Chapter 53 — Insinuation

Vineet escorted Hermione back to Hogwarts using the Floo Node in the Headmistress' Tower. The swan shaped music box on the desk turned in silence; McGonagall was apparently still out of her office. Vineet started to speak, but Hermione shushed him, gesturing at the sleeping paintings.

Hermione's effort to sneak out of the room failed when Dumbledore's voice said, "Ms. Granger, always good to see your dear self."

Hermione backed up a few steps from the open door. "Professor," she said, then wished wholeheartedly that his was the only painting in the room so she could spill out every worry crowding her chest, just on the chance it would ease it. She studied the smiling bearded face. Maybe they had overlooked the painting's advice. 

Dumbledore interrupted Hermione's wondering what would happen if she took the painting down from the wall by saying. "Ah, and Ms. Granger's friend. I forget your name, young man."

"What will happen if I take you off the wall?" Hermione asked.

Dumbledore blinked. "Nothing. I cannot leave the castle, I expect, but-"

Hermione grabbed up the painting and found it heavier than expected. Vineet helped her catch it before it smashed to the floor.

"Are you certain of this?" Vineet asked.

"Yes. Let's go."

Vineet pulled the cover off another painting and draped it over the one of Dumbledore. Hermione clumsily swung it on one corner, trying to hide it behind her back as the other paintings snorted and squinted at them, waking up. Vineet stepped back and glanced around, finally pulling another cloth-draped painting off a low corner of the side wall and replacing it into the newly vacated space in the center of the larger side wall.

Down in Hermione's office, she set the painting on a chair and pulled the cover aside.

"Ah, a new view. Thank you so much," he said. "How is your teaching going, Ms. Granger?"

"Never mind that," Hermione said, putting her hands on her thighs to lean down. "We don't know what to do with Harry."

The painting stroked his beard with fidgeting fingers. "What is happening with Harry?"

Hermione frowned and closed her eyes. Systematic sounding, she said, "We think he's becoming Voldemort. You know how he always used to see what Voldemort saw, when Voldemort wanted him to? They've always been connected somehow. But all the rest of Voldemort is gone, or not gone really, it's finding its way into Harry somehow."

"Slow down a bit my dear young lady. I don't have much of a memory for anything after this painting was made. Start from the beginning."

Vineet pulled a chair over for Hermione to sit in. She sat right before the painting, knees bumping the other chair, and said, "Voldemort couldn't be killed because of the horcruxes he created, did you know that?"

Dumbledore hesitated. "I suspected something of the sort years ago, yes."

"So, this wizard, Merton, he was trying to make better magical weapons, like magical machine guns, he came into these horcruxes and he put them into Gilderoy Lockhart."

"That would serve Tom right," Dumbledore said.

"Yeah, well, there wasn't much left of Lockhart anyway. Harry got rid of Voldemort's power by pulling all his magic out and then . . ." She looked up at Vineet. "You were there."

Looking only at Hermione, he said, "Harry threw the sphere of magic into that other place. The netherworld."

"Yeah, and Harry goes through there all the time." She closed her eyes, counting through events in her head. "Yeah." She turned back to Dumbledore. "So, Harry's been picking up more of Voldemort since that happened, and now he's not himself any longer. He's been doing things he really shouldn't be doing. Even back when Lockhart was gaining power, we were losing Harry. Professor Snape believes Harry's adult mind is a better conduit for Voldemort to use him."

"May I ask what Harry has been doing, exactly?"

Hermione replied, "I don't know! I didn't ask exactly. Professor Snape just said Harry was beyond where he feared he might go. That's all." She exhaled. "I admit I can't stand to think about it anymore."

Dumbledore stroked the long tails of his mustache.  "You need to destroy this part of Voldemort and leave Harry intact."

"We thought of that. There isn't really any good way of destroying Voldemort AND Harry and still be absolutely certain we succeeded let alone good ways of doing it and saving Harry." She clenched her fists and put them on her head.

Dumbledore spoke more quietly. "Has it occurred to you that Harry may prefer to be spared this change?"

"Yes, of course it has." She blinked back the heat in her eyes. "We're not giving up on him that easily. He didn't give up on the rest of us all those years, despite everything he needed to do."

