Snape strode into Ward 13B of St. Mungo's, passed a manticore in traction, a merman with his tail in a cast and his head in a fish bowl, and stopped beside a bed containing a figure nearly too small to detect under the rippled blankets.
"Master," Winky squeaked, eyes wide and full.
Snape waved a chair over from the wall and sat down beside the bed.
The elf softly squeaked, "Winky is being good elf? Winky is not getting punished? Not getting clothes is Winky?"
"No, of course not. What gave you that idea?"
"Winky is not wanting clothes, Master. Nice witch asked Winky if she wanted clothes."
Snape interwove his fingers. "Professor Granger was here, I take it? I see."
Winky's bandage-tipped ears sagged. "Winky is making bad mistake being clever and obeying some commands of Master and not others. Winky is not being strong enough."
Snape said, "Your actions were exactly right, Winky. I just did not realize it at the time. Master is quite pleased with the sacrifice you made, even though you disobeyed him. Eventually, someone was going to become the target of his ire and it was brave of you to step forward."
Winky sniffled and patted her eyes with the bandage on her hand.
"Are you ready to come home tomorrow? Or do you wish to stay longer?"
Winky glanced around and whispered, "Winky is not liking hospital very much, Master."
Snape sat straighter. "Yes, well, you are in a rather odd ward; that is true."
Winky's large eyes circled around the rows of beds again, "It is being quieter now with troll going home."
"I did notice the lack of deafening snoring," Snape said. "Healer Serraglio tells me your bandages will come off tomorrow. As I tried to assure you last time, it is peaceful at home now. Harry is feeling quite a bit of guilt about what he did. I would bring him here to visit except I'm concerned about the temptation of curses that may need removing, and I cannot risk it."
"Winky is not worrying about Master Harry, Master."
"Winky is being good elf."
"Yes, Winky is." He stood and pushed the chair back against the wall. "You will see for yourself tomorrow then. It is too difficult to convince you that you have a choice."
Winky clutched the blankets tight, pressing them into her chin. "Winky is not wanting to choose clothes!"
"That was not one of the options being presented," Snape stated.
"Winky good elf," she said, voice muffled from speaking into the blankets.
"Yes. Very good. Let us just leave it with that, then."
- 888 -
As Harry, Candide, Kerry Ann, and Ambroise sat around the breakfast table, Harry opened a letter from Pamela and held it out to Candide to read aloud. Candide's eyes scanned the blue lined paper torn out of a Muggle notebook before she said, "It's a little personal, Harry. I'll just summarize for now. She says she's very glad to hear you are feeling better and is looking forward to dinner and seeing in person how you are doing."
The hearth flared green and Snape ducked to step out of it. Ambroise jumped up from his seat to shake his hand and pull out his chair for him. Snape did what most people did and looked the Frenchman up and down before accepting.
"I was just summarizing a letter from Harry's cousin," Candide informed Snape. "She seems a tad confused about Harry and very much wants an invitation to visit."
Harry shot Snape an accusing look.
Snape glanced at him, and said, "I stand by my insistence that Remus not be told you believe you can cure him until you are ready to try. For one thing, it is only a belief on your part as far as I am concerned, and secondly, I do not want the temptation increased one iota." After glancing around the table, Snape said, "Please don't speak of this beyond this room, if you would."
Kerry Ann said, "I'm not certain what the discussion is . . ."
"All the better," Snape quipped, rubbing his forehead and frowning as though he regretted speaking. He leaned toward Harry and stated, "Remus has made it this long. It will wait."
You still don't like him, Harry accused back, then looked away. He had let his frustration out directly, something that would not have happened if he had needed to compose actual speech. He straightened his napkin and then tapped his knife on his plate to catch Snape's eyes again to communicate that he wanted to hear about Winky.
"Oh yes, of course. She can be released tomorrow and does not wish to stay longer." Snape served himself and proceeded to eat.
Harry clasped his hands in his lap and stared at the remains on his plate. His stomach suddenly contained a hundred pounds of lead and did not feel capable of holding any more food.
From beside him, Kerry Ann said, "You all right there, Harry?"
"Harry is feeling guilty," Snape provided while buttering his toast.
"Oh," Kerry Ann said. "How long will that go on?"
She had directed the question at Harry, but Snape replied, "I fear he will have to kill himself a few more times to eradicate it. It is like a curse that way."
Harry sensed he was being teased again and it lightened the weight enough to finish his plate.
Harry's friends departed for work just after breakfast, but Hagrid arrived soon after, ducking to squeeze through the door to the main hall.
