Chapter 15: Owl Post
Prudence's incarceration seemed to but a stopper in everything.
Everything became quiet. Everything.
Two weeks passed, and the only letters he saw were the ones he wrote to Severus and the ones Severus wrote in response. He devoured these, even though he had regular Tuesday meetings with him. He visited Hermione every evening, studying with her when she wasn't too exhausted from her physical therapy, from learning to walk again. Together, and with Ron and Ginny's help, they talked about Draco's advice to ask their professors about Estelle Smith and her sister, and put together a plan of attack. The secret, Hermione thought, was to be honest and direct, to ask the teachers to help him so that he could help get Severus back to Hogwarts where he belonged. He decided he'd start with Professor Sprout after class on Monday, since double Herbology was their last class that day, and Professor Sprout was friendly and easy to approach.
He was beginning to feel like his life was a long waiting game.
But Monday came. They'd had a brutal Quidditch practice on Sunday, and he was still sore and his hands were blistered, so he asked Professor Sprout if he could stay late and harvest some of the sap Madam Pomfrey needed for the blister balm.
Professor Sprout helped out, sitting across from him at the work table and pushing each plant in turn toward him while she held the bowl he was using to collect the sap.
It didn't take much to get her talking. She helped by asking about Severus first, and he didn't lie when he told her that he missed him, and was worried about him, and hoped he'd be back soon.
"This is all so unfortunate," said Professor Sprout, with a sad smile. "Severus has been through so much." She pushed another plant toward Harry and lowered her voice. "We all know that he has a past he's not proud of, but he's paid his dues, hasn't he? We need him back here, Harry. How is he doing? Minerva said you see visit him from time to time?"
Harry smiled over at her. "He's doing great. He's resting. He looks good, too. I think he's finally really recovering from the snakebite."
"Well," said Professor Sprout, rather conspiratorially, "there doesn't seem to be much uproar going on after that article in the Prophet. Perhaps he can return soon." She smiled kindly at Harry.
"Well, actually, there's a lot going on behind the scenes," said Harry. He has just squeezed sap out of a fat pustule on the stem and was prodding around on the plant looking for another. "Did tell you about the letters I've been getting?"
Professor Sprout pursed her lips. "Severus didn't tell us directly," she said. "But Auror Peace interviewed us when they first starte—after the incident in Hogsmeade."
"Well, they know who's writing the letters now," said Harry. "The woman signs the name Hilda Smith, but we know it's really her older sister Estelle." He watched her for a reaction, but she didn't seem to recognize the name. "Do you remember her? She was a year behind Severus at Hogwarts. You were here back then, weren't you?"
"Estelle?" Professor Sprout frowned, then shook her head. "I'm sorry, Harry, there were so many students. Was she in Hufflepuff?"
"No, she was a Ravenclaw," Harry replied as he continued to work on the plant. "Estelle Smith. She was the older sister of the girl who drowned a few years later."
"Hilda Smith." Professor Sprout seemed very certain of that name. "Poor thing." She sighed, looked puzzled for a moment, then brightened. "Stella Smith. Of course. We called her Stella. Bright thing. Very serious, and such a hard worker. But so unhappy…."
Her voice trailed off and Harry stared at her, the plant in front of him forgotten.
"Unhappy?" he said, trying to keep his voice casual. "What do you mean?"
His professor sighed again. "Problems at home, dear," she said. "I don't recall the details, and really shouldn't tell you even if I did, but I do remember that she didn't like to go home over the holidays, and didn't get on too well with her sister. Just didn't fit into that family, if you ask me. They pushed that girl hard, and didn't take it well when she got into trouble…."
"Trouble?" Harry repeated, trying not to sound like he was too interested.
Professor Sprout wrung her hands and sighed again.
"Boy trouble. The family didn't approve of her boyfriend. I don't remember what happened – just that they came here, and there was a confrontation. The Headmaster managed to diffuse it…." She hesitated, then smiled benignly at Harry. "Professor Flitwick was her head of house. I'm sure he'll remember more than I do. Though I'm not sure how any of this will help Severus – it was such a long time ago."
