Here are the results of the vote and the final chapter order. Plus a bonus chapter! Three new, just for you. ^-^
Chapter Twenty: Purpose Is But The Slave To Memory
That night the hallways were unusually empty, even considering it was past curfew. They were almost more familiar to Harry by moonlight, thanks to years of midnight escapades, but he'd never known then to be so still. He hadn't encountered a soul since leaving Gryffindor Tower, living or otherwise. It seemed the only thing haunting Hogwarts that night was Harry. But while the last several days had felt like a kind of purgatory, Harry guessed the complete absence of clandestine snogging sessions had more to do with the strict new safety protocols than with him possibly being trapped in some hellish limbo.
Or perhaps it was simply the rain. The clouds had been threatening since lunchtime to work themselves into a really proper storm but had, as of yet, failed to make up their mind. Harry could sympathize. They mimicked the storm that had been trying to rise in him all day. Trying and failing so often he began to wonder whether his capacity to feel anything except anger might somehow have been damaged. And even that seemed to have reached its limits, remaining low burning but persistent, so that he hardly noticed it anymore.
It wasn't that he hadn't expected his first day 'back' to be challenging, it was that the challenges he'd faced were so wholly unexpected. Far from fawning, the halls were filled with tension and potential hostility. (The latter mostly on Harry's part.) It was good that Hermione had required both his attention and his temper to be even. He could feel himself spoiling for a fight, and her presence alone probably prevented him from doing any number of inadvisable things.
But Hermione was not meant to be Harry's savior. He was meant to be hers. It had been an exhausting exercise. Though she had improved throughout the day, she was still far from herself. She was, at times, sullen and distracted, needing frequent reminding of what she was saying or doing. At others she was compulsively chatty and cheerful, which Harry found even more painful. Her only constant seemed to be her newly acquired cynicism, which disquieted him the most. Harry just didn't know what do to about her.
No, he corrected himself. For her.
He might have accepted the responsibility grudgingly, but he did truly care about Hermione. Whenever he felt himself losing patience he only had to remind himself of that horrible vision, to tell himself he wasn't the only one in pain. Still, he had so little of himself to give, and as much as it shamed him to admit, he'd really just wanted to be well away from her. It was with no small amount of relief that he had finally been able to deposit her at her dormitory. He had been relieved, too, to find his own empty when he went to retrieve his invisibility cloak. He realized he hadn't seen Dean, Seamus, or Neville all day. He wondered wryly if they'd been relocated for their own safety. Or perhaps they were simply avoiding him, hoping he'd already be asleep when they came up themselves.
Harry found he didn't particularly care. After days spent in bed he was restless, and the Castle beckoned. He'd felt all day that, if he could just get a moment to himself, he could start to untangle the mess of thoughts and feelings in his head. But once under his cloak he'd ended up just wandering aimlessly, his mind a blessed but inconvenient blank. He didn't particularly want to confront his demons, but he'd made a decision, and Dumbledore could not make use of a broken puppet.
The idea irritated him, and he cursed Voldemort for being in his head even when he wasn't. Choice or no choice, it didn't quiet the conflict within him. It was becoming more and more difficult to articulate just what he felt. Everything had become a sort of emotional soup; white noise, like the fattening drops now drumming steadily against the window panes outside. His ambivalence may have been slow to build but, like the storm outside, it seemed to have finally come to a head. Instead of trying to analyze each raindrop, Harry simply opened himself to the deluge and hoped not to be swept away.
Though, having thrown open the floodgates, Harry was a little disappointed to find it didn't fill him up as expected. As hoped. Because he'd begun to worry that he'd forgotten how to feel normal things like normal people. But his fears seemed confirmed. He was a broken vessel. The pressures of the last week had weakened all his seams until, now, everything just drained through the cracks. The floodwaters buffeted but did not slow. Harry decided that he didn't feel numb, as he'd originally thought. It was more that he was hollow; vastly and insatiably empty.
The first flash of lightning burst silently beyond the window, and its light fell through Harry. He hadn't expected to cast a shadow while wearing his cloak, still he stared at that place on the wall where his shadow would have been and felt insubstantial. He felt...not himself. Not anyone. And really, he wondered, just who was he anymore anyway, since so much that had made him 'who he was' had been lost? The winds picked up outside, howling as they dragged themselves across the face of the castle and pulling a not insignificant gust down the drafty old corridor. Harry closed his eyes and imagined it was memories washing over him instead. Over and through and out and away. They rushed too fast to be coherent, but he reached out anyway, trying to pluck his memories of Ron from the stream. He frowned to find they simply ran through his fingers. No matter how he clawed at them, he couldn't grasp them, couldn't grasp what he'd once felt. It was as if a large part of him, perhaps the largest, had simply washed away, leaving him with nothing but anger at its absence. Harry mentally washed his hands through the rest of his life and it was much the same.
