The Hundred Acre Wood
Disclaimer & Warnings: See chapter 1
Timeline: Thursday, September 5th, 1991, late evening
Chapter 74 – Betwixt and Between
As far back as Boy could remember, the mere thought of Dumbledore terrified him right down to his toenails. Consequently, having Dumbledore's hands actually touching him for such a prolonged period, was so traumatic that he began to shut down entirely. No amount of resolve, to face his punishment with courage, could stop it.
The walls of the kitchen melted around him as his eyes glazed over and he was transported in his mind back to the playroom. Only this time, Dumbledore was in the playroom too, urging Master to make sure that this time he learned his lesson once and for all.
He closed his eyes, but it didn't matter. Open or closed, all he could see was Master - the leering look on his face as he shackled his hands and feet, the overpowering smell of his sweat mixed with aftershave, the oppressive weight of him on top of him, and then the intense pain of him… in… him.
'Pathetic,' Master sneered, with a shake of his head. 'Simply, pathetic.'
'I must agree. He is pathetic. How disappointing. What a waste of space he's turned out to be,' Dumbledore concurred, stroking his long beard.
Boy let out a pitiful mewling sound. Everything started to spin out of control and his world went completely dark as he fell deeper and deeper into the Dark Abyss.
Alarmed when Boy's eyes rolled towards the back of his head, and he crumpled unconscious before him, Dumbledore swept him up in his arms, and carried him as fast as he could to the Hospital wing.
"Madam Pomfrey! Madam Pomfrey! I need your assistance! Pease!" he called out as he burst through the doors. Answering his call, Poppy hurried out of her attached sleeping quarters, shoving her arms into a quilted dressing gown as she ran to help.
"What is it Headmaster? Is someone hurt? Oh my! Put him down over there. Gently! Gently!"
Lowering the boy on a bed, Dumbledore nodded sadly, and then said with a catch in his voice, "Yes, he's hurt. A great deal I'm afraid. Even more than I feared he'd be."
Apprehensive, Poppy hurried to his side to see who the patient was.
"Isn't that the little leftover boy from the sorting? The one who disappeared in the middle of the Great Hall?" she asked as she began to bustle about, efficiently gathering medical supplies.
"Yes, it is."
"I'm not really sure how he disappeared from the Great Hall. I haven't been able to talk with him about it yet."
"I meant - what happened to him tonight, to render him unconscious?"
"Oh! Tonight! Well… we were just chatting. Rather, I was chatting to him, in the kitchens, we went down for a snack you see, and he just… collapsed."
"Where did you find him?" Poppy asked, returning with a blanket and a tray full of vials of potions and salves.
"As I just said, we were in the kitchens when it happened…" Dumbledore said distractedly.
"No, I meant – did you find him hiding in the castle somewhere? Possibly where he was exposed to moulds, fungus, or something else he might be having a reaction to?"
"That's right, you wouldn't know," Dumbledore replied. "I didn't see you at dinner tonight."
"I was attending to a minor emergency. Young Mr Finnigan burned off his eyebrows," she replied as she pulled a privacy shield around the bed, effectively obscuring the headmaster's view while she worked.
"Well, he arrived back in the Great Hall as spectacularly as he left."
"Reappeared out of thin air, did he?" she asked as she expertly stripped off the child's clothes, popped him into a hospital gown, covered him with the blanket, then added a warming spell. If she was shocked at all by the multitude of scars and healing bruises on his body, she didn't remark on it.
"Almost. The centaurs returned him to the Great Hall. Right after pudding was served," Dumbledore replied from the other side of the screen.
"Hm… the centaurs. Well now, that's interesting," Poppy said offhandedly, as she concentrated on casting a diagnostic spell on her small patient.
"Evidently he's been in their care since he left. How is he?"
"My preliminary report is that he appears to be unconscious," she replied dryly, stating the obvious as she took his pulse.
"I know that," Albus remarked.
"Then why did you ask? Moreover, why are you still here? I need room to work – go. I'll take care of him and let you know if, and when, I have something to tell you," she declared, pushing him out the door of the infirmary and locking it behind him. After dropping the heavy old-fashioned key into the pocket of her robe, she started to return to her patient, then as an afterthought, turned back to cast an Imperturbable charm on the door before returning to Boy's bedside.
"It's safe now Little One, we're alone. You may open your eyes…" she started telling him as she rounded the screen.
"… now. Oh dear. Not again."
The bed was empty, and his clothes gone. The headmaster wouldn't be pleased if she lost the boy already.
Poppy's eyes swept the room. Thankfully, it was early in the school year and she'd no other patients at the present time. She knew he couldn't have escaped in any normal manner. The Hospital wing being placed where it was to prevent that exact manoeuvre by reluctant patients. They were on the fourth floor of the Hospital tower and the only way out would've been through the double doors that she had just sealed behind Dumbledore. In addition, the room had a decided lack of places to hide, the only privacy provided courtesy of the portable screens. Unless he pulled another one of his disappearing acts, he had to be in here somewhere she decided.
When Boy first became aware of a man and woman discussing him, he cracked one eye open a tiny little slit to see if he could figure out how much trouble he was in. The room in which he found himself this time was very large and very quiet, and no one else was there other than himself and the two people he could hear talking.
He knew from the sound of the man's voice, one was Dumbledore. The other was a woman with a kind voice, dressed in long robes of deep burgundy red, with black satin collar and cuffs. If it weren't that she was far too large to be a ladybug, she almost reminded him of Poppy, one of Rabbit's friends and relations who lived in the Merry Meadow. She was red with black spots too, and also had a kind voice.