Harry wasn't so sure. Professor Flitwick wasn't the head of Ravenclaw by accident. He was smart, and clever, and not easily fooled. Harry had enough experience in his class to know that he wouldn't be swayed by emotional stories.
So Harry played the honesty card.
He waited until Wednesday, after spending Tuesday evening at Shell Cottage with Severus. The evening had turned into a study session, with Severus reading Harry's Charms and Transfiguration essays, then grilling Harry on the magical theory behind each, then waiting patiently while Harry to rewrote both of them. The essays were ultimately better, but by the end of the exercise, there was time only for a game of chess before Harry had to return to Hogwarts.
On Wednesday afternoon, in the study hours between the last class and dinnertime, Harry peeked into the Charms classroom and found his professor at his desk, perched on the high stool behind it, marking homework. Harry stepped into the room, rapping softly on the open classroom door as he entered.
Professor Flitwick looked up and nodded at him.
"Mr. Potter. You essay showed marked improvement over the last. Did the Headmaster help you?"
Harry frowned. Was Professor Flitwick accusing him of cheating?
"I suppose so," he said carefully, walking forward a few paces. "He read it last night, then grilled me on the theory behind the Disillusionment Charm. We discussed it for a while then he asked me to rewrite the essay."
Professor Flitwick still had his head bent over the essay he was marking. "You are fortunate to have Severus Snape as a mentor, Mr. Potter. He has the mind of a true educator. And while we measure by marks, your success in life will be determined by what you learn—what you retain. And how you apply that knowledge to the problems in life you encounter."
Harry considered his answer. "Well, actually, I have a problem now. And I'm hoping you can help me out."
"Come in and sit down then, Mr. Potter. Give me just a moment or two to finish up here."
Harry slid into a desk at the front of the classroom. He watched as Professor Flitwick wrote something across the top of the essay. He then placed his quill carefully to the side, capped the ink bottle, folded his hands and looked up at Harry.
"Go on then, Mr. Potter."
Harry took a deep breath then started in on his story.
"So we're sure that the woman writing the letters is Estelle Smith, Hilda Smith's older sister. But what we don't know is who's behind this plot, only that the Aurors don't think she's the mastermind of the operation. And I know it's not my job to worry about it, but I can't think about much else. And it does affect me – she's targeting me, and Severus. I just want to understand her motives. Why is she doing this?"
Professor Flitwick stared at Harry a long while before speaking. "I appreciate your honesty, Harry." Harry relaxed a little. The professors's use of Harry's first name was a good sign. "And I also believe I have the answer to your problem. Unfortunately, I cannot share it with you directly."
"Directly?" Harry, leaning forward. "What do you mean?"
"Well, as a faculty member, I am prohibited from openly discussing private information about any student, past or present."
"Oh." Harry knew this, of course, but had hoped that Professor Flitwick, like Professor Sprout, would let something slip out.
"Well, can you tell me anything? Maybe something not so private? What was she like?"
The professor fixed his eyes on Harry and he felt a bit like a bug under a magnifying glass. "You do realize, Harry, that you're asking about a student who left Hogwarts nearly twenty years ago?"
"I know it's been a long time. But this is important to me – she's writing to me. And I told you what the letters say. She's trying to drive a wedge between me and Severus. She's trying to discredit him."
"I realize that, Harry." Flitwick smiled, and Harry saw that he did understand. "And while I cannot reveal anything private to you, I am allowed to speak to those in authority, such as the Aurors. If you believe I can help advance this case, you should ask them to contact me."
"Oh, I will," said Harry. "Definitely. But is there anything...?"
"Estelle Smith was….you know we called her Stella? At her request?"
Harry nodded. "I heard she went by that," he said carefully.
"I can tell you about the sorting," Flitwick said. "It is—or was—common knowledge, after all, and was witnessed by hundreds."
"What happened?" asked Harry. He wondered if Severus remembered. He's only been a second year then, so he may not have noticed anything amiss.
