XXXIV. Uncomfortably Numb

He'd been buried alive.

Tonnes of earth pressed down upon him, crushing his lungs, filling his mouth, plugging his nostrils. The weight left him broken, helpless.

He'd been buried alive, but he wasn't dying.

And he wasn't alone.

There were things in the dirt. Crawling things. Alien things. Things with more legs than was decent.

They skittered through the damp soil to him, crawling into his clothes, over his face, and into his mouth and nose. Something with many legs found its way into his left ear. Another wormed its way between his thighs.

He tried to scream, but all that did was cause even more earth, more of them to move deeper into his throat.

The unbearable weight pressed down on him, the vile things invaded him, and all the while he could do nothing but lay trapped in the dark depths and let it happen.

Time blinked and lurched. There was too much and too little of it here.

Sometimes he tried scrabbling his arms in the earth, tried to shift the weight, to pull himself out.

He would fail, and slump back into what was left of himself. Stay still. Stay quiet.

But then he would try again.

And again.

And there came a time when his finger managed to trace a curve in the dirt.

And another time when two more fingers joined it.

And then his hand.

And then his arm.

Every time the dirt pressed pushed him down again, every time he fell back a bit.

But still, each movement was more than the one before it, even as aeons earth seemed to stretch out between those bursts of progress.

I will bear it until I can escape it was the only coherent thought he had the sanity left to have.

Inches measured by ages of the earth.

One arm became two arms.

His feet scrabbled, grit grinding between his toes.

The crawling things skittered, the chittering of their wings and mouths and legs trying to lead him down, down, down.

NO.

Dirt packed into his mouth as he screamed his denial.

The earth pressed down on him all the more, the crawling things swarmed upon him, but he pushed back.

With groping arms and flailing legs he rose and rose, until at last he broke through the final barrier and burst forth to breathe in air, real air.

Harry opened his eyes.

xoxoxox

12 August, 1979

Poppy Pomfrey scowled at the massive man snoring loudly in a bedside armchair that had apparently buckled under his weight.

I'll try one more time and then it's Aguamenti for him, she decided.

"Mr. Hagrid? Mr. Hagrid! I insist that you wake up this instant!"

"Whazzit?" The half-giant opened a bleary eye. "Oh…M'sorry 'bout that, Madame Pomfrey. Musta' dozed off."

"You did. About seven hours ago."

Hagrid did her the courtesy of looking abashed. "Sorry 'bout that as well, then, ma'am. Just don' want him wakin' up alone again, ye see."

Inwardly, Poppy melted. Hagrid was such a dear man. "I see….Well, yes, that is appreciated. And rest assured he will wake up again. Last time was only for a few moments, according to the Diagnostic. These things take time."

"Yeah, but has his mind gone soft? I heard some folks talkin' on that and they said– "

She'd heard more than enough of that tripe, logical though it may be. Healing is ninety percent skill and experience, and ten percent hope, her mentor had always said, but that last bit is the most important part.

"I'd advise you not to listen to the gossip of those with limited Healing knowledge, Mr. Hagrid. Do you trust them or me?" she snapped, observing with satisfaction the hope that brightened the man's features.

Of course he'll wake up, she reassured herself.

But I do wish he'd get on with it.

xoxoxox

14 August, 1979

Voices, broken and distant.

"…can't say…Gynes any good…Harpies…"

There must be dirt in his ears, he thought vaguely.

"…said it once, I'll…the Falcons…on the Wasps this season…"

Harpies? Falcons? Wasps?

"…wishful thinking that the Cannons…chance."

The cannons?

Is someone shooting at me?

His lashes pulled painfully as he tried to peel his eyes open, like they'd been stuck to his face with glue.

The room was a too-bright blur and his vision spun, but the redhead by his bed felt wonderfully familiar.

The Chudley Cannons.

"Ron?" Harry gasped out, his voice cracking through a throat scraped raw.

He felt more than saw the figures crowd closer to his bed. Fingers touched him, prodded him.

"Ron? Wha' happened? Di' we—we lose a match?" Every word hurt more than the one before it, but he knew that something important had happened—his jumped against his chest—and that he hoped they'd won at…at Quidditch maybe?

"Di' I catch the Snitch?" he slurred.

"I'll get Pomfrey," a woman's voice said.

Ron leaned in closer. "Harry? Hey there….How are you f–"

Yeah. Yeah, I'm Harry.

But there was no relief in the thought.

Instead he felt like he was being smothered by a thick blanket that made everything too hot and left him breathless. "Ron! I don' understand–"

Without warning a surge of dizzying panic coursed through him. Everything was wrong, all wrong. Everything that was him had been shoved into something else. He didn't fit, couldn't fit—

The words came in a rush, blistering his throat. "Not my skin—I'm someone else's—all wrong—not my hands, they're not my hands, oh God!"

He had to get it off, tear off all the skin that wasn't his own so he could be right again.

"Merlin, fuck!" Something was forcing his arms down, but all he could see now was pinwheeling white. "Dammit, Harry, stop, you're hurting yourself!"

"Hold him still, Mr. Prewett!" a voice commanded sharply.

Suddenly a warm, full sensation bloomed in his stomach. Harry felt his muscles going limp, his mind falling into a comforting daze.

"Ron?" he murmured.

But the blurred redhead who peered down at him looked as wrong as his own body felt.

Ron doesn't have a mustache.

"S'all wrong…"

Harry fell into quiet nothingness.

xoxoxox

When he awoke sometime later, it was to a body that throbbed like it had been bruised black and thoughts that kept slipping through his fingers.

Gritting his teeth, he groped blindly through his mind and latched onto the few things that felt true.

I'm Harry.

I'm Harry. I own a bar. I got hurt in a battle.

I'm not from here.

His shaking breaths slowed down as he repeated it to himself.

Knowing who he was and why he was in pain, at least generally, kept the panic that was skulking around the edges of his mind at bay. There was more to getting hurt at…at—at the Ministry?—but he was only gingerly holding onto reality, so that was pushed aside for now.

