Harry raised his wand higher, to aim along it. An empty wind was blowing through him. He asked, "Why are you making me do this?" For a long breath, Harry squirmed. The pit below him seemed a welcome choice compared to fighting any longer. His instincts floundered, trying to regain the upper hand against the emptiness. And he couldn't think of a spell . . .
A flash erupted in Harry's vision and he stumbled backward onto the couch. He leapt back to his feet to face Winky, who stood with her unnaturally long fingers held up before her.
"Winky is not letting anyone be hurt!"
Snape jumped between them, pushing the elf backward by her shoulders. "Winky, I ordered you to not interfere."
Winky's shoulders heaved. "Master is ordering Winky to defend the household."
"So, I did," Snape muttered, shoulders falling. "But I-"
She slipped to the side and raised her hands. Harry was lifted over the couch as if caught by an ocean wave. He tucked into a roll as his limbs met the floor, and righted himself on his hands and knees, wand out. With a spell he sent the couch skidding aside. When it struck the wall it shook the house. Winky raised her hands again, eyes popping with effort.
Snape spun on the elf. "Winky! I command you to stop!"
Winky cringed and balled her hands together. "But Master. . . bad things is happening! Dark wizards is acting freely. Winky is not failing again."
Snape brought his full anger to bear. "Winky . . ."
Winky dropped to her knees, clutching her entwining fingers against her bowed face. A wave of softly insidious oppression washed through Harry, sweeping the stone walls, rolling back and around the room. Winky peeked at Harry through her knobbly fingers.
Snape gave an audible exhale of relief. He started to turn, "Harry . . ." he began, voice soothing.
Harry observed his wand hand moving. Perhaps he could have intervened before it finished its path, but the heat of battle made everything into rote reaction. He saw an unpredictable enemy incapacitated by the command of his former loyal servant. During the split second his instinct took control, that was all he perceived. Elf magic could only be defeated by a handful of natural forces, and one of them was sitting right there.
Harry sent the tallest lamp, the brass reservoir tearing open from the spell's distortion, careening at the elf. The lamp struck Winky and exploded in curls of silky flame. Hermione shouted something unintelligible. Snape spun back around, and spells flew. A baby's distressed screech came from the balcony and became a prelude to earsplitting panting cries. Harry looked up to see Candide cuddling Arcadius, patting him rapidly on the back. Her alarmed eyes met his and she backed up one step, then another.
With the tall lamp gone, the room had grown dim, lit hazily by a few candles in the chandelier. The scent of water mixed with lamp oil smoke and charred wood. Snape was bending over Winky by the front wall where the momentum of the spell had thrown her.
Hermione stood where she had been, bending over her arms which were clasped around her middle. Eyes fixed on Snape and the fallen elf, she gave a hopeless groan of: "Harry . . ."
Harry still knelt on the floor. He felt nothing. His soul stretched wide with a vast emptiness inside it. He feared nothing now because nothing mattered.
Snape put a hand on the floor to lean close to Winky, who lay unmoving. Hermione bent farther, still not facing Harry, and more quietly cried, "Harry . . ."
Harry pushed to his feet, a difficult maneuver because he could not feel his legs, really. His movement drew Snape to stand as well, and to stride toward him. Halfway to him, Snape came to a scuffing stop. Upstairs, Arcadius continued to howl in a broken series of shrieks.
Harry was in two worlds. He held a wand just like this one, bearing the spirit of the phoenix—the phoenix, what he yearned to be—a child cried upstairs and was soothed and shushed. He had a unambiguous purpose in that place. Where had that gone? There was nothing inside him now. Even fear would be welcome.
Snape tossed his wand aside onto the couch where it bounced and rolled into the crux of the cushions. He spread his hands to the sides, long pale fingers glowing in the poor light, then balled them and held them rigid at his sides.
"You go no further," Snape stated. The candlelight left him in murky orange shadow, but raw will streamed out from him. Everything so familiar. Only it was not Snape, but James Potter, wandless also, stating those words.
Harry stepped back to catch his balance on half-numb feet. A breeze shifted through him making him ache all around the ragged hollow at his core. He stared down at his wand, that wand. He stroked it, remembering how pleased he had been to have been chosen by a phoenix-core wand. It had meant everything was right. He would fear nothing, certainly not death.
Harry turned the wand in his fingers, studying the worn carving on the handle. Fear meant you were alive. Fear.
Harry turned the wand around in his hands, then secreted it away in his pocket. Vibrant energy teased into his limbs and he tried to suppress it. Not yet. Not yet. Arcadius' crying had slowed to an intermittent half-hearted wail.
Avoiding all thought, avoiding glancing at the others, Harry inverted himself and slipped away.
In the main hall of the house, Snape ran his hand through his stringy hair and stared at the spot where Harry had just been.
"Where did he go?" Hermione asked, voice faint, yet still echoing.
"He could have gone anywhere. Literally." Snape turned back to Winky and said, "If you can move, you may do so now. I will take you to St. Mungo's."
