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(Author's Note: Chapter 31 got cut off before, you may want to go back and read it before continuing)

Chapter 32 — A Battle of One

At the top of the staircase, Draco encountered Pansy, looking her most dangerous. “I want to see,” she insisted.

Draco sighed and gestured that she should precede him. He followed her to the scene of destruction, and stood near the broken door and its warm light, as she prowled the room. Flies circled the torn and bloodied robe nearby.

“Hah,” Pansy scoffed, sounding darkly satisfied.

“I’d have suggested you come in here sooner if I’d known it’d make you feel better,” he said dryly.

She tapped a stray shoe with her slippered toe. The edge of the leather upper had been chewed away. “I take back everything bad I ever said about Potter,” she said with queer glee.

Draco sighed. “Just as well. Doesn’t seem like a good idea to be on his bad side.”

A noise in the corridor brought both of their wands up. Avery and Greyback slinked into the room, Greyback sniffing the air audibly.

“There’s nothing left for you here,” Draco said. “Go away.”

Greyback scoffed. “Where is our Lord?”

“Ministry of Magic, I expect,” Draco replied. “Potter took him and my father away himself. Good of you to run off like you did.”

I wasn’t here,” Avery pointed out with a sharp glance at Greyback.

“There was nothing to do but run,” Greyback pointed out, holding out a mauled arm covered in blood-matted fur.

“My father did all right,” Draco pointed out with a mix of pride and disgust.

“What the devil were those things?” Greyback asked in a growl.

“Precisely. Now get out,” Draco said. “As house guests go, you are the pits and with my father gone you are no longer welcome. Besides that, the Ministry is certain to be swarming over this place worse than those things, any moment now.”

Avery and Greyback whispered together and then slunk off with baleful backward glances. Draco tossed his shoulders back and chuckled oddly. “Getting all that?” he asked suggestively to no one in particular.

When there was no response to this query, he turned to an old trophy cup on a high shelf and said, “Don’t think I don’t see you there, Skeeter.”

A second later a colorful insect buzzed through the flies and then expanded to become a colorfully suited reporter, pen already poised. “I do so very much wish that I had my photographer with me,” she said, glancing around as she stepped daintily over a fallen robe in her high-heeled shoes.

“You aren’t welcome, either,” Draco said.

“Potter really do all this?” she asked eagerly, ignoring his statement.

“Yes,” Pansy replied.

“I did it,” Draco said, countering her.

“Liar,” Skeeter retorted. She made a few notes as she scanned the room.

Draco aimed his wand at her. “On three you are going to deeply regret still being here.”

“Oh, come now. I would pay handsomely for an exclusive interview.”

“One,” Draco said.

“You and I have certainly enjoyed a fine working relationship in the past.”


“Oh, all right,” she huffed and disappeared. A small insect flew out of the broken door.

Draco fired an impervious charm at it in her wake. “Miserable leech,” he growled.

- 888 -

McGonagall arrived at St. Mungo’s in the overly crowded waiting room. People stood or sat two-deep along the wall since the benches were full. Cuts, bruises and bashed heads were the most common injuries and two Healer trainees were working the room, trying to clear out the easy cases that they could handle themselves.

“Serves them right for getting out of hand,” McGonagall muttered to herself. “As though we haven’t got enough trouble.”

She weaved her way across the room with difficulty. Having Fawkes on her shoulder to startle people was the only way she made it at all. Many were murmuring in frightened tones about Voldemort, and McGonagall realized that she was one of the few who knew he was gone again. She stopped and turned to the old wizard and his slightly less old son she had just cut between, but all she said, was, “Everything’s going to be fine.”

The older one said, “Didnja read the papers? Potter’s gone dark as the Dark Lord . . . where’s that leave us?”

“It will work out. It always does,” McGonagall insisted.

He scoffed and waved his hand as though to dismiss her. She plowed away and dodged the desk by saying she had a previous appointment. In Shankwell’s treatment room, where she assumed her colleague would be given his injuries, she found Snape. He was lying on the table in the center of the small room and looked to be asleep. A young Indian man stood in the corner as though on guard, although his wand wasn’t out. He certainly wasn’t in Healer’s robes.

McGonagall, thinking she remembered him visiting Hogwarts said, “We have met, correct? You are an apprentice Auror with Harry as I recall?”

“Perhaps I am.”

McGonagall had bent over Snape to take a better look at him. Fawkes gripped her shoulder harder when she did so. “You aren’t certain about that?”

“I am violating my orders.”

McGonagall decided she could sort the Indian out later. “Has the Healer been here?”

“Yes, several times. They are waiting for another to come. The specialist in such things.”

“Versa?” McGonagall asked.

“You are knowing such things, yes. As for Professor Snape, he has been potioned into unconsciousness so he is not suffering. They will have to wake him, they warned, when the other Healer arrives.”

She stroked Snape’s unfeeling arm. “How bad is he?” When Vineet shook his head that he did not know how to answer this, she asked, “Was he talking?”

Vineet replied, “Yes, but not making sense.”

“What did he say?”

Vineet recited Snape’s words for her. She rubbed her forehead. “Dumbledore and a familiar . . . that’s what he was talking about?” She straightened and lifted Fawkes from her shoulder onto her hand. “Nothing you can do, is there?” she asked the bird. Fawkes tilted his head to look at Snape and then cocked it at her. She turned back to Vineet. “Have you seen Harry, then?”

“Yes, he is being the reason that I am not certain I am still an apprentice.”

“Ah,” she said and then smiled. “If you need a job, come see me. Anyone who sticks with Harry when he needs it, we all owe dearly.”

Vineet pushed away from the wall. “If you are staying here, I would be pleased to return to the Ministry to end my uncertainty and to offer my assistance again if I am allowed.”

McGonagall pulled out her pocket watch and stared at it. The Express was not originally scheduled to arrive for several more hours, although the Ministry had intended to magically accelerate it with some spells usually reserved for the Knight Bus. That would make it difficult to locate again if it hadn’t already arrived. She said, “The Danish Ministry of Magic sent their own witches and wizards to help, many of them came to help guard the train.” She faded out and patted Snape on the shoulder. “Unfortunately, just a little too late for some. But you may go . . . I will stay. You may find things not quite as bad as expected in the Law Enforcement Department.”

Vineet bowed and disappeared with a pop!

Minutes later, a young Healer came in and forced a neutralizing potion on Snape. He came to consciousness only reluctantly and with a noise of distress. McGonagall had stepped aside to make room, but when the Healer went to the cabinet and began searching for something, she moved in back beside the bed.

“Severus?” she prompted.

Snape relaxed upon finding her there, after tensing as though not certain what he expected upon waking. “Minerva,” he greeted her with a weak voice.

“Ah, well at least you recognize me.”

“With that bird on your arm, I almost did not,” Snape commented, voice clearly pained. He stared at the ceiling and asked, “Where is Harry?”

“I’m not certain, Severus, I’m sorry. He is around, though. He brought his injured pet to Hagrid for care but departed again before I saw him. He left the message that you were here.”

“The Express arrived?” Snape asked.

“It may have. When more reinforcements came, I went back to look for Filius.”

“It did not seem promising.”

“It wasn’t,” she admitted.

Snape closed his eyes. “An enormous amount of blood today.”

