the Soul Goes Hungry
Genres: Angst & Romance
Prompt: Order of Merlin
Warnings: See Snarry Games post for warnings.
Word Count: 17,000
Disclaimer: The world of Harry Potter is the property of JKR et al, and sadly, not mine.
A/N: A huge thank you from the bottom of my heart to the snarry_games mods, my wonderful Wartime teammates, and most importantly to the four brilliant souls who let me invade their time and abduct their talents during the editing process: saladbats, joanwilder (who gets credit for suggesting the opening quote), synn, and loupgarou1750. It was an honour to work with all of you. *lots of love*
Summary: An innocent desire to escape the burden of his duties – if only for a moment – leads Harry down a beautiful and dangerous path.
When the Soul
"It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that." –Albus Dumbledore
"George! He's here!"
"– and none too soon, if you ask me," George said, his head appearing suddenly from behind the curtain that separated the main store from the back room. "Enjoy your journey?"
Harry shrugged. "Not bad."
George clicked his tongue in an unsettlingly Mrs Weasley-type way, and stepped up to Harry, welcoming him with a hearty handshake, and made quick work of Banishing both Harry's trunk and the empty owl cage up to the little flat above the shop.
"You'd better not let Mum see you in this state," he said, eyebrows raised. "She's likely to tie you to the cooker and feed you until there's colour back in those cheeks. You're paler than that vampire who came in the shop last night."
"Your aunt and uncle kept up the stellar hospitality, then?" Fred asked, tossing Harry something that looked like a Blood Pop.
Harry shrugged, nodded his thanks for the sweet, and gave a half-smile. "Same as always. At least I never have to go back again." As soon as he'd said it, he felt much better. His smile grew into something genuine. "It's good to see you two. Thanks for letting me stay."
"What's ours is yours, and all that. Oh, that's reminded me – " George flicked his wand at the door, and the flashing sign that had been broadcasting 'Open for mayhem', now twinkled with the words 'Sorry, this attraction is temporarily closed' in magenta neon.
"We're stepping out tonight – meeting of the Diagon Alley Bureau of Businesses. Won't be too long."
"Two hours at most."
"Oh, no problem," Harry said, feeling a bit relieved. As much as he always had a good laugh with Fred and George, a fortnight locked away with his own thoughts had made the snap and sparkle of the store -- and the Weasley twins themselves -- a case of too much too soon. "I think I'm just going to have an early night. Ron and Hermione – "
"Coming by after breakfast tomorrow, yeah, Ron sent an owl," Fred piped up, tossing George his matching hat. "Oh, and speaking of owls –"
"Hedwig's waiting for you to check in," George finished.
George pointed a freckled finger toward the curtain. "Stairs are through the back, your bed's the one with the Snitch quilt on, and help yourself to the fridge."
"All right, thanks. Have a good meeting."
"If you're not as sleepy as you look, take a poke around the shop," Fred offered. "We've added quite a few new items since your last visit. Go ahead and open anything that catches your fancy."
"But read the directions first; some things bite back, if you know what I mean," George said, wiggling his eyebrows. "Okay, Harry, we're off. Have fun."
And with a skip out the door, Fred and George disappeared around the corner, and out of sight, leaving Harry in the garish room, surrounded by the fruits of their inventive labour.
After a quick visit up in the flat with Hedwig, and a much needed snack, Harry wandered back downstairs, the offer to take an uninterrupted look around far too tempting to pass up.
The back room looked relatively the same, except the shelving space had doubled in size, and a few more cluttered and stained workbenches were set up in the middle of the room. Harry moved closer, careful not to knock anything over, and began reading the labels attached to the front of each stack of boxes in the first row: Touch-Me-Not Wands, Rebound Rubber Gloves, Shield Scarves, Warning Watches, and Shrieking Shirts – the last he resisted taking out of the box, although his curiosity nearly got the better of him.
He pushed the curtain aside and re-entered the front of the shop, pausing to liberate a Sour Sugar Quill from its sticky jar. Sucking on the tip, he inspected the new line of truth-telling sweets arrayed on the crowded counter top.
After nearly an hour of box-reading, experimenting, and ear-scratching a few of the Pygmy Puffs, he was contemplating going up to bed when a large pink box caught his attention: Pirate's Fancy - Daydream Charm.
Harry smiled to himself, remembering Hermione standing in his place, and complimenting Fred and George on the impressive magic of this same item almost a year ago to the day. The picture of the young man and swooning girl on a pirate ship had been updated so that the ocean's spray continually splashed over the bow, and the sound of seagulls could be heard when he raised the box close to his ear.
…realistic thirty-minute daydream…
He looked up at the clock on the wall, guessed that he had another hour before his hosts returned, and thought he could use a bit of a laugh. After all, he had been wondering about how 'virtually undetectable' the daydream would be from reality.
Making his decision, he found a comfortable chair in the back room, drew his wand, closed his eyes, and spoke the incantation written in bold on the side of the box.
When he opened his eyes a moment later, he was still sitting in the plushy red armchair, but it seemed to be rocking forward and backward gently, and something was very wrong with the walls. As he watched, wide-eyed and slightly panicked, the shelves melted, turned a deep brown colour, and reformed into bowed planks. Dark blobs rose up from the floor and slowly became large barrels ringed with rough, braided rope, and the call of sea birds replaced the creaking of the chair as Harry shifted his weight to stare at the new environment.
His brain took that moment to remind him about the Daydream Charm he'd just cast, and encouraged him to take a deep breath and enjoy himself. His heart slowed its harried pace as he settled deeper into the cushions and let his eyelids fall closed once more, allowing the rich smell of the wood hull to mix with the fresh sea air coming from somewhere above him.
He was curious to explore the decks above, but decided to take another long moment to indulge in the feeling of being cradled in the belly of a ship rolling over the waves. It was how he'd always dreamt a proper holiday would feel: unhurried and peaceful. Safe.
His eyes flew open as a shadow appeared. Someone swung down from the hatch directly overhead, landing solidly in front of Harry. He reached for his wand and came up empty. A quick glance down at his clothing provided the answer: he was wearing a low-cut, fitted cotton dress, and not much more. He pulled his legs up on the chair and looked quickly up at the intruder: the blond, handsome youth from the cover of the daydream box.
"What do we have here -- a stowaway?" he asked Harry, tossing his long hair back over his shoulder.
Harry's mind kept trying to remind him that none of it was real, but the swooping sensation he felt in his stomach when the young man smiled brightly at him felt real enough – and more than a little unsettling.
The young sailor leisurely lowered himself to a kneeling position in front of Harry's chair, and wore an expression of open honesty.
"I'm sorry if I scared you. I'm Palmer. What's your name?"
Harry's first instinct was to laugh, but, when Palmer touched his hand, two other options battled for dominance in his mind: run or punch the boy who was invading his personal space. He settled on reclaiming his hand and answering the question. "Er…Harry."
"Welcome aboard, Harry. Say, that's a beautiful name. Fancy a tour?"
It was well into August, and Harry had only managed to track down one possible tip-off connected with the whereabouts of Hufflepuff's cup, and that was mostly thanks to Hermione's gift for diving head-on into research.
Since Dumbledore's death, there had been something else weighing on his mind, something he felt was just as important as locating the remaining Horcruxes.
He knelt in front of the fireplace, thrust his head into the flames, and attempted a smile that he hoped would look genuine when Remus' face came into view.
"Any word on Snape or Malfoy?"
The answer was always the same, and yet he always asked.
The search for the remaining Horcruxes had produced very little success. Nearly six months had passed since Dumbledore's death and yet, for Harry, every day brought the depressing reminder that his mentor - the man who had always seemed to be able to conjure answers and solutions from thin air, and who was, without a doubt, the people's defender against both dark wizards and two-faced politicians – was never coming back.
At first, Harry'd had more than enough drive to pursue his task with his head held high, ready to take on the challenge, and his two best friends by his side, but as time went on, he came to depend more on the heady mix of revenge and justification, as well as the knowledge that it was his task, his duty, regardless of countless dead-ends and numerous disappointments.
He had also hoped that somewhere, his parents were proud of his determination.
And yet all of that combined couldn't fill the Albus-shaped void in his life, or dim the shimmering green light over the tower that appeared frequently in his nightmares. The bad dreams were always most disturbing after receiving one of Dumbledore's monthly posthumous deliveries – a condition of the old man's Last Will and Testament. As much as Harry was honoured that Dumbledore had included him at all, it made the loss even harder to bear and kept the wound in his heart from sealing over.
His inheritance confused Harry at first, and he had even asked Ron if there was yet another Wizarding custom he should have known about, but in the end, they decided to count it up as proof of Dumbledore's uniqueness – a fitting legacy of sorts.
The first token had been Dumbledore's wand, a great honour, and yet Harry had given it directly to McGonagall for safekeeping, never telling her the truth – that he couldn't stand to look at it or hold it. The second was a bottled, silvery memory that showed Dumbledore sharing ideas with a preening Fawkes about possible (but incorrect) locations of the remaining Horcruxes. The third gift was a picture of Harry's parents sitting in one of the Quidditch stands near the end of their seventh year, apparently debating over some issue, but clearly focused intently on each other.
October and November's gifts were one offering in two parts: two enormous bookshelves, and seemingly every book on the Dark Arts Albus had in his possession. The arrival of the bookcases forced Harry to cast his first 'Obliviate' when the second shelf stubbornly refused to resize, breaking through the ceiling of his small rented room, and frightening the woman who lived upstairs.
Harry thought December's delivery would arrive with his other Christmas gifts, but, with the holiday still a week away, the appearance of a flat, dusty and very beaten-up box took him a little by surprise.
Thick smoke stung Harry's lungs, bringing tears to his eyes. His body ached, and Snape's final, venomous words rattled around in his head, fuelling his anger, draining his strength. Before following Malfoy into the dark, Snape's sharp gaze connected with his own…
"I thought you liked eggnog?" Ginny said, from somewhere behind him.
