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Chapter Seventy-Eight

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It felt like a dream, like he would wake up any moment and find it was all just a figment of his imagination. Like maybe magic wasn't actually real and Harry was a muggle living like a muggle in a muggle world with a muggle family and muggle friends going to muggle school thinking only muggle thoughts doing only muggle things –

He took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes, forcing his brain to stop its spiral into panic, the whirling thoughts. That way laid madness. It must be the lack of the sleep, the shock of the past few days. Going from a pariah to the darling and Hero of the Wizarding World probably contributed as much to his determination to stay at St. Mungo's as the conditions of his godfather and blood-brother.

The healers had capitulated to his demands quickly enough, especially with the support of his parents behind him. If Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore were the much-maligned heroes of Britain, James Potter was the solitary voice of truth in the Ministry, nearly worshipped by the masses. Everyone knew he wasn't the only Ministry employee who spoke out against Fudge over this past year of madness, but as Harry's father he was the focus of the press, and they were already proclaiming him a front-runner for Fudge's job.

Harry wasn't sure how he felt about that.

Part of him knew that this opportunity was exactly the sort of thing that Harry's parents had worked towards for all these years. If James Potter became the Minister for Magic, then he could move mountains to protect the family, to help Harry fulfill his destiny. The problem was that Harry didn't think his parents could help him. They would be too conflicted between protecting him and letting him do what needed to be done; they had already proven that.

There was no way Harry was telling them he might be a Horcrux.

And they must also consider that Voldemort would make his move on the Ministry before long, and the Minister would be the first target. Harry selfishly did not want his father in that position, as the next Minister would likely die, soon.

Wearily, Harry blinked and looked down at his godfather. The man that was always so full of life was pale as the hospital blanket covering his still frame. The curse that Bellatrix cast at him was intended to essentially liquefy his internal organs. Ironically, he was lucky. Or maybe it wasn't irony, but rather something like a fortunate turn of fate. Whatever it was, Sirius missed his heart liquefying by a matter of inches. That would have been instant death.

As it was, Harry's father had just barely managed to halt the progression of the curse and keep Sirius stabilized until they could evacuate him to St. Mungo's. By then, he had lost a lung, a kidney, his spleen.

Glancing at the next bed, Harry took a deep breath and pressed his lips together between his teeth. The healers had done just about all they could for Neville, and only time would tell if it was enough. There was going to be some permanent loss of brain function, but how much and in what areas, they had no idea. His blood brother would require 'round the clock observation for a minimum of a few weeks, and possibly much longer. After Harry mentioned their bond to the healers, they had grown a bit more optimistic. Apparently, a magical link to another wizard could have a stabilizing effect, and it might have been working that way since they were children. Retrospectively, Harry realized that he was always able to help Neville calm his magic much more quickly than even Aunt Alice and Uncle Frank.

As the two patients were sound asleep, Harry decided to stretch his legs a bit. The hospital, this portion of it anyway, was as close to deserted as it ever got in these few hours before sunrise. In deference to the hospital staff, Harry had been wearing loose cotton pants to bed, but no more. He was just uncomfortable in too much clothing.

Ignoring the Auror that shadowed him as he left the guarded room, Harry walked the quiet corridors, reveling in the privacy. His fingers traced a path along the grout between wall tiles, lightly taking in the texture. Concentrating on the moisture all around him, Harry could feel the porous nature of the grout, could detect how much water it could absorb before it would begin to expand, wicking the water to the underlying coat of cement, that would take it in before swelling and popping the tiles. He took some deep, meditative breaths as he centered his magic and calmed his mind.

Almost reluctantly, Harry shifted his attention and turned to walk through a well-marked door to the stairwell beyond. His bare feet padded up the stairs almost silently until they reached the next floor of the hospital, where the Tea Room was located.

It may not have been the destination he intended when he left the spell-damage ward, but Harry's stomach started to rumble lightly, reminding him that he had not eaten much for dinner. His appetite had simply not been there since the battle at the Ministry, and he knew he had lost some weight. Grabbing a muffin and pouring himself some coffee, Harry heard some muted sniffling, and turned to scan the room. Hesitating for only a moment, Harry took some more food and another cup of coffee before crossing the cavernous dining area and sliding into a booth across from the only other visitor there.

