"Harry!" Hermione greeted him from the drawing room as he walked into the main hall in Shrewsthorpe.
Harry stopped in the doorway and looked in on Snape leaning back at his desk and Hermione with her papers on her lap. She said, "Headmistress discovered I was shirking my meetings with my teaching mentor, so I had to come here, even though it's mad at Hogwarts this time of year. And I thought it bad when we were students. But all we had to do was revise!"
She glanced at her notes. "We'll be finished in just a minute and then we can talk, okay?"
She sounded so eager, about everything, that Harry could not hold back a smile. He nodded then tilted his head. Candide must be out with the baby given the quiet state of the house. He waved Kali's cage door open and sorted through his post while his pet gnawed the corner of each envelope. There was a letter from Elizabeth at the bottom of the stack. He opened and wrinkled his brow at it while resisting the urge to pick at the bandages on his hand. In the drawing room, Snape was reviewing the best methods for monitoring examinations. Hermione's meetings would not take so long, Harry considered, if she would resist questioning everything.
Papers shuffled and Hermione came out of the drawing room. She held him at arms length and looked at him. "How are you?"
Snape sauntered out behind her. "Yes, Harry, how you are doing? Do tell."
Hermione frowned slightly at this and gestured that they should sit.
Harry put the letter from Elizabeth in his pocket and sank onto the couch, noticing then that he had pushed himself too hard at weightlifting.
"How was training today?" Snape asked from across the room with his back turned. Harry said nothing, loath to sound like a child in front of Hermione.
"Did training go well?" Hermione asked, still too eager.
"Oh, you got your hand treated!"
Snape's shoes scuffed the floor as he spun.
Hermione went on, "That's good. No reason not to." She took his normal left hand and rested their joined fingers on her leg. "I'm glad to see you are doing well. You look like you are feeling better. And how are your scars?" She rubbed his arm through his sleeve.
Harry pulled his sleeve up to show her they had not changed much. She seemed less recovered than himself from events and he wondered how he could remedy that.
His friend went on, "I wish I had more time. School will be over in three weeks, then I can visit more. I've missed seeing you, especially now that you're back to yourself and all. Vishnu sends me updates, but that's not the same."
Harry tried to say, "He does?" but stopped himself in time and let his surprised expression speak for him.
"He only does it because I insist. Just in case you need anything. Otherwise I won't know if you do, because you certainly won't ask for help." She laughed.
Harry tried to project a message at Snape for him to relay, but Snape turned away and went back to sorting through the mixture of Potions journals, accounting best practices manuals, and children's books that had accumulated on the long table that sat against the wall.
The conversation petered out, and Snape stepped over and sat across from them. Hermione asked him, "Is Harry catching up with his reading?"
Snape crossed his legs and sat back. "He does not have a chance of catching up. But we are trying our best."
She turned back to Harry. "You're sleeping well? No nightmares?" As she talked, she squeezed his hand.
Harry had not had many dreams lately.
"Harry?" Snape prompted. "I will answer "no" for him, then. I don't think he is."
Harry rolled his eyes at being discussed in the third person.
"You may join the conversation, anytime," Snape said.
Hermione gave the same sad frown she did earlier as her fingers squeezed down on Harry's. "I really must be off, I'm afraid." She stood and collected her leather folder and he walked her to the dining room to see her off.
When he returned, Snape said, "You were awfully quiet." He crossed his arms and watched Harry as he made his way to the other side table full of books. "Do not tell me you are intimidated by your precocious friend. Or shall I add: still." He waited a bit. "I am curious, Harry, why you held back. She is clearly quite concerned about you and it would contribute to her peace of mind to know your language skills were returning."
Harry ignored him in favor of looking through his stacks of books.
"Your language will not improve without practice." When Harry continued to ignore him, Snape said, "Well, give me something to read, then."
Harry pulled Elizabeth's letter from his pocket and considered it, there was something about it, it felt different from the others. He decided that he would prefer to have Candide read it to him and instead brought The Blocking Basics Book over.
"You are still intimidated by Ms. Granger," Snape stated. "Shall I expect that you have not grown out of any past emotional weaknesses in that case? Sans Voldemort, we are starting from scratch, you are telling me?"
Shooting Snape a disgruntled look, Harry made a gesture of opening and closing a book with his hands.
"But you refuse to even attempt to argue back. This is indeed great fun. I could accuse you of anything and you would take it in absolute silence." Despite his challengingly raised brow, he sat back and opened the book to where a battered envelope marked a page and began to read.
Harry woke that night with the damp bedclothes clinging to his skin, his stomach sour from potions, and with his hand throbbing. Painful spikes shot up the bones of his arm. He fumbled for the lamp and touched the poultice-stained bandage, sending a pressurized agony through the new flesh underneath.
