After Dumbledore's death, the castle continued to feel emptier than it should have given how many students and staff dwelt within its walls. The late autumn sunlight leeched through the dusty windows with decreasing vigor. The wind inspired even colder drafts to chase around the dreary corners of the castle's rooms. And Filch's squint had taken on an even more malevolent glimmer.
Late in the evening, Harry sat with his friends in the library, his many thick textbooks stacked around him. It should not have felt drafty there, especially with how adamant Madam Pince always was about keeping the door closed, but Harry felt chilled nevertheless. He vigorously rubbed his arms and wished he had worn his cloak. His movements attracted Ron's attention. Ron started to say something, but choked it off and ducked back to his notes.
Harry swallowed a sigh and resisted rolling his eyes because Hermione was watching him over a book entitled Advanced Art of the Arithmancer. Harry repeated to himself that he did not care how appalled Ron was at Harry's new family situation. Being from such a huge family, Ron could not possibly understand and Harry felt no need to work for his friend's approval, quite the opposite.
Harry sighed without trying to and went back to looking up what methods of transfiguration were easier on objects composed of cells. He did not remember reading anything about that in the latest assigned chapter and hoped it did not come up on an examination or quiz because none of it made sense to him. So little of Transfiguration made sense this year that asking Hermione for help only made Harry's head hurt. He wished he had Astronomy calculations to do instead, a true measure of his frustration.
The other students trickled out and with the additional lamps snuffed the library grew almost too dim to read in.
Ron, without preamble, stood up and said, "I'm going to bed. You nutters can stay and rewrite every last essay you've ever written, but I'm tired."
"Ron . . ." Hermione began, then glanced at the time while Ron made his escape. The door to the library closed and Harry watched Ron's distorted shape move along the glass windows.
"I hadn't realized how late it is," Hermione said, stacking her things together. Her face showed the kind of stress it usually only did around exam time. "He'll come around, Harry," she said.
Harry shrugged. He turned back to his essay and said, "I still have to work out a few more things on my Transfiguration assignment."
She shyly offered, "Want me to help?"
"You mean the way you help Ron, usually? No. That won't help me, really. I care about my NEWT scores. Ron doesn't."
"Right." Hermione packed up her things to depart. "Don't be too much longer. It's almost curfew."
"I don't care," Harry said, and he meant it.
With her bag weighing her down crooked, she moved the chairs back under the table. "Well, they probably won't do anything to you anyway if they catch you out."
The door clicked closed behind her more quietly than it had behind Ron. Minutes later, it clicked open again. At first, Harry did not see anything, and assumed it was the wind, but then he heard scuffling.
Harry leaned forward to see better and noticed two small figures in hooded cloaks creeping in the door: the Creevey brothers; it had to be. Harry put down his quill and watched them slink their way over to the gate leading to the Restricted Section. Harry crossed his arms. One of them reached up to open the latch, and they slipped inside. Colin pulled a little folding step ladder out from under his cloak and leaned it against the gate. When he turned to oh so carefully close the latch, he finally saw Harry sitting there, facing him, and he sucked in a yelp.
Dennis merely shushed his brother as he moved farther inside, holding his lamp up high to light the plaques on the ends of the shelves.
Harry and Colin stared at each other until Harry shook his head and went back to his assignment. He could hear Colin's sigh of relief as he and his brother moved out of view. The rustling of large lambskin pages issued forth forming a backdrop to the brothers' whispering.
In his determination to defeat his complete lack of understanding of chapter 5 of McGonagall's assigned textbook, Harry nearly forgot their presence. He worried acutely that chapters 6 through 26 would bring on serious hurt if he did not. If he slacked on Transfiguration this early in the year, he might as well quit now and find something better suited to him than being an Auror, like bartender at the Hog's Head, or hazardous pet groomer.
Half an hour later, about the time Harry decided to give up, the door to the library swung open again and Harry was reminded of the clandestine operations only by the hurried shuttering of the lamp light in the Restricted Section. Madam Pince, wearing a frilly dressing gown, shuffled inside in her slippers, which were trying to fall off her feet. Harry looked up at her and she squinted back at him, nose forward like a blind vulture. She gave up recognizing him and patted her pockets to retrieve her glasses.
"Ah, Mr. Potter." She looked around the room, adjusting her glasses and making a face like they were the wrong pair. "One of my new alarm devices woke me up." She sniffled. "It is after curfew, my boy."
"Is it?" Harry said. He wasn't certain why he found this limit interesting to push, but he did. He certainly did not have to worry about facing Dumbledore's disappointment any longer about anything he did wrong.
Harry stood and collected his papers up, taking his time and rearranging them several times. "I'll go up to the tower then."
Pince was still squinting around the room, her eyes enlarged by her thick glasses. "You're alone? Your friends have all left?"
"Yes," Harry said, feeling secure in that lie.
"Do close up when you are done," she lectured him and after bundling her frilly edges together better, shuffled out, heels half off her footwear.