"What? Yeah, I do," he said distractedly, suddenly noticing the cup floating in front of him. He took a polite sip, and tried to remember how long he'd been sitting on the sofa, staring into the fire.
"You all right, Harry?"
"Yeah, just thinking."
"What you need is a proper holiday," Charlie offered, entering the room and taking the opposite end of the couch. "From what Ron's been telling us –"
"And from what we can all see with our own eyes—" George added, strolling in with a bowl of nuts, Fred at his side.
"You're a shambles, mate," Charlie finished, wearing an understanding expression.
Harry felt his cheeks heat with embarrassment and, for the umpteenth time that evening, he regretted talking himself out of charming away the dark circles under his eyes. "I don't have time for a holiday. Can you imagine what the Prophet would say?"
"Good point," Ginny said, sitting on the floor at Charlie's feet. "But still," she added quietly. "You might want to try Dreamless Sleep or some sort of—"
"I'm all right, really. We're just getting close to something big right now, and I haven't been able to put it out of my mind. Don't worry, I'll rest soon. Besides, Ron and Hermione have been—"
"Sleeping," Fred said with a mock-glare. "Doesn't look like that's a concept you've mastered quite yet."
Harry didn't know what kind of response to give, but was saved the trouble when George provided a distraction by stealing Ginny's eggnog. With a flick of her wand, a seal appeared over the edge of the glass, preventing George from drinking. She also sent him a nasty look that Harry assumed had nothing to do with the stolen drink.
"Wish I could still fly, though," Harry said, spotting a broom handle sticking out of the crowded hall cupboard.
"Yeah, me too," everyone echoed.
"I thought the ban was supposed to be lifted by now," said Ginny, polishing off her re-claimed eggnog.
"I can't see the Ministry going on with it much past January," Charlie said. "If they do, all the Professional Quidditch players will have to find new homes, won't they?"
Fred made a face as if he'd swallowed something sour and began imitating the Ministry Spokeswoman who had made the announcement over the wireless three months ago. "The Ministry has concluded that broom travel is no longer safe!"
"I wish she'd say the same about cabbage," George said with a wink. Everyone laughed.
"And handling dragon dung," Charlie added.
Fred thrust a finger into the air. "And proper table manners."
Harry chuckled and stood up for a stretch. His eye caught sight of a broken Muggle compass on a nearby shelf and an idea began to form in his mind. He made a mental note to speak to Fred and George about it once there were fewer ears in the room.
An hour later, everyone started yawning and heading toward their bedrooms. Harry made his goodnight rounds, but held back, waiting until he was alone with Fred and George, who were making ready to Floo back to their shop for the night.
"Can I talk to you two for a minute?"
"Certainly, Harry," they chimed in unison.
"I've just had a thought; how do your Daydream Charms work? Instead of a ship or whatever else you've got, could you change the incantation around to make it seem like we're flying, or playing Quidditch?"
"Brilliant, Harry. We've been trying to market a line of the charms for blokes, but weren't sure if they'd take off, so to speak, but Quidditch Daydreams would sell like Chocolate Frogs."
"Well, I just thought, that way, I could still go flying and clear my mind without having to leave my room."
"Brilliant. Best not to take your mind away for too long, but for flying you'll be fine with a time frame of…what, George? An hour?"
George nodded. "Hour and a quarter, tops. The transitions are easier to handle in smaller increments."
"That, and if you leave your body on its own too long, you run the risk of missing important messages from places like your bladder. There's a long and embarrassing story about that, but for now let's just say that I woke up after two hours to soiled trousers and a headache that no potion would fix up. Not my best day, I assure you."
"Should put that on the box," joked Harry, with a smile.
Fred laughed and thumped him on the shoulder. "Why don't you stay with us tonight, and we'll teach you how to cast the alterations? We'll be back in the morning to see what Father Christmas has coughed up. What say you?"
It felt better then he'd imagined – it felt real.
The sun shone pleasantly, not too hot, and the gusty breezes ruffled his hair as he sliced and rolled through a perfect sky.
He pushed into a dive, swooping low over the tree tops, stirring up a few birds and surprising a family of Bowtruckles.
He had considered inventing a few people to fly with, or a whole team to run part of a game, but, as he banked towards the soft-looking clouds, he knew he'd made the right decision. He was alone and free to take his mind away from Voldemort, Snape, Malfoy, Horcruxes, and the pressure of keeping Ron and Hermione away from tasks that were becoming increasingly dangerous.
He was finally able to investigate - without anyone's cautionary, well-meant warnings --speeds that exceeded what he could achieve in reality. He shifted his weight forward, pushing against nature's forces and blinked as the wind bit at his wet eyes.
Harry tried to delay his return to the real world as long as possible, but, when the sky began to blur and his broom descended of its own volition, he knew it was inevitable.
"Oh, Harry, I'm glad you're back, Lupin wanted to know if…AHH!" She leapt back from the Floo as Harry stepped through, Nagini draped limply over his shoulders.
"Is she dead?" Hermione asked, her voice high.
Harry nodded wearily.
"And was she a – like Dumbledore thought?"
"Are you all right?"
He nodded again.
"Was she sent to attack you?" Hermione asked, her voice creeping higher with each question.
"No. She was in the Malfoy gardens. I think she was waiting for Draco to turn up."
"But he hasn't – no one's seen him in nearly a year."
"I know." Harry rubbed at his tired eyes. "Maybe Voldemort hasn't either, which makes me think he's still holed up somewhere with Snape."
"Harry, I know why you…" she paused and took a deep breath. "Not to make light of what happened, but Snape and Malfoy might be dead for all we know. I think our time might be better spent focused on the remaining Horcruxes."
Harry tried to hold on to the anger and annoyance that bubbled just under the surface, but some of it escaped -- the bits that he felt were right and justified. He pulled the giant snake off his shoulders and it landed with a pathetic 'thump' at Hermione's feet.
"What the hell do you call this, Hermione?"
"Harry, I didn't mean… it was just a coincidence that she was…" She narrowed her eyes and changed tactics. "What were you doing at Malfoy's?"
Harry ignored her question. "Don't you think that if Snape was capable of killing Dumbledore, his Master would trust him enough to tell him the location of at least some of the Horcruxes? Maybe he's been sent away to protect them. Did you think of that? This isn't some revenge mission I'm on, Hermione; Snape's missing, and I have a feeling he's hiding for a reason!"
"But we have no proof of…" she stopped as Harry turned and headed for the Floo once more. "Please, let's talk about this. Ron will be back after his meeting with…"
"No! I'm going after Snape – Malfoy too, if I can find him, and I'm going alone, like I should have in the first place."
Hermione tried to speak, but Harry raised his chin in a gesture he'd seen Snape use with much success, and she fell quiet again. He was beginning to lose his nerve, but something kept him from taking back his words.
He compromised by lowering his voice to a gentler tone. "Tell Slughorn he can have at the snake if he wants, while it's still fresh. I've already looked at her memories, but there's nothing we can use. It looks like she was constantly Obliviated."
He looked up just as the flames began to spin. Hermione was silently crying, and it was his fault. His rage crawled back into the shadows, and left him with only guilt and regret, but it was too late to go back – he was already whirling toward his own fireplace.
The cost of killing Nagini, as well as destroying another fraction of Voldemort's soul, was higher than Harry had expected.
Three Muggle hospitals had been closed due to an outbreak of a new strain of the flesh-eating virus; Hogsmeade had been set ablaze in the dead of night by fire curses that could only be contained once the flames had consumed their target; and seven people – three wizards, three witches, and one child – were dumped unceremoniously out of the Minister's Floo connection and onto the floor of his own office, all dead.
It was too much, and Harry knew he was to blame. No one else was supposed to get hurt. His plan had been solid: leave school, find the Horcruxes, kill Voldemort – fulfill the prophecy. But so much time had gone by, and nothing was working out the way it should have.
He ran his fingers over his best friends' unopened letters. He missed them, but one grim thought of their faces appearing in the Prophet under the heading of deceased or missing was enough to pull his hand back, and confirm that his decision to continue on alone was the right one.
He needed to come up with a better plan. He needed to find the missing pieces.
But first, he needed to clear his mind.
The farm sat halfway up on a rise, surrounded by multi-coloured hills that exceeded what Harry had envisioned for this daydream. The smell of timber from the newly-raised barn mingled with the tang of apple blossoms and sailed on the breeze to where Harry stood in tall grasses beside a modest stone cottage.
He wandered up to a thatched structure with no walls, where a very pretty girl with plaited brown hair was milking goats, and a tall, fit young man with richly tanned skin was chopping firewood.
They greeted Harry like a long lost friend, and the three of them spent the next few hours laughing, preparing the collected milk to be made into cheese, and adding a substantial amount of newly chopped wood to the pile.
It felt incredible to be using his body again for something active, something positive, even if it was all just a product of his imagination. The sun felt real enough on his bare chest, and his arms burned with exertion, as if he were really doing the churning and chopping.
The smiles came easily, as did the colour that crept up his neck and the good almost-pain that swirled around his lower abdomen when the farm boy fixed his dark eyes on Harry, and suggested that they go swimming in the fresh forest pool.
It was an easy decision.
Harry jumped in. The invigorating water swirled around, over and under him, supporting, pulling, and embracing his rapidly cooling skin with nothing to get in the way. He broke the surface, feeling lighter and happier than he had in a very long time. When the other young man swung out on a rope above him and plunged naked into the pool, whooping at the top of his lungs and splashing the surprised girl on the bank, Harry actually laughed out loud.
He had never stayed so long in a daydream before, nearly three hours, and yet he could feel none of the side effects George had warned him about. The only negative aspect was the tinge of regret he felt as the forest around him began to melt and the happy voices faded.