She patted his shoulder. “But you seem all right.”

He shook his head without opening his eyes. His brow was deeply furrowed and a thin beading of sweat covered his upper lip. “Harry perhaps is not all right either,” he said, sounding far away and quite grim.

The door opened and a small, lithe Healer entered, trailing an assistant and a long head of hair. Without any discussion she went to work, rolling Snape onto his side with a spell and tracing her small fingers over the back of his neck. McGonagall stepped back out of the way and watched, hoping Snape was being his usual pessimistic self.

Out in the waiting room, Harry made his way through the crowd that would have parted for him if it had had the sense to. Harry assumed it was his wild appearance that made them stare at him with such befuddlement as he squeezed between people. One young witch with a thick bandage around her head stepped into his path and demanded, “When are you getting rid of You-Know-Who?”

“Voldemort. And I already did,” he snapped while pushing around her.

The room stood still for a second before cheering broke out. The news traveled fast across the crowded room and people began Disapparating, even the untreated.

Harry made his way around the greetingwitch—who was distracted by hugging a patient in celebration—and stepped alone to the lifts.

In the treatment room, he found the Healer bent over Snape, and McGonagall leaning against the wall, looking in need of an overstuffed chair. “Harry,” she said in emotional greeting. Her eyes then grew concerned as she continued to take him in. Harry touched his face, wondering what could be wrong with it. She smiled at him the next instant though, so he combed his hair back with his fingers and leaned on the wall beside her.

“How is he?” he asked her, not wanting to disturb Snape, whose eyes were tightly closed.

“We don’t know yet,” she admitted quietly.

They both watched the Healer work. Occasionally she would have to coax Snape back awake, which he was clearly reluctant to be. He acknowledged Harry with a faint nod. Harry resisted stepping closer, lest he interfere. He remembered his own similar treatment and how much better it made him feel. Perhaps the same could be hoped for in Snape’s case.

“Shouldn’t you be with the Express?” Harry asked when McGonagall sighed.

She nodded. “I was ordered away to rest by Madam Pomfrey, who threatened to tie me to a bed in the dispensary if I didn’t obey, and since she herself went to join the train to help see to the children, I could not secretly rejoin the train and only pretend to rest.”

Harry looked her over. Her shoulders were more stooped than he recalled last time and the lines in her face more extensive. Pomfrey must have been concerned because of her age, he realized, something he hadn’t considered before. Among the Aurors it was the older members primarily who hadn’t survived, so he was glad someone was watching out for her. “Sorry about Professor Flitwick,” Harry said, drawing himself up out of his own worry.

McGonagall nodded and they stood in silence until she said, “Perhaps I should go. Fawkes may be able to get me directly to the train no matter where it is now.” She turned while passing Harry and said, “Hagrid tells me I have you to thank for Fawkes’ cooperation.”

“Happy to help, Professor.”

She smiled at him, although her eyes were still pained. “Take care, Harry. I’ll come back to check on Severus after the Express’ passengers are all safely off with their families.”

Harry nodded and leaned back against the wall after she departed. He realized then that she hadn’t mentioned Voldemort, or even asked about him. He wondered if this was more of the usual, well of course Harry destroyed him . . .

Harry’s musings were interrupted by Versa collapsing to the floor, apparently spent. Her assistant calmly scooped her up with a spell and carried her off as though this was not unexpected. Harry approached the bed. Snape turned onto his back, looked up at him, and also narrowed his eyes as though surprised by something, making Harry asked in concern, “What is it?”

Snape replied, “Your eyes.”

Harry’s blood went icy yet again that day. “What about them?”

“They are noticeably lighter,” Snape explained.

Harry glanced around but there was no mirror. “Really? Strange. But how are you?” he asked, deciding his eyes didn’t matter right then if they were still green and had not turned red or something.

“Feeling better. We shall see.”

“The pain’s gone?”

After a hesitation, Snape shook his head. “But how are you?”

“All right. I had a bit of trouble at the Ministry taking in the prisoners. But they let me come here, so I may be okay with them.” Harry put his hand on Snape’s arm. Something about Snape was still strangely repellent, as if he were a cursed object. Harry swallowed. “Versa was treating you for the after-effects of the Crucios?”

Snape nodded, face fixed in a grim state.

Harry swallowed again. Snape didn’t seem much better, although he wasn’t speaking in riddles now, at least.

Snape asked, “What did you do to Voldemort?”

“I made him live the thing he dreaded most,” Harry said carefully.

“Worse than death?” Snape prompted.

“Yeah,” Harry said. “For him, the worse thing than death was being a Muggle. So I turned him into one.”

After previous reactions to this statement, Harry was curious what Snape’s may be. He didn’t react, he merely squinted in the direction of the ceiling, deep in thought. “That explains your eyes,” he said.

“How so?”

“That is very powerful magic. Mage sorcery even . . .” When Harry didn’t respond, Snape asked, “You have never noticed that very old and powerful witches and wizards have very light-colored eyes?”

Harry thought that over. Dumbledore certainly had. So did Ollivander. “I guess.”

“Long exposure to strong magic will do that. Your eyes are now olivine.” Snape slowly lifted a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, his usual sign of stress. “How did you know how to work the spell?”

Harry replied, “I took the knowledge of the Crux Horridus from Voldemort and modified it. I tossed his power into the Dark Plane, where I hope it will simply be lost.”

Snape had closed his eyes, but he opened them then to study Harry closely. “How are you feeling now?”

“All right. A bit better.” He hesitated in answering any more strongly given that he had a very big decision hanging over him.

“Feel like yourself?” Snape asked factually.

Harry breathed in and out once. “Yeah.”

Snape’s response was interrupted by the Healer arriving. Harry stepped back and let him stand beside the table in his spot. Shankwell said to Snape, “Versa did not believe she succeeded in neutralizing the curse. How do you feel?”

Snape had been rubbing the bridge of his nose, but he let his hand drop to his side. “It is definitely still present.”

Shankwell said, “We are bringing in another Healer from Liverpool. They are just as busy as us, so he cannot come until tomorrow morning. We are simply going to potion you again until then.”

Snape actually shrugged; something Harry could not remember seeing before. He swallowed hard. Another lime-green robed figure came in and waited by Snape’s feet, wand out.

Shankwell went on, “We’ll move you to Ward 41 until then.” He looked up then at Harry for the first time and blinked in surprise. “Mr. Potter.”

“Sir,” Harry said in return.

Snape was hovered out. Harry waited until the door clicked closed again before he asked the Healer, “Is he going to be all right?”

“We’ll do the best we can,” Shankwell said, sounding over-rehearsed with that phrase. “We haven’t had a patient suffering from such a case of protracted Cruciatus in rather a long while in order to offer much in the way of a meaningful diagnosis.”

Harry reluctantly took this long answer to mean something in the range of “no.” He dropped his gaze and went to the door. He hesitated there, wanting to say more, something along the lines of his deserving that Snape get better, but he couldn’t find the words without finding more pain too, so he went out and down to the ward.

Snape was installed in the first bed on the left. The room erupted in surprise when Harry entered so he pulled the curtain around the bed and sat down in the visitor’s chair. Snape gestured to the witch who had scuttled in that the bottle of potion she carried should be placed on the small table beside him, implying that he wasn’t going to drink it just yet.