He lay back and tried to ignore the pain, but his healing fingers were pulsing to the beat of his heart. The clock hands pointed at just after 2:00. With a huff, Harry slipped out of bed, scrubbing one sandy eye, then the other with his good hand. The room was warm so he skipped tugging on his dressing gown and, by the light of his wand, went around the balcony and tapped on the master bedroom door.
The door opened and Harry sheepishly held up his bandaged hand.
Snape squinted in the wand light and pulled the door closed behind him. "That is bothering you, I assume?"
Harry nodded, figuring he was too tired to manage any words.
While Harry strategically held his glowing wand out, Snape turned Harry's hand over one way then the other while Harry's pride kept him from pulling free at the pain this caused.
"I don't have the right poultices here and I suspect you were admonished not to touch the bandage, correct?"
At Harry's nod, Snape turned Harry's hand over again and said, "Let's see what we can do. Worst, we will take you to St. Mungo's."
Harry took his hand away and shook his head, not wanting to make that much trouble.
Snape ignored this. "We can work in the dining room where the light is good. Go down and wait there."
Harry sat in the end chair with his back to the dark, but still warm, hearth. While he waited, he laid his head on his pyjama-clad arm and let his neck go slack. The house was silent; no cars went by; not even the wind brushed the rafters. It made the house feel like it hung in limbo.
Harry closed his eyes and noticed that the clock in the hall still ticked.
The candelabra came up bright without warning. Snape sat down opposite Harry's injured hand and unrolled a towel full of things from the bathroom. He misted the wrappings with water then examined Harry's hand again, all business. Harry's chest began to ache. He wished he had not needed to disturb his guardian in the middle of the night like this.
"I suspect your fingers are growing faster than the Healer expected and the bandage is constricting them. Did you mention the muscle knitting potions you consumed recently in such copious quantities?" At Harry's dubious expression, Snape went on, "No, of course you did not."
Snape picked up a pair of scissors and with great care slit the bandage up the side of each finger then wound additional dampened gauze around to hold the old, poultice soaked bandage in place. The throbbing subsided to a tender ache, overshadowed by the tightness in Harry's chest.
"Sanks," Harry whispered, regretting waking his guardian, regretting many things. "Sorry," he added, finding it actually easier to talk when he was too tired to try too hard.
Snape straightened the first aid supplies on the towel and rolled it up. Before he could stand, Winky sparkled in with a tea tray laden with two steaming cups and a plate of sandwich triangles.
Snape pushed the rolled towel aside. "Apparently, Winky believes we are not finished here." He lifted a fruit scented cup of herbal tea off the tray and cradled it, watching Harry.
Without the distractions of the daytime, Harry's tired brain was flooding with bad memories. He scrubbed his face, trying in vain to reach in and touch the regret before it gnawed away his insides.
"You must be hungry," Snape said.
Harry's stomach had grumbled from the moment the tray arrived, but he was willfully ignoring it. His stomach felt soured anyway. Snape continued to watch him as he sipped from his tea cup. The steam rose around his face, softening his features.
Harry looked over the fresh, neat bandage in the copious light from the candelabra. Snape's care made Harry's memories all the more sharply bitter. His shoulder twitched at the memory of knocking Snape to the floor of the Dursley's house, as if he had been hit by a similar spell or as if he tried to reach back in time to stop himself.
"Why don't you eat a little?" Snape said.
Harry ignored this. After a time he said, "Sorry," yet again, his voice a harsh whisper that seemed to offend the stillness of the room. He knew some sounds were supposed to come out in front of that word. But "I'm" warped too much to force through his mouth.
"You are tired, Harry. Regret always wins when you are tired. Eat a bit and we will put you to bed."
These words made Harry's eyes burn. He rubbed his face as an excuse to wipe his eyes.
Snape made a regretful noise and grabbed Harry's left wrist and pulled his arm down.
"Shall I use an Imperius Curse on you to get you to eat? You are tired," he repeated with more force. "And most likely befuddled from the Ministry Healer's concoctions. I will not let you wallow in this state and injure your spirit."
He stood, tugging on Harry's arm. "Come. To sleep with you then, if you cannot eat."
Harry held firm, raising his eyes despite the heat threatening to spill over from them. He deserved this pain, really.
Snape sank back into onto the chair but held firm to Harry's wrist. "Harry, you are quite forgiven for everything that happened." He slid his hand down to grip Harry's good fingers, crushing them into a bundle. "I willingly endured what I did to reach this end. You have no reason to feel pain on my account. Candide as well, in case you were thinking of transferring your guilt there. She returned after I ordered her away. She absolutely believed that your good nature would win out if we showed you that we trusted it would."
Snape waited. Harry held his gaze, feeling the words flow through him, lancing the core of pain, even though he was reluctant to let it go.
Snape released his hand and picked up his tea cup to sit back. "If you do not eat something I will hold you back from training tomorrow as unfit for it."
