Harry led the way to Hermione's office, but there was no answer to his knock. Snape pulled his pocket watch out and held it up. It was class time.
"I am certain she would not mind a knock on her classroom door, however." When Harry hesitated, Snape said, "Let's do that, shall we?"
"Harry!" Hermione cried when Snape opened the door and waved him inside. The desks thudded as the students spun as one to look backwards. Hermione came down from the platform in the front of the room and gave him a hug and kept hold of his sleeves. "I didn't expect a visit. But it is so good to see you. Come in."
She led him to the front of the mixed rows of uniforms accented in yellow or blue. Before she let go, she smiled tearily at him and turned to the class. "These are my Second-Years." Her gaze did not remain on them long; she turned back to Harry and rocked his arm lightly. "So good to see you," she whispered. She turned back to the students and said, "You all know Harry."
Three heads nodded, the others were still captured by surprise.
"And Professor Snape."
Half the young heads craned around to the back of the room again.
"We're just doing Introduction to Scent Charms. Are you feeling up to a demonstration?" Hermione asked.
Harry had too little left from his testing that morning. He shook his head.
"Next time, then. I'm sure the students are excited to see you; they've talked of nothing else." She turned to the children. "Haven't you?"
Eyes looked away, down, at each other.
"The bell is about to ring, are you staying for lunch? I'm sure Headmistress would love to have you." She leaned close and whispered, "You should stay and show off your new self." She pulled back and nodded encouragingly. "I've never seen the rumor network working this hard before. It's mad."
Harry scanned the still startled faces. When he fixed his gaze on a boy with frizzy red curls the boy swallowed convulsively.
A chubby Hufflepuff girl in the front row raised her hand, propping her elbow up with her other hand as if it was too heavy to lift. Her hand drifted downward as she asked, "Professor, can Mr. Potter tell us what happened?"
Hermione's hand slid down to grip Harry's hand. "Mr. Potter . . . can't tell us anything . . . right now."
A few children groaned after sitting straighter upon hearing the question. Harry sighed, not really wanting to disappoint them. He still clearly remembered sitting where they were and hearing so little from adults about what was happening beyond the school's walls.
"Mr. Potter got hurt," Hermione explained. "He'll get better. We just need to give him some time. Right, Harry?"
Harry nodded, not wanting to disappoint her either.
Hermione shuffled closer to him, right up against his side, and explained to the girl, "Harry just had to battle Voldemort one last time, but this time he had to do it by himself, without any help." Her hand petted Harry's back as she spoke in a strained tone. Harry wondered it was possible she had been suffering even more than himself.
The bell rang for lunch, but only two students began picking up their notes and books.
"Are you staying?" Hermione asked Harry.
Harry looked to Snape who gave a little flick of his hand indicating it was Harry's choice. Harry nodded at her; he needed to rebuild and might as well start now.
The blue expanse of the Great Hall ceiling was trimmed with white clouds around the windows. McGonagall installed Harry beside her at the head table. "This was an excellent idea, Harry. A few students swore their cousin's neighbor's brother saw you skulking in Knockturn Alley hexing passersby with your red eyes. Just this morning." She shook her head and in a wistful voice added, "The stories made up about you are beginning to dwarf the real thing."
As the hall filled it was unusually hushed, with lots of glances at the two of them sitting there. Snape came in a few minutes later and took the open seat beside Harry. McGonagall pushed to her feet and struck her knife on her saucer to silence the hall completely.
"We have a special guest today," she said, pleasure clear in her voice, "Harry Potter."
Over at the Gryffindor table, the Dennis Creevey and Natalie MacDonald started pounding their knife handles on the table and others Gryffindors joined in, creating a rumbling drumming.
"I was going to say . . ." McGonagall said when the noise died down, ". . . that I hoped everyone would welcome Harry as warmly as possible so that he visits us more regularly. This school just hasn't been the same without him." She sat down again and said, "And with that, let's eat."
As the food appeared and the warble of conversation and dishes rattling rose to a normal level, McGonagall asked Harry, "Did you learn anything from Rowena's book that I should worry about?"
Harry shook his head.
"It did let you open it, right?"
Harry nodded while serving himself from a bowl of mashed carrot swimming in a glaze of butter.
"I'm glad to hear that. Anything we can do for you, Harry . . . anything at all?"
Harry bit down a sigh as he bit down on a perfect cube of meatloaf. He was looking forward to not getting asked that anymore.
She leaned over her plate to look beyond him. "Severus is taking good care of you, correct?"
Snape ignored the question so Harry nodded. She leaned close and whispered, "I'm afraid I agree with Albus on this one."
By the end of lunch, Harry watched the students settling into study groups, mixing between tables, and gathering along the window sills, all while paying only occasional attention to him. When he turned to McGonagall, she gave him a smile and put a hand on his shoulder to brace herself to stand up.
"It will all be fine in the end, Harry. And I don't take old Albus' view on this particular sort of thing, so you can trust me on that."
- 888 -
Harry woke from a sleep hard as stone when a hand came to rest on his shoulder. Snape's voice flared out of the darkness at the same time the bedside lamp did.
"Harry? I regret to wake you, but we may need your assistance with Arcadius."
Harry swam up from a dream where he sat in a classroom full of centaurs while Hermione tried to teach them all the mathematics of astronomy. The centaurs refused to believe the stars were distant suns or that gravity had anything to do with orbits. They kept insisting it was all a great magical soup and fairy dust.
Harry rubbed his face and sat up.
"Did I wake you in a nightmare?" Snape asked.
Harry shook his head. His dreams had not been nightmarish lately, just very strange. He was beginning to wonder which was worse. But he felt energy flow through his drousy limbs at having something useful to do. He swung his legs off the bed and stepped into the dressing gown Snape held out for him.
Harry followed along the brown-grey light of the balcony. Arcadius' fussing grew louder as they went.
As they entered the room, Snape went immediately to the bedside and turned up the lamp. Arcadius was being urged to breastfeed but torqued his head from side to side instead.
Harry's legs shuddered to a stop just inside the door. He had stood in exactly this spot just days before, struggling and losing himself. His chest became rigid and he could not draw breath. Remorse rushed in, chilling him throughout. The last of the air in his lungs drifted out of his nose and he could not replace it.
He had let Voldemort take too much. In the center of his being, Harry scrambled to claw back the past, to wish everything different, to be anywhere but where he was standing right now, facing his shame. The lamplight glaring in Harry's eyes, setting the scene gently aglow, shrunk down to a pinprick, then vanished.
Low voices lulled Harry out of his frantic breathing when he came to awareness. He shifted his arm to wrap it over his head and it struck the pillow his head rested on.
A hand patted Harry on the shoulder. He was lying in the middle of the bed beside Candide, who was propped up against a stack of pillows.
Candide said, "That was a bad attack, Severus."
"Yes." Snape shifted to lean over Harry. "They had been getting progressively better until this one."
"Should you call a Healer?"
"I think he is out of it now. Harry?"
Harry rolled onto his back and moved his gaze from the pattern of lamplight on the ceiling to Snape's shadowed gaze. A flush heated Harry's face. Near his left ear, Arcadius gave a cry, but it was half-hearted, lacking the coughing at the end that it had when he was very upset.
Purpose drew Harry from the tar pit of his shredded emotions. He pushed himself to a sitting position and held his arms out.
"Certain you are up to it?" Candide asked.
Harry gave his eyes a quick rub and nodded. Balancing the delicate weight, he leaned back against the pillow-infested headboard. Arcadius hummed with his odd magic, but he otherwise felt normal. Harry closed his eyes and drifted, but discerned no cocoon of energy around him. He spent nearly a minute in that position, to be absolutely certain.