“I expect you’ll be taking it soon on your own,” the woman said smartly, before hanging a metal clipboard on the foot of the bed with a clang and departing.

Snape stared at the ceiling and didn’t speak for a long time.

“You don’t seem very hopeful,” Harry said, heart beginning to knot up.

“If there are too many, they do not cease,” Snape said.

“Crucios, you mean?” Harry asked.

Snape nodded. He had drawn into himself in contrast to how he had been just after Versa had finished. Harry rested a hand on Snape’s shoulder, prompting Snape to say, “I do seem to have your forgiveness.”

Harry didn’t feel anything but an ache of fervent hope that seemed to require too much nurturing for comfort. “Yeah,” he said.

Snape closed his dark-ringed eyes again. “It may be worth it then.”

“What?” Harry whispered sharply. “Severus, don’t say that.” He didn’t get a response so he picked up the bottle and sniffed at the contents. It was standard sleeping potion. He dearly wanted to talk to Snape about what he should do with this last chunk of Voldemort he apparently possessed, but it seemed cruel to burden his guardian further. “Take your potion.”

“You do not wish to talk?” Snape asked.

“We can talk when you’re better,” Harry said, stubbornness coming to his rescue. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Snape propped himself on one elbow and accepted the bottle. His hand shaking clearly conveyed his state. Harry took the empty bottle back and watched Snape go limp. Despite the voices in his head reminding him of all the things he should be doing, he sat there for nearly an hour trying not to plan for a future that did not include this man.

- 888 -

“Merlin!” Tonks exclaimed when faced with a long thighbone sticking straight up out of the floor. Her wand was out and she let it precede her entering the next room, just in case.

Behind her, Aaron was covering his mouth as though to keep his dinner down. Flies buzzed, disturbed by their entrance.

“What the blazes happened in here?” Tonks asked. “Did Harry do this?”

“Explains why Harry won if he did,” Aaron offered from behind his hand. “And it serves most of them right,” he added with a mutter.

“Still,” Tonks vehemently countered as she examined the strange coil of burned rope on the hearth. “What a mess.”

The Ministry photographers took their time recording the room and the house while Aaron stood guard, his robe-front pulled permanently up over his nose. Mr. Weasley stepped into the long room and grimly examined everything with Vineet in tow. “Tell me again what happened,” he said, sounding dubious that he would like the explanation any better the second time.

“Harry summoned the Rakshasas.”

“Which are?”


“How did he do that? Did you see the spell?”

“There was no spell.”

“But you are certain he did it?”

Vineet nodded somberly. He and Aaron shared a look of worry.

Tonk’s voice came from the doorway. “Found someone to talk to.” She had Draco by the collar, wand pointed at his chest.

“Let him go,” Mr. Weasley said.

“What? Do you know what it took to track him through that trap-laden forest out-”

“I said let him go, Ms. Tonks,” Mr. Weasley said more forcefully.

Tonks huffed and pushed Draco forward. “The press are at the gate too, about twenty of them.”

“The Ministry has become a news sieve,” Mr. Weasley complained.

“It was Rita Skeeter,” Draco supplied after primly straightening his collar. “She has already come and gone.”

“Has she?” Mr. Weasley asked sharply.

Draco shrugged. “The barriers don’t keep out bugs.”

Mr. Weasley peered around the room again as though appraising it from a new point of view. “That creates a mess of another kind.” Hands on hips, he approached Draco. “Did you see what happened?”

“I heard it. Some of these queer creatures were coming down the stairs and the screams were not exactly promising. We ran, my wife and I. My mother is out and has not yet returned and given the Ministry’s current invasion, I doubt she will. When I returned to see what had happened, Potter was taking my father and Voldemort away in small trunks. Everything else was as you see it.”

“You are being oddly cooperative, Mr. Malfoy,” Mr. Weasley observed.

“I want you to leave so I can clean up. How would you like your house to look like this?”

“Fair enough.” Mr. Weasley and Tonks shared a long thoughtful glance. “Mr. Wickem, I want you to locate Harry and stay with him until instructed to do otherwise.” Aaron dropped his robe down off of his face and stepped out of the room. Mr. Weasley asked Draco, “You wouldn’t happen to know who all of these people were, would you?” He bent down over the nearest set of robes that were mostly intact. “Shame they didn’t all use the same laundry—then they might have written their names on the collar.”

“I’m not certain who, precisely, is here . . . or not here, shall we say, anymore.” Draco spoke languidly and, as a result, now sounded uncooperative, or at least uncaring.

Mr. Weasley waved him off while shaking his head. “Don’t go far, Mr. Malfoy.” When they were alone, he said to Tonks, “What are we going to do with Harry?”

“What do you mean?” Tonks asked. When Mr. Weasley stared at her, she added, “If he’d been given a little help, it wouldn’t have come to this.”

“I think you’re biased, Ms. Tonks.”

“You should be too,” she pointed out.

- 888 -

Harry looked up when the curtain sheltering Snape’s bed billowed. Aaron slipped inside. “How is he?”

“Not good,” Harry heard himself admit.

Aaron frowned, honestly pained. He watched his former Head of House for a minute. “Is he out?”

“Until tomorrow.” Harry stood. “I need to find my friends. Make sure everyone is all right.”

As he passed Aaron, his fellow asked, “Want company?”

“Not really,” Harry said, thinking that he really needed space to work some major things out.

“I’m afraid you’re getting it anyway.” When Harry turned to him, Aaron said, “If you want to knock me out with a Brainflumox or something I can say, well, I tried to follow him . . .”

Harry snorted lightly and led the way out of the ward. A small crowd waited in front of the lifts, but Harry didn’t have the patience to wait too. On the stairs, he said, “I’m going to the Burrow . . . if no one expects me at the Ministry.”

“Most of the Ministry is at Malfoy Manor right now. Honestly, Harry, if it were me, I’d do some damage control with the boss.” Harry stopped on the third step and turned. Aaron went on. “It looks like the Grim Reaper came through that place.” Aaron held up his hand. “No, I take that back . . . the Reaper would have taken people whole.”

“What did Mr. Weasley say?”

“Not much. He’s having trouble taking it in. But Malfoy’s been talking.”


“No . . . well, Blondeboy too, but he seems to be on your side. Luscious on the other hand is in interrogation spinning you as Public Menace Number 1.”

“I’m all right unless someone gets on my bad side,” Harry muttered as he started down again.

“Harry,” Aaron pointed out, “they say that about all evil wizards.”

At the bottom as Harry pushed open the door to the ground floor, Aaron said, “I don’t owe you any money or anything, do I?”

This made Harry laugh. He was still chuckling when they passed the reception area and the waiting room which fell silent when they appeared. Harry ignored this and headed straight for the exit.

“Didn’t want to just Apparate?” Aaron asked.

“I need time to think,” Harry said. He stood in front of the dusty shop windows that hid the wizard hospital. The Mannequins were wearing sun-faded heavy overcoats despite the warmth of summer. One of them turned to watch him. Harry started walking and Aaron followed.

They walked for ten minutes or so until they stood on a deserted road with only papers blowing along it. Harry took Aaron’s wrist and they popped into the field beside the Burrow.

