Hermione held Harry tight as sobs shook his body. She'd lost track of how long they sat on the bed together, his emotions having temporarily disabled his ability to speak. In the time Hermione had been absent from his bedside, Lily and Sirius had come and gone, Harry had changed out of the hospital gown and into his clothes and then began tearing apart his side of the room, breaking the only chair and screaming until Hermione had come to him. He'd immediately succumbed to tears in her arms, unable to say anything about what had happened and unable to let her go as he lost control.
Hermione had only heard a little of what his mother said to him, but she knew the rest of it had to have been devastating for Harry to break down as if the world was coming to an end. For him, she supposed, it was. If his mother wasn't fully in his corner, what did he have, really? He had her, and for now, that would have to be enough.
Harry pulled away from her embrace and swiped at his eyes quickly with the heels of his palms. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice thick. "I don't usually get—" He stopped, sniffling as he thought of the way his mother had avoiding looking at him. Harry held his elbows in either hand and hugged himself, hoping to stop the shaking in both limbs. "I don't know what's wrong with me," he whispered.
Hermione began running her fingers over his hair. "Shh, Harry. Don't apologize. If anything, I should apologize for leaving you on your own for so long." Her eyes shifted briefly to the curtain before drifting downward to the space separating them on the hospital bed.
He swallowed hard. "I…did something happen over there?"
"No," she said after a moment. "Nothing you should worry about. Silencing charms and sedatives wore off about the same time. Then I fell asleep," Hermione added. At Harry's questioning look, she said, "I haven't left since Saturday."
"You should. To get rest, I mean," he said, uncertainty making his voice shake slightly.
"No, you need me here," Hermione said. She took his hand in hers. His skin was cool to the touch and he was still shaking as she laced her fingers through his.
"What if I insist?" Taking a deep breath, he forced up one corner of his mouth into a small smile. "You don't have to baby-sit me."
Hermione smiled back. "If Professor McGonagall, the Minister and your—" she blinked and looked down at their joined hands, "and everyone else who tried couldn't convince me, what makes you think you can?"
Two fingers on her chin turned her face towards his. "I have a stronger method of persuasion." His lips were only on hers a few seconds before he pulled away again, wiping at an unexpected renewal of his tears. Suddenly, Harry screamed out into the room, his shoulders shaking with sobs. Hermione put her arm around him. He struggled to push her away for a few seconds and then leaned onto her, sobbing uncontrollably for the second time that day. Through his crying, she was able to make out the words, "I wish I could make it stop, just for a little bit. I don't want to think about what she said. I don't want to feel like this anymore."
"I could get you a Calming Draught," Hermione suggested. Her mind made up, she started to stand. A tug on her hand stopped her.
"Please don't leave me," Harry whispered. His voice came out thin and soft in a way that sounded pathetic to his own ears. But he couldn't help pleading for her just then, suddenly realizing the last thing he wanted was someone he knew loved him to leave him alone. He couldn't stand it just then.
Hermione nodded. "H-how about if I try a Cheering Charm?" He nodded and sat stiffly as she pulled out her wand and performed the incantation. Harry wiped at a tear quickly, sighing as his body-shaking sobs slowly receded. Tears still fell silently, but he was clearly more in control of his emotions than he had been a minute before.
"I don't think I…well…I'm not sure I did it the way I'm supposed to. It wasn't strong enough," Hermione said. "You're still…" She motioned to his tear-streaked face. Hermione raised her trembling arm to attempt the charm again. Harry stopped her with a hand on her wrist.
"It's fine," he said. "I feel a little bit better. Besides, there really isn't a charm to heal a broken heart, is there?"
"Harry, I'm so sorry," Hermione breathed just before he kissed her again, attempting to lose himself, if only for a little while. This time, it did not end with Harry dissolving in hysterical tears, but with Dumbledore discreetly clearing his throat from the edge of the curtain. The teenagers slowly separated.
Harry nodded in greeting to the Minister.
Dumbledore approached the bed slowly, the soft swish of his dark blue robes the only sound in the room accompanying Harry's small sniffles. The Minister repaired and sat in the chair next to the bed, his eyes somber as he looked at Harry and Hermione.
"Perhaps it would be best if we spoke alone, Mr. Potter," he began.
Harry squeezed Hermione tighter and shook his head silently.