"How are yer, Harry?" he bellowed, giving Harry a hug full of scents that carried stark memories of his cottage, his various creatures, the mud of the slopes around Hogwarts . . . but mostly his creatures.
Harry nodded that he was good, getting better seeing his old friend.
"I heard yer had lost yer voice," Hagrid said as he took up an entire couch. He had animal skins cinched around his huge feet and the bottoms had worn down to a green-stained gloss.
Harry shrugged. He didn't want Hagrid to worry about that. He pushed his Auror books aside; he was not making much progress on them anyway. He and Hagrid sat there, fidgeting. Harry opened his notebook and painstakingly scratched out How is Hogwarts? hopeful that Hagrid would go on about this for a bit.
Hagrid nodded as he spoke and clapped his great hands together. "Good."
They fell silent again until Hagrid perked up with, "Aye, here's the little one. Might I?"
Candide had wandered in carrying Arcadius. She held Arcadius out to him; three of him could have fit easily into the palm of Hagrid's hand. Hagrid pulled the fussing baby in close and cooed at him. Arcadius quieted and peered wide-eyed at Hagrid and Harry let his breath go.
Candide said, "Anything special you want for lunch, Harry? I need to run to the green grocers."
Harry tried to hide the pain this question brought on. He shook his head.
"I ken watch him while you go out," Hagrid offered, grinning so wide it make his badly shaven whiskers bristle out to the sides.
"If you like. Severus is around if he is any trouble."
"No trouble. Are you, wee one?"
Candide said, "As long as you haven't recently singed your clothes, he shouldn't be any trouble."
Hagrid puzzled this while she swished out of the room.
Snape wandered in after another long gap in the conversation, one full of cooing by Hagrid, a noise that one might expect to terrify a small child, but Arcadius just waved his limbs like it was a game. Snape showed Harry the newspaper, which had a front page photograph of Percy. He took the paper back and began reading aloud.
"After refusing to voluntarily cooperate with ongoing investigations into the organized criminal gang of which he was allegedly a part, Percy Weasley is to be tried before the Wizengamot. His solicitor has argued that he is not fit to stand before a tribunal, and the Wizengamot is expected to address his fitness today at a hearing."
Harry stood up, remembering the Gimcracker he had made Percy swallow.
Smoothly, Snape said, "You are not going anywhere."
Harry pointed at the article and mimed throwing up something. In frustration he picked up his notebook and painstakingly wrote, Tonks upon it.
"As you wish, but you will remain here."
Harry added an exclamation point, breaking the tip of the quill doing so. Snape folded the newspaper and gave it to Harry, glancing at Hagrid holding Arcadius before sweeping into the dining room. Harry sat on the couch with his arms folded, listening to Snape contacting the Ministry via the Floo Network.
Snape returned and fetched Harry a small chalkboard from the boxes of gifts to Arcadius and handed it over. Unlike Harry's Ministry one, the blonde wood glowed new and it had a little clip to hold three colors of chalk. Harry sighed, but accepted it.
Snape said, "Look at it this way: you will not have to see your writing later and the Ministry will not be bothered with your breakfast order."
As the minutes ticked by, Harry's eagerness turned to discomfort at having to explain his actions. He fingered the chalkboard beside him, wondering how he could manage to write down so much since he did not wish to show Snape what he had done through Legilimency. Tonks arrived and Harry stood up, feeling a bit like he faced a tribunal.
Harry waved a hand at the library and Tonks followed him there. After giving Hagrid a wave that he most likely did not notice, so wrapped up in teasing the baby he was, Harry shut the door. He lifted his blank chalkboard and gave a sigh of hopelessness as Tonks asked him what was so important. Sitting on the end of the leather divan, Harry rested the chalkboard on his knees and scratched out Percy.
Tonks sat down beside him and said, "Oh, this should be good."
Harry rubbed out the name with the side of his fist and stared at the dusty smear. He wanted to write something like "forget" or worse yet "befuddle" but he did not know how to form those words out of letters and he could not think of an easier word, let alone all the other words that would have to go with it to fully explain. He stared harder at the swirled stone surface, trying to think how best to write what he longed to convey, using only the poor tools his brain would allow. Gritting his teeth in frustration, Harry bent double over the chalkboard and tapped his fist on his leg.
"Hey there, Harry," Tonks said. "Let me get Severus' Pensieve, okay?"
Harry sat up, stared at her, then nodded.
Harry gave her the memory. It trailed off her wand like any other memory and he wondered why they all looked alike. Tonks dipped her head in and held that way, pointed shoulders hunched uncomfortably. After a minute, she pulled up again.