Dumbledore made a thoughtful noise. "All of the horcruxes are gone, you say? Not a single one remains?"

"Harry himself thought they were all gone, yes."

"Unfortunate. I can think of one possible solution, but we would need one of them still around to try it."

Hermione combed her hair back with her fingers and bent over her knees. Sitting up, she said, "I've thought about this so many hours. . ."

"Have Harry come talk to me," Dumbledore said.

"I don't know if he'll agree."

"Try."

Hermione sniffled. "Will you remember?"

"For a little while, yes," he reassured her. "How is Severus taking this?"

"He's acting like Harry's servant," she criticized.

"Ah. I would imagine he is. He survived a long time in Voldemort's good graces."

Stubbornly, Hermione said, "I don't like it."

Dumbledore leaned back and straightened his velvet robe. "Does Harry still trust you, then?"

"No."

The old wizard nodded. "I think Severus knows how best to handle himself. I also expect that Severus is fully prepared to do what needs to be done if it comes to that. He has changed significantly, I expect, but not in that particular way."

Hermione sniffled again. "He wouldn't tell me if he was. He'd be afraid I'd give it away. But it's not going to come to that," she insisted, jaw tight. "Don't you have any other ideas?"

"Precipitate a crisis of conscience in Harry. See who wins. Harry's inherent goodness never let me down."

"How do we do that?"

"Well, to do so most directly, you and Mr. Weasley, his two oldest and dearest friends, should find out specifically what Harry's been doing and confront him with it. Tell him how much it hurts you to see what is happening to him. Remind him that his actions matter to many people who care dearly about him. Do this all as lovingly as possible. Harry may not care about others he is hurting, but I suspect he still remembers caring for you." Dumbledore took of his spectacles and wiped them on his beard before putting them back on. "Better yet, have the three of you here so I can help with this."

Hermione looked around the bookshelves, not seeing the spines, just the colors. "Harry is so calculating now. I think he'd just ignore what we say to him if it didn't suit him."

"It is still worth a try. Barring it working, I think you need to know where you are, or more precisely, where he is."

Hermione fished for an excuse. "I don't want to lose his friendship. He needs that."

"You don't have it now. Of if you do, it's not working to your advantage."

Hermione sat straight and blinked away the heat in her eyes. "All right. I'll get him here if at all possible. But we have to plan this carefully." She looked over the carven gilt frame of the portrait. "We better return you."

- 888 -

Harry sat on his bed, using the steady light from his bedside lamp to read through a book on blocks that he already knew well, just to dwell on how easy they were now. The blocks in the last chapter had been the most difficult to master but they were almost too esoteric to be useful. The very last one was specifically for stone tipped arrows. Maybe it would also work against a miniature rockslide, Harry dismissively thought.

Harry's thoughts wandered back to the strange book under the bed. He resisted pulling it out because he felt goaded by it, but he did wonder if it would say something different this time. That curiosity almost overcame his peevishness with it and its long dead creator.

He unfolded the sheet of articles about Zacundo, which had been sticking out from the back of his blocking book. Tomorrow he would have revenge. The expectation of this rose up from his lower middle, spread through his chest and made his arms feel wobbly. He could barely stand the wait.

A soft knock sounded on the door. Harry tugged his wand from under his pillow and waved it open. 

"You are still awake," Snape said. Behind him the main hall stood in stillness, lit mutely by a single candle in the chandelier. 

"I can't sleep. I can't wait for tomorrow."

"It will come faster if you sleep," Snape pointed out.

"I'm not ten, Severus."

Snape lowered his head fractionally. "I did not intend to imply that. Nevertheless, the suggestion is still valid."

Harry studied him, allowing his conflicting emotions to feed on Snape's unwavering inscrutability.

"You insist you require no help, but I am still here to offer it, yet again."

Harry did not reply, just watched him. The lamplight accentuated the lines on Snape's face, and cast spiked shadows behind the curtain of his hair. Harry wished again that he was still a servant. He did not think Snape would stand for becoming one again, and that left only bitter regret at the change in circumstance.