Harry waited a full minute, while slowly packing things into his bookbag. "You'd best go when I do," he said to no one in particular.
The hooded figures crept into view. Small already, they were startlingly reduced by their crouching. Colin stuck his nose through the slats of the gate and whispered, "We still haven't found what we need."
"The alarm will know you are still here," Harry said. "I expect."
Harry looked around but saw nothing. Unlike much of the school, the library was well dusted so he could not use that to figure out what had been added recently. "I don't know what's detecting that someone is in here. It might be a spell. It might be a Sneakoscope. I don't know."
The brothers came through the gate, one toting the lamp, the other the step ladder. These were both stashed away under cloaks that must magically alter to hide what one was carrying because their forms remained unnaturally small.
"What are you looking for, anyway?" Harry asked.
The brothers glanced at each other and did not answer right away. Colin finally said, "Some stuff."
"Just some stuff?"
The brothers glanced meaningfully at each other again. "We don't want to tell you," Colin explained.
Taken aback by this, Harry said, "Why not?"
The brothers stared at him. Dennis blurted, "Because you'll tell Professor Snape," in a tone that conveyed that he believed Harry thick.
Colin elbowed his brother, and said, "You're a bit tight with the staff now, you must admit, Harry."
"You think I can't be trusted?" Harry asked, stunned. When the boys shrugged helplessly, Harry argued, "I didn't tell Madame Pince you were here."
"Right." Harry opened the door to the corridor and looked both ways. "Come on," he said, letting his annoyance bleed into his tone.
Harry led the way back to the tower, always waving the all-clear at each turn, although the small students in their dark cloaks barely needed the assistance. They could hide in the shadows of doorways or furniture without much trouble.
The common room was empty as well. Harry, still irritated, made his way to the dormitory stairs without saying good night.
Before he reached the first landing a small voice said, "You really won't tell?"
Harry turned back. Colin pushed his hood back and said, "Because we need your help if we can't get into the library." Dennis tugged on his brother's sleeve and they whispered together, arguing. "If you could talk to Ha- Ha- Hagrid for us, we wouldn't need to do research."
"I don't know why you are scared of Hagrid," Harry said, glaring down at them, arms crossed.
Dennis whispered something to his brother that sounded like he looks like a teacher and Colin said, "Are you still a Gryffindor, or not?"
"I'm still staying here in this Tower, you'll notice. Never mind," Harry said, getting more than annoyed now, and this whole thing wasn't worth getting angry over, really. He stomped up to bed.
Harry pondered his Transfiguration assignment during breakfast since he would not have another chance to look at it before turning it in. The light of day only made the print easier to read, not much else. Shaking his head, he put it away and ate breakfast, feeling desultory.
"Are you sure you don't want me to help you with that?" Hermione asked from across the table.
Ron answered before Harry could. "Harry can get as much help as he likes. Anytime."
Harry felt like telling him to stuff it, but it would not be a good way to start the day.
Defense class was mostly discussion, so Harry did not get a much-needed outlet for his bottled up emotion, like he had hoped. He had picked a seat in the very back of the room, and Ron had dragged Hermione to the front, where she usually sat. Neville sat beside Harry with an uncertain smile.
Harry did not raise his hand for any of the questions he knew, which was most of them. Every question that went by ground on him that this was so easy but that he might still not be allowed into the Auror's program. Snape's gaze paused on him every time it went around the room. By the end of the lesson, Harry did not have to see it; he could sense it. But he did not feel like talking, so he slipped out with the mass of students when the bell sounded.
Harry could not escape his guardian for long. Snape entered the Great Hall at dinner time through the door near the Gryffindor table and paused behind him. He put a sharp pair of fingers on Harry's shoulder and said, "My office. Directly after dinner," before gliding away toward the Head Table.
Harry looked back in time to see the Creevey brothers as well as Ron looking away from him.
Chocolate-stained dessert dishes littered the table. They got up to leave. Ron put his arm around Hermione and walked her off to the largest of the hearths, which was burning high to combat the autumn chill. Harry had eaten his chocolate raspberry bomb as slowly as possible, which was a kind of torment in itself. Snape had already departed along with the rest of the teachers. Ginny and her girlfriends sat with their heads bent together over a magazine, whispering avidly. Harry had no excuse to remain any longer, unless he wished to share in the latest news about sparkling hair accessories.
Snape's office door stood open, which was unusual. Harry stepped inside and left it open, leaving Snape to wave it closed.
"Is there some problem?" Snape asked as Harry contemplated sitting at the desk in the middle of the floor, the one students wrote lines at during detention.
Harry scratched his cheek. Without looking up, he replied, "Same ones as usual."
"Why don't you take a seat and reiterate them for me."
Despite the gentle tone, Harry felt uncooperative. "I have assignments due tomorrow, Severus."
Snape appeared to make a decision. "As you wish." When Harry put his hand on the door, Snape added, "Do remember I am here if you change your mind."
