WizSPCA disclaimer: No gila lizards (Ninja Brigade or Shaolin), Space Bunnies or cows were harmed during the writing of this fanfiction. One Dark Lord and multiple Acromantulas and Dementors were pulped, assorted Death Eaters were hexed (some with extreme prejudice), a werewolf was bitten, a biting buttercup received a stern look, the students who hurt Luna are now receiving therapy from Gilderoy Lockhart, Lucius Malfoy's nose was broken twice (putting it forever out of joint) and his hair mussed. Sirius Black was savaged by a badger, kicked twice by a horse, and will carry the memory of his riding lesson to his dying day. It was a story of two halves, and benign dictatorship was the winner on the day. Although at least one sufferer of Mad Cow Disease was fatally kicked in the head, the cows themselves are OK and currently being tended to by Hagrid. All violent incidents fall within the established ethical parameters of fanfiction as set out by Space Bunny Central Control Literature Committee. (For a full copy of ethical procedure in regards to the arts, underwater basket-weaving, rugby league, or zombie manufacture, apply in person to Comrades Megaflopsy and Mopsytron, Section FF, Martian Colony Gamma.)
Intellectual copyright disclaimers: Elmsworthy's bandoleers stocked with potion phials were first used by Rabbit (no, not in the least way a Space Bunny) in her wonderful story "Balance", so credit goes to her rather than famed Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (and it was completely coincidental that Elsa saw a movie based on the life of Pancho Villa as he was depicted by Antonio Banderas). And, of course, characters and imaginary settings belong to JK Rowling and the legal-eagles at Warner.
I can honestly say, hand on heart rather than on left lung, that this long and winding fic that leads to your screen would not have been finished had it not been for the people who reviewed along the way. My thanks to you guys for your support and for making this a better story with your suggestions and sharp proof-reading eyes that spottted typos and badness grammar. So give yourselves a hearty pat on the back (try to do it without dislocating your shoulder) and sit back wherever you are for the last chapter. It's for you.
… on to the end.
There was a moment's silence.
It was broken by the cauldron burping up a final purple gassy bubble.
Luna muttered a spell and an opaque blue wall shot up across the opening to the loft to block their view of an open-mouthed Neville and the cauldron which was still sending out bubbles and sparks.
Draco made an inarticulate sound and rushed forward, pushing the stunned Ginny out of the way without seeming to notice she was there. He dropped down to his knees and threw his arms around the transformed Simon, who lifted his head and squinted against the light of the globes, clearly confused and still frightened, although the anxiety faded when Luna stroked his arm and whispered something Harry couldn't hear.
Draco sat back on his heels, wiping his eyes on the back of a shaking hand. "Professor. It's really you?"
"It's him, Draco," Luna said.
"Hah! I knew – I always knew he was a Slytherin sort of horse! Professor, welcome back!"
Luna put a finger to her lips. "Shh, he's still a bit unsure of who he is. Just be patient. Don't startle him."
"You knew who he was all this time," Harry stated hoarsely.
At the sound of his voice, eyes just as dark as Simon's blinked from behind the black hair that had fallen forward like a forelock to curtain them. They turned, found Harry, and the tension ebbed from them as if they were glad to see him.
Dazed, feeling vaguely horrified and inexplicably betrayed, Harry turned on his heel and let his legs march out of the loosebox before any more lies could happen. He nearly walked into Dumbledore, who put out a hand to stop him.
it took a moment before Harry could sort through the dozens of automatic denials and accusations before he managed a soft, "You – you knew?"
"Is there anyone out there who isn't laughing at the giant cosmic joke that is my life?"
"This is no joke, Harry, nobody is laughing, and the only one outside of Hogwarts aware of Simon's true identity is Mr Python." Dumbledore's hand tightened on his shoulder. "It is vital you take care for no-one else to stumble across this secret."
Harry blinked at him. He couldn't find any words that fitted a situation like this. He wasn't sure if he wanted to congratulate someone or vomit.
"Mr Longbottom, Mr Malfoy, Miss Weasley," Dumbledore continued, his voice rising to carry past Harry, yet remaining soft and calm. "I trust to your discretion on this. The story will go that a pocket was created in the barrier as it formed, which trapped Professor Snape out of time."
"Sir?" said Ginny, who had followed Harry. With her face blanched around her freckles, she looked almost as shaken as Harry felt.
Neville squeezed around the wall of sky spell and climbed down from the loft. He tripped and landed in the hay with a thump and a softly spoken apology. His pale face flamed with embarrassment, and he stared at his feet rather than make eye contact with the trio sitting on the ground as he hurried out to join Harry, Ginny and Dumbledore. He stared back into the stall where Luna, sitting in the straw with Draco (who hadn't seemed to notice Dumbledore's arrival) and Snape, was buttoning up the neck of Snape's robes and talking to him and patting his shoulder as if the man were still Simon. Neville shook his head in disbelief and stared at Dumbledore as if the headmaster had gone around the bend, up the wall, and taken a swandive into new realms of insanity. "Really, sir?" he quavered. "But why?"
"For the safety of Miss Lovegood as well as Professor Snape," said Dumbledore. "Professor Snape has many enemies. They won't hesitate to use Luna against him."
"I… don't understand," said Neville. "Just because she looked after him when he was a horse? That makes her a target? But if Ginny turned him back –"
"Ginny isn't his niece," Harry said bitterly.
Neville's eyes bulged. "She what?"
"Harry…" began Dumbledore.
"I won't tell anyone," he said. "If you don't mind, sir, I have things to do back in the castle…" He ignored Dumbledore's outstretched hand and sad blue eyes and hurried out of the stable.
Harry didn't stay in the castle. Some deep restless itch of the spirit drove him out again, and he went for a walk in the Forest. He didn't come back in time to see Ron and Ginny go. There was a shameful relief in this, and he spent the rest of the evening avoiding Hermione and Draco. Sirius tracked him down near the lake and silently handed over a packet of sandwiches to Harry, who was far more hungry than he'd thought he was. Harry knew his godfather thought Simon's leaving was what had upset him, but for once Sirius had the tact not to ask.
Trailed by a large black dog where once he might have been trailed by a large black horse, Harry prowled the grounds until Remus, even more reserved than usual, came out and herded them inside, whether seeing himself as a teacher enforcing the curfew or as a werewolf that now rounded up straying students rather than eating them, it was impossible to say. Remus was definitely holding something back, but it took several minutes of walking before he found the words he wanted to explain a delicate situation, or perhaps he simply gave up and went for the truth.
"You won't believe this," Remus said as they came up the hill from Hagrid's towards the castle, "but that barrier had some very odd properties. It actually trapped someone inside a little bubble of time."
"You're kidding." Now back in human form, this was the first time Sirius had spoken this evening in Harry's presence. "Not some random Death Eater, I hope." He snorted. "Mind you, I'd like to see his face when he finds out Voldemort's snuffed it."
Remus shot him a sideways look, and in that look was all the wariness he'd been radiating so strongly. "Not exactly a Death Eater, no."
"I know there's been someone taken to a private room in the Infirmary. No-one's allowed in or out. Hah, It's not Voldemort is, it?"
"No. It's, er, it's Severus. Severus Snape."
By the expression of horror on Sirius' face, Voldemort was the preferred option. "No. Moony, tell me you're joking."
Remus looked tired, something he did quite well. "As far as he's concerned, it was only a few moments between getting caught in the bubble and coming out of it. Doesn't know what's been going on the last few months; apparently his health is fine although Dumbledore is keeping him under very careful scrutiny."
Sirius made a noise of scorn.
"Don't start anything, Sirius. The headmaster is over the moon to have him back, and has ways and means of keeping him safe in the Infirmary. Thought I'd better warn you," Remus said quickly, with a glance at Harry to catch his reaction. His eyes sharpened. "But did you already know, Harry?"
"I'd heard, um, a rumour…"
"Hmm. Sirius, I shouldn't have to tell you to stay away from the Infirmary. One Auror has already been sent to St Mungo's after barging his way in because he wanted to question Snape."
Sirius' mouth pinched thin. "I'll mind my own business. Dumbledore should know I won't do anything counter to the war effort, even if Snape did sit out the occupation in a happy little bubble of time. But… all right."
"I'm trying to stay out of the Infirmary. For the sake of my health." He forced a smile.
"Well, for the sake of my health, maybe –"
"Sirius. Just… don't start anything."
"Fine, Remus, fine. When did you stop being fun?"
"When you tried using me to commit murder," the werewolf snapped.
Sirius' face went red. He nodded, and had the wisdom to stay silent.
"So-oo… are we going to be allowed to play Quidditch again?" Harry said.
Recognising Harry's clumsy attempt to smooth things over, Remus gave him a look of mingled exasperation and fondness. "So long as no fatalities occur – or more inter-House rivalries sprout up, because it's fifty percent Slytherins stocking the student population after the train leaves tomorrow and I don't need cocky Gryffindors or know-it-all Ravenclaws spoiling the peace me and the Hufflepuffs have spent so much time arranging – then perhaps we could think about it."
Harry put his hand over where he thought his heart was. "I'll be good. I never start the fights, anyway. Promise."
"You swear on your left lung?"
"What? No, it's meant to be my heart."
"How come nobody teaches anatomy here, Remus?" Sirius said, shaking his head.
Remus shrugged. "I asked about it for teaching DADA, thinking it would be helpful, but one of the members of the Board of Governors thought it would be too much like a lesson in butchery having a werewolf teach human anatomy."
"Bet it was Malfoy," growled Sirius.
"It might have been Malfoy," Remus said peaceably. "But no matter."
"I think that if you want to teach anatomy next year," Harry said slowly, "you might be in luck. There's a new Malfoy in charge."
Remus looked away, but not quickly enough that Harry missed the grin. The way his shoulders shook could have been from grief, but under the circumstances he decided not. "So should I run my curriculum past Draco?" Remus said once he'd got himself back under control.
"Actually, he might have a few ideas," Harry began slowly, then was hit by a new idea. "Hey, how about having students write down what they want to learn? You could send out a survey over summer! I'd like to learn more about other races, like centaurs, and whatever old magics the Founders felt they had to work with or against – I reckon things would have been pretty different a thousand years ago. Are the wards you're helping repair different to those we use today? And edge creatures – or maybe Hagrid should teach us those…"
Remus held up his hands in surrender. "I need to rethink all my classes. Maybe a survey would be useful… How about it, Harry? Care to help me think up some more examples for students to choose from? Or we could even have an extracurricular class, or a club like you had with the DA. So many of the students, like Millicent Bulstrode, were useful in organising groups that we mightn't need them to be run by teachers. It's a shame Elmsworthy has finished, but then again we don't need extra lessons in how to blow things up."
"Seamus could teach that.
"Quite right. And there must be other things students would like to learn – Colin Creevey is quite artistic. I wonder if Dobby would teach cooking? That would be novel – a house elf as a tutor."
"We could have another ghost teach specialist history – some of them might know about the Founders and they mightn't be as boring as Binns – Sir Nick can be pretty interesting."
"I'm not having Peeves take classes – some of the weakening of the wards dates from a year or two ago – the castle is still recovering from Fred and George."
"I'm pretty good with Charms and Transfiguration," Sirius offered.
Remus nodded. "That's true."
"If you have time next year, perhaps you could get special permission to help tutor," said Harry.
Sirius scratched under his chin. "Yeah. Yeah, I could do that. As soon as I get that full pardon, I'll need to be busy with something. Aurors wouldn't take me, not unless they were arresting me again, but I think I could probably teach a special class on how to become an Animagus… What do you think, Harry?"
I think having you and Snape both on staff could destroy all those wards everyone is working so hard to resurrect. "I'd sign up for that. Although maybe you could have it as a private class – that way you don't have to worry about the Governors, and you could teach in your own time at your own school… maybe in Hogsmeade… lots of adult wizards would like to learn, I bet!"
Sirius nodded, and Remus shot Harry a grateful look. Perhaps he'd been thinking the same thing as Harry had belatedly realised: putting Sirius and Snape in the same building was as clever as putting a kneazle and a crup in the same sack. "Harry's right, Sirius. You'd be better at teaching adults. They have less qualms with telling you to go to hell when you're being overbearing."
Sirius managed a rueful grin. "Good point."
As they came back into the castle, Filch was waiting. He gave Harry a sour look, unimpressed by the Slayer of Dark Lords, and closed the doors. Sirius ignored him, and Remus gave him a nod of acknowledgement that was not returned before leading the way up the stairs, but Harry was already frowning upwards.
Dumbledore was waiting up on the landing. "Ah, there you are," he said as the three approached him.
"Is it true that Snape's back?" Sirius said, voice straining with the effort of appearing politely interested in someone's welfare.
Dumbledore, like Harry, wasn't fooled. "Yes, he is, and no, you can't visit him. Or send him a get well card, or any sort of gift." For once Dumbledore wasn't mincing words.
"I wasn't going to. I'd ask why everyone thinks the worst of me; however" – Sirius gave his successful pirate grin – "I must admit that history has certain flashing red lights of warning in my background. But I'm behaving myself – for Harry's sake if nothing else."
"Good. I really don't want you waiting out the weeks until your retrial in Azkaban."
Sirius gave a one-shouldered shrug. "I'll behave."
"Glad to hear it. Harry, do you have a few minutes before you return to Gryffindor?"
"Excellent. Remus, Sirius, I bid you two a fond good night, pleasant dreams to you both."
Remus led Sirius away, Sirius grumbling almost under his breath "…like I'm going to have a pleasant dreams with Snape back in the world…"
"Sometimes I get the oddest notion, that Sirius has his little grudges running like one of those golems they use in the Levant," Dumbledore mused. "A lot of unthinking – perhaps you could say thoughtless – action, all stemming from a few ill-considered words given uncounted years earlier."
"I think it might have stemmed from more than a few words, sir."
Dumbledore and Harry walked in silence to the Headmaster's Office. They woke the guardian gargoyle, which complained about the late hours, and allowed the spiral stairs to carry them upwards. In the office, Fawkes trilled a greeting. Dumbledore stroked the bird and took his seat.
"Tea, Harry? Cocoa?"
"Have you eaten since lunch?"
"Sirius brought me some sandwiches for dinner."
"Kind of him. Have you decided if you wish to stay with him over the summer?"
"Yes, I will." Harry exhaled sharply. "I don't think I was ever that comfortable with going to Montana for some reason."
"Indeed. Perhaps you picked up subconsciously that it was the wrong place for you and Simon."
"There is no Simon. There never was." There. He'd finally said it.
Dumbledore turned his eyes to the window for a moment, seemingly in a reflex action, for the sky was dark and stars shone down on the distant, empty hill. "Please sit down, Harry."
The last time he'd been in this office he'd been bristling with a crackling energy he couldn't name, let alone find a focus for. Now, all Harry's bones felt old and brittle, abandoned by the strength the energy had lent them. With more relief than concession and a creak from his knees, he lowered himself awkwardly into the chair. Lifting his glasses with one hand, he rubbed his face with the other. His eyes were gritty; his hands smelt of decaying leaves from sitting on the Forest floor, and also vinegar… oh, the sandwiches Sirius had brought him had had chutney in them, he realised tiredly.
Dumbledore steepled his fingers. "The charm used to create Simon is a dangerous one."
"Sorry?" Harry felt as if he'd missed half the conversation.
"Keeping up the pretence of a horse with no past while Professor Snape was trapped in the guise of Simon is self-explanatory, but you deserve an explanation for the continued need for dissimulation."
Harry couldn't argue the fact that keeping it secret from the students that the most hated professor at Hogwarts was a vulnerable animal was self-explanatory, but part of him twitched at any opportunity to argue. He had a good case to argue: as one of the three people responsible for the horse, shouldn't he have been told the exact nature of his charge? Then he could have told Malfoy and Luna to look after the bad-tempered brute by themselves. Things would have been completely different. He – He squelched the rising anger and resonating guilt with a quick count to ten. Able to think again, he tried to keep his mind clear, although he was vaguely puzzled by why he should feel wretched over not wanting to look after Simon-who-had-never-existed. "Oh. Okay."
Dumbledore watched him for half a second longer than strictly necessary before saying, "Currently, the Animagus transformation is strictly regulated by the Ministry, and for good reason. Rita Skeeter – a bug, I believe – provides a case in point of how unregistered Animagi can create mischief. Now, imagine a world in which a witch or wizard of unremarkable power but a talent for drawing can alter themselves into the animal of their choosing."
Harry frowned, thinking of the fig Severus had eaten. "I think you need more than a little power…"
"In its earliest form, the charm developed by the Snape siblings did require a catalyst. Severus was unsure of what the original one was, although if his memory of that time returns he may be able to reveal –"
"It was a fig. From Hufflepuff's Glasshouse."
Dumbledore's eyebrows rose. His fingers, which had been lightly stroking his beard, froze for the barest moment. "My goodness. How remarkable. Also fortunate that neither you spontaneously combusted from contact with an unripe specimen."
"The tree dropped fruit for us," Harry remembered. "It wanted us to eat it."
"Helga was reputed to have had a gift for creating communicative flora, although no records were left of methods nor results."
Harry filed that fact away in his memory for later consideration, although after the Forest speaking through him it didn't surprise him in the least. "So if Se-nape ate the fig, maybe that was all the trigger he needed. You mightn't have to worry about other people using the spell to change into lots of different animals."
"Unfortunately his sister was also able to change form. While possessed of an inquisitive, intelligent mind, she never had half the power Severus has. The charm itself is time-consuming to effect, but once stabilised within the magical field of witch or wizard it is self-sustaining and open to a range of morphologies. Once the charm was developed, I gather she managed to change into three different animals even without the help of a fig, although it has never been made clear to me why she was unable to spend more than twenty minutes in one form at any one time."