Unlike the Imperio, this threat was most likely serious. Harry could not bear the thought of that much idleness in his current state of mind. He picked up a sandwich wedge and nibbled at it.
Snape fell into a conversational tone. "Your speech is improving, even already this evening. We will have to convince Candide to give up Arcadius to your care more often. I've noticed that she seems quite willing to get a break, but five minutes in, becomes impatient to have him returned. I am assuming it is his influence at work, magical or otherwise. You held him a total of thirty five minutes this evening, I believe."
Harry was too busy with his third sandwich wedge to do more than shrug one shoulder.
Between sips, Snape said, "Either way, it is opportune that you are speaking. Despite my assurance that I would not press another remedy upon you, I had been researching a rather knotty elixir involving phoenix tears. The elixir's formula, as complicated as it is, is nothing compared to the impossibility of getting a phoenix to cry on command."
Harry paused before picking up a fourth sandwich. Snape was being unusually talkative. Harry studied his guardian's tired and unexpectedly fond gaze as he went on in detail about the elixir. The food was making Harry's stomach relax, which also eased the chokehold from his emotions.
Snape went on, "Rather interesting potion construction, really, the elixir's other components are necessary simply to manage the side effects of drinking phoenix tears, which can be wildly unpredictable."
Finding Snape's rambling amusing, Harry humored him by spreading out his good hand and transforming it into just the last feathers of a great scarlet wing. He fluttered this a bit, then transformed it back. Snape stared thoughtfully at the spot where the wing had appeared before saying, "Something like that, yes."
Harry's faint smile faded as quickly as it had appeared.
"If you are finished eating, it is upstairs with you. No sulking." Snape stood. "Come."
As they went, Snape said, "You have your entire long life to make up for anything you may feel it necessary to make up for." They reached Harry's door. Snape gestured for Harry to enter, saying, "But there is absolutely no reason to concern yourself with making things up to me." Harry had paused to look at him, and Snape impatiently waved him into the room. "Go on."
Harry climbed under the covers, which had grown chilled. Snape turned the lamp down to a faint glow.
"I expect you cannot stomach sleeping potion on top of the rest you have most likely consumed today." At Harry's distasteful expression, Snape said, "I expected as much." He pulled out his wand and held it parallel to Harry's chest. "Close your eyes."
Harry turned sharply to him.
Snape's gaze narrowed. "You simper about, feeling guilty on my account, and you do not trust me?"
Harry adjusted his shoulders and closed his eyes.
After a half a minute, he opened them again. Snape's wand still hovered over him.
"Your eyes should be closed."
Harry obeyed, burdened enough by regrets that he wished for escape. He heard a long string of murmured Latin, and then sleep sucked him down, despite his curiosity about the spell.
After training the next day, Harry encountered Ron in the lift at the Ministry.
Ron gave him a punch on the arm. "Hey, Harry."
Harry rubbed the spot with his bandaged hand and Ron said, "You hurt your hand again?"
Harry held his hand up. He had a whole pinky finger now and the Healer had renewed the treatment to his ring finger. Unfortunately, Harry lacked a finger nail on his pinky and had bumped it against everything all day, making him somewhat regret its existence.
"Oh, I see, you are growing some in." Ron lifted the strap of his satchel and lowered his voice. "The goblins sent me to deliver some proposals to the Minister's assistant. The Wizengamot is making rule changes the bank doesn't much like. The goblins don't like coming to the Ministry for some reason, so they sent me. Isn't that great?"
The lift arrived at the Atrium and Harry gestured to imply that Ron should come home with him for a visit.
"Love to. Haven't seen the munchkin in a while. How's he doing?" Ron hit Harry again, apparently to express his own chagrin. "Sorry, I'll just wait and see how he's doing."
"Hey there, Mrs. S.," Ron said to Candide as they sauntered in. Ron sat straight initially, but gradually his knees parted and his shoulders sagged. After a pause he said to Harry, "I'm hoping for biscuits and butterbeer, how about you?"
Harry blinked at him until Winky sparkled in and delivered the very same to Ron.
"Oh, nothing, I suppose," Ron said between bites, glancing at Harry's empty hands. "Do you ever want anything, Harry?"
"He'd like to be able to do his readings on his own," Candide said. She dipped her quill and made a note in the Witch Weekly she had open. Arcadius grabbed his feet and gave a cry from his spot beside her.
"How's the little lamplighter?" Ron asked.
Candide smiled. "He's good."
Ron stood up to get a closer look. "Growing like a magic gourd in October. So's Molly Ruth, must be something in the water. Can I hold him?"
Without looking up, she replied, "You can try."
Ron sat beside Harry, with a rapidly distressing Arcadius in his arms. The lights came up brighter in a grand sweep around the room.
"I don't think he likes me," Ron said as the baby's face scrunched up and reddened.
Harry took him and settled him in the corner of his arm where he accepted his canary as a distraction.
