Evolution: Choices

Chapter One

By Twinheart

Summary: SEQUEL TO EQUILIBRIUM : A mentoring relationship is developing between young wizard Harry Potter and his dour Potions Professor, Severus Snape; but away from Hogwarts, Harry's life is not all it seems. (Summer before Year Two – CofS).

Warnings: AU; child neglect/abuse; manip/Dumbledore; sedition. Rated for language and some violence.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. I make no money from this. The characters belong to J. K. Rowling. I only borrow them for a brief while.

Author's Note: Dialogue in italics indicate thoughts. Words in quotations indicate spoken dialogue. Some scenes revised from both book and film. (AU – this means NOT CANON!)


Late afternoon sunlight washed the Rue de Fleurus with golden light, warming the colors of the brick buildings and striped awnings. Tourists in brightly-hued summer clothes strolled to and from le Jardin de Luxembourg, and the few local citizens on the street conducted their business languidly, without acknowledging the sightseers.

Patrons of Taverne du Chat Noir sat outside among planters of fragrant flowers, chatting gaily as waiters in crisp white aprons bustled from table to table. Inside the dimly lit tavern, more patrons dined at intimate tables and curtained booths.

A heavy oak door separated the front dining room from a second, more secluded section. Behind this door, a large open chamber lit by torches boasted a huge fireplace on one wall, many small tables and benches, and a long, well-stocked bar at the back. A shadowy hallway led off one side of the bar, and a wrought-iron circular staircase spiraled up to a balcony and rear corridor that led to private guest rooms.

The majority of du Chat Noir's regular customers were unaware of the existence of this back room. In fact, they did not even notice the door to this room – or if they did, they had only a fleeting impression of a dingy metal door labeled 'Employés'. Oddly dressed patrons passed through this door from time to time, also unnoticed by their fellow Parisians. Most wore long robes and costumes reminiscent of the nineteenth century, but no one commented on their quaint attire. This was Montparnasse after all – the heart of intellectual and artistic life in Paris, and birthplace of the bohemian lifestyle where the unconventional is commonplace. In addition, a small private Opera House operated two doors down from the tavern. Costumed cast members frequented the tavern for food and wine between matinee and evening performances, (and during intermissions as well, although the theatre management tried to discourage this practice.)

So on this particular sunny afternoon, few people glanced at the tall handsome man in pearl gray robes who strode purposefully through the tavern. When he passed beyond the oak door into the nearly deserted room beyond, a pretty woman in her early thirties looked up from behind the bar. With a delighted squeal, she abandoned her muted conversation with two elderly patrons. A dazzling smile lit her heart-shaped face and her dark eyes sparkled. "Monsieur Darnell!" she called out and waved to the newcomer.

The man paused a moment, intense blue eyes sweeping the room with habitual caution. Then his posture relaxed and he sauntered over to the bar, his robes shimmering in the torchlight. "Maîtresse Amalie – my dear friend!" He halted before her, returning her roguish grin with one of his own. He reached across the narrow bar, grasped her hand and bowed, then pressed a light kiss to her knuckles. "Always a pleasure," he purred in flawless French, his deep baritone lush and seductive.

"Dearest Darnell!" the woman gushed in French, her soft husky voice vibrating with pleasure. When the man released her hand, she grabbed a bottle from under the bar, and snagged a fat stemmed glass from a rack above her. With swift dexterity, she filled the snifter halfway, then fetched another glass and poured some for herself. "Where have you been, you darling man?! It has been too long! I have missed you, mon cherie!" she teased him affectionately, shaking her short dark curls.

"I have been away too long," he agreed, raising his glass to toast her. "But you! You have not changed a bit, ma petite! In truth, you are lovelier than ever!"

Maîtresse Amalie chuckled provocatively – a low, throaty laugh that put answering smiles on the faces of all who heard her. " Shameless flatterer!" She waved over a young woman who came up to place an empty tray on the bar. "Suzette! Look here! Here is the handsome English wizard I have told you about – the one with the velvet voice, eh?"

"But of course!" the young blonde smiled at him, her pink cheeks dimpling. She let her curious gaze sweep over him in frank appraisal.