"But she was only able to take on a form for twenty minutes?"
"That doesn't make sense – S-nape was a badger overnight – we had to wait until we'd rested before we could change him back."
"You changed him back? He didn't do so by himself?"
"Well, I said the reverse spell…"
"… And he was Simon for months! You said he's more powerful than his sister was, though…"
"Yet the spell drew lightly from his magic. Neither Severus nor Selene found themselves significantly lessened energetically in any way after deactivation of the spell."
Selene? Oh, that must have been the name of Luna's mum. It was embarrassing that Harry hadn't bothered to find this out before now. "So when they changed back from some animal form they weren't tired?"
"Not particularly. There are arithmantaical formulae which they used to calculate the magical input necessary to change shape, but they only confirmed what they felt: once the spell is embedded, the energy needed to activate it and hold the animal shape is minimal."
"But with Luna's mother it only lasted a short time."
"Yes. Perhaps it was the initial boost given by the fig that gave the activated spell its longevity in Severus' case. He did not quite understand how it would remain active on him for significant lengths of time and not his sister."
"What happened if she tried to stay in an animal form for longer than twenty minutes?"
"The spell would snap and send her back into her human form."
"Sounds safe enough…"
"Superficially, so it would seem. The only caveats of the spell is that the picture it uses for a template be accurately representative of the target species, and drawn by the witch or wizard who wishes to take on the form of that creature."
"Maybe she wasn't such a good artist."
"As a matter of fact she was an excellent artist, as is her daughter."
"Oh." Harry leaned back in the chair and stared at his thumbs, which were tapping at each other. He didn't want to consider the chances of Luna getting stuck as an animal, her mind falling away into dimensions beyond the ones she'd successfully returned from. "Would Luna ever – of course she would." He shook his head, trying to dislodge the unwelcome thoughts. "So the Ministry doesn't want people running around in all sorts of disguises. Seems a bit unfair – there could be ways of marking people who've changed shape with that charm."
"That is true, and lawyers do sell charms to protect patents, although tagging it with a tracking charm makes it only slightly less difficult to police. The Ministry is highly suspicious of new spells of such a – shall we say – transformative nature." The blue of his eyes took on the sharp edge of sapphires. "Ministry officials would start bandying around words and phrases such as 'ramifications' and 'disruptive social engineering'. The originators of the charm would be challenged as to their motivations when they put the effort into the charm's creation, and suspicions would be raised over their backgrounds."
"But Severus wasn't a Death Eater when –!" Harry began hotly, then snapped his mouth shut when Dumbledore splayed his fingers and nodded.
"Ah, true, but it makes no difference to the Ministry. The Ministry works to its own prejudices. In addition, Harry, and one must never underestimate the importance of the formidable weapons available to the Ministry, there is a horrendous amount of red tape in the patenting of new spells. Professor Snape has always hated paperwork." For a moment his eyes regained their twinkle as they regarded Harry over the half-moon spectacles. Then Dumbledore's hand stilled on his beard again. "But there is another, greater reason for keeping it secret. When I say the charm was developed, I am not informing you of the most dangerous issue concerning it, one that was in effect since Tom's attack on Hogwarts, the effect which took a combination of a sorceress and your remembrance of the counterspell to undo it. As far as I can tell, for Severus is not always forthcoming about his research, the charm was never fully perfected. While it is self-sustaining once in place, there is a certain lack of cohesion to the coordinating magics that leaves the charm open to the sort of fragmentation that can trap the user in the animal state without retaining consciousness of his or her human identity."
"But that only happened when Malfoy tried to kill Snape, didn't it?"
"Professor Snape, Harry, and while it was a particularly violent curse, deadly and painful enough to provoke Professor Snape into instinctively trying to manifest another body which could shake off the curse and thus trapping himself as the unwitting Simon, there could be others, superficially innocuous, which might damage the charm in a similar manner. In an environment like Hogwarts, where students throw around spells without fully understanding the laws that divide a charm from a hex, it would be courting disaster should he – or others who have learned to use the charm – attempt to activate it. It would be best if he removed it from his magical field altogether."
"It – was it the charm that killed Luna's mother?"
Dumbledore shook his head and half lifted a hand. "No, no. That was a different experiment."
"But did the charm weaken her somehow? You said it was never perfected – what if it set up some sort of dangerous resonance with the spells she was practising?"
Dumbledore smiled softly if a little sadly. "It is gratifying to hear your concern, but no. Selene had removed the charm from her magical field to give herself more scope for her research, and she was working on a very different set of spells at the time. Luna and Severus were aware of her research. I believe Severus to have had exactly the same concerns as you. He was searching for any explanation for the death of his sister and rather distressed to think that any project they might have been working on could have destabilised her magic and resulted in such a tragedy. But the post-mortem inquest was very precise in its conclusions. It was reported in the papers at the time, but if you wish to study them I would ask some discretion from you – Luna is very good at concealing the depths of her true feelings, and I do not believe she has yet to recover from witnessing her mother's death."
"I understand." I'm an idiot and Luna's had enough to deal with in her life without me making her feel worse. I should just leave her alone – say I'm sorry for how I've treated her, then leave her alone to get on with her life. He rubbed one hand through his hair, vaguely registering the fact that it needed a wash. "So this means Simon is gone for good."
"For Professor Snape's good, yes."
Harry rubbed his palms over his knees and looked at the bookshelves, wishing he was somewhere else. It didn't really matter where. "Was that what you wanted to tell me?"
"Not quite." Dumbledore took a breath. "I wanted to thank you for helping Hogwarts with more than Lord Voldemort. When you told me all those years ago that I could trust you, I am so glad that I listened. Thank you for defeating Tom Riddle, Harry. I will let the Ministry give you all the accolades you deserve for saving the rest of the world, but from me, both officially as Headmaster of Hogwarts and unofficially as your friend and someone who loves you and deeply regrets the tasks I and Wizarding society have forced upon you, I wish to thank you for rescuing Hogwarts. Thank you for giving aid to a man who is a valuable member of staff as well as one of my friends while he was caught in a dangerous tangle of fractured spells. Thank you for your bravery and your tenacity and most of all, thank you for the loyalty you have given your friends. Thank you for extending your friendship to people who were once your enemies. I hope that you will one day be rewarded for your daring in that last, most difficult of challenges. For without friends – good friends, true friends, friends who love and value us in return – without friends we may never reap the sweetest harvests of the lives we live. You, Harry Potter, you have worked hard and deserve all the golden bounty life has to offer. That is what I wanted to tell you."
Harry's throat had closed over. It took a moment until he could swallow properly to clear it and he took the time to wipe his eyes, which were blurring. "Thank you, sir."
He wasn't sure he could choke out anything else and dreaded being asked questions, but all Dumbledore said was a quiet, "Good night, Harry," and Harry nodded and left, with a soft, lingering chirp from Fawkes, a falling note as sweet as anything Dumbledore had suggested Harry's life should contain, to lighten his steps down the staircase.
Harry slept deep and well and not even Neville's snoring woke him. Luckily Dean was thoughtful enough to poke his shoulder until Harry woke up or he would have missed breakfast, because after his hurried shower Harry discovered he was ravenous. Was Dean the only one brave enough to risk waking him? Because as he walked down to the Great Hall most of the other students were stepping warily around Harry. It was as if killing Voldemort had suddenly turned him into something dangerous… but it was also possible that the way he'd been snapping at everyone yesterday might have had something to do with it, he decided with a yawn.
He found a table in a quiet corner.
Hermione wasn't afraid of him. She joined him at the table, and they chatted about her summer plans. She hoped to spend some time at the Burrow, and although she was tactful enough not to actually tell Harry he'd behaved badly yesterday, he picked up on her hints that he owed Ron a letter. He promised to write one as soon as possible. Judging by the way Hermione perked up, Ron must have been quite hurt by Harry's absence last evening, and Harry hunched his shoulders as the guilt settled on him. "How are you going with the packing?" he asked.
"Oh, everything is done. I'm going to help Luna look for a few books later – want to help?"
"Oh, sorry. I thought you two were…"
"No. Don't try and fix it. Please."
She lifted her hands in surrender. "I may not be the most experienced at relationships, but I have enough book smarts to know when to stay out of something!"
"There's a book? Where?"
"There are lots of books, Harry. Honestly –"
"This isn't going to be one of those Hogwarts: a History moments, is it? Because if there was a book entitled Girlfriends: a Beginner's Guide I would have found it in the library by now!"
"No, it isn't going to be one of those Hogwarts: a History moments. Honestly, you'd think I'd only ever read the one book…"
"The trouble is that you never stopped with just the one."
Hermione sniffed, but she was trying not to laugh. She elbowed him in the ribs. "Sorry," she said, when he squeaked, ticklish, and dropped a forkful of scrambled eggs.
"No, no, I deserved egg – it's just I was kind of expecting it in my face, not in my lap."
She winked. "Must be all that talk about relationships."
"Hermione! Right, that's it. I'm going to see if I can find Sirius. See you before you go?"
"You'd better. It'll take more than a letter – especially one of your letters – to butter me up again if you don't."
"Right. Hint taken."
"I saw Professor Lupin being followed by a certain big black dog of our acquaintance going up to Professor Flitwick's office. I think they are going to take a look at the wards up around the hills later."
"Excellent. I'll try and catch them before they set off. Want a hand with your luggage later?"
Harry made it to Flitwick's office after bumping into McGonagall, who hijacked him to help her calm down some first year students who had managed to somehow invert a Cheering Charm, sending four of them into hysterical fits of weeping, torrents of tears flowing down their faces. Harry helped her counter the charm and then shepherd the soggy students to the Infirmary to check they weren't dehydrated. Inside the Infirmary, all the doors were open, all the rooms were empty, and many of the beds had had their mattresses turned sideways to air. It was as if all battles and illnesses were packing their bags and leaving for the summer, along with the students. Harry couldn't help asking, "Where's, er, Professor Snape?"
"Oh, he's back in his quarters," McGonagall said over her shoulder. She was preoccupied with stopping one of the students from floating up to the ceiling – Harry's counter-charm had had unexpected side-effects. "Mr McManus, come down this instant!"
She sounded quite cross. Pomfrey came charging to the rescue. Harry decided to let them do their job in peace, and tiptoed away.
If Remus and Sirius had been to see Flitwick, they had departed before Harry. When Harry knocked and Flitwick squeaked, "Come in!" it was to find that the Charms master was the only one in the office.
"Mr Potter, what can I do for you?"
"Er, just looking for Professor Lupin. Hermione said he was with you."
"Just missed him. He's off to check the wards in the hills. They've been undulating from the north somewhat."
Whether it was the wards or the hills themselves which were undulating, Harry wouldn't like to bet his last Galleon. He quickly thanked the professor and closed the door.
He was on his way towards the stairs when he heard a familiar voice coming closer and closer, about to turn a bend from one of the corridors leading away from the one Harry was on.
Harry's heart sped up to triple-time. Luna! I could talk to her now, say I'm sorry, say –
Harry dived behind a tapestry before she could come around the corner.
A voice breathed in his ear: "Well. This is cosy."
"Oh, er, hello, Stephanie."
"Not hiding, are we?"
How did a painting get into a tapestry? The knots on the wrong side of her seemed to make one eye wink.
No – that wasn't a trick of the material. She really was winking. She had one hand out to pat the unicorns which had come to investigate Harry. Hopefully they wouldn't call attention to him.
"Unicorns seem to like you, Harry. I guess the chastity wards are still in full force. My goodness, but that's a patriotic shade of Gryffindor red you're going… bit like when Hermione made you blush over breakfast… but I'll leave you alone now, shall I?"
"Please," he ground out. "That'd be lovely." Much as he wanted to ask her about unicorns and Helga Hufflepuff and what exactly the centaur had done to him when he'd painted his eyes with silver blood – and that voice that had sounded through him to send Voldemort somewhere outside all the boundaries Harry could conceive of – Harry Potter was busy with the far more serious business of avoiding his ex-girlfriend. There was a time and a place for the mysteries of the universe, and right now the mysteries of the universe were taking a firm second place to the social embarrassment resulting from the criminal extent of his ineptness as a boyfriend.
Luna was a mystery of the universe in her own right. As was Harry's ability to destroy every chance he had of doing the right thing by her.
Stephanie left. To his relief. He heard Luna and Hermione's voices pass him by, chatting about the possibility of Nargles stealing books (Hermione was unconvinced, countering with the theory that a member of the far more common species Homo sapiens idioticus was involved). Hermione didn't disagree when Luna pointed out that the amount of her things which disappeared had dropped almost to zero since she'd become friends with Draco – Hermione murmured something about hearing how someone who'd accidentally borrowed Luna's Arithmancy book without asking had been hit so badly with a tickling hex that they'd needed to take a particularly nasty potion (brewed by an unusually helpful Elmsworthy) for three days to counter it. "…And when we find where the rest of your books have gone, the 'accidental borrowers' will wish they were dealing with Malfoy," Hermione finished with that grim note in her voice which meant she'd had enough of people playing silly buggers.
When he was reasonably sure there was no one else around, he re-emerged. He was alone. That was lucky. Now he didn't have to worry about either hurting Luna or leaving himself vulnerable thanks to his stunning social abilities, which must be alongside those of the average Dementor.
So why did it feel like he'd just done something even dafter than usual?
Homo sapiens idioticus Harrii.
Harry wandered, kicking at thistles, glad to have made it out of the castle before he did something stupid, like opening his mouth. Sparrows chased each other and chattered between the nodding grassheads of the hill he was climbing. A swallow flickered around his head and he scowled. He was halfway up when he realised his feet had been moving on automatic, but stubbornly kept going. Perhaps Remus or Sirius were up this way, although it was a long hike out along the trail leading from here through the hills to where the barrier had once been. Harry had ridden out to it a few times, and even at the canter Simon had taken –
He kicked at a thistle, then, when it sprang back at him, took out his wand and exploded it.
No sign of Remus or Sirius, but Draco was already up at the paddock, writing furiously in his notebook. Harry wasn't sure if he was intruding, and hovered by the gate. He was on the point of walking away without having announced himself when Draco looked up, started at finding he wasn't alone, then relaxed in the next second when seeing it was only Harry.
Amazing, how easy it was for Harry to read him now.
Harry crossed his arms and rested them on the gate. The wood had soaked up some of the warmth of the day and felt almost friendly under his forearms despite the potential for splinters. "Ready to go home?" Harry asked, preparing to go at the first mention of Luna, Snape or Simon.
Draco gave a one-shouldered shrug an exact match for the one Sirius tended to use when he didn't want to admit to some deeper issue. "Pretty much."
Harry's forehead creased. "Will you be alright there? You've got, um, difficult circumstances, I think they're calling it?"
Draco's smile matched his shrug. He closed his notebook and folded his hands across it. "Potter calling the cauldron black."
"I hope you're packed. The train's leaving in an hour."
"I've sent everything down to the station already. Thought I'd get some peace and quiet before the long train ride."
"You're not a third-year screaming that she can't find her familiar, or Crabbe looking for his brain, or Bulstrode throwing a seventh-year down the stairs because he's being a bully –"
"Compared to all that I'm a travelling sea of tranquillity."
"I've always tended to think of you as a travelling lightning rod of disaster, but never mind. Things the same in Gryffindor as Slytherin?"
"Probably. I'm avoiding it until I have to go and help Hermione later." When Draco grinned, Harry climbed over the gate (the hinge end, of course – he was no longer a townie barbarian) and sat on a rock next to him. The grass was short, cropped to the roots by a hungry Simon. It would have lots of opportunity to grow long now, Harry thought with a sudden burst of anger that surprised him.
Perhaps Harry's ability to read other people wasn't as unidirectional as he'd assumed. "Nothing." He nodded at the notebook before Draco's sceptical scowl could become words. "How's the Great Wizarding Novel going? Got a title for it?"
Draco looked down at the worn canvas cover, Slytherin green with silver trim. "Thought I'd call it The Little Green Book. A certain theme to the contents, but no actual plot just yet."
"Really? I thought it would be abounding with plots, or schemes at the very least."
Draco rolled his eyes. "That was quick. Granger been giving you some of her brain enhancing potion?"
"No, sometimes me uses me own brain. For thinking jobs."
Draco opened his notebook. "Today Potter… claimed ability to… use brain… for something other… than Bludger target," he wrote, saying each word out loud as the quill etched it onto the page in purple Phoenician ink.
Harry considered making some sort of witty remark about the ink, but thought a Pureblood wizard mightn't get the joke. Ron hadn't, when Hermione scathingly described one of his Divinations textbooks as being an excellent example of the sort of purple prose that could be written by a failed romance writer.
Whether the purple ink lent itself to purple prose, the mental picture of Draco as a romance writer – a more pillowy version of Rita Skeeter with a pink feather boa draped around his neck – brought Harry out of his brown study.
"So when are you off home?" Harry asked.
"Pleased to see the back of me, I bet."
Harry snapped his fingers like a villain whose dastardly plot had been uncovered. "I was putting off the party until then."
Draco's mouth twisted into the embarrassed version of his traditional sneer. "Huh, my mother wanted to throw a party when I got home."
"I thought you'd be totally up for that?"
Draco's shrug made it to both shoulders this time. "Too difficult. Insensitive, both politically and personally. If I invite someone and leave out someone else, it could cause certain divisions in Slytherin I'd rather avoid at this point in time. A number of people who were meant to stay at Hogwarts because of 'difficult family circumstances' have either been taken by distant relatives or will leave on the train today. Like me, for example. And Crabbe and Goyle, although I don't like to mention them in the same breath as my good self."