"It went on and on," continued Flitwick. "She sat there with that hat on her head for five minutes at least, face getting more and more red as she argued with it. She seemed quite determined that what the hat wanted was absolutely wrong. I remember that she folded her arms in a snit and just sat there until finally – a full ten minutes later, the hat called out 'Ravenclaw' but before she could take it off her head it corrected itself and screamed out 'Slytherin.' Albus took pity and let the girl choose for herself. She chose Ravenclaw."
Harry didn't think it wise to mention that he had had a similar – yet very brief – discussion with the sorting hat himself.
"Wow," he said instead. "She really didn't want to be in Slytherin, did she?"
"No, she apparently did not," answered Flitwick. "And that was unusual. Her parents were Slytherins, after all. And later on, her sister as well." He paused. "Stella Smith was a sharp girl."
Harry gave him a small grin. "Most Ravenclaws are," he said.
"They are." His professor nodded. "But Miss Smith was brighter than most. That the hat chose Slytherin for her, or wanted to, speaks clearly of her other personality traits, particularly her ambition." He picked up his quill, uncorked his ink bottle, and dipped the quill in it, holding it poised over the next essay. He was clearly finished speaking.
"Well, thank-you," said Harry, standing up. He hesitated a moment. "There's more, isn't there?" he asked.
Professor Flitwick smiled but didn't look up.
"The Aurors, Mr. Potter," he said.
Harry nodded. "Right."
As he expected, Professor Slughorn was perfectly willing to talk, privacy statutes or not. However, Harry was less inclined to trust what he had to say.
"Brilliant in potions, simply brilliant! Would have loved to have her in my club, of course, but she was a shy thing and never accepted my invitations."
Given what Harry already knew about Estelle Smith, this did not surprise him.
He left Professor Slughorn's office on Thursday afternoon with another invitation to a Slug Club meeting and knowing nothing new save that Estelle Smith was brilliant at Potions.
He knew he wouldn't get anywhere with Minerva, so on Friday afternoon, after a quirky day with his magic in Charms, he stretched out on one of the squishy sofas in the Gryffindor common room with Ginny nestled in at his feet, and wrote to Severus.
Minerva told me to write this and give you my version of what happened today in Charms. I know you've probably already heard about it from Minerva or Professor Flitwick, but she thought you'd like my side of it too. I think she just wants to make sure I write to you. You must be really annoying her lately. Are you getting bored with all that rest and relaxation?
You know we've been working on the Disillusionment Charm. I wrote to you about that in my first letter, and of course you helped me with my essay this week. Well, we had our practical exam today. He's had us practicing on turtles, but for this test he asked everyone to come to the front of the class, then asked us if we'd be willing to try it on each other.
After seeing Ron test it on Neville, I realized that Professor Flitwick was giving the class some entertainment since it was Friday afternoon and we'd had a really long, hard week in class. Ron hit Neville with the spell and it worked—kind of. It worked on his head, anyway, and it took on a kind of see-through look but the rest of him was still there. Seamus laughed so hard he choked on his gum. I know – he's not supposed to have gum in class. Professor Flitwick took five points as soon as he started breathing again.
So Parvati was up next, and she used it on Padma. It worked better that time, but it still only made it about halfway down her body. She was leaning against the chalkboard and it looked like the chalkboard had legs. Then he asked me to come up, with Malfoy. Malfoy hit me with the charm first and it was perfect. It felt exactly like it did the last time someone used it on me—like an egg cracking on my head and running slowly all the way down my body. He knew it was a good and had this stuffy, smug look on his face. Professor Flitwick was so excited he jumped off his chair and knocked over all his cushions.
Well, this is the part when things get a little messy. Really, Severus, Malfoy should never have laughed at me and said "Go on, Potter. Hit me with everything you have."
I'd been practicing controlling how much power went into the spell. I wasn't making the turtles disappear anymore. But Malfoy—he's such a prat, Severus. I mean, he can be fine sometimes, and I almost feel like he's just trying to get through the year the same as the rest of us so he can get on with his life. But he stood there with his arms folded in front of himself, looking bored as can be, and I must have used too much power again. All right – I did use too much power. I made him disappear. Just like the turtle. Only it wasn't a turtle. A turtle wouldn't much care if he were invisible.