As they stood in the bowing grass, admiring the concoction that was the Weasley house, Aaron said, “Harry, you told me that you had Voldemort inside you and you wanted me to keep an eye on you . . . well, even he couldn’t do that much damage.” Harry’s brow lowered in vague distress and he turned to his fellow, prompting Aaron to say, “That didn’t come out quite right. What I meant was it looks like you kicked Voldie’s arse pretty easily, so I don’t know what you were worried about.”

“He kept taking me over. He wanted to take my magic for his own,” Harry said.

“Yeah, now that would be a problem,” Aaron agreed. As Harry started toward the house, Aaron asked, “Did you really turn him into a Muggle?”

“Yes,” Harry said without turning around or breaking stride.


When they arrived at the house, Mrs. Weasley was standing outside. Harry greeted her and immediately said, “This is my Ministry escort, Aaron.”

To Harry’s disappointment, this appeared to make her relax and she gave him a quick hug. The scent of stew wafted out the door behind her like a charm. “Everyone has been very worried about you,” she said in the tone of a reprimand.

Inside the door, Hermione stood with her hands on her hips, looking difficult. “Congratulations defeating Voldemort. May I have my wand back?”

“When I get mine,” Harry countered immediately, still stinging as well. The two of them faced off there by the door, nose to nose.

“Just give him his wand back,” Lavender said from where she hung an arm over the back of the couch.

Ron stood and pulled one of the ugly, dark green vases down from the high shelf that ran along below the ceiling. He pulled Harry’s wand out of it, brought it over and, with some embarrassment, held it out.

“Thanks,” Harry said, stashing it away. “Had to borrow Voldemort’s at one point, you know, because I didn’t have it.”

Ron flinched, making Harry wish he had not said that. “Sorry,” Ron said. “Dad threatened to disown me . . . and mum . . .”

Harry considered that Ron living at home was more obedient than Ron living away at school. Ron still hadn’t raised his eyes, and Harry was too peeved to give him an out. He remembered that when they were younger they had been on his side more willingly. He had not thought before that being a child was so much simpler, but now it clearly was.

Bill rescued his brother by saying. “You really did him in already, eh? Dad sent us a note as soon as you brought Voldemort in and we didn’t think it was real at first. Thought it was a gag by the twins.”

Harry didn’t reply; he was thinking that he would prefer to be alone to think.

Charlie vehemently said, “After what they did to Flitwick, I hope you got even with a few others.”

Harry stepped through them and dropped down onto the couch beside Lavender. “Ten of them plus Malfoy.”

“You were keeping that good o’ count?” Charlie asked. The rest of the room shifted to gather loosely around the couch.

“It was easy to count afterward,” Harry said, ignoring the shared wide-eyed expressions of his audience. “Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of them still out there.”

“Who is still out? Whom did you get?” Bill asked, sitting across from him directly on the low table that creaked under his weight.

“Er, I’m not sure.” Harry hemmed. “I couldn’t tell.”

Bill’s brow pushed very low. “You couldn’t tell who you hit?”

Quietly, Harry answered, “There wasn’t that much left.”

Bill’s mouth worked a moment. “You killed ten of them.”

Charlie dropped on the couch beside Harry at the same time as Lavender looked to be thinking of evacuating. “Impressive. Not even Moody, Merlin-rest-his-spirit, can claim that many.”

Harry didn’t reply. Hermione’s expression from where she stood beside the low table was vaguely pinched. Harry did not care much about Death Eaters right then; he just wished it was more likely that Snape was going to be all right. “I don’t really feel like talking about it.”

“Let’s eat then,” Lavender said.

Harry was terrifically hungry, but not really in the mood to eat. He stood up anyway when he was the last one not at the table and Hermione came back to fetch him. Even Aaron had taken a seat. He gave Harry a sympathetic expression when Harry sat across from him.

Mrs. Weasley engaged Aaron in telling her his life and career history, which Aaron embellished with flair, eventually making even Harry grin. His lighter mood was short-lived. As they were cleaning up after their late dinner the twins arrived with loud announcements about what they had heard on the wizard wireless. “They’re saying that there was a slaughter at Malfoy Manor: blood, guts, bones . . . everywhere!”

“Harry!” one of them said in surprise upon encountering him there in the kitchen. “Well, congratulations . . . I guess,” he added quickly. The twins glanced at each other. Harry hovered the dishes to the counter and handed the towel over to Bill, who was sorting the silver. Harry stepped over to the couch where Aaron sat and said, “I want to go back to St. Mungo’s.”

Aaron stood up from where he was playing wizard chess with Ron. “It’s a draw anyway,” he said dismissively to Ron.

One of the twins said, “Hey, Harry, don’t go . . .” “We want to hear all about it,” the other insisted.

“I have to get back to St. Mungo’s,” Harry explained and immediately Disapparated. Aaron arrived just after him and they walked up the stairs in silence. In Ward 41, Aaron pulled the curtain around the bed—the hospital staff must have opened it—waving away a child who had shouted Harry’s name and was running toward them.

Harry moved the visitor chair closer to the bed and sat down. His eyes were burning. He felt much worse than he did earlier. Aaron fetched another chair and propped it in the corner, leaned back in it, and closed his eyes, which gave Harry some space.

They sat that way for long minutes. Harry discovered that while he had thought he needed quiet to think, what he really needed was support. As badly as he had needed allies before, they seemed even more critical now, strangely enough. Into this void stepped McGonagall. She came silently through the break in the white curtain and put a hand on Harry’s shoulder. She still had Fawkes on her shoulder, although the bird appeared to be sleeping.

As they talked quietly, Aaron rocked forward in his chair and pulled out his blackboard. “Time to go, Bro,” he said. “Ministry,” he qualified to Harry’s questioning glance.

“I need to go as well,” McGonagall said. “I will accompany you.”

“Thanks,” Harry said.

At the dusky Ministry, Aaron led the way to the lifts while McGonagall tut-tuted in dismay at the disarray.

In the Auror’s offices, which were lit as brightly as ever, Tonks, Shacklebolt, and Blackpool stood soberly around Mr. Weasley.

“Hello, Minerva. Have a seat, Harry,” Mr. Weasley said, pulling a chair out with both hands and holding onto it as Harry accepted it. “Minister for Magic wishes to talk to you.” Mr. Weasley still sounded bizarrely solicitous. Harry looked back over his shoulder to gauge him, but he mostly looked tired, not manipulative.

“About what . . . exactly?” Harry asked.

“I haven’t been told the agenda,” Mr. Weasley admitted. “Nor could I judge her mood, I’m afraid, when I last saw her.”

Harry swallowed a sigh.

McGonagall said, “I am in need of a patch-up with Amelia as well, so I can accompany Harry.”

Mr. Weasley and McGonagall chatted quietly about the riots while Harry waited to be summoned. He found he had a isolated and distant perspective on what was happening around him. None of it mattered in comparison to his guardian’s condition. This left him remarkably calm in light of how very much trouble he could be in. When the time came, McGonagall offered to escort him herself, which she was allowed to do.

At the door to the Minister’s office, the guards accompanied them inside until sent off again. “I certainly can handle Harry,” McGonagall scoffed at them. This lightened Harry’s mood slightly until he heard a sample of Minister Bones’ tone once they reached her office and the door closed.