Snape opened his mouth to speak, apparently not giving in under the scrutiny, when a strange sound came from out in the hall, a cracking sound. Not loud, but wholly unfamiliar.

Snape reached for his wand, held it aside while listening, then ran the detection spell. It sizzled blue and safe. With an audible exhalation he slipped his wand back away and lightly shook his head. 

The sound came again, louder this time, like rocks striking each other. Then the main hall behind Snape lit up, flashed, and the sound split the air again, and again.

Harry was up off the bed. Snape turned to look into the hall where a flashing beam was passing slowly across the hall, sending the posts on the staircase railing flying.

"Take care of Candide," Harry ordered. "I've got this."

Harry slipped away and reappeared with his back against the neighbor's more distant garden wall. Figures shifted along the wall shared between their houses, working around a glowing gap in the stones. Harry blasted the center knot of them, smashing them against the crumbling stones and mortar. He then squelched a curse that came his way from the corner of the garden, from an unseen source, someone most likely overseeing things from under a cloak.

Shivering in his pyjamas despite the heat of excitement, Harry ran to his left, sending Binding Ivy and Blasting Curses at the scrambling figures as he went. The gritty snow ground into his bare feet like crushed glass. He stopped at a stone birdbath and slipped away just as it was pulverized. He reappeared beyond the post holding up the neighbor's back porch, brushing off the stinging gravel from his cold-raw chest. Lights came on inside the neighbor's house which illuminated one remaining upright figure at the base of the far wall, in the shrubbery, trying to drag another figure away.

Harry cast a Panel Barrier over the back wall of the neighbor's house, to keep them in and to help keep spells out. He minced uncertainly on his feet, which had become numb stumps. Figures clambering over the back wall of his own house drew Harry's aim that way, but they were out of sight already, down inside his own back garden. Harry put his wand away and, pained to the core of his bones by the cold, transformed into his Animagus form. His clumsy running steps became galloping strides just as he hit the figure giving up on rescuing his comrade. Harry's claws scooped him up, screaming and thrashing, and dropped him atop the others battling magically through a hole in the library wall. Spells scattered and flashed, knocking heavy stones into flight, crumbling part of the garden wall.

A figure scrambled toward this new opening. Harry turned in a tight circle, scooped him up, and dropped him on his friends from an even greater height. Blood filled Harry's animal nostrils and he gave a cry that startled the lead hooded figure dueling with someone inside the house. The next spell from inside slammed this wizard into the wall where he arched back and fell limp in an odd backbend.

Harry landed on the garden wall and let out another cry. A wand raised up at him. Harry barely glimpsed wild, white rimmed eyes before he swatted wand, arm, and face aside.

Only one figure still moved within the back garden. The figure stumbled on his robes, fell, got up, went a few more steps, stumbled again, stood, then bent and felt around among the brambles with frantic movements, as if he had dropped his wand.

Harry jumped more than flew, landing with his full weight, claws extended. The form beneath him resisted an instant before collapsing into a disjointed heap. A cacaphony of Apparition raised Harry's head from examining his prey. Not liking this confined low spot, Harry shoved off hard, feeling the flesh beneath his claws give more as he did so, like meat, his muscles sang happily, relishing the sensation. Ignoring the wondrous odor of carnage with the kind of practice he had been getting lately against other new instincts, Harry flapped up to the roof peak to survey the whole scene.

Robed figures came in from every direction, shouting instructions to each other. Harry sniffed the Ministry drifting on the wind. A handful of figures ran outward from the neighbor's garden, two vanished with the pop of Apparation, two that were limping were struck down. A last one stopped in the road and backed up, dropping his wand and putting his hands up.

Newly offended by the entire attack, Harry gave another animal cry, wings flapping. One of two figures apprehending the figure in the street tossed back her hood. "Harry!" Tonks shouted, half in surprise, half in a tone of self-defense.

The Ministry was in the house. Harry could hear their voices bouncing around inside the hall. The voices emerged into the back garden. Harry turned his neck to look down that way, knocking slate free of the roof peak. The stones skidded down and into the garden where half a dozen new figures had poured in, picking through the fallen. A chorus of Apparition pops sounded and the scent of hot blood eased.