"Very well," Dumbledore responded. "I want to thank you for your assistance the other day. I had not anticipated…well, that Voldemort would have a presence in the dungeons. By the same token, your actions may have consequences you may not understand."
"He deserved it," Harry said. He felt Hermione stiffen next to him. His scar started to tingle and he rubbed at it absently. "If you're here to take me off to Azkaban—"
"No," Dumbledore said. He lowered his gaze briefly before looking into Harry's eyes again. "I do not believe imprisonment is the appropriate recourse. When I spoke to you last week, I told you I believe Voldemort will keep coming after Neville until there is an end for one of them."
"I killed him," Harry said. "You said I might still have the power to do that and I did."
"Not entirely," Dumbledore responded. "I do not doubt that your actions delayed his return, but there are a number of reasons to believe he is nowhere near reaching his end."
Harry eyed the older wizard and frowned. After the hell he'd been through—the hell everyone had gone through—did he seriously expect Harry to believe it wasn't over?
"I know you don't want to believe this, Harry, but as I said before, the solution to this…dilemma will not be a simple one."
Dilemma? Harry thought. A simple word to describe a crazed killer marking you for death at his hands. "So, if killing Voldemort doesn't result in his death, then what will?" Harry asked, his voice incredulous. He let go of Hermione and stood from the bed, moving quickly to stand over Dumbledore. "Why can't you just be straight with me?" He flexed the fingers of one hand, wishing suddenly he had his wand.
Hermione gasped and moved to stand next to him, tugging him back by one arm. "Harry, what are you doing? Of course he's being honest with you. He wants to keep you safe."
He turned to her. "How do I know that?" Harry turned back to the Minister. "What proof do you have that he's still out there somewhere? I saw him die. I set that bloody snake on fire and you want me to believe he could still come after Neville or me?" His voice had risen high enough to be heard down the hall, but Harry was beyond caring. When he considered how many times he could've died over the past few years—or even the past couple of weeks—because the man before him knew more than he was saying, the last thing he wanted to do was pretend like he believed every word coming out of Dumbledore's mouth.
Leaning back in the chair and speaking calmly, Dumbledore said, "He did not die last Saturday, despite your best efforts."
"You're lying," Harry said flatly.
"Harry, listen to him."
He turned to Hermione again, backing away a couple of steps when she reached for him. "We talked about this, Hermione. You know why I can't believe him. Who's side are you on?"
"I'm on your side," she said. "I'm always on your side, but please just listen to him for a few minutes."
"I know why you feel you can't trust me," the Minister said. As the teenager turned back to him, he added, "You do recall my telling you, you are not as difficult to read as you might believe."
"I don't care what you think you know about me," Harry said, anger making him temporarily forget his pain. "You can't sit there and tell me everything I did was for nothing and expect me to accept that on your say-so."
"I will be able to provide proof. In time," Dumbledore said.
Harry knew then, if he thought he could get away with it, he would strike the man in front of him. If only to wipe that all-knowing expression from the twinkling eyes.
"Before Saturday, I had been afraid of what Severus and Bellatrix Lestrange were doing to restore Voldemort to power. When I was notified of the unusual attack you and Mr. Longbottom suffered in class, and the discovery of a unicorn dead from snake bites several days later, I formed a theory as to the exact nature of their plan and how they hoped to accomplish it."
Harry considered interrupting at this point, weary of what he thought might be another pointless conversation to lead him away from what he really needed to know. Glancing at Hermione, he changed his mind. She looked frustrated, tired and, he hated to realize, as scared as he'd been when he'd first heard the entirety of the prophecy. On the off chance it might not be truly over, he had to at least listen. Even if he didn't think the older wizard was likely to tell him the whole truth.
Wordlessly, Harry sat on the bed. He reached for Hermione and she moved next to him. She pulled him close to her side and began rubbing his back as they both prepared to listen to the rest of the explanation. Harry nodded for Dumbledore to continue.
"Through my research, I found out Voldemort had asked a great many questions of one of his professors at Hogwarts relating to how one could…extend life, or become immortal."
"Like with the Philosopher's Stone?" Hermione asked.