He set down one of the steaming mugs of coffee and added some sugar before stirring and pushing it across the table to join the cranberry-orange muffin he had brought for her.

She peeled back the paper of the muffin, but only picked at the baked good, keeping her head down.

"You saved his life, you know."

Harry wasn't really sure what to say, and was truly feeling his youth. Despite all the advanced training his parents had given him, and all the books he had studied, some things just couldn't be learned any other way than through life experience. This, a situation like this, was one of those things, and Harry was completely over his head.

"I can't…" she fought back sobs as she picked at the muffin some more. "I just can't…"

"Auntie…"

Alice Longbottom finally looked up at Harry and gave him a sad ghost of a smile.

"You're a good brother to him, Harry," Aunt Alice spoke in a voice that hitched with raw emotion. "I never wanted children. I knew that marrying Frank meant I would have to bear at least one boy, to pass on the name, but I've never been really maternal. I love my boy, more than anything, but I never know how to tell him, how to show him."

Harry glanced to the side quickly and saw that his guard was standing a respectful distance away, close enough to hear if he was needed but far enough away that he wouldn't be eavesdropping on a private moment.

"Neville knows you love him," Harry told his aunt. There had been times in his childhood when he got angry with her for how lost and alone Neville felt, and recently as she didn't visit her son in the hospital, but hearing her cry out his name in the Department of Mysteries, and seeing her take on Bella with all the ferocity of a mother lion protecting her cub, he knew that his childish anger was truly that – childish. He was in no place to judge his aunt. He had no idea what her inner thoughts were, her feelings, her motivations. This revelation made him think of his parents, but he pushed those thoughts away for future reflection.

She looked at him with Neville's eyes, but bloodshot and dark circled, pain shadowed, and nodded in acceptance.

"Have you gotten any sleep?" Harry sipped at his own coffee, lightened just a bit with cream and sweetened with honey.

Alice huffed, "Sleep would be wonderful. Every time I close my eyes I see him under that curse, just like when you were both just babies. I was too late then, like I was too late the other night. All I see is my failing him again, and again."

Harry's guard stiffened for a moment, but then relaxed, and Harry assumed he had heard and dismissed something.

"You should come see him."

"I know."

"He's confused," Harry paused and ate some of his double-chocolate muffin as he struggled to find the right words to explain. The muffin was too dry, and he drank some coffee before speaking again. "He knows what happened, but he doesn't remember it, and I have to tell him again sometimes. There are little gaps in his memory, but mostly, there's just something, off…it seems."

By this time, silent tears were making their way down Alice's cheeks, one landing in her coffee and creating a little ripple. She lifted the mug and drank down half the cup with the practiced ease of one who had used caffeine to stay awake many nights in her past.

"Albus promised to keep his spot in Hogwarts for the next year, regardless of whether he can complete the work," the information was shared almost clinically, as though Neville's entire future was not hanging in the balance. He could easily get through life without working; the Longbottom vaults were more than sufficient for that. He would not, however, be able to become a Master Herbologist, his dream for years now, without his N.E.W.T.s, and they would not know for some time if he would be in any condition to take the tests, never mind pass them.

Harry smiled at his aunt, relieved that Neville would be able to finish Hogwarts, at least, even if he could not pass his exams at the end of their seventh year. "He'll find a way. Neville is quietly strong like that."

"Thank you, Harry."

He just nodded, and they ate in silence. When he was done, and even the caffeine of the coffee and chocolate combined with the sugar were not enough to prevent him from yawning, Harry stood and offered his arm. With a flick of her wand, Alice silently banished their mugs to the counter across the room and their muffin wrappers to the bin. She rested her hand on his elbow and stood, accepting his invitation.

In the hospital room, Alice tucked Harry into his bed between the two patients, her automatic gesture directly refuting her earlier claim that she lacked any sort of maternal attributes. She turned away from him as he rolled to his side.

Neville, even in his sleep, smiled and nuzzled into his mother's gentle caress of his face. He emitted a sigh and continued to sleep soundly.

As Harry's eyes blinked against his will and sleep began to steal over him, he could just barely make out Aunt Alice mouthing 'thank you' to him as she left the room.