He cracked his eyes open and looked around.

Late afternoon light spilled through a large window into a bedroom as cosy as it was unfamiliar.

"Well, there you are," the woman by his bed smiled.

I know her face.

As soon as the diagnostic spell hit him, her name bloomed in his mind. "Poppy?" He tried to swallow the feeling of glass shards in his throat.

"You're at Hogwarts, Harry, don't fret. Just a private room." The matron cast a few more spells on him that tingled his memory. Yeah. I know those. She taught me those. "Try not to move or speak too much. You've taken quite the nap."

With every breath he remembered more of himself.

"What–what happened to me? I feel…" He licked his lips experimentally and grimaced. Even they ached. "I feel really bad."

Poppy tsked. "You decided it was a fine idea to duel a Dark Lord is what happened! What you were thinking I can't even begin to— " She cut herself off, expression softening. "You were hit by a curse, Harry. Something we haven't seen before. That was more than two months ago."

Two months? he repeated dumbly, images and moments that he was totally not prepared to think about exploding in his mind. With a wrench, he dragged himself back to the present.

"Every…everything hurts," he admitted, wincing at the feeble sound of his voice.

She sighed. "I'm not surprised. As far as I can tell, every cell in your body reacted as though experiencing significant trauma, rather like your entire being was hit with a bludgeoner. But no trauma actually manifested itself physically. No blood, no bruising. Nothing. You've been quite the irritating puzzle."

When she looked away, it dawned on him that she wasn't telling him everything.

Worry later. I feel too shitty now.

"At any rate," the matron continued as she handed him a few potions and a glass of water, "now you seem to be healing well enough, albeit taking your time." She smiled as he made a face at the taste of the first potion. "Many people will be relieved to hear you're awake."

When he reached for the second potion, his limbs suddenly felt too heavy. A breath later and some unbearable weight crashed upon him, a blinding darkness. The earth was pressing down on him, choking him, erasing him—

"Harry? Harry!"

"Huh?" The room spun back into focus. Poppy radiated concern, her wand's tip lit to…to…to gauge the dilation of my eyes. Yeah.

"You went a bit blank there for a moment, dear. Not to worry, such disorientation is common after prolonged unconsciousness." Her smile was tight, her crisp voice forced. "Would you like me to let one of your watchers back in so that you have some company?"

He could tell he was blinking too rapidly, but couldn't seem to make himself stop. "Watchers?" he asked, more to distract himself than anything.

"Well, since you started showing signs of returning to us, your friends have tried to ensure that you'll not wake up alone. Mr. Prewett had to leave, but your other visitor remained."

Guin. Doc. Pel. His skin felt warmer, his heart not so flittering.

He shied away from wondering which Mr. Prewett she meant.

"I'll just send her in. But finish those potions, or I'll be able to tell when I return!"

She set a monitoring spell and left with a swish of her cotton robes.

Nestling deeper into the pillows, he took in the serenity of the room to calm his frayed nerves. Hanging opposite his bed was a painting of whirling pink flowers.

The small smile felt like it was cracking open his face, but he welcomed it nonetheless. Ariana.

Thank you Albus.

"Harry!"

Guin's face was cheerful, but the only thing Harry could focus on was her massively swollen midsection. Christ, I really have been asleep for a long time.

The woman burst into the room as quickly as her body allowed—it was really more of a hurried waddle—and awkwardly threw her arms around him. "Oh, I'm so, so glad you're awake, we've all been so worried!"

"Guin," he gaped at the foreign feeling of her hug, "you're really huge."

Even dazed with pain and confusion, he knew it was a mistake the moment he said it.

Her smile dropped into the sort of frown that was usually the last thing a rowdy patron saw before getting thrashed with her Beater's bat. After a moment, the corners of her mouth twitched up again.

"You get one freebie, one. I'll let it go because you just woke up from a coma, Harry, but tread carefully. I know where you sleep."

Laughing hurt as much as smiling did, but it still felt so good.

xoxoxox

16 August, 1979

Two days later, Harry was still feeling like his body had been wadded up into a ball and tossed around by the Weasley twins, but at least the flashbacks of earth and insects were dwindling.

A quiet knock sounded at the door, interrupting a morning spent in comfortable silence with Ariana. After a moment, a nervous-looking Alice Longbottom peeked her head in.

"Hey, Harry. I was scheduled to be your watcher today, but then you woke up…but I thought you might want some company, or—or I can just go?"

Alice was watching me? Sure, we fought together at the Ministry, but we haven't spoken in more than a year…

"Er, yeah. I mean, you can stay if you want."

She smiled tentatively and sat down.

Silence stretched between them. Alice flicked her eyes over every inch of the room but the bed. Harry picked at his blanket.

They broke under the awkward pressure at the same moment.

"Frank doing okay?"

"I'm really sorry, Harry!"

Both stopped and looked at the other, Harry feeling quite wrong-footed in a conversation that was obviously going to go past the small-talk he'd been attempting.

"Yeah," Alice blinked. "I mean, yes, Frank's all right. He was in Mungo's for a few weeks, but he's already back on active duty. Uh, thanks for asking." She bit her lip and finally met his eyes. "But I wanted to say that I'm really sorry. About what happened before, I mean. The Obliviation and... everything."

He opened his mouth and then closed it, unsure of what to say.

Alice ploughed on. "Honestly, I'm still not convinced what Dumbledore did was wrong, but I know it wasn't really right either…and I'm sorry it happened. And I'm really sorry that I didn't take you to the hospital when it seemed like you weren't okay. I was just…" She looked away, her clenching hands torturing her robes. "I just didn't know what to do. I know that's a shit excuse, I know, but…but I don't want to be the sort of person who lets things like that happen. I really don't. So I'm just sorry."

He closed his eyes.

"Harry? Are you—?"

"Just give me a mo', Alice."

She fell silent as his thoughts whirled into life.

Can I blame her for what Dumbledore did to me?