Snape shifted to sit fully on the bed and Harry could feel him lean close. Harry opened his eyes, physically aware of the people on either side of him, all three of them sitting in parallel. He had very nearly lost all of this.
Harry's heart began to race. He could not have an attack while holding the baby. He shook his head while handing him back.
Harry let himself drift to avoid succumbing and shook his head again and rested it on his bent knees, breathing with great concentration.
Candide asked, "Severus, does he mean he can't help him, or that he doesn't need help?"
Harry held up one finger upon hearing the second point.
"I really think Harry may need a Healer."
"I doubt a Healer can help him. But if he wishes to go . . ."
Harry rocked his head side to side. St. Mungo's sounded right awful just now.
"I don't know what is setting him off so," Snape said. "Won't you look at me, Harry?"
Harry raised his head long enough to shake it properly. A hand rubbed his back, making him feel both better and worse. The Dursleys dangled this sort of family in front of him his whole childhood, just to demonstrate that he did not deserve it. He would have difficulty right now arguing they were wrong.
Snape asked, "But you believe Arcadius is all right?"
Harry nodded into his folded arms.
"Oh dear," Candide said, rocking the baby faintly. "This time we have to figure out what's wrong?"
Harry thought he should go, leave them to their baby care and each other, but when he tried to push forward to slide down the bed, he was summarily shoved back into the pillows and held there.
Snape glared at him and Harry looked away, down at the baby reclining on Candide's lap. Arcadius put his fingers in his mouth and gave a thrumming cry as he gummed them.
"I suspect he's teething," Snape said. "I will fetch one of the gum rubs we have not yet opened." He put his feet on the floor and twisted back to glare at Harry again. "You will remain until we sort out what is the matter with you."
When Snape was out of earshot, Candide said, "I'll bet a hundred Galleons none of the tins meets with his approval and he spends the rest of the night brewing up something." She stretched her shoulders back and said, "Do you mind holding him again?"
Harry took Arcadius back. The move disrupted the baby's concentrated finger chewing and he gave a dismayed wail. Harry settled him better into the crook of his arm and he gave a toothless yawn and quieted.
"Are you doing anything?"
Harry shook his head.
Candide rubbed her shoulder. "It will be nice having Winky back," she said idly. "Oh, Harry, I didn't mean that. I mean, I meant that, but . . ." She shook his arm faintly. "It's all right, Harry."
Harry shook his head, trying to convey too many things in that idiot gesture. It was not all right, but it was all right that she had spoken. Arcadius fell still, fists curling.
"He likes you," she said. "All boys like having a big brother."
Dwelling on that lightened the rocks crushing the breath out of Harry's chest. He leaned back more comfortably into the pillows and watched the pink distress fade from the tiny serene face. If only it were so simple.
Candide's voice held a grin as she said, "And you're undisputedly the best big brother in all of wizardom."
As Harry ducked to hide his embarrassment, Snape swept back into the room carrying what appeared to be a sardine tin with the lid curled back. "This is a safe enough analgesia inducer in a neutral waterproof unguent."
Snape sat down to lean over Harry, noticed Arcadius was sleeping, and set the tin on the side table. "Figures," he murmured.
Moving more sedately, Snape put his slippered feet up on the bed and said, "And you?"
Harry shrugged and turned away from him.
"If he's asleep, we can put him in the bassinet," Candide said.
Harry gave Arcadius over and the baby was lowered into a woven bassinet suspended on a wrought iron stand. Candide pulled down and released it so that it rocked faintly. When he turned back, Harry found a parchment on a hard-cover book being slid onto his lap, and Snape held a Neverout quill out for him to take. Harry accepted it.
"I need to know what is troubling you so severely. I understand your resistance to looking at me. In an emotional state it is difficult to control what a Legilimens sees. Which means you must write something instead." Snape waited, then added, "What is going on inside you, Harry?"
Harry stared at the marble-like texture of the parchment and tried to find words. His feelings were clear and solid as crystal, but as soon as he tried to pin words to them, everything grew muddy, including the emotion itself. He put the pen to the surface, then pulled it up again. What was going on? What was he feeling? He could not write out "remorse"; the letters would not come together in his mind. Harry wrote shame, and stared at it, feeling the word hollowing him out as if it were a curse.
Snape's arm was around him. He had blacked out again.
"Severus, maybe you should let him rest. You said he needed sleep."
"If he were not napping half the day, I would be concerned on that point. These debilitating attacks need to stop. I thought they would continue to improve on their own . . . but it seems he is capable of a significant relapse."
"You make it sound like he can just out-think them."
Harry lifted his head and the grip around him loosened so he could sit back. Snape held the quill up for him again.
"Severus, you are tormenting him," Candide accused, pausing in hovering her extra pillows to the top of the wardrobe in the corner.
"I am not. He must find a path through this. The sooner he does so, the sooner his pain eases."
Harry took the quill. This was like a maze, Harry decided. He kept turning blind corners and falling into snares. But he was learning where the paths led, albeit the painful way.
Snape took the quill back. "Let me write one. We'll take turns." In simple block letters he wrote out pride and handed both back to Harry. "If you are not proud of the strength you showed, then there is something very much wrong." He waited before going on. "You were willing to lose your life to make things right. I would argue that balances out all of it. Do you not agree it balances out some?"
Harry nodded and stared at the two words. He wanted to write "make amends" or "recompense" but that was out of reach. He considered "owe" but that was not quite it. In a burst of frustration he tried to push the book and parchment back at Snape.
"There is zero chance I will let you quit this task. Keep trying."
Candide gave Harry a pained smile and turned the lamp on her side down before curling up to sleep.
Snape turned up the lamp on his side and sat back with a relaxed sigh. "I am in no hurry, Harry." After a few minutes of companionable silence, Snape quietly asked, "What are you experiencing right before you fall into difficulty?"
Harry put the quill to the parchment and wrote So empty. Snape raised his chin and canted his head away. His voice was less than steady as he said, "Harry, you are still young. You will recover from this violence, for lack of a better word, to your soul. I really do believe that. It will simply take time." Snape loosely held Harry's arm. "You need to find patience with yourself. I know you do not find that easy."
Harry shot him a look.
"Yes, I admit, neither do I. Not with myself and usually not with you. But this is different."
Harry closed his eyes as he remembered threatening the man beside him, the one who was trying so very hard to help him. Harry touched his heart and his lips, then tried to write sorry, because it was suddenly clearly formed in his mind.
Snape pulled his writing hand off the parchment. "I've already forgiven you, Harry." He released Harry's hand. "All wars have battles you win and battles you lose. You lost a handful there near the end, but you won when it truly mattered. You seem to be having difficulty seeing that."
Harry rubbed the back of his neck with his hand, tossed by new emotions.
Snape went on, "You don't need my forgiveness, nor your friends', nor even Winky's. You have all of that, in fact, and yet you still struggle. Do you know why?"
Eyes closed, Harry nodded.
"What is it going to take, Harry?"
Harry opened his eyes and let them roam over the far wall, over the side-by-side wardrobes, the trunk with toys stacked precariously upon it. He had no answer to that.
Silence fell. Snape patted Harry's arm before gripping it. "It seems to me that when you have these attacks you have struck upon something extraordinarily painful that you are too wounded, both in mind and spirit, to cope with properly. Is that a fair assessment?" At Harry's nod, he went on,. "Given how what may set you off is so unpredictable, I am afraid avoidance of potential triggers is not going to be feasible. Do you feel more injured after an attack?"
Harry thought that over and shrugged, then shook his head.
"I do wish I understood why bringing you here tonight set you off so."
Harry put the quill to the parchment and wrote evil.
"This room is evil?"
Harry pointed at himself.
