CHAPTER 15:THE FIRST STEP
'Boy, this must be a record! I usually make it to at least Halloween before I wake up in here.'
Harry recognised the white walls, muted atmosphere and antiseptic smell of the hospital wing. He also happened to be lying in a feather bed with starched sheets and screen around it. The soft mattress felt wonderfully luxurious after two nights on the floor of a damp cellar. He sank back into its warmth and let himself float away on a gentle current. A crowd of troubles were waiting for him on the shore, beckoning, but he didn't want to deal with them yet. He had managed to be 'asleep' every time anyone poked their head round the screen to talk to him.
Now he heard footsteps again, clicking down the ward, and he feigned sleep, just as a precaution. They stopped short of his bed and he heard the murmur of low voices behind the screen. He caught only snippets, disconnected phrases:
"…the same arm again. …no, far worse than that time… …multiple fractures. …critical… …lost so much…"
Critical? They must be talking about Snape. Yeah, he'd be a terrible patient; probably make Madam Pomfrey's life hell, giving her marks out of ten for her healing draughts, criticising her pain potions.
Harry sat up and listened harder, shamelessly eavesdropping. He knew the two voices: Dumbledore's, a soothing rumble, and Madam Pomfrey's, almost distraught:
"Minerva is transfiguring some. But it can't be rushed otherwise you don't get a good cross-match. It will take another couple of hours at least. But he needs it now!"
They were talking about blood. And Snape wasn't just being difficult.
They had moved off down the ward. Impulsively Harry stuck his head round the side of the screen and called after them:
"If it's blood you want, he can have some of mine!"
Madam Pomfrey visibly started.
"Don't be ridiculous Harry." She dismissed him brusquely. "Wizard blood is very type sensitive. The chances of your groups matching are infinitesimal."
"You'd be surprised," said Harry wearily.
Dumbledore's expression was serious and thoughtful.
"Do as he says, Poppy," he advised.
Dumbledore returned in the afternoon. He sat patiently on the edge of Harry's bed. Harry couldn't bring himself to talk, and he lay with his back turned and his face buried stubbornly in his pillow.
"I know you are awake, Harry, and I know you can hear me," began Dumbledore. A long pause followed. Harry wondered if the old wizard was going to sit there all day saying nothing.
"This is a bad business, Harry, a bad business," Dumbledore finally said. "You have caused a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and suffering to all of us, not least to Professor Snape. Your generosity this morning was, of course, appreciated, but one humane gesture cannot mitigate your very disappointing conduct.
"If you are not prepared to speak to me, Harry, that is your prerogative. But I'm afraid you must listen to what I have to say. It is important. Firstly, I should tell you that we found James Potter's letter. You must forgive the invasion of your privacy - I had to, er, over-ride your Locking Charm - but we felt that, under the circumstances, my action was justifiable.
"I, and I alone, Harry, am aware of the contents of that letter, though I am guessing that some of your friends know of its existence."
Harry turned over and faced Dumbledore. The old man looked grave, new worry lines chiselled into his wizened brow.
"What did they say?" Harry asked. He didn't want to get Hermione and Draco into any more trouble.
"Regrettably little," sighed the wizard. "Peer loyalty is an almost unbreakable bond. Admirable and at times exasperating. They said merely that your recent behaviour had been unusual, that you were having unpleasant dreams and your scar was bothering you - Professor Lupin corroborated that - and that you had gone to some lengths to cultivate the acquaintanceship of Professor Snape… All very well-intentioned, but evasive, I fear, and hardly helpful."
Harry sighed with relief. Hermione and Draco were the best! Nobody knew, except Dumbledore!
"It was necessary to destroy the letter," Dumbledore resumed. "For that also I apologise. I realise that it was of sentimental value."
Harry was about to protest, but the wizard raised a long, crooked finger to hush him.
"James was a talented student…" he mused.