He didn't need to dwell on that for long. True, she could have fought back harder, but she did try to talk the headmaster—her commander in the Order—out of it.

And besides, I know now how shitty it is to have no good options. His memory replayed the faces of Death Eaters he'd led into Myrtle's warehouse, knowing full well they'd never come out again. We do what we think we have to do.

He sighed.

. . .

Though what about not helping me when she thought the Obliviation had addled my mind?

That…that had hurt. It still hurt.

But I was kind of a bastard too…And what can she actually do about it now, really, other than say she's sorry?

He sneaked a glance at her.

Alice's typically happy face was clouded with misery and seemed very, very young.

A quick look in front of him revealed an Ariana thoroughly engrossed in their conversation. When she noticed his gaze, the painted girl smiled a sad little smile, the sort she used to give Ab whenever he was grousing about his brother.

I can either stay mad at her forever or I can forgive her.

His eyes traced the path of corncockles floating on the wind.

"Y'know Alice," he said slowly. "I think I was right, that day at Hagrid's. I don't think we were friends." She opened her mouth. "No, please don't interrupt." He chewed on his words thoughtfully. "I think we were two decent people who liked each other. But we didn't treat each other like friends should. I was right about you having priorities that made you a rubbish friend to me. And you were…yeah, you were right about me and the lying and being a rubbish friend to you."

His mind went to the last time he'd spoken to Gideon, and for a moment he could almost hear the empty echo of a door clicking shut.

"I have to do it, and, no, I can't say why, so that's that...But I do get what you said. So…I forgive you. And I'm really sorry too. Maybe, I dunno, maybe we can try to actually be real friends this time, if you can accept me not telling you some things?"

Something like annoyance flashed in Alice's eyes for a second, but then her lips curled into a hesitant smile.

"Yeah. Yeah, Harry, I'd like that."

And with that, the awkwardness returned.

I guess it's all well and good to decide to try to be friends, but the actual doing it isn't so easy.

"So…" Alice started. "Has anyone told you what happened at the Ministry after the, uh, duel?"

Harry sat up straighter, wincing at the sharp pull and dull series of aches. "No, hardly anything at all! I think they want me to heal or whatever. Bloody annoying. Guin and Doc would've told me, but apparently they don't even really know!"

Alice's smile turned sly. "Well, I can fix that."

xoxoxox

Half an hour later, Harry sat back in shock.

The Ministry's gone…they were Imperiused innocents…

Oh Nappy. Goddammit it all so much.

He should've been filled with revulsion and guilt, but instead everything just felt numb.

Voldemort had seemed injured after he had cast that spell… His mind shrank back. Alice's description of what the curse had done to him only led to the skittering of insects in his head.

"So—so no one knows what it was then?" he asked.

Alice shook her head. "We really didn't expect you to get better." She favoured him with the sort of glance she'd given him back when they'd first met, a bright-eyed look that seemed desperately aimed at cheering him up. "But you did! So His plan didn't work! That's gotta be worth something, right?"

"Right…" he muttered in distraction. "I think I need to talk to Albus."

And I need to figure out how the hell to fight a war against a Voldemort who can walk away from a Killing Curse.

He glanced at Alice as an idea formed.

It's not enough, but it is something.

"It was really wicked how you stopped that Conflagration Bomb thing by yourself, you know."

The blonde preened.

"Think you can show me how to do stuff like that once I get out of here? I'm not bad, but I wouldn't even know where to begin against that sort of thing."

Alice raised an eyebrow. "Well…since we're friends and all, I could probably make the time…" She nudged his shoulder with her own. "If I'm sufficiently bribed with alcoholic beverages, that is."

Harry grinned. "Well fancy that, I own a pub."

xoxoxox

21 August, 1979

He ignored the muscles which screamed that this was a bad idea as he peered around a corner, his mind focused only on escape.

This was the most alive he had felt in days.

Sure, Poppy had been great as always, and he'd enjoyed a stream of visitors from the Head, not to mention a perpetually teary Hagrid, still tentative Alice, and strangely comforting Filch. Indeed, the Hogwarts caretaker was his most frequent companion. Argus never said much, spending his time reading the Prophet with or, if Harry wasn't feeling well, to him.

But being bedridden with a body that kept betraying him by not healing bloody fast enough was driving Harry to distraction.

"Your injuries are still not understood and very serious," Poppy kept saying. "Extensive trauma like this takes time to heal. Be patient."

She was right, of course, but…but I'm tired of being so bored!

Today an opportunity had finally presented itself. Poppy had been distracted by a Wizengamot member who'd missed the trick step on the grand staircase, and in her haste she'd forgotten to reset the alert spell around his bed.

Freedom! his mind exulted as he staggered down a side hall. This is great!

This is not great, it fucking hurts, his body sniped back. Get back to bed.

His mind blithely ignored his body. It also decided not to pay attention to the fact that he needed a white-knuckled grip on banisters, walls, and anything that would steady him, really.

Freedom!

He was halfway down a corridor on the main floor when he realized he had no idea how to enjoy his liberation.

Shaking his head at his lack of foresight, he hobbled off with a vague desire to see the Great Hall.

As he rounded the corner to the Entrance Hall, the chittering throng of bureaucrats, functionaries, and hangers-on forcefully reminded him that the school was now also the home of the Ministry of Magic.

And of course I'm still in pyjamas and a dressing gown. A flush heated his face. Oh well done, me.

He used Will's wand to quickly transfigure his clothing into an ill-fitting approximation of robes and skulked along the perimeter, hoping to escape everyone's notice.

"Aren't you supposed to be in bed, Aberforth?" a man in Auror dress by the door to the Great Hall remarked dryly.

Order member. Um…Bones. Edgar Bones. He was at the Ministry. Did the lifts.

Harry shrugged. "I escaped."

"And I thought you were insane after hearing about the battle on Eleven. Why in the world would you escape to here?" Bones shook his head and moved away from the door. "Whatever. If it's politics you want, I won't stop you after what you did for us."