Snape's left hand clenched and unclenched empty air. "Perhaps I do not really wish to understand. I was not keeping as good a watch over you as I actually needed to."
Harry touched his heart and his lips, then challenged Snape with a quick glare to not complain.
"Fair enough. But you need not apologize as far as I'm concerned." He took the parchment and book away. "You have far less to make up for than I think you believe. And you have your entire life to do so." He capped the quill and set it aside in the drawer. "But in the short term, you must find some new strengths to make up for your weaknesses while you heal. I cannot imagine these attacks are beneficial. Do try to keep fixed in your mind that everyone that matters has forgiven you, that you have earned the right to be proud of coming out of this at all . . . and that you deserve this family."
Snape raised a sharp brow, when Harry expressed surprise. "I thought I caught a glimpse of that, even though you were trying your best to hide it. Unfortunately, a point of weakness with you even before this happened." His voice dropped to barely audible, "I do not speak of any of these things lightly, or without personal experience, as you are well aware."
Snape leaned over to check on Candide, then gestured with his head and swung his feet off the bed to stand up. Harry followed, careful not to jostle the bed too much.
In Harry's room, Snape laid a fire and came over to stand beside where Harry sat on the edge of the bed, holding his dressing gown tight around himself with his hands.
"A very long time ago I felt the need to point out to you that you could not lose this family. I was a bit out of sorts myself at the time," he added, clearly chagrined. "But I should have stated as much before that. These sorts of topics are not easy. They are not easy for most people, and those for whom it is easy, I have great difficulty trusting. But I digress." He rubbed his eyes. "My point is, you are very much wanted here. Even at the worst times, we were more frightened for you than of you."
Harry closed his eyes as pain stabbed through him. A hand closed around his shoulder. "I am sorry, Harry. I do not mean to cause you more difficulty again already. Look at me." When Harry obliged him, he locked eyes and after a beat said, "Of course you felt helpless. But. You. Aren't. Now. You won. Enjoy your victory. At least long enough to heal, please."
Harry drew in a deep breath, trying to take those words into his empty heart. He let the breath go, and relaxed his arms which had been wrapped rigidly around his midsection.
"Better?" Snape held his hand out. "Let me take your dressing gown so you can rest."
Harry squirmed down under the duvet. The fire in the hearth crackled heartily. The lamplight deflated and went out.
Snape's voice came out of the orange dimness, "Sleep the sleep of the victorious, Harry. You deserve it."
- 888 -
Harry scrubbed his eyes and yawned as he stepped into the dining room, then stopped upon seeing Ginny sitting with her notebooks beside her teacup and saucer. He glanced at the clock on the mantle and then at Snape.
"I refused to disturb you, even though I heartily agreed you should submit to an interview," Snape said from behind the morning newspaper. "Have a seat, Harry."
Harry shook Ginny's hand as a way of greeting her more personally and sat on the end. Under the table, Harry rubbed his arm; shaking hands had tweaked his muscles.
Ginny asked, "How are you doing, Harry?"
Harry nodded that he was well enough and gave her a smile, which made her relax. He wished a fire blazed in the hearth behind him to warm the chill from waking up, but it was sunny this morning even if the heat had not yet leached inside. Candide brought a plate laden with breakfast and set it before him. Harry patted his hand on his chest in an attempt to say thank you.
Ginny said, "Did you hear that the Midwitches induced Gretel yesterday?"
"Did they?" Candide said, taking the seat beside Snape. "Your parents must be thrilled."
"Oh, beside themselves. They've named her Molly Ruth. She's long, but sort of skinny and mostly makes ugly faces. Charlie thinks she's the cutest baby born in all of history."
"We'll have to send a basket of things over there."
"Back over there, you mean," Snape said.
"I hate to rush things, but I have to cover a Wizengamot hearing at 10:00 . . ." Ginny said, shifting her notebooks around.
Harry motioned that she should go on. She flipped open a notebook and beside that set down a scroll and a quill that looked far too familiar. Harry pointed at the Quick Quotes Quill that had begun cavorting just above the scroll like an athlete doing warmups.
Ginny gripped her notebook in both hands. "It's like this, Harry. We're considering putting Skeeter's byline on the interview." At his expression, she quickly explained, "She has far more credibility on this topic than anyone else on staff. Don't worry, I'm editing everything she writes, and once final copy goes to print it can't be changed. Previous owners have seen to that, believe me. But she insisted on the observations from her quill or she refused to put her name on it. I didn't think you'd want her coming along so it was the best I could do."
Ginny turned to Snape and waited for him to respond. Snape lowered the paper and said, "I cannot bear the woman, but it's for the best if she essentially concedes in print that you are yourself again."
Harry huffed through his nose, then felt pleased to have made that loud of a vocal noise. The Quick Quotes Quill scratched something out, then turned slowly in the air, waiting.
Ginny put her quill to her notebook and asked, "When did you first notice Voldemort was . . . coming awake inside you?" While Harry thought about that, she said, "You've always sensed things from him, but when did you notice it was more than that?"
"If I may," Snape said, folding the paper away, "I think it was about the time that Voldemort returned in the empty shell of Gilderoy Lockhart."
Harry swallowed and nodded.
"Not before then?" Ginny asked. "When Harry started hearing the creatures in the underworld?"
"That familiarity with old magic is not unrelated to Voldemort, specifically the attack on Harry as child, but he did not acquire that skill from Voldemort, directly."
"What, actually, did you first notice?"
Harry looked at Snape and Snape's lips twitched as he replied, "Voldemort was better at plotting."
Ginny said, "Imprisonment made it worse, correct? Do you mind if I point out that it was being so close to the Death Eaters that did that? You were imprisoned without just cause." At Harry's gesture of acceptance of this, she efficiently went on, "And you spent the last few months acting outside the Ministry, but you were mostly demolishing the criminal gang Durumulna. Why?"
"They made Harry angry," Snape supplied on his own. "And he believed they deserved it."
"You were much better at getting to them acting alone, it seems to me," Ginny said. "I want to cover that. The Ministry hasn't been very effective. We'd like to do an entire article just on that, later, too."
Harry shrugged. He felt antsy remembering seeking out servants among their ranks and wanted to move on.
"You're certain Voldemort is gone this time. Why?"
"He attacked Harry repeatedly, decreasing in strength each time, until there were no further attacks. If he could have attacked again, he would have."
Harry wrapped his arms around himself and resisted closing his eyes tightly. Snape leaned forward to put his hand around his arm where it rested on the tabletop. The Quick Quotes Quill scratched frantically while the scroll slid by below it. Ginny frowned and leaned over to look at it.
Said Snape, "Dare I ask what it says?"
"Um . . ." Ginny's face twisted up. "It says A rumpled and fatigued Harry flinched at the question and was faithfully supported by a family member."
"Could be worse."
"It tones it down when I'm using it." Ginny flipped through her notepad. "You plan to return to the Aurors' program. I can fill in that part myself from what dad said."
Harry tapped her arm until she looked up.
"Yeah, I didn't even get around to applying. Maybe next year." She frowned at the clock. "I have to run. I need to get a good seat. Ma Dame's hearing is today. I think I have enough for this round, otherwise I'll stop by again."
Harry stood up, intending to accompany her.
"You want to come along?" She turned to Snape. "Is that all right?"
"Harry is going to have difficulty getting to London with you. It is too far for him to take the Floo Network; he is not allowed to Apparate; and it will take several hours by broomstick . . ."
Harry stared at him in shock and slowly sat back down again.
"Oh," Ginny said. "Well, I'll send you my personal observations if you like . . ."