Miss Tonks was going to take him to see her friend at Hogwarts, to help him feel better. Her name was also Poppy. Only her Poppy-person was at Hogwarts with his woodland friends, and this was Smeltings where Cousin was. Besides, Dumbledore called this woman 'Madam Pomfrey'. The title 'Madam' sounded very close to 'Ma'am' to him. Ma'am's voice could also sound kind, but it was only true when she was talking to Cousin. Whenever she talked to him in that voice, it was a trick.
Kind voices could be very deceptive. He'd learned not to trust them.
The moment that Madam Pomfrey moved away from the bed, to evict Dumbledore from the room, Boy's eyes flew wide open. Jumping off the bed, he landed silently on his feet. Grabbing his clothes off the end of the bed, he looked around wildly for somewhere to hide before she came back. Although he wasn't allowed to hide from his master and by extension the Head of all Masters, he knew he absolutely had to hide from everyone else. Being left by the herd in the middle of the Great Hall, undeniably exposed, reminded him painfully of that rule.
The room had very little to offer in the way of hiding spots. There were beds lining the two long side walls, each with a portable screen and a small bedside table with a drawer and a cabinet underneath. Boy knew he was small, but he wasn't small enough to fit inside one of those. He tried the nearest window, but they didn't seem to open. He supposed Dumbledore had them nailed shut just as he'd instructed his old master to make him do to the windows at Privet Drive.
He peeked around the screen. Near the front of the room, and next to the double doors Madam Pomfrey was pushing Dumbledore through, a door stood ajar. It looked to be a door to a loo. Even if it had a window that opened, there was no escape in that direction. Not with Dumbledore right there. Looking in the other direction, he spied another door at the far end. Quick as a flash he was through it.
This room was smaller than the one he'd just left, furnished with a desk and chair in the centre, two more beds for patients, one on either side of the door he'd just entered, and bookcase behind the desk flanked by two tall closets. There was also a cosy nook behind a curtain with a third, much larger four-poster canopy bed covered with a colourful quilt. This nook also boasted a large wardrobe, and next to a small fireplace with a bank of glowing embers, sat a rocking chair with a small table and reading lamp. Off from this nook was one more door, which led to a small private bathroom with a claw foot tub. There was one small window in this room, but it was far too high up for him to reach.
Dead ends everywhere he looked.
Even though the thought of being closed inside one of the closets by the desk immediately stirred up feelings of claustrophobia, it was better than the alternative – not breathing at all if the collar decided to punish him for being seen. He tried first one door, then the other. However, they were both locked.
Next, he tried the wardrobe in the nook, it opened, but he'd have to touch the clothes hanging in it to hide there. He wasn't allowed to touch any of Ma'am things unless he was laundering them, so he surmised things owned by a Madam were probably also off limits. Even if they weren't, he didn't want to chance it.
Desperate, as he heard Madam Pomfrey coming closer looking for him, he tried the only place left. Bending backwards, he craned his neck and looked up the fireplace flue. Far above him, Boy could see a small patch of night sky dotted with a twinkling star, which seemed to be beckoning to him. Firenze had told him to let the stars guide him. Maybe this is what he meant!
He only experienced a split second of doubt when he remembered Master prohibiting him from ever escaping via the chimney again. Nevertheless, by employing Miss Tonks reasoning about precise wording – he remembered vividly that Master had pointed at the fireplace in the Living Room of Privet Drive, and specifically declared it off limits, rather than making a general rule that applied to all fireplaces. Then after wrapped this reasoning up in a big ribbon with Piglet's 'it depends' written all over it, Boy decided that this one was fair game.
Spying what looked to be a thick brick edge jutting out just about a half meter above his head on either side, he gathered his clothes and shoes in his sweatshirt, then gripping the corners of the bundle with his teeth he grabbed hold of the bricks and pushed off with his feet. His bare toes narrowly missed the red-hot embers as he disappeared up the shaft, just as Poppy pulled back the curtain in search of her patient.
Entering her nook, Poppy's sharp eyes noticed the wardrobe door was open a crack. She was certain it had been tightly closed earlier. Ah ha! So that was where he must be was hiding. Sitting down in the rocking chair and started talking in a low soothing voice to the wardrobe.
"You needn't be afraid Little One. No one's going to hurt you."
When he didn't come out of the wardrobe, Poppy realized platitudes weren't going to gain his trust. She only hoped she wasn't talking to herself.
"My friends call my Poppy, and I'd like to be your friend too. In fact, you may not know this, but we've a friend in common – Miss Nymphadora Tonks. Tonks was a patient here as well. Right in the very bed that you were in. Wouldn't you like to get back into it with a nice warm blanket and soft pillow? Hm…? Anyway, I discharged her less than a week ago. While she was here, she told me all about you."
In his hiding place, Boy's cheeks flushed bright crimson, and not just from the heat of the coals below. He was so ashamed. Miss Tonks knew most of his secrets, and now… she told.
Now, not only did her Poppy-person know his secrets too, she saw the marks of his shame as well – all the horrible names Master had bestowed upon him with the silver knife. Kind voice or not, this wasn't something he was prepared to face, especially not dressed in the flimsy pillowcase she'd put him into.
It reminded him of the tea towels the creatures in the kitchen were wearing, only theirs weren't ripped open clear down the back. He supposed it was proper slave attire for someone slightly larger than them, but to him it wasn't much better than being naked. At least when he undressed himself, he could steel himself as each piece of clothing came off for what was coming, giving him a tiny modicum of control. Rags or not, they were the only armour he had.