Winky pushed to sit up, clutching a reddened arm against her half burned tea towel.
Snape turned to Hermione, who was wiping her eyes repeatedly and swallowing hard between small sobs. He said, "I am considering asking you to take Candide away with you . . ."
Winky had climbed to her feet and crept over to Snape to tug on his robes with her uninjured hand. "Master. Master. Master Harry is going to hurt himself, Master."
Snape turned and took her wrist in hand like one accosting an errant child. "What?"
"Master Harry . . ." She shrank back, trying to protect her wounded side, then collapsed, limp.
Snape lowered her to the floor by her hand. Voice rough, he said, "Never mind, I heard you the first time, in all honesty." His face pinched in pain.
"I'll take Winky," Hermione said, hurriedly scooping the elf up from the floor.
"Go with her," Snape ordered Candide who still leaned over the balcony railing.
"What are you going to do?" Candide returned, voice as frantic as the rest of theirs.
"I don't know," Snape said. "Something." He started to say more, but shook his head.
Candide, sounding like she called down from somewhere much farther away, said, "Someone should stay in case Harry returns."
"I can," Hermione offered.
"Go!" Snape commanded her, pointing at the dining room. "You are not safe with Harry anyway."
Hermione ducked over her charge and shuffled off, sniffling. Snape and Candide stared at each other, even after the sound of the Floo crackling faded. Candide shifted Arcadius to her other side. He had quieted except for the hiccoughs.
"What are you going to do?" Candide asked, voice gentle. When he shook his head she added, "Harry will come back, Severus. Doesn't he always?"
Snape drew in a deep breath. "I don't know how much of that was Harry."
After a space, she asked, "Where do you think he's gone?"
"I don't know," Snape said, bleakly. After a beat he added: "I could hire a vampire to try to follow him . . ." He sounded oddly like someone trying to be funny. He tipped his head up to stare at the chandelier. "I cannot fail in this."
"Severus . . ." she stridently began, but stopped and asked more gently, "Severus, what more could you do?"
He shook his head. "Something. There is always something." He waved in the direction of the drawing room, and a latch clattered open. Kali came sailing out, dark blue now, with shaggy fur. Snape caught her out of the air and bundled her against his breast to pet her.
Harry Disapparated yet again, lost his balance and had to catch himself on a heavy curl of rusted metal, which shivered under his grip. He pressed his forehead into the gritty surface and remained that way, clearing everything from his thoughts, making his mind to match his soul, ragged and empty.
Eventually, Harry straightened and began walking, thinking of nothing but the movement of it. His legs at first staggered, not really his own, but as he went, urging muscle and sinew along, his gait straightened and he let the rhythm of the motion become a living thing inside him. He let it fill the void, at least for the moment.
Harry walked faster, setting a pace that kept the hordes behind him. He walked until he recognized nothing. The gritty sand was so fine it made little clouds puff around his footsteps. His brown shoes quickly became ghostly grey so it was difficult to discern where they began and the dust ended. Mad tangles of metal loomed over him, cradling grey grasses so high they had folded crisply over.
Harry kept walking, giving no attention to how long. It could have been minutes, or hours. He set his mind not to care. There was only the movement, limbs like pendulums propelled into the next step by the swing of the last.
He kept going until his limbs regained full sensation and he could feel his right shoe rubbing the way it sometimes did when he wore the wrong socks.
Harry slowed and without a change in his empty calm, looked about himself. Concentrating on an open space of grey dirt ahead, he trudged that way. Again a sparkle of warmth bristled along his nerves. Anticipation. He responded by forcefully suppressing all emotion, emptying himself again, welcoming his hollowed out soul like a difficult spell he needed to keep casting. The clatter of tiny limbs grew louder, gathering all around. The creatures' noxious scent drew forth memories that he refused to mind, letting them dissolve away. He just fixated on that open spot. Memories would be his undoing. He would not wear his heart on his sleeve; he was stronger than that. Much stronger. He would not be provoked. He would not wear his heart on his sleeve and he would not be provoked. That was important.
Harry reached the center of the open area. The grey dirt was ridged in perfect ripples laid down in two directions, like the sandy bottom of the ocean. Adrenaline coursed through him as the creatures rushed inward, bodies piled three deep, marring the perfect dust. His limbs buzzed and twitched with suppressed movement. He would not be provoked.
Harry dropped to his knees, hands rising up to cradle his head. He could not help that.
As the first claws sunk into muscle he instinctively twisted away from them, into the jaws of the creatures on the other side. He clenched his muscles into stillness, bent as far as possible into his arms. This was his body, and he would do with it as he pleased.
Reality became pain. The hollow of his core and the pain formed an eclipse of flaring agony. The wet snapping jaws clacked just beside his ears, ripping at the flesh of his arms. Every nerve ending fought for escape. But Harry, empty, refused to acknowledge this. He floated in the center of the eclipse, isolated, feigning ignorance of his body being consumed.
Within him, his new instincts shrieked and flailed in fear.
