Okay, so it's Chapter Ten. Shocker - so early! And it probably looks beastly because I typed it ALL on Word. That's right, all 26 or 27 pages of it.
And now that I'm done, Chapter Eleven and The Chain of Souls chapter 4 are next.
Chapter Ten: You Really Care?
"I need you to concentrate for me…stay calm…"
Harry frowned, straining already to find any sort of calm center in what he saw as the center of a swirling vortex of memories. The person he sought to block lay beyond the cyclone, safe, directing the storm around him.
"You're very close, Harry," Albus whispered; sound was distracting. "Use your magic. Seek me out!"
But it wasn't working so well. Over time he had realized that this was not so much because of the memories' quality when the Legilimens pulled at them—good or bad, Harry would become fixed on watching the memory, in a way reliving it. And using the magic of his own mind to even find any Legilimens was impossible for him. At least he had felt Snape's battering-ram technique. Sensing Albus, who tiptoed in through cracks in his mental shields and found his memories with all the grace of playing a harp, was like trying to score higher than Hermione on an exam. Any exam.
I'd almost take an exam over this.
I heard that. Albus's amused thoughts overlapped his own, and when they resumed Harry could hear these words loud and clear through the memory storm. I will stop for a few moments, let you catch your breath and get your bearings.
Things slowed down to normal speed. As Harry's memories retreated from the forefront of his mind and he stopped shaking, he felt another presence, a second tingle tracing the edges of his mind, for the second time in two weeks.
I want to talk to you. Now.
No! Harry panicked, noting Albus's continuing retreat in another part of his mind. The headmaster, at Harry's own private insistence, still knew nothing about his mysterious link to a still-more-mysterious person—particularly one who wasn't a wizard yet somehow knew about Voldemort. For now, until he himself knew more, Harry was desperate to keep it that way.
Rivers, go! Alb—my teacher is inside my mind right now. If he senses you, bad things could happen! I don't suppose you're in for any difficult questioning just now?
I—no, but—this is really—you need to know this!
Please, Rivers—leave. Just for now—until it's safe for us to talk without being overheard.
But—if he's your teacher, don't you trust him?
I trust him more than you could ever know. And now that you've been enlightened, go—please?
The other boy left swiftly, purposely brushing lightly against Albus's own retreating aura on the way out—Harry could have strangled him then, but he got a slight satisfaction out of next feeling Rivers's reaction—shock and bewilderment.
Harry? Albus had halted. He sounded slightly suspicious. Is everything all right? …I thought I sensed something…
It's nothing. Don't worry, okay?
At last, at last, all outward interference left Harry, and his mind and thoughts were his own again. His greatest safe haven was, at last, safe. He felt more relieved than he could ever remember feeling in his life.
He relaxed into his chair and Albus let him, glancing admiringly around the room every once in a while. It was the headmaster who had suggested they practice Occlumency (and Legilimency, if they got around to it) here in the library, surrounded by helpful books and comfortable, newly-freed cushiony chairs. Harry secretly suspected that their lessons were being held in the bowels of Grimmauld Place so that they would not be interrupted, and so that Albus could spend extra time with him without fear of the same.
But why, I wonder? It's obvious that he's busy—he's gotten more letters here in two weeks than anyone I've ever seen! So why, then, does he still stay?
"Are you ready?"
Harry jumped. Hadn't he just closed his eyes?
"You've been dozing for about ten minutes." This was said helpfully, as Albus had noted the boy's puzzled frown.
Is it safe now?
Go away, Rivers. Very, very far away. I haven't forgotten that little stunt you pulled.
Infant wizards, Rivers mumbled, and made himself scarce again.
"I…think I need a refresher on the basics of Occlumency." Really badly. The basic basics.
"Of course. On what in particular?"
"Erm… everything… sorry."
His blue eyes were gentle. "You have nothing to apologize for."
Albus leaned forward in the crimson-stained chair, gazing swiftly and surely into Harry's eyes. Harry felt something stir behind them, tickle the edges of his mind.
Not Rivers this time… Albus?
Excellent, his headmaster praised, and then reverted to speaking aloud once more. "But I am jumping ahead again! Let me begin at the beginning, from which all manner of things come. But to do so, I will need you to close your eyes…. Let me explain. As a novice in the art of Occlumency, your vision really hinders your ability to catch on to learning how to Occlude—and, really, it is not a needed sense, anyway—"
Harry couldn't stop himself from blurting out: "But—I thought you had to maintain eye contact with a Legilimens in order for them to breach your mind?"
"Oh, not at all—at least, not a good bit of the time. With less talented Legilimenses, perhaps, or with someone who simply prefers the technique—I assume Professor Snape did this with you?"
Harry only nodded, gritting his teeth. Anger kept his voice captive. Another lie.
"And yet Lord Voldemort did not have to meet your eyes to accidentally touch your mind last year, yes?"
I'd forgotten about that! But memories of this reminded Harry of how he'd been tricked into believing Sirius was in danger last June, which consequently led to his death. His throat constricted painfully.
Albus's mind had glanced against his. "I'm sorry, Harry. …To answer your question, no—talented Legilimens Masters, such as myself, can even contact someone from a good distance away—that is, access their thoughts—where they are not visible. As I said before, sight is not an essential; rather, it is your inner vision, your mind's eye, which will see for us now."
Harry sat still, taking all of this in.
"By the way…" Albus locked his fingers together. Curiosity radiated from him in waves. "Who might this 'Rivers' be that you mentioned?"
Harry went rigid. It didn't take him long to suddenly develop a profound interest in a bit of airborne dust, circling tantalizingly over a pair of books. He let his silence say all he needed it to—this was the subject he would not speak of, under any circumstances. It was closed, completely.