Dumbledore nodded. "It is protected, as are similar, less effective methods. There is one method Voldemort asked about during his time at school that concerns me now. He asked about the creation of Horcruxes." Before Hermione could ask another question, he said, "A Horcrux is used to store a portion of someone's soul. The wizard who can successfully create one cannot be killed as long as the object in question is safe."
"Is that why you had notes on Soul Division Theory?" Hermione asked.
Dumbledore nodded. "When I first began hearing rumors that Voldemort was still alive after killing the Longbottoms, I attempted to discover how it could be possible that he had survived that night and what would make it possible for him to become human again."
"If he only made one Horcrux, shouldn't what happened Saturday have killed him?" Harry asked.
"It is possible, though not likely, that Voldemort made as many as seven."
"Seven!" Hermione exclaimed. "Wouldn't that mean it could take years to kill him?"
"Is that what you're saying?" Harry asked. "That we could truly be doing this for decades?" Harry thought back to their conversation several days previous when he'd asked the Minister if the fight could go on for years and he'd responded by changing the subject. Now, Harry knew why.
"I am saying that he sought to create what he considered a powerful number so, even if he could not last in his physical body, one of his supporters would always be able to bring him back. When Auror Shacklebolt went through what was left of Professor Snape's office and desk, he discovered the remains of a book. I believe it was the diary you remember possessing Ginny Weasley your second year at Hogwarts."
"It wasn't just his memory," Harry stated.
Dumbledore shook his head. "A mere memory of someone could not cause such physical damage and take over the life of a living person. Tom Riddle was sixteen when he created that Horcrux and I believe it was his first, though obviously not his last."
"How many are there exactly?" Harry asked. "How many have to be destroyed before he'll stop coming after Neville?"
"The answer to that question is somewhat…troublesome," Dumbledore said. "I have destroyed two. The remains of another caged snake were found in the back of Professor Snape's office, also dead from the fire—that would be two more as of Saturday."
"Why didn't the other snake attack us?" Harry asked.
Dumbledore paused. "I believe the one we encountered was acting as Voldemort's conscious mind, the other was merely a storage unit for that portion of his soul. He may not have had a strong enough connection to it to use it as a second method of attack," he said.
Harry narrowed his eyes on the older wizard's face. He couldn't shake the feeling that something was unusual about that explanation, but he said nothing as Dumbledore continued.
"During the course of Auror Shacklebolt's search, he also discovered that someone had been in Professor Lestrange's office Saturday, after she had escaped from the Ministry. There is no trace, anywhere in Hogwarts, of the notes I had created on Voldemort's possible transformations. A spell was used to open a drawer in Professor Lestrange's desk and someone used her Floo Network connection. With Lucius Malfoy imprisoned, Bellatrix Lestrange is our only suspect."
"You think she came to the school to retrieve another Horcrux and your notes," Harry whispered. "You think she's still going to bring him back."
"But, Professor McGonagall still has the Key in her office. If she can't find the ingredients or figure out the spell to do it on her own, he shouldn't be able to come back, right?" Hermione asked. Harry wished suddenly he could feel half the hopefulness he could hear in her voice, but one look at the Minister's face told him any hopeful thoughts would be pointless.
"That may not be the only way to bring him back, merely the one I deduced the most likely to be successful," Dumbledore said. "What worries me more than the knowledge that she has my notes and a Horcrux in her possession, is the effect it may have on you and Mr. Longbottom," he said to Harry. "When you collapsed in class, it is possible that event coincided with a portion of Voldemort's soul being extracted from the diary."
"Why would that affect me at all?"
Dumbledore looked away from him then, his mouth turned down into a deep frown. "I do not wish to worry you unnecessarily."
"It's too late for that," Harry said. "What are you not telling me?"
"The way your parents were killed was…unusual, to say the least. A Horcrux is created by two actions. There is a very complicated spell needed to attach a portion of the soul to an object, but the soul itself must first be split." He paused. "A soul splits after the commission of a murder."
"That means Voldemort killed someone when he was attending Hogwarts," Harry said.
Dumbledore nodded. "That is not of consequence now, Harry. What concerns me, and should concern you and Neville, is what happened when he killed your parents. The human soul is fragile. If Voldemort created seven Horcruxes—indeed, knowing he created at least five—it is possible his soul was so fractured, so unstable at the time of the Longbottoms's murders, he may have inadvertently created a situation he hadn't planned for."