"Huh, so that's why he clammed up and went silly. What was that thing? You seemed to know what it was. You seemed to think Percy knew what it was."
Harry nodded, and picked up his slate again, glad to scratch out the very easy WWW on it.
"So, if I take that thing to the twins they will fill me in?"
Harry wrote Ron next, after two attempts because the first attempt spelled Nor.
Tonks stared at Ron's name in confusion. Harry gestured that she should go back to the previous thing, and she methodically said, "I should take this thing out of Percy and take it to the twins . . ."
Harry nodded emphatically, then pointed at the chalkboard.
"And mention Ron as well?"
Harry nodded, relieved.
Harry sighed. It seemed more trouble than it was worth, in retrospect.
Tonks said, "It's tough with you not talking; you can't just fill us in on what you've been up to."
Harry did not really regret that, but he nodded sagely. When she tried to leave, he tugged on her sleeve and tried to write more, but rushing made the shapes scatter in his mind. He sat, hunched for half a minute, gritting his teeth.
"Don't do this to yourself, Harry. Just send me an owl. I like one word owls. My desk has stacks of long owls I don't have time for already."
She smiled, but he felt a little put off by this jesting and stood to walk her out without reacting.
In the main hall Snape stood chatting with Hagrid and a new visitor, who was bending over the sleeping Arcadius. Harry came to a stop upon recognizing Elizabeth's staid Muggle attire.
She stood straight and turned to him, smiling brightly. "Hello, Harry."
Harry tried to say hello in return, but stood dumb instead. Seeing her there was making his chest feel sort of hungry in an anticipatory way.
She put her hair behind her ear and her smile muted. "I'm sorry I didn't owl ahead. I just heard from my mum what happened and it's difficult to borrow an owl at Oxford, well, the right kind of owl. I hope I'm not intruding." She looked him up and down. "You look more recovered than it sounded like you would be."
Throughout this, Harry had no attention for the looks passing between Tonks and Snape, Tonks a bit tightlipped, Snape intrigued. Harry spent the sum total of his energy stuck deciding between nodding and shrugging.
"Why don't you have a seat, Ms. Peterson?" Snape smoothly invited.
"Oh, that's all right, I just wanted to say hello. I think I'm intruding and term is just starting so I have to get back." She seemed flustered now.
Harry gathered his wits and stepped forward, directing her to sit, wherever. He found a chair for himself and knitted his fingers in his lap while looking at her. It was like kneeling in the warm rain again, like his emotions were fresh and mysterious and he dearly wanted time to suss them out.
But this was going to be just like visiting with Hagrid: silent and awkward. Harry looked to Snape for help and found his gaze amused and knowing. Vaguely alarmed now, he turned to Tonks and found her smiling painfully. As their gazes remained locked, her face relaxed and she gave him a sad wink. "I have to go, Harry. Percy's hearing is imminent, for one thing."
Harry waved as she took her leave, wishing he had some words for her. Maybe he could find some later, if he tried hard enough.
Snape pulled another chair over and took a seat near Harry. "Harry is not much for conversation at this time," he explained to Elizabeth.
"I see that. My mum said something about that. Said all kinds of odd things." She trailed off and Harry experienced a flutter of panic.
"Harry had not been himself of late," Snape said, sounding reassuring. "But he is quite himself now. Aside from needing time to recover."
Hagrid made a gurgling sound at the baby, a rumble like a tub draining. Then he said, "Harry'll be ship shape in no time at all. Right, Harry?"
"Mum said the rumors involved He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named coming back yet again . . ."
Harry reminded himself that she was always a bit blunt. He nodded.
Snape appeared to take this as a cue and explained, "Harry was harboring a piece of Voldemort from when he was a child. There were many pieces of Voldemort in existence, most hidden, but all of them were eventually destroyed except Harry himself. That made Harry attractive to these, spirit remains, shall we say, and their influence upon him was growing grave enough that Harry finally took action to free himself from their effects." He stated this all so calmly, like a lecture, that Harry did not feel even a quiver of an attack of memory.
Snape turned to him. "Accurate enough?"
Harry nodded and turned back to Elizabeth, painfully worried about her reaction. She stared at him without much of one.
"Oh," she said. "I didn't get that sense from being around him."
Snape crossed his legs and sat back. "Not everyone did. Some people's presence gave Harry more strength to remain himself. Others triggered the worst of his weakness."
Elizabeth asked Snape, "And which were you?"
Snape actually blinked at her. His voice dropped as he said, "A bit of the latter." When her brows went up, Snape added, "It provided me with early warning that there was difficulty."
