AN: So, as it happens: Still not dead. And yeah, I still plan and intend to finish this and nope, still no idea of the timeline. But obviously still writing!
Disclaimer: I continue to lay no claim to Harry Potter.
He blinked and sat up, ill-at-ease as he found Headmaster Dumbledore, Professor Snape, and Madam Pomfrey standing around his bed looking seriously down at him. He jerked himself out of the bed and stood before them, dropping his eyes. "Sorry," he apologized.
"No need for that, Harry," Madam Pomfrey said reaching out one hand slightly and then aborting the motion and folding her hands together in front of her. "Try to relax."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, forcing the tension out of his muscles.
"How do you feel, Harry?" she asked.
"Okay," he said uncertainly. "Thank you, ma'am."
"Does your throat hurt?"
He considered the question, swallowing in unconscious test, and then said, "Not very much."
"And your arm? How does your arm feel, Harry?"
He looked down at his left arm which was sort of pink and glistened under some sort of cream. "Hot," he finally offered.
"Painfully so?" she asked.
"No, ma'am," he said, which was true as long as he didn't move it. When he'd gotten out of bed the pain of it had been breath-taking.
"Good," she murmured, turning her gaze to the headmaster expectantly.
"Harry we're going to try to help you," Professor Dumbledore said. "We won't hurt you and will try not to scare you, but it might be ... odd. Try to remain calm and clear your mind."
"Yes, sir," he said, trying not to guess what they were going to do. He heard a very soft noise behind him, a sort of breath and then a rustle of fabric, but didn't turn to look.
Professor Snape pulled a glass cap off a large beaker of dark red fluid and held it out. "Drink this, Potter."
Keeping his hand steady, Harry reached out and accepted the vial. He shouldn't. Obviously, it was magic, and magic was bad, and he shouldn't—but what alternative was there? Defiance? He lifted the flask to his lips and steadily drank down the substance within. It tasted awful, but that was hardly relevant, and he continued drinking until it was empty.
"Good lad," the Headmaster said heartily. "We'll just give that a moment or two to kick in..."
Harry stayed perfectly still, eyes on the floor, trying to clear his mind, as he'd been told, although it was hard with the circling certainty that Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia would disapprove of this and they would know what he should have done instead, how he could have avoided it in the first place. But they were dead because he was bad, and—
"Harry, you are not a freak," the headmaster said, quietly and very seriously.
The words curled around him, soothing and comforting and true. Of course they were true. How could they be anything but true? But there was something… He frowned trying to remember as the words were repeated, softly, and with easy conviction. So true! How could he ever believe anything else? And yet— The words were spoken a third time, the conviction closing in tight around him, and he heard another, more familiar voice, say, "They will tell you lies, seduce you with beautiful lies," and another said, "What are you?" and automatically, instantly, the response rose up, "I am a freak." He closed his eyes as the lovely, convincing words battled with the very foundation of his world, hands clenching into fists, and the sharp pain of the left one as the hand jerked closed made it easier to think, to understand.
"You're a good boy and will be an excellent wizard someday. Your parents loved you very much," the man in front of him said, the words insidious and convincing and—
He felt himself start to tremble, very slightly. It felt like the words were inside him, and it seemed almost like he could believe them. He bit his lip and closed his eyes. A disappointment and an inconvenience, he reminded himself. They were trying to entice him, just like his aunt and uncle had always said they would.
"They were heroes, they fought against the Dark Lord, a very evil wizard, and did everything they could to protect those around them. They gave their lives saving your life."
"How did they die?"
"In a car accident. They were drunk and at fault. An innocent was killed."
He felt his arms starting to reach around himself, and he stopped them, making himself stand straight and wait. He would resist. He would. He couldn't fail them again.
"Harry, your aunt and uncle were wrong," Professor Dumbledore said, his voice soft and persuasive. "I don't know why they told you the things they did, but they were not true. Magic can be used for evil, but it is not evil in itself. Your parents were good people who loved you more than anything. Their sacrifice made a dark spell rebound from you, and that is the source of your scar."