As the dark room started to reform around him once more, he called out suddenly, asking for their names. He heard a faint 'Nora and Seth', before the scene collapsed completely, bringing him back to a sprawled position in his chair, feeling on the edge of vomiting.
Along with his roiling stomach, his eyes itched from a lack of blinking, and his head throbbed steadily. He was thankful that the sun had set while he'd been dreaming; if he'd had to deal with the setting sun at eye-level, it would have made the situation even more uncomfortable than it already was.
He swore at himself for foolishly presuming that the time limit rules, and the repercussions of breaking them, wouldn't apply to him.
Warring with the suffering in his head was an inappropriate but intriguing swelling below his belt, and the almost overwhelming demand from his aching heart, that he ignore the recommended safety precautions and go back right away. He longed to strip off his clothes again and dive into that perfect water, spend the night under swaying branches, bookended by two warm bodies, and escape – just a little while longer – from the impossible future that lay ahead.
He reached for his wand, his mind made up, but before the words of the spell could leave his mouth, his stomach pitched. By the time his vomiting eased, he was too sore and tired to think about casting anything more complicated than a cleaning charm.
Dear Mr Potter,
It has come to our attention that you have not opened the portion of your inheritance from the late Albus Dumbledore delivered to you last December.
The purpose of this missive is to bring to light a clause in the Will which I may have neglected to mention to you upon our first meeting. It concerns the fact that your next 'gift' cannot be sent until the previous parcel has been opened.
I know this must be a demanding time for you, Mr Potter, but it is the responsibility of our office to carry out the last wishes of one of the greatest wizards of our time. Your assistance would be greatly appreciated, especially since the items in question do not seem to enjoy being delayed for months at a time, and are becoming quite unruly.
Harry came to on the Indian rug in his room, face down, and stiff. He lifted his pounding head and looked up awkwardly, trying to judge the distance from the mattress to the floor, and to puzzle out how he'd fallen off the bed in the first place. He gave it up as a bad job, and decided rolling over on his back was about as much as he was capable of at that moment. But as soon as the cool air met the damp front of his trousers, he became aware of the uncomfortable stickiness.
The memories of his most recent daydream washed over him, distracting his mind from reality once more.
This time Nora had been busily sewing in the cottage parlour when Harry arrived, so he and Seth left her to her work, and went to explore the new barn.
Up in the hayloft, they talked for hours about trivial things, and Harry was surprised at how refreshing it was to have an entire conversation with someone who knew nothing of war, curse scars, or Voldemort. As the sun was setting beyond the large open window, they chewed on bits of straw, and simply enjoyed each other's company.
This new friendship was everything he'd had with Ron, and yet he felt completely different when he was alone with Seth. Harry found every excuse he could to casually touch the other boy's work-roughened hands, and study his dark eyes up close, amazed by the sunset's reflection there.
He tried to take his time, interpret what he was feeling, but all he could concentrate on were his physical reactions: his sweaty palms, his belly doing backflips, and how difficult it was to breathe normally.
He was going mad.
He knew there must be something very wrong with the fact that his body wanted to do things with Seth that boys only did with girls, but, as they laughed together, Harry reminded himself that this was his new world, his dream, and if he wanted something – anything- to happen here, it would.
He was in control.
Seth was halfway through a story about collecting eggs when Harry closed his eyes, leant forward, and kissed him clumsily.
There were no punches thrown, no harsh words, just Seth's soft gasp of surprise, and then his hands on Harry's shoulders, pushing him down onto the hay. His own shock surfaced momentarily before he felt Seth's weight settle over him, a knee strategically placed in the dusty straw between Harry's slightly parted legs. Dusky eyes stared down at him with wonder.
Nora's faint call from the cottage drifted in through the window, but they ignored it. Seth blew aside the hair covering Harry's ear and whispered, "This is what you want, Harry?"
A thread of doubt suddenly pushed past Harry's desire and demanded to be heard. He mentally kicked himself for never thinking anything out properly. "I – I don't know. I haven't, with another bloke, but I wanted - I want to try – with you."
Seth smiled. A warm smile that sent a dart of arousal directly to the part of Harry's body crying out for attention.
"And you?" he asked in a whisper.
Seth answered with another kiss, bolder this time, moving his fingers to Harry's shirt buttons, and lowering his hips until there was contact.
Harry's mind surrendered, shut off, and let his body take over, answering the pressure with an experimental roll of his hips.
They both swore from the surge of pleasure. Harry had never felt more alive.
Nora was still calling, although her voice sounded higher, less distant – annoyed.
"Harry? Are you all right? I was worried when we hadn't heard - what are you doing on the floor?" Hermione's voice slammed into his consciousness. He winced and lifted a shaky hand to close the Floo connection, embarrassed at the state of his body, his wet trousers, and angry at the interruption.
She continued to stare out at him from the flames, looking as if she now had several more questions she wanted to ask.
The exertion had made him nauseous, but he wanted to be alone more than he cared about sicking up on the rug again.
"Accio wand," he ordered.
"I'm calling a Healer," she said.
"No, I'm fine," he lied. "Just drank too much last night. I'll call you in a few hours."
"It's past midnight, Harry, are you sure…"
"Tomorrow, then. Goodnight." he said, rolling to the side, his back to her.
He could feel her eyes lingering, but sleep was already coming to claim his exhausted mind and body. He pulled at the edge of the bed coverings until they fell down over him. The fire's glow faded from the room as he concentrated on returning his mind to the hay loft.
The Wizarding community asks: Where is Harry Potter?
With the sun setting on the one year anniversary of Albus Dumbledore's death, and an alarming increase of disquieting events (see page 5: Dark Mark appears over St Mungo's), citizens are calling for action, and demanding to know why the Chosen One is silent, and, as of yet, largely unseen in the fight against You Know Who.
A concerned mother, one Janice Duggins of Castle Combe, told this reporter that a 'strongly worded letter' has been sent on behalf of her family and several others to Gawain Robards, head of the Auror Division, concerning the apparent lack of headway against the rising violence, stating: "Something needs to be done. If the Aurors can't help us, and Harry Potter is unwilling to undertake his duty, then I believe we – as a threatened people – need to take the initiative, confront the Ministry head on, and take further measures to protect ourselves."
The Minister for Magic urges the community to remain calm, and have faith in the Magical Law Enforcement system. In a statement delivered to the Prophet this morning, the Minister writes: "Do not lose heart. Adjustments are being made, and it will only be a matter of time before this unpleasantness is behind us. We should not divide our numbers with acts of sedition, but instead, work together to address our fears and grievances." (cont. page two)
Harry fought waking with all his might, but the sound of a steady metallic tapping became too insistent to ignore. At first, he allowed himself to relax, believing he was listening to the steady rhythm of Seth swinging the axe, but, as the deep echo of his fantasy transformed into a high-pitched clattering noise, he reluctantly opened his eyes, and became increasingly aware that Hedwig was responsible for the racket, pounding her beak repeatedly against the locked door of her cage.
"How'd you get back in there? I just let you out," he said, pulling himself groggily to his knees to deal with the problem.
He was shocked to see her cage was a mess: shredded parchment, small downy feathers, and several days worth of droppings cluttered the bottom. What next caught Harry's eye made his chest tight and uncomfortable - her water dish was empty.
"I'm sorry, girl – I don't know what happened." He set his finger over the lock. "Alohomora."
The lock rattled slightly, and then fell still. Hedwig flapped around impatiently in the confined space, and took her cacophony to a new level, squawking louder, and snapping her beak at the air.
In his urgency to quiet and free her, Harry fumbled his wand, knocking it under the bed. Back in his grip again, he pointed it at the lock.
It clicked open without a fuss. Hedwig made quick work of getting past him, spotted the open window, and was gone – her reproachful cries fading into the twilight.
He sank back onto his feet, feeling numb, guilty – confused.
He curled up on the rug to think, but rolled away automatically when his cheek met with something wet and sour-smelling. He reached for the lamp and took a good look around the room for the first time.
It was worse than Hedwig's cage.
A glance in the mirror told him that the state of the room was the least of his worries. Even in the fading light, his reflection was grim: his clothes hung awkwardly, as if they had been draped hastily on a broken mannequin, his skin was deathly pale under the filth that covered it, and he didn't recognize his own sunken eyes.
He dropped to his knees and tried to remember how long he'd been asleep, and before that, how long he'd spent wrapped in Seth's arms on the cool forest moss, leisurely kissing and experimenting with different ways to make each other moan. The memories spun together, and the effort of untangling his days from his dreams became a losing battle.
There was a mountain of post on the floor under the open window. He crawled over to inspect the parcels and letters he couldn't remember receiving. A bright red ribbon stuck out from a small crushed box at the base of the pile. He threaded a thin finger through the silk loop and pulled.
Something shiny – smooth and round on one edge, and jagged on the other - dangled from the ribbon of what he now registered was some sort of broken medallion. Portions of the embossed writing stood out from the surface. He wondered if it had somehow been damaged in delivery. Harry squinted, moving his hand closer to the lamp, but reading it was like listening to half of a conversation: nothing really made sense, but considering that only one person sent him monthly gifts, he had a solid guess as to whom it belonged, and what it was. A gust from the window spun the medal around.
He touched his trembling finger to the shiny surface.
By the time his brain warned him that something felt wrong, the sensation of a hook tugging at his centre was already pulling him forward. His eyes rolled up with the force of magic, and cold dread wrapped around his heart.
Harry released a moan from deep in his chest and gave up trying to support his head on his own, letting the floor do his work for him. He kept his eyes shut tight, and focused his attention on Seth's strong hands as they ran over his shoulders, down his arms to his fingertips, lower to his outer thighs, knees, ankles and ended with a finger outlining every sock-covered toe.