"How about in the same breath as your evil self?"
"Ha, ha. You're halfway to being quite the wit. Er, did you know Nott went yesterday afternoon?"
"What? No, I didn't." It was embarrassing how relieved Harry felt. But that meant one conversation Harry could defer until another time, a time which with a bit of luck might never arrive. "Who took him?"
"His mother's sister. Mousy little woman. You probably blinked when she came in and missed her. She's a Ministry official – low level, quite apolitical, definitely not a Death Eater."
"Oh. Good." Harry shoved at a clod of dry dirt with his heel until it broke. "I hope they're nice to him."
Draco didn't question Harry's sympathy. It might have meant he couldn't be bothered with an argument, but on balance Harry thought he and Draco had both changed enough to be able to put aside some of that inter-House antagonism which had become instinctive some time during their first year. Maybe there was hope for the world after all.
"Hard to know who I'd want to invite," Draco went on, grey eyes shrewd, and Harry could almost see the juggling of personalities and allegiances going on behind them. "Could end up with the Aurors being called, and they'd jump on any opportunity to come and arrest my father."
Harry couldn't disagree with that, and privately thought arresting Lucius a sterling idea.
"You're being unusually tactful today, Potter. That was an excellent opening I gave you."
Harry started to laugh. "Just wanting to rub in how much better I am than you at being the moral majority."
Draco grinned and raised an eyebrow in acknowledgement of the hit. "I thought I'd play it in the key of low for a while. What about you?"
"I suppose so. I just want to go and stay with Sirius, try and get some normality in my life – or as close as I can hope to achieve."
"Hmm. Be careful."
"What? Of Sirius?"
"No, of everyone else. You're the hottest thing in the Wizarding world. You're going to have a lot of people trying to use you."
Harry lay back and rested his head on his hands. He stared up at the sky, trying to think where Draco might be heading with this. "You were there for the whole defeating the Dark Lord thing, too."
"Yes, but I'm used to manipulative bastards, I've seen how they work, and I can give them the disadvantage of the doubt. Plus I'm using you as a stalking horse."
Harry was amused by the image, and by how blatant Draco was in his own manipulations. But: "Isn't that supposed to be giving people the benefit of the doubt?"
"Why on earth would you do that?" Draco looked genuinely puzzled. "Not when you're a Malfoy. You've met my father, I believe? I hate to say this, but staying with Cousin Sirius might just be the best thing for you. He's a reckless idiot – prime Gryffindor material – but he's cannier than he used to be and he is fanatically loyal to you. You're his last chance at family – well, you and the werewolf. Go and spend time with him. Don't rule out Montana. I'm not. But it's time to get away from Hogwarts for a while. If you're planning on running around giving people the benefit of the doubt then you certainly need a break!"
Harry slanted a look at him. Draco's grey eyes were focussed over on the distant towers of the castle. "Get away from Hogwarts? You mean get away from Dumbledore, don't you?"
"You've spent your entire life being shuttled around according to what he thought was best. Perhaps it was for the best, and it's impossible to deny how he cares for you, but isn't it time for you to set your course for yourself?"
Not for the first time, Harry had the distinct impression of Draco using the subject of another person to work out his own underlying issues. He considered telling Draco about his conversation with Dumbledore last evening, then decided against it: it might lead to questions about Snape and Luna. "Yes, it is time. And I'll be doing so from now on, it doesn't matter if it's you or Dumbledore or Sirius or… or Ron." He waved a hand – the idea of Ron using him in some Machiavellian plan was outrageous. "But I'm open to the idea of consulting other people for options."
"Oh." Draco's brow creased and a hint of uncertainty shadowed his eyes. "It's a bit of a worry, not knowing who to consult."
Harry yawned. "Life's a risk. You want to get into politics, you'll need to learn to take risks."
Draco smirked proudly, as only he could do. "Like riding a horse through a magical barrier?"
"Somewhat, although I suppose you could learn the subtle art of delegation."
Draco snorted a laugh. "Now you're thinking like a Slytherin!" He tapped his fingers on the notebook, and before Harry could accuse him of acting like a Gryffindor, said, "I'll be sure to look into that. In the meantime, there are people I want to meet who might be able to help me in the long run – Elmsworthy's lawyer gave me some contacts – oh, and he's coming back this afternoon for something and hopefully I'll see him then –"
"No, he's long gone. It's the lawyer who's coming in this afternoon."
"It's rude to ask these things, Potter." Draco sniffed. "I want him to give me some introductions. That's the polite way to get ahead in society. Plus it would be helpful to find out what hoops I'm expected to jump through to get ahead in a career as fast as possible."
"So you've decided to be a lawyer, then."
"Right now it seems to be the best way to come to grips with Wizarding policy."
"You could do that as an Auror."
"Come on, Harry, there's no way Aurors would let me train with them. I'm to be forever seen as the scion of an excessively manipulative family. Being capable of coming up with cunning plans scares their poor little do-gooding brains. No, I'd be better off as a lawyer than some puppet of the establishment. I can see what's wrong," he continued before Harry could take offence to Tonks and his parents being described as puppets, "I just don't know how to alter it in a way that won't cause socio-economic chaos."
"Although you've got a few ideas."
"I might have one or two ideas, yes."
Harry bent his head to get a quick sideways look at the notebook. The edges of the pages were wrinkled with use. "Only one or two, yes, I can see that."
"Maybe a few more…" Draco sounding diffident was a novelty.
"Where would you start? I mean, the Ministry's rotten at the core."
"Not completely. It's got a lot of deadwood, that's true, but…"
Draco rattled away happily for a good twenty minutes about how he would go about changing the Ministry from the ground up, and Harry listened, astonished at the logic threading steel cables through Draco's Grand Scheme of Things. Harry's own future might be constantly in the wind, but it was almost calming to sit and absorb the plans of someone who could see the future bright and sparkling and coming close enough for him to reach out and pluck, some golden apple of optimism. Draco only broke off when Hedwig swooped down to land on Harry's knee. She nibbled at his finger in a friendly way when he sat up and stroked her chest, and flapped her wings, looking around in the manner of an owl eager for work.
"I wonder if Hermione sent her? Could be a bit of a hint… Borrow some paper and a pen?"
Draco dug in a pocket. It must have been magic, because a self-inking quill emerged that was easily three times as long as the pocket was deep. Another pocket produced a roll of parchment.
"Thanks. I owe Ron a letter."
Pale eyebrows arched. "I'm helping out Weaselby?"
"Don't call him that – his sister's a sorceress, remember?"
"Oh, right." Draco's brow furrowed. "You can start it with: 'Dear Weaselby, Draco passes on his regards to your sister and thinks she's pretty amazing.'"
"Right. Like that helps matters."
"It might. I'm being polite here, you realise."
"I know, and it scares me." Harry finished his letter and gave it to Hedwig, who took it and flapped away with a cheerful energy that matched the morning sun. Harry let out a sigh. Writing the letter had made him feel a lot better. Ron would forgive him – Ron was used to Harry being an idiot. What had Dumbledore said about having good friends? Harry was definitely lucky there. He lay back. "You were talking about educational facilities geared towards rehabilitation in Azkaban…?"
Neville tried to leave as quietly as possible. If Harry hadn't been going back to Gryffindor Tower to get a sweater (the day had clouded over and rain was forecast for the afternoon) he would have missed him. Neville, still awkward, wouldn't meet his eye and stuttered out a greeting.
"Are you off down to Hogsmeade already?" Harry looked around for Hermione, but she wasn't in sight. She'd told him to meet her half an hour from now. "Have you seen Hermione?"
"She's up in her room helping Parvati. Don't worry, she won't miss the train – it's been delayed. Aurors want to go over it thoroughly before we get on board." Neville explained all this while looking anywhere but at Harry.
"Want a hand with your trunk?"
"No, I'm f- ow!"
Harry helped him lift the trunk off his foot. "I'll help you."
Neville blushed. "Thanks. I'm rotten at levitation spells."
"If the train isn't going for a while, how come you're off so early?" Harry hoped it wasn't because Neville was avoiding him.
"Oh, er, Hagrid only has a few of the carriages, so we – the students who are going – we're being taken down in batches."
"Oh, right. Makes sense." Harry had seen Hagrid harnessing the Thestrals as he and Draco walked back to the castle. "Thought you might be avoiding me."
"Erm…. Oh, ha, ha, why would I do that…"
Harry rolled his eyes inwardly but walked down to the carriages with Neville. It felt, in a sense, like making up for letting Ron go without saying goodbye last night. He asked what Neville was doing for the holidays, but keeping the conversation going was like pushing water uphill with his bare hands.
"I'm sorry you won't get to go to America this summer," Neville said in his first full sentence. The blush still hadn't gone. He kept his voice down: other students were also floating trunks down to the waiting carriages. There was a bit of a crush getting through the main doors and out onto the driveway, where Harry levitated the trunk onto the back of one of the carriages. Neville had to wait until several of the bolder students had said their farewells to Harry before beginning again, "If I'd known…" he began in a whisper, then Harry cut him off.
"If you'd known who Simon was – goodbye, Daisy, have a good summer!" he called out as the young Slytherin waved to him enthusiastically from where she was waiting to board the front carriage with a group of friends, then resumed the whispering. "If you'd known you'd still have done the right thing. You're – you're very brave like that." Harry couldn't quite keep that snap out of his voice. He took a deep breath. "Look, Neville, I don't think you did the wrong thing," Harry tried to explain, although in truth he partly blamed Neville for destroying his horse. Knowing it was unfair made him put the extra effort into a reassuring smile. "Just… have a good summer, okay?"
Neville nodded. "You too. Oh, and feel free to come up and visit if you get sent back to your horrible cousin's place."
"I don't think that's going to happen, but I appreciate the offer. I should be staying with Sirius. I know you don't live in London, but you must be going down to get school supplies for next year. So maybe we could meet in Diagon Alley before school starts?"
Neville smiled gratefully. "I'd like that."
"Okay, let's do it. Owl me. Oh – hang on… I've got something for you…" Harry dragged Neville into the shadow behind the carriage and dug into his pocket. The nearest Thestral turned its head and regarded them from white eyes. Harry gave it an absent-minded pat on the nose. "Here. Nearly forgot."
Neville pulled open the sticky bit of paper. "Seeds?"
"Shh! Ambrosial fig seeds. See if you can sprout them – if anyone can, you can."
Neville looked like he'd died and gone to heaven. "What, like the one Helga Hufflepuff used to create her Glasshouse?"
"From that very tree." He'd already given a slice to Elmsworthy, who, in his more sombre way, had been as delighted as Neville.
"Harry, that's, that's brilliant," he stuttered. "It's the best thing anyone's ever given me, ever! I'll plant a few – do you have a place to plant a seedling?"
Harry hadn't thought of that. "Not at the moment. They get pretty big…"
"– You can prune them if you're polite."
"Oh, well, I've never got on that well with trees… But someone suggested once that it might be fun to have one at Hogwarts."
Neville frowned. "I don't know about that… But I'll certainly ask Professor Sprout – that's if I get any of these to grow, of course…"
"If anyone can, you can." Harry slapped Neville on the shoulder. "Better let you go. Quick, jump in!"
Neville scrambled into the carriage as it began to move off. "Bye, Harry!"
"Bye, Nev' – see you over summer, I hope." Harry waved goodbye, then remembered that he was supposed to be helping Hermione.
Hurrying through the Entrance Hall, he heard muffled swearwords echoing up from the stairs leading down to the Dungeons. It didn't sound like anyone he hated, so he started down. Goyle, face definably red in the gloom, shoved past him without making eye contact.
What's Draco done now?
But it turned out Draco, who was nowhere in sight, had done nothing wrong – or to be more precise, he was innocent when it came to this incident.
Millicent Bulstrode was down on her knees, swearing under her breath and attempting to repack her trunk. It kept snapping at her irritably. Her black cat hissed at it from the carry-cage.
"Want a hand?" Harry asked.
She didn't look up. "I've already had a hand from one idiot," she growled, sounding very much like Harry imagined a bear would sound if it could use English. Her trunk spat out several quills and a small doll. Bulstrode fielded the doll and stuffed it into her robes before Harry could make out if it was a toy or a tool of Dark magic. Either way, Millicent wouldn't want him knowing she played with dolls.
"Who, Goyle? Thank you very much for clumping me in with him."
She sighed. "Sorry, Comrade. It's been one of those mornings, Goyle trying to be helpful made it worse, and now I'm running late."
"They've delayed the train another hour. Aurors want to give it a thorough vetting. You're fine. Hermione isn't down yet – I'm off to help her soon… what did Goyle do?"
"Tried a levitation charm. Idiot. Anyone with half a brain can see this trunk is an heirloom – a grandfather trunk. No patience with young whippersnappers casting spells on it."
"You mean you have to carry it yourself?" Millicent might be a sturdy young woman, but that trunk had to weigh as much as Harry.
"It has a few lightening spells in it, but… they'll be on the blink now. It's been offended. Grumpy old trunk."
"Sounds like Simon," Harry said without thinking.
Millicent looked up at that, and paused mid-stuffing of robes. Her expression became less hard. "Did your horse get to America okay?"
"He's gone, yes."
She didn't seem to know what to say to that, and turned back to shoving her books randomly into the trunk. The Monster Book of Monsters made a break for it, but Harry caught it and soothed it by stroking its spine. "Here."
She tucked it more carefully in amongst its less fractious brethren. "So how's your summer shaping up? Off to have a holiday, I hope." She sounded like someone trying very hard to be sociable with a limited repertoire of small talk.
"I'm not sure yet. I'll be staying with Sirius, I hope."
"Well, be careful. He's a nutcase."
"He's my third cousin twice removed or something, plus he's Malfoy's second cousin. He's a nutcase. I know what I'm speaking of."
"He's also my godfather."
"Then you must know he's a nutcase."
Harry finally realised she was having him on, and smiled. "I should stop arguing against that. Too much evidence for your case." He gathered up the quills. "It sounds like just about everyone is related in the Wizarding world."
"Everyone's related, Comrade."
"What, even Muggle-borns?" he asked, unable to stop himself.
She gave him one of her level stares as she took her quills and put them in a special compartment in the trunk. "Everyone. You go back far enough, and you find some ancestral monkey. And as proof," she added, eyeing him critically as she shut the lid and locked it, "sometimes you get throwbacks."
A couple of months ago Harry would have hexed her or at the very least pointed out in a snide fashion that she was proof of humans being descended from gorillas. But not now. He stifled laughter, and said, "Could explain why I'm such an amazing Seeker and keep thrashing you Slytherins at Quidditch. Lightning monkey reflexes you lumbering dinosaurs can't keep up with."
She smiled. "Dream on, Missing Link. We've got a team lined up for next year that'll hex you Gryffingits off your brooms."
"As I'm playing for the Gryffindor team, it'll have to be the most amazing team Slythering has ever mustered."
"You taking that Lockhart for Beginners course? Either that, or Malfoy's been giving you boasting lessons."
"Malfoy's a good teacher of boasting, but no on both accounts." Harry realised he was handing her something small and lacy and… girly, and tried not to look too closely. "So, um, what classes are you taking next year? Could be tricky, what with no exams to place us – say, what happens to students who graduate this year? Do they get given their NEWTs?"
"They get a certificate of course completion."
"What, even the stupid ones? Elmsworthy's going to be furious if he gets the same grade as someone with the same IQ as Goyle!"
Millicent sat back on her heels. Her thick brows drew together. Harry gave her a moment to gather her thoughts. "I don't think he cares too much," she said slowly. "Scholastic marks don't matter to his family as much as socio-political results. But the teachers write references for the graduates – that can also make or break a career. If anyone wants to be apprenticed or get into the Auror program they have to pass special admission tests as well as have a glowing recommendation. If Elmsworthy's family ever lets him study Potions seriously, Snape will find him a Master to study under, just like if you miss exams next year McGonagall or Dumbledore will make sure you get into the Auror program."
"Who says I want to be an Auror?"
"Word was all around the school last year how you wanted to be one."
"Oh. The Hogwarts gossip mill at work again."
"Better than The Daily Prophet."
"Can't argue that." Harry helped her lift her trunk, each taking one end, Millicent using one hand so that she could carry her cat in the other, her shoulders bunching with an enviable amount of muscle under her robes.
He patted the lid. "It's a good weight on it," he said, looking up the stairs doubtfully. "But I'm sure it's strong enough to stand up to any knocks it might get if we drop it accidentally because it's so heavy."
The trunk immediately shed half its weight.
Millicent raised her eyebrows, impressed. "Sneaky."
"I was nearly sorted into Slytherin," Harry confessed. "But don't tell anyone."
She shook her head. "No. Especially not Professor Snape. He's still a bit confused, and I don't want him having an aneurysm right after getting him back."
Harry nearly asked how Snape was getting on, but the words lodged in his throat like stale bread. Easier to do some hard physical labour.
By occasionally 'accidentally' bumping the trunk into walls and praising it every time it lost another kilo, they had the trunk floating out of the stairwell into the Entrance Hall.
Millicent gave the lid a fond pat. "It's a good trunk, really," she said, putting the cat's carrier on it. The handles of the trunk rattled – all the attention had jollied the trunk out of its sulk. "I'll be fine taking it down to the carriages. Thanks for the help, Comrade."
"You too, Comrade. Er, is the Republic still going?"
"No. We're returning to a dictatorship."
"Sorry to hear that."