Harry looked at him, wondering at his apparently fully recovered emotional state. He kept his eyes on him until Snape looked his way, and tried to convey this sense of marvel with his thoughts. Snape's lips tweaked up at the corners. In comparison, everything is easy now, Harry thought. It must not have been his thought, because he did not believe that.
Arcadius rubbed his hand on Hagrid's rough beard and cried half-heartedly. Snape stood to scoop him up from Hagrid's rocking, which had the arc of a small swing-set.
Hagrid said, "I'm glad yer all better now, Harry. Talking is not everything it's cracked up ter be. Sometimes I go a week without talking, well, to anyone but my pets, that is, which doesn't count."
At this reminder, Harry pulled Kali from his pocket and held her up for Hagrid's inspection.
"Aye, would yer look at that."
"We were wondering what it signified, if anything," Snape provided.
"Oh, er . . ." He stretched his neck out to better inspect the creature. "I'd say it just means she hasn't had a drink o' blood lately."
"Oh," Snape said, sitting back. He observed Harry putting her back in his pocket. "Is that unhealthful for her?"
"Aye, eventually. She's a blood transformed entity, I think they officially call 'em."
Snape tossed his robes and crossed his legs the other way. "You may have to feed her again. But do try to keep the blood magic to a minimum, Harry. In general."
Hagrid said, "They'll change color if they lose a blood bond, too."
Snape softly said, "That is more likely the explanation." His eyes narrowed then, appearing to think keenly on something.
"I think she's lovely now. Can I hold her?" Elizabeth asked.
Dryly, Snape said, "You could feed her, then hold her."
Harry put her back in his pocket.
"The day is getting on and I have a lecture to get to." Elizabeth stood and Harry stood right after.
Snape said, "You should come for dinner, Ms. Peterson. Sometime soon."
She brightened. "All right. I'd like that. I hope you heal up, Harry." She gave his hand a gentle shake, patted Arcadius on the head and let Harry lead her to the dining room to Floo out.
Before she stepped into the green flames, Harry wanted to say about twenty things. After she was gone, he closed his eyes and shook his head in frustration.
Back in the dining room he sat down with parchment and a Neverout Quill, determined to put at least five words down in a letter to Tonks. But it was impossible. Even if he had five hundred words he did not think he could communicate anything meaningful enough. Oddly, he imagined that standing before her face to face would be easier, speech or no.
Back in the main hall, Snape was laying Arcadius on Hagrid's broad knee. "If you don't mind, Hagrid, I have something I wish to do with Harry. I suspect Arcadius will sleep if you leave him be."
"Nawr, take yer time." Hagrid put his arms up on the couch back, perhaps so he wasn't tempted to play. He tilted his head and looked down. "Little tyke looks like Harry at his age, don't 'e?" He looked up at Snape, apparently for confirmation.
Snape pulled his head back and stood fixed a moment. "I am afraid I do not know."
Harry glanced between them, wishing someone would look his way, Hagrid especially, so he could glare at him.
Snape recovered a breath later and turned, unaffected, to Harry. "Are you ready for a little testing, Harry? I've collected some things at my desk."
Harry followed him into the drawing room, wanting to make up for Hagrid's comment. With a flick of his robes, Snape sat and gestured that Harry should sit opposite. Harry pulled a chair close while Snape lined up white feathers on the desk top.
Harry lightly slapped his hand on the desk to make Snape look up. When he did, Harry scrunched his face and thought, He shouldn't have said that.
Snape stared straight back and said, "It's all right, Harry. Recent events have dwarfed those of the past."
That did not make Harry feel any better, especially with his own fresh memories of his parents in danger. He lowered his gaze to review those worries in private, fixing his eyes on the row of six quills.
Snape made a wave over them implying Harry should choose. The feathers felt all the same to Harry, so he shook his head.
Snape asked, "There isn't one that feels like the bird is still living?"
Harry shook his head.
Snape glanced over them. "As of yesterday, I thought so. Let's try another set."
This time, Harry plucked up two of the feathers as still Radiant with life.
Snape accepted them and said, "Very good. My quill supplier must have eaten swan for dinner last night." He put the feathers away and set out a box of seals. "I want you to examine these." He pushed the box over in front of Harry. "We haven't tested this precise aspect of Radiance with you before, but let's try it now."
Harry hovered his hand over them, prompting Snape to say, "You can handle them, just don't look at the imprints."
The seals had identical silver handles with brass disks on the bottom. Harry picked up each in turn. They felt dusty to his spirit, until he reached the fourth one, which felt comfortable and warm, even though the metal was just as cold to the touch. Harry finished trying each and held out the fourth one.