"Mr. Potter, are you assisting Mr. Thomas with his assignment?" Greer asked the next morning.
Harry had been, but the Slytherins and the Hufflepuffs always did that.
"I am quite certain I did not make this a group assignment. You get a zero for today."
Harry rolled his eyes and put a hand on Hermione to quiet her before she too lost her mark for the day. He scooped up his backpack from the floor, intending to leave, but Greer said, "You may come to the front and prep the juncus belticus for everyone's potion. It is the last ingredient today."
Harry breathed out through his nose and dropped his bag so it smacked the floor. Malfoy smirked at him as Harry sat at the bench near the front and picked up a small knife. To him it still felt at least as dangerous as a wand. He ran the edge over a stone, stalling before picking up a handful of dried rushes and chopping them neatly, at a perfect 45 degree angle, just to take away Greer's right to chastise him yet again.
At lunch Harry pondered the color of his finger tips.
"That stuff stains," Hermione said.
"Got a Potion for it?" Harry asked. "The neutralizer didn't work."
"Not on me," Hermione apologized. "Greer probably did that to avoid staining her own hands for the inspection."
Hermione shoveled her lunch into her mouth faster than normal. "The Ministry is inspecting the school on Saturday. It's supposed to be a secret, but it was in the Prophet this morning." She stood and collected up her bag. "I have to make a stop in the library for my Arithmancy assignment. I'll see you later."
Harry gave her a stained wave good bye and returned to his lunch. His other table companions sat silently, blinking up at him. Harry turned to Dennis Creevey beside him and said, "What do you want to ask Hagrid?"
Dennis' mouth stretched into a broad grin.
Harry had Care of Magical Creatures that afternoon. They stood in the cool air while Hagrid explained about Ogregnomes, which as far as Harry could tell from the lecture were simply exceptionally ugly gnomes. His thoughts were echoed by Hermione who, when Hagrid opened the box, leaned over to Ron and asked, "Doesn't that look like an ordinary gnome to you?"
The potato-nosed little man in the box shook his fist at them and tried to spit on Lavender who had leaned in too close, especially considering the kinds of things Hagrid often had in boxes.
Ron whispered, "He's a better than average looking one, really."
Harry waited behind while the rest of his school mates tromped back to the castle. Hagrid looked up and grinned. "Want to help me a bit, Harry?"
"Sure, Hagrid," Harry said. He felt a little bad about using Hagrid, so he thought he should make it up to him ahead of time.
He helped carry things back to the shed at the edge of the pumpkin patch while listening to Hagrid's litany about missing Dumbledore.
"He was great man, Dumbledore was," Hagrid repeated with a snort into the checkered tablecloth he was using as a handkerchief. "School won't be ter same w'out 'im."
"No, it won't," Harry agreed. Thinking that, for one thing, the Creevey brothers were going to be much more trouble.
The shed door banged closed. "I have some other things to 'tend to, if'n yer want to help?" He sounded hopeful.
"Sure, Hagrid," Harry repeated.
Harry found himself in the school rowboat, in charge of a heavy sack of rusty metal tools. Each pull on the oars by Hagrid sent them skimming half the length of a Quidditch pitch. Worried they may lose the tools overboard, Harry tied the sack around the seat. The castle receded behind them and the air grew green and chilly.
Harry needed to work his question into the conversation, and to do that he was going to need to make conversation, even on a difficult topic. "Hagrid, you remember that Ron and I followed the spiders out of the castle that one time? When the Basilisk was scaring them off. I mean, you were, er, off in Azkaban, but do you remember telling us to do that?"
Hagrid was looking around the lake's glassy surface, letting them drift across what appeared to be the sky. "Huh? Oh, yeah."
"I was wondering, you know, what should we have done to keep the spiders in check? You know, to keep them from attacking us."
Hagrid hauled on the oars again. Harry's upper body dipped backward and forward with the force of the motion. "Well, you shouldn't walk all the way into ter lair, you know."
"Right," Harry said. "Probably the wisest plan."
"Bring an offerin' of some kind. That always makes 'em happy. And less hungry."
"Okay . . ." Harry had insisted the Creevey brothers not give him details, so he could pretend to know nothing later. In retrospect he wondered if that was the best plan. He imagined his wee schoolmates, incased in rope-thick sticky webbing, suspended from a tall tree in the darkest part of the forest, stored there to be sucked dry at a more convenient time. The Creevey brothers insisted they knew what they were doing.
Harry sighed and tried to banish his imaginings by remembering how boxed in he had felt by the same rules when he was their year.
"Would something like a . . . bubble gum hex work, maybe?" Harry mused aloud.
Hagrid peered down into the water. "Better to feed them treacle tarts tainted with Drowsing Draught, that way they can't bite you while they are getting sleepy." The ripples from the boat were the only disturbance on the vast water. A hawk circled above the nearby cliff, never needing to flap to stay there. Harry's thoughts had settled into a nice relaxed meditation, lulled by the serenity around them, when without warning the world rushed up around them accompanied by a shower of bitterly cold water.