She stared at him. "Are you mental? All those committees were hotbeds of bourgeois counter-revolutionaries. No progress was being achieved. Drove me crazy keeping all the comrades in line. All those bruised knuckles after debate sessions! Who in their right mind wouldn't want a benign dictatorship?"
Sounded like Millicent had been well on her way to providing a slightly less than benign dictatorship, but Harry wasn't sure she would like to hear that. "Well… what about democracy?"
She rubbed her heavy jaw as she gave this some consideration. "I suppose it has its merits, but compared to a benign dictatorship it's rubbish."
"Given the Ministry of Magic, you've not been given a lot of positive role models when it comes to a democratically elected government."
"In a democracy, Crabbe and Goyle can vote. And the stupid will vote however a Malfoy tells them."
"…I see your point."
"Harry, there you are! Where have you been? I've been looking all through Gryffindor Tower for you! Oh… you've been helping Bulstrode. Well, that's very kind, I'm sure…"
Hermione gave them a tight smile as she trotted down the stairs with her trunk floating behind her. Crookshanks peered through the wire grille of his cage, and flattened his ears at the sight of Millicent's cat.
"Bossy, isn't she?" Millicent remarked sotto vocce. "Better go before she patronises me some more."
Harry fought the disloyal smile. "See you next year."
Hermione handed him Crookshanks' carrier in a rather pointed way.
"Sorry," Harry said quickly. "I was up looking for you, and I found Neville, and after helping him Millicent needed a hand, but I really was going to come and help you with –"
"I can see how you were mistaken. After all, I look a great deal like Neville and Comrade Bulstrode."
"Yeah, the three of you all go to Hogwarts and wear robes."
She sniffed, but it sounded more like a laugh.
"What was wrong with Parvati? Neville said you were helping her."
"Oh, she had a spot."
"Spot of what? Bother?"
"No, a big red spot on her nose. Lavender tried to get rid of it, which only made it worse…"
"Excuse me? Remember when Ron stole half a bottle of foundation from Ginny because of that accident in Charms which sent his frec
"Luminous? He looked like one of those sparkly mirror ball things you see in '70s disco movies, only with lasers instead of the little mirrors. Luna kept telling him to stop signalling Elvis on Europa – or was it elves on Europa? Even McGonagall couldn't help smiling when she saw him – or she did until she was blinded in her left eye with a beam from one of his freckles. What's Parvati's excuse? That she's a girl."
"It's different when you're a girl!"
The bicker between the sexes continued all the way outside, where Harry and Hermione sat on her trunk in the weak sunlight and waited for the carriages to return. When they ran out of arguments, Harry asked Hermione about Star Trek. She suggested he and Sirius get a telly with a video player. "You are staying with Sirius, aren't you?"
"Yes. And if Fudge tries to muck it up again, I'll tell him to stick his head up his –"
"Sirius will be so pleased. I haven't seen him this happy in, well, ever, as a matter of fact."
"Really?" Harry tried to sound nonchalant and failed totally.
Hermione grinned at him and gave him a nudge with her shoulder. "Really. I think he's nervous, though – go easy on him."
"Why doesn't anyone go easy on me?"
"We already do, Harry. Trust me. Which reminds me: did Hedwig find you?"
"Yes, and I took the hint and wrote to Ron."
She gave him a wide-eyed look of mock-astonishment. "You took a hint? There's hope for you after all!"
"That'll be your carriage coming up the drive…"
"Was that a hint? Think you've progressed enough to be able to give hints, do you?"
Harry laughed and wrapped an arm around her in a quick hug.
The time to reap the sweetest harvest had arrived.
Greatly buoyed by Hermione's warm teasing, Harry took the steps two at a time, not concerned about where the stairs led, simply enjoying the warm magic exuded by the castle as the wards resettled and stabilised. Remus and the other teachers were doing good work somewhere – hopefully he would bump into Remus or Sirius at some point in the castle; they must be coming back for lunch soon. Or maybe Luna was still here – she must be in the castle somewhere, too: Neville had caught the first convoy of carriages out and Hermione had been in the second (Draco, too, although he'd held up the carriages for a few minutes extra as he peppered Hagrid with questions about the Thestrals, which he was able to see now), and Luna had been in neither. Wandering around the castle gave him a good chance of either seeing her or meeting up with someone who could tell Harry where she was.
Because it was time for him to bite the bullet. Time to grab the minotaur by the horns. Time to seize the day. Time to –
As he followed the chattering group of Hufflepuffs around the corner and into the next corridor, the corridor with the gargoyle guarding Dumbledore's office, Harry caught his breath and the flush of energy driving him suddenly oscillated wildly between hot and cold. There, next to the gargoyle, stood Luna, her pale, slightly protuberant eyes fixed on the floor. It was her thinking-deep-thoughts-possibly-about-Nargles-or-Plimpies mode.
All he had to do was step out in front of her and –
Harry ducked into an empty office as the sea of Hufflepuffs divided around Luna. He was pretty sure she hadn't seen him, but…
Harry took a deep breath and smacked himself on the forehead. "Stupid, stupid, stupid…"
"That's not the way to cure headaches, young man," said a portrait pompously. Other than a vast tapestry covering one wall, it was the only decoration in the empty room.
He had to open the door and go and talk to her. He couldn't just keep walking away or diving through doors or behind tapestries – sooner or later he'd go through a door and get eaten by a three-headed dog or fall into some unspeakable portal into hell. At the very least, sooner or later the classroom would be occupied. Knowing his luck, it would be occupied by a summer course given by Snape. Although there had never been summer courses before, there would be one taught by Snape just so Harry could stumble through the door and feel massively awkward. Hogwarts was reliable like that.
Gryffindors were meant to be brave.
Harry took a deep breath, poked his head out into the corridor, checked, saw Luna standing with her back to him, and slunk back into the office and took another deep breath. Time to go and say something to make things right again. If he didn't, he'd start hyperventilating with all the deep breaths he kept needing.
He put his hand on the doorknob and froze.
That grinding noise could only be the gargoyle stepping aside. Someone must be coming out of Dumbledore's office. Harry readied himself. Talking to Luna with Dumbledore present might help Harry keep on track, keep his wits around him, keep him focussed on the task in hand, keep him from procrastinating…
Voices. Luna's, asking a soft question, a second voice answering even more softly. It took a moment before Harry's brain made the identification with an Argh! of horror he barely stopped himself from uttering aloud – that second voice was Snape's!
"Did Headmaster Dumbledore say…"
"I say," hurrumphed the portrait, and Harry jumped guiltily. "Listening to the conversations of others is dashed rude!"
"Shut it, or I swear to Merlin I will put you in the glasshouses for compost!"
The portrait puffed out its cheeks and went silent with indignation.
Low voices continued outside with their conversation. Wishing they'd speak up a bit, Harry pressed his ear against the door. You shouldn't be listening to a private conversation. Harry hated the way his conscience sounded like Hermione. But even if she were standing right next to him, neither she nor his conscience could win this fight – not when he had something so much more interesting to listen to just down the corridor. Nothing short of the door spontaneously combusting would shift him.
More questions, with the soft voice of Snape too soft for Harry to hear the answers, until:
"No." Snape sounded annoyed. Harry was well familiar with that one, although the patient undercurrent was new.
"Well, you must remember how you promised you'd take me to a gymkhana." Her voice was slightly louder for a second. Harry fancied she had turned her head in the direction of the dusty little office, probably to make sure she and Snape were alone.
"The reason I remember nothing of the sort is entirely thanks to my swearing blind I'd never do such a humiliating thing ever again."
'Again'? thought Harry, his eyes widening.
Luna's gusty sigh could be heard through the thick, muffling oak of the door. Luckily the tapestry held only a herd of deer with jewelled collars, so tame they hadn't scattered when Harry hid in the office. They watched him out of dark eyes and their heads dipped as they bent to take up new mouthfuls of the fading green grass. It was strange seeing creatures moving in such a bitsy fashion with the knots and stitches and wool stretching and jittering over the canvas as the deer grazed in their meadow. No buttercup-robed witches were currently in residence, although Harry peered into the shadows between the oaks which made up the backdrop to the scene.
"But I promise I won't take you in 'best paced and mannered'," Luna persisted.
There was a strangled noise from Snape, possibly like the one Harry only managed to catch in time. "I don't care if the only option is an egg and spoon race. I'm a stallion, so I'm not eligible. That was made" – a sigh – "evident last time. I shouldn't have to point out to you that it was to my considerable embarrassment. Although your mother was highly amused." He sighed again. Harry could picture him glaring down his formidable nose at Luna. "How clear do I need to make this to you? I'm not a pony club pony. I'm not patient enough for that brand of stupidity. I. Am. Not. Going."
"Oh." There was a pause. Then: "How about a three day event?"
"No," said Snape, his voice rising half an octave with horror.
Was there a story there? I guess I'll never know that, either.
"One day event?"
"Winter dressage series?"
"Ask me again and I will set you a five-scroll essay on the various meanings of 'no' throughout history, with emphasis on its function for expressing unwillingness to participate in the asinine."
"Oh." Luna's sigh was louder this time. Was she sticking out her lower lip? – she was adorable when she did that. Especially when she looked down at her feet and twitched her nose… but not like a rabbit, of course…
Snape's voice came as if issuing through clenched teeth: "Badminton or Burghley. Spectators only."
"Oh, goody." Luna's I-just-found-my-favourite-anti-Space-Bunnies-earrings voice. "You know, Professor Dumbledore suggested Hogwarts have a fancy dress next Halloween…"
There was a groan from Snape.
They were coming down the corridor now, slowly passing Harry's door. He gripped the door handle in a fist on the off chance someone tried to enter.
"A fancy dress is just what Hogwarts needs!" said Luna.
"Hogwarts needs a fancy dress party like Fudge needs a lobotomy. This is just a chance for you to dress up as Zorro – and for the last time, I am not an Andalucian. The first person who calls me 'Tornado' will be hexed. Or possibly kicked, depending on my form."
"Anglo-Arab. Mare," Snape hissed.
Oh, Merlin. If they found Harry now, he was dead, dead, dead. Harry stuffed fingers in his mouth to stop himself from laughing.
Luna seemed to finally take the hint Snape wasn't interested in playing dress-up. Not that it slowed her down much. "Er… Black Stallion? I could be Alec and it wouldn't be hard for you to –"
"Arab, nil with the Anglo. And why do you have this obsession with cross-dressing?"
"I don't. But all the good horsy stories with black horses don't have female protagonists."
"So how about the horse from Kaleidoscope of Fate?"
"What's that one? I've never heard of it."
"That's because it'll have to be written by you. Excellent title – give me five percent of the profits. Here's the basic outline: the story involves a daft teenage witch with a penchant for dressing up as a boy. She's probably some sort of deviant. She drags her debonair, intellectual giant, totally unappreciated within his time, long-suffering uncle, who just happens to be a horse Animagus – because I don't want news of this transformation charm in the hands of the rabble until I've had Elmsworthy's lawyer draft me a solid patent – she drags him into a series of increasingly improbable events that rely nothing on character development or philosophical insights into the plight of humanity, let alone plot. Nonetheless the book will be highly saleable thanks to judicious tweaking of the story in a cynical manner to take advantage of the mindlessness of the sort of teenage twit who reads such twaddle." Snape's voice paused to take a breath (and possibly refill acid glands). "Mark my words, get that formula just right and you'll make a fortune. Be sure to put a good picture of the black horse on the cover – girls love stories with black horses. It's probably some deeply Freudian response I'm better off not understanding."
Given the fact that he was talking to someone who adored him, that was about as nastily patronising as Harry had heard, even from Snape. If he hadn't been busy hiding he might have slapped a hand across his eyes out of sheer contact embarrassment. What could Luna possibly say in reply to such a scathing dismissal of her love and care for her uncle and horses in general?
"Poor old Mr Grumpy. You just miss being Simon, don't you? There, there, things will be just fine, Luna promises..."
"Argh! Why do you always insist on hugging me? Get off, get off!"
Harry wondered if Luna had a death-wish he didn't know about.
He might never find out – down from the other end of the corridor noisy footsteps clattered up a staircase along with a babble of disjointed sentences concerning summer plans. They all cut off suddenly at the point when they must have caught sight of Snape.
Harry heard Snape – Professor Snape, rather, not Luna's uncle – snarl, "…And, Miss Lovegood, if you think you can excuse the quality – lack of quality, should I say – of your homework by my… absence rather than your own negligence, then perhaps I need to disillusion you with detentions to be taken up on your immediate return to Hogwarts this September."
A few sniggers passed Harry by – students pleased they weren't on the receiving end of the wrath of Snape.
Harry remembered what Draco had said after he'd researched Luna's family: some things were better left covered over. Snape, Draco must have realised (Slytherin that he was), would have enemies from here until eternity. The best shelter he could give Luna – the best way to show he loved her – was to grant her anonymity.
Harry had nearly blown that. He rested his head back against the ancient oak panelling, resisting the urge the thump it. That, too, would only draw attention.
After a while, when he was sure the corridor was empty again, he emerged. The deer watched him go with dark, trusting eyes. Reminded of Simon, he closed the door softly and rested his forehead against the wall. He gave it a thump just to remind himself not to do anything stupid, and realised he just had when he looked around and saw three third-year girls staring at him wide-eyed, their luggage and a tortoiseshell cat hovering behind them.
He gave them a wide, toothy smile.
"Yes, the ghost of Voldemort is trying to emerge through my scar."
They fled, screaming, the cat clinging to the top of a trunk with its tail lashing.
He'd regret it later, of course, but for now it felt satisfying.
He returned from the Library to find Gryffindor deserted. A sense of cold emanated from the fireplace, and the red walls seemed to sulk and glower at him for not providing the energy they were used to. He climbed the stairs to his dormitory, which echoed the sense of abandonment of the common room. The only bed with blankets on it was Harry's. He flung himself down on it.
Harry dug out a bottle of butterbeer from under his side. The attached note read:
Lavender found this at the bottom of her makeup bag. Thought you could use it. I think she's trying to say sorry for not being nicer to you! Watch out she doesn't start jumping out on you and calling you the Harry equivalent of Won-Won. Would that be Ha-Ha?
and was signed by Hermione.
Harry sighed as he drew the curtains around his bed. It didn't matter that he was alone – the enclosed space promised the privacy he craved. He smiled as he reread the note, but didn't feel like laughing. He closed his eyes and allowed the random images of newsprint and sepia ink to roll through the darkness, echoes of his research in the Library.
Luna was good at hiding things. Behind her vacant stare lay the witnessed death of her mother – as reported in the Daily Prophet, complete with pictures of a bewildered man with pale hair and eyes clutching a thin child whose own pale eyes were shadowed – nasty comments ranging up to plots of murder against an uncle she clearly (or clearly to Harry's understanding, private though it would remain) adored – the name of one Selene Snape could be read in a book in the genealogy section, Selene's own father ticked off as a simple box, implying that while her mother Eileen was a Pureblood, Selene's father hailed from the Muggle side of the tracks – plus all the snide remarks and practical jokes on the weird Loony Luna – although Draco and Hermione seemed to have put a stop to that while Harry had been off being a berk…
…and now Harry's rejection.
He'd seen her tears. Two tears. Two silent drops of shed moonlight. She'd cried when Draco had taken Simon out through the barrier, but those had been noisy tears. Worried tears. She'd been frightened on Simon's behalf, not Draco's. And he'd seen the tears on her face after Simon brought him out of Hufflepuff's Secret Glasshouse that time the Sickle had touched the mistletoe…
It had always been about Simon. Snape. Her uncle, brother of a witch who'd been keen on experimenting – just as Severus had described his sister. The clues had always been there. The lank hair falling over her face when she was upset; the tight upper lip that had reminded Harry of Simon about to bite or McGonagall in professorial mode about to take points, but was an exact match for Severus about to be caustic. It was even in the dusty old genealogy book in the Library, written in sepia ink, dates of birth and death and marriage… all there when he'd gone to find it. Harry had been too dense to look for it earlier – no, Draco had told him where to look! Harry was too lazy. Too ready to believe what he wanted to believe instead of what was real.
Harry groaned. She'd been about to tell him who her uncle was, and he'd told her to go away. She'd had tears running down her face, and he'd told her to go away. The tears had come from a place beyond worry, when the worst has already happened.
And she'd gone away.
She'd gone away because Harry had doubted her.
She sent Simon to rescue me when I went into the Glasshouse. She risked him for me. Those tears on her face then – they weren't just because she was upset over Simon – she was terrified she wouldn't see me again.
He was a fool.
Butterbeer couldn't take this bitterness out of his mouth.
Unable to handle his own company any more, he went to see if Sirius was in Remus' rooms. He was, along with the fading smell of wet dog and the even more overpowering odour of neem oil, so strong that Harry automatically looked around for Simon.
"How's it going?"
Sirius shrugged but looked pleased to see him. "Well, I've just had my bath –"
"So I smell."
"Luckily Luna didn't use up all that shampoo on Simon. Remus just gave me – or Snuffles, rather – a bath. When I'm human I'm quite capable of bathing myself."
"It's shaving he has trouble with. I think combs are still proving to be a tactical issue, too." Remus entered the main room from the little kitchen, clutching a mug of coffee. He looked like someone who needed it.
"Hello, Professor. Were you out working on the wards earlier?"
"Yes." A yawn. "They're coming back together gradually."
"The castle already feels different. I didn't notice it before, but it's as if it's become healthier again."
Remus perked up. "That's a good sign. Take a seat, Harry. Would you like a drink?"
"Just had some butterbeer, thanks. You're not doing a correspondence course, are you?" Harry asked Sirius, straddling a chair and peering at the papers strewn across Remus' desk. "That doesn't look like homework."