"This is new. I like it," Harry mumbled, shifting into the touch as the hands paused momentarily before continuing their journey upward along his inner thighs, light and quick, as if searching for something, rather than taking their time to explore. "Slower, Seth, please – feels so good."
The fingers hesitated at his hips, bypassed where Harry wanted them most, but then pressed flat against his lower abdomen -- wringing a hungry moan from his mouth -- and slid slowly upwards, bunching the shirt as they pushed. The fingers spread out at the base of his throat, and continued climbing, reading his face with each fingertip that danced over his chin, mouth, nose, ears, fringe, and finally forehead, ending with tracing a very familiar shape.
The finger froze, but Harry reached up with his mouth to capture the thumb he could sense hovering just above his lips. He hummed around it, "Mmm…now let me touch you."
The hand jerked away as if Harry had bitten down.
As he fought to open his heavy eyelids, a blurry shape spun away from him, and disappeared into the darkness. Harry's hands came up, reaching for Seth, and yet somehow he knew he was already gone – or had never been there in the first place. He blinked a few times, straining his eyes, willing them to adjust faster to the near total darkness of the room. A room that wasn't his.
He heard the rustle of fabric somewhere across the room. "Who's there?" Harry called out, panic rising by the second.
A cold, deep laugh was the only answer.
Reality rushed back to his mind with frightening force.
Harry frantically searched for the medallion, until his fingers closed over the smooth ribbon, hoping desperately it would send him back home the way the Triwizard Cup had done. He closed his hand around the cold metal.
"Incarcerous," a man's low, calm voice commanded.
The coarse rope scratched Harry's skin as it slid over and around his body. The flailing ends slithered behind him, latched onto something solid, and tugged until Harry was sailing backward.
The impact with the wall forced the air from his lungs, but there was still enough left to cry out when something above him creaked for a moment, and then crashed down on his head.
Just before the darkness swallowed him, Harry whispered an apology to the air as he slid toward the floor, silently praying his words and regret would reach the hearts of everyone he had failed.
Harry came to slowly, grimacing at the burning pain that streamed from the top of his head, through his neck and down to his back. He held on to his tears, but not his bitter thoughts. He was thankful to be alive, but a darker side of him secretly wished whatever it was that hit him on the head, had finished the job.
It would have been easier that way. He didn't have the energy or the will to do much more than lie there and wait to die.
The bonds were still in place, a clear indication that torture was probably next on the agenda. He took a deep breath and tried to prepare himself.
"Where's your wand, Potter?"
There was no mistaking the voice now – Snape.
Fury replaced fear faster than Harry's fogged mind was ready for. His thoughts spun with endless revenge-filled scenarios for giving Snape what he rightly deserved. He shivered as year-old memories and echoes of the white-hot whip curse Snape had thrown at him the last time they met, flared across his face and chest.
And yet as quickly as the rage had built, it fled from him along with the last of his strength – replaced by pitiful surrender.
He remembered how much trouble 'Alohomora' had recently given him, and knew that even if he had the chance to duel the man, he was unlikely to pose much of a challenge, considering the shape he was in.
He'd already lost a round to the owl cage only hours ago.
Unless Snape wanted a fist fight, there wasn't much Harry had to offer in the way of a proper punishment –not that he felt he had the strength for any type of physical exertion either.
Time away from reality had consumed Harry's mind and body – there was no denying that – but it had allowed him to analyse his motives and emotions from a detached, safe distance. Every time his mouth wanted to accuse Snape of the crime on the tower, his mind would cruelly supply him with a green-tinged memory, complete with foolish boy promises, blood offerings, and a crystal goblet.
Harry hadn't said the final words that sent Albus over the parapet, but what Harry himself had done, even on Dumbledore's orders, was just as unforgivable.
He still loathed Snape, and wasn't thrilled about being held prisoner, but Harry comforted himself with the hope that, if he was lucky, Snape might kill him quickly before Voldemort got the chance.
The alternative was something he didn't want to consider.
"What, no clever words? No stolen curses flung at my back? I'm disappointed, Potter."
Harry swallowed the bitter words that wanted to escape, saving them for later, and settled on, "Where am I?"
"On the floor."
Harry choked out a dark laugh, wincing when his head throbbed in protest.
"Have you faced the Dark Lord?" Snape asked, ignoring Harry's question.
"Not yet. Just you," Harry said dryly, turning his head to ease the pressure from the worst of the tender areas. There was another rustle of fabric.
"Then explain your wretched condition."
Harry took a deep breath, fed up with having his question ignored. "Tell me where I am!"
Snape was silent for a moment before answering. "House of the discarded. Storeroom for the damaged."
Not knowing what to make of that answer, Harry asked his next question. "What do you want?"
"My sanctuary returned."
Harry swore under his breath. "Then why did you bring me here?"
"I did no such thing, I assure you," Snape said sharply. He took a few more steps toward Harry, and although the familiar dark robes came into view with help from the slices of moonlight streaming in from the window above, his face was still hidden in shadows. "You didn't Apparate?"
"No, I didn't." Harry huffed at the irony, imagining the mess he would have made of himself had he tried to Apparate from his room to an unknown location in his present condition. He glanced down, opened his hand, and watched the useless Portkey glitter faintly in the soft light, wondering briefly why Snape hadn't asked him about it.
He groaned and tried to sit up a bit further. Snape jumped back and raised the wand that had been lowered slightly only a few moments before.
Harry's eyes took another brief scan over the room. He could see more detail, now that he was becoming accustomed to picking out the emerging shapes among the greys and blacks.
On his left there was a wooden table with two chairs pushed in close against it; some sort of half-wall, or tall counter loomed on the right. Behind Snape, he could see a few coals glowing through the sooty window of what looked like an old black-iron stove, and the outline of a dark sofa to the left of that. He searched for a door, but couldn't separate one shadow from another in the remaining corners.
He looked at Snape's wand, and saw it was still pointing at him, but the angle had changed to target the wall a few inches above his head.
"Your aim's off."
He didn't know why he had said it, or why Snape responded with a dramatic spin away, that reminded him of many a weekend and evening spent in detention, but the wand was no longer an issue, so Harry took another breath and tried to make himself more comfortable – a tricky task on an uneven wooden floor, when all his thundering head wanted was a soft pillow and a few healing charms.
An ear-splitting clatter and more than a few curse-words from Snape startled him.
He shifted around until he had a clear view under one of the chairs. An iron rod with a sharp end rolled toward him and stopped a safe distance away, but other objects were still clanking around. Harry wasn't positive, but the thing in front of him looked like one of the rods Hagrid used to poke at his cooking fire.
The amusing thought occurred to him that Snape must have walked into the fire-side tools in his hurry to avoid his questions. He suddenly wondered why Snape was shuffling around in the dark, when it was obvious that he needed to watch were he was going.
"Why are the lights out?" he asked, trying to keep the amusement from this tone.
"Because I have no use for them and no desire to entertain anyone else. Incendio!"
The dying embers exploded within the small stove. A roaring fire soon warmed the air, and cast enough light through the window to illuminate most of the lower half of the room.
Harry's head gave another painful throb, and he wished he could at least feel his wound, to figure out how much damage had been done. "Are you going to kill me?" he asked, after Snape had Summoned the rods back to their place by the stove.
"Can you loosen these ropes while you decide?" Harry asked, trying to sound polite enough to get what he wanted.
Harry swore under his breath. "Fine. Can you at least heal my head?"
In a rush of warm air, Snape was suddenly crouching in front of him. Thin hands fisted Harry's shirt and yanked him bodily forward until they were face to face. Harry's eyes fought to focus on the features that were too close, but he had no trouble feeling the anger that poured from Snape like a waterfall.
"Since your presence here is still unexplained, I want you disadvantaged a while longer." Snape punctuated his utterance with a firm shake. Harry's head snapped back.
Mind spinning, Harry lifted up again and gasped when the moonlight showed him a clear view of his former professor's face. Everything was the same except the eyes – they were cloudy, unfocused – dead.
He spent the remaining night hours on the floor in a fitful sleep, his dreams filled with the image of people he loved jumping off a cliff, one by one, but not before they turned to him and said, "Thank you, Harry."
Harry awoke to the full light of the sun warming his face. His hands instantly came up to shield his eyes from the too-bright greeting. It was a moment later that he realised that they were no longer bound, and a few more seconds before he noticed the softness of the sofa cushions under him, the freshness of clean clothes, and the lack of pain in his head. He sat up and looked around for Snape, but he wasn't in the room.
The house was a lot friendlier in the light of morning, and seemed almost cozy, until Harry's mind reminded him that it was essentially a prison. He decided to familiarise himself with it anyway.
He looked over to the table he had been lying beside only a few hours ago. It appeared normal enough. The counter that had looked monstrous the night before now looked like a normal cheery divider that hid a small corner kitchen from the rest of the dining area. The wall directly opposite his position on the sofa was covered from floor to ceiling with bookcases packed with books and a few knick-knacks.
An image from the night before flashed in his mind's eye, causing him to stand suddenly – Snape. Blind.
He spun around and noticed two doors on the wall behind the sofa. One was mostly closed, but the other was completely open and displayed two cream-coloured towels – obviously the bathroom, Harry told himself. He had disregarded the cloak rack that stood between the two rooms on first glance, but something told him to take a closer look.
Harry took a few steps toward the door, and came to the only obvious conclusion – Malfoy was in that room. Harry moved closer and saw, through the narrow opening, Snape bent low over a single bed.
Harry jumped when the man suddenly spoke, "It's rude to linger at doors, but I wouldn't expect anything more of you."
"That's Malfoy, isn't it?" Harry said tightly, trying to stay calm.
Snape simply stood and stepped back from the bed. His eyes looked even worse in the light – as if they had been frozen in place and painted over with frost.