The bit of fluffy dust landed gently on the very edge of the book pile. He kept his green eyes firmly on that hovering pinprick of white.
At last Albus said softly, "Ah. I take it this is what I must not know?"
"Part of it, yes." He was amazed that his voice came out steady. Feeling like he was hurting Albus's feelings was not any type of pleasant; he idly thought of how ironic it was that they were similar in this way, in that they had to hold in important secrets for the benefit of all…
"I told you that I understood, and would let you do things your way," Albus confirmed, voice still soft, "and I will stand by what I said. That I do promise." When Harry gave him a grateful smile he continued, voice still soft, gentle. "Now then, Occlumency… yes…surrender your vision whenever you are ready, Harry."
Harry did so, asking as he did: "Albus, I'm just wondering… how is it that you and I can mentally communicate the way we can? When Sn—when Professor Snape would enter my mind last year, that never happened…"
"Certainly it did. However, as I'm sure you know, every person's relationship with others is different—you and I, for example, have drastically different interactions with Professor Snape, and thus our minds 'touch' differently. You and he heartily dislike one another, unfortunately—and because communications such as ours require those involved to have a positive relationship, what little "speaking between minds" there may be goes completely unnoticed by you both, and still would be."
"So, you believe…" Harry struggled to think it through. "You think that since our relationship is good, we can sometimes understand each other's thoughts, even talk back and forth?"
"The latter, yes; the former, possibly." Albus smiled. "Are you ready now, little one?"
"Yes, I'm ready."
"Concentrate for me… yes, good, excellent." Harry sat up straighter at the praise. "Try and focus on one memory in particular, just for now, as a start…do you have it? Yes? All right, now—I wish you to render your mind blank. Absolutely blank. Once you have done this—it may take a moment, Harry, be patient—I want you to concentrate on building a wall, or anything that will keep me out of your mind; without betraying any emotion. If you tie even the slightest bit of feeling to anything a Legilimens might be seeking, they will use that feeling as a road map to the now-naked memory. That, I believe, is why you initially had trouble learning this—previously you attached how you felt about your memories to each, and Severus did not correct this common impulse—nor, it seems, did he aid in very much else."
He doesn't sound too happy about that. –Finally, Snape gets in trouble!
Albus continued, glancing concernedly his way before brooding on his wayward staff member's actions over the past term. "He has caused you to fear any breach to your mind, however gentle. Even now I feel certain areas of your subconscious flinch against me, though I mean you no harm… I am not pleased."
Waves of fury… a bit of disappointment… mixed with suspicion he couldn't decipher… these alien feelings and more now brushed against Harry's evolving shield, and he gave a physical shiver as he felt it waver. The emotions all became tinged with surprise, and then were quickly withdrawn.
"My mistake, Harry—I forgot how closely we were connected. …Now I will attempt to see the memory you have hidden from me. Do not worry, I will enter gently at first—we will progress depending on how strongly you can block me out, not with any exam.
"I will count to three. One…"
Relax. Relax and block.
This is your mind. He is the intruder. Albus is not in control here—you are.
The vortex began again, more slowly this time. Harry felt at first a flicker of an alien-yet-gentle presence graze against the edges of his mind, then slip in without warning—he gasped softly, tried to make his mind blank again, but his surprise at his block failing so easily ruined his concentration…
A black dog, shaggy hair, thinner than he'd been at eleven years old… a dog that carried a very important newspaper in its jaws…
No… a smaller black dog, still massive, its fur near his hand, licking his fingers… Sirius, but not Sirius… his own response to the animal… Dennis Flippens's surprised face…
He took a few slow, panting breaths, was hardly aware that he was taking them. Calm down. Stay in control. Your mind, your rules.
And then he had an idea—a brilliant one if he did say so himself.
He focused on a blank space, let it expand and pour over the nooks and crannies he imagined were in his head. Gradually, agonizingly, that blankness touched and then covered the memory Albus was currently examining, washed it into nothingness, emptiness—he struggled to feel no pride when he felt the headmaster's surprise. The screaming vortex halted just as quickly as it had started, and when Harry's vision refocused he saw his 'attacker'; Albus was smiling at him.
"Remarkable… Are you sure you learned very little of Occlumency principles last year?"
"When I wasn't angry, I was lost," Harry admitted, puzzled himself. "Why do you—?"
"You have already developed a strategy for confusing one who would invade your privacy—by projecting that your mind is but an empty room. It startled me, I admit, to go from examining my goal to feeling as though I had entered an empty hospital room by chance!"
Harry shrugged, playing off his own wonder. "I had to clear my head to get to sleep during the first weeks of summer… I think I was following your advice, you know, from last year."
"Then you have done well. It has helped you tremendously. …I want to practice this skill with you today, but first I must ask… were those two different dogs in your memory?"
"Yes. One was Sirius."
"I could tell. And the other…?"
"It's not important."
"Harry, it is related to you. It is automatically important."
The boy sighed. "It was just a dog that belonged to a guy I know, who lives in Surrey. It looked a lot like Sirius… like his Animagus form, I mean…"
"His name was Dennis. His dog is perfectly normal. Its name is Callistan, and he's very friendly."
"Why, then, do you associate this memory with panic and fear?"
Damn. "That's how I felt at the time, that's all—I thought of Sirius when I saw him. …It was just a moment of weakness."
Albus gave a morose sigh. "Feeling sorrow for a lost loved one is no weakness, Harry. Seeing such a potent reminder of Sirius, so soon after his death, would have tested you beyond even my own imagining."
Harry sighed, put his head between his fingers. After a moment he felt light fingers in his hair, which moved under his chin to lift it, so that their eyes would meet.
"Are you ready to try again?"