Pain woke Harry, piercing, stabbing pain emanating from his scar and pounding through his head. He gasped as consciousness was forced on him and grabbed his head, forcing back the bile that rose in his throat. The Daily Prophet had been primarily covering the Ministry and the public's reaction to Voldemort's return, but they would have a new cover story for the next edition. What little honeymoon they had been afforded was over, and the war was truly beginning.

His dreams had been playing over the battle at the Ministry, the resurrection, and even going back to flashes of green light and his mother's screams, but that night all of those memories had been replaced with an attack in muggle London, right near the entrance to St. Mungo's. But that was not all. Riddle had been busy, going from one attack to another, and Harry's stomach turned as he recalled a look of furious determination on his father's face, his own hatred of that face and everything it represented, and a familiar home in the background.

Most of all, Harry struggled to separate his own psyche from the feeling of glee and the desire to rain down pain, death, and destruction while standing to duel opposite James Potter.

His aunt was asleep in the chair next to Neville's bed, her breaths deep and steady, her eyes twitching with dreams. Sirius was unchanged, the potions and charms continuing to work in rebuilding his body while he remained in a spelled healing sleep. Sounds of the hospital filtered into Harry's consciousness, the click of someone's heeled boots on the tiled floor, doors opening and closing, far-off murmurs of conversation. It was early yet, and the amber hues of dawn cast the entire room in a sepia tone, making the standard hospital whites and greys appear as if they were an old photograph. Still a little shaky, Harry began meditation, grasping at focus and feeling it slip away time and again before he calmed enough to concentrate.

He was gaining more and more control over his elements, as evidenced by the fact that nothing in the room was on fire, no unnatural wind swept the halls, and the sky outside remained clear of clouds. His distress from his dream-turned-vision, and the fate of his father an unknown, would have loosed fire at least, if not all three elements, as little as a year ago. The duels that Harry and Severus had fought so frequently that year did more for his control than any of the exercises Remus taught him. Severus had him fighting with the elements, but disguising them as ordinary magic.

Though still anxious for news of his father, Harry assumed that if something terrible had happened, he would know. Someone would have been sent to tell him if he was suddenly Head of House Potter.

When the door to the corridor opened, Harry paid it no mind. He could feel that the guard was still there, and that his body temperature had not risen at all in fear or with adrenaline.

"You can lower you wand, Alice." There was also that. Not even her first deep sleep in weeks would prevent Alice Longbottom from reacting to a potential threat.

"Rufus."

Harry opened his eyes. The Head Hit Wizard was a man with whom he was roughly familiar. The Hit Wizards were a separate branch of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement than the Aurors, but there were times when they worked together. Rufus Scrimgeour was their Head, and thus the political equal, as far as Ministerial position power wise, to James Potter.

"Mr. Scrimgeour," Harry nodded at the leonine man that stood just inside the door, just slightly intrigued, though he would not show it.

There was a tense pause, and Harry let his gaze flick over to his aunt briefly. Her eyes were guarded; she, too, was entirely unaware of the reason for the man's presence. She was standing, her wand lowered but still at her side, ready to rise again if needed. Her stance could be referred to as 'battle ready,' relaxed but prepared for instant movement.

Scrimgeour stood favoring one leg, and Harry remembered seeing the man limp the few times that they met. Though he had never asked the cause of the limp, Harry knew that it had to be the result of seriously dark magic, otherwise it would have been repaired.

"Let me begin by saying that all Potters, as well as Frank, are fine." A little knot of tension inside of Harry released at those words. His father had survived yet another brush with death.

"And Amelia?" Harry questioned the man, clearly surprising him. He knew he had surprised his aunt as well, but at least she knew how Harry would have gained this information and hid her momentary startle, only giving away her feelings with a few rapid blinks of her eyes.

"How did –" Scrimgeour cleared his throat, coughed, and recovered from his fluster quickly. His eyes narrowed at Harry just slightly, and Harry simply lifted his eyebrows in return. "She is down the hall, but should recover fully. For the duration of her convalescence, your father is Acting Head of Department."

"And Head Auror?" Alice questioned.

"Shackelbolt," Scrimgeour said simply, but with a slight frown. The leap in status was not unheard of, but rare, yet to the other conscious individuals in the room it made perfect sense and they nodded in unison. Alice had never wanted the position, Frank was not suited, and Sirius was incapacitated (and also did not truly have the temperament for politics long-term). Kingsley was next in line for a Team Leader position and was well-respected by the Auror Corps as a whole. His position in the Order did not hurt, either, and his loyalties were known.