It was becoming hard to breathe – despite the fact the fire had burned down to coals, the air in the shaft was still filled with smoke and fumes, and it seemed as if there was very little oxygen. It made his head swim. He needed to keep moving up. With his hands, he felt the walls for a better toehold.
Unlike the chimney flue he'd tried to climb in The Family's house, which was very square and very smooth on the inside, so he had to use opposing pressure between his feet and his back to creep up, this one had bricks with uneven edges sticking out in random spots that he could use to propel himself upward. Finding one, he pulled himself up a little farther, but the air wasn't any clearer.
The last time he'd tried to climb a flue there hadn't been a fire in the grate below. Now his eyes were both burning and watering. He had to get out of there before he was overcome by the smoke, and the only way he could go was up – towards the beckoning stars.
If it weren't that he was trying to not drop his bundle of clothes, and that the bricks were hot, the air thin and smoky, and his eyes watering so hard it was difficult to see, he would've found it much easier going than his previous attempt. Trying not to breathe in the fumes, he felt his way, slowly climbing higher and higher up the narrowing shaft. The farther he went, the quieter Poppy's voice became as she prattled on down below.
"… Of course, you won't remember this as you were a mere babe at the time, but your mum brought you to see me for your well baby check-ups. See? We go way back. That makes me a friend, not a neighbour. I heard all about your problem with neighbours. I'm a friend, just as Tonks is, so it's all right if I see you. Now, why don't you come out…?"
Boy's hand finally popped out the top of the chimney flue. It was a tight fit, but he managed to wiggle around until he managed to push his bundle of clothes out over his head. Once that was done, there was a lot more room. He wiggled a bit more and got his other arm out, then his head and shoulders. He could still faintly hear Poppy, and from what she'd been saying, he was sure she was the same Poppy-person about whom Miss Tonks had talked. Perhaps, as Dumbledore did, she worked at both Smeltings and Hogwarts. Nevertheless, he'd no faith in her friendly chatter after being sorely betrayed by his formerly most wonderful Miss Tonks.
Lowering himself onto the upward sloping side of the steep roof, he gave into the urge to fall to his knees and hack up the smoky fumes filling his lungs, nose, and throat. Exhausted but finally able to breathe, Boy sat with his bare back leaning against the chimney, coughing sporadically and letting the clean bracing air wash over him.
Above him in the dark velvety sky, billions of stars were doing their twinkling best to encourage him to hold on and take heart. Down below, Poppy was still trying to talk him into showing himself and telling him everything would be all right.
Stuck in between, Boy wasn't buying any of it.
A few towers away, neither was Severus Snape.
After Madam Pomfrey kicked him out of the Hospital wing, Dumbledore headed back to his office to meet with his Head of Houses. Although he was quite concerned about Harry's physical and mental state, he was so overjoyed to finally know he was alive, safe, and in capable hands, that he almost did a little dance as he entered his office. As it was, he managed to keep his outward display of excitement down to one small skip and an over-abundance of eye twinkling.
Neither of which escaped the notice of his Deputy Headmistress.
"Well, you're in a better mood. I take it all's well in 'The House of Dumbledore' then?" she asked.
"You might say it's definitely looking up," he almost chortled as he breezed into the room and took his seat behind his massive desk. "However, I'll need help from all of you to keep it that way. I'm the first to admit that the House of Dumbledore can't stand alone."
Three of his Head of Houses nodded their heads, indicating they'd certainly do whatever he needed, to help him with the child for which the Sorting hat made him responsible. The fourth Head of House remained stone-faced and snorted derisively under his breath in response to the plea.
'I knew it,' Severus Snape thought and remained quiet while the other three started firing questions at the headmaster.
"You've been with the boy for over an hour, what did you find out about his background?" Minerva asked.
"Yes, where's he from? Who is his people?" Pomona wanted to know.
"What kind of magic does he possess? It's most unusual," Filius asked, swinging his legs and leaning forward in his seat with undisguised interest.
"All good questions, but they'll have to wait for now," Albus replied holding up his hands for quiet. That didn't go over well. They were as curious as their students were, about the mysterious child. Furthermore, as the Heads of the Houses, they felt they deserved answers even if no one else did.
"But Headmaster! Surely, we should know more about him!" they protested in unison.
Albus Dumbledore gave it due consideration, then replied firmly, "I'm sorry, but at this time I don't feel at liberty to disclose what little I've learnt so far."
"For Merlin's sake, why not?" Minerva asked piqued, voicing the same question that was on everyone else's mind. They were all more than a bit perturbed at the lack of information from Dumbledore after his vow to be more forthcoming. Even Severus was verging on being miffed, not that he really cared one way or the other about the child himself, it was the principle of the thing.
"I'm afraid it's a lack of trust."
"After all these years, you still don't trust us?" she asked, more than a little hurt.
"Not at all! I trust you, all of you, implicitly," he assured them.
"Because trust has to be earned, and it is I who hasn't earned his. Until I do, and have his permission to share his secrets, his secrets they'll remain."
"Can you at least tell us where the boy is now?" Pomona Sprout asked sensibly.
"I left him with Madam Pomfrey. She's looking after him for now. In the meantime, I need to make plans for his care and wellbeing. First, I'm going to enlarge my personal quarters to add a room he can call his own, for sleeping and studying. Perhaps even having friends visit," he listed enthusiastically. "Of course, any decorating will have to wait until Madam Pomfrey is satisfied he's well enough to help. I thought he'd like to pick out his own colours."