So determined, Albus thought with an inner smile, and spoke still more gently. "All right, then… Legilimens."
He was here again… imprisoned within his memories, the (fortunately) only thing he had left of those nights in detention…
The quill trembled in his dominant hand. He had done this the previous night, had come here for so many nights that they had blurred into one big mass of pain and restraint and hatred and weakness. And there would be more to come tomorrow.
"It isn't wise for you to tarry, Mr. Potter."
Umbridge's voice. That horrible sickly-sweet voice, that tone supported by sick false air, blown out to screech and whine and pound upon the eardrums of all who heard it. Especially him. Particularly him.
He swallowed down bile and forced his shuddering hand to the parchment, swept from right to left so quickly that he was surprised he'd written the words out right. He had to bite his lip hard enough to draw blood to keep from screaming aloud as new, fresh pain sank its teeth into his hand—blood oozing from fresh word-shaped cuts that spelled 'I must not tell lies' cruelly into his skin.
It had begun, of course—and now that it had, Merlin knew how many times he'd have to cut his own hand open tonight before it satisfied her—
A voice hoarse with fury made itself heard, though Harry was so lost in the horror of the half-dream, half-memory that he could hardly recognize it…
It felt like he was being forcibly ejected from a bucking broom—he was cast out of his own memories so fiercely that he fell out of his chair and to the floor, panting softly.
A sound of terrible rage made him shiver with apprehension—he tried to see something, anything, but disoriented as he was, his vision was blurry, as if he had his glasses but was underwater.
Albus's presence was gone from his mind. Harry could, if he concentrated, sense a leftover residue of rage that did not belong to him, tempered with a sweet-and-sour mixture of horror and sympathy.
Rivers's voice, from out of nowhere: Are you all right? What happened?
He was numb; no shock or annoyance could reach him. I'm fine. Get out of my head—please? I need to think. I need to get up, to put myself back together…
Good luck with that.
"…I'll kill her."
Harry's sight abruptly, blessedly cleared; he focused on his protector, also on the cold, firm library floor, his breathing dangerously even for being around so much dust. Twin torches blazed in his blue eyes—the boy had never seen him look so powerful and angry, even when Harry himself had been in danger in that very moment.
Tentatively he asked, "Albus…?"
Albus did not speak. But he turned his head to meet Harry's eyes, and the boy drew back at what he found in them. Where was his kind look, or his sympathetic one, or even his surprised one? No such innocent expressions were in sight on that tightened, lined face.
"How many times was this—did she do this to you?" He thrust a hand out at the boy's head, at his hand, which he could not seem to look at full on.
Harry faltered. "What—I—"
And then Albus was at his side faster than if he'd Apparated; he gripped the long-scarred hand so tightly that Harry felt dizzy, and stared at it for a very long time, expressionlessly; then his rage seemed to return, and he shook the boy's shoulders abruptly. He was so uncharacteristically angry, and Harry could not tell who he was angry with…
"How many times, Harry?"
He was reduced to stammering. "I—I—I… I don't remember… pretty often, once s-she realized that I w-wasn't going to stop talking about Voldemort… Albus, are you all—no, don't!"
With an irate howl, Albus rose to his full height and sprang for the library's sole entrance and exit; Harry, knowing instinctively what was going on, sprang to stop him and managed to grip the shoulders of his robes; but the headmaster was furious, moving ceaselessly, and stronger than he had expected him to be.
"I—will—kill her," Albus managed through clenched teeth, struggling to get free of Harry's grip. "How DARE she! Using an illegal Blood Quill—claiming she was "disciplining" them—when really she was torturing them, oh God…"
His breath came out in angry pants. His voice rose.
"She tortured you…and so many other students, and I thought—I swear to God, I'll kill her!"
"Albus, no! Please!"
The headmaster strained and fought to free himself, eyes wide with the madness only rage could bring; and Harry moved in front of him, so as to better prevent him from reaching the door.
Albus's skin started to consciously heat; when it became too hot to hold Harry yelped and let go, soothing his fingers. He heard the other shove the door open, break into another run, and shouted after him: "For Merlin's sake, what good will it do—chasing after her for something that's already happened?"
Harry sank weakly into his chair, rubbing his forehead: his scar was prickling…
Soft footsteps in the dimly-lit hallway, returning, coming closer to where he recovered his own breath. Albus appeared at the door again and did not say a word for a full five seconds.
He came back after all.
They met each other's eyes. Suddenly, the old man took five steps into the room, walking faster and faster until he would have been at a run if not for the books he was surrounded by; Harry found himself being pulled to his feet, and then pulled into an embrace he didn't understand.
Harry could not speak. Relief nestled in his heart—he came back, he didn't go, he wasn't hurt—but confusion bloomed in his brain. Did Albus really see, or had he come back because he saw that he had upset his student?
"Harry." There was a kiss to the top of his forehead. "You are so much better, more of the Light, than I am sometimes…"
Ah—so he did understand, then.
He could not help but ask again, to break the quiet moment whose origins he wasn't sure of. "Albus… what good would it do?"
"What good would it do?" The old man's voice was soft with pain. "Oh, Harry, it would do a world of good, too much for either of us to truly fathom. While parents have sent more Howlers than you can imagine to the Ministry to complain about Dolores Umbridge's stay at Hogwarts alone, the Ministry has refused to cooperate or even distribute heavy punishment her way themselves—but her wretched quill is evidence, Harry, evidence of what she did to you and so many others." He took Harry's hand in his. "I could use that evidence to destroy her, even if I did not physically murder her."