Harry turned to Hermione, confusion etched in his features. "What?" Her mouth had dropped open after her exclamation and she sat staring at the Minister, shaking her head. Harry turned back to face him. "What have I missed?"
Dumbledore's eyes dropped again and he frowned as he delivered a portion of his theory. "There is a possibility the reason you were so affected by the extraction a week ago is because you, and Neville, have a…connection with Voldemort's Horcruxes."
"What kind of connection?" Harry asked. Glancing at Hermione again, he still felt as if he were missing a large part of the conversation.
"You—" The Minister stopped and looked away from him briefly. "It is possible the transference of his powers allows for you to…feel a connection with them that no one else has. It is difficult to identify the exact nature of this bond."
"Is that why I was in so much pain after we left the dungeon Saturday?" Harry asked. "I don't remember much of it, but after the snake died, it hurt so badly I….I wasn't sure what kind of spell Snape had hit me with. I can't even remember when the pain started, exactly. You're saying what I felt might have been related to Voldemort instead?"
"We can come back."
Harry looked up, startled when his mother had spoken. Sirius stood at her side, holding her hand as they took in the scene before them. Harry took a deep breath, steeling himself. "I want you to stay," he said. He smiled at Lily and motioned her towards the bed.
"Harry," Dumbledore began.
She shook her head. "We'll wait outside," Lily said. She stepped back quickly and brushed past the curtain. After an uncertain look in Harry's direction, Sirius nodded and left as well.
Harry frowned. He hoped she hadn't changed her mind about whatever she had planned to say to him. More than that, he hoped he had mistaken what she'd been saying to him earlier. He couldn't worry about that now. As Hermione took his hand, he returned his attentions to the Minister. "How am I supposed to be connected to this? It sounds like something that would be difficult to prove."
"Your scar," he responded. "Our world never saw anything like it before the Longbottoms were attacked. I've asked Mr. Longbottom about any issues he has had with his in the past. The information I gathered, along with that gleaned from your own memories, leads me to believe you may both share this connection with Voldemort. As long as a part of his soul survives somewhere, he cannot be killed and you may be affected in some way when something happens with the remaining pieces of his soul."
"This is completely mental," Harry said.
"Would it be possible to remove or block their connection, whatever it is?" Hermione asked. "After what happened in class, I don't want to see Harry collapse like that again. It would be worse if Professor Lestrange was attempting to put You-Know-Who into a body again, wouldn't it?"
"Yes," Dumbledore said. "I cannot say exactly what will happen, but if your collapse last week is any indication, it could cause you a great deal of pain or something else entirely. This is all merely a theory, of course."
"Of course," Harry responded. "And you think there are three more Horcruxes?"
"So, what am I supposed to do?"
"Nothing, as of yet," the Minister said. "Continue living your normal life at school. Your mother suggests waiting until we find out where Bellatrix Lestrange is and if she is indeed going to continue the plan."
"You've told my mother about this?"
"I informed her yesterday. She is convinced that as long as you remain in school, the protections there will be enough to keep you safe until we can determine if my theory has merit. We'll have to run a series of tests—"
"Why can't you run them now?" Harry asked. "How can you tell me something like this and not know for sure if it's true?"
"I am telling you because it is one of several concerns I have after the events Saturday afternoon. Another relates to your actions towards your stepfather."
Harry sighed. "I thought we'd been over this."
The Minister's eyes narrowed on his face. "I am well aware of your feelings on the matter, Mr. Potter. Unfortunately for you, there is more at stake here than my opinion of your form of revenge. The life you took—"
"The life he didn't deserve," Harry interrupted.
"The life you took," Dumbledore continued, "may have resulted in unfortunate personal consequences."
"I don't care," Harry said, cutting off what Dumbledore was going to say. "I did what I had to do. You were there. You know that. I saved you. You and Sirius and Tonks."
The Minister nodded. "Yes. With an action you had been planning several days in advance," he said.
Harry looked at Hermione. Without a word passing between them, he could hear her rebuking him repeatedly over the latter half of the previous week, begging him not to use the potion he'd brewed, pleading that he be patient and wait for the Ministry to take action.
"You don't know what I had been planning," he said, turning back. "Does it matter as long as everyone is safe now?"