"Look at the bottom," Snape said.
Harry turned the seal and saw the familiar interlocking scrolled SS. Snape accepted it back, saying, "I suspected you capable of that given what I read about metals holding Radiance more efficiently than other materials." He put his seal away in his drawer and set the others aside and said, "You have your wand?"
Harry did. He pulled it out and looked at it, at the worn carving on the handle. It felt less familiar than Snape's seal had.
"Have you done any magic?"
Harry gestured at his arms.
"Oh yes, the Healing Spell. Very good. But nothing since then?"
Harry shook his head. He had been cared for and coddled the last few days.
Snape must have caught part of this thought because he snorted lightly. "Let's try a few more things." He reached into his desk drawer and set out on his empty desk an inkstick in the shape of a lotus flower and a milky swirled paperweight. "Hover one of those. It matters not which."
Without thought, Harry made the correct wand gesture and the paperweight sailed into the air. It swayed a bit as it floated. Harry bit his lip and tried to get it to stabilize and look a bit less like something dangling on a string, but he could not.
"That's fine. Let it down."
Harry put his hands in his lap and felt unduly under inspection already.
"We can quit any time you like," Snape said.
Harry shook his head.
"I want you to charm the inkstick to appear red." When Harry easily did that, Snape said, "Now I want you to charm it to repel my hand. Without removing the other charm first."
Harry aborted his wand movement. A Repelling Charm was a kind of barrier. Determined, Harry made the right motions, while thinking the right words. The charm fizzled. Harry closed his eyes; this had been so easy. Spells like this one had flowed through and out of him as if eager to live; holding them back would have been the trick. Harry put himself in a memory of practicing the most difficult barriers in his room, just to enjoy the skill. He had done that for many hours. Holding that memory, he repeated the spell. This time it flowed out of his wand and coalesced around the inkstick.
After a beat, Snape said, "Very good, Harry." He tested that it indeed jumped away from his hand, then placed his hand on the other side of it to make it jump back to the starting spot. "Now remove that charm and place a Muggle Repelling Charm on it instead."
Harry cancelled the barrier and again, with some quieting of his mind to remember that easy mode, and with three tries, he managed a barrier that Snape could reach through without the inkstick jumping away.
Snape canceled this charm himself and said, "I think you have a mismatched wand."
Harry stared at the wand in his hand. It did not warm to his touch like it used to. He nodded.
"When Candide returns, shall we fetch you a new one?"
Harry's heart prickled with happy anticipation at this thought. He so badly wanted to believe he was finally free. He nodded, blinking rapidly.
Snape held out his wand, handle first. "Would you prefer to use mine in the meantime?"
Harry shook his head. Snape said, "I want you to Transfigure the paperweight into a chrysanthemum next, if you would."
After Harry had finished what felt like OWL examinations, Snape rocked back in his chair and said, "Your magic seems intact, even mismatched as your wand appears to be. You seem pleased to learn that it is."
Harry nodded, remembering that he had tried to be rid of this wand once before. Now that it would finally happen, it made him feel vaguely dizzy to imagine coveting a wholly new one.
Snape said, "I'll admit, I'm quite pleased to learn it too." He pushed to his feet. "If you are still up to it, I have a few more things I'd like to test you on."
Harry felt a bit fatigued, but he too wanted to know what his limitations were.
"You can remain seated," Snape said as he walked out from around the desk. "I am going to curse you with a Jelly Legs, twice, and I want you to Counter the first and Squelch the second. Ready?"
Harry nodded. The Counter flowed easily from his wand, effortless. The second one, Harry's timing was poor and he only blocked half of it. Snape had to put a hand down on the edge of the desk to remain standing, and Harry was glad to be sitting. Harry gestured that he wanted to try again, and this time, Snape absorbed all of the curse, needing a fast cancellation spell to avoid hitting the floor.
Harry jumped up to catch him and helped right him by the arm.
"I was ready for it, Harry," Snape said, seeming amused and admonishing. He straightened and took his arm back. "Your magic seems to be just as it was, with the possible exception of somewhat better skill with barriers when you put your mind to it. May I ask what you are doing?"
Remembering them being easy, Harry thought at him.
Candide's footsteps sounded in the main hall, and Snape stepped that way. Arcadius was sound asleep on Hagrid's knee, tiny hands balled into fists, face still and round.
"Isn't that cute?" Candide said.
Snape said to Harry, "I have one last test we can do here, then I want to see what Ravenclaw's book thinks of you."
Snape took two steps back and with a faint whoosh an adder, upright and with its hood flared, stood in the same spot.
"I wish he wouldn't do that near the baby," Candide said.