"But why even bother?" Harry resisted the urge to shout. "She's gone now, she'll never come back to Hogwarts again; killing her would just be—be something Voldemort would want—"
Albus made an angry noise. "Do you not see? By letting that—that woman, if she is even that, do as she did and go unpunished, you are forgetting how she tortured you. How she hurt you. How she interfered with your efforts to teach your fellow students how to defend themselves, and with your efforts to contact Sirius—"
Rage flared in Harry's throat. Don't you bring Sirius into this!
"…Then I will not." Albus had caught the direction of the boy's protective thoughts toward his fallen godfather, and so followed his wishes. His voice then hardened, though—the anger that made him look insane had returned. "But she misused her power to hurt you directly—you, more than any other. For that, her life is indeed forfeit. You will not argue that with me, Harry—it is set in stone. One way or another, I will see her ruined."
His scar prickled again. Ouch.
The headmaster sighed wearily. The fire in his eyes had dimmed, was replaced by heavy guilt and despair, punctuated with pain and horror. He moved slightly away, sat mutely at Harry's feet, and murmured softly, "I'm sorry."
"It wasn't your fault. It never was."
"Not my fault?" Albus's voice rose and trembled, nearly broke. Bitterness laced every pained syllable. "Why, I set it all in motion! By trying to protect you, I allowed this to happen! By distancing myself from you, I had no idea what exactly that vile witch was doing to your hand…your poor hand…" He took Harry's scarred hand between both of his own again, but gently this time, and kissed the place where the letters were fading.
Harry blushed, now uncomfortable at being the center of so much of the man's attention. Strange, how he would have demanded this last year, or close to it. "I…look, just promise me that you'll forget this—let this go, all right?"
Let it go? Forget? "But, Harry—"
"No, listen. We've got Voldemort to worry about; Umbridge is nothing—nothing, Albus—compared to him, even if she's cruel enough to be a Death Eater. It's over now. Please, promise me that you'll leave this alone…"
"Harry," Albus pleaded, with a moan in his voice. He wanted revenge like he had seldom wanted it before; the desire was eating him alive.
Harry only looked at him, ever unyielding.
Their silent standoff was short and fierce; but Harry eventually came out triumphant, and Albus sighed one last time.
"I will…honor your request."
He didn't promise.
Harry had the distinct feeling that he wouldn't be hearing the last of this.
"Sounds like it was really harsh," Ron conceded a few days later.
They were in Diagon Alley, walking down the lane toward the Apothecary—Hermione and Harry needed new supplies, while Ron was still debating on whether to take Potions or not—his 'Acceptable' grade officially qualified him, but all three knew that Snape had other ideas.
"Come anyway," Harry had pleaded. "I'm doing it, even though Snape'll chuck me out as soon as he sees me…it won't be the same without you!"
But Ron was still undecided.
"How is Professor Dumbledore now?" Hermione presently asked.
Harry shrugged. "I haven't really seen him in a while. He's overreacting to the whole "Blood Quill" thing—whenever I talk to him he insists that nothing's wrong with him, but it's like he's…I dunno…clouded from me. It's like trying to reason with madness incarnate; his eyes have approaching thunderstorms in them."
Ron and Hermione exchanged glances. It was obvious to them both that their friend was hurt by Albus's absence, but neither wanted to touch the subject for fear of sparking Harry's ire—or, worse, his inverted moods and silences. It had, after all, happened quite a lot last year. If Harry wanted them to know about the relationship he seemed to be building with Albus, then he would give them every wonderful and terrible detail—it was as simple as that. They had only to wait.
"He seems so angry," Harry murmured. "I've never seen him like this before…he wasn't this furious when he came to save us all at the Ministry, or when he discovered that Moody was a fake a couple of years ago—well, maybe he was that angry then and just did a better job at hiding it. I just wish I knew why he's so upset now…what's bothering him…"
Ron gave him a disbelieving look.
Hermione took his right hand gently, as Albus had done a few days prior, and ran her index finger over the hypocritical words etched into it; Harry flinched.
"Isn't it obvious?" she said kindly. "He's troubled by this, Harry! All year he didn't know a single thing about Umbridge's stupid quill, and to find out only a little while ago—it must be driving him mad—killing him, even! Of course he wants to do something about it now—we all did the moment we found out…"
"He's still overreacting," Harry insisted. "Taking it too far. And I don't think he's done…"
His friends stared incredulously at him as they rounded a corner; Ron was so distracted that he ran smack into Katie Bell, whose arms were full of packages, and nearly knocked her over (being the taller of the two).
"Watch it, Weasley," she snapped, but her bright eyes were teasing. "Hey, Harry."
Ron was reduced to stammering. "Katie! I'm sorry—I just wasn't watching—"
"Hey, Captain," Harry said, cutting across his best friend.
Katie's eyes lit up. "How did you know McGonagall made me Quidditch Captain this year?"
"Weeell," Harry counted off, grinning, "Wood's long gone, Angelina and Alicia graduated last year… Fred and George left… you're next in line from the old team, Katie."
"And how good it feels," Katie joked, and then gained a nostalgic, wistful smile. "I do miss them all, though. We're all that's left of the original team…"
"I know. I miss them, too."
"I just can't help but wonder…"
"Wonder if…" Katie fingered her ponytail, then spoke very quickly, as if she had not considered her words beforehand. "Harry, take Captaincy in my place. D'you know, I've been waiting years for the honor—yet now that Professor McGonagall's chosen me, I just don't know if I'm ready for it—if I'm good enough. Following in Oliver's footsteps, and Angelina's…"
"I won't be Captain," Harry said flatly. "You deserve it, Katie—and if you turn it down, you'll regret it forever. Don't throw it away."
Ron nodded enthusiastically next to him. Even Hermione gave her an encouraging smile, and it was this which seemed to boost Katie's morale—she smiled back.