Not quite knowing what was going on, but delighted that it was something other than lying in bed, he nodded his thanks and walked into the Great Hall.

xoxoxox

Harry stopped dead.

Oh yeah. Bones said something about politics. Shite.

Some over-dressed man with a mealy voice was speaking, standing atop the dais which usually housed the high table. In place of the House tables were rows of chairs filled with Ministry types.

Several disapproving faces turned and scowled at his intrusion. Ignoring the burning in his cheeks, he quickly made his way to the first open seat he could find.

I really should have stayed in bed.

The woman next to him tittered, nose wrinkling as though he smelled foul. "Oh dear, they'll let anyone in, won't they?" she muttered in a saccharine voice.

Harry gave her a once-over, curling his lip at the shocking pink robes and matching hat. "Apparently," he agreed flatly.

Her indignant response was interrupted by the swishing of taffeta that announced the approach of Professor Pemphredo. The ancient Divination teacher sank in less-than-elegant response into the chair on Harry's other side, her violent purple gown and petticoats forcing him to scrunch himself up between the two women.

"My little Devil! How lovely to see you up and about," she enthused, heedless to the scandalized looks her normal volume drew.

"Good to see you too, Professor." Harry said in a much lower voice. "I wouldn't have expected you'd be interested in something like this."

The old woman cackled loudly. He felt the witch next to him tense. "I found myself with an uneventful morning and wished to alleviate the tedium, though clearly the intended cure is worse than the disease." She narrowed her eyes at the speaker. "My goodness, this fellow—a Selwyn if I'm not mistaken—has all the charisma of a dead flobberworm."

"Hem-hem!" the woman next to Harry coughed. "I'm sure you don't mean to disrupt the proceedings, Professor. Dear Praetor certainly deserves our attention, you must agree. After all, his speech is far superior to that wretched Barty Crouch's." She giggled again. "I can't imagine how a simple teacher made it through security…"

"Unsurprising," the professor shot back. "You always did lack imagination, dear. I simply told the Aurors outside that I would either enter or use the Entrance Hall to set up my hepatomancy table." Pemphredo's smile was poisonous. "They were most accommodating."

Harry quirked an eyebrow.

"Hepatomancy is divination by studying animal entrails, dear boy, most often the liver. An effective, though untidy, practice."

The pink witch coughed with exaggerated delicacy.

Grinning, he shifted closer to the Professor. Lesser of two evils by far.

As he listened to the Selwyn person speak, Harry realised that the man was attempting to persuade the audience to vote for him as the new Minister for Magic.

His hackles rose at the man's honeyed words praising the advantages of pursuing a 'purely diplomatic solution' to the 'simple ideological differences that currently divide the illustrious families of wizarding Britain.'

His hand groped blindly for Will's wand when the man dismissed concerns about the Muggleborn as 'melodrama designed to foster distrust in the Ministry.'

Next to him, the Ministry witch cooed and simpered.

"Quite the feculent little twat, isn't he?" Pemphredo's casual observation cut through the silence of the crowd.

The man on the dais froze, red-faced, as much of the audience started chuckling.

The professor tipped Harry a wink.

Barmy old bird, he thought with a fond shake of his head.

After Selwyn finally sat down to sparse applause, two more speakers followed. One, an ancient man wearing what looked like Ron's dress robes and an old-fashioned ear trumpet, spoke in a wheezy voice that was as engaging as Binns' drone.

The last was a middle-aged woman in a Muggle-style business suit, who delivered what Harry considered a rousing address filled with practical ideas.

"Lovely student Ms. Swanborough was," Pemphredo murmured to him as they both clapped enthusiastically. "Of course, poor Stella hasn't a chance, what with being a Muggleborn. Little Nobby may have done it in the '60s, but there's nothing for it in today's climate." (*)

The pink witch sniffed dramatically.

Harry ignored her. "So who's going to win then?"

Pemphredo's plum-painted lips split into a wolfish smile. "The smart money's on Barty. Though I wouldn't expect him to last the year."

A rail-thin man rose as the applause died down "Well, thank you Ms. Swanborough—hmm, interesting surname—for sharing your thoughts with us. This concludes the introductory speeches made by those seeking the office of Minister of Ma—"

"What about Dumbledore?" a woman called out.

The man bristled. "I'm afraid I've heard nothing—"

"Oh stuff it, Van Burm!" a man interrupted. "This has gone on all summer, and we need someone to actually fix things! Let's just elect Dumbledore today and be done with it!"

"The elections aren't for another week, you know that!" The speaker rubbed his hands together nervously. "And Dumbledore's not on my list of candidates!"

"Well put him there!" another woman ordered.

Harry studied the expressions of the four candidates on the dais. The Selwyn fellow looked livid, Barty Crouch Senior seemed to have swallowed a lemon, the Muggleborn woman was smothering a smile, and the Binns-impersonator had fallen asleep.

The crowd was growing more insistent in their clamour for Dumbledore's candidacy when the man himself finally rose from a seat in the audience and ascended the dais. His eyes widened a fraction when he saw Harry even as he smiled genially at the room.

"My friends, I thank you for your support. However," he sighed, "our Ministry requires a leader who will make his or her position their only public priority. I am already an educator and your Chief Warlock." And leader of the Order of the Phoenix, Harry added. "But I cannot be effective in either of these roles if I try to do them both and more. So thank you, truly, but I must decline."

With a whirl of his lime green robes Dumbledore retook his seat while the functionary attempted to quell the rising din of voices. But there seemed to be no stopping the audience now.

Harry's heart beat in sympathy for Albus as the crowd's desperate pleas turned to panicked shouts that Dumbledore was abandoning them, and then on to furious calls for the Ministry to force him to "do his duty."

No matter what he does, it'll never be enough for some people.

Merlin, the wizarding world really is shite when it comes to its heroes.

On the other hand, the pink Ministry witch was still seething loudly about the injustice of Dumbledore eclipsing a man as great as the Selwyn bloke when Harry made to leave the room.