“Sit down, Mr. Potter.”

Harry obeyed and simply waited for her to speak. Exhaustion was catching up with him with swift feet—bad, body-collapsing exhaustion. He had run out of emotion for everything except his adoptive father and out of energy for anything except sitting and waiting.

McGonagall prodded him. “Are you all right?” He apparently had missed something that had been said.

Harry rubbed his forehead. “Sorry, what was that?”

“I was saying,” Bones said, “that for having rendered the Dark Lord harmless, you have left us with rather a nasty situation.”

“I just wanted Severus out of there,” Harry pointed out. “I didn’t care about anything else.”

“I fear the morning papers, Mr. Potter. The wireless has been bad enough.” She shuffled what appeared to be transcripts before her. “I’ve gone out on a limb and granted a few interviews, even, but it has not helped much.” She stared at him as he stared at his fingers. “I want you to hold a press conference tomorrow, perhaps at noon for the evening edition. Things may be calmer then.” When Harry didn’t speak, she prompted, “Does your silence mean you are agreeing?”

“Sorry, yes, I guess so.”

She huffed loudly. “Mr. Potter, Harry, do you realize there are calls for your arrest, given the scene you left behind at Malfoy Manor?”

Harry found his fingers even more interesting, and before he could reply, McGonagall said, “That is a ridiculous suggestion, Amelia, and you know it.”

“I have to answer to the members of the Wizengamot who are making such a call. I cannot simply dismiss them. They wish to conduct a Darkness Test on Mr. Potter at the emergency meeting the day after tomorrow.”

McGonagall gave Harry a long looking over. She crossed her arms. “He will pass it. But put them off until the next regular meeting. Harry needs a break, his adoptive father’s prognosis is not promising and he should be allowed to deal solely with that. And a delay will look better with the press, whom I assume you will be inviting.”

“Will I?” Bones asked, startled.

“Harry will pass it and it will ease the current situation. Run him through the test now and it will only appear desperate. Who is requesting the test?” McGonagall asked. Harry was very glad that she was there.

“You will see soon enough at the emergency meeting,” Bones said, refusing to answer.

“Ogden, I bet; his son does like put ideas into his head,” McGonagall said almost haughtily.

Bones ignored her and leaned forward to say to Harry, “Are you going to be ready for tomorrow?”

Harry shrugged. He didn’t care. This made Bones a bit angry. “I cannot put this off, Mr. Potter. You’ve seen our atrium out there . . . ?”

Harry nodded. “Noon?” he confirmed.

“How about after lunch? Say, half one, or better yet, two,” Bones revised, making a note to herself.

Harry nodded again. That would give him time to check in on how this other Healer from Liverpool was doing and visit with Snape. His heart took a drop on its own as hope swelled and then was squashed again.

Bones speaking interrupted his inner musings, “Are you better, Mr. Potter. You don’t have Voldemort in your head anymore, I assume?”

“No,” Harry replied. Not in my head, he added to himself.

McGonagall escorted Harry back to the Burrow to sleep. It was late when they arrived and only Bill and Ron were still up on guard duty. Ron took Harry to his room. “Mum still wants us on guard given how many Death Eaters are still free.”

Harry closed his eyes. “None of them are too close,” he said.

Ron considered him. “That’s good,” he finally said as though covering nervousness.

Harry did not want to make his oldest friend nervous. “What’s the matter?” Harry demanded in a whisper since the rest of the house was sleeping. “Should I have stayed with Hermione instead?”

“No,” Ron replied sharply. “You can stay here.” He shrugged and avoided meeting Harry’s gaze. “Why wouldn’t you be able to stay here?”

“Look at me,” Harry demanded, finding no well of patience, even for his best friend. Ron looked up at him. “What’s the matter?” Harry asked, but a voice inside his own head told him the answer.

Faced with deciding what he believed, Ron shrugged. “Nothing, Harry. Nothing’s the matter.”

“I’m still the same as I was,” Harry said.

Another shrug. “Yeah, I know. You look different though. The eyes . . .” Ron explained. “Hermione said . . . well.”

“What did Hermione say?” Harry asked flatly.

Ron seemed to have found his footing. His shoulders squared and his whispering voice didn’t waver. “She said only raw magic would make you that way. Sorcery . . . not the stupid Ministry-designed spells the rest of us do.”

“I did what I had to do,” Harry said. “If I could have avoided it, I would have.”

Ron tossed his pillow to its proper place at the head of his bed and then tossed the covers back up as though suddenly caring that his bed had not been made. “That makes the difference, I guess.”

Harry sat down on his own bed. “It doesn’t make any difference if Severus doesn’t get better. Right now it looks like he is going to end up like the Longbottoms.” Harry found that he was admitting this to himself for the first time as well. He had to breathe deeply afterward to keep his emotions under control.

“Well,” Ron said, “At least you got even for that already.”

Harry leaned back on his pillow and said, “I hope the French wizard prison is right miserable place. Otherwise I might not have got even with Malfoy.”

“Hopefully, they don’t serve French food,” Ron commented.

Harry scoffed. He wanted to talk more but his eyes were too heavy. He was asleep, still clothed, moments later.

Harry awoke early when someone stepped down the rickety staircase just on the other side of the thin wall from his pillow. He was glad for this, though. He headed out quietly so as not to disturb Ron. Downstairs, the Weasley parents were having breakfast with Charlie. Harry accepted a nibble, but then said that he needed to go.

“Two o’clock, Harry. Remember,” Mr. Weasley said.

“Yeah,” Harry said. He seemed to be off-duty. “No training today, I guess.”

“Next week we hope to have things in order,” Mr. Weasley said between sips of tea.

Harry hesitated departing. He finally just asked, “Am I still in the Auror’s program?”

“That’s for the Wizengamot to decide,” Mr. Weasley informed him.

“Do you still want me in it?” Harry heard himself ask.

“Yes, Harry, we do,” Mr. Weasley assured him. He sounded as though the had already thought this over carefully and had prepared that answer.

“If only to keep an eye on me,” Harry finished for him. He felt reckless this morning and cared less than normal about what anyone thought.

Mr. Weasley’s glance moved between Harry’s eyes again. Harry Occluded his mind even though he was quite certain Mr. Weasley didn’t have the skill to read his thoughts. “I suppose there is some of that,” Mr. Weasley answered with a touch of lightness. “But we also owe you quite a bit of consideration.”

Harry found this explanation lacking, but thought that he should just accept it. “I’m going to St. Mungo’s ‘til the press conference,” he said, but Mr. Weasley held out the paper after Mrs. Weasley bumped him on the arm with it.

“You should see this before you go,” he said soberly. “You should know what you are facing.”

Harry stepped forward and reluctantly turned the paper around. There was no photograph from inside the Manor, just one from the drive showing the Ministry personnel swarming around the grounds casting spells and taking notes as well as waving the photographer away. The headline read: Dark Lord Defeated but beneath that the second line was: In apparent battle for dark wizardry dominance. The first few lines describing the scene made it clear that Skeeter had been inside Malfoy Manor. Horrific scene of slaughter now greets visitors of this once stately Manor. Bloodied cloaks and robes are strewn with bones bizarrely cleaned to a shine. The cloaks and some objects in the room appear to have been gnawed by thousands of tiny teeth. No expert on dark wizardry could tell this reporter what spell would have produced this outcome. Since even the Dark Lord would not have inflicted this upon his own followers, one can only assume that Harry Potter’s actions caused this decimation and destruction when he attacked, on his own, strictly against Ministry authorization. The Wizengamot is assembling to investigate what further actions should be taken with regard to our former Wizard Hero.