The wizard was tall and trim and he moved with an effortless, feline grace. His short black hair was thick and glossy, a faint glint of silver at the temples. Beneath his neatly-trimmed beard, his complexion was lightly tanned, as if he spent as much time out of doors as in. His deep blue eyes were intelligent and alert: they glimmered oddly, seeming not so much to reflect light, but to absorb it. His robes were light-weight and fluid, of the finest silk, draping his frame in soft folds from his shoulders to the floor. The tips of his black boots, and the high collar of his deep gray silk shirt were all that showed from beneath the expensive robes. His overall appearance was distinguished and emphatically masculine, but the feature that the waitress most noticed – the feature that drew stares wherever the man went, was his smile. It was a wry smile – a smug smile – slightly arrogant with a touch of mild irony behind it. It was the smile of a man perpetually amused by all he observed.

The poised man accepted the young waitress' bold scrutiny, took her hand and kissed it. "Enchanted, Mademoiselle!"

"You're too kind, Monsieur," she giggled and gave Amalie a bright grin. "You were right, Amalie! His voice is like sweet, heavy syrup! But you did not tell me how elegant and charming he was!"

"Of course not!" Amalie snickered. "I didn't wish to pique your interest too very much! I am too old to compete with you young girls."

"You speak heresy, ma cherie!" the man protested. "Everyone in Paris knows Maîtresse Amalie is as ageless as the stars – and twice as brilliant!"

This lovely compliment earned a heartfelt sigh from the young waitress and a trill of husky laughter from Amalie. "I have always said your French is nearly as good as a native's, Monsieur Darnell – but your words, they are beautiful nonsense!" She laughed again and placed two filled mugs on Suzette's tray.

With a pert curtsy, the young waitress sashayed off to a table in the corner. In a green flash, two burly workmen burst abruptly into the room through the fireplace and lumbered up to the bar. Monsieur Darnell gave them a moment of tense scrutiny, then relaxed again. He sipped his brandy while Maîtresse Amalie served them, then smiled when the attractive tavern owner returned to refill his glass. He stayed her with a curt shake of his head and a hand over his nearly empty snifter.

Amalie grinned and shrugged. "Shall I have your favorite room prepared for you?" she asked.

"I regret I cannot stay that long. . .I am in Paris for a few hours only."

"But no!" Amalie protested with a pretty pout. "Here you do not visit me for – what? two? Three years, is it? And now you will not even stay the night? My darling Darnell – you break my heart!"

"It is sad but true, ma petite!" the wizard replied with a dramatically tragic sigh. "I am only here to conduct some quick business. I cannot dally this trip, but I will visit longer next time, perhaps."

"At least promise me you will not wait so long to come see us again!" Amalie demanded coquettishly, her hands propped on her hips.

Darnell's appreciative gaze traveled over her willowy frame, draped in a clingy black gown with plunging neckline that concealed little. "That is a promise I will gladly make," he said wryly. He downed the last of his brandy and reached into a hidden pocket of his robes.

Maîtresse Amalie stopped him with a lazy wave of her hand. "Keep your francs, Darnell. It is Amalie's treat, eh?"

"Only if you allow me to return the favor when my business is concluded," he insisted gallantly, reaching out for her hand. She surrendered it gladly and winked at him when he bowed and kissed it again.

"But of course, mon cher!" Amalie lilted. She leaned on the bar with a predatory smile and watched him disappear through the doorway beside the bar.

Monsieur Darnell strode up to a tall tapestry that hung at the end of the dim hallway. The tapestry was worn and faded, and the single guttering torch on the wall did not cast enough light to reveal its faded design. The man raised his right hand and touched a slender wand to the dusty fabric. The tapestry glimmered, then seemed to dissolve altogether, revealing a narrow stone archway. Beyond the arch, the Ruelle du Sortilège glowed in the afternoon sun.