He gritted his teeth against the lies, holding his truths within, knowing that if he gave in, every time his uncle had shook his head and sighed and worried about whether he would be strong enough, every time his aunt reminded him of the tactics they would use and smile doubtfully when he said he would resist—it was the one thing he'd ever dared to hope they were wrong about, and he desperately needed to make them proud, even if it was too late. They would have been proud, he realized—they would, if he just ignored that voice that crept into his mind and tried to change the truth, and for that, to make them proud—he could resist. He took a deep breath and released it, putting his hands behind his back and driving the nails of one into the soft, newly-healed flesh of the other to help him concentrate, the pain sharp and agonizing, cutting through the fog around his mind and giving him an instant of perfect clarity. It wasn't true. It would be so nice if it was true—but it wasn't, and it never would be, and he'd never let himself forget. He felt tears come to his eyes and fought them back. He didn't deserve to cry. He raked his nails across his wrist again, as hard as he could, and then again. He bit his tongue to keep from speaking aloud as he heard his uncle prompt him for his next line, and tried not to hear that other voice, the lying voice.
"You deserve so much, Harry. You deserve food and love and care. You deserve to run and play and fly your broom and catch the snitch. You deserve friends and family."
He dug his nails deeper, and closed his eyes. He took another deep, ragged breath, and released it, not letting his lips move, because he wasn't to say it out loud in front of them. But he scratched deeper, digging his nails in, breath catching at the white-hot agony and for an instant he didn't hear any voices through the pain, but then they were back, the outside one saying, "You deserve comfort when you're hurt, and to not be hurt. You—"
The inside one demanding, "How do we treat you?"
Harry focused inwards, hearing his proper answer louder than the stupid lies from outside even as he tried to visualize the magic the way the hat had taught him, the way he'd stopped using it when he was hungry. He finally saw it, blue lines moving over him, soft and slow, beautiful. Horrible. He tried to dismiss them like he had the food magic, but he wasn't making them so how could he stop making them? Starting to panic as the voice continued and the lines danced along him, wrapping around him, he looked more closely. It started at his stomach and then went everywhere, but mostly moving up, towards his head. He took a breath and thought about how it felt when his food magic worked. How it used to make him throw up if he'd eaten and used it. And then he fell over, retching, and felt like his skin was burning up, like it would crack and break away, and there was a rush of movement around him, Madam Pomfrey's voice shrill and worried, Professor Snape's urgent.
"This could be just a physical symptom of relief and release," that soft convincing voice said, but it sounded a little less sure this time.
He gagged and tore his nails into his arm again, worrying at the skin where it was hidden from them.
"Stop it—Harry, stop!" George sounded terrified, as upset as when he'd told Harry to floo without powder, and he and Fred were sliding out from under the bed, fast and graceless, and each of them grabbed one of his wrists and they pulled them apart.
Obediently, Harry went limp, though he continued to focus on that magic, pushing at it.
"Misters Weasley, what is the meaning—" Madam Pomfrey cut herself off in a shocked gasp. "Harry—your arm! What did you- Oh, you foolish, foolish boy."
Harry gritted his teeth and shoved, and both of the twins released him at once, jerking away.
"He's bleeding—" George yelped.
"He's bleeding everywhere!" Fred gasped his voice panicked, and Harry opened his eyes to see not just his wrist was bloody, but there was thick dark red fluid pooling on his arms, as far up them as he could see, and was starting to stain through his pants. He moaned softly, the clothes, too, he was damaging them and he'd done magic, they would be so mad. Except that he hadn't given in, and the voices were no longer warm and convincing, they were hard and worried and just voices. His vision blurred and faded as liquid filled his eyes ad he forced them to stay open, not wanting to trap any more in him as he kept pushing.
"—not blood, he expelled the potion!" Professor Snape said in tones of utter disbelief. "He pushed it out of his blood through his skin!"
"That's impossible," Madam Pomfrey cut in.
Demonstrably untrue," the professor answered. "Get him into a bath—that will clearly do no more good within him, and it certainly won't do him any good without. How badly have you hurt your wrist, Potter? Give it here."