Harry turned back to the road, forced to bring his body around again to do so. He used his keen eyesight and his perch to scan every surrounding garden, every alley between the houses for any movement.

"Are you coming down, Harry?" Tonks asked. She stood alone now, distinctive with her bright hair. She cast an ax shaped shadow in the road from the streetlamp.

Harry flapped his wings in place and lowered his head and sniffed in rapid bursts, drawing in sweet treads of panic and adrenaline. He wanted to sink his claws into something. He whined for lack of an obvious future tangle of meat. 

Another figure joined Tonks and looked up at him. Mr. Weasley shook his hood neat around his neck and called up, "We're clearing the area, Harry."

Harry's chest fluttered with a low growl and he had to lick his chops to catch the saliva this generated. Another two figures joined the group. Snape peered up with his usual falsely serene expression of general interest. Mr. Weasley leaned close to say something to him, and Snape shook his head and glanced around the road, wand held at ready.

The four moved along to stand before the neighbor's house. The neighbors were congregating in their doorway and the Aurors and Reversal were urging them and others back inside. In the calm cold air, the voices bounced around the faces of the houses.

Something caught the corner of Harry's keen vision. He turned and stretched to his full height while keeping three paws on the roof peak, scanning the road through the village. Nothing appeared there. Purely on recent habit, he turned his head away slightly from the road to look over the rooftops and the grey-brown haze of bare tree tops rising between them. 

There it was again, a ripple like heat waves, closer this time. Harry gave a bark and turned his head sharply down the road to draw attention that way. The Ministry personnel nearby stopped in place and looked where Harry indicated. 

"What is it?" Tonks asked up at Harry when nothing became apparent.

The ripples, which Harry could only see from the corner of his eye, rose silently up the rise from the train station and stopped opposite the house. Wands came up, but no one moved. A hiss like bus brakes sounded and light arced on the tarmac as if an invisible door had opened. A portly figure in a three-piece suit stepped into view and peered around him. Harry smelled The Boss and gave a growl, teeth bared.

The Boss looked sharply up and stared at him. Tiles fell from under Harry's feet as he prepared to launch, but spells shot out just then but merely set alight a large oblong dome around the man and whatever invisible vehicle stood behind him. The spells rebounded directly at the caster, sending Aurors to the ground, in bindings and prison boxes and in Rogan's case, blasted backwards into a hedge.

Harry aborted his leap and gave a snapping snarl. The Boss stood stunned a moment longer, staring at Harry, seemingly uncaring about the spell attack. Harry leaped.

The Boss leapt back as well, into the slice of invisible doorway, which pressed closed like a bus door, and accompanied by a squeal of tires, the ripples slipped away like water running downhill.

"Well, that was cheeky!" Tonks complained, getting help from Mr. Weasley to stand up. Harry did not even break stride as he reached the ground. He flapped madly, claws scrapping at the tarmac, and took off in the direction the bus had gone. 

"Brooms!" Harry heard Mr. Weasley's voice echoing between the houses as he banked to follow the road. He pumped his wings harder when he caught a glimmer of something moving far ahead, just passing under a tree-shrouded streetlight. 

Harry flew like a demon, wings settling down from ineffective fluttering into regular beats against the airstream, which slithered over his fur and filled his broad lungs with great heaving breaths.

"Harry!" A figure on broomstick called out. It was Kerry Ann.

Another two figures came up beside: Rodgers and Aaron.

"Do you still see it?" Rodgers asked, demanded really.

Harry nodded his great head and ducked it again to flap faster, banking again when the road made another sweeping turn. Houses, utility poles, and pine tress flew past randomly, then in long series. Streetlights rushed by, glaring in his eyes.

A village split the road into webs of meandering new roads. Harry banked and circled and caught sight of the ripples again along the major route. Each time this happened, the bus slipped farther ahead of them, but Harry could not conceive of giving in. He felt violated and angry to the depths of his heart. Despite his wings resisting, he flew harder.