Monsieur Darnell strode quickly down the narrow cobbled lane. The stone buildings that loomed over the street were not as old as some in Diagon Alley.A devastating fire had destroyed the original ancient marketplace in the late fifteenth century, but most of the current buildings pre-dated the Revolution – as did many of the shops inside them. Monsieur Darnell noted thankfully that the lane and shops were nearly deserted, with only a few customers strolling about. At this hour of the afternoon, most Parisian wizards and witches were resting or lounging at home, as was the custom. In a few hours time, they would begin to immerge into the cool early evening air, and the shops and cafes would be crowded and noisy until well after midnight. Now, however, the street was quiet, disturbed only by the passage of an occasional merchant, and a few harried mothers taking advantage of their offsprings' afternoon naps to get their shopping done.

The dark-haired wizard bypassed the shops and cafes, making his way to a tall white marble building that crouched in the apex of a fork in the main road. He ignored the six heavily-armed goblins guarding the entrance of La Banque de Gringott and stalked into the cool shadows of the huge lobby, striding confidently down the length of the broad room to a tall counter at the far end.

A tiny, shriveled, ancient goblin sat at the counter beneath an ornate coat of arms. He was writing something in a ledger, his long spidery fingers clasping a huge black quill nearly as long as the goblin was tall. With a sour sneer, he glanced down his nose at the wizard. "What is it you want?" he snapped impatiently.

"Monsieur Russell Darnell to see Account Manager Silverscale," the wizard replied in French.

"One moment," the goblin sniffed. He scribbled something on a scrap of parchment and shoved it through a slot in the countertop, then returned to his ledger without another glance at the waiting wizard. After a few minutes, a richly-dressed goblin exited a nearby door and moved to meet the wizard, offering a short bow.

"Manager Silverscale," the wizard murmured, returning his bow. "It is pleasure to see you again."

"The pleasure is mine, Monsieur Darnell," the goblin replied formally. "You honor Gringotts with your business. Please allow me to escort you to my private office." In a few short minutes, Darnell found himself seated in a large comfortable chair in the goblin-manager's luxuriously furnished office.

Silverscale settled himself behind a huge mahogany desk. "Might I offer you some refreshment?"

"Thank you, no," Darnell declined politely.

"It has been some years since you have graced our establishment with your presence, Monsieur Darnell. It is indeed pleasant to see you once again. How may Gringotts serve you today?"

"I would like to arrange several fund transfers."

"Non-traceable, I presume?"


"But of course. From which account, Monsieur?"

"From my London account," the wizard replied in English. When the Illusionment Charm that surrounded him abruptly shimmered and dissolved, the goblin did not even blink. Unlike wizards or Muggles, Goblins see through such glamours with ease and cannot be fooled by them.

"Very well, Sir," Silverscale slipped effortlessly into English as well. "Allow me a moment to retrieve those accounts." He rummaged through a drawer of a tall wooden cabinet behind him, then returned to his desk with a thick folder in his hands. He withdrew a heavy parchment, laid it on the desk and pointed to a blank line on the form. "If you will sign here, Sir – and apply one drop of blood beside your signature."

The wizard complied without comment, slicing a tiny cut in his left index finger with his wand, and healing the cut when the required drop of blood had sunk into the parchment.

"Good," Silverscale nodded, satisfied. He did not comment on the consequences if the wizard had proven to be an imposter, nor did the man ask. When it came to fraud or attempted theft, goblins were not known for their mercy. "How much do you wish to transfer?"

"Nearly all of it," the wizard replied evenly.

This time the goblin did blink – the only outward sign of his surprise. He pulled a clean parchment toward him and began to write as the wizard continued.

"I wish to transfer all but two thousand galleons out of my London account, into my Gringotts account in the Grand Cayman Islands. Then I want those total funds to be divided into four equal shares. One share shall remain in the Grand Cayman account. The other three shares are to be transferred to my main accounts in Vancouver, Dublin, and Zurich, respectively. "

"Certainly, Sir," Silverscale made notations and glanced up at him. "Is that all?"

"No, I'd like to withdraw three thousand galleons from my Paris vault, to be exchanged into English pounds."

The goblin frowned. "You realize such an exchange would be costly. You would get a better rate of exchange if you took the francs and exchanged them in London."