"I also want to be hands-on for his education as much as I can. I believe one-on-one tutoring will be just the ticket. However, that will occupy most of my time, and I realize can't totally neglect the rest of the student body. Even though I gratefully admit that you four do the lion's share of the work around here, my input is occasionally called upon."
"We're pleased to help, Headmaster. In fact, before you came in, we were discussing what we could offer you in the way of assistance with Mr Mohr," Minerva informed him, pleased with the recognition.
"Arguing is more like it," Severus remarked, finally speaking up. Minerva chose to ignore him and continued.
"Since you weren't able to locate Mr Mohr's people in Lower Popplecombe, we're assuming he'll be with us for an indefinite period. At the very least, until you can find out from him how to contact his family. You are going to do that, aren't you?" she asked, wise enough not to assume he'd do the obvious next step.
"I do have a better idea on where they might be now," Dumbledore admitted, skilfully avoiding answering the question other than to add, "However, to look into it, would mean leaving the castle. An action which is in direct conflict with my sincere intention to fulfil my commitment to my new charge. I don't want to leave him alone until I know that he's comfortable enough here, to stay here."
"Then it'd be best to have a plan already in place, in case you're unavoidably called away," Minerva suggested, knowing how often he'd been required to leave Hogwarts during the past years by his commitments to the Hogwarts Board of Governors, the ministry, and the Wizangamet, just to name a few.
"You're right as usual, Minerva. It's always best to be prepared with a backup plan. Madam Pomphrey would be an obvious choice to care for him as he's already in her capable hands. However, she must remain available for medical emergencies, and the boy will need individual attention around the clock."
"Of course, he will," Severus drawled quietly under his breath.
However, Minerva heard him and openly glared at him this time. Before the headmaster returned to his office, she'd endeavoured to gain everyone's promise of support and cooperation for whatever plans Dumbledore may make for his new charge, to keep the school running as smoothly as possible with a fifth house added to it. Severus was the lone holdout, saying he'd already done enough for several school years to come.
"If you have to leave, why don't you simply take him with you?" Severus suggested unhelpfully. "He seems to enjoy taking part in spontaneous travel plans. That way, if you do locate his people, you could just drop him off and be done with it."
"That would not be the wisest of ideas," Dumbledore replied slowly, his disappointment at the Potions Master's attitude, evident in his voice. Unfortunately, Severus was too tired to care, and didn't take the hint.
"Headmaster, isn't there anything you can tell us about the boy? We'd be able to help you more if we knew something. Anything at all…" she pleaded and was thankful when he nodded.
"Very well… I suppose I can tell you, that despite his unique fashion sense, which might lead you to believe he's outgoing and sociable, he's actually very shy and doesn't talk voluntarily. In fact, I'd suggest you instruct your houses to not overwhelm him by plaguing him with questions or coming up to him uninvited. However, at the same time, I'd like him to meet a few of the students. It could help him feel more secure and less likely to disappear again, if he makes a friend or two."
The Head of Houses, save one, exchanged looks of agreement and nodded to Minerva to voice the proposal they'd come up with.
"We were anticipating you might say something like that, and we thought it might be a good idea if we all took turns. That way, Mr Mohr could get to know all the houses. He could follow along with the first-years to their classes and they'd be responsible to show him around for the day. He'd eat with them, and stay with them in the dormitory that night, then move to a different house the next day at breakfast."
"Ravenclaw would see after him on Saturday and Tuesday," Filius Flitwick volunteered clapping his hands.
"Hufflepuff on Sunday and Wednesday," Pomona Sprout spoke up.
"Then Gryffindor on Monday and Thursday…" Minerva added and looked to Severus to claim the only day of the week left for Slytherin.
However, true to form, he didn't.
"I said it before, and I'll say it again - Gryffindor should just take him, period. It'd be a less upheaval for the boy if he just had to trail around after one dim-witted group of first-years, and not be shunted back and forth like an unwanted guest among four sets of dunderheads. In addition, Gryffindor has an extra bed in the first-year boys' dormitory, whereas none of the other houses have room," Severus stated his case emphatically.
"But I thought we'd all agreed!" Minerva sputtered. "And we're all taking two days. Slytherin just has to deal with him for one. Surely, that's not too onerous, even for you!"
"I didn't agree. If you'd please remember, I said, that in my opinion, it's far too complicated a schedule for a first-year to follow, let alone someone even younger. In addition, I already have to contend with Mr Dursley. It isn't fair to foist another 'special case' on Slytherin to 'deal with' even for a day," he said, with a hint of anger in his voice.
When he'd voiced his concerns about Dudley's safety in Slytherin, the headmaster had just smiled and said that he had to abide by the Sorting hat's decision. Turnabout being fair play, he'd be damned if Dumbledore was going to get away with ignoring the same advice when it suited him. The centaurs didn't want to be babysitters. Well, he also refused to be pushed into it. If Minerva and the others wanted to, let them.
"Severus has a valid point, it could be a bit confusing to the boy," Dumbledore admitted, much to the Potions Master's relief.
"Then, we're all agreed. He'll be Gryffindor's responsibility whenever the headmaster is out of the castle," Severus said, standing abruptly, to end the discussion while he was winning. "On that note, I must get back to the dungeons."
"I wanted to talk with you further, Severus," the headmaster said, frowning at his protégé's rudeness.
"It'll have to wait. I need to make sure Mr Dursley's still in one piece."
"Is there some doubt?"
"Indeed, there is. Whoever thought leaving a muggleborn in Slytherin was 'for the best', didn't know what he was talking about," Severus replied pointedly before striding purposefully out of the room with his robes billowing around him.