Candide asked, "What's a five letter word for grizzled?" She pulled her head back. "These puzzles that swallow your answers and give you new clues if you're too slow are really tough. Why don't they have number puzzles instead of words? That would be much easier."
"Hoary," Ron said.
Snape wandered downstairs. "Ah, Mr. Weasley the youngest has paid us the honor of a visit." This was stated in a flat monotone.
"You'll be happy to know that your kid doesn't like me either," Ron gamely said.
Snape noticed the candles were lit and waved them all out again with one gesture.
"You must be getting good at that," Ron said, scooping up the canary that had just tumbled to the floor. As he pressed it to Arcadius' chest, he said, "What do you think, Harry? Lavender has been on my tail to get a flat." He picked up the canary again and this time held onto it while Arcadius played with it. "I was thinking maybe you and I could get a place?"
Harry shook his head, then said, "No."
"Drat," Ron said, rotating the canary back and forth and making chirping noises. Arcadius was watching him instead of the toy. The baby finally got a grip on the wing and ripped it from Ron's grasp. "He's going to be a Seeker."
"Thank you, no. If he is to play, it will be a skill position," Snape said as he waved a pile of toys aside to sit down. "Four down, corvus frugilegus, is rook," he said after a glance.
"Quidditch is too dangerous, no matter the position," Candide said as she dipped her quill again.
"This kid is too dangerous," Ron said with a laugh. "Firestarters are second only to Parseltongues at Hogwarts."
Harry expected Snape to correct him, but he did not. Snape glanced at the puzzle and said, "Fifteen across is incorrect."
"Voodoo didn't fit."
"It says Haitian, the spelling is V-O-D-O-U."
"Oh, good." She scratched away. "That means lurgy was correct."
"And 10 down is kip."
As she wrote, she tipped the magazine so he could no longer see it.
"Dad's really happy you're back in the department, you know," Ron said. "Can't stop talking about how happy he is. But he said your trainer was less so."
Snape raised his chin. "Is that the case, Harry?" When Harry shrugged, he said, "I may have to have a chat with the man."
"No," Harry said to his guardian.
"Harry's used to being bullied by teachers," Ron said. "Er . . ." His shoulders sagged again and he returned to playing with the baby. After a long gap he said, "Percy's trial is next week. Mum and Dad go quiet every time the topic comes up."
Snape said, "Out of seven, it would seem unreasonable to expect them all to turn out well."
Ron sat straight and put his hand to his breast. "You're saying I turned out well?" He smiled broadly at Harry while Snape rolled his eyes.
Ron fell quiet again. "'Mione seems happy. She sent me an owl last weekend. I understand even less of what she writes than I used to."
"She undoubtedly doesn't speak Trollish, though," Candide said.
"Zandali," Snape said.
Candide snapped her fingers and madly filled in elsewhere on the page.
"No, but I don't think she wants to, either," Ron said. "So it doesn't count in my favor."
Winky came in and announced dinner. Harry gestured that Ron should stay and Ron pushed eagerly to his feet, then stopped and said, "Wait, were you talking just now?"
"You were? I guess you were. Wait, were you?"
Harry nodded again.
Ron appeared puzzled. "But you aren't now?"
"The word, "yes" is beyond Harry's abilities," Snape said as he glided by to lead the way to the dining room. "Oddly enough."
"I thought it curious earlier that Winky was cooking for six," Snape said after the Floo flames settled back to yellow in Ron's wake.
Harry rubbed his new pinky finger which he had again bumped on the table edge.
"You don't have a fingernail, no wonder that hurts," Candide said. She handed Arcadius off to Snape, who had to hurriedly set his snifter down to accept him, and stepped just inside the hall to wave something from the bathroom. She returned with a tiny carnival glass bottle. "Hold out your hand."
"What is that?" Snape asked.
Harry laid his hand out on the table and got two drops where his fingernail should be. "It's called Glam Nails Now. Oh!" She pulled back. "You probably didn't need Formal Dining Length. But you can cut it."
Harry examined his nice long fingernail and tried to say "thanks" but his mouth moved without making a sound.
"You must practice speaking more. You need repetition to reinforce the newly formed connections in your mind. If it embarrasses you to be heard sounding like your brother here, do so when you are on your morning run or at night in your room. Your progress will be paltry otherwise." Snape lost his scolding attitude. "Your other bandage is looser today it appears. But do fetch me tonight if it pains you."
"'K," Harry said.
"I am going to Hogwarts for a few hours to assist Minerva this evening. Perhaps Candide can read to you, or you can invite one of your fellow apprentices over."
"I'll read to you, Harry."
Harry thanked her with a gesture.
"Repetition, Harry. Repetition," Snape said. "Even the Destroyer of Voldemort needs to practice at times."
Harry handed her the letter from Elizabeth as they settled in the living room. He stood waiting while Candide's eyes scanned it, then scanned it again more quickly. "Hm," she said, making Harry's chest tight. He wished it would not do that.