The Minister frowned at Harry's brusque tone, but said nothing for a few long moments. "That remains to be seen," he said finally, his expression unreadable. "I'm going to need your memory of everything that happened from the time Miss Granger left you in the dungeons until Professor Snape died."
Harry glanced at Hermione briefly, then in the direction of the curtain and room door, beyond which Sirius and his mother waited.
'This is just for my evaluation, Harry," Dumbledore said. "I will not show it to your mother."
As Harry nodded, Hermione stood, drawing Harry's attention to her. "What happened that you can't let your mother see?"
Avoiding her eyes, Harry said, "Just like we've discussed. I saved their lives. But it's not something my mother needs to see," he added.
Hermione stared at him, frowning when he continued to avoid meeting her gaze with his. Wordlessly, she turned on her heel and walked outside, leaving Harry to extract the memory for Dumbledore.
Scarcely a minute after Dumbledore left Harry alone in his hospital room, his mother appeared at the edge of the blue curtain. She was smiling—a real one this time—and moved forward when her son waved her over.
Lily sat on the bed next to Harry and looked into his eyes for a long moment, her own worried and more than a little sad as she gazed at her son. Placing one hand over his on the bed, she said, "I'm sorry. I can't believe what I said to you." As Harry began to interrupt, she shook her head. "No, Harry. Let me speak. I know you're going through a lot right now and I never should've told you what I was thinking. To be honest, I didn't realize you'd be awake. I wasn't at all prepared. I had barely gotten myself together before I came in, let alone thought about how this is affecting you. I just didn't know how to…I still don't know how to approach you. You can't begin to understand how difficult all of this is for me."
She shrugged and Harry noticed the sudden glisten in her eyes. "If you can believe it, Hermione yelled at me in the hall a few minutes ago." She put a hand on his shoulder. "I don't blame her. I wasn't thinking. If I'd known you would believe I don't love you—"
"So, you didn't mean what you said?" Harry asked. He'd restrained from interrupting as long as he could, but as his mother stumbled over and around her explanation, he couldn't help asking her to finally quell the doubts that had plagued him since they'd spoken earlier. Unfortunately, the way her eyes dropped from his did nothing to reassure him.
"I don't want you to take this the wrong way," Lily said gently. "I do love you. But I have to get to know you as you are now, not as…" She glanced at the curtain. "I need time to adjust. This is all still new for me. I have to learn to love all new things about you and let go of the past," she said, lowering her eyes.
It wasn't just his own past in this life that she had to let go of, but Harry couldn't bring himself to say as much. He wanted too badly to feel some acceptance from the woman before him, he didn't dare to so much as raise his voice again.
"To tell the truth," she began, "I feel like I've lost almost everything in the past few days." Lily turned to Harry. "Your father was once the most important person in my life and the way the died was so…inhumane," she whispered. "I don't know if you know the details, but—"
"You don't have to talk about it," Harry said.
"No," Lily said. "I need to tell you this. It's hard for me to believe someone I loved could be so deliberately cruel and I couldn't see what kind of person he was." Tears spilled out of the bright green eyes and Lily paused, gulping in air. "For so long, I made myself believe if I just put everything I had into my marriage, you would eventually see what a good person he was, how much he really loved all of us, and we could be a family." She swallowed hard.
"What I said earlier wasn't a slight against you, in spite of how it may have sounded. You've only been here a short time and none of what happened—none of the choices he made—are your fault. I'm just angry and disappointed with myself because I let Severus get to me. Whatever your behavior the past few years, or even the past two weeks, I should've known better than to listen to someone who told me I couldn't trust my own son. I'll never forgive myself for doubting you."
Harry nodded. "Have you said that?" he asked, nodding his head in the direction of the curtain. "Have you talked?"
Lily smiled. "Remarkably understanding, in spite of the confusion of the situation."
"Does he know? I mean, do I? That there are two of us?"
"No," Lily said. "Hermione thought it would be best not to tell…not to get into exactly how everything happened Saturday and I agree with her. Besides, you are still healing. The stress of hearing the details of the past couple of weeks might be too much. This is complex enough for those of us that are equipped to handle it."
"What's going to happen to me?" Harry asked. "I know we can't really live here at the same time."
"Minister Dumbledore has told me he will take care of it when the time is right," Lily responded. "He's going to give me a chance to say goodbye and then store all of your memories and…take care of it." She pointed at him. "You can stay exactly as you are."