"Which means you are our new Minister," Harry commented astutely.

"Slytherins," Scrimgeour huffed, but did not hide a slight smile of pride in his new position.

Harry quickly assessed what little he knew of the man and determined to get as much information as he could. While he did not regret spending the last few weeks with his godfather and blood-brother, he had paid a price. Only when his family or other Order members had come in to visit had he received any reliable information. He had been completely cut off from any of his Slytherin connections, barring the little that Fred and George could pass along from the little they could glean from Severus. Stories in The Prophet were telling, but often left as many questions as they provided answers.

"Why are you here?" Alice questioned bluntly.

Scrimgeour tossed her a slightly irritated glance, as though her presence alone was a hindrance, "My purpose is twofold." He let a dramatic pause leave his audience wondering, and Harry had to admire the man's skills. "Your leave of absence remains valid, Alice," this surprised Harry, as he did not know she was on leave, "but I must request you reconsider. Our forces are stretched thin as is, and –"

"I will save you the trouble, Rufus," Alice Longbottom, though small in stature, radiated confidence and power, and her soft voice filled the room. "You may say I am assigned to the protection of Sirius and my son, who is indeed a primary target, but I shall not be leaving this hospital until he does."

"Yes, well," Scrimgeour backed down graciously, knowing a lost cause when saw it. In that alone he was an improvement over Fudge, who would have tried to bluster and bully until he got his way. Quickly, the man regrouped and turned to Harry. "There will be a press conference in the Ministry Atrium just before the Ministry opens for the day. I would like the Chosen One to stand beside me in support of the new Ministry."

Though his instinctual response was 'Hell, no,' Harry took several moments to consider the man's request. Harry's natural inclinations were such that he hated being in the spotlight, hated the press, hated being the center of attention. The Ministry was in Harry's debt, and could be further so if he appeared to support Scrimgeour. In Harry's absence, Scrimgeour would be able to make whatever claims he wanted, but if Harry was there, the new Minister would have to tread more carefully. Public opinion was fully on Harry's side, and he could easily determine whether Scrimgeour operated with or against the people.

Part of him wanted to discuss this with Dumbledore, with Severus, with his parents, with Draco, and the rest of their conspiracy, but Harry was legally an adult. He was the Chosen One, as The Prophet had recently hailed him, as prophecy itself declared him, and he could not always turn to others before making decisions, even of greater ones than this matter.

That his first appearance after the Ministry battle would be in the Atrium where the public portion of the battle took place would be significant.

"Who will be there?" Harry questioned the other man.

"All the Department Heads will be arrayed behind me as I address the press. Ministry workers will likely be in attendance," Scrimgeour informed Harry.

He nodded as he contemplated further. So his father would be there, but likely silent, and as part of a larger group.

With a startling flash of insight, Harry realized that, while his family and the faculty of Hogwarts had spent the past thirteen years protecting him, denying the press access to his life, sheltering him and keeping him out of the public eye as much as possible, that was probably why it was so easy for the public to believe lies about him, to vilify him. Their work had backfired in a way because the public didn't know him, not the real him. As their only source of Boy-Who-Lived information had been articles in The Prophet, they believed what they read.

With that, his decision was made for him. If Harry's long-term goal was not only to survive this war and come out as the victor, but to then achieve at least some semblance of a normal life in the aftermath, the wizarding world needed to know who he truly was, not simply the claims made by The Prophet and Witch Weekly.

If he wanted to be left alone – more or less – when this was all over and done with, if he wanted to avoid such easy blackening of his character as he faced over the past year, he needed to be more than an image on paper and a legend. He needed to be a flesh and blood, real life wizard with talents and flaws just like anyone else.

Scrimgeor had actually just given Harry everything he wanted, after a fashion. This request of his fit in perfectly with the Order's plans, with the Potters' plans, with Harry's plans. Publicly, the Ministry would admit their error. Harry would start to win over public opinion – permanently.

After the articles he had been reading most recently, Harry certainly had his work cut out for him.

"I have a few conditions…"

Scrimgeour was visibly pleased and frustrated all at once, and Harry found it amusing as the man muttered once again, "Slytherins."

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