Harry pulled his gaze away to look over at the figure in the bed. He'd been right, it was Draco, but he was asleep, or unconscious. He was certainly still enough. Draco looked fairly healthy and clean, but there was something wrong with his expression; it was almost the same wistful, dreamy look that Ron had worn, just before the brain tendrils began to do their damage in the Department of Mysteries.
"What's wrong with him?" Harry asked, keeping his voice low, as if he were in a room at St Mungo's.
"His mind is gone. He tried to keep his thoughts from the Dark Lord; he failed, and was punished."
A pang of something Harry couldn't identify tugged at his chest. He was suddenly too tired to stand. He took a seat in the chair at the foot of Malfoy's bed and stared at the straw-coloured fringe that had grown long enough to lie limply against Draco's cheek. He looked so much like his father, except for the deceptively innocent smile that pulled at the corners of his thin lips.
"Does he sleep all the time?"
Snape reached out beside him until his fingers brushed the edge of the other, slightly larger bed. He sat, staring blankly forward. "What do you care, Potter?"
"I…" he stuttered, keeping his eyes on Malfoy, all of the questions he wanted to ask the other boy swimming around in his mind. "Well, will he get better?"
He'd never thought he would have any sympathy for someone who had nearly killed Ron, belittled Hermione at every turn, invited Death Eaters into the school, held Dumbledore at wand-point, and was a nasty piece of work in general, and yet, as he studied Draco, he finally saw what Albus had seen on the tower – a damaged young man.
"Voldemort should have just killed him, then." The words had slipped from Harry's mouth before he could stop them.
"At last, something we agree on," Snape said darkly, touching Malfoy's forehead for a brief moment, before reaching down and puling the covers up over the pale shoulders.
Harry didn't know what to say, so he stood and hovered uncertainly in the doorway.
"Go to the sofa and wait for me there. We're going to have a discussion."
As Harry left the room, he couldn't help but feel like he had, once again, been given detention.
Harry wrapped his arms around a pillow and tried to ignore his rumbling stomach. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten, and it was doubtful that Snape was going to offer him a meal to go along with their impending chat, so he turned his mind to something that was always a pleasant distraction – Seth feeding him fresh greens sprinkled with crumbles of the goat cheese Nora had made. He moaned at the memory of sticky fingers and fresh-ground pepper.
He was startled out of his fantasy by shuffling steps.
Snape trailed his hand over the arm of the sofa as he rounded it. He then took two steps backward and Summoned a chair; it immediately slid out from the table, and sailed across the floor until the edge of the seat brushed lightly against the back of his knees. He sat down and crossed his legs.
Harry stared at him, not wanting to be the one to start the conversation, but, as he watched in silence, Snape's words from the night before, suddenly made a lot more sense: House of the discarded. Storeroom for the damaged.
Three of them in the house, all impaired in one way or another.
All of a sudden, he knew what he wanted to ask. "How do you get by?"
Snape didn't seem bothered by the frank inquiry. "I ask, and the house provides. I assume it was something of Albus' doing."
It wasn't the answer he wanted, but he wasn't sure how hard to press his luck with this strangely subdued Snape.
"That's not what I meant."
"Then ask plainly," came Snape's flat response.
"How – how do you find the will to – to live?"
"I don't. The house reads intent. If I ask for anything with the goal of injuring myself, the item will not appear. If I try to cause self-harm with an existing object, it disappears. I imagine if I asked for something to end Draco's pointless existence, it would be equally unhelpful."
Something occurred to Harry then. He took another quick look around the room; it was the same as before: table, kitchen, bookcases, stove, sofa, loo, coat tree, bedroom… "There's no door to get outside."
"I once entertained thoughts of walking into the river," Snape said calmly, as if it were an ordinary, everyday thought. "The door hasn't appeared since."
Harry sank back against the cushions. "Oh," was all that came out.
"So you can give up on getting your fix here, Potter," Snape said, his tone taking on its cold bite once more.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry shot back.
The chair creaked as Snape adjusted his position, setting both feet on the floor. "You've been tortured by someone. Since we've established it wasn't at the hands of the Dark Lord, I can only assume you've done this to yourself."
Harry looked into the blank eyes again and scoffed before turning his gaze to the stove. "How would you know?"
"I do have other senses, Potter," he said, leaning forward slightly. "You arrived in a state of filth of which I thought only Mundungus Fletcher capable. You smelled of sweat, vomit and semen, and you haven't shaved in weeks, perhaps months." Harry raised a hand unconsciously to his rough chin as Snape barrelled on. "You are grossly underweight, your fingernails are beyond an acceptable length, and your mind is damaged enough to convince you that I was someone called Seth."
Harry felt a chill run over him as the blood drained from his face. "Oh, God. That was you – your hands, and I…"
A cold smile played over the man's lips. "Indeed. Ready to name your poison?"
Harry buried his face in his hands, but to his horror, the words "Daydream Charm" still escaped.
"Ah," was all Snape said for a few agonising minutes, before adding, "A surprisingly creative form of self-destruction. I'm impressed, Potter." Harry waited for the reprimand that was sure to follow, but it was less sharp than he expected. "You, no doubt, ignored the restrictions of the spell and continued to test its limits – even after you noticed your failing health?"
There was no reason for it, but Harry found himself answering truthfully, and more surprisingly confessing most of his story little by little.
He began with the first touch of the colourful box in Fred and George's shop, and ended with Hedwig's furious screeching over her locked cage. Somehow, he managed to describe the pull of dream-flying, the peace of perfect days spent in the country, and the joy of guilt-free friendships -- without actually mentioning the sexual exploration to which he had willingly fallen victim.
"And this Seth – a creation of your mind, or is he another poison altogether?"
It was meant to get a reaction, and Harry was disappointed with himself for falling into the trap as heat flared up his chest, and ended at the tips of his ears. He took small comfort in the fact that at least Snape couldn't see his predicament. What he hadn't counted on was the man's improved hearing.
"Your breathing has changed."
"He's none of your business," Harry said, feeling foolish for how young he sounded and how pitiful and embarrassing it was to feel protective of an imaginary – friend? Boyfriend? Neither word sounded right to Harry's scrambled thoughts.
His stomach roared suddenly, and Snape's head tilted in amusement.
Anxious to turn the spotlight away from himself, Harry decided to ask something that had been bothering him since his arrival, knowing full well he was just as likely to get hexed as get the distraction he was looking for.
He braced himself. "What happened to your eyes?"
Snape stood abruptly. The chair toppled over. With a wave of his hand it righted itself and returned to its spot under the table. His towering stance was still intimidating, even though his eyes could no longer frighten.
"Feed yourself. I trust you can find the kitchen?"
And with that, Snape strode to the bedroom door, arm rising to touch it seconds before a collision that never happened. Instead, he slipped into the room without another word, and Harry was left alone with his growling belly, and a twinge of guilt for his tactlessness.
It had taken Harry a few frustrating minutes to puzzle out the bare kitchen, until he remembered something Snape had mentioned earlier about asking the house for whatever he needed. Harry hoped it would work something like the Room of Requirement, as he focused on the dining table and whispered, "Um, chicken stew, toast and a glass of cold water – please."
When the meal appeared, he mentally kicked himself for not adding 'for one' to his order. There was a single glass of water, but in contrast was enough stew and toast to feed the entire Weasley clan, and then some.
He ate as much as his neglected body would tolerate, but it wasn't enough to make even a small dent in the ocean of food. He tried to send some of it back to wherever it had come from, but he either didn't have the words right, or the house was insulted by his waste, and was intent on teaching him a lesson.
An hour later, he was standing at the head of the table, still pleading with the house to clear up the now cold leftovers - quickly reaching the end of his polite vocabulary - when Snape entered the main room, crossing the distance with practiced ease – until he crashed into Harry's abandoned chair.
Harry would have laughed at some of the creative curse words, had he not been terrified of being 'Crucioed' for his oversight. He missed his wand.
"Sit," Snape growled, taking Harry's chair for himself.
"Sorry about the…"
"I think it's time we discussed your arrival."
Harry pulled the broken medal over his head and dropped it nosily on the table in front of Snape. "Portkey. You can touch it – it doesn't work anymore."
Harry had worn the useless thing, hoping it would reactivate in its own time, but since nothing had happened in however long he'd been in the house with Snape, he reasoned it might be damaged, or perhaps it was the Wizarding equivalent of a one-way ticket.
He watched Snape slide his hand along the rough wood until his fingers encountered the ribbon, still warm from Harry's skin. The small half-rounded bit of metal was only in Snape's hand for a second at most when he jerked it back as if burned.
"Where did you get this?"
"Dumbledore, I think."
"What do you mean, you think?"
Harry told him about Albus' Will, and the items that were delivered at random every month.
"I got the box just before Christmas, but I didn't open it until…" he trailed off, as another thought bumped the others out of the way. "Why would he send me here?" he asked, more to himself than Snape. Then he looked up at the man sitting across from him. "How did you know this was here – this house? Did he tell you about it before he was – before he died?"
Snape took a piece of toast as he stood, and calmly left the room.
The rest of the food vanished, leaving Harry with nothing except a mind full of unanswered questions.
As the sun painted the sky with deep oranges and moody reds, Harry cleaned up the mess his stomach had made of his rejected dinner. He vowed to take it slower with meals, sticking with bland and boring until his body was ready for more.
He'd waited for Snape to re-emerge from the bedroom, but he remained alone, even as he half-heartedly checked the windows for any chance of escape. When the sunset melted into deep blue, and finally to a starless flat black, Harry asked the house for a lantern and a blanket.
Since he had slept a good potion of the day away, he wasn't quite ready to sleep. What he ached for was a few hours away, a comforting conversation in the hayloft, or something more, as Seth's rough hand pulled him under the skirts of a draping willow.
What he settled on, was a book: Huckleberry Finn -- the first spine his fingers had brushed upon closer inspection of the shelves.