Although every muscle hurt as he elbowed through the crowd, he enjoyed the irony that he was now attempting to escape back to the Hospital Wing.

He ignored the cacophony of voices behind him, but was forced to turn when a hand touched his shoulder.

Dumbledore beamed at him, though he looked rather wild about the eyes. A dozen witches and wizards swarmed and hovered, all vying for attention.

"Harry! I hadn't thought I'd see you today," he said over the babbling of frantic voices. "My friends, my friends, please! I have urgent business related to the war to discuss with my compatriot here." Harry didn't miss the plea in the man's eyes. "That is, of course, if he is amenable to a conversation."

"Uh, sure. Yeah, I'm, er, amenable."

Dumbledore gave the crowd one last, regretful smile and gestured towards the door. "After you, then."

xoxoxox

They were halfway to the Headmaster's office, Dumbledore respecting Harry's laboured pace, when the younger wizard finally spoke up.

"You just used me to escape them all, didn't you?"

Albus had the grace to look a bit guilty, though his eyes were shining. "I did, and my apologies for that. They are most insistent, and I did want to speak with you as soon as you were healthy enough."

Harry laughed. "No, it's fine. I was trying to escape anyway myself."

As they rounded a corner, a group of men who'd been in a huddled conference caught sight of Dumbledore and hurried towards them.

"Oh Harry, would that you could run," the Headmaster murmured.

xoxoxox

Harry sank gratefully into the armchair Dumbledore conjured for him. "Oh thank God we made it." They'd been stopped another three times by Ministry minions before it occurred to Dumbledore that Disillusionment spells were needed.

"You're looking quite pale, Harry. Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to have our discussion another day?"

He waved away Dumbledore's concern. "Poppy's already going to give me hell for this. I might as well finish it in one go."

An elf popped in with mugs of hot chocolate, which the pair savoured in silence.

"I take it you have heard from others about what we know of the Ministry Invasion and its effects?" Albus finally asked.

"Yeah. I mean, I heard most of it from Alice, and a few of the others filled in some bits." Fabian had told him about the Atrium battle, though Harry had only listened with half an ear after the man let it slip that Gideon had visited him while he was unconscious. Sirius, to his surprise, had shown up with a stack of pornographic magazines (mostly of women) to help "cheer him up and pass the time," and had eventually given his account of the night. "But they haven't…"

His tongue felt numb and too large. He didn't want to ask. The horror of being buried alive still seemed real to him in the quiet hours of the night when he had only his own heartbeat for company.

But I need to know.

He forced the words out. "But they haven't been able to tell me anything really about what Riddle did to me."

Dumbledore lowered his eyes.

"I'm afraid I have very little information, but I shall share my suspicions with you, such as they are. First, however I think it necessary to discuss the magical…event that preceded the curse."

Magical event?

"I'm speaking, of course," Dumbledore eyed him carefully, "of what happened when your wand and Voldemort's connected."

The silver dome. Shite. I didn't think of that.

He scrambled to cobble together a believable explanation. "I wasn't sure what would happen, but it definitely wasn't that…. It's stupid, I know, but I was desperate and thought I could block his spell with one of my own."

The headmaster gave him a flat look.

Ab snorted in his mind. Really, lad? That's what you're goin' with?

Harry sighed. "Yeah, I wouldn't believe that one either."

Albus' eyes twinkled.

"Look, sir, the first bit was true. I thought something would happen, yeah, but it really wasn't that." He took a deep breath. "And I can't tell you any more about what I expected. I'm sorry, but Ab knew, and I swore to him I would never tell. It was the last thing he asked of me."

Fawkes crooned into the silence.

Harry huffed out a disgusted breath and ran a hand through his hair. "My…someone I cared about wanted to know stuff I can't talk about. I wouldn't even tell him, and I lost him because of it." So there's no way I'm telling you went unspoken.

Dumbledore stared at him, his face a mystery. "I have always been a curious person, Harry," he mused. "Indeed, one could rightly call me covetous of knowledge. This passion for knowing has led me to cultivate proficiency in a variety of rather obscure fields of magic."

The Headmaster's conversational tone was belied my a strange sharpness in his expression. "Tell me, do you know what Legilimency is?"

Suddenly wary, Harry shook his head.

"It is both a spell and methodology for, shall we say, entering and navigating the mind of another so as to access memories, thoughts, and so on."

Harry's body was blanketed with a stinging cold, as though he had plunged into a frozen pond.

"Quite a difficult skill to master," Dumbledore continued lightly, "and one even more difficult not to abuse."

No.

"One such as yourself should be on guard against practitioners who would invade your mind, Harry. Voldemort is certainly accomplished in the mind arts. Though do note that a Legilimens requires a degree of eye contact with his or her subjects." The content of the Headmaster's words warred with his tone, as casual as if he were simply discussing the weather.

Why is he telling me this? Harry screamed at himself, his eyes immediately flicking away from Albus and landing on Fawkes. Is this a threat? Is he going to do this to me if I don't tell him?

The phoenix peered at him curiously.

But if he is, why tell me about the eye contact part?

What the hell is he trying to say?

. . .

And then clarity came.

He's telling me he could do this but…

but that he won't do this.

Fawkes trilled.

He wants me to trust him. Not because I don't know what he could do to me, but because I do know.

. . .

He's trying to be a good person, the realization thrummed in him. That's what this is. Just like Alice is trying.

Just like I'm trying.

Harry couldn't name the emotion that filled him then. Something like appreciation, and irritation, and camaraderie, but more and less than all those at the same time.

Albus trusted me on Level Eleven. Now it's my turn.

He raised his eyes and looked directly into Dumbledore's.

They stared at each other.

The moment stretched on before Dumbledore finally smiled. "Thank you, Harry," he said softly.

Harry could only nod.

I'm not Ab.

I love him, but like Pel said, that doesn't mean that I have to inherit all his baggage.

And I can trust Albus. At least this much.

The thought was both sad and liberating.