The pain grew deeper, no longer surface stings; claws tore to bone, tiny jaws ripped muscle free, inciting burning trails along his nerves that collided and surged so high they neutralized so that freezing waves washed behind searing pain. Harry screamed, and felt saliva dripping from his teeth, joining the blood that dripped from his elbows.
Unable to discern up and down, Harry toppled, dirt ground into his wounds and clung to his blood soaked robes. The creatures trapped under him shrieked and slithered to get free. Within him, the same thing was happening. Something clawed and flailed to get free, sensing mortal pain, sensing his stubborn determination. Harry spasmed, back arching until his muscles pulled and spasmed.
Harry screamed again until his breath ran out and then he felt nothing for an eternal, suspended moment. Everything stopped, the noise, the rending jaws . . . everything went still until something tore loose inside him. This searing pain blocked out all else. The flapping wounds, the missing chunks of flesh, they were nothing compared to the torment of this rent forming across the center of his being.
Harry thrashed with a mad, hoarse screech. It reached his ears like the shriek of locomotive brakes. He screamed again, on and on, until his last breath trickled out like a vomiting laugh. He was pain. There was no world; there were no creatures; there were only the halves of him and the seam gaping between them. The pain made him mad enough to yearn to heal the rent; he reached out for it, mindlessly seeking relief, promising to be obedient, if only the agony would cease.
The tearing halted. Separate as he was now, Harry could feel the bleak cursedness he had called back. The halves of his soul jerked, trying to repair and Harry heard Hermione screaming at him, felt her jerking at him, violent and frantically out of control. He saw the flash of fire engulfing Winky, the powerful pulse of the spell he had not consciously cast. He saw Snape and his father overlapping like two worlds at once. His friends would prefer, he was certain, that he not come back at all than that he come back whole, as he had been. He wasn't a hero anymore; he was nothing. Best to remain nothing and dissolve into well-deserved dust. Harry bit down on the aversion to the agony and shoved the cursedness away, accepting that madness and death may follow.
Inside him, something howled at the scent of death, and wrenched free. Harry imagined that he wimpered, but there was no sound. A veil of black draped over Harry's slitted eyes, smothering for a breath before it fluttered loose, drawing the agony out into a thin line that stretched his hopeless soul out, far out, then snapped free, releasing him with a shudder.
Harry's face smashed into the grey dirt beside his knee. The pain had deadened to a soundless roar and his mind thrashed against the open sore it left behind. He opened his mouth to scream again, but he could only hear his own choked breath escaping through wet lips and dirt-caked teeth.
Harry gasped, sucking in dirt. He was on fire inside and out. He trembled violently, knocking his limbs together. The air burned his wounds. He imagined cold, blissful cold on his limbs. Nothing else mattered, he reminded himself. He was empty otherwise. He imagined ice and the peripheral pain eased to a mere blinding agony.
He must have passed out. He woke to something snuffling at his cheek, something rancidly cold and wet. A growl, throaty and musical, sounded just inches from his ear.
The soul-deep wound made him clench his eyes closed tighter; the paltry agony of his shredded body barely registered in comparison. He could just lie there, release the Staunching cold, and finish it. It would be so easy and then there would be no pain at all, within or without. He would be free of everything. But there were things he wanted to see, Arcadius growing up. Snape was strong enough to move on, but Hermione would be devastated. And he had a family now and white anger flared up at getting cheated of that once again. Coaxing these emotions into real strength, he renewed the cold on his limbs and the pain of his flesh eased, at least. It let him breathe a little better.
Harry blinked the grit from his eyes. The werewolf's snout was just beside his face, growling over the top of him at the creatures arrayed on the other side. One creature took a nip at his hand. The feel of its teeth made him jerk his hand clear, a movement he had not believed himself capable of. He was already missing two fingers on that side, he noted impassively.
Harry felt for his wand. His arm barely obeyed, almost too weak to lift his blood-soaked sleeve. But Harry was used to this helplessness and he took his time. He found his wand and fumbled for it, practiced at handling it with unresponsive fingers, although not practiced at using blood-slippery, half missing fingers.
Harry aimed a healing spell at his left arm. The spell fizzled and snapped, useless. Fiery panic tried to fill Harry's chest, battling against hope that had apparently swelled large enough fuel his expectations. His wounds began flowing again, warming his blood-cold robes. Harry Staunched his limbs again, imagining arctic ice, endless lakes of still, arctic ice. Again the pain eased, letting him catch up on his breathing.
He could Apparate here, so magic was possible, at least within him. Harry pressed the shaking tip of his wand against a flap of exposed skin, which was growing white from lack of blood, disconnected tendon curled up behind it. He incanted the spell again, silently, in his head, taking his time.
The spell flowed down his arm, about to his elbow, he guessed from the feel of it. With great care, Harry turned the wand in his weak fingers and pressed it home at the crux of his elbow and repeated it.
The werewolf snapped across his chest at a half crab, half dingo that tried to snatch at Harry's elbow, knocking the wand out of his hand.