"I'm aware of that. I prefer to do it here. The rate does not matter," the wizard waved a hand dismissively.

"As you wish, Sir. This will only take a moment – if you will excuse me."

The goblin left the office briefly, returning with a rolled parchment and a small cloth bag. "Your pounds are in here – please count them, Sir." He set the standard bottomless moneybag before the wizard who quickly counted the Muggle money and nodded in satisfaction. "And if you will sign here, Monsieur Darnell," he said pointedly, spreading the parchment out on his desk. He handed the wizard a quill and watched as the man signed the document.

"Very good, Sir," he said, folding the document and placing it in the folder on his desk. "The fund transfers you requested are now completed. Is there any other business Gringotts can help you with today?"

"Nothing, thank you, Manager Silverscale," the wizard rose and bowed formally, switching back to French once more. "Thank you for your assistance. May your gold flow like water and your property always increase."

"May you and your heirs be blessed with wealth and prosperity," the goblin manager rose and replied in the approved manner. With the formalities over, he suddenly smirked and held out a long fingered hand, which the tall wizard clasped warmly.

"It was very good to see you again, Silverscale," the wizard remarked, smiling down at him.

The goblin grinned back at him, his small beady eyes gleaming. "And you, my dear sir – and you! I hope you will return to Paris soon."

"It is possible," the wizard shrugged. "In these uncertain days – one never knows." Tucking the moneybag into his robes, he flicked his wand, renewing his glamour.

Monsieur Russell Darnell made his way cautiously and discreetly from La Banque de Gringott down the length of Ruelle du Sortilège,reentering du Chat Noir through the magical archway. He shared another brandy with Maîtresse Amalie as promised, and flirted lightheartedly with the tavern owner and her pretty waitress for half an hour. Then, with a farewell kiss for both lovely ladies, he left the establishment through the Muggle café that fronted the street, and walked several blocks to a nearby flower shop.

Entering the shop, he nodded curtly to the man behind the counter and stepped into the back room. Handing a galleon to the old woman knitting by the large brick hearth, he accepted a handful of powder from her. With clear crisp tones and a green flash, he flooed to a stone hearth in a tiny cobbler's shop in Vieux Port, two blocks north of the Hotel Mascotte du Marseille.

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Harry Potter knelt in the dry dusty grass and yanked fiercely at a weed sprouting between two parched begonias. The sun beat down relentlessly on his sweaty back, and his neck, face and arms throbbed with sunburn. He wiped at the sweat that ran down his feverish cheeks and struggled with the tenacious weed. The weather had been unusually hot and dry ever since he had returned to Surrey, and the hard-baked soil made weeding difficult, even with the thick layer of mulch he had spread in the flower beds. Harry scrabbled at the persistent weed with aching hands, grunting with effort as the stubborn plant finally came loose.

He tossed the weed into a nearby bucket and eyed the garden hose with longing. He was dreadfully thirsty, and the backyard weeding would have been easier if the soil were moistened, but his Aunt Petunia had forbidden use of the hose. She disapproved of midday watering. ("It's a waste of water," she'd declare. "Half of it will evaporate before soaking in. I'll not have you running up our water account!") If she saw Harry turn on the hose before sunset, even for a quick sip, she would report the wastage to his Uncle Vernon and there would be hell to pay later. So Harry ignored his dry lips and parched mouth and continued his onerous chore.

Harry hated weeding the backyard beds. He didn't much like weeding the front yard either, but at least he got to tend the front beds in the cool damp hours of pre-dawn, instead of in the blazing afternoon sun. This wasn't for his comfort, of course. Aunt Petunia didn't want the neighbors staring at her skinny, shabby nephew, so she dragged him out of bed before sunrise and forced him to tend the front lawn and garden before anyone else on Privet Drive was up and about. She called him inside to cook breakfast as her working neighbors immerged from their houses to commute to their jobs. After breakfast, Harry would clean the kitchen and start the laundry before she sent him into the back yard to work. In the back, high hedges and a rear brick garden wall screened sight of the boy from most of the neighborhood, but they provided little shelter from the hot summer sun overhead.