"The man certainly knows how to make an exit," Filius Flitwick said admiringly, watching him leave.
"A showy departure doesn't make him right," Minerva crossed her arms, peeved. From her body language, Dumbledore read the unspoken argument on the lips of his Deputy Headmistress and knew it would never be the end of it if he didn't hear her out.
"Tell me more about your plan," he invited.
After listening for almost an hour, he finally had to side with the remaining three, that their plan would give the boy a more rounded exposure to Hogwarts, and shouldn't be as confusing to him as Severus claimed, as each house would be responsible on their days for guiding him to where he should be. Most importantly, they'd make sure someone was always with him, and that he got at least three meals a day.
After the boy had a chance to get to know each house, they'd let him select the house which he felt fitted him the best. Since he'd been the topic of conversation throughout the castle, after disappearing at the sorting, this plan would eliminate potential petty house jealousies over claims of preferential treatment by the headmaster choosing one house over the others to combine with the House of Dumbledore. In essence, all the students would need to be on their best friendly behaviour.
"If I should have to leave, I believe your plan is the best option. However, if Mr Mohr doesn't seem comfortable with it, we'll go with Severus's suggestion," Dumbledore decided after hammering out a few final details in the schedule of the backup plan, such as the mechanics of transferring custody each day to ensure Mr Mohr was never left alone.
"Thank you for listening Albus. We really think this will work."
After receiving nods of support from Minerva, Pomona, and Filius, the discussion turned to what to tell the rest of the staff and the students about the House of Dumbledore. Once that was agreed upon, and certain that wild theories were no doubt already flying through the walls of the castle, Pomona and Filius left to instruct their houses to not frighten Dumbledore's new ward should they see him, leaving Minerva and Albus alone in the office. As Minerva also stood up to leave, Albus hastened to stop her.
"Minerva, would you stay for a moment longer?"
"Of course, Headmaster," Minerva agreed and retook her seat across the desk from him. To her surprise, he rose from his customary spot and joined her by sitting in the second of the pair wingback chairs. A small tea service appearing on the desk in front of them.
"Honey?" Albus asked, pouring her a hot cup of the steaming liquid which sent up soothing scents of lemon and chamomile.
"Just a drop," she replied, accepting the drink.
Albus had to practically upend the honey pot to get the drop out.
"Well, that solves one mystery."
"I invited our newest Mr Weasley up for tea this afternoon, to relay a message from his Great-Great-Auntie Muriel. While he was here, I had the strongest feeling we had something in common, and now I know what it was. Apparently, he likes honey."
"He does seem to like sweets as much as you, and neither of you put on a stone eating it. But I'm sure that's not why you wanted to talk with me."
"True, what I have to relay is something of great importance. Something I couldn't tell the others. However, as Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts, I feel you should know, especially if my duties should call for me to leave the castle."
"It sounds serious. What is it? Are the Board of Governors stirred up again about the curriculum?"
"Not this time. It's about Harry Potter."
Minerva's grip on the teacup tightened with worry.
"Nothing, nothing," he said, patting her hand to calm her. "Just the opposite for a change. I know where he is."
"You do?!" she gasped in surprise, rising out of her chair and looking around wildly as if expecting to see Harry curled up on one of the sofas waving cheekily at her. "So where is he?"
"At the moment, in Madam Pomfrey's capable hands."
"But Poppy's taking care of Mr Mohr… you mean… Mr Mohr is… Harry Potter?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I mean," he beamed as he filled his own cup.
Minerva sat back down startled, and then a slow smile started to spread over her face, matching the one on Dumbledore.
"I knew something was up when you came into the office, but I never thought… Are you sure? You couldn't be mistaken, could you?"
"Without a doubt, I am quite certain."
"But… Severus cast a point me spell at the sorting! It didn't indicate the boy was Harry. How…?"
"I can't tell you why Severus's spell didn't work, all I can tell you that Mr Mohr is indeed Harry Potter. Although I'm not sure he knows that himself. Perhaps that's why the spell went awry," Dumbledore started to speculate, then shook his head to bring himself back on topic. "The why and wherefore is of little consequence at this moment. What does matter, is that whatever name he goes by, he's a very damaged and broken child. What Miss Tonks told us, seems to have only scratched the surface of the abuse."
"Will he be able to recover?"
"I truly don't know what the future holds for him. I believe we're not too late to help him recover physically, but mentally and emotionally? I wouldn't even venture a guess at this point. We'll just have to be ready to offer whatever help he needs and will accept from us."
"Of course, of course," Minerva nodded. "Whatever I can do to help Harry, I will. As I'm sure will the other teachers. Everyone will be so excited when they learn he's here after all!"
"For now, it may be best if we keep referring to him as Ezekiel Mohr. Frankly, after talking with his Aunt Muriel, I've no idea where Mr Weasley came up with that. Nevertheless, since he was introduced to the entire student body under that name, it'd be wise to keep using it for the time being. The longer we can keep Harry's true identity hidden and the spotlight off from him, the better it'll be for his recovery. I also need time to keep researching that slave contract to find a way to break it, or if I can't, to find a way to protect him from it doing him further damage. I'm hoping now that I can study the runes on the collar, I'll have better luck finding a solution."
"Then that part's definitely true? I've been hoping it wasn't."
"Sadly, yes. Needless to say, the fewer people who know Ezekiel Mohr's true identity, the safer he'll be from those who might take advantage. Right now, the only ones who know are you, me, and the centaurs I suspect. Of course, the centaurs don't normally spread gossip around town, so we should be safe there."