Harry nodded bleakly. The remains of his breakfast, still steaming, were pushed back under his nose. As he ate, an owl came to the window bearing a letter. Harry sat with it propped on the table edge until he could piece together most of the two short sentences. It was from Rodgers, who thankfully preferred short notes. His old trainer was requesting he come in for a debriefing, soon, prior to returning to training. Harry handed it over.
"Tell him to come here if he wants to talk to you," Snape said, setting the letter back before Harry.
Harry clasped his hands together and sat hunched, staring at it, trying to accept that he was stuck. It felt so . . . Muggle.
"Why don't we all go into London?" Candide suggested. "We can take the train. Harry can visit the Ministry and we can all look in on the Weasleys. We could spend the weekend."
"And Harry can nap on the way," Snape added. "As is his wont."
Harry narrowed his eyes at him, but could not hold his annoyance long when faced with Snape's sedate amusement.
"Feeling up to it?" Snape asked. When Harry nodded, he added, "I think it will be good to get you out of the house." He stood and folded his napkin before dropping it beside his coffee cup. "In the meantime, I will fetch our much-missed house elf."
Harry straightened, then slumped again. Snape stopped behind Harry's chair to rest a hand on his shoulder, then departed in the Floo.
"Everything's fine, Harry," Candide said. After they stared at each other, she asked, "Empty platitude?"
"Sorry. How about: everything will be fine if you let it be?"
Arcadius fussed from the main hall, and she rose to fetch him. She sat down with him hitched on her arm and put her fingertip in his mouth. "I can't imagine he's teething at two months." Half the candelabra on the table sparked into life. "It's a little early in the day for candles, Arcadius."
Arcadius pulled his hand out of his mouth to wave it at the candle flames. Harry tightened his dressing gown and wished the baby had lit the hearth instead.
"I can't believe I've got used to that," Candide said, watching the flames burn.
Harry pulled his chalkboard over and wrote out what else?
"What else is he going to start doing? Yep, I do worry about that. He doesn't have any of the other characteristics of a firestarter, according to Severus. Too young, for example. Too young to teethe too." She leaned her face close to the baby's and he let out a squeal of delight.
They sat in a companionable silence until the sound of the Floo made Harry close his eyes. Ill prepared, but seeing nothing else for it, Harry moved his chair aside and stood up. Snape stood beside the hearth with his hand out as if ready to hold him up. Harry stepped clear of his reach as the Floo Network flared green again. Hunched, Winky crept out and peered around with large, popping eyes.
Harry tried to speak, but could not. Winky bowed to Candide, then bowed to Harry, who broadly shook his head.
"Masters too good to Winky," she squeaked. "Masters is being very good wizards." She tilted her head at the baby and said, "Winky is going to make Master Harry's favorite." And with that she sparkled away.
Harry had not thought he could feel worse.
"It's in her nature," Snape stated.
Harry strode by him on the way to the kitchen. As he crossed the main hall, he could hear Snape following at a slower pace.
The scent of cocoa boiling filled the long narrow kitchen. The hearth on the end roared with a grand pile of fresh wood and, despite only seconds passing since Winky's return, freshly chopped carrots and onions lay on the wooden table and a heavy cauldron of water hung in the hearth, boiling heartily. Winky looked up from stirring heavy cream into the cocoa and considered Harry before returning to her task.
"Master Harry is good wizard," Winky chirruped faintly as if talking to herself.
Harry shook his head again, but she was not looking at him anymore. Behind him, Snape said, "She senses your nature has changed. She requires no further convincing." When Harry stared at him in anguish, Snape said, "I have repeatedly told her you are sorry." He tossed his hands. "Winky, Harry is quite sorry for what happened. He wants me to tell you that yet again."
Winky looked up. The milk pitcher sparkled away out of one hand while she stirred with the other. "Cocoa is being almost ready."
"You are being clever again, Winky," Snape criticized.
Winky blinked her giant eyes at him as if not understanding.
Harry could not bear this. He stepped up beside Winky and lowered himself to one knee. The heat radiating from the hearth burned his face.
"That is most definitely not necessary," Snape said, then grumbled, "Neither of you are listening."
Harry put his hand over his heart and ducked his head. When he looked up, Winky was holding out a steaming mug.
"Master Harry's favorite," she squeaked.
While Harry stared at the mug, Snape said, "She is quite happy with her situation, which means you can do no wrong." He stepped closer and added, "The only thing you can do wrong is refuse to take the cocoa."
Harry accepted the mug. The heavy ceramic pleasantly warmed his hand. He stared dumbly into the swirls of white foam in muddy sweet liquid. The scent of it invaded his head, making it hard to think.
"Harry thanks you for the cocoa, Winky," Snape said.
This jarred Harry from staring into the offering. He pushed to his feet and stepped back from the hot fire. Winky was already busy sweeping vegetables into a cauldron. Harry stopped at the door to bow again.
As they crossed the hall, Snape said, "Given how much food she is preparing, I expect you to have quite a few visitors at lunchtime."
Harry sank into the couch and sipped the cocoa, suspecting it contained elf magic that would work upon him, but accepting whatever it might do. With unexpected ease, he leaned back and relaxed. He held up his injured hand and examined it while thinking of all he needed to fix. He did this in an idle manner, hoping some grand idea would simply occur to him. Scattered silvery lines were still showing through his skin and when he moved in certain ways, his muscles twinged painfully. Whatever was to come, he needed to be healed more thoroughly than this.
When Snape crossed back through the hall, Harry set his mug on an end table and caught up with him to tug on his robes. Snape turned with a questioning expression and Harry pulled up his sleeve to move his hand while making a face.
"You are in need of some reworking, I suspect. Have a seat and I'll get the poultices."
Harry sat down, moving his hands and arms in all directions to find all the spots that pulled the wrong way. Snape hovered a tray of things within easy reach and sat beside him. "Your friend Hermione and I were working rather fast when we healed you. Pull up your sleeve." When Harry gestured at both arms, Snape said, "You have more than one spot, I see. Pick a place to start."
Harry pulled up his left sleeve and pointed at a bulging spot. Holding his wand like a quill, Snape braced his hand and sliced Harry's arm open in a neat arc, then with a painting motion, began resealing the layers of muscle back together. A grey poultice resembling and possibly containing ground up worm guts went over the top of it and Harry turned his arm over to have another spot fixed.
"Move your fingers so I can see what is wrong with this one."
Snape ran his thumb over the surface of Harry's arm as he curled and straightened his fingers, until Harry tried to jerk free the pain so surprised him.
"That would be the spot, I believe." Without looking up from his task, Snape asked, "Would you like Miseringuish, or do you prefer the suffering?"
Harry shook his head.
"You are healing quite well," Snape said. "The penchant for suffering could use some work, however."
Harry rested his head on the cushion and clamped his teeth together. It was not so much the pain that bothered him as feeling his flesh creeping around.
The door knocker sounded and Winky sparkled in to open it. Aaron sauntered into the main hall, cloak neatly hooked over two fingers as he held it out to Winky. He asked, "What's Harry being punished for?"
"Good day, Mr. Wickem," Snape said.
Aaron sat on the other couch and put his arms up on the back. "Come now, I had you as a Head of House for seven years, I know punishment when I see it."
Harry gave Aaron a grin.
Snape said, "It would not be punishment if Harry could be convinced to swallow something to render his nervous system moot. Fortunately, we are almost finished here."
Harry pushed the newest blob of poultice back in place when it tried to slide off.
"Hermione worked extensively on your ankles for some reason, so I suspect they are not bothering you."
Harry shook his head.
Aaron accepted a tall milky coffee in a beer mug from Winky and said, "I see your house elf is as subservient as ever."
Harry sighed through his nose.
"What Harry means by that," Snape drawled, "is she will not allow him to wallow in guilt as he would prefer."