"Dear Harry, I have not seen anything in the newspapers about you lately and hope you are well. I thought it a good sign for a while, then began to worry. I almost came for a visit yesterday, even though my distance Apparition is dodgy still, just to check that you were all right. I hope you reply quickly so I can stop worrying."
Candide gave Harry a significant glance.
"Trinity Term certainly has dragged on. I think it's the weather getting so much nicer. I'd much rather be outside. I remember you picking me up on your motorbike and hope you are getting out to ride it. Or fly it."
"Cute smiley face. Look it has a little witch's hat on it." She turned the letter around for him to see. "Have a seat, Harry."
Harry did so, the little muscles in his arms and chest had gone taut. He had pledged to himself to not visit her unless he got an invitation from her and steeled himself to stick to that.
"I'm very much looking forward to the end of the term so I can see old friends again. I was glad to get away from everyone before, to see if I could start again on my own, but that's lost its allure. I expect to have more time later in June and hope we can see each other. I look forward to that, if you think you will be available. But right now I have to finish my reading for English Chivalry and the French War for my tutorial. I thought if I wrote you, I'd stop thinking about the summer so much."
"Very good sign, Harry." She carefully folded and held out the letter. "Shall we write her back before starting your readings?"
Arcadius gave a great yawn, one that made his fists vibrate.
"Looks like Archie will take a nap if I put him down. Let me just do that while you think of what you want to say."
Harry was not certain what he wanted to say, and was greatly relieved to know someone else would be doing the writing.
"Arthur wants you," Rodgers said without looking up when Harry stepped into the training room the following Monday.
Harry waved at his fellow trainees and went along down the corridor. In the Aurors' office, a debate was going on. "I get to be the evil wizard this time," Tonks was saying.
Blackpool said, "But Reggie said first dibs goes to whoever hasn't done it recently, and I've never done it."
"But will you be good enough? We expect to have a lot of applicants again this year."
Blackpool crossed her arms and made a face. "How good is good enough?"
Tonks transformed, growing upward so that her elbows stuck out higher up. Her back hunched, sending her neck forward. Her face stretched, grew lined and rough, shaded by spiky eyebrows. Even her neck became corded and spotted. She squinted at Blackpool and raised a ghastly hand to point at her nose. Blackpool's eyes went a bit wide, then she relaxed and said, "Okay, so, I can't look like that. Nor do I want to."
"There's your trouble," Shacklebolt said. "You have to want to come off scary enough for the test. These are Auror wannabes we are dealing with, blokes who get high on the idea of encountering malevolent evil."
Tonks dragged a black-nailed finger down Blackpool's cheek while the apprentice clearly resisted turning her head out of reach. "All right, you can have it."
Tonks grinned, which made her all the more menacing.
Harry moved on to Mr. Weasley's office. Mr. Weasley was in the corridor speaking with someone from Games. " . . . and four sickles on the Kestrals losing by more than 30 . . . not that gambling is allowed or anything . . ." he added as he spotted Harry approaching.
"No, no, who would watch half the games if one didn't have a flutter on them?" the man said with a wink. "Mr. Potter," he said as he departed.
"Have a seat, Harry. Sorry to pull you from training, but this is a bit more important."
Harry pressed his knees into the desk drawer and rocked back in the visitor's chair.
Mr. Weasley's desk clock stood up on little legs and said, "Time to gather rosebuds while ye may." Mr. Weasley pushed the clock back down on the desk. "It's Monday, Clockie. Now, where we? Oh yes. I want you to sit in on Percy's trial today and tomorrow, if it goes on that long, which I expect it might." As he spoke he picked up a broken quill and bent his head to study it. "I'll be stopping in throughout the day, as we always need representation beyond our testimony. But your name is going to come up and I want you there to provide evidence that you are at ease with how events turned out."
He waited for Harry to respond, so Harry nodded.
"You are at ease, right?"
Wanting to respond honestly, Harry hesitated simply nodding. He pulled out his slate and wrote sorry on it.
Mr. Weasley gave him a damp-eyed smile. "I realize that. And . . . it's a good sign that you are. Just don't let it consume you, all right?"
Harry nodded, unable to write Severus won't let me.
"Head on down now, then. Might as well get a good seat with the reporters since they can't interview you anyway."
Harry made his way to Courtroom Ten and was immediately waved through the metal-reinforced door by the guard. A handful of reporters were milling around as the Wizengamot assembled, dusting benches before sitting down, polishing glasses. Harry would have waved to McGonagall but she was not among them yet.
He found a seat halfway along on the short side of the gallery and stared at the prisoner's chair in the middle of the floor. It sat crooked in the light, studded with metal nails, the wood scored and stained, with the leather padding oddly pristine and satiny. The chair oozed curses like a stench as well as something akin to Radiance, except perhaps its opposite, some residue left behind by magical terror and panic.