Albus cleared his throat awkwardly into the silence. "Thank you, Harry," he repeated in a stronger voice. "For what it is worth, the dome seems most similar to the rare effect that can take place when brother wands are forced to battle, though the resemblance was slight at best. As I am quite sure no brother wand to Tom's exists, I'm admittedly befuddled."

Harry swallowed the pang that came with thinking of the loss of his last tie to his old world. More to avoid thinking about his wand than out of any real spite, he found himself smirking, "Well, maybe it's what happens when Voldemort tries to battle his son."

"Ah, yes," the older man hedged. "I do owe you an apology for that mistake, I suppose. Though I stand by the fact that it was both a logical and…satisfying explanation. At any rate," Albus continued over Harry's chuckle, "I suspect that the dome and its effects, which clearly injured and exhausted you, had little to no bearing on what you experienced this summer, but for perhaps prolonging your recovery."

The smile on Harry's face died, the air in the room turning stale and heavy in an instant.

"Voldemort's spell."

"Yes. Voldemort's spell." Albus' eyes dimmed.

Harry's hands balled into fists. "Do you have any idea why he survived the Killing Curse?"

The old wizard sighed. "Ideas I have in abundance, but no, I don't know. Yet."

Frustration threw him to his feet. Pacing helped, even though every step sent his muscles to moaning.

Spewing some of the choicest vulgarities he'd learned from pirates, drunks, and South American prostitutes alike was also rather gratifying.

"Do not presume that you are the only one upset by this!" Albus snapped, bringing Harry up short.

A moment later the headmaster slumped back into his chair. "I believe," he continued in a gentler tone, "that the key will be found in his obvious physical changes."

Eyes so pale they were almost white, misshapen lips stretched into a hideous grin…

"You see, Harry, Dark magic always exacts a price, always leaves a mark. Be it a discoloration of the eyes, degeneration of the skin, loss of hair, runic scars, and so on…And every Dark ritual, potion, curse, or artefact leaves its own particular marks, even if they cannot all be seen by the naked eye. Tom has obviously changed, so I am currently attempting to match his appearance to various magics."

Harry's breath caught.

He didn't look like a red-eyed snake.

The man's words, heard now in both worlds, echoed in his mind. "I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality."

They were talking about different things. This Voldemort has done something different than my Voldemort did.

It was obvious, of course, but he hadn't let himself truly think about it until now.

Realising that the headmaster was looking at him intently, Harry found his voice. "I don't suppose there's a book like One Thousand and One Evil Ways to Uglify Yourself, is there?"

Albus chuckled. "Such a resource would make my task significantly easier, but no. Records are scattered and incomplete, and often not written by the…sanest of authors."

Harry followed the man's gesture to a stack of books on a side table. A small red text was whimpering as the cover of a leather-bound volume formed a snarling mouth. A moment later, the smaller flipped open and spat back a puff of fire.

"Shit! I mean, yeah, I see your point."

"Indeed, certainly not bedtime reading. But that line of research is focused on what Tom has done to himself. We must still talk about the spell he used on you."

Harry grimaced, trying not to feel the weight that seemed to press on him from all sides.

"Tell me, Harry, what do you know of Dementors?"

Oh for fuck's sake.

He closed his eyes and swallowed the hysterical laugh burbling in his chest.

xoxoxox

23 August, 1979

"So the bastard didn't die when you used the Killing Curse. That's…Merlin." Pel rubbed his face. "But he didn't die in your world either, back when folks thought you'd beat him as a baby, right?"

Harry frowned, slumping into his pillows. He'd hoped that going through with Pel everything Albus had told him two days earlier would make him feel better, help him plan, but talking about it just drove home the horrible reality.

"Yeah, I guess. But Albus said that different types of Dark magic have different physical effects. And this Riddle looks nothing like the young Tom Riddle from the diary or Voldemort after the resurrection. Plus, I think my Voldemort turned into a wraith thing when he tried to kill me. This one just stood right back up."

"Aye, does seem like they're up to different things," Pel mused, considering Harry closely from his perch on the bedside chair. "An' I reckon that spell he hit you with was something you haven't seen before either?"

Jesus, Voldemort tried to—

"Yeah," he choked out. "Albus thinks Riddle's coming up with spells that copy the effects of Dementors." He wrenched his eyes away from Pel's and stared at the empty portrait of Ariana. "But, there's some good. I mean, both of us have countered him with patronuses, and that seemed to work somewhat. And Albus thinks that what…what he did to me weakened him and that's why he's been laying low.""

Pel's brow crinkled. "But what actually happened to y—?"

"My soul," Harry snapped. "Bastard tried to take my fucking soul." He closed his eyes, willing his breathing to even out. "He said—Albus—that he thinks Riddle's spell separated my soul from my body, but that Voldemort couldn't actually cut it off completely."

Pel's stricken look faded into contemplation. "He's trying to replicate the Kiss…The soul's bound to the body an' magic, the theorists think, but Dementors are able to dissolve those bounds easily."

"How the hell do you know—?"

"I did all that research for you and Ab a few years back, thanks so much for remembering! Anyway, that's what one book said at least."

Harry stared at his blanket. "Yeah, Albus said something like that too. But he said that Riddle couldn't do it all the way, so the bonds stretched until my soul rebounded back into me like…like a snapped rubber band."

"I take it that simile was your own contribution to the discussion?"

"Oh shut up," he grumbled. "Anyway, he thinks I was…out of it this summer because the shock of my soul being removed and then rebounding caused…Well, I forget exactly what he said, but something like universal trauma either to the bonds that connect it to my body and magic."

Skittering of insects began to fill the silence, and Harry forced himself to continue, remembering all too clearly this part of the conversation.

"And he said that my nightmares about…about being buried alive and all that were a good metaphor for my soul being 'violently thrust back into the physical after an unnatural separation' and having to get used to existing like this again. Something about it having to 'acclimatize itself to being tethered to mass and magic'."

"Hell," Pel muttered. He shook his head and looked around the room. "Merlin, I need a damn drink."

Harry shrugged. "Dwimmer!"