Harry was puzzled. Was now an appropriate time for reminiscence? Perhaps Voldemort had been right about the 'senile old fool'.
"He was original, inventive and something of a maverick," Dumbledore went on sadly. "He could have been a brilliant student, but for that cruel streak - it got him into trouble a little too often, I recall.
"He was a popular boy, when he was here - enjoyed a lot of attention, especially from the, er, 'ladies'. That may have been at the root of the problem. He was, I understand, rather self-absorbed, and at the same time he had a jealous side to his nature. A dangerous combination. He could be, how shall I put it, unforgiving?"
What was Dumbledore hinting at? What had James done? Harry was getting a bad feeling about this. He wished the old man would get to the point.
"James' letter to you, Harry, is an example of how grossly he abused his talent. First he invoked an archaic ritual - The Natqah was once widely practised, though not so much in this country, but it is no longer considered legal. Even fifteen years ago it was already censured. Harry, I wish you had come to me to discuss it."
James had suggested that Dumbledore would be able to explain the foreign terms in the letter. Why would he have done that if he was trying to get Harry to do something illegal? It didn't make sense. How had he guessed that Harry would not go straight to the Headmaster?
"He then exploited your affection and trust, my boy. It is unpardonable. He forced you to perform the rite, to be his avenger and so to perpetuate that absurd feud with Severus." Dumbledore's hand was clenched in a white fist as he spoke, his voice tight with anger and outrage.
"No," objected Harry, "nobody forced me to do anything. I just got the letter. What I did about it was my decision."
Dumbledore looked at him sorrowfully.
"The very paper that the letter was written on was impregnated with the Obligatus Curse. You will not have heard of it, Harry, it is most obscure. Even I have only read about its use. Very clever of James to think of it. It is an indirect, tangible formulation of the Imperius."
Harry boggled. James had used an Unforgivable Curse on him?
"I suspect you may have read the letter many times, my boy, even kept it about your person?"
Harry nodded, appalled. He felt as though he had swallowed Ice-Viper venom.
"Every time you touched it, Harry, the Obligatus would have been absorbed into your body. It is not so coercive as the Imperius, but it would have had the effect of suspending your better judgement, making you suggestible to the instructions within the text, and compelling you to act upon your darkest impulses. That is why it was essential that the letter be destroyed."
Harry nodded again, too shocked to speak.
Dumbledore gazed at him kindly.
"Take consolation, dear boy, from the knowledge that you were not fully responsible for your actions. Now, I must go. We shall talk again soon. Now you need to rest and, possibly, reflect." He stood up and straightened his robes.
"Professor!" Harry had one urgent question. "When exactly did you destroy the letter?"
Dumbledore calculated, counting backwards.
"I think it must have been Friday night, Harry. I know it was very late, or rather, very early. Why? Is it important?"
"No, not really," Harry lied.
When the ward was quiet and the lights dimmed for the night, Harry slipped out of bed. He crept over to the only other occupied bed in the room and ducked behind the screen.
Snape lay unconscious. Harry hardly recognised him. His skin was ashen - not just pale, but the kind of dirty grey that Harry associated with dead things. The 'curtain' of dark hair now fell back from his face in damp straggles, accentuating his aquiline features. New scar tissue stretched across his right cheek in a vivid pink weal from temple to jaw. His left arm was heavily bandaged. Around his neck a small, round censer dispensed a pungent, medicated vapour. Snape inhaled the steam in laboured gasps, his breathing snatched and unnaturally fast. The rest of his body - as much as Harry could see - was a livid patchwork of bruises and abrasions. Lying there he looked older, smaller and uncharacteristically vulnerable. The prone figure bore no resemblance to the dynamic, tyrannical Potions master.
"Oh, Merlin!" thought Harry, "What have I done?"
He took a chair at the foot of the bed.
Madam Pomfrey discovered Harry an hour later when she came to check on her patient. She jumped when she saw him, her face flushing with alarm.