Calmly, Harry reached over himself with his healed arm, wincing as edges of fabric which had been healed into it caught on his flesh and pulled. But it was a good sign that it hurt so badly. He picked up his wand in his left hand and repeated the spell on his right arm. He worked his way along, healing where he bled from his torso, healing his legs, which had been somewhat protected from harm by being folded under him.
Then after several clumsy tries, Harry put the wand back in his pocket and looked beyond the creatures ringed around him. A rancid shadow loomed there, undulating side to side. A long noseless face took form in the head of the shadow, with long teeth and a glow of red for eyes.
Harry blinked at it, trying to make his mind work, but before he could make sense of the thing, its mouth took shape to howl and it rushed him.
Harry tried to heave up on his arms, to escape the expanding leer that bore down until it filled his vision. A wave of aversion made Harry gasp as the shadow passed through him, briefly making his limbs wobble and thrash. He tried to scream again, but his head merely tossed. He flailed and rolled over, propped himself up precariously on locked elbows and looked around, trying to see where the shadow had gone. Behind him was only more scrub and circling creatures.
The werewolf's growl became a yelp, and it leapt upon Harry, sickly with a double curse now. Helplessly weak, Harry let the werewolf's momentum propel it across his chest to fall on the creatures on the other side of him. But he did not let go; he clung desperately to its furred breast and pushed at the only thing he had strength to: the cursedness.
The werewolf repeatedly coiled its body and tried to flip onto its feet, dragging Harry along the ground, sending the creatures scattering. But Harry hung firm, pressing harder. The werewolf yelped out a series of frantic barks and corkscrewed its dog body one way then the other. A shadowy halo drifted around the creature, flailed and snapped back into place. Harry bit his lip and pushed again, broadening the way he battled it in his mind to cover the whole animal. The werewolf's face contorted into a semblance of Voldemort's face.
"You are nothing! I. Will. Not. Die . . ." the face sneered. "I am stronger than everything, even death."
Harry tried to sneer back you're certain of that? but his mouth refused to work. He clamped his eyes closed so that there was nothing but him and the shadowy curse, not the face that had haunted him for so long. Slowing his breathing, Harry systematically pushed at the curse immediately under his fingers, then deeper in, then outward from there to the paw-tipped limbs. The animal thrashed and almost broke free, almost reached his arm with its snapping jaws. Harry wavered, spent. He was not going to manage it. The last of the dark cursedness surged back in, assaulting his hands, making his muscles twitch with a sickening urge to let go.
Harry rocked, losing his grip on consciousness. He would not let Voldemort have the werewolf. He would not let him have anything. He refused to concede anything after coming this far, after expending his whole life on this battle.
Harry slowed his breathing. He ignored his aching arms, his torn spirit, and thought of nothing but the creature and the shadow. He made himself meaningless in his own mind and systematically pushed at the curse one more time. He had no strength left, so he pushed with his will alone. The fur under his hands melted away leaving his fingers resting on bare cool skin.
Harry opened his eyes and looked down at himself lying in the grey dirt, slack and unconscious. Harry jumped in confusion, lifted his hands from the perfect skin beneath them and held them there, trembling. Harry panted, a tear ran down one gritty cheek and fell on the chest below. The boy's long eyelashes flicked open and he looked about himself, and Harry realized it was not him, just someone nearly the same age with similar random dark hair.
The boy stared up at him curiously. Harry rocked on his heels and nearly toppled all the way over onto his side. The boy pushed himself up and examined his hands, front and back, then stared at Harry again. His forehead was strangely prominent and cheekbones high. The resemblance that had so startled Harry grew less obvious as the boy looked around.
The creatures snapped and dug at the dirt, kept at bay either by the boy or Harry's own indifference to them. Harry pulled out his wand and touched it to his robes with a series of Reparos, then slipped off his sleeveless outer robe and held it out to the naked boy.
The boy accepted it as if it were an item alien to his experience and awkwardly slipped it on. Harry looked around for the shadow, but did not see it. He could feel that it lingered close by, reeking of rotting curse. Now that he did not have the cursed werewolf overwhelming his senses, Harry could feel the subtle movements of the sinister presence shifting around them, circling, full of mindless fury. The invisible shadow surged close, then retreated, circled, and surged in again.
The boy stood up and shuffled away from Harry, black eyes wide. He clambered backward up a heavy twist of metal sticking out of a hillock and perched there, watching.
Harry tried to say something to him, but his mouth failed to move. A stirring in the hordes drew Harry's attention away. The creatures were piling on top of one another, higher and higher, until they formed a seething man shape that lumbered toward Harry.
Harry crawled backward, which only emboldened the creatures, so he held firm. On hands and knees he held his ground, trying not to sway too much on his quivering limbs. The reek of his own blood filled his nose.