"Ah, there yer are," Hagrid said happily.
Harry had jumped forward to his knees, arms stretched across the gunwales, in a desperate bid to keep them from capsizing. The Giant Squid slid around the boat, keeping its exposed eye aimed at Hagrid.
"Harry, hand me . . . what're yer doing down there?"
Harry rocked back to the bench. His knees were soaked, as was one of his shoes. He had to prop his feet on the sides of the hull to keep them out of the sloshing water they had taken on. Hagrid had a great hand out. Harry righted the tool sack, which made a wet metallic rattle.
"Hand me the big pick outta there, Harry. And ter file."
Harry rummaged around inside the sack, pulling out one thing after another. Until Hagrid said, "That one'll do. And the file there."
"Open wide then," Hagrid said to the squid. The giant eye slipped backward under the silky water then rose up in a brief shower, which cleared to reveal a massive white beak, surrounded by hooked tentacles.
Harry gaped at this nightmarish vision, stunned, not even shifting his weight when Hagrid stood up in the rowboat to use the file to smooth a jagged edge Harry would not have ever noticed. The smell was something unreal, like muddy rancid fish oil. Harry pulled his robes up over his nose and sat waiting to exchange tools. The reflection of the sky came right across through the boat, it had so much water in it.
"That'll do it." Hagrid handed the tools back, and Harry cinched the sack closed.
"Now look at all the water in ter boat," Hagrid complained to the squid.
Harry barely grabbed hold of his seat in time. The boat rose up out of the water then rotated neatly sideways. Harry clung to the seat by his hooked elbow, hand locked to his wrist, legs dangling while the water escaped over the side. When the last of the water dripped free, the squid gave them a little shake for good measure and set them gently back down.
Harry re-took his seat, and met the squid's eye as it sank away under the surface.
"All right then. No trouble at all," Hagrid happily pronounced, as he grabbed up the oars.
Harry cleared his throat. "Right."
Harry tried a drying charm several times as he sloshed his way up the lawn. He gave a cough and mounted the front steps, wondering what he had been thinking. The Creevey brothers were waiting inside. They peered at him eagerly as he closed the door and blinked to force his eyes to adjust.
"'ello, Harry," Dennis said hopefully.
Harry coughed again and stomped by them, his robes leaving a streak on the floor. "I'm going to the tower," he announced.
Showered and changed, Harry barely made it back down to the Great Hall before food arrived for dinner. His stomach gave a great rumble like the growl of one of Hagrid's pets.
Across from him, Ginny asked, "How are things with you, Harry?"
Something about the forced innocence in her tone made Harry consider her. Colin Creevey sat beside her, leaning in to listen to Harry's answer. Harry glanced between them, wondering if she was in on whatever they were planning. It made him feel more secure to imagine that.
Ginny smiled broadly, as if reading his thoughts.
"Later," he said to her. He gave another faint cough and tapped his pumpkin juice with his wand to make it steaming hot.
In the Gryffindor Tower common room, Harry settled in with his books, determined to keep up with his readings for the week.
Ginny settled into the chair beside him, and proceeded to flip through her Defense textbook too fast to be reading it. Hermione and Ron sat on the battered couch, also working quietly. Ginny held out her book to Harry and said, "Can I ask you about something?"
A note was stuck inside her book, it said: what did Hagrid say?
Harry took the book and slipped the note out. She leaned in close over the book, close enough he could smell the shampoo she used. Muttering, he said, "Drowsing Draught laced Treacle Tarts." Then he proceeded to explain some meaningless detail about the diagram in the book, even though he knew she did not need it. Across from him Hermione winked. Harry expected she was not in on whatever was being planned, but was instead lobbying for Ginny.
Ginny made a doubtful noise and sat back with her book. She sent Harry a dubious glare, to which he could only shrug in response. He bunched up the note and tossed it onto the nearby roaring hearth.
Harry's belief that he was catching up with his NEWT subjects, at least enough to get through them, was knocked back by the pop quiz McGonagall handed out at the start of class the next day. Unlike those of his other teachers, her quizzes did not leave open the option of simply regurgitating his notes or the textbook. The questions were things like, compare these two methods, or summarize this theory, and explain how it is useful. Hermione bent to aggressively scratch out her usual long answers. Ron sat beside her with one tense hand lodged firmly in his hair. Others around the room fidgeted uncomfortably, so at least Harry was in good company. He filled in something for the last question, based on Hermione's last attempt at explaining it more clearly just last week. Then he re-read the first question and closed his eyes while pondering whether it was more embarrassing to leave it blank or fill it in with something hopelessly confused.
As he sat there, a guess came to mind. It drifted into his thoughts the way a cold draft comes around a room. Shrugging that at least it sounded well thought out, he wrote it down. It was not a complete answer, but it put something in that blank spot. He was just attempting to do the same for either of the other two blank questions when time was called and he had to give up.