"What are you doing here, Mr. Potter? Get out! Go back to your own bed at once! Haven't you done enough damage? Don't disturb the Professor. He's very sick."
Even in a whisper, she managed to convey disapproval. She hadn't forgiven him. Of course, she wouldn't know about the letter.
'Must think I'm some kind of murderous psycho,' Harry realised.
As soon as she had gone, Harry sneaked back to Snape's bedside to resume his lonely vigil. He didn't know what purpose he hoped to serve, sitting in the darkness, watching, but he felt an inner compulsion to be there. As though his presence - like a penance - might in some way alleviate the crushing weight of guilt and responsibility that now burdened him. If Snape, sensing him there, derived some comfort, that was incidental.
To what extent would the fact that he had been under the influence of the Obligatus exonerate him? The fact that he had been under duress? But Dumbledore had said that it was not a full Curse of Compulsion, not like the Imperius. He had been acting on his own impulses. Somewhere, in his innermost core, he had really wanted to lash out. And he had enjoyed it; for a while he had revelled in it. Had the Sorting Hat been right? Were his Slytherin instincts now coming to the fore? Was this the insidious corruption of Dark Magic? Intent was supposed to be the key to successful Curse casting - well, he had meant every syllable of that Crucio.
It was Snape's reaction that baffled Harry the most. The man who would give a detention for an ink-blot or mis-slicing a Trickle-Tuber, whose astringent tongue could scourge the class in a sentence, had uttered scarcely one word of reproach. When Harry had first found himself in the cellar with Snape he had expected to be verbally crucified.
Maybe Harry was reading too much into this; perhaps Snape was so weakened by Voldemort's assaults that he hadn't the strength to attack Harry, physically or otherwise, but Harry felt there was more to it. It was as though Snape recognised Harry's need to hit back at something, and could not wholly condemn it. Harry wasn't sure he wanted to be understood by Snape, let alone to identify with him on some subconscious level. 'Intuitive' was another adjective he would not previously applied to the unapproachable Professor, but his analysis of Voldemort's and Harry's motives had proved uncannily accurate.
And then there was Snape's fatalistic acquiescence to his torture - was that his own private penance? For what? For the atrocities committed in the service of Voldemort? Killing? He had admitted that. Torture - maiming, brutalising, dehumanising? Wasn't all that implicit? So at what point had he become disillusioned with the regime of the Dark Lord? Had any one incident been responsible for his change of heart? Heart? Did it have anything to do with Harry's parents - with James and Lily? Why had Snape said that their marriage was a failure?
Harry would have to ask him. He cringed to remember how, in the false intimacy of imminent death, he had interrogated the Potions master. He couldn't contemplate broaching such subjects under normal conditions. Would their situation ever be normal? Couldn't they simply pretend that the last forty-eight hours had never happened - most of the school were unaware, and the few people who did know something might be persuaded to cooperate. Harry stared morosely at the pain-locked figure on the bed and knew that that was not possible. Whatever else might happen, Snape would never forget.
Harry reviewed his recent achievements. On the plus side, he had fired Avada Kadavra in Voldemort's general direction, though he had no idea whether he had hit him. On the minus side, he had lied to his friends, deceived his teachers, broken Merlin knows how many school rules and severely antagonised - he was trying to put a positive gloss on 'attempted to murder' - the one person who already specialised in making his life a misery.
His faith in James, the only father he had ever thought he had known, had been obliterated. That left the paternal role vacant - to be filled by a man who had denied his existence for sixteen years, or rather who had said he preferred not to be encumbered with the responsibilities of parenthood. Harsh, hurtful words. Yet words that were belied by his every action in that cellar.
Once the very notion had filled Harry with revulsion. Now the prospect of acknowledging Snape as his father had become more of a psychological obstacle, a mental challenge, his own personal Everest. He would have to scale it before he could progress with his life. And he suspected that Snape would be climbing too. Travelling solo at first, maybe they'd team up for the final ascent. It was a steep, daunting path, and neither of them were experienced climbers. It would be tough.