"Aren't you going to tell Severus? Moreover, what about the rest of the Order? They're still looking for him!"
"We should keep the information on a need to know basis. Of course, you're right about the Order. I'll let them know he's been found and somewhere safe, then ask for their patience while he's recovering from his ordeal."
"I'm sure Remus and Tonks won't be satisfied with that. Neither will Molly and Arthur for that matter. They'll want to see Harry in person," Minerva pointed out.
"I'm sure when they take the time to think about it, they'll understand that doing what's best for Harry, is all that matters."
"And Severus? Are you going to tell him?"
"I was. Which is why I wanted you both to stay after the others left. However, now I'm wondering if I haven't demanded far too much of him lately. The fuse on his temper is becoming rather frayed. Then, considering how much he disliked Harry's father, he might be more receptive to Harry Potter as Ezekiel Mohr. And, as he said, he already has his hands full with Dudley Dursley."
"I think it's a mistake not to tell him, but I'll support your decision. Albeit reluctantly."
"I appreciate it Minerva. And I do promise you I will tell him the truth - sometime when he'll be more receptive to it."
"Wait Albus! I just thought of something… what will you do about Harry's cousin?"
"What about him? I'm sure Severus is just exaggerating his difficulties for effect. He'll settle in soon enough."
"No, I mean, what if he sees Harry? His secret identity won't stay secret very long if he does. Should we keep Harry away from the other children after all?"
"I've given that some thought and I really don't think we've anything to worry about. Mr Dursley's seen him on two occasions already and didn't recognize him either time. He's not exactly the most observant student we ever had here at Hogwarts. In addition, the benefits of Harry making a friend, far outweighs the risk of him being discovered by his cousin."
"I suppose that's true…" Minerva agreed, thinking about Dudley's performance in her Transfiguration class.
"Now, Harry on the other hand, is going to be a great wizard someday. He's undoubtedly extremely smart" Albus said with a sparkle in his eye.
"I thought you said you weren't sure if he'd ever recover?"
"I'm not, and I realize it may take years for him to work through it - if ever he does. Abuse at the level he endured isn't going to just go 'poof' and disappear as if it never happened, and suddenly everything's rainbows and roses. Indeed, the most we might be able to help him obtain is just being a boy who can at least function in some way in society. And that's only if I can find some way to free him of the slave contract."
"Then why were you sounding so optimistic a few minutes ago?"
"Let me ask you this – how many decisions do you think you make on a daily basis?"
"I don't know… maybe six or seven."
"You're only thinking of the major decisions. What about the rest?"
"What do you mean?"
"It may seem inconsequential to us, the simple decision of when to get up in the morning, what to wear, what to eat, and when we leave our room, whether to turn right or turn left. One tiny little decision after another, that shape our day, all made with free will. And we keep making them until we go to bed at night. It's easy to take that all for granted."
"That's true. It would be more like thousands when you put it that way."
"Now think about Harry. He was held a prisoner for the better part of his life, in a small confined space with no exposure to the outside world, yet he managed to escape. Furthermore, not only did he escape, he took care of himself for a month, and during that time he travelled - by himself - over a thousand kilometres. And not to just anywhere, but to a place he couldn't possibly remember, let alone know how to get here. Just think about how many decisions he had to make along the way. Why, I can't even fathom how many it was."
"Why does it matter how many?"
"Oh, it doesn't. Even one is miraculous if you put it in context."
"What do you mean?"
"Just that each and every decision, small and large, that Harry made on the way here, was one that he absolutely should not and could not have been able to make, being held under the slave contract! That he found a way around that very debilitating obstacle to accomplish what he did… makes me wonder if perhaps…"
Dumbledore's voice trailed off as he thought. It was almost as if someone had given Harry advice and guided him along the way. But that was impossible. Wasn't it? He'd been raised in virtual isolation. The only one he knew was his cousin, and Dudley had been at the Weasleys the entire time. Who else could have possibly helped him? Dumbledore frowned as he pondered the possibilities.
"Perhaps what?" Minerva finally prodded.
"Oh, it's probably nothing. The point I'm getting at is that he did do all that. Then to top it off, he also managing to arrive in time for the sorting. He's brilliant if you ask me."
"Not that you're at all partial when it comes to Harry."
"Not in the least! But I daresay arriving on time is a feat even a few of our older students, who grew up with every advantage and expensive watches, have a hard time doing. It gives me hope. Hope, that no matter how much damage Dursley did, that Harry will find a way to cope with what happened to him and come out the stronger for it in the end. After all, hope is one of the most powerful forces in the universe."
"It is," Minerva agreed squeezing his hand.
"Hope and love. That's really all I have to offer him…" Albus said with tears in his eyes, squeezing her hand in return.
"It will be enough," Minerva assured him, answering the unasked question in his eyes.
"How do you know?"
"Because it has to be. The alternative is simply not acceptable," she replied before standing to take her leave. Albus nodded, but said nothing, having a hard time arguing with her logic.
"It's late, and I need at least a few hours of sleep before I have to face teaching in the morning. Although first, I'd better go settle down my house and instruct them to not approach Mr Mohr with questions if they see him with you in the halls. They're probably all still in the common room speculating on what's happening."
"As is every other house, I'd wager," Dumbledore added.
"Which means we're going to have a castle full of cranky children in the morning. I'll have to think of something for them to do in class which won't give them the opportunity to blow each other up!"
Not long after Minerva McGonagall left the headmaster's office, Madam Pomfrey arrived to find him standing at a wide-open window facing the Hospital wing.