A city slid beneath them, full of lit car parks and car headlights. Harry raised his head and rose upward, floating effortlessly on his wings' lift.  The landscape fell away and Harry peered down at the various roads snaking into the distance, growing patchy as the streetlights grew sparser. Harry tilted his head from side to side, trying to catch sight of the vehicle, but this made him veer wildly. He flapped on straight ahead, angry enough to ignore the dwindling odds. Around him, the broomriders kept pace, and kept clear of his turns, folded tightly over themselves in the cold wind.

The city dwindled away and a valley wall rose up into a long hillside of grass and the road came to an end. Harry turned in a broad circle. His wings where they connected to his body had gone numb and rubbery, something that had never happened before. His neck pulled hard on the cords in his wings with each beat, feeling rock hard and brittle. The matted and bloody fur on his breast pulled at his skin when he moved. Ignoring the increasing complaints from his animal form, he scanned the dark quilt of the countryside, his inhuman eyes following along sparse strings of porchlights and the occasional car in search of the ripples. He refused to give in, certain his will would win out over everything else.

Wings wide and kiting naturally, Harry circled wider and lower, still seeing nothing. The flapping cloaks of his companions on broomstick were the only sound over the hum of his feathers when he turned. Harry banked for a third broad circling and the old trees beyond the next road reared up at him unexpectedly. Harry tried to flap over them, but his wings, his entire Animagus body had nothing physical left to give, and he could not bring his numb appendages down to complete the stroke. 

Harry plummeted, crashing through whipping branches. Spells flew and then he was bundled up and tumbling, protected but tangled and helpless. Up became down and then sideways. The night landscape of a fallow field and the surrounding hedgerows turned over and over with the starry sky. 

Then it all stopped, cold and brittle. Voices shouted. The spiky remains of cut crops poked into Harry's back, as did the uneven mercilessly hard ground. The net vanished and his wing, or his arm, or something, fell to the side. He blinked up at the winking stars on the dome above him. His head hurt.

Kerry Ann appeared beside him, wand illuminated, gazing down at him. Rodgers' face came into view next. "Let's get him to St. Mungo's."

"NO," Harry said, sitting up by rocking to one side and pushing with both fisted hands. The cold and wet was seeping rapidly through his pyjamas. His head lolled. His abdomen quivered. Slurring his speech he said, "I'm just wiped out." Harry's head lolled to the other side, which made him flush in frustration and grow angrily impatient with himself.

Aaron crouched to give him a pat on the back. "Well, we can just put you back to bed. You are still dressed for it."

Harry considered saying, one of these days I'm going to kill you for being such a git, but he didn't have the strength. 

Harry was given Aaron's magically heated cloak and taken Side-Along back to his own front garden.  

"What happened?" came Snape's sharp voice when they stumbled inside.

Rodgers replied, "Harry tried to chase them down. He flew like a Thestral possessed, but ran out of steam a hundred miles on, or about, and crashed."

"Was it that far?" Harry asked. Snape took Harry's arm over his own shoulder and led him inside to the couch. Harry fell back and stared with fascinated interest at the dried blood splattered over his hands in distinctive layers.

Snape cleaned him up with a few waves of his wand and picked a piece of cornstalk out of his collar. 

"I would say St. Mungo's," Rodgers intoned, standing nearby with his arms across his chest. "Animagus injury can be tricky." Candide stood beside him with Arcadius fast asleep in his baby pack strapped to her front.

Harry scrubbed his eye with his soft pyjama sleeve and played through what had happened before he had transformed and gone on full attack. "What'd they get through with?"

Snape replied, "A narrow heating beam of some kind. Since the protective spells don't keep out sunlight, they were able to make a handful of stones in the library wall explode, which weakened the barriers on that side." For once, Snape did not sound like he was lecturing. He patted Harry on the side of his shoulder. "Let's put you to bed if that is the plan." When Harry did not move, Snape used a health Indificator on him. It fluttered orange and green.

Snape said, "Certain you do not want a Healer? I think it best."

"I want a potion for the pain, and I want to sleep."

"All right, come on then." Snape patted him harder, insistent.

Kerry Ann glanced at Snape critically and said, "Are you certain, Harry. You look like hell."

Harry ignored her and tried to make his own way without leaning on Snape until he could reach the staircase, which was half gone he now noticed. Harry halted there before the first step. Crisp fresh planks were floating in place of the missing stairs. With a sigh, Harry plodded upward, ignoring how the magical steps wavered like boards floating on water when his foot landed on them. 