Watching McGonagall marking the quizzes out of the corner of his eye meant that Harry also did not do well on that day's practical exercise. He tried not to care what she thought but could not manage it. Her disappointment loomed painfully.
Snape caught Harry in the corridor that Friday, just as he was on his way back to the tower with his friends for butterbeers and some games. Ron and Ginny were just loudly insisting that all assigned books be banned from the common room that evening when Snape stepped out of his classroom and gestured for Harry to enter.
Harry's friends went on without him, promising to keep a butterbeer warm for him.
"Sit," Snape commanded and returned to cleaning up from spell exercises. Harry slid into a desk in the front and propped his hands under his chin.
"Did you do your readings for your courses this week?" Snape asked as he folded a practice dummy into a wardrobe and had to lock the door with a spell to keep it inside, stacked as it was on top of many other things.
"Yes," Harry insisted, defensive immediately.
Snape went on as if Harry had not answered. "I thought nothing of your silence in my classes this week, until Minerva commented that you did rather poorly on a quiz yesterday."
Heat filled Harry, squirming as it made its way around his insides. "Care to quiz me now on your readings?" he snapped.
Snape stared at him for confirmation, then returned to his task of straightening his notes. "If you fall behind in any NEWT subject this early-"
"I KNOW that," Harry interrupted, fully angry now.
Snape put his things down. "I don't appreciate that tone, Harry."
Harry stood up. "Then why are we talking?" he asked. He felt odd saying it and stranger still, relieved to have said it.
"You were not dismissed," Snape stated softly, the tone that signaled he was halfway to trying menacing as a tactic.
With a show of obedience, Harry swung back into the desk and sat in it crooked, limbs akimbo.
Snape stepped around the front of his work table and crossed his arms. "If you are having difficulty in any subject, you should ask for help."
Harry, finding freedom in his anger, gave no ground. "Sure."
Snape's eyes narrowed and Harry Occluded his thoughts, relaxing easily into the needed emotional isolation. Snape shook his head and returned to finishing up. "We will talk more this weekend, after you have calmed down. Clearly it is going to be unproductive to talk more now."
Harry levered himself out of the low desk. "You aren't going to have much time this weekend what with the inspection and all."
Snape raised a brow. "I will find some."
Harry departed and gratefully settled into a game of wizard chess with Dean in the common room. At one point in the evening, he noted that certain of his classmates were missing, but not imagining it had any significance, he forgot again.
Harry's stomach, fed too many sweets and butterbeers the night before, woke him early, demanding something more substantive. He found Ron washing up in the boys' toilet. They glanced at each other warily in the mirror. Generally Hermione was there as a buffer, and without her they had nothing but hurtful words hanging between them. Harry finished up quickly and started down for the Great Hall.
In the Entrance Hall, the main doors stood open and an entourage of well-dressed witches and wizards migrated inside, greeting McGonagall and Snape. Harry spotted Fudge and his usual assistants, and now could pick up his pompously annoying voice over the murmur of the small crowd. Harry made his way slowly down the Grand Staircase. The doors to the Great Hall stood closed as everyone watched the arrivals mingle.
Harry stopped by the stairs leading down to the kitchens. Hannah Abbot and Susan Bones were just coming up from their chambers, but slowed at the top of the stairs when they saw the unexpected guests. Harry stepped aside to let them pass. As he turned he spotted the Creevey brothers, clumped in the corner by the main doors. One was biting his lip and the other watched the visitors with a hungry avidness. Harry stared at them, finding something about this scene worrisome.
"So much for a quiet Saturday," Susan complained in her friend's ear. "My aunt told me that she thought an inspection a complete waste of the Minister's time, that he was simply avoiding more difficult things that need addressing."
Fudge and his retinue moved toward the doors to the Great Hall. The doors creaked open, revealing it to be unusually dark inside. Harry squinted across the Entrance Hall, trying to see why it might be dark just over there when the morning light was flowing in the main doors with such abandon. Ron, complaining about needing breakfast, tugged open the doors on the right. Harry heard a giggle and glanced toward the stairs where Ginny was biting her lip.
"Oh no," Harry mouthed, and charged forward toward Ron's retreating back, wand out.
Ron screamed. A spider the size of a pillow dangled before him, legs grasping, maw open. Harry hit it with a Blasting Curse that sent it into the rafters. In the middle of the Great Hall, Minister Fudge's retinue had surrounded him, wands out, trying to target the scurrying spiders slashing out at their legs. Giant webs filled the ceiling. Harry grabbed Ron by the collar and dragged him, stumbling, out of the hall. Ron did not assist much; he was whimpering loudly, holding his hands over his head. Hermione, wand out and tracking everything, met them halfway and accelerated the retreat. The doors slammed closed behind them. Harry released Ron and let Hermione take him to sit on the stairs until his shakes subsided.