Harry gave the paper back. He hoped Skeeter stopped by the hospital so he could have a word. If not, he would certainly see her at the press conference. Mouth set in a line, he nodded goodbye and disappeared.

In the hospital reception area it was still busy, but slightly less so than the day before. The room quieted when he entered with a few people whispering his name to others nearby. He glanced around at the wide eyes following him and then ignored everyone, but held his head high and avoided appearing to skulk. He repeated this in Ward 41, where again the room came to a stop at his entrance.

Healer Shankwell was leaning over Snape and glanced up at Harry. “Healer Hedgepeth is here. We’re about to move the patient back to the treatment room where it is quieter.”

Chest tight, Harry followed the floating, unconscious Snape out of the room. Whispering broke out as the door swung closed.

Hedgepeth waited in the treatment room with the nursing staff gathered around him. He had his hair slicked high and back on his head like the Muggle Elvis and he had a boyish face to match. He immediately reminded Harry of Lockhart in his mannerisms, especially when he gave a wink to a small blonde who hurried out, apparently supposed to be elsewhere. Harry fought hard not to lose all hope.

“Well, so this is the patient,” Hedgepeth said in the way of an announcement after Snape was settled onto the narrow table in the center of the room. “You say he was tortured by Voldemort himself?” he asked Shankwell.

Shankwell nodded, mouth in a frown. Harry felt better that it seemed Shankwell was as turned off by Hedgepeth as Harry was. Hedgepeth bent to his patient, turning Snape’s head this way and that, touching his thumb to Snape’s sharp brow. Harry was very glad that his guardian was not conscious for this. He swallowed yet another sigh.

“We are still very busy. Perhaps I will leave you to him,” Shankwell said, and departed with a few other staff, leaving behind two assistants and Harry.

Harry moved in beside the table where Shankwell had been. “Hm,” Hedgepeth muttered, deeply absorbed in what he was doing, which Harry found reassuring. Hedgepeth turned to one of the assistants. “Need him awake now,” he commanded.

With a swallowing charm, potion was forced on Snape. Harry waited with his breath held. He wanted to talk to his guardian, to see him awake, but did not want him in pain. Snape drew in a sharp breath but did not open his eyes. No one moved and Harry lifted his eyes to find Hedgepeth staring at him in befuddlement.

“Harry Potter is here?” Hedgepeth asked no one in particular.

“He’s my father,” Harry explained, gesturing at Snape lying between them.

This did not decrease the befuddlement. “Is he?”

“I want him to get better again,” Harry said.

“That’s a very tall order,” Hedgepeth said, recovering, perhaps because the conversation had moved to the professional. “You do realize that?”

“So was destroying Voldemort . . . yet again,” Harry pointed out. He sounded threatening, he could hear it and couldn’t quite squelch it.

Fortunately, Hedgepeth’s ego was larger than Harry’s reputation. He said, “So, I hear. All we can do is the best we can, Mr. Potter.” A long lock of his slicked hair fell when he looked down again, making him look even more boyish.

Harry hated that answer, but could think of nothing more to argue about. Snape came awake with a shake of his head. Hedgepeth directed that a stool be brought over for him to sit beside the table. Snape glanced around and found Harry. The pain must have grown worse, because he shook his head again as though to shake some invisible thing off of himself. Hedgepeth moved in and began asking Snape questions such as what day it was and who was Minister for Magic. Snape did not answer with the scorn Harry hoped, he honestly seemed to have to think. Hedgepeth made Snape roll onto his side toward Harry and ran his fingers along the back of his neck the way Versa had. Snape fortunately could not see him shake his head as though startled by what he found.

Harry assumed he was feeling the curse that Harry could feel still sense also, the one that made Snape feel abhorrent, despite deep emotion to the contrary.

“How long were you tortured? How many Cruciatus curses were used?”

Snape shook his head. Harry replied, “Almost five hours.”

Hedgepeth shook his head again but continued to concentrate on the back of Snape’s neck. “Keep him awake,” he ordered minutes later. “If we can avoid giving him an analeptic it makes it easier to work.”

Harry bent down and shook Snape by the shoulder and called his name. Snape woke back up reluctantly. “You have to stay awake,” Harry said, wishing he didn’t have to. Snape did not deserve to suffer anymore.

Harry pulled the other stool from his corner of the room and parked himself beside the table. He put a hand on Snape’s arm so he could pat it or shake it as necessary.

Out of the blue, Hedgepeth said, “I hear you left a scene fit for a house of horrors behind yesterday.”

“I was rescuing him,” Harry said, indicating Snape.

Hedgepeth did not react. He seemed to be able to work and talk at the same time. “Must mean a lot to you, then. Didn’t know you had a father still alive.”

“I go through them quickly,” Harry stated coldly. Some part of him seemed to think behaving in a vaguely menacing manner was appropriate or might help change things. He knew better, but couldn’t stop himself.

“They brought the remains here to the dungeon morgue for identification. Never seen anything like it.”

“So?” Harry asked sharply.

“Wrong answer,” Snape said from the table.

Harry dropped his gaze, chastised. He squeezed Snape’s wrist. Snape felt less offensive now as though what Hedgepeth was doing was actually working. “Can you make him better?” Harry asked, feeling hopeful for the first time that day.

Hedgepeth didn’t reply right away. He worked in silence for a minute first. “Most people I work on have had three, maybe four curses used upon them by someone not well versed in Unforgivable Curses, just someone angry. Those patients just need to be healed and for the curse to be suppressed. That is remarkably easy, just tedious and lengthy. On the other hand, the person who placed these curses-”

“Persons,” Harry corrected.

“So much the worse,” Hedgepeth said. “The persons who performed this curse knew well how to do it—which speaks of horrific practice—and they didn’t let it fade between casts, which builds it up. It wishes to win. It becomes a force of its own. The victim wants only to escape and the only place to do that is inside their own heads, away from the curse.”

“Stay awake, Severus,” Harry said when Snape closed his eyes.

For three hours, Hedgepeth worked. He was nearly as exhausted as Versa had been, but he had more physical reserves given his size, so he did not collapse. He set his hands on the table and leaned upon it. “We’ll have to see if that reduction sticks. Then we won’t have to start at the beginning again for the next round.” He staggered out while asking the staff following him if there were pastries around anywhere.

Snape wasn’t quite asleep.

“Feeling any better?” Harry asked.

Snape gave one of those frowning smiles of his, which was answer enough. “How are you?” he asked Harry, changing the topic.

“I have to give a press conference at two this afternoon. Everyone thinks I’m an evil dark wizard.”

“I doubt it is everyone,” Snape corrected him. “But your attitude is not helping.”

“I don’t care anymore,” Harry said.

“You should,” Snape said. His eyes were closed but he was remaining awake.

Silence descended. Footsteps went by in the corridor outside the door. The fairy lights floating near the ceiling shifted around, uncertain where it was best to cast light.