And his body obeyed before he even consciously registered the words, lifting his arm and rising on his knees to offer it to the potions master, following his voice since he couldn't see.
"Merlin, it's covering his eyes, he looks like a demon," one of the twins muttered, and for once he wasn't entirely sure which of them it was.
Firm fingers gripped his arm above where he'd been scratching it, and the potions master swore softly. "Can't see it for the potion." There was a swish of movement and an unfamiliar word from the man, and then a damp cloth touched his arm and he managed not to jerk.
"We could scourgify—"
"With the potion in unknown form on his skin and more still being expelled, not to mention any effect the magic he's using to expel it might add to the mix? Don't be absurd. You know as well as I that potions must be cleaned carefully and only spells they've been tested with used upon them!" There was another unfamiliar word and he couldn't completely stop the cringe as his arm was suddenly hit by a stream of water. "There we go—not too bad. Episkey."
The pain in Harry's arm promptly faded, though his skin still burned, and he fought a tremble at still more magic being used on him.
"Well, Severus isn't wrong, at any rate—into the bath with you," Madam Pomfrey said, still sounding annoyed but mostly just purposeful. "Come with me, I'll lead you—I'm sure you can't see. Good job keeping your eyes open—blinking would likely make it worse. We'll start with that."
Harry followed her gentle nudges across the room and then leaned over the sink as she removed his glasses and turned a gentle stream of water onto his face and into his eyes, making his vision clear as much as it ever did. "There, we go," she murmured. "Close your eyes now, Harry." He let his eyes drift closed in relief, waiting passively as she finished with his face and then let him into a small bathroom and started drawing a bath. Most of his attention remained in the other room, able to easily make out the conversation even over the running water.
"And what, precisely, were you two thinking?" Professor Dumbledore demanded, sounding angrier than Harry had ever heard him before. "Were you or were you not told to stay out of this?"
"Harry's our friend," George stated, voice steady. "And we knew something was wrong and nobody would tell us what."
"It—it isn't a curse, is it?" Fred said more quietly, his tone begging to be refuted.
"A curse?" the headmaster asked.
"Harry's obedience—his inability to disobey. We thought it was a curse, but it's not, is it?"
Professor Snape said something low and harsh that Harry couldn't quite make out, and, in a frighteningly calm voice, Professor Dumbledore said, "What, precisely, do you think you know?"
"In you go, now," Madam Pomfrey said, turning off the water and looking at him. "Do you feel well enough to bathe on your own?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said automatically, immediately starting the process of stripping down to enter the water.
"Soak first," she told him, starting for the door. "Don't try to scrub right away."
"Yes, ma'am," he acknowledged, as she let herself out of the room and he slid into the water. Warm, not quite unpleasantly hot, and he couldn't even quite bring himself to be surprised at the lack of punishing temperature in either direction. He released a hiss as his left arm submerged and he reconsidered the lack of punishment as the warm water burned against his healing arm. He took a breath, slow and deliberate, and then another, accepting his punishment, grateful for it. He focused on the conversation outside as she left him to soak.
"—something, he always does it—or tries to, even if it's stupid or a joke or not meant to be literal. And we thought it was a curse—and he said you knew," George was saying.
"He said I knew?" the headmaster repeated, tone somewhat startled.
"Yes! When we first found out we asked if you knew—we wouldn't hide something like that! And he said you did. So we worked on protecting him between classes and figured you were fixing it. You didn't know?"
"I did not," the headmaster stated, and Harry frowned a little trying to understand how that was possible.
"Protecting him from what?" Madam Pomfrey asked.
"Anything. If he does anything he's told without any thought or—or self-preservation instinct he could wind up dead accidentally. And that's not even counting people being malicious."
There was a strange sort of choking noise. "And you would protect him from accident and malice?" Professor Snape demanded, voice hard.
"There's a difference," Fred said, his voice softer than his brother's, but firm. "We don't prank people who are completely incapable of fighting back, Professor."
"And how, precisely, did you come by this information?" the headmaster asked. "How did you discover this obedience?"