"There is a great wizard tradition of elf abuse, you know," Aaron said to Harry, taking a second and third sip. "Oh, darn good coffee. Can I buy your elf when I finally get married and need one?"
"She is not for sale," Snape said, standing and going to the dining room where the Floo had sounded.
"Come now, she must be bored already with no dark wizards to oversee. I think I could present enough of a challenge." He winked at Harry. When Harry looked away, he leaned forward, "Come on, Harry. Lighten up." He glanced to the dining room. "Guess we should join the others." At Harry's questioning look, he explained, "Mr. Weasley sent us all for lunch. To encourage you to return."
Harry settled at the table with the Auror apprentices. Snape and Candide insisted on eating in the drawing room to leave them to themselves, which left Harry with no interpreter. He leaned forward to study Tridant, who appeared to be quite himself now. Harry exhaled, experiencing a much needed bout of relief. An extra place-setting appeared just as the plates of food sparkled in. Ginny arrived in the Floo, gave Aaron a quick hug and sat down.
Harry tapped her plate with his knife.
"The hearing was dreadfully boring. Organized crime should be covered by our business correspondent, really."
By the end of lunch, Harry went from feeling out of place at his own table to feeling once more part of his cohort. His dismay at not following the conversation at the beginning completely vanished by the end.
"Harry's been doing a bang-up job," Tridant said as he helped himself to a third square of cake. "Rodgers insists you're waiting to catch The Boss before returning."
Kerry Ann said in response to Harry's funny expression, "He did say that. I think he's jealous that you get to work outside the system. You're coming back next week, right?"
Harry gestured at his chest, making a circle for no good reason, except that seemed meaningful. Ginny said, "Dad says when a Mediwizard clears him he can return. I think that's what Harry is saying too."
"You are being missed," Vineet stated gravely.
Harry forced himself to meet Vineet's level brown eyes. But it made Harry feel unsteady, like he might be inviting another attack, so he looked away again. He had to find some way to get stronger, and soon.
- 888 -
After lunch, Harry walked into the drawing room and faced Snape down. He dearly wanted to take care of Belinda, or at least see Belinda. Snape and Candide were relaxing over tea with Arcadius in the self-rocking bassinet.
"Not yet, Harry," Snape stated.
Harry bit his lips and considered stamping a foot to express his frustration, but changed his mind in time. He paced instead, thinking of Vineet's easy going attitude and how Belinda would not be so sanguine and therefore would more likely be suffering undue stress.
"I will go visit her again this afternoon, if you wish. Mr. Abhaynanda has seen her twice, he tells me. I am quite certain she will be all right until you are well enough to rectify things, safely. On that note, your cousin and Remus are coming for dinner and I expect you to behave. Consider it a test, perhaps, if that helps. If you truly think merely seeing Ms. Beluna will make a difference—even if you are not allowed to remove any curses from her—and you keep yourself disciplined this evening, we can pay her a visit in London."
Harry huffed and paced again, finding the room claustrophobic. On his next pass, Snape was in his path. He halted Harry with a hand on his chest and pulled his wand. With a quick snap of it he ran a Health Indificator. It fluttered yellow and a pinkish white.
"Your estimation of your strength is biased, do remember, both by the healing potions and your isolation from strenuous tasks." Snape tilted his head to better study him. "Any attacks today that I am unaware of?" When Harry shook his head, he said, "I am pleased to hear that. I did not expect you to endure Winky's return without suffering one." He returned to his seat and said, "Patience, Harry."
Harry closed his eyes and huffed through his nose.
- 888 -
Harry's cousin greeted him with a fierce hug. She did not release him completely, but held his sleeves in her fists and exclaimed, "The things that happen to you!"
Snape passed close behind Harry and muttered, "Look at this . . . a Muggle who does not believe any of it was your fault."
Pamela went on, "Mum wants you to visit as soon as you're able. I told her you weren't allowed to travel far by magic. She said that was fine, and 'it's a wonder any of them get anywhere safely anyway'." She stared at him from arms length. "You look okay. Mostly the same. Sheepish maybe."
They settled onto the couches, with Snape arranging for Lupin to sit as far from Harry as possible. Pamela asked Harry, "Are they going to figure out what happened to your voice?"
"When he is well enough for treatments that I fear may be harsh," Snape said, sitting back with a sherry. "He is well enough to begin regrowing his fingers without slowing his general recovery, but he has not indicated that he is impatient for their return."
Harry held up his injured hand and Pamela flinched from the sight.
"What happened exactly? Remus said you got in another fight with this evil wizard Voldemort, but this time you won for good. It certainly would be nice if you won for good."
No one replied right away. Snape said, "That is essentially what transpired. Sometime, perhaps, Harry will relate the detailed story. He has tired, I am afraid, of hearing it retold and I feel obliged to spare him."
Winky crept in just then carrying a tray of snacks. Snape asked Pamela, "And what of you? Things in the Muggle world going well?"
Harry assumed Snape must be distracting her, since he would never normally make such conversation. Even Candide turned her head his way sharply.
"The Muggle world is quiet enough. The usual politics and griping."
"No personal plans of any significance?"
Harry and Candide shared a questioning glance. Pamela laughed lightly and replied in the negative.
"Hm," Snape said. He sat back and stared into his drink.
Arcadius woke with a cry in his self-rocking bassinet and Snape stood first to pluck him out of it. He circled around the room, patting the fussing baby on the back. Fortunately, most of the candles in the room were already lit. Arcadius calmed and began peering at them over Snape's shoulder. Snape stopped before the couch full of guests and offered him to Pamela. "Would you like to hold him?"
Pamela shuffled forward and eagerly accepted him. "Oh, he's such a doll."
Arcadius fussed a bit, but sounded like he might hold off on a full volume complaint for about a minute.
"I should probably feed him," Candide said.
Harry keenly eyed Snape as he casually circled around to where he had left his drink on the end table. He faced away from them all as he swallowed the rest of it. Harry wished he would look his way. He had a bad feeling he was up to something.
Arcadius fussed a bit louder and Pamela raised him up onto her shoulder to pat him rapidly on the back. "You probably want mum, don't you, you little dear."
Snape took his time returning and accepted him back. Arcadius smacked his mouth as he was ferried over to Candide. Candide stood with him and strode off toward the library.
"Don't want one of your own, Remus?" Snape asked as he resumed his seat.
Lupin did not move, but something about his entire body changed, as if his animalism had risen up and bristled, making his skin taut and his hair flattened.
From the doorway to the library, Candide turned and said, "Severus?"
Snape pointedly ignored her and she shook her head as she closed the door. Harry was considering throwing one of the small pillows at Snape when he noticed Pamela looking earnestly to Lupin for an answer.
"Really, Remus, what is the problem?" Snape asked, voice stony.
Harry breathed shallowly while waiting for Lupin to figure out a reply. Snape spoke first, saying, "Don't you dare accuse me of not understanding." Another pause, during which Winky sparkled in with the sherry bottle clutched in both hands to refill Snape's glass. Snape watched the liquid swirl as he said, "You know what I think? I think you are using your condition as an excuse. I think you are hiding behind it."
Harry slowly sat back, hoping but doubting that Winky would bring the bottle his way.
Lupin ran his thumb over his pointed fingernails. "I don't think it is any of your concern, really, Severus."
Snape pondered that before coming back with, "I am just looking out for family, Remus." Snape sat back, propping his sherry glass on the arm rest with a spell waved out of his hand. "So, if you were no longer a werewolf. What then?" But again, Snape did not give him a chance to reply. "You would rush out for a ring, I assume?"
Lupin deflated rather than rising to more anger. "It doesn't matter, Severus."