It was nearly as good as spending time with Seth in the tall summer grasses, except with the book there was – more. More depth, more recklessness - but the same quest for freedom, the same running. Running to. Running from.
He stretched out on the sofa, trying not to think about how frantic Hermione and Ron would be when they saw the state of his room, and found his abandoned wand.
He fell asleep with the lantern burning low, and the still-open book riding the rise and fall of his chest.
Harry lay down on the sun-warmed planks, content to bask in the sounds of the water murmuring under the raft, the birds singing in the rushes, and Seth's soft breathing beside him.
He didn't want to break the spell, but he had to ask: "How far does this river go?"
Warm, lazy fingers trailed around Harry's navel. "All the way to the end."
Harry laughed. "You don't know?"
Seth propped himself up on an elbow and looked at Harry with a sober expression. "I know what you know."
"Tell me something I don't," Harry said softly, pulling Seth in for a kiss.
The other boy stopped him with a hand over Harry's heart. "It's not your fault. None of it – not even Sirius."
Shocked by the sudden collision of his cold reality and summer-warm fantasy, Harry pushed Seth away with all his strength. The boy's back hit the planks with so much force, his body broke through the hastily-made raft, and plunged into the murky water below.
Harry fell in after him, kicking, reaching, trying to swim, but his progress was slowed by the debris wrapping around his arms and legs. Seth sank out of view, and Harry's heart and chest burned with so much pain that a scream broke free.
Water replaced air as he fought for breath, fought to keep his head above water, but it was a losing battle. The raft tugged at his thrashing limbs as it descended. Bits of twigs and rope floated in front of his eyes as his body slowly gave in to the downward draw of the river.
Suddenly a shadow drifted towards him – and then a face. Salvation! He tried once more to fight the pull of darkness as the features became clearer.
Long, dark hair danced and swirled around a face that was a collection of sharp lines, steep summits and deep valleys. It was a face that showed as much as it hid.
Harry knew that face.
Snape, not Seth.
Warm hands cupped his cheeks, pulling him forward until Snape's mouth was sealed over his. An instant later, Harry's lungs filled with breath once more, and his body reanimated.
He felt lighter, felt the bonds fall away, freeing him to move again. But instead of swimming, he curled around his saviour, unwilling to return alone. No longer worried about drowning, he felt at peace to stay entwined for as long as they could both hold their breaths.
Snape's hands grabbed Harry painfully under his arms, tugging and kicking until they broke the surface of the water, coughing and sputtering.
Harry stood in knee-deep water and stared at Snape, who was inexplicably sitting on the shore, already dry and drumming his fingers impatiently on his knees.
"Well, Potter, what are you waiting for?"
An image of Seth made Harry's heart pound with panic once again. He frantically searched the water around him for the body, but stopped when he slowly realised he was no longer standing in the river. He straightened up and took in his surroundings: a picturesque small pond, complete with ducks, croaking toads, and polished stepping stones.
Snape threw him his wand. He caught it without looking.
Harry leapt up off the couch when a bone-chilling scream shattered the silence of the house. He glanced around in the darkness for something to use as a weapon, until his foggy, half-asleep mind registered that he was still alone in the main room.
He was climbing back onto his makeshift bed, convinced he'd either caused the scream – or imagined it – when he heard it again.
Standing in front of the door, he suddenly felt foolish. What could he do, how could he possibly help – and did he want to? Well, I'm awake now, anyway, he thought. He pushed on the wood, and it swung inwards.
There were no windows, but shapes were easy enough to make out with a little help from the light thrown by the stove behind him. Everything was the same as it had been before, except for the strange sight of Snape in a long, white nightshirt that seemed as out of place as Filch in a ball gown. He was on his knees, speaking in low tones to a whimpering Draco.
The strong scent of something pepperminty met Harry as he stepped forward. He didn't think he had made a sound, but Snape knew he was there.
"This is no concern of yours, Potter," he snapped. His voice sounded sleep-roughened and dry.
Harry had already taken a step back, but then Malfoy cried out again and began to thrash around on the bed. "Can I…help?"
Snape grunted and something metal fell to the floor - maybe a spoon.
"Only if you can dispense of the Dark Lord in the next few minutes. However, we all know how diligent you…"
"It's the Mark, isn't it?"
The shadows swelled around him. Harry's back hit the door, pinned at his shoulders by the furious man now inches from his face.
"You think he's pleased that Draco and I have slipped through his fingers? He does not forget, not even when the rest of the world counted us among the dead months ago."
"Not me," Harry whispered, heart banging against Snape's chest.
"What did you say?" The grip loosened slightly.
"I never gave up looking for either of you."
"Looking for or hunting for?"
Harry swallowed in answer, but Snape seemed to take his silence as admission. His grip tightened again as Harry tried to explain himself. "The Horcruxes – I was hoping…"
"To torture the information from us – get your taste of dark revenge before you won your prize for the light. Don't think for one moment, Potter, that I…"
"No! I'm not…you're right, I hated you, both of you then, but I would never…"
"Sectum…sempra," Snape hissed, stirring the hair covering Harry's ear.
The word brought with it a mess of memories: blood, water, pale skin, frightened eyes, someone screaming – Myrtle. No.
Malfoy again. Snape ignored him this time.
"Mistake – I didn't know," Harry choked out, unaware that he was sliding toward the floor.
"What are you waiting for?" Snape shouted, backing up. "You'll never have a better target than a blind man and an invalid. It's been months, surely you can cast wandless. Someone of your special status must have acquired a few more tricks to distract the Dark Lord."
"No. I don't…I needed. My magic…I can't!"
Snape's overwhelming presence was gone without warning, and Harry was left with the rushing blood in his ears and Draco's soft sniffling from across room.
"You can't think of a reason why it would fail?" Snape asked calmly.
Snape knew. Harry's legs stopped supporting him. He slid the rest of the way to the cold floor.
Another memory surfaced, one that seemed a lifetime ago: Tonks, her hands wrapped around a mug, greeting him blandly with her sad eyes, absently pushing mousy-brown hair out of her eyes.
"I did this to myself," Harry said in a whisper, feeling increasingly foolish for not realising it sooner.
"Likely. Considering your condition upon arrival, one might assume your mind was taking steps to break with reality. Coupled with depression or variations on…"
"Then my magic isn't gone, it's just - unwell?"
Snape sighed, conjured a flannel, and laid it gently on Draco's forehead. The whimpering quieted. Snape moved to his own bed, lifted the covers, and slid his legs between the sheets.
Voldemort must have given it a rest for the night, Harry thought to himself, sensing the relief washing over the room.
"There are several correct answers, and a great deal more to a wizard than simply the physical, mental and magical."
"Obviously," Harry said quickly. "But how do I get it back, my magic – make it well?"
"Feed the soul," Snape answered, lying down, and pulling the blankets up to his chest.
Harry scrambled to his knees. "What? I tried!"
"Keep your voice down."
"Sorry. I mean that's why I started using the charms in the first place. I thought I could use them to refocus, give my mind a rest. I thought the dreams would…"
"Therein lies your problem, Potter."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that dreams are only ever dreams."
Harry sat back on his heels and remembered the nights he'd spent sitting in front of the Mirror of Erised. "You sound like…" he trailed off, unable to say the name.
With nothing more to be said, Harry stood, took one more look at the now-peaceful Draco, and turned to go, but something near Snape's side of the room caught the light, and Harry's attention – a thin chain draped around Snape's neck. Harry's gaze fell lower, to where the man's hand was clutching the fabric covering his chest, fingering something hidden from Harry by the nightshirt.
He returned to the sofa with still more unanswered questions, and a troubling ache behind his scar as he reached up and brushed the broken Order of Merlin resting against his own chest.
The days stretched on and settled into a strange but comfortable sameness that sometimes strayed into the yard of boredom, peppered with explosive conversations with Snape over unimportant things, or the random noises from Draco's bed.
Harry kept making feeble attempts at escape, occasionally testing the boundaries of the house's generosity and intelligence.
The house never lost a round.
He used his time, in between countless naps, to write letters to his friends. Not having access to an owl or any way to send post, the letter writing was simply for him alone - a way to begin sorting out his mind, and a means for communicating his feelings without fear of judgement or censorship.
Snape never asked what he was up to, and Harry was secretly grateful for the gesture, deliberate or not.
The first letter he wrote was to Albus: Twenty-five pages of grief, regret, anger, fond memories, questions and gratitude. Harry stuffed the stove with the lot and burned them that evening in his own version of closure.
Next was a series of shorter letters to Hermione, Ron, Fred, George, Ginny and Remus. Harry had fallen asleep after finishing the last one, but when he awoke to the bright sun the next morning, they were gone.
After a short and fruitless exchange of words with Snape through the bedroom door, Harry had no other choice than to narrow the letter thief down to the two remaining suspects: Draco and the house, but neither one of them offered up any information.
As Harry's appetite and health improved, Snape joined him for meals, and eventually they began spending their evenings together in the main room. It took a few nights of adjustment before they could settle on safe topics for discussion, but it was the house that presented a solution to a problem they had largely ignored.
Snape was a blind man in a house full of books, and Harry had nothing but time on his hands. A ritual was established, and an odd relationship was formed.
After their meal, Snape would settle himself on the end of the sofa nearest the stove, with a ready cup of tea, and Summon one book at random to fly to Harry, who would read from his place on the opposite end of the couch. Sometimes they would finish a book in one evening, but most nights, Harry would read a handful of chapters before one or the other's head would begin to nod.
The collection of reading material confused Harry at first, a mixture of classic fantasies, fairy tales and folklore standing alongside Muggle romances, travel journals, and several texts on gravity. Part of him wondered if Albus had made a mistake by sending him all the dark texts, and leaving Snape and Malfoy with a cache primarily made up of fiction.
He had smiled to himself, imagining Draco engrossed in Peter Pan and Wendy, looking up from time to time to complain about the misrepresentation of Fairies and inquiring about whether or not 'dust' from any magical creature would cause someone to fly.