There was a hesitation, and then George said, "We were telling him a story, encouraging him to ask questions. He's kind of a weird kid, you know, so we were trying to help him ease up, talk more normally. So we primed him with questions to ask. And he—" he broke off. Not the way he usually did, when Fred took over, just—just stopped talking.
After a few seconds, Fred did pick it up. "He asked if it was hard," he said. His voice cracked. "And I said—"
"It wasn't your fault," George interrupted. "You didn't know." He took a breath. "Fred said, 'Try flooing without powder."
There were several seconds of silence other than a drop of water falling from the spigot into the bath and a pair of sharply indrawn breaths.
"And?" Professor Dumbledore prompted.
"And he went for the fireplace! Barely tackled him before he jumped in! And he said he knew it wouldn't work, said he thought he'd burn, but he did it anyway," George said in a rush. "So then we asked more questions and that was when he said you knew and we figured he needed guards."
Harry saw the water he was immersed in was beginning to pinken slightly and stared down at the swirls of color in the water. It looked like blood to him, too. He'd watched similar whorls of diluting blood before, though never in water so warm. His gaze slipped to his wrist and the pale new skin where there should be torn flesh and he began to shiver. The pain in his arm grew and he concentrated harder on keeping it submerged and not responding to the pain, accepting his punishment. He lost track of the conversation outside as his focused on breathing through the pain, staring at his arm as the pale skin grew first to pink and then to angry red and then darker and darker, blisters starting to appear.
And then, suddenly, the door slammed open, and he jerked despite himself, looking up with wide startled eyes as Snape swore, and then he was pulled from the water, a towel flying over to wrap about him, leaving his arm outside, and he was spun about, hsi back pulled back against Profesor Snape's chest and his injured arm held extended, long, surprisingly gentle fingers holding his wrist lightly.
Harry's breath caught and his eyes watered under the touch, even though it didn't squeeze.
"Sh," the professor murmured in his ear, even though he hadn't made any sound. "Shh, only a moment more."
Harry nodded, accepting the reassurance that his punishment was nearly over and allowing the man to move his arm as he wished, barely hearing the mediwitch's frantic questions and apologies as he waited.
A cool line of relief made him gasp, and he opened his eyes to see the professor smoothing something thick and greasy over his arm, the touch so light it barely touched his skin, but the relief instantaneous and complete. He relaxed, not even having realized how tense he'd been, as the man made the final stroke, leaving his arm cool and numb.
"Oh, Merlin, I'm so sorry, Harry," Madam Pomfrey said, sounding near tears.
"Enough!" Professor Snape snapped at her before turning Harry to face him, looking up into his face from where he was kneeling before him. "Harry," he said, voice flat, "that was not a punishment."
Despite himself, Harry's eyes flashed to the stern face, the tension he'd released returned and magnified in confusion and disappointment and worry.
Professor Snape nodded at some thought. "The potion protecting your arm as it heals from the burns you sustained does not interact well with water and in the … excitement of the moment it was overlooked," he said. "It wasn't a punishment. Do you understand?"
"Yessir," Harry said, hurriedly dropping his gaze and fighting against the prickling in his eyes.
Professor Snape took a long, steady breath in and then released it, slow and soft, and then the hand on his wrist lowered his arm and Professor Snape stared up at him for a moment, and then he rose smoothly to his feet and turned away, robes swirling around him as he stalked from the room, and Harry waited uncertainly until Madam Pomfrey, her voice still thick and a little wavery, told him she'd help him dress and he wasn't to use his bad arm.
Severus paused at the unwelcome hail and reluctantly stopped to face the woman. "Minerva," he greeted her.
She nodded sharply, and held open the door to an empty classroom, following him in and casting a series of quick privacy charms.
"And has your potion fixed the child?" she finally asked, her tone leaving little question of what answer she expected to hear.
Severus's jaw clenched and released. "The boy is stubborn," he admitted.
She nodded in vindication untouched with satisfaction, looking suddenly old. "I had hoped I was wrong," she admitted, sagging a little.
"Those damnable fiends of yours managed to be there," Severus added.
Minerva's head jerked back a little. "The Weasley twins?" she demanded. "How—Why—?"