The snake's tongue flicked the air. It shuffled its coils and shifted closer to Harry. Seconds later, the transformation reversed and Snape stood, looking at Harry. "Could you understand me?"
Harry had not even realized Snape had been talking. Stunned, he shook his head, then frowned deeply.
"Didn't want to lose that particular inheritance?" Snape asked.
Harry shook his head again.
"I'll admit I'm pleased."
You're the one who can become a snake . . . Harry sent at him. Snape smiled faintly and raised a haughty brow. Harry tried to return a teasing look, but inside he ached at the loss, which was blossoming into an acute sense of a larger emptiness. He closed his eyes and instead of fighting it, floated with it, even though it felt like defeat to do so.
Candide said, "Well, one secret language between them down, two or three left to go."
Harry opened his eyes when someone touched his arm. "Of all the things to regret losing, Harry," Snape admonished. He brushed Harry's fringe back. "That scar of yours is quite flat now as well. It is undoubtedly no longer cursed if you wished to have it removed."
Harry clapped his hand to his forehead and stared at him.
Snape's lips curled. "Are you protecting it?"
"How's he going to get the girls without it?" Candide teased. She gave a swish and flick of her wand to float the grocery sacks across the hall.
"He is going to charm them with his unsurpassed listening skills," Snape said.
"That will work, Harry," Candide assured him, turning to walk backward.
Snape said, "Hagrid, if you would remain for a while longer, I would like to take Harry to Hogwarts for a brief time."
Just before ducking down the corridor to the kitchen, Candide threw over her shoulder, "Hagrid you can come babysit anytime."
Snape turned to Harry. "Do you feel up to the Floo Network or would you prefer broomstick? Slow broomstick, that is."
Harry thought he could handle the Floo Network for a short hop. He wished he felt more himself and less like he stood on the crumbling edge of a sinkhole.
Snape did not move. "All right?" he asked.
Harry was tired of being coddled and nodded for that reason only. He was not feeling all right at all.
- 888 -
They arrived in the Headmistress' Tower. Daylight streamed in the upper windows, glinting off the cut glass on the doors protecting the book shelves. Harry teetered slightly as he stepped out, like he had spun around for many minutes instead of seconds.
"Oh, Severus," McGonagall said, coming down from the upper area. "And Harry!"
She took him by the shoulders then gave him a patting hug, repeating his name. "My dear young man, so good to see you up and about after what you have been through." She held his shoulders a long moment before releasing him. "Still not speaking, though?"
Harry looked to Snape, who replied. "No."
McGonagall put a friendly arm around Harry and asked Snape, "Does he talk in his sleep at all?"
"I have not noticed that he does. But that is an interesting point." He turned to Harry, "Do you remember speaking in your dreams the last few days?"
Harry thought back, remembering only snippets of surreal yet boring dreams. He shook his head.
"Try to note if you happen to notice one way or the other," Snape said.
McGonagall's arm tightened around his shoulder and she said, "We always underestimate you, Harry. But you always come through, even when it is utterly bleak."
Snape stepped close on Harry's other side. "He is no longer a Parselmouth . . ."
"Even better to hear," McGonagall said.
Snape added, "I was going to take him to the library . . ."
"I see, go right ahead. Feel free to have Madame Pince clear the students out if you wish. The bookworms could use some sunshine in any event." She smiled at Harry and released him.
Harry turned to find the door and stopped, faced with Dumbledore just above eye level.
"Harry . . ." the painting said.
Harry lost the last of his mental footing. He expected alarm deep within, and a rallying of obnoxious defenses, but instead there was only his dismay and regret echoing inside much too large a space, reminding him how very empty he felt, how very weak he had been.
"Harry?" Snape was by his side, hand around his upper arm firmly enough to hold him up if need be.
"What is the matter?" McGonagall asked.
The memory of the tearing pain cascaded up from the hollow yawning inside him. His knees wobbled and he hung there on his arm, fighting for purchase inside himself.
"Harry has these little attacks sometimes. He'll be all right in a moment."
Snape was entirely holding him up now, having hitched Harry's arm over his shoulder and braced him against his chest. His voice was near his ear as he calmly went on: "Each attack is less severe than the last."
Harry had clenched his eyes closed and resisted opening them again. His breathing sounded loud and his knees still uncertain. But the worst of it had eased.
Snape asked, "Better now?"
Harry nodded without opening his eyes.
Very close to his ear, Snape quietly spoke into the darkness behind Harry's eye lids, "Unless you are certain it will bring on another attack I think you should face him now. He is only a painting."
Harry took a deep breath and prepared himself to do that.