Feeling less generous toward Fudge and Percy, and the others, Harry did not charge back inside. He backed up to the stairs and stood beside Hermione. Professor Sprout, hair askew, swept through the Entrance Hall and shooed them all either up or down the stairs.
"To your common rooms, go!" she commanded. "Prefects, you are to hold your students there until instructed otherwise." She came over to Harry and his friends. "Unless he is hurt, get him up and out of here."
"I hate spiders," Ron squeaked into his arms.
"They are no one's favorite, Mr. Weasley," Sprout said before turning back to the Great Hall.
Harry assisted Ron in standing up, then let go because Ron tugged at his hold. Harry waited to follow, letting the pair go up the stairs ahead of him. When he started up, something took hold of his robes and pulled, hard.
Hermione glanced back in surprise, but her expression fell calm as she looked over his shoulder, making Harry put his wand back away rather than striking out.
"Mr. Potter," Snape said, voice vibrating with underlying fury like Harry had heard once or twice before. "In here," he said. And, using Harry's robes, gave him a toss toward the Staff Room.
Harry checked the Entrance Hall for any of his classmates but it had been cleared. He opened the door and went inside, leaving it open. Snape stepped in and pushed the door closed behind him. His gaze held all the soft warmth of obsidian. Harry's heart rate went up as he tried to think a few steps ahead of where he was.
Harry did hesitate this time, taking one of the chairs around the long table.
"What do you know about this?" Snape asked.
Snape came around his chair and grabbed hold of the shoulder of Harry's robes and pushed him back in his chair. "You know something," he said, voice silky. Harry thought then that it reminded him of the blade of a Muggle surgical instrument being wielded. He did not give Harry a chance to think before adding, "I happened to be looking at you. You knew what was happening before it was clear to anyone else."
Harry blinked. "I . . . I guess," he admitted.
Snape still had a hold of his robes. "This inspection is of utmost importance to this school," he said. "I don't know what childish motivation possessed you, but I assure you, you will be punished well enough that any future thoughts in this direction will fill you with sufficient aversion to put better sense in your head."
Harry stared at Snape, trying to Occlude his mind. But Snape had transformed into a stranger, and that was making his thoughts circle crazily. "I didn't do this," Harry said.
Snape released his robes. "But you knew."
"Well . . ." Harry said, tugging the kink out of his robes. "Sort of."
Snape leaned closer. "I don't know what kind of an answer you believe that to be."
Harry finally found some emotional grounding and sat forward. "I found out some information for someone. I did not know what they were going to do with it. Or when they were going to do it."
Snape studied Harry's eyes, getting nothing, Harry hoped. "That is all?" he asked, mocking in his doubt.
"And to whom did you give this information? This . . . harmless information that led you to no suspicion about how it may be used, yet the Great Hall of this school is now a Giant Spider colony?"
Harry's Occlusion held. He felt good about that and about the notion of being obstinate. "I'm not going to say."
Snape did not react to this, just stared him down. "Then you will be punished as if it is entirely your doing, or until the perpetrators are found." He stood straight, giving Harry time to absorb that.
Harry huffed. "Fine," he said.
Snape moved to the door, turning back one last time. His veneer had cracked, and his eyes flickered with uncertainty. In the next instant, he was gone through the door.
Harry stood up and checked out the door before exiting, not wanting to encounter any other teachers. Crates of spiders were being carted out the main doors, directed by Hagrid, taking all of everyone's attention.
"Careful there, don't want any more o' them getting hurt than already have."
"Hagrid," McGonagall threatened. "I would just as soon flatten every last one of them."
"Aw, yer don't really mean that . . ." And the main doors boomed closed.
Harry snuck away in that opening, halted at the top of the stairs by a hiss. He found the Creevey brothers hiding behind a curtain.
"Harry!" Colin whispered. "What'd'ya think?"
"I think you shouldn't be caught here," Harry said, and stalked off.
Harry slipped into the common room, which was packed with students gossiping excitedly.
"Did you see the look on Fudge's face?" Dean was saying. "Oh, if I live to be two hundred, I will relish that 'til the end."
Hermione slipped over to Harry to whisper, "Did you happen to see Dennis and Colin?"
Harry nodded. They must have slipped in behind him, because they were now standing in the dim corner by the portrait hole. Harry pointed.
"Oh," Hermione blurted, checking them off on her list.
Harry went up to his bed, not in the mood for celebration. He dropped down on top of the duvet without even removing his shoes, and drifted there, listening to his stomach rumble in complaint.
Dean came up a while later. "They are serving breakfast now," he said to Harry.
Harry followed him down. The Great Hall had completely returned to normal. Fudge and his retinue were installed at the end of the Head Table, chatting. Between bites Fudge stopped to survey the room with his beady eyes, accusation in every twitch of his gaze.
Snape came down off the dais and said to Harry, "You are in detention for the rest of the day. Do not leave the hall until you are told you may do so."