"Apparently they've taken the child under their wing," Severus told her. "They were concerned."
"They hid under the bed," he said succinctly.
Minerva gaped at him. "I'll skin them," she finally said, voice grim as she turned to the door. "I'll hang them from their thumbs. I'll—"
Reluctantly, Severus raised a staying hand. He grimaced at the words he forced himself to say. "Although they certainly deserve all of that and more—is not for this evening's work."
Her jaw actually dropped.
"You'll catch flies," Severus told her ironically.
Her mouth closed with a snap, and Minerva glared at him. "Did you just defend the Weasley twins to me, Severus?"
His face twisted in disgust. "They've been … unexpectedly good friends to him," he admitted, the words sour enough to turn his stomach.
Her lips twitched and her shoulders straightened. "Now, this is a story I'd like to hear," she said. "And not one I'd ever expected to hear from you, Severus!"
"Nor shall you," he said sharply, turning to the door. "Ask the headmaster if you want the tale—he'll be glad enough to tell it." His lips twitched into a sneer. "Better—ask the boys. They won't be glad to tell it again, which makes it a far better choice. I've work to do, Minerva. I'll see you at dinner." He swept away without waiting for her to argue the point, glad that at least she hadn't looked quite so old at the end.
Harry hesitated, eyes following the man as he re-stocked potions shelves, never glancing at the bed Harry was in. "Professor Snape?" he finally whispered.
Immediately, the man turned to him, looking surprised—but not angry, Harry decided with relief. "Well? What is it?"
"You said—you said my arm wasn't a punishment, sir," he said anxiously.
The professor stared down at him with those unreadable black eyes. "It was not," he confirmed.
Harry nodded. "Yes, sir." He swallowed.
"Well?" the man prompted, a hint of impatience in his voice.
"Sorry, sir," he said automatically, dropping his eyes, and inwardly flinching at the impatient motion of the man's hands at the apology. "I—Am I allowed to know what my punishment will be?" he asked in a rush, not raising his eyes, hands clenched under the blanket he shouldn't even be touching. But the days kept passing and nothing happened and the waiting was—terrifying.
Professor Snape swooped closer, one hand snapping out—but instead of hitting him, it caught his chin and twisted his head up, not painfully, but inexorably, until Harry met his eyes for an instant before his gaze flinched away and he dropped his eyes even though his head was angled up. The fingers tightened around his chin. "Look at me, boy."
Reluctantly, he obeyed, raising his eyes to the chin, though he couldn't force himself to go higher than that.
"You are not going to be punished," the man said, his voice chilly and stern.
A shudder ran through him at the words, and his eyes jerked up for an instant despite himself. "Not—?" he repeated, voice shaking.
"No. You are not going to be punished because you do not deserve to be punished," he said, staring down into Harry's face. "Do you understand me, Harry?"
"Yessir," he said miserably, voice wavering. "I understand, sir."
The man sighed. "I find that extremely unlikely," he said. "What do you—" Then he dropped Harry's chin and spun back to the shelves when the door opened, and Harry turned to see Professor Dumbledore smiling brightly at him from the doorway.
"Good evening, Harry, are you ready to go back to your room?" he asked cheerfully.
"Yes, sir," Harry said, sliding out of the bed with some relief at the implied permission and waiting, head bowed.
"Very good, very good," he said jovially. "I'm sure you'll feel much more the thing when not in the hospital wing. You understand your schedule for the coming days?"
"Yessir," he repeated. He was to be alone only when he slept, and even then they were layering spells on his room. For his protection, they said. He was to continue some of his classes, but only one-on-one, and he was to be with one of the professors at all times—except for three hours after lunch, when he was to be with the hat. After dinner he was to spend time with Dudley and his teacher, which was almost worse than everything as Harry watched his cousin being corrupted right in front of him. Because of him. And then back to his room, with the charms to keep him warm and comfortable and to alert someone if he spoke or tried to leave or spent to long in the closet or the shower. They said they were worried about him.
Harry followed him obediently through the hallways, ignoring the stares and whispers from students as they passed.
"Harry! You're back! I've missed you!" Augustus shouted.