"Harry!" Ginny said.
Harry grasped her offered hand warmly, jarred from his musings about whether he had left some of that residue himself.
"Can I sit with you?"
Harry gestured eagerly for her to do that, finding the prospect of his day improving, until red fingernails flashed in the corner of his eye. Skeeter waved playfully with a twisted expression.
"I had to bring her, she's our best crime reporter. Ignore her, if you would."
Ginny sat taking notes between bouts of peering about eagerly. Glances came Harry's way and whispers drifted over. Harry was glad to have Ginny there as a shield. Whenever she waved at one of her newly arrived colleagues they moved on to other conversations.
Everyone settled down and the assembly was banged to order. Ginny let her notebook slide down beside her as Percy was led in. He looked older, and surly in a way that did not involve acting. He stared off at the corner of the floor while the charges were read.
Percy's solicitor, a small, narrow man in a wrinkled brown suit, addressed the assemblage, spending about half the time addressing the gallery. Ginny finally came to herself and propped her notebook back where she could write on it.
Harry patted her arm.
"He tried to kill you," she whispered.
"'S okay," he whispered back, garnering a sharp look of surprise. Harry put his finger to his lips, indicating he wanted her to keep quiet about his talking.
Nothing interesting happened until Percy was questioned directly. He denied everything they accused him of, then, face flushed, he said, "I won't admit to any of these silly things you think I would bother with. Extortion, what a joke. But murder. That I'll admit to. I killed Alastor Moody because he wouldn't leave me bloody well alone. But you aren't accusing me of that because someone else got framed for it. Why don't you look into that?"
Harry held his reaction in check, but his skin suddenly felt thick and chilled. Beside him, Ginny also sat unnaturally still.
"May I have a moment with my client?" the solicitor asked.
"No, you may not," the presiding member said.
Someone took the seat on the other side of Harry. Harry glanced up to see his boss sitting there, face fixed straight ahead, barely blinking.
Percy's neck became a strained extension of his bound arms. "Really, the Aurors' office says they have a confession. I'm sure it's in that pile you have before you. But how did they get a confession from someone else when I did it? I would think you'd find that problematic."
A few members in the tiers began paging through the papers stacked before them. Fudge spoke up. "I obtained that confession, Mr. Weasley, or Black or whatever you are calling yourself today. It was perfectly legitimate."
Muttering went around the courtroom and the tension eased.
"Say you did commit this crime," McGonagall said, taking off her glasses to rub the bridge of her nose. "What was your motive?"
"He wouldn't leave me alone. He was a loony and he wouldn't leave off stalking me. All hours. Day. Night. I couldn't take it. I challenged him to a duel that if I won, he would leave me be."
"That can't be true," someone else said. "The examination indicates he was hit in the back."
McGonagall took this thread up. "So the question then becomes why are you lying now about this? What advantage does it have for you?"
"I did kill him, and I didn't hit him in the back" Percy said, jerking his arms against his bonds like one trying to gesture. "He got hit with a reflected spell off a mirror. I fought him fair and square."
An old voice from the top row squeaked, "If your opponent had a mirror behind him, sounds unfair to me."
"We both did, you desiccated old mushroom. Same as all of you: useless." He looked away at the corner of the floor again. "The Ministry is always like that. You have problems, you don't want to hear about them. Mind bogglingly maddening." He jerked like he had tried to toss his hands but could not.
The remainder of the session consisted of details of violence and mayhem rendered mundane through legal language.
As they broke for a long lunch, Mr. Weasley urged Harry to follow him, saying to Ginny. "I'll see you when the session resumes, Pumpkin."
"Pumpkin?" Skeeter said, stepping down the nearby aisle.
"Dad, really," Ginny said. She followed them out. "Plus, I want to come along. Are you getting lunch?"
"I'm going to have a word with Harry." He waved an Animagus revealing spell behind them as they went up the stairs.
"What about?" Ginny asked as she kept up.
"Ministry business, Pum- Miss Weasley."
Ginny put her notebook away and continued to follow to the lifts. Mr. Weasley moved as if to cut her off with the lift gate. "I do wish to talk to Harry alone."
She dropped her voice. "I just fear he's going to be honest with you." She glanced Harry's way, appearing concerned for him. "Even if he can't really talk."
Mr. Weasley stared at her, then stepped back while shaking his head. "I've done my best all my life, but it is never enough."
"Percy isn't your fault, dad."
"I wasn't referring to Percy."
He fell silent until they reached the tea room where he closed the door and checked that they were unobserved. Ginny crossed her arms. "So, what were you going to talk to Harry about?"
"I was going to ask him if he knew anything about Percy's allegations." He turned to Harry. "Do you, Harry?"
"See, he doesn't like to lie at all now," Ginny said.