Sirius gave him a doleful look. "It's some of the paperwork I have to fill out to clear my name. As if having a bath with the stinkiest pet shampoo you've ever encountered wasn't bad enough, I have to fill out all these forms and have them verified."
"Ridiculous," snarled Remus. Was the full moon coming soon? He was very irritable, with dark shadows around his eyes. "You're innocent and yet they're imprisoning you with red tape."
Harry felt his brow furrow. "They aren't sending you back to Azkaban, are they?"
"Not quite," Sirius snorted. "But they're hobbling me from here to infinity. I'll be traipsing around the Ministry like it's my full-time job, leaving you rattling around that bloody depressing house of mine alone from week start to week stop!"
"Oh. If – if it would be easier for me to stay somewhere else, I –"
"What? No – Harry! It's…" Sirius broke off and raked his fingers through his hair. "That's not what I'm saying at all. You don't have to be alone there. Have as many friends come and stay as you like. Feel free to turn Grimmauld Place into Weasley Central. All I'm saying is… I guess I'm saying that it gnaws at me like a doxy bite that I'm free and I'm still not able to spend time with you and… and go places and meet people and try weird cuisine…"
"We can do that on weekends," Harry offered quickly, seeing that Sirius was genuinely upset.
"That's true," Remus said.
Sirius nodded grudgingly. "We need a break from this." He made a rude gesture at the paperwork. "Moony, you've been working your magic to the nub getting the wards back together. You look even worse than I feel. Let's go somewhere and get – well, we can't get hammered because Harry's still underage –"
"For another few weeks only," Harry said quickly.
"We are not supporting any plan where you get falling down drunk on your birthday," Remus said, but the repressive note was spoiled by a smile. With something approaching relief, Harry suddenly noticed how the tense energy Lupin had been ramping up over the year had eased back. Had Snape recovered enough to be able to brew the Wolfsbane Potion, or was it the promise of having someone take over the challenge of picking a way through the treacherous territory that was ministering to adolescent Slytherins?
"It's nearly lunchtime," Harry pointed out. "We could ask the kitchen elves to send up some food."
Sirius leaned back and stretched his arms above his head. "Or how about taking some food down to Hagrid? I've been meaning to ask him about manticores."
"We won't be getting one at Hogwarts," Remus said quickly. "We already have a half-giant and a werewolf."
"And a Snape," Sirius said, grinning. "We hardly need a manticore now we've got one of those again. What?" he said in injured tones as Remus shot him a stony look suggesting at least one person in the room was grateful to have the Potions master returned to them and unappreciative of anyone else who might endanger this state of affairs. "Believe it or not, Moony, but now that the shock of his return is over I'm glad to have the git back. I don't like him, but he was on our side." He spread his arms. "Hey, I can be magnanimous once in a while."
"And yet we are frightened when you are," Remus said, but he was wearing his small smile again. "Yes, let's go and visit Hagrid. I think he'll be finished now – I heard the whistle of the train just earlier."
"Can you hear Hogsmeade from these rooms?" Harry asked, looking out the window. It did have a good view in the direction of the village, although the houses themselves were hidden beyond a fold in the Forest.
"No, but I have super werewolf hearing. It goes with the super werewolf shaggy coat and appetite I get once a month, but tends to last longer than the full moon."
"Speaking of appetite, I'm well past peckish and getting into famished territory," Sirius said. "Let's go and inflict ourselves on Hagrid. If he's not there then we can camp out in his pumpkin patch and eat lunch."
Hagrid welcomed them with mugs of sweet milky tea and a smile so big they actually glimpsed his teeth through the thicket of beard, and the four of them talked about potential animals for next year's CoMC classes, and for a while Harry allowed himself to forget that he had one – no, two – two more bridges to either mend or rebuild from scratch as he basked in the glow of this, his very own family. Hagrid, Remus and Sirius. Any of the three would fight to the death for Harry. He'd been ready to do the same for them. Sirius would do just about anything he asked, as would Hagrid. Remus might take more persuading and tended (like Dumbledore) to think he knew what was best for Harry, but Harry trusted himself to be able to work around that now. If he wanted help all he had to do was ask.
But he couldn't ask anyone to help him build the particular bridges he had in mind, for they involved another family, and the ground between that family and Harry's lay studded with both recent and historical mines.
The chances of him managing to cross it on his own were slim, but Harry had hurdled so many other difficult obstacles that he would not allow himself to balk at this task. At least, he decided as he watched Sirius in a spirited discussion with Hagrid on the merits of teaching students how to race hippogriffs – Remus watching this with a resigned expression of 'I'm may have to pick up the pieces but at least I'll get to see some pretty fireworks first' on his face – at least Harry had his family now. It might be small – a nucleus of himself and Sirius surrounded in close orbit by their best friends – and it wasn't a traditional family of mother plus father plus two point five children, but it was his. He'd fought for it, he'd killed Voldemort for it, and now he was going to enjoy it to the fullest.
Building a bridge between this family and the other he had in mind seemed suicidal on the face of it, given the volatile dynamic between Sirius and certain others, but Harry was determined.
First, however, he would give himself the grace to enjoy this afternoon before the rain set in.
When the rain announced itself with its first shower, Sirius asked if Harry wanted to accompany him and Remus back to Remus' rooms. Harry, suspecting his godfather of trying to get out of doing some work, said he had some things to tidy up of his own.
Sheer luck had him find Luna in a corridor after only twenty minutes prowl through the castle. Her eyes seemed extra luminous as they stared out at the diffuse light beyond a window which served as backdrop and frame, and she gave no sign of having seen him. He hesitated. Did he dare approach her?
Yes. There she was. Alone.
Harry shrugged away the apprehension prickling through his shoulders. It was time. He'd done enough procrastinating.
He went and leaned against the windowsill next to her. She didn't bother to turn her head. There was no acknowledgement of his presence.
"Y'know how I'm the world's biggest idiot?" he asked.
There was the faintest reflection of her face in the glass. When a cloud went across the sun the shadowed world outside the window lent her reflection just enough detail to show her eyebrows drawing together. Then the sun returned and there was only one Luna, gazing into a distance which did not contain Harry.
Harry sighed inwardly as he racked his brain for words and came up short. He'd known this would be hard, but he hadn't thought he'd be at a complete loss for something to say. He stared out the window at a world lying glossy in the sunshine between showers. From here he could see Hagrid's hut and the meadow where he'd learned to ride. Over there, if he leaned forward, he could just make out Squirrel Hill. And below, made small with the height from which Harry viewed him, was the unmistakable figure of Snape gliding back from the direction of Hagrid's.
In the ever-shifting, muted colours of the afternoon the black of his robes created a sharp contrast of grim permanence, much like the photos Colin had taken of a horse seemingly more solid than its surroundings. The irony of the effect wasn't lost on Harry, who found himself frowning, then giving his head a quick shake in relief as he realised that it was either a stroke of luck or judicious timing that Snape had gone to Hagrid's after Sirius had left.
The distant figure stopped and turned its head to cast a quick glance up at the hill before resuming its slow path towards the castle.
"How's he doing?" Harry asked.
"No… memory problems?"
"He's been a horse for nearly three months. Of course there are memory problems. But Draco and Millicent visited him in the Infirmary and filled him in on everything that went on in Slytherin. There was a bit of trouble when he heard about the Republic, but Madam Pomfrey told him he wouldn't be allowed to go back to his rooms until he calmed down again. So he did." She paused. "Eventually."
"Oh. Good. Er, um, did Draco tell him about what he did as Simon?"
"I don't think Draco wanted to spark him off again. He's not suicidal. Telling Professor Snape he acted as transport through a magical barrier nobody truly understood isn't something you can do over tea and bikkies. Although Professor Dumbledore might get away with it. I'm hoping he will – rather him than me. So far all he's told him is that he's glad he's back and could he please not try turning into a horse again until the charm is properly understood. I suppose he's working up to the full story."
Luna was too scared to tell Snape of his adventures as Simon? That didn't sound promising. "So he's in a bit of a bad mood?"
"Well, he's a tad cross about the lab."
"Does, er, he know it was you?"
"Not yet. I'm helping him tidy."
"Shame Elmsworthy's gone."
"It is. I miss him. He's ever so good at knowing what would blow up."
"An unceasing effort to blow things up will help with that," muttered Harry, who didn't miss Elmsworthy's capacity for destruction.
"Well, yes, but he has a wonderful memory when it comes to dangerous substances."
Harry thought of a little girl who'd just seen her mother killed by an experiment gone wrong. The newspaper article had mentioned flammable acids. "I don't think Snape's the sort who'd misplace dangerous potions and ingredients."
"He's a little absent-minded at the moment."
As an assessment from Luna, that was even more alarming than her reluctance to tell Snape about Simon's adventures in Dark Lord slaying. "Shouldn't he be taking a holiday? I would have thought most of the staff would be away at… wherever it is they go when they aren't teaching." And yet they were mostly all at Hogwarts. He hadn't seen Trelawney around, but he usually didn't see her at all except for those times when she wanted to prophesise his death.
"They've stayed to repair Hogwarts. It's in a bit of a state. Professor Dumbledore needs everyone who has any experience in wards and regeneration magic to heal the castle. That's just about everyone except for Trelawney. Even Mr Filch has stayed. He may be a Squib, but he and Mrs Norris are very sensitive to the mood of the castle."
Harry had noticed Filch around. His mood always seemed foul, never mind what the castle felt. "I suppose if Dumbledore thinks it's dangerous, he'll tell Snape to stay away from potions."
Luna turned to face him. For the first time her eyes met his, and Harry had trouble keeping his gaze steady. "Do you really think so?" she asked.
"No. I guess not. Sorry. I was just trying to be reassuring."
"Yes. That's often why people lie."
Harry felt three inches tall. "I should go…"
"Oh. I heard you'll be living with Mr Black now. Are you going home soon?"
"No, I only meant that… never mind." While it wasn't clear if she was angry or not, he knew that she wasn't bloody furious because her upper lip hadn't gone tight like – like Snape's tended to do whenever he was particularly irritated by Harry's presence in the same universe as him. "I just want to tell you that I'm sorry for being hideous to you. I understand now that you've been protecting your uncle all along – given the history between me and Snape you couldn't in all confidence expect me to keep the secret."
"I wish I could have, but no."
Harry shifted. "No. I would have told Ron, and Ron would have… it would have stopped being a secret as soon as I knew. It still is a bit of a secret, isn't it?" he added, thinking of Remus asking if he'd heard about Snape's miraculous return.
"Yes. Professor Dumbledore made everyone except you swear not to tell anyone. He put a Binding Hush on them – even if she wanted to, Ginny can't tell Ron or Hermione. He said it was because he didn't want people running around trying out dodgy charms to turn them into animals and getting stuck that way, but…"
"But he was trying to reassure, in his own way. Snape wouldn't want word of him being Simon getting around even less than he'd want to endanger you by telling people of your relationship to him."
"No. He really wouldn't." She bit her lip. Snape had disappeared from view below, while above the castle the sun was briefly blotted out. The clouds not bearing rain were soft and a paler grey and passed quickly across the sky. The hills seemed to breathe with the rhythm of the ribcage of a sleeping animal as the cloud shadows moved over the land.
Luna made the slightest shift of balance as if she wanted to go.
"I won't tell anyone," Harry blurted out quickly before she could do so.
"Thank you." Her weight shifted back onto her elbows again.
Harry felt the prickling between his shoulders ease.
"Where are you going for the rest of summer?" she asked. "Will you and Mr Black spend all your time at his place?"
"Um, well, probably, although I could still go to Montana. There won't – there won't be Simon, but maybe I should try working with other – real – horses to see if I still like them." He'd not really considered going since Simon had returned to his real self, but as the words tripped easily off his tongue he tasted the truth of them.
"I think you will. You're a bit of a natural."
"Oh? Thanks!" Briefly cheered, he frowned as he remembered the interview with Fudge. "Sirius is going to be busy all week, but we can still do things on the weekends and maybe I could even help him get his life back on track." He sighed. "I have to go somewhere safe. That limits my choices, even if I wasn't going to Sirius'. The Ministry is suddenly paranoid about my welfare – huh." He sneered.
"Don't be bitter, Harry. It's like the story of the Little Red Wren."
"What story was that?"
"Don't you know it? It's a Muggle story."
"I didn't get many of those, either."
"It goes like this: a little red wren asks for help with making some bread, and doesn't get assistance from anyone. When the bread is ready, everyone she asked for help wants to eat some of the delicious bread –"
"– But she tells them to sod off, and she and her chicks eat the bread."
Harry tried not to smile. Luna swearing, however mildly, always sounded so odd. "Good for her. Hang on, I think I may have heard it a long time ago at primary school." It had seemed terribly unfair that a wren – no, a chicken – that a chicken could reap the benefits of its work when he, Harry, had always had the benefits of his work snatched away from him by his lazy, stupid cousin. But even Dudley hadn't been able to stop him from listening when the teacher read the class stories – some of his teachers had told wonderful stories, he remembered with a touch of regret. If he'd talked to someone at his school, someone in authority, told them how he had been treated, things might have been very different. They might have taken him away from the Dursleys, and then... then without the protection of his blood relatives he would have been found and killed by some random Death Eater. Things were different now; he was nearly seventeen and capable of protecting what he had earned. But it was irritating how he kept forgetting this... "But it's a hen, not a wren."
"She was really a wren in disguise. Even Muggles sensed that the wild magic could be made manifest in a domestic, every-day form to demonstrate cleverness and diligent hard work trumping might. Like you and Voldemort. Or you and the Ministry. Or you and, well, pretty much anyone."
"So, like a wren, I'm a scrawny little runt, is that what you're saying?" Harry laughed.
"A clever scrawny little runt."
Harry shook his head. "So… are you telling me I should tell the Ministry to go to hell?"
"No, just make your own decisions. But you can make your own decisions or not, as you like."
Harry linked his fingers. "I told them I wasn't going back to the Dursleys' house. There was a bit of a row with Fudge over that. I don't think he wants to be my friend now."
"Why would you want to be his? Better stay friendly with Draco, though. He'll be Minister of Magic in a few decades."
"Scary thought, although not as scary as Fudge keeping control. Where are you going to be for the rest of summer? Siberia?" he asked. It was almost like being friends again, this easy conversation about how far apart they were about to be.
"Well, Daddy was thinking of going to Tibet, but he sprained his ankle last month because an ancient elvish deity knew if he went there would be an avalanche."
Harry decided not to ask.
"…And he's got a huge backlog of The Quibbler to get published now that all these secrets have come to light and the Ministry isn't stopping him publishing all the articles people have been sending him this year. He's still trying to get Mrs Malfoy to write her exposé now that Mr Malfoy has had a sudden attack of laryngitis and some sort of temporary arthritis – I'm sure it's because of those Hurlybumps again – that stops him from writing. So I'll stay on at Hogwarts for the summer. Most of it, anyway – I want to go and help Daddy with the typesetting and some of the copywriting, but I can do the cartoons from Hogwarts. Professor Dumbledore has found a nice little set of rooms for me. They're not too far from a stairwell that goes to the Dungeons, which makes them convenient. Professor Snape has a floo connection to my house, so I can go home whenever I want and still keep an eye on things here."
"Tidying the lab, you mean?"
"Yes, that too."
It wasn't really his place to say anything like this, but: "It can't have been your fault that your mum died."
She blinked. For a moment she didn't move. Then, in a soft voice, she said, "I was there, Harry. I didn't know what to do. I'm older now. Maybe this time I can stop it from happening again."
His hand clasped hers. He didn't think about it, he just did it. "If there's anyone in this world who can stop Snape from doing something stupid, it's you."
Her shoulders twitched as if she was trying to stifle a laugh. She curled her fingers around his. "When did you turn into a Luna Mutterer?"
Harry blew out his cheeks. "It's been a long time coming."
She ducked her head and smiled. Harry shifted closer and she met him halfway, leaning up against him, shoulder to shoulder. The sun wasn't shining at that moment, which was fortunate because any more warmth would have melted him into a puddle. He took her hand, threading his fingers through hers, and brought it to his lips. "I really am sorry about what I said," he told her softly.
"I know. Some people don't know how to apologise with words very well, but genuine regret can be easy to see."
It was a moment before the humbling knowledge of how lucky he was allowed him to speak again. "You've had a lot of practice from me."
"Not just from you. You and Professor Snape are so very similar."
Harry felt one eyebrow arch in horrified denial. "Er…?"
"You're both very sincere and when you know you're in the wrong you want to make it right, and get angry and sulk when you can't." She tilted her head and studied him for a moment. "You tend to smile a bit more, though."
"Oh, well, that's reassuring. Except I can't remember seeing him smile as an adult except when someone he hates is about to have a nasty accident." Or Snape was about to throw someone across the room, for example Gilderoy Lockhart.
"I've already told you he's got a great sense of humour, and I've seen you laugh when someone you hate has something bad happen to them – like when Draco got turned into a ferret… although to be fair, it was kind of funny. …Don't tell him I said that. But Professor Snape does try to stop people he's responsible for having those nasty accidents, I hope you realise," she added sternly. "Unless he considers the nasty accident to be educational. Then he might stand back a bit and think of all the healing spells that might be needed once the key point of the lesson has been made."
Harry rather thought Luna was trying to make her own key point of the lesson sink in through his own thick skull, and didn't argue.
They stood in silence for a long time, staring out the window. It was a lovely view, but Harry saw nothing. He felt the warmth of Luna at his side and the slender, fragile strength of the bones of her hand in his like a wren at rest, and a light filled him. It might have been happiness, but happiness had never had these shadows to it, shadows of past grief and pain that made the light all the more precious.