Snape said, “There are things you wish to say. You didn’t say them last time, either.” Fatigue was settling into his voice.

“I don’t want you worrying about me,” Harry said.

Snape scoffed derisively. “Try me anyway,” he said slowly as though mocking Harry’s intelligence.

Harry adjusted the height of the stool lower and leaned on the table. He was glad Snape had not been moved back into the ward so that they could be alone. “What am I going to do with this piece of Voldemort I’m carrying?” he asked. “I destroyed Nagini . . . but . . . I don’t really feel like doing that to myself.”

Snape, with a gasp, rolled onto his back. Harry rested a hand on his shoulder. “Harry, do you feel like yourself? I asked you that already, didn’t I?”

“Yes. And I do.”

“Then what is there to do?”

“That’s what I’m asking you.” His voice dropped. “I can’t use the Crux Horridus spell without killing anyone. I was thinking of that.”

Snape grabbed hold of Harry’s robe-front and tugged it down with surprising strength given that he could barely roll from his side to his back. “Don’t you dare attempt that,” he hissed.

“What am I going to do?” Harry asked. “What if you aren’t here to help me?”

“Ask the Saami wizard what you should do, in that case,” Snape said, voice growing quieter as he spoke. “But do NOT attempt such a horrific spell. If I were well, I would ground you for a year for even suggesting it.”

Harry’s lips curled lightly through his frown. “What do you think I did to Voldemort?”

“That was reversing an unnatural spell someone else had performed. This is quite different. You are whole right now, Harry.” His voice faded farther but he struggled to stick with it.

“But I’ll just be a path back for him again,” Harry argued. “You said yourself that he could keep coming back.”

Snape held up his finger and pointed it in Harry’s direction but he missed because his eyes were tightly closed. “Promise me.”

“Yes, all right,” Harry said in a difficult voice even though he was a bit relieved. He had a terror of attempting the spell, even as desperate as he was to take some action toward ridding himself of Voldemort.

Snape was out after that.

Harry sat beside him for a while, until his stomach growled and the time showed he had just a little while to find something to eat. He did not have much appetite, but he would need his strength for his battle with the press. He stood and out of curiosity, rested his fingers at the base of Snape’s neck, just reachable because his head was turned to the side. He couldn’t feel anything beyond the radiance of him overlaid by the unclean feeling of the curse.

Harry nearly ran Hermione over as he left the ward. She was carrying yellow flowers and dropped her eyes while he steadied her.

“I brought these,” she said. “How’s he doing?”

Harry shrugged.

“Maybe those were a bad idea,” she said, indicating the flowers.

Harry resisted shrugging again. He gestured for her to lead him out of the ward, figuring Snape would prefer fewer people see him in such a state. “I’ll just keep them.”

“Are you going to be all right, Harry?” she asked as they strolled slowly to the lifts.

“I don’t know,” Harry answered honestly. He should not have answered; he felt weaker hearing himself say that.

“I heard you had a press conference,” she said, making conversation. “Glad I caught you beforehand.”

“Yeah. I have to go get ready for it,” Harry said. They both stopped in the middle of the corridor, forcing a staff member to walk around them, rather than collide. Harry felt disconnected from his old friend and thought that was because she had not been there this time during the battle and as a result he could not begin to make her understand.

“If you need anything, Harry,” she said. “I’m sorry . . . I didn’t help you before,” she said, sounding pained. “You were so out of sorts, though, not like now. I’d give you your wand and my wand in a second, now.”

“Yeah, I understand,” Harry said.

She seemed satisfied with that answer and gave him a small wave goodbye. Harry Apparated to the alleyway near the Ministry and this time the desk clerk called an escort for him. Mr. Weasley came himself to lead him inside. The Press were already gathering early and they shouted questions and came across the atrium to surround them.

“Not yet. Not yet,” Mr. Weasley said, pushing the way forward through the gates which had been straightened somewhat. They loomed now when one approached, and swayed precariously after the gate latched. Mr. Weasley took Harry to the Auror’s tea room, chasing the others out of it and closing the door. “Eat something; I heard your stomach growling all the way up here.”

Harry took put the flowers in a water glass and took a sandwich off the cart, which Mr. Weasley paid for by dropping a coin in the tin after the cart rumbled, insisting on payment. Harry took a bite, not tasting what he was eating. Mr. Weasley sat across from him and said, “This is very important, Harry, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

Harry nodded. Not as important as Severus, he thought, but kept that inside.

“When you go down there, you need to be the opposite of how you are being portrayed in the press,” Mr. Weasley went on. “You’re a good kid, Harry. They have you wrong, but it’s been too easy to paint you as the opposite, given events.”

“Even you thought I’d attacked the Dursley’s old house,” Harry pointed out.

“I didn’t imagine Voldemort was back, Harry. There didn’t seem to be any other suspects walking around with a wand like yours.” He seemed honestly contrite, so Harry let it go. “You need to be calm but firm. Don’t waver. Don’t get angry, no matter what is said.”

Harry nodded. “I’m worried about Severus,” he admitted, re-wrapping the uneaten half of his sandwich.

“You need to worry about yourself right now.”

“It’s tough.”

“Harry, the last thing the wizarding world will tolerate is another evil wizard rising up. Take a look around the atrium when you go back down. That’s what people do when fear and anger override their better judgment.”

“I don’t want to tell them the truth,” Harry said.

“Then don’t. But make up a damn good lie in that case.” Mr. Weasley stood. Harry stared at him, never expecting to hear him to say that. “Time to go, Harry.”

He led him down in the lift and stopped just before the gates. Bones was already at the podium that had been set up near the smashed fountain. There was a lot of press now, forty or more.

“Calm, Harry. Gentile. Harmless,” Mr. Weasley whispered in his ear. “That’s how you must come across.”

When Harry reached the gate, with its squeaking, warped door, he realized that Mr. Weasley was describing Dumbledore. He let his face relax and stepped slowly over to Bones, ignoring the questions being shouted early. Had he really massacred all of the Death Eaters? How many had really been killed? Was the Ministry lying about everything?

“One at a time,” Bones snapped at the gaggle of them. Her guards stood just before the podium and their gestures for quiet did the trick. “As promised . . . Mr. Potter is here to answer questions.” The roar started up again. “BUT, only if you can behave yourselves,” she shot back and the crowd again fell to muttering. Harry found this amusing somehow, perhaps it was just the strain making any little thing funny. “Harry, choose who you want to ask a question. I’m turning it over to you.” She stepped down off of the small dais that had been placed behind the podium and Harry stepped up. The reporters all had their hands in the air and all appeared far too eager.

Harry’s eyes found Rita Skeeter, who was only raising her feather quill just a little, as though certain Harry would not choose her and she did not want to lose face by trying. “Ah, my favorite reporter,” Harry drawled as though they were playing a chess match instead of playing with Harry’s future. The crowd turned to look at Skeeter; some began to grin. “Ms. Skeeter, you don’t have a question?” he asked in a kind of mystified disbelief, with a calm that required so much effort he felt his breathing becoming difficult. It worked though; others buried their grins and most relaxed and poised their quills.

She required a moment to get over her surprise. “Did you really kill ten Death Eaters at Malfoy Manor?” she asked, tossing her hand out with the question as though she knew she asked the obvious.