I'm stronger than you. Harry tried to say, but nothing came out. He sent the thought out through his eyes instead. I don't fear death, Harry sent out at the thing, and meant it with every last fiber of his being. The assemblage of creatures faltered and collapsed in a squealing heap, turning on one another, tearing limbs and scattering black blood on the pale dirt. A shadow thrashed away and retreated across the ground, like a passing cloud.
The pile re-gathered and stumbled at him again, screeching in anger. Harry leaned toward the attack, not flinching. He feared nothing, especially now that it seemed it was only his own being he was burdened with, his own and what felt like a gaping hole, but still, only him.
The pile again collapsed and the creatures took to cannibalizing each other, dragging limbs and flesh away to consume beyond the surrounding hillocks.
Harry waited, concentrating on his breathing, making each inhalation a renewed grasp at enough strength to remain upright. The boy in his robe had not moved, simply watched him with open curiosity. His prominent forehead and odd cheekbones gave him a primitive look in the odd light, like a museum replica in a diorama.
The creatures piled together again, fewer this time for certain. Harry rocked back to sit on his feet, using the remaining fingers on his right hand to push to a kneeling position. He would not die crawling on all fours.
The pile ran at him faster this time, screeching. But just as the frothing creatures grazed his robes and their putrid breath mussed his hair, they fell into disarray.
The pile reassembled even faster this time, seething with hatred, screaming loud enough to hurt Harry's eardrums. The boy covered his ears with his palms and winced. Harry held firm, swaying, but firm, fearing nothing, except perhaps the notion of living with this gaping hole in his spirit, but that probably actually worked in his favor.
The next pile was only three creatures high and it set upon itself before it got half way to Harry. Screams and cries went up as a rat tailed creature with an octopus head wrapped its tentacles around the gills of a frog with mandibles, which had its hooks in a soft bellied armadillo with a bare brain shining out on top of its head. Blood spattered, teeth tore insect legs free. The creatures tumbled away, shrieking in fury.
Other creatures scuttled in and tore up the remains, sucked up the black spattered dirt even, every last bit of shell and claw and skin was gobbled up and the creatures scuttled off. Harry blinked at the blank space, stunned. He waited, making himself breathe, in and out.
Some of the creatures gathered around the hillock where the boy sat perched. The boy petted a furry one on the head and observed Harry with no expression.
Harry looked around again, expecting something. But nothing happened. The clack of limbs faded and finally went silent. The world tunneled in, fuzzy black at the edges.
Harry caught himself on his less injured left hand before his head could hit the ground. Before he could pass out, probably forever, Harry bolstered himself with rapid deep breaths, made sure he was level, understood level, and inverted himself into the overworld.
Water assaulted Harry's head. He ducked and opened his eyes into the onslaught. It was dark and the rain smeared his vision of a lamp post and a row of old brick houses rising to peaks in stair steps. He knelt in a small square, knees sinking into the mud. It smelled like it had been raining here forever.
Rain ran out of his flooded hair and over his face, dragging grit into his eyes. Harry tore his glasses free and tipped his head back until his eyes blinked clean. He swayed against the forces pummeling him. He felt so heavy, dragged down toward the earth by his increasingly soaked robe. The rain ran under his collar and crawled down his skin. A rivulet ran down his ribcage in the one place his bloody robes were not stuck tight. The rain was becoming part of him, which was good, because he was so empty otherwise.
Harry had no will to move. His will was ragged. He sat soaking in the warm rain, dodging thought. Thinking about anything at all would bring on that tearing pain in his soul again.
The sky lightened even though the rain did not. The dreary red brick ran with the rain, the cream paint around the windows ran into the brick. The grass took on an iridescent green. One lone tree stood at the corner of the square, with tiny leaves on only half of its blue-mossy branches.
Harry had a sense of movement around him, but safe within his well of indifference he could not risk caring. The rain fell harder, sheeting. Harry's robe must weigh a hundred pounds and it was all he could do to not topple under the downward drag of it.
Footsteps approached. They came on like a low drum under the unwavering torrent of the rain.
"Hiya lad, party a little hard, did ya?"
Harry looked up at the man who had spoken. He wore a policeman's hat with a plastic sack over it and a plastic jacket in a blinding lime green.
Harry could not answer. But he had nothing much to say anyway. The lime green dizzily filled his vision for a moment.
"What'll we do with him?" a second policeman asked.
The first man looked away. Harry followed his gaze and squinted through the morning-streaked rain at a woman on the pavement, wearing a house coat, huddled under a bulbous transparent umbrella.
"Mrs. O'Casey will be expectin' us to clear him out."
"All right then. Up you go."
Harry was lifted under the arms. His feet somewhat agreed to stay under him for the trip across the square to a white car sporting a matching lime green stripe. His head was forcefully steered into the back seat of the car, and his leaden robe was piled in beside him.
The air inside the car immediately began to steam from his clothes. Harry sat back against the wide blue plastic, listening to the warble of conversation over the rain thrumming on the roof and pattering on the windows. The scratched flower-shaped sticker on the small clipboard pinned beside the steering wheel read Garda Síochána, which at first Harry could not process. It required many seconds for the random shapes of the letters to become anything but.