"Brrrr… you really should close that window Headmaster! You'll catch your death of cold!"
"Thank you for your concern Madam Pomfrey, however, I've never been better. I've been practicing my warming spells," he said, firing another one off into the night.
"On what, the gargoyle? There's nothing else out there. Ugly beast if you ask me."
"Oh, I wouldn't say ugly. Unusual, yes, but rather… endearing. However, that's not why you're here. Do you have your medical assessment of Mr Mohr's condition?" he asked, closing the window and sitting down with her at his desk.
"When it comes to my patients, I don't play games Headmaster. You should know that. We're talking about Harry Potter."
"How did you know?" he asked, eyeing her speculatively, wondering if she got the child to talk, where he had not.
"Do you remember that amulet you made me for the injured hiker? Well, I gave to Nymphadora Tonks, so she could bring her little Muggle friend to Hogwarts. Then, during her recovery from the head trauma she told me all about how she discovered her 'Little One' wasn't a Muggle after all, but Harry Potter. Among other things, that same amulet is hanging on a cord around that boy's neck this very minute. So, who else could he possibly be?"
"Yes, who else? For now, I trust that you'll keep that information to yourself. Professor McGonagall is the only other one in the castle besides ourselves, who knows his true identity. You may let her know that I told you. However, for Harry's protection, it'd be best to refer to him by his alias."
"All right," she agreed with a few misgivings.
"So, now that we both know who we're really talking about, how is Mr Mohr?"
"That's what I came to tell you, I only have the results of my initial scans and observations. I wasn't able to do the full exam."
"Because you lost him?" Dumbledore asked. He didn't say it in an accusatory way, just very factually, as if it were an inevitable outcome.
"Well… yes," Poppy admitted, startled that he already knew. "I turned my back for just a second and he was gone. I thought he was hiding in my wardrobe for the longest time as it was cracked open, so I tried to talk him into coming out. However, when I finally opened it wider, he wasn't there. I've looked everywhere Headmaster, but he's disappeared again. I simply can't find him," she babbled, wringing her hands in distress.
"That reminds me of a line from an old poem – The possibilities still to be seen, lie south of betwixt and north of between," Dumbledore chuckled.
"What does it mean?"
"Just that sometimes what we seek is right in front of us if we just open our eyes and look. A lesson, I admit, I learned quite recently myself. You weren't the first to lose him, nor the last who will. Harry has an uncanny ability to become lost, and yet still not be lost. Don't fret, Madam Pomfrey. I'm sure he'll turn up somewhere… betwixt or between. Tell me - do you still have the Hospital wing secure?"
"I cast an Imperturbable charm on the door again, after I went through it. Just in case he was still in there somewhere."
"Then I can assure you he'll stay. In the meantime, what can you tell me from your initial observation?"
"Only that he's been badly abused. Even without a thorough exam it's obvious. There's a metal band with a chain welded around his neck and his body is littered with bruises and some very disturbing scars. From the numerous layers in various stages of healing, I'd surmise it's been going on for quite a while. He's also quite undernourished and showing indication of multiple vitamin and mineral deficiencies. And…"
"Well… I'm no Mind Healer, but I do know children. When they play possum, it's for one of two reasons, they're either jolly tricksters or they're scared of something."
"Playing possum? You mean he didn't pass out? He was only pretending?"
"Not at all Headmaster. I believe he did pass out, most likely from a severe panic attack, and was then too frightened to move and open his eyes when he became aware of his surroundings. Furthermore, and I hate to say it, but I feel the attack was brought on by your presence."
"Me? I was the cause? I assure you I was nothing but gentle with the boy," he protested.
"I'm not saying you weren't Headmaster, but the timing of his attacks is too coincidental to have been caused by anything else. First at the sorting when you approached him, and now when you were alone with him. When I was changing him into a gown, I knew he was faking still being unconscious, as his pulse would race each time that he heard your voice. That's why I hurried you out of there, thinking he'd calm down. Well, he did, immediately. Then he disappeared on me. Once we find him again, I truly think it would be in my patient's best interest if you kept your distance for a while. But perhaps put a bell on him first."
"Thank you for your assessment Madam Pomfrey, and your advice," he said, taking off his spectacles and rubbing his eyes as he thought. "Although, that does present a problem as the Sorting hat made him my sole responsibility."
"Oh, that's right – the House of Dumbledore. So how is that going to work?"
"I'm planning on expanding my quarters so he can have a room of his own, yet still be close by. And then I will personally handle his education."
"Forgive me for questioning your intent Headmaster, but is that what's best for the boy, or what's best for you?"
"Well… both… I thought. I have so much to make up for. Why?"
"When I said that he was frightened when you were near him, I misspoke. I should've said that he was terrified - enough to adversely affect his health. I really don't think having him constantly under your thumb is going to gain the results you want. He needs a little distance from you right now, and dare I say the company of someone who's at least a century closer to his own age. Besides, don't you actually have other responsibilities to tend to as well?"
"What are you suggesting?"
"I'm just wondering if there isn't perhaps something pressing you need to do out of the castle. To allow him time to adjust to his new surroundings. And give you time to relax a bit now that he's located. I know for a fact you've been burning the midnight oil in the restricted section of the library, ever since you found out he was missing. It'd do the both of you a world of good."
"Funny you should suggest that. I was just talking with the Heads of House before you came in, about how to care for him should I be called away. They suggested the houses take turns hosting him, so he'd get to know the students, go with them to classes, meals, and such."