Harry looked at the painting sadly, and, feeling defeated, admitted, "I missed you, too."
"But no staying up and talking late," the headmaster said, voice firm despite the benevolent smile on his face. "Harry needs his sleep."
"Yessir," Harry said, slipping into the room.
"Do you need anything before I go, Harry? You're not hungry at all, don't want anything we've forgotten?"
"Nossir," Harry said, staring around the familiar room.
"Harry—would you prefer to stay with one of us? You'd be quite welcome, I assure you," the headmaster offered, voice gentle.
Harry blinked up at him in complete confusion. "Sir?"
"Would you rather stay in a guest room, closer to one of us?" The headmaster pressed. "You'd be quite welcome to mine, or Professor Sprout's or Professor McGonagall's."
Harry swallowed in utter horror at the idea of staying in a guest room. "Nossir," he said quickly.
The headmaster sighed. "Very well, Harry. Goodnight, then."
"Goodnight, sir," he said.
The headmaster sighed again and dimmed the lights, leaving Harry alone but for the painting on the door and the press of magic about him.
"Goodnight, Harry," Augustus whispered. "I really am glad you're back."
"Goodnight, Augustus," Harry said, closing his eyes and trying to relax in the big, comfortable bed. His lips trembled as he imagined what Aunt Petunia would say about him being there, and his eyes began to overflow when he remembered she'd never be able to say it. Never again. He breathed carefully, not letting himself sob or gasp, knowing Augustus would hear, or the magic, or both, and he wasn't supposed to cry. But he couldn't stop the tears, and he thought maybe, just maybe, it was okay this time. Just this once. And finally, he fell asleep.
He jerked silently out of sleep, a single swiftly drawn breath and the tears in his eyes the only signs of the nightmare. "—never be good. How could you be good after murdering us?"
He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling a forbidden line of heat streak down his cheek. He couldn't cry, he couldn't. Especially not now, when he wouldn't be crying for his family—he'd be crying for himself because he was selfish and weak, just like they'd said, and could still cry about himself, about never being good, when they were dead. He took a slow breath, and then another. It was not his place to punish himself. He had no way of judging, of measuring. He couldn't hope to properly gauge the depth of his sins. But they were dead. And Dudley was being corrupted. And it was all his fault. He pulled himself from the bed, kneeling on the cold wood floor beside the sheepskin rug, and didn't gag on the memory of the dream as he started his catechism. He didn't speak the words aloud. He'd only been in the room again for a week, but had already summoned Professor Dumbledore once with an accidental word when he slipped while mouthing his catechism, and woken once each to Professors McGonagall and Snape who each said he'd been talking in his sleep. Augustus seemed to have some control over it, since if Harry talked to him, nobody came, but otherwise… But even without voicing them, the familiar, comforting words were as clear in his mind as they had ever been in his ears. You only punish me because you want to help me. Because you love me. They'd wanted to help him to be good. And they were dead. He calmed a little, the thought crystallizing in his mind. They punished him to help him, so that he could be good. But they were dead, and he would never, ever be good. He rose to his feet as he realized that he didn't need to be punished. Professor Snape had been right—he didn't deserve to be punished. There was no point if he couldn't be good. If he would never be able to overcome the evil in him. If he was always going to be bad, was always going to cause evil and hurt people and break things and be a freak, then there was no point in punishing him. The only thing that would do any good at all would be to change how long always was.