A house-elf immediately appeared at the foot of his bed with a crack. "Yes, Mr. Aberforth sir?"

"Would you get a pot of tea for me and a Steaming Stout for my guest please?"

The creature's eyes narrowed. "Matron Poppy's been saying no alcohol for you…"

"I swear, it's for my friend." Harry forced himself to smile.

The elf stared at him for a long moment then popped away, only to return with a full tea service and a large steaming tankard.

Pel's jaw dropped.

"An' how much do I owe you for that?" he asked the elf slowly.

"Thanks Dwimmer," Harry said as the elf disappeared without a word to Pel.

"Wait—what—really?" the old man stuttered, eyes wide. "Are you telling me that drinks at Hogwarts are free!"

Harry grunted and added milk to his tea.

"All this time…all summer…damn, Harry, all this time I could have been drinking for free! Hell, I should have visited you more often!"

"Your concern is really touching. Gets me right here."

Pel laughed and quaffed his drink. "Alright," he mused, "I take it you didn't clue Albus in to your previous experience with soul removal?"

"No…" Harry chewed his lip. "I really thought about it though. I don't want us to suffer because I kept my mouth shut when I shouldn't have. It's just, this Voldemort is definitely different than my Voldemort, and his spell didn't really feel like The Kiss. I mean, that didn't hurt at all and I woke up right away."

"Hmm," the other man nodded slowly. "Aye, it's different enough that I can't see it being a real help to him. An' besides, I'm sure he's working with Unspeakables on this. If he's not, he's a bloody fool."

"Dunno about that. But…well, he did ask me to help him some with it."

Pel coughed through his beer.

"I know, I know, what good am I going to be? He's Albus Dumbledore and I'm a bartender who never even took a NEWT class!" Harry groused.

It didn't make any more sense to him now than it had when the headmaster proposed it, but Harry wouldn't soon forget the warm sense of gratitude he'd felt at the offer.

I'm involved. I can try to do something.

He was startled out of his thoughts by Pel's hand clamping on his shoulder. "Don't sell yourself short. An' I'll reach out to some of my old contacts. See if they can give us anything more." The old solicitor looked away. "Now, my friend, how's about we forget this tripe for a time, call that wonderful little elf back, an' have some more beers together?"

"I can't drink. Poppy would kill me."

"Fine, I'll drink, you watch." Pel settled back into his chair with a grin. "Free drinks at Hogwarts. Should'a been a bloody professor!"

xoxoxox

26 August, 1979

A few days later, Harry made his way towards Dumbledore's office on his first Poppy-sanctioned outing.

His friend had been furious with his disappearing act the week before, and he suspected that the extra days she'd required he spend in bed had been more a punishment than a prescription.

Rounding the corner to the corridor that led to Albus' office, he had to sidestep quickly to avoid slamming into—

"Barty Crouch?" Harry burst out in surprise.

The older man's razor-thin mustache seemed cut into his face as he frowned down at Harry. "Harry No Surname, or rather, Harry Aberforth, I'm told." With every word the temperature in the corridor felt like it dropped a few degrees. "The squib-turned-wizard who tried to kill a Dark Lord," Crouch spat, a furious flush colouring his cheeks.

What the hell?

"I don't—"

Crouch Senior leaned in so close that for an insane moment Harry wondered if the man was about to kiss him.

"Dumbledore may be singing your praises right now, boy," he hissed, "but bear in mind that I know what you did. I may not be able to do anything about it—can't send the masses into hysterics—but I expect to win this election, and as Minister I promise there will be no forgiveness for Dark wizards."

What? What the hell?

Harry's mind spun in the same confused circle as the man drew back and glared down his nose at him. "The law is the law, Mr. Aberforth, and it will be our sword and shield in this war. You've wriggled out of taking responsibility for your actions, but don't expect such good fortune to protect you again, should you continue down this path."

With that, the man straightened his robes imperiously, turned on his heel, and strode off.

Thoroughly baffled, it took Harry a moment to realise that Lily Evans had been standing behind Crouch. She stared at him with wide eyes.

"Christ," he managed. "What the hell was that all about? Crouch never liked me, but that was bloody mental!"

Lily's mouth dropped open, but it took her a few moments to respond. "What? Oh, he—he hates the Dark Arts." She seemed to fumble for words. "He's been pretty…zealous since the Invasion. His wife, you see."

That Harry most certainly didn't see must have been obvious as Lily rushed to explain.

"She was one of the Imperiused who…didn't make it out. I think it hit him pretty hard that he was working so much that he didn't even notice she was missing. I guess the Auror who arrested her in one of the last attacks was new and recorded her maiden name by mistake, so with all the confusion…" Lily trailed off.

Harry could almost hear Dalcop's sobs the night he'd learned his own wife had been arrested.

He swore under his breath, all his anger at the man's behaviour bleeding away into pity. "But still, what's that got to do with me?"

The young woman frowned. "Well, I mean, come on, Harry. You did use the Killing Curse, and it's supposed to be unforgivable. Crouch wants to be Minister and intends to take a hard stance against all the Dark Arts. By law you should be in Azkaban, but since we can't let the public know that You-Know-Who survived a Killing Curse…" She shrugged awkwardly, avoiding his eyes.

For a moment, his mind went blank.

Bugger.

And then a cold, numbing terror crept over him. With everything that had happened, it hadn't even occurred to him that he could actually be in trouble for using the Killing Curse against Voldemort.

"What," he croaked through suddenly dry lips, "what do you think? About me and—and Azkaban?"

"I think you did the right thing," she answered without a trace of hesitation. "I don't like that spell any more than anyone else, but you could have ended it all if—if He hadn't done whatever he did. And…" Lily tugged at a lock of her hair. "And I know that most of the Order agrees with me. Even Moody. But you're going to need to watch out for Crouch."

"Yeah. I mean, thanks Lily. Really." His voice sounded fainter than he would have liked. Suddenly all he wanted was to go back to his bed and sleep for another month.

His mother's counterpart watched him with a strangely careful expression. "How are you feeling? Are you completely healed now?"