"Take care of it how?" Harry asked. Suddenly, it occurred to him that his other self was going to be executed in some fashion.
"I didn't ask," Lily said. "At this point, as long as you're healthy, little else matters to me." Her hand went to his shoulder and squeezed. "I know everything you did in the past was for me and I want you to know it was not in vain. Sirius told me what he said to you earlier. I wish he hadn't done that." She looked away from him briefly. "I don't blame you for anything."
"I never thought you did, but you shouldn't blame yourself either."
"I should have seen something," Lily said, wiping at her wet cheeks. "I knew Severus better than anyone and I didn't have the first clue what he was. It was my job to protect you and I didn't do that."
Harry put his arms around his mother. "Don't blame yourself," he whispered. "I'm sorry about the way I spoke to you earlier. I'm sorry if what I said Saturday made you think it was your fault. If he was able to fool you, it's because he had no conscience about what he was doing, not because of anything you did wrong." Harry took a deep breath and squeezed his mother as he said, "Your capacity to love is not a weakness. It may even be your greatest strength."
Lily smiled as she pulled back from the hug. "That sounds like something the Minister would say."
Harry shrugged. "It's true. If you didn't have this ability to love so deeply, you wouldn't have been able to save me."
Lily traced the lightning-bolt scar on her son's forehead with trembling fingers. "Not that much is different, Harry. If I had to, I would still give my life to save you or your sister."
"How is Raven?" he asked. "I don't imagine you've brought her to the hospital to see me, in either bed."
His mother shook her head. "I don't know what to do." Lily wiped at one eye quickly. "I haven't told her anything except that there was an accident at the school Saturday and we had to leave. It was so hard to get her to calm down after she saw the condition you were in at Hogwarts. She knows you're fine now, but I don't know how to tell her about her father." She looked down. "I can't tell her what he did. She's too young to understand most of it and she wouldn't believe he was capable of it if she knew the truth."
Lily grabbed Harry's hand. "You have to promise me something. No matter what happens, you cannot talk badly about him in front of Raven. Ever. He was her hero. She can never know what he did to you or James."
"Or what he'd been planning," Harry added.
"A Death Eater," she said, shaking her head. "The details of their plans have been kept out of the Prophet as well as most of what happened Saturday. Except for the people who were there, all anyone knows is that a Ministry investigation lead to an arrest, several people were hurt, and one died. Your sister can never know the details. No one can."
"Do you?" Harry asked.
Lily tilted her head to the side as she regarded her son. "No," she responded in an emotionless tone. "I have not asked for the specifics. I know you…were involved somehow," she said, closing her eyes briefly. "I'd rather you not tell me what you did, Harry."
He nodded. If her expression was anything to go by, he knew telling her anything of Snape's death would harm the already fragile nature of their beginning relationship. He had no problem keeping the details from her.
"I am curious about what happened to the Auror Tonks, the one you said was impersonating you," Lily said. "Sirius won't tell me the details of her injuries, just that they were numerous and complex. The Minister offered to show me her memory of that afternoon and I'm considering it."
"You shouldn't," Harry responded immediately. "He was torturing her," he whispered. "You don't need to see that."
Lily frowned. "If it'll get a certain image of him out of my head, I may have to. He may have been a loving father to Raven, but I never saw the other Severus Snape. There will be a service for the professor, husband and father at the school tomorrow, but I want to say goodbye to the other one today. Do you understand that?"
Harry nodded. "I want to do it with you, then. I can't let you do that alone."
His mother smiled. "I'll see what I can do about getting a Healer in here to release you." She stood from the bed and began to move away, stopping when Harry grabbed her hand.
"Are we okay?" he asked. "You and I?"
"I can't promise you everything is going to be perfect between us from now on," Lily said. "We both have a lot to deal with. But I am going to try, Harry. I just need you to be patient."
Harry nodded, watching silently as his mother left the room. Patience he could try for, it was time that was lacking. Time he knew he couldn't get back.
Author's note: The sequel, Marked, is up now.
Also, check out the link in my profile for How to Read a Harry Potter Fanfiction where you can discuss and critique this and other stories. Thank you to all of you for reading, and a very special thanks to my reviewers. You kept me going when I had serious doubts about how, or even if, this story would get finished.