Snape led him right to his bed while the others waited in the doorway. Harry wanted to curse them to leave, but that would have taken the last of his life force, so he simply fell onto his bed and forgot them.

"I'll get you some potion," Snape said, parting the visitors on his way out the door. At the corner of the balcony, Snape made a motion with his head, urging them to go. Reluctantly, they peeled themselves back from the doorframe while making their goodbyes. 

"Thanks, Harry," Rodgers said last of all. "Couldn't have got the lot of them without you."

When Snape returned, they were alone. 

"Here. Sorry that required so much time." He sat on the edge of the bed and poured out one potion after another. "This is Dramaticus Supresso, it will help your muscles recover."

Harry gulped this and barely managed to swallow what tasted like sweaty socks mixed with chicken soup.

"This is the usual pain reliever."

"This is a dilute tissue knitter, on the assumption that you have most likely injured yourself while exhausting your Animagus form's capacity for flight."

Harry swallowed each one. And at the end his arms felt like they were floating away which, while an improvement, felt newly distressing as it reminded him of falling.

"Best to sleep until you awaken naturally," Snape said, fully lecturing now. "I'll pull your curtains closed so you can do that."

Harry wondered what he would do without Snape, while his instincts pointed out how vulnerable he let himself be, and promised he would regret that, some day. But Harry was asleep even before the pillow cradled his head, so he did not care.

- 888 -

Harry's breathing came in harsh, gasping inhalations. His bare chest, exposed where the buttons on his pyjamas had torn free, rose and fell in the low light emitted by the halo edging the lamp wick.

"Harry?" Snape's voice prompted gently. 

Harry scrunched his face and turned his head away. Snape placed Harry's limp hand on top of his own and patted the back of it. 

"Open your eyes," Snape urged, whispering still.

Harry's breathing faltered. His Adam's apple bounced as he swallowed hard. He arched his head back, then shook it crookedly.

"Relax, Harry. The battle's over. Everything is peaceful now. Open your eyes."

Harry's neck spasmed and his head turned back Snape's way. His eyes slitted open and he flinched bodily.

"There you are. Can you talk to me?"

Harry's eyes moved around, glossy with sleepy tears. His mouth twitched.

"Say something to me," Snape commanded. "How are you feeling?"

Harry's voice cracked, "Odd."

"Well, that is to be expected. It's perfectly fine though. The potion does that. Just relax."

Harry's face went rapidly through expressions of dismay and distress, then fell lax.

"What are you going to do today, Harry?" Snape asked.

"Today?"

"Yes, you have plans for today. This is Tuesday. Last night was a little chaotic, so no surprise you have lost track."

Harry squinted in confusion straight at the low lamp, then his brows pulled together to stare at Snape. "I'm trapping Ma Dame today. She is falling into my trap."

"Is anyone going to get hurt?"

Harry laughed. "What does it matter? My claws like flesh."

Snape sat up slightly. "Yes, there was quite a bit of that tonight, wasn't there. Healers managed to save them all. Does that sadden you?"

"Doesn't matter," Harry said. "They'll suffer more that way. I can terrify them again some time."

Snape sat forward and lifted Harry's eyelids up one at a time, puzzled. "I thought I'd get to talk to just you, Harry. Perhaps I was mistaken." He sat back and clasped his hands together.

"The Gryffilis likes blood."

"Ah," Snape said, understanding. "You are more welcoming now of the animal's blood lust, I think. Well, that is less a concern." He reached into his pocket and with one hand popped the cork out of the vial he pulled out. "Just another sip, Harry."

Harry willingly took a sip, tasted it on his lips and said, "You're potioning me. You're a traitor."

"Not really," Snape said. "Let's give that a moment to work. It's the last dose I'll give you." Helpfully, he said, "Being a traitor only matters if you get caught at it, and you aren't going to remember any of this." 

He stroked the back of Harry's hand while he waited. It did not even so much as twitch. "I must say, this is quite a nice variation on this potion, which I discovered while researching for you."