"Hogwarts is safe. Safe-ish," she amended. "You could floo from here to Mr Black's every weekend, or he could come here and visit you and Professor Lupin. So why don't you stay here?"
He breathed out and the last of the weight he'd had mantling his shoulders for far too long evaporated to be absorbed and taken away by the shadow of a passing cloud. The sudden influx of sunlight made him blink. "Okay."
The Dursleys were chasing him. 'Wizard reversed!' they shouted, trying to change him into a Muggle and relieve them of at least half the embarrassment of having him in their family. No matter how much Harry protested that he wasn't under some sort of charm that changed him into something he wasn't really, they kept shouting 'Wizard reversed!' at him. Aunt Petunia called Ginny on the telephone, and Ginny offered to come and use her powers on Harry. Dudley, stirring a bubbling cauldron in the kitchen with his Smeltings stick, agreed that this was the only way. Snape took five peppermint points from the Number 4, Privet Drive, House because Dudley was stirring the porridge the wrong way. 'Horses only eat oats that have been stirred anti-clockwise,' he sneered, and gave Uncle Vernon extra homework on drill bits. 'Ready for your exam, Potter?' he whispered maliciously, handing out the Potions NEWTs to everyone in Harry's year. Everyone was staring at Harry and all the Death Eaters were laughing because not only had Harry forgotten to wear clothes, he'd not studied, and now Snape would never turn back into a horse because Harry was such a dunderhead he –
'It's just a dream, Harry,' a witch floating through the Great Hall on a lotus blossom told him. Beneath yellow robes, the outline of her legs suggested they were crossed foot-over-knee like those of some meditating guru. 'Wake up.'
Harry woke up.
"Are you awake yet?"
The witch had followed him out of his dream. He clutched his blanket up to his neck before realising he was wearing pyjamas. Hopefully that meant he didn't have to sit the test, he thought, his mind still spinning in that post-dream space.
It was a very familiar voice…
He shoved his glasses on and cautiously pulled aside the curtains around his bed. "…Stephanie?"
Sure enough, there was a witch wearing yellow robes in the lone Chudley Cannons poster Ron had left behind. She was sitting side-saddle on a broom and holding a Beater's club. She tossed a Quaffle in one hand. "You sounded like you were having a bad dream. Hope you didn't mind me waking you up."
"Oh? No. No." He scrubbed at his hair. "Thanks, Stephanie. It was one of those dreams where you have a final exam and you haven't studied…"
"I have those occasionally." She gave the Quaffle a resounding whack with her club and it disappeared beyond the edge of the poster. "Everyone does, I think. Well, maybe not Peeves. Was it the one where you've forgotten to put on clothes?"
"Er… no?" he lied.
She dimpled. "If you say so. It's a lovely night outside. When was the last time you went for a walk under the stars?"
"Just the other night, as a matter of fact."
"Gosh, you young generation – where is the poetry that used to reside in the soul of wizardingkind; the fire that drove our people to the lofty pinnacles of creative expansion?"
Harry yawned and rubbed his eyes. "I think it got lost in an avalanche on one of those lofty pinnacles."
A snort. "When you say it like that, I can believe it."
"So what are you doing here, Stephanie? Not that I'm ungrateful for being woken from a nightmare, but –"
"But it's a bit dodgy having a witch of a certain age hanging about in the bedroom of a young man such as yourself?"
"Er…" It was only the second night since Hogwarts had all but emptied (well, there were a few other students and the teachers plus ghosts, portraits, Filch, the occasional Auror…), but the novelty of having the castle almost to himself and Luna had already worn off. Harry looked around, unsettled by having the entire room to himself. That could explain the nightmare. Muffled echoes and dust bunnies lurked under the empty beds, and one of the taps in the bathroom dripped with sad little plunks through the night. He'd never worked out which tap it was: every time he went in to turn it off properly, the drip stopped. Until Remus sorted out a room for him (Harry had his fingers crossed that it would be near Luna's) Harry would be staying in the dormitory and flooing from Remus' quarters to Grimmauld Place on the weekends once the floo was properly reset. Sirius had greeted the new plan with a scowl, but grudgingly come around to the merits of having Harry stay at Hogwarts with Remus keeping an eye on him during the week. But Harry hoped to get a new room soon: the dormitory had its own brand of ghosts, not to mention portraits who fancied they could wander into his dreams any time they liked. "It could be misconstrued by suspicious people, yes."
"Tish! Pooh to your suspicious people. I only came to fetch a broom. I'm going to try teaching Sir Cadogan how to fly."
"Really?" Harry pictured the scene from several different angles. "He might want to take his armour off first."
"Oh, now that would take all the fun out of it."
Stephanie blew him a kiss and flew away into some picture in another room, for all he knew. Harry lay back with a sigh. He closed his eyes and waited for sleep to return.
His mind kept turning over with thoughts of Luna. They'd spent most of the past day together. There had been parts when Harry had been off to spend time with Sirius, of course, and presumably she had been with her uncle. Luna returning to Harry trailing the entwined smells of burnt herbs and pickled amphibian parts suggested this. She'd not been in the Great Hall for meals, but then neither had Snape. Sirius had made one snide comment about Snape's absence, but only the one: Remus had developed quite a quelling look this year, and was no longer afraid to use it on his friend.
Harry rolled over and stared out the window. Part of him wanted to go back to sleep, but the stronger energy rising up through him like spring sap yearned for daybreak, when he could venture out and find Luna and together see what the day would bring. The summer might be shorter than usual, but there were so many things they could be doing in it… It could rain every day and as far as Harry was concerned it would be the sunniest summer ever if Luna was there with him.
There might be some problems with her family…
Half an hour of twitching his feet later, Harry decided he wasn't going to get back to sleep. He dressed quickly, ferreted out his sneakers from under his bed, slung his cloak (not the Invisibility Cloak: Harry didn't feel the need to hide) around his shoulders, and crept out of Gryffindor Tower.
With air moving through dark branching corridors and soaking through doorways into abandoned classrooms, the castle breathed as slowly as any sleeper. Harry kept his footsteps as quiet as possible, not because he was frightened of being caught by Filch or Mrs Norris, but because something in him had decided that interrupting the silence with anything as mundane as clumsy feet would be as bad as clearing a lungful of phlegm in a church. The light of his wand guided him along a path that was becoming familiar – the path to the little side-door out of the castle.
Harry doused his light and stepped into a night of velvety purples and brief stars. A breeze ruffled his hair with familiar fingers. Invigorated by the welcome, Harry stepped out as boldly as he dared. The way ahead was as sure by starlight as it was in the day, and he needed to spare only the barest amount of attention to avoid rocks and gorse and sudden turns in the track.
When he reached the gate, Harry stopped to wonder what impulse had drawn him this way. There was nothing up here now. Nothing but Harry and the breeze stirring through grass and the leaves of nearby oaks. Out of breath after the steep hill, he climbed the gate and sat on the sturdy post the hinges were set into. After settling his cloak across his shoulders, he ensured his balance and made himself comfortable at the same time by resting one foot on the gate and locking his hands around his shin.
Harry surveyed his world.
There was no moon. Harry did a quick calculation and decided it must be on the other side of the world – it was a few nights after the new moon. But the lights of the castle echoing the stars above caught his attention and he watched them for a while, finding it obscurely comforting that the darkness of the castle should twinkle. Through the gaps in the clouds above him the galaxy stretched on without end. Harry leaned back and inhaled, breathing in the cool stillness as the wind shifted around to come from the east.
Harry's nose wrinkled. The night air was flavoured with something distinctive. Not quite unpleasant, true, but…
Sirius must have been up this way. He'd been reeking of the stuff after his bath yesterday afternoon – or was that the day before yesterday? Harry wasn't sure if it was before or after midnight. At dinner the smell had remained strong enough for Professor Sinistra to complain that it was putting her off her food, and Professor Sprout had asked if Sirius had taken up gardening.
Neem oil was as good against Devil's Snare Weevil as it was against fleas, Sprout explained to an interested table of students and professors. This led to all sorts of questions about Animagi and attendant blood-sucking insects, all of which McGonagall avoided (with a smirk) by insisting that as the glowering Sirius was a dog Animagus, he was the expert when it came to parasites.
Remus and Harry needed to work hard to stop their smiles from growing into grins, especially after Trelawney's sniffed "Quite right, Minerva!"
A noise – uphill? – brought him back to the present, and Harry took out his wand and reflexively cast a Lumos towards where he thought it had come from. For a moment the stable Dumbledore had built for Simon could be seen as empty as any fallen husk. Harry let the light die and blinked as darkness soaked up the world.
For a few minutes there was nothing to be seen – not even the stars. That light spell hadn't been such a good idea.
As Harry got his night vision back he realised he wasn't alone. That noise had come from the nearby oak tree, not uphill… Harry turned. This time his Lumos was softer and reached with respect into the shadows.
Snape, one of the shadows, must have realised the moment Harry focussed on him, because his eyes narrowed as he stepped out from the concealment of the oak, and he said, "Out rather late, aren't you, Potter?"
Harry instinctively stiffened at the menace. He felt the old defensive bile well up again and counted… one… two… three… and was able to see the situation as if from above; detached. The light spell flickered for a moment then steadied.
"I couldn't sleep."
Snape glared. Possibly at the lack of reaction, possibly because Harry, perched up on the gate post, was currently higher than him. Harry studied him in return, trusting that the night would soften a curious stare into something more polite. Apart from that overheard conversation with Luna, this was the first time Harry had seen Snape since he'd walked out of the barn. Harry hadn't seen him in the Great Hall for meals, and wondered if he was somehow damaged or just…
"How are you doing?" asked Harry. It surprised him when he realised the concern was genuine.
Snape turned his head just a fraction and Harry had a glimpse of Simon, warily examining something new for potential threat. That was Snape, all right: prickly as a porcupine, testing his surroundings to see where the attack was going to come from.
No wonder he'd adapted so well to being a horse.
"Other than missing a couple of eventful months and returning to find some maniac managed to blow up my workroom while I was away, I'm fine, thank you. And you?"
Harry bit the inside of his cheek. Polite and sarcastic as hell. There was nothing wrong with Snape mentally. "Okay." He couldn't resist adding, "Missing Simon, though."
Snape snorted and turned away.
With a flick of his own wand, Snape sent up a small, softly-glowing sphere that bobbed between them, casting light without intruding on the darkness. Harry's own spell dimmed to match it. "Know anything about that explosion?" Snape asked. There was the slightest vibration through the question, hinting at some bubbling rage waiting its turn.
"Er, the one in your workroom?"
"Yes, the one in my workroom," Snape breathed, his jaw clenched. "The one that destroyed a set of alchemist-grade glassware, several priceless telewindows – it'll take me weeks to reset the charms on another set – a platinum cauldron and my collection of mercury stirrers… not to mention scaring my familiar witless. I'm still picking the quills and scales out of the drawer he lives in. I've managed to narrow the suspects down to not being Granger or Elmsworthy, but –"
"Would that familiar be Bertram?" said Harry before Veritaserum could be threatened, thinking of the unseen growling thing in the drawer. Quills and scales? "What exactly is Bertram?"
Snape skewered him with a look. "Strangely enough, yes, my familiar would be Bertram. And Bertram is a – well, he's Bertram. What, precisely, do you know about Bertrams and their reactions to explosions?" He raised an eyebrow.
Harry swallowed. "Oh. Well. I never actually saw Bertram, but I heard him growl. I hope he's okay. I suppose Professor Dumbledore told you we were working down there to make the potions to stop Voldemort? But I wasn't around for the explosion, so I can't really give you any details. Remus tells me it wasn't anything I was working on, though." Snape was still giving him that look of 'I know you're somehow responsible for the carnage'. "Er… best if you ask Professor Dumbledore." Still no change to the look. "Er. Draco's really glad to have you back. Well, sort of. I don't think he's happy about losing Simon, either," Harry said conversationally. "Although once he didn't have to worry about anyone stealing his horse it made it easier for him to go home," he added, feeling that this was a truth that needed to be told.
Snape's eyes glittered in a pulse from the light globe. "Well, I'm so very sorry for depriving you children of your favourite pony."
Harry shrugged, needled by the casual attitude towards the world-tilting phenomenon of a Malfoy giving more than a bent Knut about something not directly related to the family. "The memory of Simon giving pony rides to the first and second years is something I'll treasure. Not to mention riding lessons for Sirius…" He trailed off, alerted by a sudden vacuum of sound on his right that something wasn't quite right.
"Er… did Professor Dumbledore or Luna tell you about the riding lessons…?"
"…Maybe not." Harry could have kicked himself for the lapse.
Snape's face was turned away, but there was another strangled sound. This time Harry thought he could make out words: "…not… that fucking arsehole Black… I'll… strangle that…"
Snape's incoherence was only superficially funny, like watching a clown slip on a banana skin and break his leg. Laughing now would not help. It could get someone killed. Probably Sirius. Best to change the subject again. "You know, if you want to keep your identity as Simon a secret you might want to stop using the pet shampoo."
"I beg your pardon, but I am not using pet shampoo!" Snape said frostily. "Luna – oh, she would tell me it's herbal. Of course." He pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Er, it's the, the neem oil. It's got quite a distinctive odour. Sirius uses it, you see, and –"
"And if you managed to notice the smell then a dog Animagus won't have any problem. I suppose he knew it was used on me?"
"He knows it was used on Simon. Apparently Luna used half a bottle of some special stuff Remus orders in from India for Sirius."
"Charming." His nostrils flared and he folded his arms, his robes pulling tight across his shoulders before he turned back to Harry with a vicious curl to his lip. "Now I even smell like Black. I suppose the werewolf knows –"
"No, Remus doesn't have any idea about Simon. I'm sure of that." Winding up Snape like this wasn't something Harry had planned on – it certainly wouldn't win him points with Luna – yet there was something almost predestined in the way he made Snape angry with the simplest of utterances. Harry might have said something else then, something designed to calm the other wizard down, something that would probably have set him off like an Erumpent horn, but he suddenly sensed someone or something watching them. He slid down off the post and turned his head. Snape had moved towards him, also taking out his wand as he turned to look towards the Forest.
They were alone on the hill, but far below, something moving like a minor constellation come to Earth caught his eye.
Unicorns. Browsing the dark edges of the Forest.
"I see them."
They tucked their wands away.
One unicorn, further from the Forest than the others, had its head lifted as it gazed at the two wizards on the hill.
Even from this distance, Harry knew it was the stallion. Its horn twinkled like a star through clouds as it dipped its head in salute and returned to its family.
"Do you remember the unicorns, sir?"
"Yes." Said in a hollow voice. "I remember the unicorns."
They stood shoulder to shoulder and watched the herd graze. The wind moved across the two wizards and all that they could hear was the rustle of it through oak leaves, heather and long grass.
Lulled by the peaceful vision below, Harry voiced the thought, "How anyone could kill one of them, I don't understand."
"It is a type of madness, this need for immortality. The Da- Voldemort was a monster created out of the human fear of dying." Snape's voice sounded strangely young. For a moment Harry fancied he was standing next to his friend, and this made it easier to speak.
"It's a happy change not having him try to use my scar against me."
Snape peered closer. "I hadn't noticed – your scar's gone."
"Yes. Thank Merlin."
The brief moment of camaraderie broke when:
"Aren't you worried people won't recognise you without your trademark?" Snape sneered.
Harry should have counted to ten, but – "Do you have any idea what it's like to have people judge you by a scar?" he countered hotly.
There was a silvery whinny from the herd – probably just a mare calling to her wandering foal, but it caught the attention of the wizards on the hill. Instead of snapping back at Harry, Snape eyed the unicorns and said mildly, "I might have some idea."
Harry deflated. "Oh. Is – do you still have the, um, the Dark Mark?"
Snape looked puzzled now. "No. I gather Lucius still has his," he said with unexpected candour. "Or so Narcissa has told me… in confidence, you understand. But mine is gone. It's as if it never was."
It took Harry a few seconds before he remembered. "I used it. That was what I used to give me a way into Voldemort's magic. Did Draco or Professor Dumbledore tell you about what happened when Voldemort died?"
"Draco told me a few things, but other than a couple of bizarre stories featuring centaurs and acromantulas – oh, and the Golden Sickle, which suddenly and surprisingly I remember most vividly – I only know that Voldemort is gone." Snape's expression hinted at the curiosity Harry knew must be churning away. "Apparently I am an invalid and must be fed a supply of pre-digested news bulletins fit only for the terminally bewildered."
For a moment Harry considered withholding the story as payback for his last detention, but in the next moment thrust the idea away. To do so would not only be ungrateful but petty. But he didn't want to send Snape back into the Infirmary with the shock of too many returning memories. Remus would definitely use that new Pointed Look on Harry if he did, and Luna – well. "Do you feel up to hearing about it now? I can tell you tomorrow if you'd prefer."
A sigh. "Better tell me now. Otherwise I'll have the headmaster pretending to be earnest as he avoids the issue. He already takes far too much pleasure in half-truths and being circumspect around me."
Harry wasn't quite sure what that meant, and suspected Dumbledore might be the one giving him a Pointed Look tomorrow. But it seemed as close as Snape would ever come to begging for the story, and he doubted the unicorns would save him from the Potions master if he backed out now – they might even come and calm Snape down if need be. "You already know that Draco and I took you through the barrier? The strangest thing happened when we finally confronted Voldemort…" He left out the barrier trees, the bridge and the gallop around the roads and paddocks north of Hogsmeade, and concentrated on explaining about taking the spell from Simon's leg and pressing it into his scar, which opened a door into some dimension he still didn't understand. "Do you have any ideas about what magic was involved?" he asked finally.