"What do you know about this?" Mr. Weasley asked her, all business despite the way he leaned on the back of a chair.
"Not much really. And I'm not just trying to make up for Harry's honesty. I got mixed up in tricking Rita Skeeter into professionally embarrassing herself, but other things were going on."
"Well . . ." She glanced at Harry and Harry nodded. "Professor Snape really really really wanted to get Harry out of prison."
Mr. Weasley's head drooped suddenly, and Ginny added, voice rising, "It was killing him being in there. He was turning into Voldemort because he was in there, so close to the Death Eaters. You never believed that was happening. Someone had to do something."
Mr. Weasley raised his head, but did not look at either of them. "That's true, I assume, Harry?"
"He nodded "yes" dad."
"I saw." He pushed straight and paced to the corner, back to them. "Severus had something to do with this."
Harry shook his head.
"Harry is saying no dad," she said, sounding confused.
Harry shrugged helplessly. Mr. Weasley turned. "Severus did not frame the wizard we sent away for Moody's murder, even though it would have got you out of prison?"
Harry nodded because it was the only way to communicate that it wasn't his Severus.
"But someone framed the wizard we convicted?" When Harry nodded, Mr. Weasley swung his head side to side. "I saw that confession. Quite a piece of work. Severus is about the only man I can think of offhand who could accomplish that. But if it wasn't him, who did it?"
Harry gestured, then took out his slate and wrote gon.
"Gone has an E, Harry," Ginny said, prompting Harry to stare at the slate wondering where the E might fit in.
"The wizard who framed the man we have is gone?" When Harry nodded, Mr. Weasley paused before saying, "Do you think Severus would object to my questioning him about it, nevertheless?" When Harry shook his head, Mr. Weasley paced a bit. "I'll admit, Severus was making me very nervous there when things were darkest. He wasn't being straight with me."
"He was trying to protect Harry," Ginny said.
Mr. Weasley studied Harry and his voice fell softer. "And in the end he did well by that. But I think I will question him about it anyway. And try and figure out a way to balance the sentencing between our two perpetrators." He studied his daughter for a time. "I'm debating bringing you along as backup. You're going to be home, right Harry?" Half joking, he said, "I'll assume Severus won't make trouble if you and his wife are there."
Severus Snape lifted another tapestry-bundled scroll out of the bin by its carved handle and unrolled the edge to glance at the date: January 1525. He unrolled it farther to squint at the brown remains of the ink listing the agenda. Quidditch was not on it. He rolled it up and set it on McGonagall's desk to reach for the next. It rolled off the top of the high pyramid of similar scrolls and clattered to the floor. He had made no move to stop it.
As he began a pile on the floor, the headmaster paintings murmured complaints about the noise.
A familiar voice said, "Ah, Severus," and Snape rolled his eyes without turning around.
"Board meeting minutes is it? Anything I can possibly help with?"
"Armando already asked him," Phineas said. "Dratted living can't take any advice."
"What is it this time?" someone else asked.
"The board wants to make Quidditch safer next year. Weaken the spells on the equipment and such like. Limit the height they are playing at," Everard said, sounding bored.
"And what side are our current Headmaster and Deputy coming down on?" a nasally voice asked.
The portraits shuffled and fell still, leaning forward or angling their heads to hear better. Snape turned, "Quidditch exists to remind children that the world will pummel them if they don't pummel it first."
"Hear hear!" Phineas said.
After the chorus of pat arguments from the portraits quieted, Dumbledore asked, "Speaking of children, how are yours doing, Severus?"
Snape ignored this in favor of reading the minutes of a meeting from 1721 where the board debated opening a parallel Magical College on the other side of the lake.
"From what I overhear, Harry is doing extraordinarily well now," Dumbledore went on. "Quite free to be himself."
Snape kept reading and for a while he thought the painting had fallen back to sleep.
"He has his mother's heart you know."
The squirrelly writing became too tangled to read out of focus. Snape lowered the unwieldy scroll to the desk and pinned it there, staring at it.
"You won her heart in the end, and deserved to."
"Are you quite finished?" Snape asked.
Dumbledore fell silent just long enough for Snape to pick up the thread of the discussion from the scroll.
"You don't know how much it pained me to use you as I did. I often wished circumstances would have allowed for me to treat you as a son. You certainly needed it."
Snape let go of the scroll so that it leapt up and sprang out into a fatter roll. He finally turned and met the eyes some painter had approximated with excessive midnight blue speckled with silvery white. "What do you want, Albus?"
"I don't want anything any longer, Severus. I'm trying to give something back to you, some inner peace."
Snape propped his hand on the desk and leaned on it. "I am quite peaceful, thank you. Don't I sound it?"
Dumbledore's eyes crinkled. "Actually, you do. You cannot possibly mimic the strain of the worst years, no matter how hard you try."
"I have seen more of them than you realize, actually." He reached for the scroll and began to wind it back up. "We have been very lucky here."