While Petunia Dursley and her obese son, Dudley, escaped the midday heat in the cool confines of the lounge, Harry labored on, swallowing against a dry throat, and fighting the nausea and dizziness caused by overheating and dehydration. His stomach growled ominously. It had been three days since his last meal (if you could call a half-slice of stale bread and a dried out hunk of old cheese a meal) and he was growing weak from hunger. But heat and thirst overpowered his hunger, and even if food had been available, Harry doubted he could have swallowed it. He tugged at a new weed and shook off another wave of dizziness. If anyone had been watching, they would have seen the small boy turn paler, his skin looking slightly green under the painful sunburn.

"Boy!" Petunia's shrill bark echoed off the hot brick wall. Harry raised his head wearily and looked at the tall gaunt woman standing in the back door. "Get in here."

Harry struggled woozily to his feet and brushed the dirt from his sore hands. He trudged over to the waiting woman who scowled at him critically. "Stop weeding for now. I want you to clean the upstairs bathroom."

"Yes, Aunt Petunia," Harry croaked through parched lips.

"And take off those filthy shoes before you come in. I don't want you tracking dirt all over my clean floors." She turned and flounced back inside.

Harry sat on the back stoop and removed his tattered, too-large trainers. He carefully brushed off all the loose dirt from his ragged trousers, went inside and climbed the stairs wearily. He was glad for the new chore, although he would not have said so to his aunt. Cleaning the bathroom meant access to water – access he took advantage of as soon as he closed the door to the bathroom behind him. He turned on the cold water tap in the sink and bent over, lapping the water eagerly. The water not only relieved his thirst, but would fill his stomach as well – for a while, at least. He gulped at the water for a couple of minutes before stopping reluctantly. He was still thirsty, but his empty stomach could not handle too much at once and he didn't want to sick up. Instead, he splashed his face and neck, sighing in relief as the cool water eased his burned skin a little.

He heard footsteps on the stairs. They were ordinary, brisk footsteps, not thundering thuds – so he knew it wasn't his cousin approaching. He grabbed cleaners and rags from under the sink and began scrubbing the basin just in time. His aunt wrenched the door open with a bang, making him jump.

"Leave this door open," Aunt Petunia snarled. "I want to be able to see if you're slacking off, you useless brat!"

"Yes, Aunt Petunia," Harry murmured, bending to his task. It was pointless to protest. He heard his aunt sniff, then stomp off downstairs as he scrubbed at several tan stains in the basin. Dudley and his father both used an oily unguent to slick down their hair, and the cream left greasy stains in the porcelain that Harry had to battle constantly. Uncle Vernon was fairly fastidious in his application, but his cousin always splattered great gobs of the stuff all over. Harry suspected he did it on purpose just to make more work for Harry, but of course he never complained.

Complaining only lead to worse trouble– something Harry had been forced to learn at a very age. He kept his grievances to himself for the most part, not wishing to give his Aunt or Uncle further excuse to punish him - not that they needed an excuse.

His current punishment was the result of one of Dudley's frequent lies. His cousin had crashed one of his remote-controlled cars into the wall of the Dursley's new sunroom, cracking one of the expensive glass panes. He had then blamed Harry, of course – an obviously trumped-up story which had earned Harry not only extra chores and no food, but a ruthless session with Vernon's belt as well. Harry still bore purple and black bruises across his bum and thighs from the thrashing, and his Uncle's increasing violence had dampened the spark of defiance that sometimes flared in Harry's heart.

He wearily scoured the stained sink, the harsh cleaner stinging a few small cuts on his unprotected hands. There was a pair of yellow rubber gloves under the sink, but those belonged to Aunt Petunia, and Harry wasn't allowed to use them for he might 'stretch them out or tear them', as his aunt had sneered when he asked.

He let his mind wander as he worked and it returned, as usual, to happy memories of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He missed his school. . .he missed it so much it made his stomach ache. He missed his friends – Ron, Hermione and Hagrid the Groundskeeper. He missed classes and Quidditch and the food in the Great Hall. And it surprised him a little to realize that he even missed his twice-weekly tutoring sessions with Professor Snape. It wasn't that Harry liked the extra lessons, or enjoyed doing homework, really. . .it was the calm, safe atmosphere of the Professor's quarters that he liked.