"You're a bastard," Harry said, neck arching so the cords lifted his skin up. He tossed his head, but did not pull his hand free, which he probably could have done.

"I try," Snape said. "Let's go back to Ma Dame. Who is helping you?" 

"Ginny and Vishnu," Harry said, mouth slow, like he was fighting replying.

"Oh."

"Why don't you trust me?" Harry growled angrily, shoulders twisting on the bed before falling flat again.

"Because I know better," Snape gently replied. "Do you still resist what is happening to you, Harry?"

"Resist what?" Harry's voice had grown tired.

"Do you like what is happening to you, Harry . . . these changes?" Snape restated.

Harry turned his head side to side. "I don't know."

"What do you like about it?" Snape asked, being methodical.

Harry moved his shoulder to rub his ear with it. "My barrier spells are better."

After a pause, Snape asked, "That is all?"

"This is who I always am . . . was . . . I don't worry so much, exactly. People need to get hurt if they deserve it. It's easier."

"Right. I see. You don't sometimes wish you could return to who you were before, when you were younger?"

Harry faintly shook his head. "I didn't know anything and I had to get help then. Now I'm stronger and I can do things my own way. I can defeat Voldemort easily now."

Snape rubbed his thumb over his fingertips while he considered that, still resting his other hand on Harry's. "Can you?" he asked.

"I've done it," Harry snapped in impatience. "I told you about it."

"Yes. True," Snape said in a praising tone. "Who is winning now though?"

The muscles along Harry's jaw rippled and he tossed his head again.

"If you are capable of succeeding alone, why did you make a servant out of that Durumulna fellow? After everything that you have suffered in the past, I find that inexplicable."

"I miss the shadows," Harry whispered longingly. "It's not the same."

Snape filed that away, feeling somewhat better about that explanation. "His dying should not have affected you so. I don't think you performed the spell correctly and that worries me that you are being harmed."

Harry nodded his head, then clumsily switched to shake his head. "I didn't do it right. I did better this time, but maybe still not right."

Snape closed his eyes and released Harry's hand to sit back, rubbing his forehead with his fingers. "Who would that be?"

"Belinda."

"Ah," Snape said, thinking that obvious in retrospect. "You must be thinking of others now. One isn't very many."

"Ron maybe."

"I don't think I am speaking as much to Harry as I'd like, but I will try this one anyhow. Have you become something you despise, Harry?"

Harry shook his head.

"Not even a little?"

"I only despise weakness," Harry grumbled, voice slurring. "I'm not weak."

Time was growing short. "Do you dislike anything about what is happening to you?"

Harry's voice wavered as his breathing grew unsteady. "I don't have fun anymore. I used to feel whole. I . . . I don't. The shadows are . . . " Harry blinked at the ceiling, gaze losing focus.

"The shadows are?" Snape waited. "Not the same, I'm going to assume."

Harry fell still, eyes slitted but unmoving. Snape rubbed his chin and sighed. He waited until Harry's breathing fell into a normal pace before standing and dousing the lamp. 

The door to Harry's room opened and then clicked closed. Seconds ticked by, then a minute. Harry's hand shot out, fumbling at the nightstand drawer, clumsily trying to tug it open. A hand grabbed his wrist and pressed it back across the covers. 

Snape's helpful voice came out of the darkness. "I removed all the writing materials from your nightstand, but they will be back by morning, just as they were." He held Harry's arm pressed against the soft duvet until the cords loosened. "Good night, Harry," Snape said, and this time departed for real.

- 888 -

Harry awoke to a jabbing neck ache and twisted onto his back to escape it. He rubbed his hand over his face and pressed it to his eyes while he remembered the night before. Durumulna had tried to get even and had instead been overwhelmed. Harry's fingers rasped over the sheets as he remembered the wild-eyed figure he had swiped away with a paw, remembered leapt around spreading satisfying vengeance.

Conversation trickling into his room from downstairs brought Harry back to this morning. Abdominal muscles tweaking painfully, Harry sat up. He rubbed repetitively at his neck while unsuccessfully trying to hear what was said.

Dressed and combing his hair with his fingers, Harry opened the door of his room. 

"I think you should wake him, Severus," Candide was saying. "He's not been doing well with . . . Oh, here's Harry."