Malfoy cared. He started to panic. And to scream. Then he whacked me in the nose. I'm not sure he did it on purpose, but Ron says he did. It wasn't like I could see it coming or anything….
Professor Flitwick used a Finite on him while I was trying to stop the bleeding. Only it didn't work. Not quite, anyway. That's what Ron said – apparently, I was still curled up on the floor holding my nose. Ron said Malfoy went from being practically invisible to looking like he'd been hit with a regular Disillusionment Spell. Professor Flitwick tried it again but nothing. By now a couple of the Ravenclaws were trying to keep Malfoy from pummeling me again.
Anyway, Professor Flitwick managed to get the bleeding to stop then gave me my wand and I cast the Finete and then everything was fine. Professor Flitwick did a pretty good job covering for me. He said he'd seen that happen before, and it was certainly nothing to panic about.
Only…he hadn't seen that before. Not really. He kept me after class, bloody nose and everything. And by the way, he didn't dock points off Malfoy. Said it was natural to panic when you were suddenly pretty much invisible. Anyway, he told me that a recognizable spell can be cancelled by anyone who knows how to perform the spell. So, as long as you recognize the spell and could have done it yourself, you should be able to cancel it. He says he has a theory about what's going on with me. He thinks I'm changing the spell somehow when I'm casting it. He looked at me really oddly and asked me a lot of questions about intent. What did I intend the spell to do when I cast it? What does he think? That I wanted to turn Malfoy invisible and make him disappear off the face of the earth?
Ron was waiting for me when I left. He dragged me to the hospital wing and Poppy yelled at me and made sure my nose wasn't broken. I don't think she had to wiggle it and prod it quite so much.
And you know – the weirdest thing was what Malfoy did later. When we got back to our common room after supper, Malfoy apologized for punching me. He also laughed at my swollen nose but he did apologize.
Sometimes this year, Severus, I feel like I'm living in a different world.
I'm supposed to stay after Charms class on Monday. Professor Flitwick wants to do some tests with me. I thought you'd like to know about that.
We've got a Quidditch game tomorrow – we're playing Ravenclaw. They've got a pair of brutal beaters this year and Ron is all worked up over them. We watched them practice last weekend – and Ron went and shut himself up with Hermione afterward for a couple hours. Needless to say, the Ravenclaw Chasers are really good too.
One more thing. Professor Flitwick might know something about Estelle Smith that would help the Aurors on this case. He wouldn't tell me – but he did say he would tell the Aurors if they asked. One thing he did tell me is that the sorting hat wanted to put her in Slytherin, but she argued for Ravenclaw and got her way.
I miss you. But I won't ask you to come back even though I'd love to have you back here. I figure you'll know when it's time. In the mean time, I'll try not to do anything stupid to make you have to come back before you're ready.
P.S. Profoessor Slughorn says Estelle Smith was brilliant at Potions. Imagine that.
The owl didn't make it.
it should never have been there to begin with. Not flying on the Quidditch pitch in the middle of a Quidditch match, no matter that the recipient of the letter it carried was currently engaged in a death match.
But it was a post owl, and had but one duty in life. It identified its goal and pursued it. It was a barn owl, darker than most, and difficult to see with the sun and the figures on brooms zooming about the field.
It had the decency, at least, to fly into Harry Potter's face at the exact moment that his hand closed around the golden snitch, and while he was only twenty feet above the grassy earth.
As it was, Harry Potter was exhausted. He'd been up late the night before, unable to sleep as he worried about what had happened in Charms. The game had been brutal today, the teams evenly matched. The Ravenclaw Seeker had been on his tail most of the game and he'd just shaken him off before he spotted the snitch.
In the instant that his hand closed around the winged ball, he angled his broom back up, raised his hand and looked up.
The owl hit him in an explosion of feathers. He never saw it coming.
He didn't fall off his broom. Not precisely. He held onto it tightly as he made for the ground, hitting too hard and toppling off as he made contact. He was cradling his face, still conscious, when Ginny reached him.