Harry was mulling over the possible implications of Disapparating right from there, whether it was too far in his current state. Thinking of slipping into the Dark Plane brought forth a wave of aversion so strong he bent over his knees.
"Not goin' to be sick are you, now?" A voice said from the cracked open front left door.
Harry shook his head. The door opened wide and the man groaned as he folded himself inside the car. He balanced his hat on the dashboard and smoothed the spare wisps of his hair back. Mullen had been stitched neatly on the back edge of his cap. The air grew heavier still with waves of evaporating rain.
The driver's door opened. "She'll talk you right out of your mind, she will." He picked up a pen and clicked it a few times. "What's your name then, lad?"
Harry sat there, mouth not moving. It was less like he had forgotten how to speak than that he had never learned. The officers squeaked wetly against their seats as they both turned to peer back at him. Harry made an abbreviated motion with his good hand in the direction of his mouth, then he better hid his wounded hand by balling his remaining fingers up.
"He's saying he can't talk," one said to the other. "Are we believing him?"
They both turned back again. Harry looked at each of them in turn. He understood them far better than they probably imagined. He most likely would not be trusting himself right now in their place. He gave a sigh through his nose, which made the one on the left, Mullen, pull his head back in surprise.
"Let's take him in for now," the one behind the wheel said.
A rumble rushed through the floor under Harry's feet and the car rolled off, wipers flipping madly.
The officer drove so fast through obscured narrow streets Harry was tempted to surreptitiously put an Impervious Charm on the windscreen. The distraction from his inner agony was welcome and he was disappointed when they pulled through a high arched gate into a car park full of police vans.
Mullen asked his partner, "Can't really be a mute can he?"
Hands braced on the steering wheel in the middle of extricating himself from the car, the driver looked back. "I suppose from shell shock or the like. Looks might too young to have been in the war though."
Harry rolled his eyes. Their doors slammed closed at the same time and the one on Harry's right opened. Harry struggled to get out. He was manhandled out instead because he just could not dredge up the strength for it.
Harry was left on a wooden bench facing a bright corridor beyond a set of double doors set in shiny steel frames. A woman sat at a desk behind thick glass.
"Whatta we got?"
"Your man there is suspected of being under the influence." His voice lowered. "Got under Mrs. O'Casey's collar what with him sittin' out in the rain. Would've taken him home if we knew where he lived." He gave Harry a meaningful look.
Harry dropped his gaze and noticed he was dripping faintly pink water onto the floor.
"Name?" the woman asked.
"He seems to be a mute."
After a moment passed she said, "Maybe he can write it down?"
Harry was given a clipboard and pencil. He tucked his damaged fingers far under as he held the pencil to write with it. The healing spell had done a pretty bang up job on them, the skin was healed smoothly over the stubs. Compared to the rest of him, they did not hurt at all.
Letters were a problem. Harry knew what they looked like but not how to scratch them out. He imagined them in his mind and traced them by rote with the pencil. It looked like a five year old had written it.
Mullen held the clipboard up, pretending he needed better light to read it. "Harry. Potter." He lowered the clipboard. "It'll be May Day before he finishes his address."
Harry was reminded terribly of his trainer, Rodgers. He crossed his arms, but ran short of sufficient energy even to be insulted. His remaining injuries were dragging him down, and his soaked woolen robes felt leaden, cold and immovable.
Harry sniffled and rested his head on his hand to wait. He just needed a moment alone to try and Disapparate. At this point, he would take any opportunity and hoped Mr. Weasley would not be too annoyed about having to send someone to take care of any fallout.
Harry stared at the growing puddle around his shoes as the policemen filled in his paperwork with the member in charge. If he was going to a holding cell, he wondered if it would have a camera.
He felt something then, something more than Muggle. Another policewoman was leaning in to read the computer screen at the desk behind the glass. Her head came up and she stared at him. Harry stared back, happy beyond reason to recognize a witch. Her eyes popped out a bit. She said something to the woman at the computer and went away again.
Moments later the double doors opened and she came sauntering out. She wore a light blue shirt with chevrons on the sleeve in contrast to the dark blue of the officers.
"Connolly, Mullen," she said, sounding casual. "Anything interesting?"
"Not much besides that he's not talking."
"Just this." He held up the clipboard.
This garnered a confused look at Harry. It really did look like a child's writing. Harry shrugged with a pained expression.
"But you are following procedure?" she asked. "Registering him . . . ?"
"Calling in the doctor because he is bleeding all over the floor . . . ?"
Harry smiled at how quickly the two of them spun around. "He didn't say anything," Connolly insisted.
"Well, of course he didn't, Einstein," Mullen retorted, slapping his notebook closed and slipping it away in a hurry.
"How about I take him to the surgeons? Looks like more than a house call. I could use a stretch away from the desk."
"You'd do that, Sergeant?"
She smiled and hefted Harry to his feet. Harry stumbled out beside her, putting every last effort he had into walking.