His eyes snapped wide at the thought, at the sudden understanding that he could, maybe, do something after all. He took a long, slow breath, examining the idea, staring blankly into the black. And then he began to plan. He refocused his eyes to view magic and looked at himself, unsurprised to find himself looped and wrapped in cords of magic. He didn't know what they did. Maybe nothing. But maybe they would be like the little charms listening for his catechism, ready to call someone if he broke some line. But then, perhaps breaking them would call someone? Harry bit down hard on the inside of his lip, the sharp taste of blood centering him. He would have to throw them off, but not until he was ready. They might not stop him. They shouldn't stop him, not knowing he'd always be bad—but they often did things that he couldn't understand. So he would have to act before afternoon tomorrow, or when he met the hat it would see his realization and if it decided to stop him there would be nothing he could do. His first instinct was to act immediately, but he pushed it down and made himself think. At night, he was in his room where the spells watching him were thickest. He couldn't release all the magic in the room—he could barely remove magic from himself, much less from a whole room. So he couldn't do it here, and if he left, someone would probably be called. But in the day, he rarely had a moment to himself. And in the afternoon, he'd have to put on the hat, and it would know what he'd worked out, would be able to tell the others. He weighed and worried at the options, and then he sat down and started dispelling magic from himself. He'd gotten better at it, at convincing the magic that its work was done and it could go. Even when he didn't know what it was trying to do, he could mostly get it to release. Finally, the last strand drifted away and he stood up, moved to his door, and leaned slightly forward into it, feeling the wood warm slightly, comfortingly beneath his skin. "Please," he whispered desperately, needing, needing the locks to give way and the magic to let him through undisturbed without triggering whatever they were for, hoping he could manage the one word without triggering anything.
The door slid silently open, and he stepped through, feeling wisps of magic attempting to latch onto him, but then settling back into their original patterns. He glanced at Augustus, curled up beside his books and breathing slowly and deeply, and then slipped down the hallway. Most of the paintings snoozed, although he passed one from which he heard giggling and heavy breathing, although he saw no figures, and another with a scholar writing swiftly, almost frantically, a feverish look in his eye. He didn't look up from his work. He'd considered going up, but the safety wards on the astronomy tower and the owlery and the higher windows had as always felt as hard as stone to him. And he thought the school might catch him on a staircase if he jumped there. He couldn't sneak into the kitchens without waking the elves, and the potions lab with its ingredients and knives were locked up more tightly than any other place he'd been in the school. Only a little behind it was the storage room for cursed objects from Defense Against the Dark Arts and the magical greenhouses with dangerous plants. But… the muggle greenhouses were barely warded, the poisonous plants within individually warded to avoid accidental poisoning. He heard a brush of fabric down the hall behind him, and looked back to see the curtains billowing on a bed in a painting, the wizard in the bed rolled over, tossing one arm over his face, and the curtains moved again with a soft brush of painted fabric. He slipped out into the night towards the greenhouses.
It was easy enough to get in. They were only occasionally warded, when there was a dangerous or delicate plant or one in a delicate cycle. Professor Sprout encouraged students to spend time in them whenever they wanted, and Harry had spent lunches and evenings helping her re-pot plants several times. It wasn't the muggle rainforest room, but the large nursery devoted to muggle plants used in potions, the plants set in neat lines in pots instead of growing more freely. He pulled on the gloves that would protect him from thorns and topicals—and tell the wards that he knew what he was doing, before moving unerringly down the row, cut three over, to where the vines were potted on the ground instead of on tables, and trained up stakes, moved to the end of the row, and quickly plucked a split open pod full of seeds and raised it them in his mouth. And then he froze. Not releasing it. Not sweeping the seeds from the pod with his tongue. Not closing his mouth around it. Not even blinking. Because he had absolutely no muscle control. Deliberately, he fell still. Of course, he couldn't move anyway. But it would be far easier to convince the magic it was unnecessary if nothing was fighting it. He could see. A web over him, holding him perfectly still. He pretended to be a statue and told the magic how unnecessary it was to bind something that couldn't move anyway.
He didn't blink. Couldn't have even if he wanted to, of course, but he also didn't. That would undo all his efforts of telling the magic he couldn't move.
Professor Snape swept around him, face and hands seeming to glow white in the dim light, face covered in an expression of rage—and something else. Something he didn't understand. He focused on the thinning bands of magic, on not moving, not being able to move, on the magic being unnecessary. He started to lean in closer, reaching for Harry's face, and the door slammed open and the professor whirled around as the lights flared on.
Harry pretended he was made of stone. Limbs heavy and still, not moving, never moving…
"Who—Severus? Was it you who took the glov—" Professor Sprout's voice cut off like it had been cut by a knife.