The smile vanished as he realised that Draco would probably never get a chance to do more than make random noises and spit back the nourishing potions Snape force-fed him four times a day, for the rest of his life.
One evening, Draco's giggles carried out into the main room, causing Harry to look up from his hot chocolate.
"If there was a way to get Malfoy to St Mungo's, could they do anything for him?"
"Unless he's been granted a pardon while you've been on holiday," Snape answered, pausing for Harry's mumbled response, "then it is unlikely the Healers would be able to do much for him in the few moments before he was transferred to Azkaban."
Harry set down his cup. "They wouldn't – not in his condition."
"I doubt the Ministry has changed its policies since I've taken up residence here," he said, standing.
"No, but if he wasn't in danger of being arrested, and he was able to get care from –"
Snape exhaled loudly. "In that unlikely scenario, with a highly trained Legilimens, perhaps."
"But you're a –"
"Eye contact, Potter."
Harry slumped back against the sofa. "Oh, right. Sorry."
Snape walked to the shelf, pulled a book at random, and offered it up to Harry. Once he was sitting again on the unoccupied end of the sofa, he asked, "What are we reading tonight?"
Harry laughed and felt the tension in the room lift a fraction as he read the title to himself. When Snape made a remark about his rudeness, he finally answered: "The Bible."
Snape gave his own short laugh, and Harry's smile grew wider.
"Albus never fails to surprise."
"You've read it?"
"Years ago – I was interested in the sections that pertained to slavery, service to one's master, and Jubilee."
Harry fanned through the thin pages without direction. "What's Jubilee?"
"My personal fool's dream," Snape answered.
Harry set down the book between them, hugged his knees to his chest, and said, "Tell me."
"An old tradition, first mentioned in the book of Leviticus. One year out of fifty was set aside as a time of celebration and, most importantly, universal pardon."
"Pardon from what – sins?"
"From whatever bound you, be it sin, debt, or slavery."
"The slaves were free to go?"
Snape nodded. "Yes. Every man an equal and every debt forgiven."
Harry ran his hand over the leather cover in awe. "I wonder if it actually worked."
Snape refilled his tea, and wrapped his long fingers around the cup. "To avoid disappointment, I prefer to think of it as fiction."
Harry flipped through the pages of parchment, not believing the proof in his own hands.
He tried to remember how long it had been since his own had vanished – weeks, maybe months. And in all that time there was no indication that…
He riffled through the stack again until he recognized Remus' clean script
…beginning to worry when you stopped checking in, but at least now we know not to assume the worst. The Ministry is, understandably, in a state of chaos, but that is the fault of its own leadership, and not because of anything you have done. They have made up their own theories about what's happened to you, and for now, we've agreed to let them think what they like until you are well enough to return to us. Our concern is for you, Harry, they can wait.
He turned to the next sheet, his hands shaking.
…and Hermione's been lashing us about not warning you enough about the side-effects, but we told her that you're a big lad now, and your choices are your own. But we do feel half-responsible for not realising what was up. Take care of yourself, mate. Things aren't the same without your ugly gob around.
The next one was ten pages long, and included a clipping from the Prophet – a search notice with his name in bold at the top.
Harry, I've been sick with worry since you disappeared. I thought you left because of what I said the day you killed Nagini. Please forgive me for making you upset. I knew something was bothering you before that, but I had no idea that you felt so responsible. Well, I knew you felt that way about a few things, but I didn't know how serious it was. I wish I had known how to help you then. I've already had a word with Fred and George about pulling that Daydream product from their shelves, but they…
Ron's was next.
It's not the same without you here, Harry, but I don't want you to rush back if you need more time. Hermione says I'm rubbish at communicating my feelings, but I know you'll know what I'm trying to say. Whenever you're well, we'll be ready, mate.
P.S. Hedwig's fine. We've been keeping an eye her since she turned up at the Burrow with your wand.
Without waiting for permission, tears welled up and spilled down his cheeks as he read letter after letter, emotion from their words – their forgiveness – washing over him, and causing the parchment to fall from his trembling hands.
"What's happened?" Snape asked, standing behind Harry, placing a solid hand on his shoulder.
Harry felt the words slip from his lips.
He read some of the letters aloud, listening to himself speak as if he were another participant. The distance helped to control the tone of his voice, but he couldn't stop the tears from blurring his vision.
He grounded himself to the gentle pressure of the hand cupping his shoulder, using the presence of it to remind him that it was all real, and not another illusion of his own creation.
Later that evening, as he sat beside Snape and practiced his magic with growing success, he realised that all the tears must have been taking up the room needed for other things – like hope.
"Hold him still," Snape ordered as Harry rushed into the room, awakened from a deep sleep once again by one of Draco's frequent nightmares.
A thin arm came free of the blankets and shot up, sending the cup of Calming Draught flying from Snape's hand. Harry pointed his fingers at Draco, thought Devincio, and watched as wide fabric straps slithered out from under the bed and wrapped gently around Malfoy until he was secure and lying still once more.
Snape ran his fingers over the restraints. "Wandless and non-verbal?"
"Yes," Harry answered, breathing heavily, as if he'd been running after Draco the entire time. "I didn't even stop to think – it just happened."
Harry collapsed onto Snape's bed and closed his eyes. He could hear the man's soft words of praise as Draco obediently swallowed the second cup of potion.
"A successful execution."
"Thank you, sir," Harry mumbled, already sinking into sleep.
As he watched the sleeping boy beside him in the hay, Harry wondered why it didn't bother him more that Seth was changing.
His hair was now shoulder-length, straight, and black, his body was more lithe and long - not a boy's frame now, and his skin was significantly less tanned than it had been originally.
Then there were the hands. Hands that had become eyes – hands that never stopped moving, exploring, searching. Hands that Harry wanted to explore in turn.
He reached for one and pulled it toward him, cradled it against his bare stomach, and gently rubbed each thin finger, wondering where the calluses from the axe handle had gone.
Seth groaned and rolled closer, his other hand finding a home on Harry's hip. It felt so real, the stroking of his thumb, each talented finger tucking under the baggy waist of Harry's pyjama trousers - warm breath on his forehead. He tilted his chin up, desperate to discover if Seth's new mouth tasted the way it had before.
Harry opened his eyes when a man moaned against his fringe.
It was real, but he bit his tongue sharply, just to make sure he was fully awake. Every sound and sensation was vivid, clear for the first time in what felt like a several ages.
He was in Snape's bed. The hands were real – and the breath.
A sense of danger, and a push of determination pooled somewhere deep in Harry's belly, and his mind and body were instantly in agreement about what they wanted, and whom they wanted it from.
He didn't even know if Snape was aware of what the minute movement of his fingers was doing to Harry's body and mind, but it was glorious, and small, and perfect, and he never wanted it to stop.
He shifted his hips, letting the fingers guide him.
When the hand froze, Harry sighed in disappointment.
"Potter, wake up."
Harry's heart raced ahead, ignoring the way his lungs seemed to need more air than they had a second ago. He was surprised that Snape hadn't pulled his hand away yet. "I'm up – I'm awake. Are you?"
The word brushed across Harry's forehead, and made him shiver. He tried to pick his words carefully, but then realised it just wasn't his style. He plunged into the awkward conversation, stumbling only once, still clutching Snape's hand against his stomach..
"I was dreaming. I'm sorry about – it's just been a long time since I've fallen asleep next to someone, and I think my body must have—"
"Understandable." Snape whispered, voice scratchy from sleep. "Who am I, Harry?"
Awed by the sound of his name on those lips, the question passed by unanswered, until he noticed the fingers on his hip were squeezing gently.
"I don't know what you want me to say," he confessed, waiting for the words that would send him back to his sofa. He released the hand he'd been holding, regretting the loss immediately. "I'll go."
Snape's grip stayed firm over his pyjama trousers, and his free hand slid up the side of Harry's throat, over his jaw, and along his lips. A finger lifted up, and hovered just out of reach of Harry's opening mouth.
"If we cross this line," Snape began, his tone deep and even, "I want you to be fully aware with whom you are proceeding."
Understanding hit Harry like a Bludger in the gut. "Oh. Okay," he managed, not knowing what else to say.
An image of Seth appeared in his mind. He said a silent goodbye, thanking him for what they had shared, and then watched as Seth smiled and vanished into a leafy-green hillside.
The words were suddenly there. "I'm with you," Harry said to the man lying beside him. He built up enough courage to whisper, "Severus", just before moving forward to capture the teasing finger.
Snape made a noise that sounded something like a growl, before jerking Harry against his very real, extremely warm body. It was satisfying and yet completely new all at once.
Whatever he and Seth had done, it was nothing compared to this new rush of apprehension, want, and anticipation.
"I've wanted to touch you again since you first crashed into my kitchen."
Harry pulled back. The wet finger slid out of his mouth. "Hated me for it, didn't you?" he said, in the most playful tone he could summon in his excited state.
"Without a doubt."
Then they were kissing.
Harry didn't know who started it, but it really didn't matter, as long as he didn't do something stupid to make it stop.
Snape's lips were thinner than Seth's, but there was firmness and an earthy taste that had never been there before – and there were tongues, and teeth, and bumping noses, and breaths to coordinate.
His erection, trying unashamedly to stroke Snape's own hardness through two thin layers of fabric, felt even better than the kissing. There were angles to figure out, and awkward hip bones, but he didn't care. He let the heat and electricity take control.
A portion of his brain that wasn't sending all of his blood south suggested that if he wanted to turn back, this would be the time. Harry buried his hands in smooth strands of black, opened his mouth wider to Snape's explorations, and told his brain to shove off.