"Oh, but hypothetically, it does, Remus. If you are . . . merely using it as an excuse then it is no excuse. Just assure us that you would marry Harry's lovely cousin if you were not a werewolf and I will drop it. That is all you need do."
Lupin laughed harshly. "That's all you want to hear? All right then. Certainly." He spread his hands as if giving a proclamation. "If I were not a werewolf, I would do right by Pamela. Have bunches of little witches and wizards of our own. Happy?"
Lupin did not sound happy. Harry's heart sped up. The room fell quiet and Snape said, "Yes, quite happy. Aren't I always?"
Lupin laughed again, less harshly. "I don't understand you. Why don't you let the past go?"
Snape's voice rumbled as it grew deeper. "Oh, I have. More so than you imagine. But no matter." He pushed to his feet. "I expect dinner will be on in a few minutes."
Pamela hooked her arm through Lupin's and they walked to the dining room together. Snape lagged behind to give Harry a raised brow and a challenging expression. Harry gave him a confident shrug in return.
"When you are healed . . ." Snape hissed. His eyes glittered as he turned away, like one greatly enjoying himself.
- 888 -
"You should have invited Ms. Peterson to come early. She most certainly would have read your Auror books to you, for hours at a go, I expect."
Harry was sitting on the couch, head propped up crookedly on a hand which clutched the hair on top of his head in a long-term pose of frustration. He shook his head, making clear his horror at the notion that Elizabeth might learn of his difficulties with reading. He looked up at the clock, then deflated at the hours remaining until dinner when he would see her again. Just thinking about it made his chest lack for air.
"As you wish," Snape muttered. "You are due for a dose of Tissue Knitter. Perhaps Winky will bring you some cocoa to make it go down better."
Winky sparkled in at the same time Snape handed Harry a small bottle of liquid. "An extra dose today after the repairs I did on you yesterday."
Harry alternated between sips of horrific potion and warm, delicious cocoa. Finished with both, he settled back with Blocking, Bludgeoning & Barricades, a book from his first month of the Auror's program. He had hoped it would be easier to read than it was turning out to be. He still could not capture an entire sentence at once; part of it always scattered away. Perhaps he needed to find a book he had nearly memorized in order to practice finding the word shapes in his head at the same time as putting many words together at once into a thought.
"How is that going?" Snape asked.
Harry relaxed his shoulders, which had hunched up again already from the effort, and waved him away. He did not struggle for long, the cocoa and the potion pulled him into sleep before he could decide whether to try a book from Hogwarts.
Some time later, Candide crossed behind the couch and put her head in the drawing room to ask, "Did you do that to him intentionally?"
"No. The house elf might have, however. Harry's state of mind not withstanding, she can be rather manipulative."
"I like that she takes care of things I don't even realize are a problem."
"I suppose one could view it that way," Snape said. He strode out into the hall to look at Harry curled awkwardly on the couch, his book resting on the floor, face down, heavy cover crushing some of its pages. "Do you think he looks comfortable, or shall I move him to his room?"
"He looks comfortable enough to me."
Snape turned away. "In case his friends come calling, I'll move him where he will not be disturbed as easily."
Snape slowly released the hover spell so Harry settled onto his bed too gently to awaken. He settled a light cover over him and pulled the monitor out of the bedside drawer where Harry had, as usual, put it away the night before.
- 888 -
Candide welcomed their guest from the Floo.
Elizabeth said, "I don't get much chance to travel by wizard transport, so I was running some errands on Diagon Alley and decided to come early. I hope I'm no trouble."
"No trouble at all. Put your shopping down here. Harry is napping at the moment." When Elizabeth seemed surprised, Candide added, "He's still getting some potions that tend to exhaust him."
"Oh. Is it too soon to have guests?"
Candide laughed. "Not at all. Harry's friends have been in and out, day and night it seems, sometimes."
"Oh," Elizabeth said, sounding less enthusiastic.
"Come in and sit down. Winky will bring you something, if you desire it. She tends to do that."
Elizabeth took the long way around the hall, looking over the wall hangings. When she passed the drawing room, Snape stepped out and said, "May I have a word, Ms. Peterson? Since you are here early and I am reluctant to waking Harry from much needed rest . . ."
"Sure . . ."
He closed the door after pausing to watch Candide rocking Arcadius in the bassinet.
"Have a seat, if you would." He gestured at a chair before the cold hearth. Snape sat in his desk chair with his fingers knitted in his lap. After a brief silence, he said, "I could not help but notice that Harry is a bit smitten with you."
"It is no matter to this conversation if you have not noticed-"
"No, I hadn't noticed."
Snape studied her before speaking again. "Harry is not quite the same as he was."
"Yes, you said. I haven't noticed that either."
"That isn't the purpose of this conversation either, so we can put that aside as well." He rocked back, eyes fixed on her. "I am disinclined to discussing this at all, so perhaps I shall restrict myself to making one critical observation about Harry and letting you do with it what you will. You seem well-meaning on top of well-mannered, so I will trust you to understand my concerns."
She stared at him with her brows raised, waiting.
"Harry is exceedingly vulnerable right now." He held up a hand to keep her from speaking. "I worry that he is incapable of making circumspect decisions. I worry that his raw emotions may . . . how to say this . . . allow him to form an attachment more desperate than might be best . . . for all involved, frankly."
She was sitting bolt upright now. "I understand. You know Harry far better than I, obviously. He isn't easy to get to know, really, in person. I didn't realize, for example, that . . . well, how you just said it. Smitten . . . He has a funny way of showing it." She laughed faintly. "Well, if you believe it to be so."
Snape stared at his fingers and said, "Harry is far stronger than anyone else in wizardom in the ways that truly matter. But he is quite wounded, even if he is impatient with himself and ignores it most of the time."
Elizabeth ducked her head to stare at her hands. "I understand that he's going through a tough time right now, and I don't in any way want to take advantage of that."
When he came down to dinner, Harry shook Elizabeth's hand to greet her, while biting his lip.
She said, "Thank you for the invitation. My meals at school are not much to brag about and I very much appreciate it."
Candide led most of the conversation through the evening, asking Elizabeth about her studies and sharing stories about working as a professional witch.
"I'm still very grateful to Harry for arranging help for my studies."
Harry waved off her gratitude and stood from the couch where they had retired. He wanted to spend time with her alone and made a motion with his fingers that he wanted to go for a walk.
"Sure," she stood with a broad smile before glancing questioningly at Snape.
"Go right ahead. Not a restriction Harry has at the moment, although he has quite a few about travel, in general."
Cloaks draped over their shoulders, they walked in the direction opposite to that of her parents' house. Harry tossed his head that way and gave her a questioning look.
"My mum and dad?" she asked, adjusting her gloves as they walked along the edge of the road. "I've had a few letters from my mum, but that's about it. It's fine. I'm too busy to worry about it, which is just as well."
Harry took her gloved hand in his own and they walked hand in hand as they turned down one of the quieter side roads.
"I want to ask you all kinds of questions," she said, "but I can't. It's strange." She looked at him as they walked. Harry glanced her way sometimes, trying not to read behind her eyes. He did not seem to be as good at Legilimency as he had been, but he did not want to take the chance. It did not seem fair.
"You were really partly He-Who, er, Voldemort, eh?"
"That's more than a bit creepy, I have to admit."
Harry squeezed her hand tighter, then held it loosely.
"It wasn't your fault, and it seems like you took care of it the only way you could. Before it got too bad."
Harry made a noncommittal gesture. They passed a stone house where the front gardens were beginning to bloom in long sweeps of color. Harry stopped to look at it.
"You don't think so. You think you could have done more?"
Harry nodded, glanced at her earnest expression, then glanced away again.
"You're feeling guilty, aren't you?"