It was Ron who picked the envelope with Harry's name off the ground after Madam Pomfrey and Professor McGonagall pushed into the throng and ordered the students back. The envelope was pink, crumpled and flecked with blood. Ron stared down at the envelope, not understanding at first.
"What happened?" Neville was suddenly there at Ron's side.
"Owl," said Ron. He grabbed on to Ginny as she tried to push back in.
He didn't have the chance to explain more, because Professor McGonagall was suddenly there, giving him the password to her office and instructing him to Floo to Shell Cotttage to fetch the Headmaster.
He shoved the envelope in his pocket and took off at a run.
Harry awoke to the sound of the ocean, and the smell of the sea air.
And while he knew exactly where he was, it was disconcerting. His head hurt and it was dark. Very dark. He lay there for a moment, trying to get his mental bearings. He remembered the Quidditch game. He had a vague recollection of something hitting him, and of crashing with the snitch in his hand. He opened his eyes. They were heavy, swollen. Slowly, he reached toward his face with one hand and felt the bandages.
He spoke softly, wincing as his head pounded even with that small effort.
"Gryffindor won 300 to 140. They ruled the game complete as you managed to hold on to that infernal snitch even after you crashed. Ravenclaw, however, is protesting."
"Let them," he replied weakly, smiling. He touched the bandages again. "What's wrong with my eyes?"
"Glass fragments in your left eye. Poppy has removed them all and it will heal quickly but requires complete rest."
"Right," said Harry. He concentrated on his eyes. They both hurt, the right more than the left.
"And my other eye?"
"The owl that hit you scratched your cornea. Deeply. Likely with its talon. It will heal as well. Poppy wanted to put you in St. Mungo's and keep you sedated for a week. I convinced her to bring you here instead."
"Thanks." He meant it, despite how pitiful he sounded. He would have hated being at St. Mungo's. "That answers my second question. So that's what I hit, then? An owl?"
"Indeed. A post owl. Sadly, it did not survive the collision with your head."
"Very funny." He inhaled, trying to breathe evenly and ignore the pounding in his skull.
"You need another headache remedy. It will likely put you to sleep again."
Harry continued breathing evenly for a moment. The pounding didn't let up. He couldn't think and everything seemed grey and fuzzy. He wanted to close his eyes and sink back into quiet unconsciousness.
"Alright. I'll take the potion."
Severus held it to his lips, careful not to touch his head. Harry let the potion slide down his throat and within five minutes, with Severus rubbing the back of his hand, had drifted off to sleep again.
Severus tucked the duvet around Harry's shoulders. The weather had turned cool but it was nothing like the damp cold of the old castle. He placed the empty pain potion vial on the side table, noting that the eye drops would have to be applied in four hours. It would be midnight then. He'd try to get through the pile of paperwork he'd taken from Minerva between now and then.
But Reuben Peace was waiting for him in the parlor when he returned downstairs.
"How is he?"
Severus didn't show any surprise at seeing the Auror in his home. "He has survived much worse. Poppy assures me he will recover quickly if we can keep him in bed and resting for at least a few days."
"Is he asleep?"
Severus nodded as he dropped onto the sofa. "With the help of a strong sedative in his pain potion. He should be out for several hours."
"That kid just can't catch a break," said Reuben.
Severus picked up a sheaf of parchment from the pile on the table in front of him. "I'm assuming you've spoken with Filius?" he asked. He had sent a message off to Reuben last night after reading Harry's letter.
Reuben nodded. "The pieces are falling together. Estelle Smith was pregnant during her sixth year. She had the baby in the summer after her sixth year and returned in September to finish."
Severus sighed. "Well, that would explain things, wouldn't it? What happened to the child?"
Peace shook his head. "We've already had Minerva go through the registry. It was a boy – he was down in the registry to start in 1989. But he lived only days."
"He would have been only two years older than Harry," mused Severus. "They would have attended Hogwarts together."
"Harry's life might have been quite a bit different had that child lived," said Reuben. "For one, he probably wouldn't have inherited the Black Estate. He leaned in toward Severus. "The baby's father was Regulus Black."
Severus stared at Reuben, unable to mask his surprise.
To be continued…