Harry couldn't believe that he'd never made time for this before, had never even tried to find another boy – man – to experiment with, outside of his own mind, before now. The truth was, if he was honest, there were hundreds of reasons – and most of them lined up behind the creature who had marked them both. He pushed Voldemort out of his thoughts, and focused on Snape rolling him onto his back.
Severus brushed his fingers over Harry's lower abdomen. "Have you –"
"No," Harry answered quickly. He felt at this point it was better to be brutally honest, even though he doubted any other eighteen-year-old was as inexperienced as he was. "I've never – not with…" Harry felt the blood return to his cheeks, burning with embarrassment. "…anyone real."
"What are your expectations?"
Harry stared up at Severus. In the dim light, he could almost fool himself into believing those black eyes were searching him, learning who he was from the outside in.
"Nothing. Anything – everything," Harry said, trying to catch his breath. "I'll probably be rubbish, but…"
He gasped as Snape kissed his doubts away, and then crawled down his body, dragging Harry's pyjama bottoms with him. Harry lifted his hips to help, and then froze as he watched Severus come up on his knees and pull his nightshirt over his head.
The sight of Severus naked and hard –for him – was something he would remember later in a thousand dreams, but what stopped Harry short was the item hanging against the bare chest from the thin chain he'd seen before…
A broken Order of Merlin.
Harry reached up for it. Severus took in a sharp breath.
"How did you…" Harry tried to ask, his other hand confirming that he still wore his own. "You have the other half," he said barely louder than a breath. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Albus gave it to me years ago," Severus said, turning Harry's medallion over in his fingers. "He told me it was a Portkey that would bring me to safety, but to use it wisely, since it could only be activated once."
"You used it – that night?"
A few more deep breaths, and Harry had reined his shock and libido back under control. "Please, tell me."
Snape settled over Harry's naked thighs and took a deep breath. It was a strange place for a talk that should have happened months ago, but it seemed right, somehow, to be naked before each other while laying their hearts bare as well.
"Given the number of witnesses, I had no choice but to take Draco before the Dark Lord immediately. He begged for another chance to prove himself, and yet still refused to allow his Master access to his memories."
Harry had an idea of what Draco didn't want Voldemort to see, but he kept his thoughts to himself as Snape continued.
"When it was evident that his resistance was causing damage, and he was no longer useful, the Dark Lord turned to me. He inspected my thoughts for Draco's failure, and viewed my completion of the duty to his satisfaction. I then showed him a fabricated memory of our interrupted escape from the castle."
Harry silently put the pieces into place.
"He was less than pleased at Draco's lack of cooperation, since there had been plans in place for him – had he been successful on the tower – to lead a new generation of Death Eaters, recruiting the curious and securing ties with the faithful already within the student body."
"God," Harry whispered, wondering if there was a new student now charged with that job. He looked over to the other bed where Draco was snoring quietly. He spared a moment to be embarrassed of his recent actions with Snape, but then refocused on Severus' fingers, as they moved from the Order of Merlin and caressed his collarbone.
"But he still punished you – your eyes."
"For relieving Draco of his task without permission, and for my 'lack of vision' in regards to the future, he took away my sight, yes."
Harry reached out to touch Severus' fingers. "Is there a counter curse – a way to end it?"
"It ends when he chooses to remove it…" Snape took a slow breath in, as if trying to decide whether or not to continue, "…or if he dies."
Harry swallowed, suddenly ashamed. He had wasted so much time. He tried to keep his voice even, but it came out higher than he wanted. "So, when he cursed you, that's when you used the Portkey?"
"No. I reached for it when the Dark Lord raised his wand to kill Draco. It was pure instinct over calculation. I assumed that if I acted quickly, there would be a way to undo, or lessen the damage to his mind. I was mistaken, but Draco's life was spared."
Harry squeezed the fingers now wrapped in his. "How did you keep it hidden?"
"Rudimentary Transfiguration. To everyone else, it appeared to be the key to my private potions stores. I was never questioned about it."
A thought occurred to Harry as he looked down at the ribbon. "Dumbledore must have – he wanted us together."
Snape laughed low in his chest. Harry trembled at the wonderful sound.
"I'm not sure if this is what he envisioned," Snape said, shifting his weight, sliding his legs down the outside of Harry's thighs, "but I believe he would be pleased with the common ground we've discovered."
Harry heard the words, but had no time to process them as Snape's weight settled over him. He was frozen, and yet exploding inside with pleasure. He wished there were other word choices available to him other than 'Oh!', but his vocabulary had gone on holiday with his modesty, and it didn't seem as if they would be back anytime soon.
Severus was whispering, moving downward, kissing around Harry's navel. His Order of Merlin followed wherever he went, and Harry loved the cool slide of it over his burning skin.
When Snape slid his mouth lower still, Harry remembered how to move again. His legs spread and lifted on their own, his voice broke free with sounds he was sure he'd never made before, and his hands wove into the long black hair spilling over his hips.
Snape hummed hungrily before surrounding Harry with wet heat and glorious pressure.
Harry opened his mouth to call out, but his breath was caught, stuck like his fingers knotted in Snape's hair. His thighs shook with the weight of hands and forearms pressed against him, his feet pointed and flexed, and something far below his belly curled into a tight ball.
While Harry was distracted by the man's skilled mouth, Snape's fingers had wandered off on their own and discovered the one place even Seth had never touched.
When he felt the tip push inside, his small world broke apart.
Harry threw back his head and released a moan from his very centre as his body unleashed itself down Severus' throat.
Oh yes, Harry thought as Severus nudged him over onto his stomach a few minutes later, so much better than dreams.
He awoke facing the bedroom wall, a warm body pressed up behind, holding him close. The night's memories came back to him slowly as he rubbed his tried eyes, smiling as the images danced across his mind.
A hand slid onto his hip. He covered it with his own.
"Good morning," he said, his stomach already fluttering as Severus' hand inched forward.
"No regrets, Potter?" Snape asked, breathing the words against the back of Harry's neck.
"Good. On your back."
Soft morning light from the main room streamed through the door, and Harry was pleased to discover he had been telling the truth – he didn't regret a single moment. He had wondered, as they moved together in passion the night before, what he would feel when confronted with the reality of morning, no longer able to hide under the protection of darkness or dreams. But now, fully awake and aware of his surroundings and of what they had done and said, there was only acceptance, relief and more than a touch of amazement.
He opened his mouth to share his feelings as Severus was leaning in, but both actions were interrupted when the two halves of Albus' medal brushed together between their bodies.
Harry flinched as light shot out from where the pieces seemed to be stuck together like two magnets. They glowed and melted into each other, but when Harry guided Snape's fingers to feel what was happening, it was cool to the touch.
A moment later the warm light faded, and they were left cradling the Order of Merlin, whole once again – both tied to it by the ribbon and chain around each of their necks.
Harry smiled, and yet he sobered quickly, realising what it meant – knowing what it was time for him to do.
Snape seemed to know as well.
"Begin your search in the Chamber," he whispered. "With Nagini's death, he would want the added protection that Parseltongue affords him, and I believe he's convinced himself that you would never want to enter it again."
"I'll start there, then."
Snape carefully removed the chain from around his neck, and transferred it to Harry.
"Read it to me," Snape said, after Harry had pulled on a clean shirt.
Harry pulled it out once more, and tilted the disk into the light. "Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore - Order of Merlin, First Class." He turned it over. "In sincere appreciation for defeating the Dark wizard, Grindelwald."
"Fitting that you wear it now," Snape said, taking the Order, and sliding it back between Harry's skin and shirt.
Harry reached for the hand. "It was lighter when we shared it."
"We will again."
After feeding Draco, and going over his plans with Snape, Harry ventured out into the main room, unsurprised to see a large door to the right of the kitchen table. It stood wide open, welcoming the sunlight and warm summer breezes into the room.
He turned back to the bedroom. "Severus?"
Snape walked toward him, but seemed to sense the change immediately. "The door."
"Yes," Harry answered, taking Severus' hand and walking them outside.
They sat on a wooden bench just outside the entrance to the house. A stone path stretched before them to a small country road, just beyond their front gate. Rose bushes in full bloom grew in front of a low hedge that appeared to surround the entire property. Green fields stretched and rolled away into the distance, dotted with white sheep, heads bent low, enjoying the thick grass.
It was beautiful.
Harry described every detail, trying to commit it to memory so he could Apparate back without any difficulty. Severus sat quietly, Harry's hand clutched tightly in his lap.
After a long silence, Harry spoke again. "Can I ask you something?"
"If you must," Snape answered, a thin smile on his lips.
"What hit me on the head, that first night?"
"A potted fern," Snape said flatly. "Your impact with the wall dislodged it from the window ledge." His tone was even, but Harry noticed the smile was just a little wider.
"So it was my fault?"
"Without a doubt."
Warriors for the Light: Veterans honoured
In a quiet ceremony this afternoon in the Minister for Magic's office, several worthy citizens, including Aurors, prominent leaders, and even school-age children, were awarded the Order of Merlin for their part in ridding the Wizarding community of one of the darkest wizards of all time. (Complete list of awards, classifications, and names on page 5)
Harry Potter, the most anticipated guest, was unable to attend the event due to injuries sustained in the final meeting between himself and the Wizard Who Is No More, however, a statement taken from his close friend, Mr Ronald Weasley, has assured us that Mister Potter's injuries are not of a serious nature.
In a letter addressed to The Prophet from Mr Potter himself, he states that he has chosen to recover at an undisclosed location in the countryside, but plans to attend the memorial service for those who lost their lives during You Know Who's dark reign (Wizarding Citizens honour the departed - full story, page 4), and will give testimony at the Ministry Hearing on the first of November. The Hearing in question, this reporter has discovered, has been designated to review the criminal records of persons who assisted in the war, and consider remuneration and, in some cases, pardons.
We at the Prophet would like to take this opportunity to wish Mr Potter a speedy recovery, and offer most sincere gratitude for his actions and sacrifice.