Harry dropped his head into his hands and sighed. He ran his fingers through his cropped hair - already it was getting longer: more floppy, less bristly.
'I'll just have to get some really strong shampoo,' he decided, pragmatically. 'And if Ron keeps telling me to have a 'Sonic Shower', whatever that means, I'll blast him with one of his wretched 'Photon Torpedoes'.'
He leaned forward and, experimentally, took Snape's hand in his own. It lay inert and unresponsive beneath Harry's fingers. Harry too felt unmoved, emotionally cauterised. Was he supposed to feel loving towards this distant, intimidating man who had unwillingly apparated into his life? Feelings like that didn't flower overnight; given enough time, they might grow.
Towards dawn, Harry found himself becoming scared. What if Snape did not recover? If he died, would everybody blame him? Would that make him a murderer? He'd never find out the truth about himself. He'd be on his own again. Again? He didn't want to be alone.
When Madam Pomfrey arrived, Harry, over-tired and over-wrought, accosted her:
"He won't wake up! Why doesn't he wake up?" he cried, "What's the matter with him?"
Calmly steering him back to his own bed, Madam Pomfrey enumerated a list of medical terms, of which Harry only understood 'internal bleeding' and 'pneumonia'.
"But why won't he wake up?" he insisted.
She smiled at him for the first time.
"I'm keeping the Professor heavily sedated to give his injuries a chance to heal," she explained.
"Couldn't Fawkes do something for him?" Harry asked, remembering how the Phoenix had helped him recover after his battle with the Basilisk.
Madam Pomfrey tutted.
"You would think so. But, apparently, Fawkes and the Professor are not on the best of terms. Some silliness to do with the Professor stealing a feather for one of his special potions. That was a long time ago though, when he was a student. You'd think they'd forgive and forget."
Harry listened, valuing this little insight.
Going back to Harry's original question, Madam Pomfrey went on,
"It'll be a day or so before he wakes - these things take time. He's on the maximum dosage of Skelegro, and you know how unpleasant that is. He's better off asleep, Harry. The minute he wakes up he'll discharge himself - he detests being in here."
She sounded upset. Harry looked at her curiously.
"You actually like him, don't you?" he asked.
Madam Pomfrey blinked several times and cleared her throat.
"Well, he's rude and ungrateful and patronising," she said, "and he's always the most arrogant, uncooperative patient I ever have - won't take any of my healing potions if he can help it…"
'He knows what's in 'em.' thought Harry.
"…he's impossible! But he's not a bad man, Harry."
She stopped, a little flustered. When she spoke next the matronly efficiency had returned.
"Dreamless Sleep Potion for you, my boy. Now, don't you worry about Professor Snape. He'll get through this. When you think of everything he's had to go through in his life… Well, you know…"
The problem was, Harry didn't know. He'd never taken the trouble to find out.
Harry hesitated in the doorway. He had never been inside Snape's private sitting room before.
"Come in and sit down, Potter."
Walking with slow steps, Snape led the way across the room. He lowered himself carefully into an arm-chair.
'That still hurts a lot,' thoughtHarry, noticing.
This was going to be one of the most awkward conversations of his entire life. He and Snape eyed each other, both equally defensive, both intensely aware of the other, both bound by the memory of their days in the cellar. Harry knew it was up to him to say something - apologise, grovel - anything would be better than this gut-wrenching silence.
"I'm glad you're not dead, Sir," he faltered, more gruffly than he had intended. That came out all wrong. What a completely idiotic thing to say!
Snape raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"Indeed? Well, that, I suppose, is a start."
END OF STORY.
Thanks to all of you who have read and reviewed.
In the sequel, 'SNAPE'S CONFESSION', Harry stays with Snape during his convalescence. He finds out a great deal more about Snape and his family than he bargained for…