Snape thought for a moment, eyes down, a line between his eyes. Harry recognised the look from Severus, and waited. "Hard to tell," Snape said at last, slowly, as if grudgingly admitting defeat. "I don't remember what happened, and I sense there's more you aren't telling me."
"There was more, true, but… it's hard to put it into words."
"It so often is."
Harry watched an owl float overhead. It must have been a Hogwarts owl, because it drifted around him and Snape before gliding away. "Do you know what happened to Helga Hufflepuff?"
"Legends say she never left Hogwarts." But Snape's dark eyes squinted at the equally dark mass of the Forest as he said this. It seemed extra shadowy with non-human promise as the eastern sky beyond it began to show the first hints of dawn.
"I think somehow she put herself into the Forest. I don't know why I think that, it's just…" Harry finished with a shrug.
"She was a typical Hufflepuff. Superficially bland and unassuming with a cheerful smile. Ready to do the hard work needed to achieve her ends – benign ends, that is. Slytherins, Gryffindors and Ravenclaws can work hard when they're really motivated, but it was Hufflepuff who demonstrated how someone could put her own interests aside and live her life for the greater good."
"When Professor Dumbledore assigned me, Draco and Luna to look after y- Simon, he talked about it like it was a way to bring all four Houses together – Hooch was meant to represent Hufflepuff, but she didn't stick around."
One eye rolled left to regard him. "I suppose you think there was an invisible Hufflepuff there with us?"
"I wouldn't be surprised."
"After all these years, neither would I," Snape said.
"Is it possible to be – not a ghost, but… in some way leave your spirit in the world, like a part of nature instead of, um, instead of something like Voldemort's efforts to not die?"
"If anyone could do it, I suspect Helga Hufflepuff could. She wouldn't have done it out of flashy overblown ego and scorn for perceived lesser mortals, which was the malady the Dark Lord suffered and made us suffer for…" His voice trailed off, his shoulders sagged.
The unicorn herd was dwindling into the trees.
The two wizards watched them go until the last of their light was left to imagination and hope.
Harry let out his breath. Sometimes his life seemed like a waking dream. As he shifted his attention back to the immediate, he was just in time to catch the loss etched into Snape's face as the Slytherin watched the unicorns go. It echoed Harry's own for Simon.
"Wonder how the centaurs are doing?" he said, thinking aloud again.
Snape was gazing wistfully after the unicorns. "You'd have to ask Hagrid," he said softly. "I haven't been on speaking terms with them since last year when I went looking for you and your idiotic friends in the Forest and was shot with an arrow for my troubles."
"Oh. One of them seems to think you're not so bad, if that's any help."
"Who? Not that lunatic Tigris, I hope."
Snape stretched one shoulder around in circles – Simon had always been a little stiff when working on that side – and grimaced. "I knew we'd run into that centaur somewhere along the leyline. Draco said one of them had put unicorn blood – actual unicorn blood! – on my eyes. Disgusting. Could only have been Tigris. Having him think you're 'not so bad'" – he rolled the words around his mouth distastefully – "is not so far removed from having Lucius Malfoy commend you for your hex-work." He rolled his shoulder once more, the material of his robes stretching tight against it. That was one difference, Harry noticed: Snape had filled out. While he certainly wasn't fat, he wasn't as thin as a rail anymore, and h
is shoulders were broader.
He set off down the hill with an easy stride that was a direct translation from horse to human. Harry fell into step next to him, ignoring the thin mouth and sideways glare. He was used to that. It was the faint smell of pet shampoo that was new. No wonder he'd thought Sirius might have been wandering around the hills in the middle of the night.
"Hopefully Mr Malfoy won't give you any trouble – Draco and Mrs Malfoy seem to be taking charge there."
"Huh. Draco's young."
"He's matured a lot lately. You should have seen that contract he made his father sign – right after Voldemort was killed. I guess having you and me standing there dripping with bits of Dark Lord helped his cause. Fastest blackmail opportunist I've ever met," he added happily.
Snape gave him an uncertain frown, like he might be wondering about some strange epidemic of hallucinations that had been going around Hogwarts. "What do you mean, 'dripping with –' no, don't tell me…" He managed to look both ill and smug.
"Draco gave you a good wash as soon as he got you back to Hogwarts. He was pretty good like that – he took the whole philosophy of a good rider looking after his horse first to heart, I think."
A raised eyebrow. "A year ago the only thing you would have had him taking to heart was a wooden stake."
"True. But he's a lot better now."
"Mightn't be the only one," Snape commented mildly. Before Harry realised this was compliment and insult all in one, Snape continued, "I almost thought I'd entered some sideways dimension when I returned from being a horse – you and Malfoy suddenly becoming bosom chums only cements that impression. He tried telling me some of our adventures in Simon Land, but there wasn't enough time for him to tell me everything. He and Millicent Bulstrode told me the oddest stories of what's been happening in the castle since my… disappearance."
"I expect all of them are true."
A Simonesque, put-upon sigh. "That's what I'm afraid of."
They kept their attention on the Forest. Harry was hoping the unicorns would reappear and he sensed Snape was almost praying for them – was that why he was really out here? Looking for unicorns? But the unicorns were gone, and as they strolled down the hill, following the path Harry had taken countless times with Simon, down towards the meadow and past the edge of the Forest without getting too close, the night breathed calm and steady without any magical flutters. Or at least that was how Harry felt it. Perhaps that was what lulled Harry enough to forget to guard his tongue.
"You died three times," he said, then realised he'd not meant to say that aloud when Snape's dark eyes snapped around from peering though the trees to bore into Harry. He probably should have noticed that his companion was getting edgier and remembered that Severus hadn't been used to people – people other than Luna and perhaps his sister – wanting to be around him without some ulterior motive; there was no reason to suspect that the intervening years between the boy and the man would have changed matters.
"Are you out here hoping to witness number four?" Snape snarled, as if blaming Harry for the loss of unicorns.
Harry winced. "I didn't mean it like that." He forced himself to look back into Snape's glare calmly. Horse Mutterer to Snape Mutterer… the future opportunities for employment stretched on without end. "The first time I thought you died, that time during the battle when Voldemort set up the barrier – I'm sorry, but it would be hypocritical of me to tell you I was particularly upset. I… was shocked more than anything, I think. And I guess it was just easier not to think about it. But the second death was pretty bad. Do you remember helping me find the Golden Sickle?"
"No. Yes." Snape rubbed his forehead. He seemed to be fighting off a headache. "I remember a giant fig tree. Finding the Sickle. Then – then it was gone. Until I saw it again quite recently. But as I was a horse at the time, I didn't understand exactly why it was important, only that it was sending a torrent of the oddest images through my head."
"You – I wasn't allowed to change the future, you understand. I had to lie to you. And then when you worked out the secret of where – when, I mean – of when I'd come from, Professor Dumbledore had to make you forget. Only I was allowed to remember. But back in this time when I showed the Sickle to Simon, he had the strangest reaction to it. I thought it was just because he was an edge creature, but I think he – I think you were remembering." As he spoke and watched the other wizard, he saw when the aggravation Snape was displaying so clearly began to ease back into a well-masked wariness, and Harry felt sympathy for the once-Simon. He paused for a shaky breath. "Then I came back to this time without having made it right with Severus. And when I got back, Severus was gone as thoroughly as if he'd never existed and I couldn't even talk to anyone about him – you."
"But you talked to Simon?" Severus looked slightly puzzled, as if at a memory not quite realised.
"Yes. At great length. Simon was a pretty good listener. A bit like you back – when I went back in time." Harry, remembering the enraged version of Severus, stepped away half a pace, hoping this edgily controlled adult version wasn't going to start throwing hexes. "Or how you were before you found out who I really was. No wonder you got so angry then –"
"Yes. I remember being angry with someone…" Snape rubbed his forehead again tiredly, but there were tell-tale lines around his mouth.
Harry knew that look. Confused by conflicting memories with little solid foundation, Snape was giving off strong signals of Simon about to throw a wobbly because his rider was incompetent. "I guess if you felt half the mortification I feel over spilling your secrets to someone who was lying about their identity, I can understand why you were so upset."
Snape pursed his thin lips. "If… it is any consolation, Simon couldn't understand a word you said."
"Really? You – he… he always seemed to be listening. I kind of thought he could understand a little."
"Only tone. Everything else was a variation on 'blah-blah-blah'."
"He was, however, adept at understanding 'whinge, moan, whine, poor me'."
Harry bit his lip, trying not to grin. "Pretty much summarises our conversations."
Snape snorted again, sounding very much like Simon. Harry looked down, just in case the sudden flare of infuriated loss showed in his face. He looked up again at the sound of Snape's voice.
"And then Simon turned into me."
"And stopped being Simon."
"So you'd rather I went back to being a horse. Well, fair enough. Some days…" He trailed off, and his face soured as he stared back at the hill.
Harry wondered what it would be like, having people suddenly stop loading you down with expectations. He'd had the Dursleys secretly expecting him to go magically psychotic for ten years. Then the Wizarding world expecting him to be their saviour for a problem they should have solved themselves. Maybe it was time Harry had his own expectations. "It's kind of freeing when instead of having to be what everyone wants you to be, you can just, um, be."
It wouldn't go down in history as one of the famous speeches around which the world pivoted, but Snape turned back to him. Harry knew that expression, although he wasn't used to seeing it – or, more likely, understanding it – on Snape. But he'd seen hints of it on Severus and when worn by Luna it was easily recognised as pity.
Harry didn't want pity.
"I'm sorry I couldn't have brought the Severus of twenty years ago back with me like you asked. You have no idea how sorry I am," Harry blurted out bitterly, suddenly realising he was sick to death of half-truths and too tired to perpetrate any more. "Because you won't allow yourself to believe it. And I really, truly miss Simon. But the truth of the matter is that Simon and Severus are part of what makes you you, and it would be dishonest to wish you back as a horse or turn back time and tell you not to become a Death Eater…" Harry swallowed and looked down. "Because it would deny the person you are. And that's just another way of someone sticking unfair expectations on you. I've decided not to allow other people to tell me who the hell I am anymore, but that goes two ways. If that makes any sense."
He waited for the sneer.
Snape seemed to be restraining himself for a moment. Then he said in a mild voice, "And here I thought you only rambled that much after you'd overdosed on chocolate cake and Ribena."
Was that a joke? Thin ice time… Uh, oh – Snape was looking annoyed again.
"You owe me four boxes of chocolate frogs."
"What? No – it was only two!" Harry blustered.
"Four with compound interest."
"So you remember being owed something…"
"Nothing can possibly wipe my memory of debts owed."
"Given the way you carry a grudge, I shouldn't be surprised…" Harry wondered too late if he should have said that aloud.
But Snape only smiled thinly. The earliest of the early birds were calling to each other through the trees. Dawn was close enough now to outline the world, and with a flick of his wand, Snape extinguished the light spell.
They turned and began the slow stroll back up the hill towards the paddock. There was no reason to go there, it was simply a good direction in which to walk. And this time something was different. Neither of them, Harry felt, was looking for unicorns now. Some gap had been bridged between the otherworldly and the human. As they climbed, zephyrs perfumed by heather and gorse flowers lingering from the previous day drifted across them. It was the smell of open grasslands and wider possibilities lying over the obtainable horizons of a new day.
"Three boxes," Harry said.
"Three and a half."
"All right, but you're getting your own peppermints."
"Can't abide peppermints."
Harry tripped over a rock with the shock of it. Snape offered a hand and Harry took it without thinking. "Since when have you hated peppermints?"
"I only like peppermints when I'm a horse."
He wondered if the adult Snape still liked Pink Floyd, Ribena and trippy Disney movies. He didn't dare ask. Maybe it was best not to press the issue. Then again – why not? Gryffindor bravery to the fore: "Do you still like Pink Floyd?"
"I do, although I prefer their middle period before their egos tripped them up and the band imploded. But I rarely listen to music these days."
"I expect your box of records is still there," Harry said, not wanting to admit he'd been back. His need for full truths seemed to come and go like waves onto a beach. Or perhaps he'd learned enough from the Horse Mutterer book for its lessons to have become intuitive – there was a time for truth and a time for deflection to avoid stress. "Wonder if the Ribena is still good?"
"Thanks for sheltering me. I was a bit rough after the time-travel."
"Hmm. You were lucky you didn't go any further. There's a discrepancy wobble in the locator subset of the spell that increases exponentially."
Harry had had enough exposure to Elmsworthy to be able to translate that: more years, more danger.
"I think the spell knew what it was doing. Strange how it sent me exactly where I needed to go."
"That's the good thing about magic – a large portion of it is rooted in the subconscious. We mightn't always know what we need consciously, but we can manifest it in little inflections of the voice, twitches in the wand hand."
That sounded like something they should have been taught at Hogwarts, but Harry held his tongue on that subject. "That would explain a lot. Although I sometimes wonder if Hogwarts has some influence – I could have gone a minute either side of the time I entered the past, and things would have been very different. Filch might have found me instead of you."
"True." Another pause for thought. Snape began again, speaking as slowly as Harry did when he was trying to remember the exact play of a Quidditch match after being hit by a Bludger, "If so, the castle dropping you on me might prove Flitwick's theory that Hogwarts has a sense of humour. A very juvenile sense of humour."
"Sorry about your knee."
Snape looked puzzled for a moment, then nodded in recollection. "That was a useful spell you taught me. So I suppose it worked out in my favour."
Harry bit his lip, ashamed as he guessed why Snape had needed to know an extra healing spell. But before he could apologise, however clumsily, for his father, Snape said,
"I'm not proud of hitting your head against the wall as I did. That really happened, didn't it?"
"Yes. You were provoked by me falling on you, though."
"I – I thought you were your father…"
Harry shrugged. "You've always thought I was my father."
Snape had the grace to bow his head momentarily, the fall of his hair hiding his expression. "Yes." He straightened again, shaking his hair out of his face. For a moment he looked younger and Harry caught a brief glimpse of the boy he'd met in a dusty corridor in an abandoned tower.
"I suppose I couldn't have been allowed to remember you."
Harry tilted his head, surprised, pleased and a little apprehensive. "No. It would have given too much away about future events."
"And I suppose it would have been wrong to have stopped me from joining the Death Eaters. We needed a spy, after all," Snape said neutrally. His hands were folded in the sleeves of his robes and his stance gave nothing away of what he was thinking. Harry doubted even Robert Python could have read all the nuances in this one.
"For what it's worth, I didn't want to leave like that. But I couldn't just abandon everyone in this time."
"I realise that." Snape stared at Harry a moment longer before his eyes narrowed, but not with malice. "Did Dumbledore send you back immediately? I seem to recall Lucius Malfoy being upset over something."
"Um. I might have… accidentally taken out my annoyance on him."
"Quite some accident. He had a broken nose."
Harry brightened. "That's right. I wasn't really aiming." He shrugged. "A bit cowardly, really. I was wearing an invisibility cloak at the time."
"As the Muggles say, it's the thought that counts."
"No," Harry mused, "I think it's the right hook that counts."
Snape laughed, then looked surprised. He sniffed in what could have been a laugh sneaking out despite his wishes. "It's the little things in life."
Harry would have grinned, but he'd already thought of something far more serious. "I wanted to hit that smug bastard with something a lot harder – like a brick or an Unforgivable. Do you remember that it was Lucius who was trying to kill you when you turned into Simon?"
Snape nodded slowly. "Vaguely. Draco told me about it."
"Really?" Where were the fireworks? The green flashes of deadly curses?
"If you're thinking that it was very brave of him, telling me when he knew very well that I could poison his father and make it look like an accidental plate of tainted shellfish, you can rest easy. I'm not going to kill Lucius."
Was it only Harry's imagination that supplied the yet? Asking about plans for revenge wouldn't be polite. "So long as he keeps a low profile and I can keep him where I can see him, I suppose I can stand having him on the same planet as me," he said grudgingly. "Draco has plans that involve his father becoming a massive philanthropist on behalf of Muggleborns."
Snape inclined his head. "That's what Draco told me."
"Lucius is going to die of shame, isn't he?"
"I'll make sure of it."
"A nice cold dish of revenge, is that how it is?"
Black eyes gleamed like fallen stars. "The best sort of revenge goes on for decades. But I owe Narcissa and Draco too much to actually kill a member of their family."
Harry decided it was perhaps one of the best choices he'd ever made, not going into Slytherin. A Slytherin's social life was far too complicated. "What about Bellatrix LeStrange?"
"I heard she was dead," Snape said uneasily.
"Yes, she is. That was the bit where you kicked her head in."
"What? Really?" There was a brief, delighted smile. "How did that happen?"
"Er, well, she'd just hit Draco with the Cruciatus and so you kicked her leg and broke her thigh bone. Then when she fell over, she lifted her wand. Simon really hated it when people did that. So he – I mean you – Merlin, this is confusing… you, you kicked her in the head. She was dead a few seconds after that."
"Hmm. Well, I suppose that counts as my good deed for the decade." Snape was doing a bad job of concealing how proud he was. "Narcissa can hardly blame me for that – I was protecting her son, after all."
"Quite right. You know, it's odd seeing so many people like Mrs Malfoy when twenty-one years have passed for them and it's been only about the same number of days for me. I'm sorry about Mr Nott – he seemed alright when I met him…" He shook his head. "All those people I had breakfast with, and they became Death Eaters…"
"Yes. Avery was being his usual idiot self, but you seemed to be getting along quite well with Rosier."
"Remember being trapped in Potions? You, me and Rosier?"
"Far too well. Rosier was helpful then."