Everyone at their end of the table stopped eating and stared, except the Creevey brothers and Ginny who blinked in a slightly different kind of surprise.
Hermione leaned forward and whispered, "Harry, did you do it?"
Harry ignored her and watched Snape returning to his seat. McGonagall asked him something as he sat down. Snape, his gaze stabbing over to Harry, replied, "He knows more than he will let on, so he is being punished until he relents."
McGonagall's lips replied, "Ah."
After breakfast, Harry sat in his seat while everyone departed around him or took out their books to study. Many students stopped by to congratulate Harry, or simply pat him on the back. News of his punishment had spread fully around the school just in one breakfast, and that was the same as proof of guilt, or award of success, depending upon the viewpoint.
"The Weasley Twins would be proud," Jack Sloper said. "Don't you think, Ginny?" he prompted one of the handful still clustered around Harry.
Ginny nodded slowly, eyes wide.
Hermione had her Astronomy essay out in front of her, she kept shooting Harry questioning looks, which Harry studiously ignored.
Snape slipped up behind Hermione, and jerked his head indicating Harry should follow him. Harry stood up and obeyed.
Snape strode purposefully, saying nothing. He led the way not up the central staircases but around to Filch's office. In response to Harry's noise of surprise, he said, "Detention with me would not be much of a punishment, so you will spend it with Mr. Filch." With that, he strode off, leaving Harry standing there, forced to knock.
Filch was ranting already when he swung the door open. "Bloody mongrel students," he grumbled. "What is it?" he snarled, spittle flying in Harry's face.
"I'm to serve detention with you."
Filch considered this. Harry hoped he was not smart enough to make the connection between his detention and this morning's events. "Hm," Filch muttered, lips twitching into a distorted mockery of a smile. "Are you then?"
Harry's day of labor started out all right. He polished doorknobs. This left him in plain sight where everyone could stop by and praise his brilliance at pranks. He had no response to this outside of a shrug, which rather than put off his new found fandom, only seemed to increase it due to his modest attitude. Malfoy mocked him for a while, but Harry sent him off by pointing out how very happy giant spiders would be living in the Slytherin dungeon.
Harry did not get lunch. He finished the second floor and returned to Filch's office, expecting a break.
"What? With every single knob? No."
"Then get back to it, boy!"
Harry stared at him. When he did not move right away, Filch said with queer innocence, "We can go to Professor Snape's office instead, if you prefer?"
Defeated by that, Harry said, "All right." And took up fresh rags and a new tin of polish before heading out again.
His knees protested acutely each time he crouched to work on a keyhole. His stomach complained bitterly about being empty too long. His mind filled with visions of Ron eating a second helping of everything that morning, and this made his mouth water uncontrollably.
Harry most likely had missed any number of knobs, but a quick circling of the first floor didn't reveal any still tarnished, so he returned to Filch's office and declared the task finished. He did not expect a break this time, and just as well. Filch opened a window and held his hand out. "A nice cold rain. Perfect."
Harry was sent up to the roof, to weed the gutters. At least the open air cleared the noxious polish scent out of his nose. Harry, wand in hand in case he needed to spell an emergency Tethering Charm, crawled along the edge of the tiles and fished out the small trees and soupy rot that had collected there. He had been forbidden to use a broom and the Gecko Charm behaved unpredictably on the wet tiles so he moved with care, a few feet at a time. He had decided against ruining his Quidditch gloves, so he needed to stop frequently to respell his bare hands with a warming charm, which if nothing else was forcing him to improve his left-handed spell casting.
The shifting clouds kept him company. He paused often to gaze out over the forest, listening with interest to the sounds that shifted as the afternoon wore out and the evening came on. Different creatures grew active, then quiet again in overlapping waves, serenading him.
A tile broke free when Harry pushed off near a dormer and he bumped and slipped down to catch a hand and a foot in the gutter. He should have cast the tether. His wand was still gripped in his right hand, but he had been too tired to react except in a wholly Muggle way. Something about the endless remedial tasks put him firmly back in that mindset.
The ground, and the tall wall leading down to it teetered below him, drawing him downward. Knuckles bruised and throbbing, he cautiously pushed himself back onto the solid roof edge, afraid the groaning metal of the gutter may decide to not hold his weight if he moved too rapidly. Too bad he couldn't fly without a broomstick, his tired brain thought.
On aching muscles he crab-crawled a few feet higher so he could safely put his wand away and duck out of the wind. He then wrapped his hands inside his clothes under his armpits to try to ease the bitter sting from rasping them over the tiles when he slipped. He sat hunched that way for many minutes.
"Harry," a familiar voice called down from the small landing at the tower door that led to the roof. It was Hermione.
Harry rolled on his side and crawled up to her.
"I brought you some cauldron cakes."
"Oh," Harry said with a tinge of ecstasy. He cleaned his hands with a spell and accepted the pile she held out.