Harry thought back to those sessions as he finished with the sink and moved on to the toilet. He recalled sitting at Snape's table, studying. . .the quiet of the room, disturbed only by the crackle of the fire and the scratch of his quill. . .Snape's steady, reassuring presence as the surly Professor read by the hearth. . .their evening ritual of tea and biscuits. Harry didn't know what it felt like to have a real family– a real home where he was safe and welcome, but he imagined his evenings with Snape might come close. Sometimes, like now, when he was feeling especially down or lonesome, he imagined what it would be like to have that feeling all the time. . .to live with someone who didn't hate him. Someone who looked after him - who made sure that he did his homework, and that he ate properly, and didn't get sick. But such imaginings filled him with a strange longing, and made him feel even more lonely than usual.

Harry pushed way these thoughts as he rinsed and wiped down the toilet, then began cleaning the bathtub.

It's no good thinking about it. It's just a stupid dream anyway! It didn't mean anything. . .not to Snape. . .he doesn't care.

He swallowed against a hard lump that swelled in his throat.

If he cared, he would have written, like he said he would. . .I should've known not to believe it!

Clutching the scrubbing sponge tightly, Harry silently scolded himself and took out his frustration on the grimy tub.

You know better than to trust anything a grownup says….grownups always let you down. Maybe friends do too. Ron and Hermione haven't written either. . .I haven't gotten any letters at all since school ended.

Harry hadn't really been surprised that Ron didn't write. . . the redhead wasn't much for correspondence. At school, Ron hadn't been very good about writing home, either – a fact Harry honestly couldn't comprehend. He was sure that if he had a mother or father to write home to, he would want to write almost every day! But Harry had thought that Hermione would have written to him at least once by now.

They've just been busy. . .they're home with their families, probably having all kinds of fun. . .they've just forgotten about me. . .who could blame them. . . maybe they don't even like me anymore. . .

Harry raised a shoulder and impatiently scrubbed his face against his shirt, brushing away sudden tears.

Stop it! Crying is for babies! You're practically twelve already! There's no use crying about it anyway. It doesn't help anything. So what if they've forgotten you? So what if you have no friends? So you're alone again. That's nothing new.

Harry rinsed the tub, then leaned back, stretching his aching back as a bitter melancholy settled over him.

This is it. This is your life. Get used to it. Nobody is going to help you. You have to look out for yourself, just like always.

Harry stood with a sudden surge of stubborn resolve. Tossing the sponge under the sink, he put away the cleaning supplies and dried his hands. Then he marched determinedly down the stairs. When he entered the kitchen, his Aunt Petunia turned from the sink where she was filling a flower vase and frowned at him. "Have you finished the bathroom already? It had better be spotless, boy, or you'll be doing it all over again." Harry said nothing, just stood staring coldly at her. "Well?" Petunia scowled unpleasantly. Harry had to suppress a sudden urge to snicker.

You think that's a scowl? Lady, that's amateur stuff! You should see Snape sometime. . .now that's a scowl!

"May I please have some food?" Harry asked quietly. Petunia blinked at him. "I haven't eaten in three days. I'm getting weak. If you want me strong enough to work for you, you're going to have to give me something to eat." Harry kept his tone polite and flat. It wasn't a challenge, but a simple statement of fact.

Petunia's homely face screwed up in disgust. Harry could see the angry denials and scathing insults play across her expression, but he also saw a glimmer of something else in her beady eyes. . .something he might have termed guilt in anyone else. He stood still, refusing to back down.

"Fine!" she snapped at last, drawing herself up in stiff disapproval. She jerked her head at the fridge. "Make yourself a sandwich – but be quick about it. I want the upstairs vacuumed and the bed linens changed before your Uncle comes home."