And suddenly none of it seemed particularly important anymore. He wanted it to be. He'd been going through all the motions. But these watery reflections might as well have been a dream he struggled to remember. Or illustrations from a storybook he'd read long ago. It was one that had moved him, granted, with fairytale villains and impossible trials, but it was one in which he didn't feel he had played an actual part.
...But no. It wasn't all diluted. There was a memory that was more substantial, and the feelings connected to it more viscous; one that welled while the rest just ran.
If he was completely honest with himself, there was more than one. But the memory of Remus' hand beneath his was more unsettling somehow. Those waters were warmer, but uncomfortably so. He was in no fit state to face the implications of it, wasn't prepared to confront the truth of why something so innocent could make him blush all over. So he set it aside, with no immediate intentions of reexamining it later.
The memory of snooping through Snape's quarters, however, was chilling in the best of ways, like a dunk in a cold pool that wakes one up. Snape was safe, ironically, because he was dangerous. And that, at least, was familiar. Harry much preferred Snape to Remus at the moment. Not the man, naturally, but the memory Harry still cradled in his consciousness, of that door handle jerking from his grasp. It was the thrill one feels on the cusp of forbidden discovery, of almost being caught, that had quickened Harry's heart and convinced him he was, indeed, still alive. It was the best proof he'd had of it so far, because neither the feeling nor the memory had faded. Neither was it constant, like his anger, to which he was becoming inured. The incident flared fresh every time it came to mind, and so was very welcome, but regrettably unrepeatable...as he couldn't imagine ever finding himself in the Potion Master's quarters again.
It was this conundrum that consumed Harry when the next flash of lightning revealed more than just his lack of shadow. As if summoned by accidental magic, Professor Snape himself appeared to be striding silently and purposefully in Harry's direction. He was otherwise almost invisible in the shadows, except when he was betrayed by the intermittent illumination from the storm. It was a powerful tableau that sent shivers up Harry's spine.
It seemed Harry's feet had been carrying him toward the dungeons, his subconscious understanding what he thirsted for even though Harry had only just become aware. Harry was still conflicted, but his distraction of choice had conveniently come to him without his having to go looking for it. Severus Snape was coming, and bringing with him that same promise of mystery and danger of discovery Harry had tasted that morning. He may never have another opportunity to investigate the locked door again, but that was fine, because what Harry craved Snape carried with him in spades.
Harry was both intrigued by and apprehensive of the effect Snape's arrival had on him. It was rather like breaking the surface after a long submersion, and the haze through which Harry had been wading abruptly fell away. His common sense urged him to slip away in the opposite direction, but Harry ignored it, instead pressing himself against the corridor wall to allow Snape to pass.
It was fortunate that Harry was invisible, because Snape came so close Harry could have reached out and touched the robes that curled out behind the man like smoke in the darkness, as if Snape somehow smoldered. Harry actually might have done; reached out. The impulse was so strong. But the first peal of thunder broke just then, close and crisp, simultaneously snapping Harry to his senses and invoking a heady rush of adrenaline. It left Harry breathless. Not just the shock of the thunder, but also the thought of what Snape might have done if Harry had dared. So much seemed to have changed between them lately, and Harry wondered just what Snape would have said about Harry being so far from Gryffindor Tower so late at night...fondling his cloak, of all things. Harry wondered what would happen if he whipped his own off right then...and why he was almost eager to find out.
It was completely mad. Harry, he realized, was completely mad. It would almost have been funny except that, while Harry mused, Snape was moving away...becoming just another echo of a slamming door that left Harry's fingers tingling. And Harry wasn't ready yet. He wasn't ready to relinquish his tenuous hold on...whatever this was. Because whatever it was, it was infinitely more tangible and accessible than the ghostly torrents that had carved out Harry's present emptiness. Whatever this was it did not erode, but instead whetted, Harry's sense of "self" and "here" and "now".
It wasn't exactly a conscious decision Harry made to push off the wall after Snape, or to dog his steps down one long, drafty corridor after another. And so it hadn't really occurred to Harry to wonder on Snape's destination until they found themselves at the guarded entrance to the Headmaster's office. It was obvious what Harry would do, but if he stopped to consider it, he knew he would balk. So Harry quite deliberately didn't think as Snape spoke the password. He didn't consider as he closed the distance between them, the sounds of his hasty approach drowned out by the storm raging outside and the rough brush of stone against stone. Harry entertained no notion of consequences as the stair carried Snape slowly but steadily out of sight. Harry simply let impulse and momentum carry him through the narrowing gap beside the guardian statue and onto the rotating stair.
Only then did Harry allow himself to reflect that he might have made a mistake, that no matter what understanding he and Snape had reached, being caught out of bed was nothing compared to being caught sneaking into Dumbledore's office. But it was too late now to change his mind. With a final resounding thump, the statue settled back into place, sealing Harry's non-decision as it sealed his only avenue of escape.
Though his landing had sobered him considerably, Harry still wasn't afraid. It could have been that, being trapped, fear would have simply been a waste of time. Or it could have been that whatever it was that was broken in him included the ability to feel fear in the first place. The fact remained that there was nowhere for him to go but up, with/toward Snape.