Harry hesitated at the floating stair treads before padding over them. 

"Am I missing something?" Harry asked, glancing between the two of them, anger happily building up behind his sleep-fogged thoughts.

"The press are outside," Snape said, clasping his hands behind his back. "They wish to speak with you. I informed them they could do so if and when you were ready."

Harry scratched his head and pushed his hair back. He imagined he looked like hell. "I'll talk to them."

Candide followed Harry partway down the entryway. "Do you want some coffee first?"

Winky appeared a second later and handed a steaming mug to Candide. Candide held it up invitingly as Harry swung his dress cloak over his shoulders. Winky vanished again as Harry approached to take the mug.

Harry nodded as he accepted it, unable to make his mouth say "thanks" even out of habit. An odd dream came to him as he fought speaking or fought not speaking or whichever way it was working, but the fabric of the dream dissolved before he could discern any memorable pattern in the connections of it.

Harry took the mug with him, noticing that Snape brushed by Candide to follow him outside. 

In the garden, on the benches and leaning against the walls, were half a dozen reporters. Harry recognized three of them, but only knew one by name. They all looked up and fell still when Harry appeared. Harry stepped into their midst as they stood as one, finding pleasing amusement in their appearing to honor him like that.

Harry tossed his cloak off one shoulder. The garden had been magically heated, and the air drifted through warm and summery.

"Mr. Potter!" a small man with a bulbous chubby belly called out as he approached, hand raised. Others tried to interrupt, but the man went on. "You singlehandedly dealt a fatal blow to the criminal gang the Ministry has been impotent at dealing with, do you have a statement for us?"

"Not really," Harry said, sipping his coffee. "It wasn't a fatal blow, either."

"What do you mean by that?" a red haired woman with widely spaced almond eyes demanded. 

"There are still Durumulna leadership at large. Did the Ministry tell you there weren't?" Harry asked innocently, for the first time enjoying this game and wondering why it had seemed so bitterly annoying previously.

She scribbled madly on her tiny note pad. "They just said that the largest number of arrests to date had occurred. That the it would be debilitating for the organization. Do you expect it will be? Or do you disagree?"

"I expect any impact will be temporary," Harry said. "But I am certain they are smarting this morning, yes." He gave a her a quick grin that did not make it to his eyes.

The first reporter broke through the follow-on questions with: "There were rumors you had joined Durumulna yourself, that you were turning to the other side. Was that all a ruse and actually a Ministry sanctioned infiltration?"

"I don't work for the Ministry," Harry stated. "As for my turning, I won't even descend to answering that charge."

"Why did you make this fight personal?" someone asked.

"Which fight?" Harry airily asked, pleased when a few of them smiled. He answered his own question. "I'm happy to hit back at the gangs because they've hurt my friends in the past, and because they are a detriment to Wizardom."

"Gangs, plural?" another reporter demanded. 

"Yes," Harry drawled. "Where have you been?"

The mass of them began jabbering new questions, and Harry waved them off. "Look, I have things to do today, and I'm sure you have deadlines to meet." He began walking away, enjoying their insistent questions and how they followed him to the door, where Snape stood waiting.

Harry stopped when the red haired woman said, "Really, a statement would be appreciated, Mr. Potter."

Harry handed his coffee mug over when Snape held out his hand for it. For just an instant, Harry saw through him, saw him as an infiltrator, then the impression passed and he saw nothing but a stalwart assistant—a very experienced and knowledgeable stalwart assistant. Harry spun and faced the reporters. "I'll make a statement if you like: I'm not finished yet." 



A/N: trying for less spoilerish previews from now on.


Next Chapter: 54
The generously cheeked woman raised her wine glass toward Skeeter. "Isn't it a lovely day?"

Skeeter, befuddled, was slow so Zacundo was already taking a healthy swig by the time Skeeter had her glass in the air. "You seem in a fine mood today, Aunt Margie." She glanced in Ginny's direction with a distant focus.

"I am my dear. I have a great deal to celebrate today." She finished off her glass and held it up to signal the passing waiter. "I never thought I'd be saying this, but here's to Harry Potter!"

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