"You know… I don't think I will throw it away. Captaincy of Gryffindor Quidditch stays mine." She gave them a piercing look. "So that means you two will need to be in top shape if you want to make it back on my team. Understood?"
"Clear as crystal," they promised her.
A call came, loud and equally clear, from up the crowded street.
"Harry! Ron! Hermione! Hurry up! Ginny and I are practically done with shopping already, no thanks to you!"
They all jumped; Andromeda Tonks's voice carried far when she was irritated, and today was no exception: it was stifling hot, and they would have been home hours ago but for the fact that the three of them kept bumping into people they knew and lingering to look at everything.
Diagon Alley was changing—subtly but surely. While there was no obvious panic in the streets quite yet, the street's pulse seemed faster: people huddled in closer groups than they normally had, casting furtive glances everywhere; those who were on the streets would quickly retreat into their respective shops; and whispers of Dark Lords and Death Eaters came from the deepest, most secluded parts of Knockturn Alley. The place had a chilly, darker feel, even in all of the current sunlight and warmth of the day.
Katie stretched. "Hey, are you three headed to the Apothecary too? I need to restock for N.E.W.T. Potions… the stuff we're making seventh year is pretty challenging, apparently, and we'll hardly have the time to buy anything. Snape's really pulling out all of the stops."
"I can hardly wait," Harry deadpanned; Hermione kicked him and muttered "Be nice".
They set off the rest of the way (Ron called down the street to Andromeda that they'd be right back, further sparking her frustration) and soon reached the ever-dark door of the Apothecary and went inside.
"Oh hello dears!" a scrawny, pale-looking young witch with equally-pale hair called from the nearby front counter. "Do make your selections and take your time, I'm servicing a very important customer at the moment…"
Hermione pulled out a handwritten list and vanished deeper into the shop, muttering to herself; Ron followed nervously, leaving Harry and Katie alone.
"Coming? –Hey…what's wrong?"
Harry had just clapped his hand to his forehead—right over the painfully-stinging scar. Ouch…what…?
"It's… nothing… I'm not used to."
Katie nodded. They went around in momentary silence, collecting tail of salamander, root of Whipping Vine, and other various things Harry knew he would be grinding into powder in a little over a fortnight.
Vaguely his mind's ear eavesdropped on the conversation the skinny Apothecary witch was having with her "very important customer":
"Is there anything else I can get for you, Professor?"
"I am currently satisfied," drawled a smooth, soft, almost-mocking voice, and Harry felt his mouth fall open in a mixture of surprise and rage. "Your help in procuring me this tincture is… appreciated. You understand, of course, that as my own stores at the school are more than enough for my needs, I will not be returning here frequently?"
"Of course, of course, understandable, naturally … You are certain that I cannot help you with anything else? Yes? –Ah, well…" She sounded flustered, and oddly so. Stupid of her, Harry thought savagely; let him rattle you and you're as good as finished.
"How are you at Hogwarts, Severus? I hear little of your doings."
"I am hardly as popular as the headmaster these days. The school is as it has always been, and I with it—get away from there, you foolish boy!"
Katie Bell rushed up to Harry and pointed frantically as he jumped. "Harry! Harry, look—no, don't really look, Neville's going to get us all killed! Let's go!"
Harry searched frantically, but found nothing until he was called:
"Hi, Harry!" Neville Longbottom said, oblivious to the cauldron steaming dangerously near his leg; Harry's Seeker eyes saw, with a groan, one of the boy's loose hairs fall into the unknown concoction. "I haven't seen you since last term to thank you for all you did to help me—I made an O on my Defense O.W.L. with your help, Gran's so proud—I'm sorry I couldn't come to your birthday party, but happy sixteenth birthday anyway, and also—"
He was cut off by the witch's angry shriek just as the bubbling potion in the cauldron exploded. Hermione's own shriek of surprise sounded from somewhere near the entrance.
"Immemor," Katie groaned, then raised her wand and cried, "Diluo!"
The potion which had spilled on Neville vanished, cleaned off. Pandemonium, however, still reigned: the one potion's unforeseen detonation seemed to have set off various others across the store.
"Passable, Miss Bell," the cold, scathing voice proclaimed, growing closer to them—the Potions Master was running angrily toward Neville, but sounded not a whit out of breath as he spoke. "It looks as though someone in this shop can at least apply what is learned in my class…"
Harry snarled, turning blindly to retort—
Severus Snape flew past the two Gryffindors, his cold, furious black eyes fixed on the object of his routine torture during lessons at school. His black cloak billowed out behind him, making him look more batlike than ever. Harry, still furious, moved to jump in front of Snape, confront him as he had done earlier this summer—
He rapidly found himself on the ground in a heap, just a second after his green eyes locked with Snape's infinitely dark ones. The Potions Master had pushed him to get to Neville, yell "Finite Incantatem" at the top of his voice, and then proceed to shout the boy down without drawing any new breath.
Ron appeared, pulling Harry to his shaking feet; Hermione, now loaded down with packages just like Katie, was giving Neville sympathetic looks.
Said Quidditch Captain now appeared at Ron's side, grimly. "I bought my stuff and yours, Harry. That witch is furious—let's get out of here. Neville will be fine. And even if he won't be…Snape's won't hesitate to hex us if we interrupt him now."
There were two things Harry had never been happier to do: follow his Captain's orders, and see a near-irate Andromeda Tonks outside the shop waiting for them, tapping a new hole in the cobbled streets.
"What? But that's so unfair!"
"And it's final," Andromeda Tonks said firmly in return. "You can visit the twins some other time at their Joke Shop—I've heard your brothers are quite talented at what they do. But, I say again, we do not have time today. All of you lot need new robes (yes, Ginny, you as well) and so here we are."