There was a gap. "We have?"
"Yes. You cannot know, of course, nor do I feel like explaining. But we could easily all be dead, the magical world in much worse repair."
Snape waited a bit for a response before returning to his task. Halfway through the next scroll, Dumbledore said, "You did win what you most wished for in the end."
Snape grabbed up one of the black velvet cloths hanging on the coatrack and tossed it over Dumbledore's frame.
"Blasted thing," he muttered.
McGonagall stepped in, glanced at the covered painting, and said, "Sorry I'm so tardy for our tête à tête, Severus. Gertrude caught two of her students brewing one of those mind altering potions we've had to eradicate from the castle twice this year."
Snape rose up from bending over a scroll. "I would have dealt with that for you."
"No sense having you and Gertrude going at each other as well as at the students. I notice she still does not resist pulling your chain regarding Harry and dark magic." With a glance at the clock, she said, "Why don't you go home . . . it's 10:00 already. We can meet tomorrow." Before he could gather his cloak, she asked, "Did you find anything?"
Snape pointed at the scrolls propped on her chair. "The fourteen hundreds seem our best chance for precedent."
McGonagall lifted up a scroll. "I was hoping for something older than the board members themselves, but it will have to do."
Snape arrived home and as soon as he picked up the evening edition from the table the Floo flared again. Arthur Weasley ducked into the room and brushed back his soot-dusted hair. "Sorry to arrive unannounced. I put a trace on your Floo so I'd know when you returned home. If I could have a word with you? It's rather important."
Snape studied him a moment before gesturing that he should lead the way. Harry set Arcadius aside and stood as they entered the main hall.
"What's that about?" Candide asked when the door to the drawing room closed.
"Trouble," Harry murmured.
Candide snapped to alert. "Bad trouble?"
Harry made a noise in his throat.
"Maybe you should join them."
Arcadius was fussing and trying to topple over from where he had been propped against the cushion. Harry took him up again, thinking that in the past he might have sneaked in under his cloak to listen in. He tried not to regret being too good to do so now.
"Not going to?"
Harry shook his head.
In the drawing room, Snape stood at the mantelpiece rather than taking a seat behind the desk in an attempt to appear more receptive. "I assume this has to do with Harry and his training," he said. The words came out less level than he wished, as if he felt, personally, any loss of opportunity Harry might suffer. It certainly could be argued that Harry's handicap would preclude a career as an Auror.
Arthur pointed with the fingers of his interlocked hands and said, "Actually, it doesn't." He hesitated for a breath. "It has to do with a certain Durumulna lackey we have in our care who has been serving time for Alastor Moody's murder."
Icy acid seeped into Snape, freezing out the wobbly sentimentality of seconds before. Feeling disassociated, Snape prompted, "And?"
"I've been made aware that you had something to do with it. I know this fellow didn't do it. My son confessed today. Quite convincingly." Mr. Weasley looked away and stepped to the edge of the rug. He looked anywhere but at Snape, which was unfortunate as Snape badly wanted to see his thoughts.
He set sentimentality aside, from whence it vanished. He could still be made of stone when he wanted to be. "It was not me."
Mr. Weasley did not respond right away. He continued to stand staring up at the wall above the door. "I want to trust you Severus, but you've given me scant reason to over the last year or so.
"I did not do this. I will submit to Veritaserum if you wish it."
This made Mr. Weasley turn. "You were capable of resisting that before. I remember."
Snape tipped his head. "I am out of practice." They considered each other. "Harry was my only priority. I took and continue to take my duty to him very seriously."
"I got the sense that you would stop at nothing, Severus."
Snape stood taller. "I like to think that is the case." He let his stiff pose relax. "Arthur, If I was to recover Harry from the darkness consuming him, I had to keep him in reach."
"And away from the other Death Eaters in prison."
"I did not do it."
"But you could."
This time Snape paced once. "I would have to see the interview transcript to let you know the answer to that. I presume you wanted a confession out of the young man. That would make a world of difference in the ease of the task."
"Cornelius certainly wanted one." He held Snape's eyes. "So, I ask you, who did it?" When Snape did not respond, he asked, "You do know, correct?"
"If I put you under Veritaserum, I will ask you who it was."
"You will not understand the answer."
A knock sounded on the door and Harry leaned inside, eyes full of worried question.
"We're all right in here, Harry," Snape told him.
Harry gestured at Mr. Weasley, made a motion like his hand speaking, then pointed at Snape. Mr. Weasley said, "I think he's informing you that he's the one who told me you were involved."
Snape's brows went up.
"Ginny accused him of being too honest," Mr. Weasley added, mouth relaxing.
Snape reassessed Harry. He stood in the doorway with a diminutive curve to his shoulders and with his olivine eyes full of earnest chagrin. Snape said, "Far too honest. Hopefully you can outgrow that before you learn too many more words."