Dumbledore said, "I always knew you had such strength in you Severus."
Snape snapped, "This isn't about me. Don't try to make it about me."
Dumbledore tilted his head, "It is about everyone, Severus. No one acts alone. You, in particular, just needed to overcome your fear of emotional rejection and let yourself risk feeling again."
"I'm going to burn a hole in this painting, Minerva. I hope you don't mind."
Harry opened his eyes just to see Snape's quick anger altering his features. Harry's grin at this faded as he turned to Dumbledore, who had sympathy bleeding from his bright blue eyes.
"Harry . . ." he began, voice laden with regret. "I had hoped you had such strength in you. That in the end your friendships would win out."
Harry nodded vaguely. He could not argue with that.
Dumbledore stroked his long mustaches and added in a lower voice, "I confess that when I left you with your aunt and uncle I had expected you would learn to be humble, not proud, so that when the time came for this sacrifice you would be able to make it."
Snape's grip grew tighter as he turned to fully face the painting. "What? You knew all this would happen?"
Dumbledore shook his head. "Not exactly. I merely feared this would come to pass. Nothing is ever certain. Harry had such a strange curse upon him when Hagrid brought him to me, it only solidified my determination to remove him from any chance of an easy childhood, from his fame, especially."
Harry wanted to speak but did not know where to begin even if he could do so. Snape however had no such trouble. "I want to get this straight. You were prepping him for this 'death' even then?"
Harry tapped on Snape's chest to get him to turn his way. Snape studied Harry's gaze and turned back to Dumbledore. "Harry wishes to know if that is why you always left him to fend for himself, because it did not matter if he died as he would take his part of Voldemort with him."
"No, that was not the reason at all. I regretted having restricted Harry's life so severely, both in how he was raised and what his fate would be, that I thought I owed him as much freedom to grow into his own as possible." He smiled dotingly on Harry, and then grew grim again. "When Harry destroyed Voldemort in the Entrance Hall and then suffered from strange visions but gave no signs of evil influence whatsoever I thought I had been mistaken. I thought with proper guidance . . ." Here he nodded at Snape. "Harry would learn to live with these after effects and that would be it. I did not realize how many pieces there were of Voldemort, and that with so much dilution, Harry would not be the focus of them."
Throughout this speech, Snape had released Harry to stand on his own, just keeping a hand loosely under his upper arm.
Dumbledore said, "Harry, from what I hear, when you needed to be, you were as strong and as deeply committed to your friends as I ever dreamed you would be."
"Yes, and he has the guilt to go along with it," Snape said.
"I do hope you aren't feeling any guilt over Gellert Grindelwald," Dumbledore said, and Harry felt Snape's grip on his arm tighten again. Dumbledore went on, "From what I hear, you gave him a fair fight. Fairer than most would have believed he deserved. I expect he was either itching for a fight by that time or had become someone he would have despised, if not."
Harry shook his head, lying outright, knowing the painting could not read behind his eyes.
"Well, being resolutely for good, deep down, has freed you. Your life is your own now. I have every faith you will use it wisely."
Harry did not feel he mastered his own life one bit. He had so very many tasks to take care of. When he turned away from the painting, he kept his head down.
Snape said, "I was wrong; you should have ignored the old bird."
"Severus . . ." Dumbledore admonished.
Snape laid a hand on Harry's shoulder and said, "Anything else you would like to say to him?"
Without raising his gaze, because he was caught up in thinking about how he could possibly defeat Grindelwald, Harry shook his head.
Madame Pince met them at the door to the library and sealed it after they stepped inside. "Minerva sent a message ahead that you would be coming down and to clear out the library for you. There were only four students on this fine day, anyway."
In the corridor, Harry had shaken free of Snape's assistance when the students had gathered around to speak to him, and awkwardly enough, argue about him in front of him. Wanting to put that behind him, Harry walked straight to the gate protecting the Restricted Section and waited for Snape to open it.
Harry walked through alone, but stopped and glanced back when the gate clanged closed behind him. Snape stood watching him through the twisted wrought iron bars. Pince kept track of him while re-shelving books.
The rusty hinges on the grate holding Ravenclaw's book grumbled when Harry tugged it open. The library stood so silent Harry could hear his blood rushing in his ears. The book was heavier than he remembered and he had to drop it slightly on the lectern to keep it from crushing his fingers under the stone cover.
The front cover lifted easily and Harry moved his eyes over the letter inside, "reading" it from memory before paging forward.
"Quiet in there," Pince said from beyond the gate.
"Yes," Snape breathily agreed.