“Yes,” Harry said.

She asked, “Why didn’t you just tell the Ministry where they were and let them handle it?”

“That was two questions in a row,” Bones pointed out beside Harry.

“That’s all right,” Harry said easily. “They had my adoptive father captive and were torturing him. I didn’t feel that I could wait to wade through the bureaucracy that was being far more careful than I would be.”

When Skeeter started to speak again, to follow up on this “father” issue with a strong point, Harry waved her off. He could read in her eyes what she was going to ask and if things were going to be exposed he needed to expose them himself. “Someone else,” Harry said gently, as though cakes were being dolled out. There was power in that. They expected him to be nervous and defensive and were counting on using it against him. He refused to hand them that weapon. He choose the least offensive looking person he could see, a small man whom Harry found familiar.

“Lovegood with the Quibbler,” the man said. “We were the only magazine to pick up the American Wizard Press article about your new father, which we were roundly accused of fabricating,” he said, clearly insulted. The other reporters muttered and snickered to each other. “Why have you not discussed him more openly here in Britain?”

“Because he is a former Death Eater,” Harry said. This shut them all up. Harry felt like a gambler must when he slides his entire stack of chips onto one number and watches the wheel spin. But he had to frame all of the facts himself to have a chance. He made it look as though he were giving Lovegood time to scratch that out, before adding, still calmly, “He was spy for Dumbledore for many years, so it isn’t quite as bad as it sounds,” he added lightly, as though sharing a secret with a friend.

Skeeter frowned, looking peeved. “And this was sanctioned?” she asked, sounding very annoyed.

“Yes. As I’m sure a thorough reporter like yourself is well aware,” Harry said, trying not to grin. “But it wasn’t your turn, I’m afraid.” He scanned the eager faces again and picked out a dusky-skinned woman with a white scarf wrapped around her head and knotted in the front “Tawil Times, Mr. Potter,” she said in a lilting voice. “We are all quite grateful that you ended this before it spilled over into other wizarding communities. But there is concern that you yourself are the next great dark wizard. How do you respond to this?”

Harry assumed a regretful expression, which was not hard. “I’m not trying to be a dark wizard,” he said, but was interrupted by a man with a Scottish brogue before he could add to that.

“You weren’t just eliminating a rival, then?” the man asked derisively.

Harry feigned being surprised at being interrupted. “I was eliminating an old personal enemy . . . the one that killed my parents and was working hard at doing the same to my current father. I regret not working within the Ministry to do this, but I couldn’t wait for the kind of deliberate decisions that they must take.”

“Don’t think you overdid it?” the man asked as a follow-up.

“There were a lot of them in relation to me,” Harry said levelly, factually, which was getting easier. “I had to even things out.”

“So, you’d do it again?” Someone else asked.

Harry took a breath, unclenched his hands from the podium and resisted wiping them on his robes. “I guess I can take you next, but please, some order next time. In answer to that I’d say that I’d not only do it again, I’d do it sooner.” He chocked that confession up under “don’t waver”.

Faces contorted and much scribbling occurred. Harry picked someone else and they addressed Minister Bones: “Do you agree with that? Are you disciplining Mr. Potter?”

“The Wizengamot is deciding that tomorrow at an emergency meeting,” she provided.

Skeeter raised her hand quickly. Harry pointed at her. “They want to give you a Darkness Test, are you going to agree?”

“You are at the bottom of the sieve, as usual,” Harry quipped, to a few snickers. “But yes, I’ll agree to it.” Trying to sound demure, he added, “I’d prefer to be trusted outright, but I don’t believe I have anything to worry about.”

“So, you’d prefer not to take it?” Skeeter asked suggestively, quill poised.

“Wouldn’t you?” Harry asked, still letting his voice lilt just enough. He had no idea what the test entailed, but he could only imagine it was unpleasant. Skeeter seemed to agree; she frowned as she wrote. She raised her hand again, but he didn’t call on her.

More pointless and repeated questions were asked by others. Harry tenaciously held onto his Dumbledore mask throughout it. Afterward, as they were taking down the podium, Bones said, “Well Harry, you have a career in politics ahead of you, I can tell.”

Harry felt the mask still firmly in place and let it answer. “Perhaps.” Rather than expressing the alarm and horror he really wanted to. “I have to return to St. Mungo’s,” he informed her.

At her nod goodbye he Apparated away, leaving her to chat with the reporters. She seemed to bask in their attention, reminding Harry of Fudge.

At the wizard hospital, Versa was working on Snape while Hedgepeth stood nearby. “Ah, there you are. We need you to keep him awake . . . doesn’t seem to want to be.”

“Would you?” Harry asked rhetorically, pulling a stool over. He shook Snape’s shoulder and his head snapped towards the thin pillow as though pain had shot through him. Harry cringed.

When Versa sunk to the floor some time later, Hedgepeth smoothly took over. Hours later, he too rubbed his own face, shook his head, and departed.

“It is not working,” Snape said when they were alone. He strained to roll onto his back. His head jerked again as though a ghost had slapped him. “It is getting worse.”

An assistant came in with a potion. Snape impatiently gestured for her to set it on the nearby cart and then waved her out. She shuffled out, appearing insulted. When the door snapped closed, Snape said, “How did the press conference go?”

“All right. I did better than I thought I could.”

“That’s good,” Snape said, sounding as though he were plotting in his head. He didn’t speak again, though.

Harry said, “I pretended I was Dumbledore. He always did a good job of appearing harmless when in actuality he was one of the most powerful around.”

Snape reached out blindly and patted Harry’s arm. “Wise idea.”

“It was sort of Mr. Weasley’s, but he left it to me to figure out. I think he raised enough sons to know what he is doing, even if I don’t always think he does.”

Snape tapped Harry’s arm with his knuckles. “He is a good guide, Harry.”

“Don’t say that,” Harry blurted, voice breaking. He bit his lip and wrestled with himself. “I’m not looking for a replacement father.”

“But it is true,” Snape stated.

“He doesn’t trust me like you do. No one does.” Harry hadn’t considered it before, but now realized how very important that was. It seemed, in fact, to be the very foundation of himself right now.

“Keep behaving like Dumbledore and eventually others will,” Snape added, voice the weakest yet.

“You can’t give up,” Harry said desperately.

Snape replied, “There is nothing but pain in this world now. I held on a very long time . . . because I knew you would come.”

“You can’t give up now, then, of all times,” Harry argued, hearing a younger child take over his voice. He stood up and found the potion with blurring eyes. “Take this,” he said.

Snape began to say something else but stopped and accepted the bottle. He was out seconds later.

Chapter 33 -- Allies & Reflections, Part 1

It was night time. The corridor had been dimmed. Harry swayed, threatening to collapse. He Disapparated for Hermione's flat. He must have passed out when he arrived because the next thing he knew Hermione was bending over him with a water spritzing charm.

"Harry, are you all right?" she asked frantically. She was wearing a pink dressing gown and fuzzy pink slipers and seemed like a dream as well.

"Yeah." He pushed himself to sit up. The electric lights were on and they stung his eyes.

"You had a bottle of sleeping potion in your pocket, but it broke. Doesn't look like you need it though," she commented, sweeping the broken glass away with her wand. "Here, take off your robe so I can clean it properly and so you don't get cut."

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