In the car, he sank into the passenger seat, breathless. She said, "Sorry. Figured you wouldn't be wanting to wait for the ambulance. St. Brennan's, then?"
Harry knew this to be the wizard hospital in Dublin. He shook his head.
"No?" She put the car in gear. "And you really can't talk? What were you doin'?"
Harry made a slicing motion across his neck with his finger, glad he did not have to try to explain more than that.
She frowned in concern and held out her hand, "Name's Callaghan, by the way. Very pleased to be making your acquaintance, Harry Potter."
Harry returned her hand shake as firmly as he could. He could not be more pleased either. She held his hand and spread out his half missing fingers. "That just happen?"
Harry nodded and huffed a sigh through his nose again. It was about the only thing he could say.
She studied him a long moment, before putting her arm up on the seat to back out. "Open the glovebox, in the bottom are some potions. You'll be needing a few blood replenishers, I'm expecting."
Harry waited for the seatbelt to let him move to do this. His head cleared as he swallowed the second tiny bottle.
"I don't know how they didn't smell the blood on you," she said, shaking her head as she made a wide turn. "And look at your robes, like a mad patchwork." She sounded vaguely disappointed in him. Harry watched her profile as she drove. She had a prominent chin and fleshy cheeks. When she glanced over she gave him a maternal smile.
Harry rubbed a spot to pretend to look out the fogged window on his side. He clenched his eyes closed, worrying about Winky. In his last glimpse, she had not been moving. This pain brought the other torn-in-half pain back with a vengeance. Harry controlled his breathing, in and out, until it eased and he could let go of the seatbelt, which he had been clinging to.
They turned in at a boarded up house with a tall brick fence all around. She pulled all the way around between the back steps and the wall and turned the car off. "I really should take you to St. Brennan's whether you want to go or not. Whether you are Harry Potter or not."
Harry shook his head and motioned that he would get out and go. He made a walking motion with his fingers.
"Oh, no dice. You're a wreck. I have to see you somewhere safe or the Ministry will have my head." She glanced in the rear view mirror and all around the car. Weeds grew between the bricks of the wide porch and leaves, tangled with white plastic bags, had piled in the corners of the yard.
She pulled out a computer printed card. "Says you live at number Twenty-Three Tottlywold Road, Shrewsthorpe . . ."
Harry nodded. She must have read his surprise because she added with a wiggle of her fingers, "I had her type in the magic keys to pull it up properly. You want to go there or St. Mongo's, Mungo's, St. Whatsisname's in London?"
Harry pointed at the card with one of his good fingers.
She shook her head but reached under the seat of the car for a long chain of tarnished door keys. She pulled her wand from a shiny leather holder on her belt and said, "I'm only doin' this because you're Harry Potter, you know . . . " She flipped through the keys, finally plucking up a silvery one and holding it out for Harry, wand at ready.
Harry reluctantly reached out to touch the Portkey, dreading home now. He would find Winky dead, Snape at his fiercest, Candide absent for her own safety, Hermione pushed into an uncharacteristic brutality. And he would deserve it all. Harry closed his eyes against the surge of pain, both old and new.
The keys chimed as Callaghan began flipping through them again. Harry put out his wounded hand to stop her. He shook his head and pointed at the diamond shaped key that still dangled off a loose part of the chain. He would face the past because doing so opened up the future, as bad as that prospect felt at that moment.
They arrived at the Shrewsthorpe train station Floo Node, connecting from Hexham, and with the blood replenisher continuing to lift his energy level, although not his spirits, Harry doggedly led the way up the street to the house. He reached to open the door at the same moment Callaghan knocked with the undeniable authority of her kind. Harry turned the latch, dread, more than his injuries, slowing his movements. He was glad for Callaghan's firm grip on his arm propelling him into his fate, otherwise he may have simply remained where he was, waiting for it to come to him.
They passed the threshold into the main hall and stopped.
Ginny and Hermione were standing up from the couch, wands in hand. Snape stopped, mid-approach, and stared at him.
Harry tried to say he was sorry, but could not.
"This lad with you?" Callaghan asked Snape, sounding teasingly amused and unaware of the undercurrents .
"Yes," Snape replied, gazing mystified at her before returning to Harry, razor sharp. He took in the state of Harry's robes and approached closer.
"Harry?" he queried. Snape's voice was silky only on the surface; underneath it was restrained with a timbre of long haul stubborn determination. How Harry had missed that before he did not know.
"Hasn't said a word," Callaghan provided. She gave Harry a little push forward, as if with some urging he might talk.
Harry could not bear Snape's intrepid caution, it burned the raw edges of his torn spirit. His eyes fell on Hermione's wand, pointing at the floor, but held steady. He turned away from that too as indescribable pain washed through him. Given that he could not possibly make up for it all, he did not have the strength to face it. He pulled free of Callaghan's grasp, and the room swayed.
His shoulders were caught up and Harry found Snape right before him. Unyielding fingers caught Harry's chin.