Harry nodded then gave her an expression of exaggerated surprise.
"I think I'd feel guilty too, that's why I guessed that." They stood looking over the flower beds. The wind waved the long branches of budding trees. "I love the color of new leaves," she said. "It's like your eyes a bit."
She squeezed his hand this time. "I used to think it was my fault when my dad got mad at me. I was sure it was my fault. If someone had told me otherwise, I would not have believed them. But that belief itself, that was my fault." She put her other hand over Harry's. "I know this probably sounds weak compared to Voldemort, but I think I understand a bit. I think back now and wonder what in the world was wrong with me. It's like I was a different person, someone willing to do this evil thing, almost, to myself. I would have fought tooth and nail to stay there years before. I can't imagine what I was thinking then. It's like the strength that lets you change, you can't just call it up any time. It has to come on its own time."
She dipped her head. "Sorry if I'm sounding silly, talking about something so minor." She raised her head to stare in the direction of her parents' house.
Harry pulled her around to face him and shook his head. He longed to take her away somewhere. He motioned with his hands like riding a motorcycle.
"You want to go for a ride?" she asked, laughing. When Harry nodded eagerly, she flushed. "Maybe next visit." She hesitated, then quickly added, "Is that all right? I need to get back for a lecture in the morning and you have to catch the early train."
Harry huffed and stared at the broken tarmac at their feet, trying to control his frustration. It was like he had lost the ability to be patient, to sit back and wait for a chance he was positive would come later. He nodded, mostly because he knew he should simply accept things.
"I really appreciate you having me over. Candide said your friends have been in and out and I feel a bit honored that it was just me this evening."
Harry gave her a smile. That was definitely how he had preferred it too. He could not figure out what it was about her that made him feel so strange. It was like the air in the world had been replaced by a lighter version and it made his head swim.
The sun had sunk far enough behind the clouds that the flowers before them began to glow with twilight.
"Would you walk me to the train station? I can take the Floo from there."
Harry slid his hand down her arm to take her gloved hand again. The walk went far too fast, and the inside of the station with its grey block walls and harsh flickering lighting considerably reduced the mood. But in front of the train station hearth, Harry pulled her forward for a kiss, thinking about not much more than tasting her lips.
The kiss was merely a peck, because she pulled back. Harry gazed at her questioningly. Flustered, face reddened as if winter had stung her cheeks, she patted his arms and let go of him. Her emotions were tossing her thoughts about, but one or two came through plain as the bare walls around them lit by the Muggle fluorescent lighting.
"Sorry, Harry," she said, then drew in her lips as if to taste them. "I should go."
Harry stepped back and watched her duck into the green flames, mind fixed in a sort of shock from the vision he had caught from her.
Harry walked back from the train station, stride lengthening as he went, feeling his wounded body less and less. When he reached the door he did not feel empty for once; he felt overflowing, with white hot anger that made his shoulder muscles thicken and his arms warm.
In the main hall, Candide was bundling up a sleeping Arcadius and standing with the sort of care she used to avoid waking him. Snape stood beside one of the lamps, peering down at a letter he held. He looked up as Harry entered and came alert upon reading his face.
Harry stepped right up to him and glared at him.
Candide said, "I think I'll . . . what's the matter?"
"I think Harry is upset with me," Snape said, folding the letter he held and setting it down.
Harry bit his lips, willing Snape to admit what Harry suspected based on the glimpsed memory from Elizabeth.
Candide asked, "Harry, what are you . . . what is Harry angry about?"
"Harry is upset that I spoke to Elizabeth about his emotional condition." Snape started to turn away, and Harry grabbed his arm, mostly because he could not express himself any other way. For several long seconds, Harry held on, even as Snape had raised his arm in an abbreviated move to shake him off. Finally, Harry let go.
"Severus, you did what?" Candide blurted.
Harry tipped his head, projecting, exactly. Snape failed to react, and Harry turned away to pace, waving his arms, and rubbing his hair back in frustration over being unable to rant. Betrayal was coring him out and more anger was pouring in behind to fill the space. He stopped dead when Winky appeared before him.
"Master Harry is being unhappy," she squeaked, sounding surprised.
Harry's muscles released. He stood there, feeling additionally miserable before turning away and walking to the back door, needing to get away.
Fog had gathered in the low spots of the back garden. Inside he could hear conversation, but it came out as a low mumble, incomprehensible. Harry crouched and cleared the ivy tangling the tarp over his bike, then methodically rolled the tarp to uncover the machine.
From the square of light outlining the doorway, Snape said, "Call one of your friends; you cannot go alone."
Harry let go of the bike cover and spun with the thought my friends are not here because they thought I would prefer an evening alone with Elizabeth! Snape's expression did not change, so Harry could not know if he understood. Harry folded the cover and set it aside.
"Harry," Snape said, voice taking on a threatening tone. "I will not allow you to take the bike out alone."
Emotions rolled through Harry, pummeling him in a way he was not accustomed to. He could not feel all of it at once there was so much of it, and all of it so conflicting with all the rest of it. Harry stepped back and Transformed into his Animagus form, as much to escape his emotion as to communicate his desperation for escape from the house. But two flaps of his wings left his great chest heaving with exhaustion. Harry released the Animagus form and laid his arms across the broad bike seat to balance while he recovered.
Harry's strength returned with his anger. He stood straight and moved the Roar! knob to low and turned on the ignition.
Snape's voice came: "Why don't you go with him."
Harry turned and found Candide standing in the doorway.
"You just put Arcadius down; he won't be needing anything for a while. Go on. Harry cannot go alone." Snape waved his heaviest cloak from the entry way and hooked it around her.
Harry stared at the two of them, emotions chewing away at him like hordes of hungry creatures. Candide came over and took up one of the helmets.
"Go, on," Snape said. "If you are so determined. Keep it slow and on the ground, if you would, so you can stop if you have difficulty."
Harry slipped on the larger helmet and straddled the bike. Candide pulled hard on his shoulders getting on behind him. Harry stared at the glowing dials at the base of the handlebars, thinking that everything he was doing was wrong, but his anger, which had released him from the painful emptiness so thoroughly, urged him on.
Harry jumped on the starter, bit his bottom lip, and twisted the handle backwards to send them into the air.
Candide's cry of surprise reached his ears as they leveled off.
"Holy Merlin," she said. He could feel her leaning over to look down. "I thought broomsticks were too fast."
More sedately, Harry steered them toward the road and, between distantly spaced cars, landed them with a gentle squeak of the suspension. With a slow twist this time, he motored up to a normal speed for the road.
The bike's headlamp flashed over trees and posts, leaving them blind around sharp corners and over hills. Oncoming lights flashed in Harry's eyes as cars careened by the other way. The bike hungrily growled out of each turn. It was all a bit like navigating his new emotions.
Harry slowed down, firmly aware of the arms locked around him. He should not have left. He should have waited for a friend, or not gone at all. Snape had, yet again, placed his precious possession in Harry's care when he did not deserve such faith. Harry recognized that Snape had done that several times when Harry was losing himself, and that faith had been a life line. Thinking of that now, as stone fences flickered past on the right and tree branches reached into the headlamp light on the left, made Harry's chest hurt.
They came over a rise and the road flattened out leading to a traffic signal. A Muggle fast food restaurant stood like a beacon in the foggy night. Harry pulled into the car park.
Candide slid her helmet off and asked, "Need a break?"
Harry nodded as he helped her off before following suit. His thighs complained about the bike seat.
"I was worried you were going to get on the motorway."
Harry shook his head, ready to go home already. He took a few awkward steps, shaking out his legs.