"Perfect!" Poppy beamed, relieved he was more receptive to the idea than she feared he'd be. "Just the prescription I'd propose."
"How long would you advise I absent myself from the castle?"
"It's hard to say… perhaps as much as a month or two."
"A month? Are you kidding? I'm the headmaster and the school year has just begun!"
"Well, a few weeks then…"
"A week? As in seven days?"
"That's how many are usually in a week, so I'd say yes."
"At the very least. I could send you daily updates on his condition, and perhaps you could send me a message when you feel it necessary to return. That way, I can assure he's not taken by surprise. That should lessen his stress when he sees you again."
"Very well. If you think it will help."
"Then I'll make arrangements immediately. For now, why don't you go back to bed? It's another long day tomorrow and I've kept you up late enough."
"What about Harry? I mean, what about Mr Mohr? Shouldn't we send someone to look for him?"
"I don't think that's necessary. I'm confident in the morning he'll be back in your care."
"Alright, if you're sure…" Poppy said, mystified by his seemingly laissez-faire attitude.
"I am, Madam Pomfrey. However, perhaps you could do me a small favour?" he asked while fishing in his desk drawer and drawing out a bar of chocolate. "When he does reappear, would you give this to him from me, as a peace offering?"
"Certainly, but do you really think chocolate will make up for all he's been through?"
"No, but I have to start somewhere and I'm out of Lemon Sherbets," he shrugged. "There's one other small thing you could do for me, if you would…"
"Of course, Headmaster! Do you need a sleeping draught?"
"Not at all. However, when you retire to bed, would you put out your fire?"
"Yes, just for tonight. Call it a precaution."
"Certainly," she agreed tilting her head, clearly puzzled as to why. It did seem odd. Or maybe… keeping recent history in mind… it didn't. "Was there anything else?"
"Not that I can think of at the moment. Oh… and about the bell. I'll take your advice under consideration," he said, returning to the same window he'd been staring out when she first came in.
The headmaster was obviously in one of his enigmatic moods, bereft of meaningful explanations, so Poppy took the hint and left his office.
"So, one or two days…" Albus mused, starting to pace.
Now that Harry was safe at Hogwarts, he wanted to make up for his past mistakes and do right by the boy. But how best to do that? If Madam Pomfrey was right, he'd be doing more harm than good by hovering. And he did have obligations and duties which he couldn't put on hold indefinitely.
He'd promised to keep all the Order members up to date on any developments in the search for Harry. However, if he were to be honest, he was reluctant to do so. They were bound to ask many questions he wouldn't be able to answer. Just the few questions he got from his Heads of Houses reminded him of that glaring fact. And then there was Gringotts to take care of, and possibly a trip to the Ministry as well. There were a number of confiscated volumes on dark arts locked up in their basement, which he'd like to research for references on the slave contract.
He had to make plans, and there was no time like the present.
Startled awake by the headmaster's head suddenly popping out of her fire, Minerva sat straight up in bed, clutching her quilt to her chest, her nightcap askew.
"That's a lovely nightcap Minerva. Quite becoming. Is it new?"
"Headmaster! Whatever are you doing? I just got into bed!" she answered, flustered.
"My sincere apology. However, this couldn't wait."
"Why? Have the winged boars at the front gate come to life and are running amok on the Quidditch pitch?"
"No, nothing like that."
"Did Hagrid's flesh-eating slugs tire of nibbling on cabbages and are now plotting to storm the castle?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"Then what you're telling me is that Hogwarts is not in danger of imminent catastrophe. What was it I told you about respecting personal boundaries the last time you floo called me in the middle of the night?"
"Not to do it again?"
"That's right. Then why are you?"
"I find I must leave Hogwarts for a few days after all."
"Couldn't you have waited until morning to tell me?"
"I'm leaving at first light. Something unavoidable has… Er… come up," he hedged, unwilling to admit just yet that he could have been the cause of Harry's panic attack. "I'll return as soon as I can, but I'm afraid we'll have to test out your plan sooner than later."
"I'll get word to the rest of the staff as soon as possible, but who's going to tell Severus?" Minerva sighed, not relishing the task herself. "Slytherin has tomorrow – actually now it's today already. Either way, he'll need to collect him from Poppy before breakfast. We gave his house Friday, as half the day would be in the Potions classroom, and the other half is free time for first-years. Less demanding on our overworked Potions Master that way."
"That was kind of all of you to think of that. Don't worry, I'll talk with him," Dumbledore assured her.
As soon as the green flames died down, Dumbledore reopened the window and gazed across the rooftops to where Harry, once again dressed in his all black clothes, had curled up between the feet of the castle gargoyle and a turret, using the wadded up hospital gown for a pillow. And if he wasn't mistaken, a large snowy owl had also taken up residence on the roof and was now nuzzled securely under the boy's arm. As he watched, it swivelled its feathered head in his direction, opened its yellow eyes and slowly blinked as if to say, 'stay away, he's mine'.
It gave Dumbledore a momentary flash of jealousy.
What was he going to do? If Poppy was right about what was causing Harry's panic attacks, it would be better for him keep his distance, at least for a while. It was disappointing, but he'd already made so many mistakes when it came to Harry, he didn't want to compound it further if he could help it.
Taking out his wand he thoughtfully added a cushioning charm to the ground below the Hospital wing roof. Just in case the sticking charm that he sent out earlier didn't do its job. Pulling up a chair and a cosy quilt for his lap, he settled in for the night to keep watch over Harry from afar.
"Ah, my dear boy… how in the world am I going to get you to trust me if I can't come near you?"