"Harry?" This time his voice held concern bordering on hopefulness. Hearing it pulled Harry out of the worst of his wounded despair.
"Look at me."
But Harry did not want to. He flushed with shame at how much effort it had taken, only because he had been so weak to begin with. Snape's hands won out and Harry glimpsed his dark eyes, framed by features chiseled with stress lines. Rolling pain was making Harry's knees even more rubbery. He heard Snape whisper "Legilimens," and the debilitating waves surged higher with the acute memory of the original pain bubbling behind it. Time wound backwards in disjointed chunks: the tearing agony of claws and teeth, Hermione's desperate violence, mindlessly kneeling to be devoured.
Harry broke free. That moment of strength against an outside force matched this one. Limbs vibrating, he panted in a futile bid to fill his gaping middle.
Before he could regain himself, he was yanked off balance. He had a glimpse of Snape's intensely stunned expression before he was pulled into an embrace fervent enough to spark stabs of complaint throughout his limbs. His face pressed into the generous collar on Snape's robes and a hand fitfully tugging at his hair. Harry's heart sped up before his brain injected him with doubt about this easy forgiveness.
"Aye. He's in need of a healer," Callaghan gamely said. "Refused to let me take him."
Hurriedly, Harry was led to the couch and made to sit down and held there by Snape's grip on his arms. Without looking away, Snape said, "Ms. Weasley, fetch every potion and poultice from the cabinet in the bath, will you?"
Snape let go and spun away and, shifting his posture to strangely casual, said to the Irish policewoman, "Your assistance is most appreciated . . ."
"I'll be needing to get back to make a few computer records vanish. Easier done sooner than later." She had her bundle of keys out to look through them. "An honor making your acquaintance, Mr. Potter."
Harry raised a flopping hand to wave, reluctant to see her go. She thought nothing bad of him. He let his head fall back. Resting was making him realize how badly he ached just about everywhere, but it was probably well deserved.
The policewoman zipped away and Snape spun back and bent close to Harry, face stern. He tugged Harry's robe down his arm, tearing what little of his shirt had not been repaired into his robe, tearing his flesh where the cloth and he were one. Hermione put her hands over her mouth and gasped. Harry gazed down. His skin was criss-crossed with silvery dirt and it stretched, in streaks of pale and flaming red, over rutted flesh. It did not really hurt as much as it looked, but it looked just about how he felt.
Harry's robe and shredded shirt were stripped from him with clinical efficiency. Ginny returned and put a basket of bottles on the floor beside the couch and stared with no expression.
"What happened to him?" Hermione asked through her hands, which she had almost pulled down from her face.
Snape ignored the question. "Hermione, charm the couch flat so you can better assist me with him."
Harry passively let himself be laid back and stripped completely. His wet clothes had chaffed his wounded skin raw and now the open air stung. But it was nothing, meaningless.
Hermione's voice from his other side said, "Shouldn't we get him a Healer?"
Harry did not hear a response. Hermione said, "You are that intent on protecting him?
"Always. Do you know a Incise Hex and a Stratasheen?" After a pause: "Watch carefully then."
Harry felt something cutting at his arm, making his flesh shift and creep. Then a Healing Charm. Harry opened his eyes to squint at what was happening. Someone had taken his glasses.
Snape bent close to inspect his work, saying, "Ms. Weasley, from Madame Pomfrey, fetch a tin of Thewsolve and a very large sack of Skinagrow."
"Should I go?" Hermione asked.
"I need you here. Did you watch the spells or shall I repeat them?"
Harry must have passed into sleep. He opened his eyes because Snape's hand was cupped across his forehead, repeatedly pushing his hair back. "Harry?"
In his head, Harry heard a string of echoes of his name. Harry nodded that he was awake for this one. His skin ached. His soul ached.
Snape was bent close, his face well lit by the many lamps that surrounded the couch now. "Your friend is in need of reassurance. Did you rid yourself of Voldemort?"
Harry nodded. Hermione's small fingers gripped his arm so hard he had to hold in a gasp. She said, "Harry!" with a sob in her voice and shook his arm, not so different from her previous reaction.
Snape asked, "What happened to what remained of Voldemort?"
Harry lifted his arms to demonstrate something floating away and dissipating. He then drew a line across his neck. He dropped his arms, unable to explain better.
"Will you show me?" Snape asked, rotating his head in Harry's view so that their gazes lined up.
Harry shook his head.
Snape calmly asked, "You think Voldemort is gone?"
Harry nodded. He mimicked something attacking his face with his hand in a claw shape, then made his hands attack each other. His arms fell, tired.
After a pause, Hermione asked, "Did you understand that?"
Harry's eyes must have closed again because he did not see Snape's response.
The next cutting spell made Harry twitch, finished, wholly, with being damaged. The couch shifted on Snape's side and a bottle was pressed to his lips. Harry smelled Miseringuish and turned his head away. The couch shifted again, and Harry's head was lifted on Snape's arm.
"Swallow it or I will force it on you."