The book before Harry felt so inert, he chanced flipping forward an entire chunk of pages. It did not react at all, simply settled with a sigh open to a page with a diagram of how best to place the gargoyles along the walls and rooflines, a page Harry had already seen. Harry wiggled his thumb under another stack of pages and turned again.
He squinted at what appeared to be the transcription of a meeting. But he could not read them. Each line was preceded by the letters G, R or H with a colon. Harry flipped back to where that particular size and type of paper began and tried to read the first block of introductory notes but found it incomprehensible beyond the words Present: Godric Gryffindor, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Helga Hufflepuff. Harry wondered if Slytherin had not been invited or had boycotted the meeting. Harry strained to read any of the text of the notes; he was deeply curious to know what it said. He propped his forehead on his hands and sat staring at the first line, at the squiggles and dips and strange long underscores connecting words, but he simply could not make sense of one bit of it.
Dumbledore had insisted his life was his own. Not like this it was not.
Harry's hands slipped and he rested his head on the open book, overcome again when his despairing frustration opened the gateway to memories of the tearing pain. The disparate pages of the book crinkled under his forehead and inside him the remaining half of his spirit was flapping madly in a windstorm, bleeding away his will.
Behind him, the gate rattled and Snape commanded, "Harry, close the book so that I might help you."
Harry bit his lips and gripped the wooden reading stand while rocking his head. He had lost too much.
When he did not react, Snape called sharply, "Harry!"
Harry breathed in the scent of the ancient parchment pressing into his nose. He needed to rebuild. He needed to rewrite. He needed to reclaim himself and return to what he once was. And the only way to do that was to recover all he had destroyed, to repair the damage to his friends here and to the world he had sunk into despair.
Harry came back to himself, alarmed to find his head inside the binding of a book heavy and capricious enough to kill him. He pushed himself up and stared again at the incomprehensible text while he imagined facing Grindelwald again. Both seemed impossible on the face of it.
He needed a new wand.
Bolstered by stubborn determination, Harry rested his uninjured hand on the left side of the book and turned toward Snape and Pince leaning against the gilded iron. The book felt unusually calm, innocent even.
Harry gestured with his wounded hand for Snape to approach.
Snape pulled up the latch and held it that way. Rustles sounded from the shelves as if something scurried among the books. When it fell still, Snape pushed the gate open.
"You will lose the fingers on that other hand if I come too close," Snape warned, pushing the gate closed behind him and keeping a hand on it until the books quieted again.
Harry gestured again for him to come closer, determined to keep the book beneath his hand firmly under his will.
Soundlessly, Snape stepped over, stopping six feet away and lifting his nose to better see the book on the lectern. His brow furrowed as he looked the page over. Harry braced a foot against the wall and levered the book up on the edge so Snape could read it.
Snape's eyes took it in. "Hm, it would appear to be the minutes of a meeting between the Founders. Or some of the Founders. But it is in a shorthand I am not familiar with." He glanced sharply at Harry. "Were you despairing over being unable to read that?"
Harry looked at the text too, startled and flushing.
"Candide most likely could read it," Snape said. "Perhaps that is why the book is letting you page at will. It knows you are unable to comprehend much of it. Why don't you put it away now—my curiosity is quite satisfied."
Harry rested the book back down and flipped through page after page of meeting minutes. Snape took several steps backward and clasped his hands behind his back. Feeling bold and impatient, Harry flipped to the very last sheet of the entire volume and found another letter. He let his eyes follow the arcs and dips of the sweeping hand, much more stylish than the first letter from Ravenclaw. He could not read the signature, although it was beautiful and bold and flowed and curled up and down a third of the page right through the letter itself. Harry braced his foot to heft the book up again for Snape to see, but the covers gave a shudder and slammed closed. Off balance, the book toppled to the floor and struck like solid stone, making the walls vibrate with the impact.
"Are you quite all right?" Snape asked.
Harry nodded. He waved Snape back and bent to touch the book to check its reaction. It felt inert again. With Snape back outside the gate, Harry grunted as he levered the book up and into its cupboard. The book cover, despite striking the corner, showed no damage, but a stone in the floor had cracked in two. Harry ran his toe over the chipped seam, bent and tapped to repair it with a spell he had learned from that very book.
Snape opened the gate as Harry approached it and fairly dragged him through it. "Certain you are all right?"
Harry lightly rolled his eyes and nodded. Pince shuffled off to let in the students who were waiting in the corridor. They stopped inside the door upon spotting Harry and stared in wonder.
Snape quietly said, "Shall we go to Ollivanders next, then?"
Harry shook his head.
Harry shook his head again.