Only a week had actually passed, but their last Occlumency lesson seemed a lifetime ago...
Harry realized he would now forever reckon events as having happened either Before of After Ron. Of all the things he'd been through, all the things he'd seen, that event alone merited the delineation.
But the puzzle of Snape spanned it. Harry had been wanting to discuss his Occlumency lesson Before, when the dementors came. Harry was found by Snape After. Snape's quarters, at breakfast, the man was everywhere in Harry's thoughts. He still found Snape threatening and suspicious and off-putting, Harry simply didn't seem to mind anymore. The sum of all these things was that Harry was curious. Not so long ago, Harry was comfortable in the belief that he had the man pegged: he was a greasy, mean git in league with Harry's mortal enemy and his only discernible ambition in life was to make Harry's miserable.
But that was Before. How nave Harry felt now and how drawn to the riddle of Snape. He was the locked door, Harry realized. That almost-discovery had been sweet, addictive. How much more tempting now was the man himself, just as elusive and heavily fortified? Harry crept further up the stairs, thinking on how he'd never been so close to Snape when the man hadn't been spitting insults at him like venom. He looked...different without his fangs bared. Not vulnerable. Harry didn't think he could be considered so under any circumstances. But he was definitely unguarded, and Harry felt almost privileged to be witness to what surely was such a rare occurrence. It made him feel bold. Snape had only to reach out beside him to discover Harry's voyeurism, but Harry refused to waste this opportunity to really see the professor. He thought of everything Snape had said to him at Grimmauld Place, and that odd conversation he'd overheard him have with Remus through the hearth...and all of the niggling questions Harry'd almost forgotten resurfaced and demanded attention.
Who was Severus Snape? What kind of man? How could he cast Harry from his tutelage in a time of great need over a pair of faded underpants, but then offer Harry the seclusion of his own sanctuary in the face of another crisis? He had, in turns, been Harry's bane and his savior. Just that morning he'd prevented Harry from doing something he definitely would have regretted. And somehow Harry just knew it hadn't been about the greater good, it had been about Harry himself. It was a strange and immodest thought, but his intuition told him it was true.
Snape might not mollycoddle or sugarcoat, perhaps he didn't even care about Harry in the way the others did, but more and more it seemed like Snape simply understood Harry in a way no one else did. And Harry wanted to understand him, too. He wanted more of what he'd seen at Grimmauld Place. He wanted to know what weight Snape bore that stooped his posture like a waiting vulture, what thoughts stewed beneath that lank mop of black hair. Harry wanted to know what had happened to cause that firm set of resignation in his expression.
Unlike the stoicism he saw in Remus, Snape's brand of resignation carried ample amounts of bitterness, resentment, and regret. And while there were obvious candidates, Harry didn't want to speculate. He wanted to know, specifically, which ones composed his perpetual scowl.
Harry could scarcely imagine doing what Snape did so regularly, going into Voldemort's presence with the express purpose of deceiving him. Merlin's beard, it practically gave Harry gray hairs just thinking about it. Perhaps it spoke to how stern the stuff was from which Snape was made that Harry saw no gray at all in Snape's oily black locks. Impressive, too, was how few lines traced his sallow features. Far fewer than one would expect, at any rate. There were only those ones which accentuated his scowl and gave definition to that trademark smirk of his which, though it appeared to be resting, was still always faintly present; ready at a moment's notice to curl his thin lips towards those long nostrils, flared even now as if in disgust.
Or was it disgust?
...No it was definitely disgust, and not a passive one. As Harry watched, he realized Snape seemed to be smelling something. Something unpleasant.
Wait. Could it-...was it Harry?
As if in answer, Snape lifted his hawkish nose in Harry's direction with a pronounced sniff. Harry, panicked to realize just how close he'd come, swiftly put several steps between them, stealing quick whiffs of his under arms as he went in case he was unknowingly offensive. But his clothes were new and he'd had a thorough scrubbing that morning. In Snape's own bathtub, he realized. Snape quested again, frowned, then lifted the front of his own robes to his nose, finally dropping them with an exasperated huff. He waved his wand over himself to cast a quick scouring spell but seemed disappointed by the results.
"I'll have to fumigate," he muttered. "I should have known burning his clothes would not have been enough."
Despite his bewilderment, Harry smiled at that last statement. Besides the novelty of Snape actually talking to himself, Harry was darkly amused that his prediction had been correct after all. Madam Trelawney would have been proud. But before Harry could properly reflect on the oddity of Snape thinking he smelled, the stair ground to a halt, and Snape wasted no time rapping softly on Dumbledore's office door.
This, Harry knew, was the moment of truth. He could stay behind on the stair for Merlin knew how long and wait on Snape to return, or he could follow him inside. Of course, the only real question was how he would manage the latter. Because Harry had known when he slipped onto the staircase just where, at least in the short-term, this adventure would end. He gripped his cloak tightly and waited for his opportunity.