Harry moved to comply, hardly daring to believe his request had been granted. Petunia turned back to her flowers and ignored him. He made himself a ham and cheese sandwich and ate it standing at the counter. He was still too sore to sit comfortably, and he knew better than to sit at the dining table. The table was for family, not for unwanted little freaks like him. He ate slowly, nibbling at the sandwich in tiny bites. As hungry as he was, he had learned not to shock his shrunken stomach with too much food too fast. Watching his aunt warily, he even summoned the courage to pour himself a small glass of milk. He expected her to protest - she never gave him anything but water to drink - but he had learned to love milk when he first tasted it at Hogwarts and he had missed it. To his relief, his aunt frowned but made no comment.

Harry washed down the last bites of his sandwich with the cold milk and marveled over his small success with his aunt. Instinct told him it wasn't something he could push too far. If he made too many demands, Petunia would complain to Uncle Vernon, and Harry didn't want another thrashing. The last one had bordered on brutal, and he had barely managed to stifle his tears until his uncle had left the room. But at least his aunt had let him eat. Perhaps if he continued to do his chores without complaint, and remained respectful and submissive (on the outside, at least) he might be able to convince her to do it again. Harry examined his situation critically. He was used to hunger – he could usually go two days without food before dizziness overtook him. He'd only ask when he got really weak.

Feeling somewhat encouraged, Harry cleaned up after his meager meal, washing his glass and carefully wiping up any crumbs. Then he went back upstairs to resume the tasks his aunt had assigned him, glad to be indoors out of the hot sun.

----- ----- ----- ----- -----

Minerva signed the report before her and placed it in the completed pile with a sigh. At last!

She pulled off her glasses and rubbed her tired eyes. She had been working for hours and her hand was aching. She stretched her cramped fingers and tried to smother a smoldering spark of resentment.

Since the term had ended, Minerva had been buried in paperwork. For reasons known only to himself, Albus had decided to take his three week holiday as soon as the students left Hogwarts, instead of taking his leave in the middle of the summer, as most of the staff did. This meant that the customary task of completing the huge volume of year-end paperwork fell entirely on the Deputy Headmistress. For the last two weeks, while the Headmaster was in Wales, visiting with his brother and presumably entertaining his growing swarm of great-grandnieces and nephews, Minerva had spent long exhausting hours at her desk, finishing not only her own reports as teacher and Head of House, but also ploughing through the reams of paperwork required by both the Board of Governors and the Ministry Education Department. It was a task that she and Albus would normally share. . and Minerva didn't really appreciate being left holding the bag, as it were. It wasn't that she minded the work. Minerva was deeply dedicated to the school, and took her responsibilities as Deputy Headmistress quite seriously. But she hadn't anticipated being so completely overwhelmed as soon as the summer began.

She leaned back in her chair and poured herself another cup of tea from the Ready-Hot Pot that rested on her desk. Her tired thoughts drifted once more to the subject that was never far from her mind – the subject of one Harry Potter. She had wanted to go to Surrey and check on her student shortly after the term ended. But the huge load of paperwork and endless demands on her time had delayed that desire. Technically speaking, with Albus gone, she wasn't supposed to leave Hogwarts at all. According to school by-laws, one of them – either the Headmaster or his Deputy – was supposed to be on the property at all times, even when students weren't present.

Minerva had told herself that a few weeks wouldn't matter. Though she suspected that Harry was unhappy at home, logic suggested that he was probably at least safe there. Still her conscience nagged her. Over the course of the last year, she had grown very fond of the quiet, sweet-natured boy. She had promised Severus that she would check on Harry, and she wanted. . . no, she needed reassurance herself that the boy was alright.

Minerva eyed the diminishing stack of unfinished reports on her desk, then turned and glanced out of the window behind her. It was late – nearly dusk - and she had skipped dinner again. She slapped the arms of her chair with sudden fierce resolution.

Damn the by-laws! Damn the reports! Damn the Governors and the Ministry – and damn Albus too, for that matter! All of them can wait.


I'll go check on Harry tomorrow, first thing after breakfast. I won't stay long. . .just long enough to make sure the boy is all right.

Feeling much better now that her mind was made up, Minerva rose from her desk and called for a house elf. She decided to eat a light supper by her sitting room window, where she could watch the last rays of the sunset and enjoy a bit of fresh evening air for a change.

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