"Did he ever get you your chocolate frogs after I left? I asked him to."
"Are you trying to weasel out of repaying me?"
"He got me one box."
"Then I only owe you two boxes, not four. I still find it hard to imagine Rosier becoming a Death Eater – Avery was an idiot, he'd have followed someone into the Death Eaters if he thought it was the cool thing to do – a bit like Pettigrew – but Rosier, Wilkes and Nott… they all seemed more intelligent."
"They were intelligent. Too intelligent. Like Lucius, they knew exactly what they wanted – but in their cases they wanted to test their abilities to the point of destruction rather than for political gain. So long as it was the destruction of others, that was all that mattered to them. I believe they understood the Dark Lord earlier than I managed to do. That was what made them all the more terrible, that they knew they were following a madman and it only excited them the more."
"It's still a shame."
"Don't waste your pity on them. They didn't deserve it. I might feel some regret for Nott's death, but only on Theodore's behalf. He should have had a better father."
Harry wasn't sure what he could say to that. Theodore was a peer, but they'd never been friends. It was hard to generate the suitable level of empathy for someone like that, but saying so would sound cold. "It seems like your memory is coming back."
"You appear to be jogging my memory." He hesitated and then a strange light passed across his face, culminating in an evil smile. "For example the Whomping Willow incident. Some interesting key details I wish I had been allowed to keep – you feeding Black's wand to a werewolf, for example."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Oh, you remember that. I'm amazed you haven't rubbed Sirius' nose in it before."
"I only recalled it a few moments ago." He hunched his shoulders and looked around as the owl flew overhead. "It was the only bright spark of an otherwise horrific evening."
"Was it the Sickle or being changed back into a human that made you start to remember things again?"
They had reached the paddock. The owl was perched on a rail. It hooted in greeting. Snape ignored it and picked at a splinter as he considered Harry's question.
"Definitely the Sickle, although I wasn't able to properly understand what I was remembering. Horse don't organise memories the same way as humans do – their knowledge depends even more heavily on emotion and routine than ours does. Seeing the Sickle confused the hell out of Simon… Harry Lovegood… Which brings me to another question." Snape drew himself up to his full height, which, while it was a little less than Harry remembered, was still intimidating, especially when combined with that glare. "What are your intentions towards my niece?"
Harry blinked, opened his mouth, shut it again, and thought. "Honourable," he said at last. Truthfully. It was perhaps the only answer Snape would understand.
Snape seemed to; he nodded and turned back to rest his elbows on the fence. "I suppose that is acceptable."
Another pause. This one didn't have the underlying tension of earlier. Finally, Snape asked, "So… that Sickle…?"
"Yeah. It really needs to be returned." And he had a sneaking suspicion that this was the real reason Stephanie had woken him tonight.
"Not something you want left hanging about where anyone can find it and destroy the castle."
"No. Er… did Dumbledore mention we hid it in the cupboard down by your workroom?"
"No, he didn't. But Stephanie has updated me on the details, although I haven't had the inclination to dig it out yet."
It was lucky the portrait hadn't told Snape the true story of his lab being blown up.
"I think taking it back through the tunnel is out."
The line between Snape's eyes deepened. "I had the oddest dream last night. Nightmare, rather. We were running along some tunnels and they were collapsing around us. Oh, and I was a badger."
"Ah. Not a nightmare."
Snape sighed. "It wouldn't be, would it. Dear old Hogwarts. That was the tunnel to the Glasshouse?" At Harry's nod, he continued, "So that giant tree with the psychotropic fruit was real? And the fig?"
"You ate one."
"Bloody silly of me."
"You gave me a bit of a scare, yes."
Snape was frowning. "Did you really stick your hand in my mouth to try and get it out?"
Harry laughed. He couldn't help it. "I'd forgotten that bit. Yes, I think I did. I said you scared me. But the magic gave you the boost you needed to catalyse your shape-changing charm." Harry let out a heavy breath as the full memory of just what a fright Severus had given him returned in force. "Luckily for us – it was the badger that got the Sickle in the end. Although I still say you were a lunatic for having eaten magical fruit."
Snape didn't take offence. "Hm. What about the fig?"
"You were the one who ate it – you tell me."
His impertinence didn't cost him points (although as the school year had technically ended Snape might be saving up point-taking for the next one). Snape merely gave him a haughty look, one Simon might have used when surveying a rider foolish enough to have fallen off. Harry hoped he hid the jolt of sudden sorrow it gave him – he'd already told Snape that he missed Simon. What he didn't want was for Snape to know exactly how terribly he missed his, Harry's, horse. That was private.
"I refer to the fig you used in the barrier-breaking potion – Elmsworthy sent me a letter to explain why he'd borrowed some of my equipment to build a percussion device, and to tell me you used some of the fig for the potion to counter the Vivicus Charm."
(Elmsworthy had sent a letter? That had been quick. He must have sent it along with the lawyer Snape had mentioned to Luna. But he doubted Elmsworthy had told Snape Harry had given him some of the fig.)
"…Although between you and me, Mister Elmsworthy undoubtedly stashed away for his private edification."
"Really? I couldn't say. It'd be a bit devious for me."
Harry smiled. "Thank you."
"Why do you people always think that's a compliment?"
"Experience." Harry's smile widened. Snape didn't scowl.
The owl gave an apologetic mewp! as if regretting the necessity of abandoning them, and skimmed away, off to hunt the last of the moths or perhaps find its nest for the day. Snape watched it go, a pensive look on his face. In a softer voice, a voice which could have meant anything from Severus imparting something to a friend or Snape about to blow up like a crate of Filibusters, he said, "Are you going to tell me about the fig, or is it some secret?"
"No – well, yes it is, but you helped get it –"
"Really? The Sickle didn't jog my memory that far. Did you take it when you returned to this time? I'm astonished it travelled back with you."
"Actually, it fell into my pocket in this time. Do you remember when you – when Simon – when… when we went to get the mistletoe?" Snape shook his head, eyes shadowed, so Harry told him the fall into the Glasshouse and the wild gravity and Simon coming to the rescue. "Thanks for coming to get me."
"Luna sent me, you said."
"Yeah, but…" Harry shrugged. "Thanks for coming to get me. It was pretty bad."
"Inner ear goes screwy along with your brain bad."
Snape did frown now, but from thought rather than ire. Not a Snape expression Harry was familiar with, but he'd seen it often enough on Severus. There was a tilt of the head that was an echo of Simon, and Harry had to look away for a moment. He pretended he was looking for the owl rather than his horse.
"I wonder how much of Simon's ability to get into the Glasshouse came from the shoes," Snape mused, stroking his mouth with a long finger. "I lost those when I changed back, but doubtless they can be either found or remade."
Harry leaned on the fence next to him. "Hmm. Good point. Maybe another horse would be able to get into the Glasshouse?"
"It's possible. Or another edge creature, although the way you keep on my left side suggests you might be more comfortable with a horse."
"Oh! I hadn't noticed…" But it was true. Harry had spent most of the past half hour keeping Snape on his right, just like he'd do when leading Simon around. He scratched behind his ear, embarrassed. "I didn't mean to imply you're a horse."
"Not currently, no." Snape seemed more amused than cross. "And I would object quite strongly to someone else trying to put a leadrope on me." He didn't seem to notice the way his right hand drifted over the inside of his left forearm.
"I can't think of another edge creature that could be as handy as a horse. Cats are too small, and I wouldn't know where to begin with controlling a deer or a pig." He grinned. "Can you imagine Draco trying to convince a pig to go through a magical barrier?"
"I could say something unkind about Crabbe and Goyle, but as their Head of House it would be beneath me."
"It's a shame you – er," Harry quickly decided not to say what he'd been intending to say about Snape's treatment of other Houses. "…It's a shame you're not allowed to change back into a horse."
"Was it Professor Dumbledore who told you I'm not supposed to use the shape-shifting charm?"
"He said it's dangerous. I'm inclined to agree." It was a heavy admission.
Snape's sly smile deepened one corner of his mouth. "Well, never mind. There might be another way back."
"I'd feel a lot more comfortable with the Sickle returned to the Glasshouse."
"As would I. Apparently the wards of the castle will take years to reassemble fully. Further shocks would set the reintegration back decades, or even undermine the architectural integrity."
Harry shook his head. "I wonder if Professor Dumbledore will let me help if I learned some warding spells? Now that I don't have to worry about Voldemort trying to kill me my summer is fairly free."
"Now that I don't have to worry about the Dark Lord finding out I'm a spy, feeding me my own liver and slowly roasting me over an open fire my summer is wide open, too, although I'll have to give the Ministry some information on prospective bolt-holes where any of the escaped Death Eaters might have gone to ground. And Luna mentioned some ridiculous fancy about finding a Bunyip. Other than that, I hope to have a fair amount of free time myself."
"If you'd like to investigate the possibilities of returning the Sickle…?" Harry wasn't quite sure how he was meant to say to Severus Snape: would you like to work on a project with me? "I was going to ask Draco or Hermione, and Luna often has the weirdest ideas which turn out to be bang on target, but Hermione's scared of horses, and Draco –"
"Draco is busy politicking and cleaning up after his father. I should hope Granger will be spending some time with her family, also." Between the lines, Harry heard: I can't work with the know-it-all. "Luna…" His fingers wove between each other and tightened. "I don't want Luna going through that barrier. She's just the sort to go haring off after whatever made those nests up in the trees. Or did I imagine those?"
"Once you've seen the Sickle again I expect you'll remember details a lot better, but, no, you didn't imagine those nests. And I'd like to avoid their builders, too. What about the headmaster?"
"Avoid him, too?" Snape almost smiled, then grew serious again. "With the greatest of respect to Albus, even if we found the world's most patient old nag for him, it wouldn't help. He can't ride a merry-go-round for more than three minutes without getting thrown off. Although it would be prudent to keep him abreast of the project. This time."
Harry bit his lip. He couldn't stop himself from asking: "Sirius? He'd be up for another riding lesson, surely?"
"That… he… Never mention that event again. I'm sure he'd love to rub it in that…" Snape trailed off with an indignant sniff and a scowl.
Harry took pity on him. "If he gives you trouble, just ask him if he still sings soprano."
"I beg your pardon?"
"He… er… he hit the pommel a little awkwardly."
Snape's shoulders trembled. He flicked at his nose with his thumb, incidentally covering what could have been a smirk. "Really. Well, well. I shall… keep that up my sleeve. You haven't completely forgiven him for calling you 'Squit', have you?"
"Oh, so you remember that bit."
"Again, I wasn't sure if it was imagination."
"Do you remember being a badger and attacking him?"
Snape winced and his hand went to his ribs. "So that happened, too. And –" He stopped suddenly and watched Harry carefully from the corner of his eye. "You had your wand on him. You threatened him."
Harry nodded. "Yes," he said softly. There was an uncomfortable pause before Harry added, "He says he's forgiven me, but I'm not sure if I've… oh, it's complicated."
After another pause, Snape replied carefully, "Family tends to be."
Harry gave him a wry smile, glad Snape hadn't taken the opportunity to twist the knife over Sirius. "You've met the Dursleys, have you?"
"Your aunt and uncle?" Snape stared off into the unfolding peach and apricot tones of dawn. "You told me something about them when you were back in time. How they, as Muggles, hated you for being magical.
"How strange," he continued in a soft, hollow voice. Perhaps it had been the memory of Harry's defence of the kicked badger, but the tension had all but gone. "It's as if all the vague images that I considered mere leftovers of dreams are suddenly proving to be real. Next thing I know, that Creevey boy will spring up waving a photo of me standing on the roof –"
"Someone stopped him from taking the photo. Professor Vector, I think."
Snape blinked. "You're joking." His frown was ferocious with alarmed recollection. "I – I was on the roof of the castle with you sitting on my back. I had this moment of lucidity where I found myself wondering how in Merlin's name I'd found myself in this situation and maybe I should – should cast the counter-spell… and then you – you said…" Snape looked indignant "… I believe you called me a 'good boy' and a 'good horse'. At that point I knew it had to be a hallucination, so I walked down the wall and went back to my paddock. Presumably."
"You cantered down the wall," Harry mumbled. He wanted to cover his face, now feeling rather hot, with his hands. Bloody, bloody bad timing – Luna's potion had worked after all. Simon had very nearly turned back into Snape. "We landed in the rose garden and managed to squeeze you through one of the doors in the wall. Simon – you – you seemed to be having quite a good time, although you had a massive headache afterwards."
"Who the hell gave me that potion?"
"I'd rather not say."
"It was either you, Draco or Lun- …ah. Luna."
Had Harry twitched, or was Snape reading his mind? "I never said that!"
"No, but I can tell when you lie."
"What?" Harry had suspected that for a long time. "How? Legilimency?"
"I don't need Legilimency to tell when you lie. Your mouth moves. That's enough of a clue."
"If I tell you you'll tell everyone else. So how is that supposed to help me?"
"I promise I won't tell everyone else. I'll… I'll help you set those charms to replace the broken telewindows in your lab." He neglected to mention that he wanted to know how to make them for himself. Even Gryffindors were capable of being sneaky when pressed.
"Hm. I'll hold you to that." Snape leaned back on an elbow and studied Harry. "Your left eyelid twitched on her name. You always spit out a story as if it's rehearsed rather than from experience. Every time you tell me a bare-faced lie you stare me straight in the eye."
"But you're supposed to look someone in the eye when you tell them the truth. Aren't you?"
"A firm handshake and direct eye contact… what rubbish. Truth has its own signature. Horses are very good at picking up body language."
Harry rolled his eyes.
"Like that, yes."
Harry gave Snape a cynical look. "Now you're just taking the piss."
Snape shrugged and didn't take points from Gryffindor. But then it was the holidays, which might also have been why he'd sworn in front of a student.
"I suppose being a spy would have honed that ability."
Snape looked away.
Watching from the corner of his eye, Harry saw Severus Simon Snape. It was as if the three aspects suddenly clicked.
"The tunnel," the man said in a voice as hushed as falling snowflakes, "it was falling down."
Harry shuddered. He still had the occasional nightmare about that. "Yes."
"You sheltered me with your body."
"I don't remember…" But he did. He'd been terrified that he would die, and that he wouldn't die alone. The fear of having altered the future for the worse by leading Severus to his doom had been in its way as bad as the surety he was going to die.
"I do. I was a badger and the tunnel was crashing down and you braced yourself over me, as if you thought you could stop it from killing me."
"I wasn't really thinking…"
"You never do. Arrogant boy."
Harry snorted and tried not to laugh out loud. "I'll take that as a thank you."
"You do that if it makes you happy."
Harry shook his head. Remembering… "I meant it when I said I wished I could've taken you back with me. I knew your future. I'd say sorry, but…"
"But sorry doesn't mean much. And reparation – penance – these cannot always be counted on." He tilted his head and a sheaf of black hair fell away, leaving his expression naked. "You did what you had to do, Harry."
Harry wasn't sure if that direct gaze meant Snape was lying or not. "You were really mad with me."
A sneer, but one he'd seen on Severus whenever the boy had been amused. "Like that's a novelty. It worked out as it was meant to. Although perhaps my anger was… not entirely justified."
Harry waited. Was this an apology?
There was a faint sigh from the Slytherin. "We mightn't need another horse to get back to the Glasshouse, but we will need some practice."
He stepped back and said softly: "Poseidon."
There was a swirl of darkness against the dawn. Harry blinked, not believing his eyes. But he had to believe his ears, and they told him that the clink of the metal bit in the horse's mouth was real.
Simon. Standing there, saddled and bridled. The thin light gleamed off the sleek hide and silky fall of mane and tail, buffing the dark brown leather of the saddle and the silver of the buckles to a faint shine that caught on the edge of sight.
"Are you sure this is a good idea? Professor Dumbledore said you could get trapped again –"
Simon's ears went back.
"…Or is the spell not as dangerous as he thinks?"
The ears relaxed and the head dipped fractionally.
"There was so much sorcerous magic flooding the loosebox when you were changed back into a human that – did it somehow stabilise the charm?"
Could all horses look smug, or was it an ability reserved for Simon?
"Well. It's a pity we can't tell Ginny."
The ears swept back again, and Harry hurried to add, "No, I swear I won't tell anyone. Although I guess the Elmsworthy family lawyer knows – he came to put a patent on the spell, didn't he?"
A noncommittal swish of the tail.
Harry stepped forward and, when Simon didn't move away, picked up the reins in his left hand and placed his foot in the stirrup. With the other hand on the front of the saddle, he swung up onto the horse's back. Simon – Simon, Severus or Snape – shifted, finding his footing under Harry's weight, and then as Harry settled himself into the saddle and picked up the reins –
No. This was another of those little tests Snape liked to set.
Very carefully keeping the reins loose because he really, really didn't want the trouble that would erupt if Simon thought Harry was putting himself in charge, Harry took up just enough slack so that the reins wouldn't flop about and annoy Simon. He coughed to clear his throat.
"In your own time, sir. The track going just north of Squirrel Hill shouldn't have anyone on it, especially at this time of the morning."
The horse dipped its head to acknowledge this, and eased forwards.
It took a few awkward strides before the horse made an annoyed sound, switched its tail, and – Harry swore he could hear Simon telling himself to relax – found the balance of horse and rider.
And then it was so normal that Harry nearly reached forward to pat the horse's neck.
Fortunately he strangled that impulse before it made it past his elbow.
With Harry's cloak and the silky black tail rippling out behind them they cantered off along the fenceline, past the gate leading into the field where a Muggle horse named Simon had lived for a brief time, and up into the hills behind the castle, up towards the heather-clad moors and into the emerging day.