She gave Harry a particularly stern look as he went into Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions; he blushed, knowing she would not easily forgive him for insisting they stop ten more minutes for ice cream.
Their luck worsened still more; Ginny literally ran into Narcissa Malfoy on the latter's way out of the shop: she opened her mouth to apologize but was stopped short by the look on the pale blonde's face.
Ron's eyes narrowed; then he nearly yelped as Andromeda shunted him to one side—the better to stare at her sister.
"Narcissa," she said softly, and touched her sibling's shoulder.
Narcissa Malfoy flinched at first; then replied, icy eyes downcast, "Hello, Andromeda."
Andromeda brightened hopefully; Harry stared in wonder.
"How are you today, little sister? Did you get my letter?"
"I am well," Narcissa replied composedly, but did not answer the second question; the power of Harry's gaze had drawn her eyes, and they now stared neutrally at one another. She broke the silence.
"Potter… how surprising, to see you out on a day like this."
She expected me to be curled up crying in a corner somewhere. All the better for Voldemort to off me, I suppose…
"Yeah, guess so," he said coolly instead. "Guess I should be locked up someplace with no way out of my own head…"
Her eyes narrowed; she didn't even pause to sneer when Hermione came closer to see what was going on. "So… you would give up grief so effortlessly? A good trait for you to have—"
"You know nothing about me," Harry growled, incensed again.
"—considering the fact that the Dark Lord is after your blood, and will have no one else's in your place."
"Isn't he always?" Ron asked sarcastically.
Narcissa lifted her nose higher as she glared his way with molten blue eyes—then they cooled as she returned her attention to Harry. "I give you only a warning—he is at full strength, now, and he comes for you. Number your days. Personally, I—"
"Why, good afternoon, Narcissa! It is a pleasure to see you. How are you faring?"
Everyone whipped around; Albus Dumbledore had ostensibly arrived in the middle of the group, his own blue eyes fixed on the Malfoy matron. Harry felt his eyes widen—he hadn't seen the man in days. Why was it that he looked better, brighter, than he had looked the last time they had met?
"…Greetings, Professor Dumbledore," she replied smoothly. "I am coping; it is pleasant for me to see that you are well. Your energy never seems to fade."
"It never does," Albus agreed, ever polite. "I daresay that I sometimes feel younger than you! Now, if you all will excuse me…"
He moved fluidly through the crowd; Harry felt Albus's shoulder brush his gently, meaningfully, and a warm fluttering settled in his stomach. He didn't forget me—and he really wasn't ignoring me earlier…
Hello, Harry, came Albus's light mental voice as he disappeared inside; Harry glowed inside with the happiness of being noticed, appreciated. Hermione and Ginny saw his small smile and gave some of their own.
As if perfectly timed to ruin any happy moment, Draco Malfoy strode out of Madam Malkin's and over to his mother; his pointed face was stiff with annoyance, but his face was flushed.
"She's finally done, Mother. Let's get out of h—" His steel-gray eyes found and roved over the rest of the group. "Oh, it's you."
"Malfoy," Harry greeted him in mock-excitement. "Good to see you too. I'm happy to see that your mummy fixed your nose for you…"
Malfoy sneered at them all and pushed his way through, taking care to bump hard against Harry's same shoulder that had just been treated more gently; idly he wondered how much one shoulder could take in a day. After a last cold stare, his mother followed.
"We should go after them—Malfoy's mum," Ginny insisted once they were out of direct earshot. "What she said to you, Harry—about You-Know-Who being at full strength, and her veiled insults to Sirius—"
"I insulted her enough as well," Harry retorted dismissively, noting the look on Andromeda's face: as though she had lost something precious she just barely had a hand on in the first place. "And besides, all that about Voldemort being at full strength was lies. I'd know…" He pointed to his scar, currently dormant after acting up in the Apothecary.
Andromeda made them all jump by saying, "Let's buy some fitting robes instead of discussing mental connections to Voldemort in this dear woman's shop, shall we?"
She patted Madam Malkin's shoulder—the woman had opened her mouth steadily wider in the last few minutes of not-so-subtle eavesdropping.
The words on the page of the journal Hermione had painstakingly made for him glittered back at him in darkly-colored ink, mirroring his own thoughts.
Where are you, Albus?
It was good that the headmaster would be coming today to continue their Occlumency lessons—as over a week had passed in Harry's estimation since he and Albus had talked for more than a few minutes, he was beginning to feel rather neglected and lonely.
Seeing Albus in Diagon Alley had been no better—now Harry's buried doubts rose more closely to the surface than they ever had previously. Is he happier without me around? Where has he been, anyway? Does he even—
Don't think that.
But he couldn't help finishing the morose question. Does he even care about me?
Despite all of the things nagging at him lately, he was doing well in perfecting the Occluding skill he had touched upon by accident—letting blankness flood his mind, a literal empty white quilt that sheltered his memories from harm. He loved being good at things, and newly excelling in Occlumency when he had been so dismal before was no exception; when Albus complimented him on his technique, or praised him in general, he flushed with pride.
He had not felt that kind of happiness in nine days. Now was past time to find out where he really stood with this man.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
He sighed. "Come on in."
Albus came in, followed by Remus, who looked about as happy as Snape did on a regular basis. Harry shut the journal hastily, but neither of them appeared to notice it—indeed, Remus looked to have thunderclouds building over his head.
"Good evening, Harry," Albus said, speaking first, voice unusually grave. "I have not been able to see you in a while. How are you?"
"Fine." Why is he controlling his voice like that?
He found out why in a few seconds:
"Like hell you're 'fine'," Lupin almost snarled. "Do try not to give us that crap, won't you?"