"Huh? Oh, no. This is the first time Poppy's actually let me out." He gave her a wan smile. "But I'll be fine."

Lily arched an eyebrow but didn't push further. "Well…I know you have an appointment with Albus." She nodded a polite farewell.

As she moved to leave and he made for the spiral staircase, her voice rang through the corridor with surprising firmness. "We'll talk again, Harry. Soon. When you're healthy."

"Sure," he shrugged. "Later, Lily."

xoxoxox

29 August, 1979

Harry surveyed his room for any last-minute possessions he'd overlooked.

The copies of the Daily Prophet scattered on his bed caught his eye.

Crouch Crushes Opposition! one headline proclaimed. New Minister vows harsh penalties for those who would threaten our world!

Another edition assured that All Ministry Employees to be Examined for Dark Marks! "We must roust You-Know-Who's supporters from every level of our society," says Minister Crouch.

He chewed his lip. Barty Crouch Senior might be a bastard of sorts, but he was still a right sight better than Selwyn, and probably loads better than Fudge had been.

The image of the grinning Sirius Black of this world slowly morphed into the gaunt and hollowed godfather he'd known in his own.

But we'll have to be on the lookout for people just getting chucked into Azkaban.

"Leaving then?" a gruff voice asked from the doorway.

Harry smiled. "Yeah. Poppy gave me the go-ahead this morning."

Argus Filch, face sour as always, shuffled in, eyeing the small stack of books on Harry's bed. "So…you becoming a scholar or something?"

"Hardly," he said. "Or, well, kind of? Albus asked me to help figure out what Voldemort's done to himself."

Filch looked unimpressed.

Harry shrugged. "Evil git tried to steal my soul and all."

The man sputtered. "That's what happened? Blimey O'Reilly…you might have mentioned that earlier!"

"Oh. Sorry. It's kind of hard to work into most conversations."

This earned him an actual laugh as Filch studied one of the texts. "What the hell kind of language is this, anyhow?"

Well shite.

"Er…It's in Parseltongue, actually. You know, um, snake language?" Harry bit his lip and idly pet Mrs. Norris, who'd jumped on the bed to investigate the fuss. "See, we know that Voldemort said some sort of incantation, but we couldn't hear it, even when we went into Albus' pensieve…And since Voldemort's a Parselmouth, Albus wondered if maybe the spell was a Parseltongue spell. So I've got to read all these and see if anything pops out."

Please don't think I'm evil.

Filch studied him. "You speak it then?"

He nodded mutely, waiting.

"Snakes say anything interesting?"

"Er…not really. That I know of, at least."

The older man scrunched his face in thought. "Seems kind of a pointless talent then, doesn't it?"

Harry blinked. "Yeah…Actually, yeah it really does, most of the time."

Filch grunted and leafed through the book.

He couldn't take it anymore. "Aren't you going to worry I'm evil or something?"

"Why the ruddy hell would I do that? So what if you speak the same damn language that Dark Lord does? Bloke speaks English too, doesn't he?"

Harry couldn't have stopped his smile if he'd tried. "Thanks Argus." He grabbed the texts and shoved them into his bag. "When Albus found out he was convinced I was Voldemort's bloody kid. I've been trying to keep it quiet."

"Wizards." Filch's cackle made it clear what he thought of his boss's assumption. "Well, take care of yourself, Harry. Don't want to see you all mostly-dead and stupid in here again, you hear me?"

"I hear you. And thanks…for staying with me and all. You come down to the Head soon, yeah?"

"I wi—"

"Hey kid, ready to go?" They both turned as Doc bounded into the room and came to a screeching halt. "Oh. Hello, Mr. Filch. Um. Sir."

Harry bit back a grin. Doc looked like nothing more than a guilty schoolboy.

The caretaker snorted at the 'sir,' but otherwise ignored him. He left the room with a muttered, "Later Harry," Mrs. Norris on his heels.

Doc shook his head. "Still can't believe you tamed ol' Filch. Anyhow, you ready to walk home?"

"Why? Can't we just Floo? I still get exhausted pretty easily."

"Oh. Well, yes, we could…but, I mean—that is—er—fresh air and all."

Harry stared at him.

Doc shifted awkwardly. "Yeah, see, you know…Oh, hell with it!" he snapped. "Guin wants a good liar, she should've come herself. They want you to walk so they have time to sort all the last minute details for your party. They're still waiting on the lads and ladies from Chincherd's brothel to arrive—"

Harry reared up, but Doc pushed on "—Of course I told them you wouldn't like it, but the fellas were dead set. Besides, they just invited the ones that were off tonight to come and have fun. And Guin's trying to fix the charms for the lights she conned off some Muggle 'discotalk' place, and the boys had to go beg Tom at the Leaky to sell us a few extra cases of Steaming, and…"

Harry started laughing weakly.

"Oh come on, kid, it'll be a good time," Doc grinned. "And you know nothing brings in business like a party! I think Rosie's even closing the 'Sticks so she can come. Think of the coin we'll be raking in!"

Surrendering with reluctant smile, Harry let his friend grab his bag and walk him home.

xoxoxox

The title of this chapter is a nod to Pink Floyd's iconic 1979 song "Comfortably Numb," which was being recorded at around the same time as this chapter's action.

On Harry repeatedly calling Fabian "Ron:" In case you are curious why no one makes a big deal of this, in part of a cut scene Albus explains it: Albus paused and looked at Harry with sympathetic eyes. "You likely do not remember it, but one of the first times you returned to partial consciousness you were quite agitated and claimed that your body wasn't your own. You kept claiming that things were 'wrong.' I would venture that such a feeling aligns with the forced reunion of soul and body after an unnatural separation." So essentially they thought he was saying "Wrong!" when he said "Ron!"

Huge thanks the wonderful AverageFish, who beta-read the first few scenes in this chapter (check out their two time-travel stories—FFN author ID: 8207725). The rest has been unbeta-ed. I apologize for any mistakes.