"No, as you see, this foolish child—" Stone, he told the last wisp of the magical net, watching as it faded slowly, slowly away. Instantly, he responded, sweeping a seed from the pod, pushing it with his thumb into his teeth, dropping it into his mouth, and repeating the process twice more, as quickly as he could, and then flicking one more without crushing it first. He swallowed quickly without closing his mouth while Professor Snape was still looking at Professor Sprout, and she was still out of view, and then he returned to perfect stillness.
With a rustle of robes, Professor Sprout moved into his view, her eyes wide and face pale under her an. "Oh, Harry—no," she whispered, eyes glittering.
Severus spun back to him and pulled his hand from his mouth, sweeping the pod to the ground, before waving his wand with a muttered, "Finite Incantatem." He shook Harry, grabbing him by both shoulder, and demanded, "What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that I will never be good, sir," Harry said, as clearly as he could while being shaken.
Professor Sprout made a protesting murmur, but Professor Snape's eyes never left his as he demanded, "And?"
"I thought maybe 'never' didn't have to last so long," Harry explained.
Professor Sprout gave a sound that was somewhere between a gasp and a sob, and Professor Snape jerked him roughly forward and wrapped his arms around him, squeezing him enough to hurt a little, but not as much as a punishment should. "You stupid, stupid boy," Professor Snape snarled into his ear. "You are never to do that again, do you hear me?"
"Yes, sir," he confirmed as the professor pushed him back a little and glared at him from so close he could see his face reflected in the dark pupils.
The long nose twitched and then he sniffed. And then he jerked Harry's gloved hand up and sniffed his fingertips. He pried open Harry's mouth, although Harry opened it as soon as he realized what was wanted, and took another long sniff.
"Severus?" Professor Sprout asked, voice suddenly steady and resigned.
"How many did you swallow?" Professor Snape asked, hand squeezing hard on his chin and looking at his eyes.
"Four," he said.
"Were the shells broken?" Professor Sprout asked quickly.
"No, ma'am," he said.
Before she finished her sigh of relief, Professor Snape demanded, "Were any of the shells broken?"
"Yes, sir," he admitted, refusing to flinch at the admission of the near lie.
"How many were?" the herbology teacher asked quickly, wand out as she slipped forward.
The two of them exchanged a quick look, and she said, "I believe I should begin, if you'll open the flue and prepare Poppy?"
Professor Snape nodded quickly and thrust him into her hands, and then was striding, wand opening a straight line to the door.
Professor Sprout didn't even seem to notice the chaos as she proffered Harry a tight, unamused smile. "Well, Mr. Potter. This is likely to be extremely unpleasant." Then she began to cast.
Harry was surprised that it was not Professor Snape who finally punished him, Professor Sprout had seemed like the least likely of the teachers to do so, and he'd begun to sometimes think that none of them would. It was almost a relief when his stomach twisted and filled with—something—and below that, further down in his gut liquid formed and then pushed, and then he was fouling his pants even as he dropped to his knees, heaving up the contents of his stomach despite himself. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he whispered.
"Oh," she said very, very calmly. "What, exactly, are you sorry for, Harry?"
"I'm sorry for making a mess," he said, clearly, struggling back to his feet, ignoring the humiliating reek. "I'll clean—"
"Is that all you're sorry for?" she interrupted, not releasing his shoulder when he went to move to the cleaning closet.
He froze in place, bowing his head, trying not to sway but knowing he wasn't doing very well at it. "No, ma'am. I'm sorry for using the gloves without explicit instruction to do so."
"I see," she said, her hand tightening on his arm. "And do you regret swallowing those seeds?"
"No, ma'am," he said, knowing it was always worse to lie, even if the truth was bad. "I'm sorry."
"For?" she asked.
"For not being sorry I swallowed the seeds," he explained.
Her hand tightened almost painfully on his arm, and then she nodded sharply and scooped him up, despite the foul mess of his robes and started down the path Professor Snape had made. "Then I'm afraid I'm going to stay quite angry, for now," she said. "Because the only apology I want from you is for trying to take your life. Hogwarts Infirmary." Her arms pulled him tighter as she stepped into the fire, and the world squeezed and spun around him.