Harry stopped to listen to the whine of the cars and realized how far they had come. She hooked her arm through his and said, "I assumed your mind was elsewhere. Let me get you dessert. Severus slipped me my handbag." She pulled a miniature handbag from her pocket, gave it a toss in the air and caught the full sized handle as it fell. "One of the few things the Weasley twins sell that I actually thought useful as opposed to dangerous."
Harry's eyes watered in the bright light as they took a corner spot, far away from a family with three children carrying uplifted, half-eaten chips while playing tag around the table. The chairs and the table were bolted to the floor.
Candide went on, "I have to say, I'm not looking forward to Arcadius being old enough to walk in there with coins in his pocket. That would be a successful product they could sell, coins that can't be spent in their shop. Speaking of coins, I'll get us something."
Harry turned back and forth in his seat while Candide went to the counter. She returned with a chocolate sundae for Harry and a strawberry one for herself. The treats arrived under clear plastic domes. Candide removed hers and studied it as she dipped into the machine-precise spiraling ice cream.
"Are you very angry with Severus, or just temporarily miffed?"
Harry did not know, so he did not respond.
"You look so sad, I can barely stand it. Here, I have an idea." She reached into her handbag and began setting things out on the table, one by one. "There are few situations that can't be improved by a well-written letter." She pulled out a blotter to go with a folded blank parchment, a bottle of ink, and a quill. Smoothing out the parchment she began, "Dear Elizabeth. . ."
Harry tapped his finger beside the greeting.
"Not what you want? Dearest? That's coming on a bit strong . . . Well, all right. Dearest Elizabeth, I learned that Severus spoke with you this evening." When Harry nodded eagerly, she wrote that out. "I admit that I disagree with his doing this." Harry tapped his finger, but she wrote it out anyway, saying, "You have to keep it toned down, Harry. Never send a letter you couldn't bear to read a year later. That's my rule. Where were we? Oh yes. I disagree with his doing this and hope you . . . what . . . ignore him?"
She glanced down at the letter and back up at him and said, "I sincerely doubt there is any risk that she won't visit again. She seems to like you too. Severus said that he only mentioned you were vulnerable and hoped that she would keep that in mind. He insisted to me that he did not tell her what to do." A pair of pensioners sat down at the next table over, smiling in greeting while setting down their trays. "And not to be crass, but you are responsible for her schooling monies, so she cannot disappear from your life. Not that that's likely anyway."
Candide flipped the quill feather over her nose as she bent over the parchment in thought. "I'm not sure what else to say."
Harry shook his head. The cacophony of his emotions made it hard to think.
"How about: I had a lovely evening and hope you did as well. And despite Severus' concerns, I wish to get together again soon?" She studied Harry before saying, "It matters a bit whether you think Severus' concerns have any merit. Clearly Elizabeth thinks they do or we would not have reached this impasse."
Harry stared at her, trying to communicate with his gaze. Realizing that would not work, despite how well she had been speaking for him, he gestured for the quill. She fished a parchment scrap out of her handbag and Harry closed his eyes to make the letters come together. IM OK, he wrote.
"I think you are too. And you're still plenty young enough to bounce back if you aren't. Severus is feeling protective, I think." She added, "I hope you forgive him for handling that badly. He has insufficient practice at it, I'm certain."
Harry tapped the letter while nodding. Candide wrote out the rest, signed it for Harry with a surprisingly accurate copy of his own previous hand, and slipped it into an envelope. "The owls are at home," she said, half teasing.
Harry pushed his empty plastic container aside and stood up as he pocketed the letter.
Harry nodded. He felt better focused now with the letter to hold on to.
"You don't look any happier," she said, voice wistful.
She sounded so pained, he pulled her into a half hug.
She squeezed his arms as he released her and said, "Everything is good now, you just need to learn to see it."
Harry nodded, mostly because he understood her point of view on the matter, not because he agreed.
The road grew impenetrably dark as the glow of the restaurant faded behind them. The low dips had gathered a rolling fog. Harry slowed as the headlamps increasingly lit the air rather than the roadway. They passed an abandoned petrol station Harry was certain he had not seen on the way out. This made him acutely aware of the hands wrapped around his middle. He had behaved childishly, he realized, by leaving like he had. Also, he seemed to be lost. A wave of guilt about forcing Snape's hand, yet again, made his chest cave in.
Harry slowed the bike to a crawl, swerving through the low white air to balance and looking for a spot to pull off the road. At the top of a rise there was wider gravel area off to the side opposite a driveway. The bike wheels crunched and popped as he pulled off and braked. Darkness came on from inside him and he bent over the handlebars.
One of the hands around his midsection shifted to pat him on the shoulder. Two deep breaths later, Harry's mind cleared. Purpose made everything else fade. He pushed upright and pulled out his wand to use a Four Point Spell. But knowing north was slightly behind him and to the right did not help much. Snape always insisted Harry's true skills lied with ignoring the approved spells. Point me HOME, Harry incanted silently, forcing the words to arrange in his mind clear enough to write them down if he had need to.
His wand buzzed and turned, pointing off to the left. Feeling much better, Harry pocketed his wand, pulled the hands around his middle tighter and held them there with one hand while twisting the bike into the air with the other.
Airborne, home was closer than expected. Harry let the bike settle into the back garden, toed the kickstand down, and let the great bike rock to rest on it. Before Harry could twist to reach a hand back to help Candide off, Snape was there.
"A shorter journey than I feared you would try," he said.
Harry tugged off his helmet, put both away, and waved the tarp back over the bike. He turned to Snape waiting in the doorway, touched his lips and his heart, then ducked by him, still angry enough to not meet his gaze.
In his room, Harry picked up the gently swirling monitor and weighed it in his hand, imagining throwing it through the window. He tossed it in the bottom of the wardrobe instead and dropped his cloak and robe and jeans and shoes on top of it. Satisfied with that, his eyes fell on Rita Skeeter's camera, which hung on a hook against the back wall of the wardrobe. Harry grabbed that out and tossed it in the small trunk he had packed for tomorrow.
When a knock sounded on the bedroom door and it opened, Harry took the opportunity to reorganize his packing, ignoring the figure in the doorway.
"Interesting to see you inherited your temper from your father, not from any other source."
Harry paused with his hand on his socks. That comment almost got to him. But he let it slide by, finished neatly repacking, and closed the lid and latched it. He stood straight, feeling strong enough to let anything slide by.
"Despite your ignoring me, I sense you are feeling better. Which is also interesting. I am glad to see you still plan to travel tomorrow. That was all I wished to verify. Good night, Harry."
The door shut with a click. Harry stared at the swirled grain of the door and wondered at how stubbornly he was behaving. He was indeed reluctant to part company with his anger, given how much better it made him feel. He let it carry him into sleep, even, despite a niggling sense that it was a childish thing to do.
Harry awoke with a gasp and rolled awkwardly to fumble for the lamp before remembering his wand was under his pillow and would be an easier way to bring up the flame. The nightmare's emotion trailed off, and he let go of the bedcovers. Kali fluttered in her cage before folding her wings and bedding down again.
Harry bit his lips and thought over the dream. In it, his mother had been crying for him, yelling at his father when he tried to comfort her. The memory of the dream trickled down to nothing, leaving Harry staring at the wall, feeling dizzy. No one came to see what was in his dream; he had buried the monitor well enough to prevent that, apparently. Funny, he realized now he had not actually expected that tossing it in the wardrobe would keep it from working and he felt disappointed.
Harry rubbed his eyes. He was still behaving childishly, which badly needed to stop. He was even having dreams about his parents missing him, which was also not a good sign. As horrific as it seemed, he worried that Snape was dead right. Patience, Harry said to himself. Soon enough he would be healed and he would have this maze in his head mapped out. Then he would take care of all the things he damaged. But first, patience.