Harry's mouth dropped open in a blend of deep hurt and horror.
In the next second, Albus had a tight grip on Remus's shoulder; he still addressed Harry, but his now-icy blue eyes were fixed threateningly on the werewolf.
"Please do not mind him, Harry…he has at last begun to experience the grief that he previously bottled up within himself. He has been quite… temperamental at times, but he is only lashing out at the world in Sirius's name. He means nothing against you—do you, Remus?" he now asked the young man in a warning growl, his own voice's volume now several feet higher. Harry heard the dangerous undertone lying there and noted, with awe, how frightening Albus could sound when he was feeling protective of someone.
"No, Professor," Remus replied contritely, looking a little wary—when he turned to Harry, though, he looked truly ashamed of his behavior. "I didn't mean to take my anger out on you, Harry… I'm very sorry."
"It's fine, Remus…"
Albus gave the werewolf a meaningful look—he caught it, nodded, and left swiftly. Harry watched the door blankly, unable to look at his teacher.
"I have been keeping him close to Headquarters lately," Albus explained. "It was the younger Miss Tonks who noticed his sudden tendency to disappear for long stretches of time and come back injured but wild—off on personally-driven missions fraught with danger he welcomed, I suspect…I have had to keep a firm hold on him. He is desperate to escape and fight anything that crosses his path."
"Right," said Harry vaguely; something in him was severely distracted, disconnected. "Is the full moon tonight?"
"It is. Did you happen to notice how large his pupils were, and guess?"
Albus sank elegantly into a chair, studying Harry cautiously.
"Have you been practicing your Occlumency?"
A silver eyebrow rose. "You're rather quiet today."
"Aren't I occasionally allowed to be?"
Albus looked to be taken aback; then he closed his eyes, opened them again, appeared to force himself to keep talking. "…Right, well. Let us begin, shall we?"
This practice session was quieter than the few, spaced-out ones previous—Harry's own set-in-stone irritation created a stronger mental defense than any he had yet been able to conjure when thinking clearly; the headmaster, puzzled, could find no way into his pupil's mind.
After twenty off-and-on minutes of this, Albus withdrew one last time and made a sound of frustration. Harry glanced up sharply from his daze and their eyes met for a heartbeat, two, three, and then four.
"Why are you unhappy, Harry?"
He tried another tactic. "Did something happen while I was away?"
"No, nothing occurred while you were away." Harry cringed inwardly; he had put too much stress on the last few words.
The blue eyes narrowed. "I don't appreciate your tone." They softened a little bit. "But I know that something must really be bothering you for you to address me in that way, Harry."
"Yes, 'something must', the greatest wizard says," Harry shot back with a bite of venom in his voice. Vindictive pleasure followed by smaller touches of shame surged through him when he saw another injured look pass over Albus's face—but his point had to be made, one way or another. "I suppose you used some famous deducing magic or some complex Legilimency to figure that one out, since actually, I don't know, talking to me would be a waste of your precious time—"
"What—no! It is not like that at all!" His eyes held flickers of his differing emotions, confusion and panic. "I knew only because of how you have spoken to me, acted around me—I would never, ever use magic to discern such a thing without your permission. It would be disrespectful!"
And he still doesn't get it.
"I only wish to know what has happened since I have been gone—"
"That's right," Harry began to yell, heedless of his words now in his pain and anger and renewed loneliness. "YOU HAVEN'T BEEN HERE IN OVER A WEEK! WHAT DO YOU THINK THAT SAYS TO ME, PROFESSOR, HUH? WAS I JUST SUPPOSED TO WAIT HERE LIKE A GOOD LITTLE BOY WHILE YOU WENT OFF AND ENJOYED SOME TIME WITHOUT ME?"
Albus had paled as he listened to his child's rant, which showed no sign of breaking off soon—at the last part he began shaking his head from side to side in denial, a few tears emerging from his eyes and racing down his cheeks.
"DON'T YOU SHAKE YOUR HEAD AT ME! YOU HAVEN'T SHOWN YOURSELF HERE, SENT ME A LETTER, ANY KIND OF MESSAGE FOR NINE DAYS WHEN YOU PROMISED YOU'D COMMUNICATE WITH ME—THAT YOU WOULDN'T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKES THAT GOT SIRIUS KILLED! AND I SAW YOU IN DIAGON ALLEY! SO, DID YOU FINALLY GET AROUND TO ANSWERING THOSE LETTERS YOU COULDN'T GET TO WHILE YOU WERE BABYSITTING ME?"
Softly Albus replied, "I was happy that day because I knew that I would see you. I had missed you too, you see."
It was as if all of the steam—all of the fight—had been sucked out of him; Harry sat and massaged his throat and croaked as if he had been yelling for hours instead of moments. His insides felt hollow with pain, and that pain was not from his brief shouting stint.
What had he been all of this time to this man? Every time Harry thought he had Albus Dumbledore figured out, the man changed direction on him, and left him staring at an out-of-date map of his mind. All the years of his life but one he had been under Dumbledore's care, and he had been alternatively ignored, paid some attention, sent away, brought back, praised, rebutted, scolded, protected, and—so the man claimed—loved. But was he, perhaps, hated instead? How could one do so many of the things Albus Dumbledore had done in connection with him, with Harry Potter, and claim love as the explanation to it all?
I…have to find out.
"…I don't want any more crap…any more lies. Just please, tell me the truth. What am I to you?"
"I. Am. Serious. Where do I stand with you? What do I mean to you, if anything at all? Do you really care about me at all, or is this just some noble scheme you have to protect me until I'm strong enough to off Voldemort? Tell me the truth! What am I to you?"
Silence cloaked his impassioned words, choked them so that the quiet seemed to hurt Harry's ears—it was so absolute.
"Harry," Albus said calmly at last. "Come here."
"I want the truth, Albus!" Harry cried, and then could not stop a sob from leaving his lips; he sat—sank—down and felt his shoulders shake. Loneliness threatened anew to strangle him.
"Come to me, Harry," Albus repeated patiently. "And I will tell you why I have been away for so long, and told you nothing of it."
New tears streamed down his face as he complied—obedient even when furiously angry and disconsolate at the same time. He went over and sat in a nearby chair, still shaking.
Albus reached into his robes, pulled out a tied and rolled-up parchment, and handed it to Harry; the latter took it mutely, wiping his tears on his sleeve. The lines seemed to jump out at him.
By Order of the Ministry of Magic
We order that the accused and previously convicted Sirius Black be acquitted of all charges, on account of lack of substantial evidence and unreliable testimony.
BY ORDER OF THE WIZENGAMOT.
Department of Magical Law Enforcement
Ministry of Magic
Well done, Ministry—after the fact, he half-acknowledged, bitterly. But most of him was steadily melting, coming out of his numb, angry state.
Impulsively, he buried his head in the headmaster's shoulder and cried silently. Gradually, he sensed fingers stroking his hair, moving down to the nape of his neck. My god, he thought, how can I have so much happiness and sadness, all wrapped up in one prophecy-controlled life?
"Little one," Albus crooned tenderly.
"You… really… do care…about me…" Harry hiccoughed into his robes, almost choking on sobs.
"I do. Of course I do. I'm so sorry that I made you think otherwise, even for a moment. I should have written, sent you some sort of message—but I was so focused on how happy you would be with this that I was not focused much on how you might be feeling while I was gone. A reversal of the previous year, I believe."
"I have recently been searching the halls of the Ministry of Magic," Albus explained, "seeking out this very thing. It was much more difficult than I expected it to be—I was mainly turned away or deferred—but I had more luck using the—ah—persuasion that accompanies my regained position among those halls."
Harry dimly remembered that the headmaster had regained several titles over the summer, one of which might have helped him out tremendously: that of Chief Warlock of the mentioned Wizengamot. He made a sound that was a mixture of laughter and a strangled cry of pain.
"Shush…" the headmaster soothed. "Fudge has lately made himself scarce to keep the angry owls away, but I wanted the aid of no one close to him. You will be happy to know that I saw no sign of Dolores Umbridge, which was perhaps more in her favor than mine.
"As you can see, I at last found Amelia Bones and, once I explained the situation, she readily agreed to clear Sirius's name for you and him both. I am supposed to give you a message from her as well: she says she is very impressed with the way you conducted yourself at your hearing last year, and she thanks you for the "Outstanding" O.W.L. you helped her niece, Susan, procure."
"I didn't—she did all of the work herself. It wasn't like I sat everyone's Defense exam for them…"
"Oh, stop being modest!" Albus laughed, having brightened considerably when he noticed that Harry was gradually feeling and looking better. "You did every one of your group members a great service last year. And might I point out how flattered I was to discover that you'd all unanimously named said group after me?" He ruffled Harry's hair fondly with his hand; his eyes were bright again.
"The name was Ginny's idea," Harry told him. "But we all liked it—it was also in Hermione's handwriting on the parchment, but it was Cho Chang who thought of the initials in the first place…"
"So, in short," Albus broke in, his eyes now twinkling teasingly, "each young girl the press and the school have strongly 'connected' you to had a hand in the naming…"
"You should get used to things like this, Harry. I'm going to tease you, catch you off your guard like this, much more often."
Harry pretended to pout. "That doesn't mean I have to like it."
Smiling slightly, Albus kissed the top of the boy's hair briefly and addressed him gently but firmly. "You are my child, Harry—which is more of an honor for me than it is for you. That is what I consider you to be; that is what you are to me. You are one of the most important people in my world, and as such I am sworn to protect you from any and all dangers to not only your life but your well-being. Even so, I will still occasionally treat you as the child you no longer are—do not protest, little one, I cannot help it. It is simply the way I am sometimes wont to see you."
Harry sighed in a contented sort of way.
"I love you, Harry—my son, my boy. Do not let anyone tell you differently.
"…Now, it is late, and so I suggest that you get to bed—we'll continue Occlumency another day, when we are both more level-headed. I must attend to Remus, see that he will be well tonight. …And one more thing, Harry—if you're going to stay up and write in that journal for a while, make sure you don't fall asleep on your present again, yes? I imagine that that must have been very uncomfortable for you and the journal both." He dried the tears still on Harry's face.
Harry's smile was surprised and flattered. He really has watched me closely after all…
And that is it. Seriously, that's Chapter Ten. And it's Wednesday night 11/10/10, which means it's probably Friday afternoon that I will post it. Yeah.
Today, 11/12, is one of my own characters' birthday! Happy birthday, Nero!
Immemor—from a good friend of mine, who wrote me out a HUGE list of spells I can use in Lost Flash. Thanks, Darthbethy! …Anyway, not really a spell. If I remember correctly, Katie is calling Neville forgetful, or otherwise pointing out his poor memory. Not surprising.
Diluo—Wow, my memory sucks tonight. I believe this one has something to do with "cleaning off", if Neville is anything to go by.
There will be a Deleted Scene for this chapter.
Actually, that's a lie—there will be the first ever Alternate scene for this chapter. Seriously, I've written… six now? This upcoming one is THE COOLEST ONE I have ever written… and I love number six.
So it's called Doing Something Reckless. Cookie to anyone who re-reads Chapter 10 and guesses who it's about.
Chapter Eleven is called Homecoming. Harry finally goes to Hogwarts! Are you pumped or what?