While he gobbled down the first one, she said, "Harry, the students responsible should be doing their own punishment. There is no way you were that involved. I've been around you too many hours of the day for you to have worked it in. Unless you sneaked a Time Turner from somewhere."
Harry opened the second cauldron cake, swallowing hard. "And if I did, I would not use it to waste my time on luring giant spiders to the Great Hall."
"Exactly," she said, sounding strained. "Harry, you should say."
"I'm not telling on my friends," Harry said.
"They should tell, then."
"They'll probably get expelled," Harry pointed out, suddenly thinking of this. "They can't expel me. Even if they really think I did it."
"True." A light mist beat at them, carried on a gust. "You should quit for the night. It's getting late."
"Filch will just make me do something else." Harry said. "At least the view is nice out here. Thanks for the cakes."
He climbed back onto the roof. She said, "I'll save you some dinner."
The rain came down full force as Harry tried to finish that wing. It fortunately battered him upward rather than threatening to batter him down off the roof. He sensed someone watching, and wondered if Hermione had really departed. He glanced around but he did not see her, and the tower door was closed tight. The rainwater slid over the tiles in a film, filling the gutters, which backed up against the muck collected in them. Each handful he lifted out caused the water to surge around to fill the new gap. Eventually, the remaining chunk broke free and began washing away down the pipe at the end.
Satisfied, Harry crept gingerly on abused limbs back to the landing. It was farther away than it looked and he had to stop and rest once to make it. The clouds pressed down on him as he went, lashing at the hills around him, tossing dead leaves along with the rain. At the tower, he shook himself off and located many screaming muscles just tugging open the door. Inside it quickly grew steamy from his breath and the rain he brought in with him. He tried to dry himself with a few spells, but this only worked marginally. He longed for a hot shower and dry clothes but instead marched to Filch's office, where Filch took great pleasure in Harry's state.
"I'm told you're done for the day. Immediately after breakfast tomorrow, you better be back here, or else."
Harry was too tired to care about tomorrow. He trudged to the Gryffindor Tower, showered and fell into bed, ignoring everyone in the common room, even though every single one of them gave him their full attention as he stumbled through.
Neville, smelling strangely of beef stew, roused him. "Hermione asked me to bring you this."
"Dinner," Harry breathed. "I slept through it; didn't I?" His neck screamed at him as he sat up.
Neville handed him the tray and stood beside the bed. "Seems like you are taking the fall for someone else."
Harry was too busy eating to reply. His resistance had turned into a battle on a completely different front, one he was unclear on, but that did not make him slacken his will.
The next morning Harry again reported to Filch. This time he was assigned to scrape and touch up the enamel on the carriages. They were parked in a long shed that still gave off an odor of horse manure, even though there were presumably no horses and had not been for years. At least he found a stool to sit on so he did not have to crouch. And his friends must not have known where he had gone to because no one brought him lunch. He had kept a few rolls in his pocket from breakfast, pressed around rashers of bacon, but they did not suffice.
Exhausted, fingers battered, Harry quit when he heard the bell for dinner. He set the paint and tools inside Filch's door and walked off while the man chuckled. "If I had my way . . ." he began, but Harry closed the door before hearing the details. He could make them up himself, really.
Harry stopped to clean up, so he arrived for dinner when desserts were served. Hermione had a plate for him set aside. She quickly set it in front of him and reheated it. Then touched her face strangely. "You have paint . . ." she said.
Harry rubbed his cheek where she indicated. "Least of my troubles."
Harry ignored the Head Table and focused on eating. The more sensible part of his brain had broken into a mantra about how his assignments were sitting unfinished, but his body screamed for sleep, or a long hot bath, or a long sleep in a long hot bath. Or a drowning; that would have been acceptable too, according to some subset of his joints and muscles.
Harry ignored his Defense essay on the grounds that Snape could not have expected him to find the time to do it. He worked on his Herbology one instead, slept half the night on it, in fact.
During Defense he sat lethargically in the back, when he was called on, he tossed out an answer that may have been correct. He was too exhausted to make up a fake one, even though he would have preferred to have answered incorrectly. Snape wanted to demonstrate a Counter for a Hair Growing Hex, and he called Harry up to do that.
Harry wanted to refuse. He wanted to sit there and sulk, but he could not, so he stood up. He was very long in doing so, creating an uncomfortable silence in the room.
Harry did as he was instructed and nothing more. Normally he would have helped his classmates, especially when it would have been easier than facing their wayward spells, but he stood there, dealing with the rogue magic instead.
Harry was not released back to his seat but remained there on the platform throughout the spell demonstrations, playing target. When the bell rang, he looked up for permission to go, but Snape shook his head and said quietly, "Stay."
Harry stood there. Unmoving, his aches transformed into a throbbing numbness that pulled his thoughts to a blessed standstill.
Snape's voice broke him out of it. "I forgot what a penchant you have for self-abuse."
Harry stared at him. Not quite understanding. Some response was expected. "So?"
"You did not turn in an essay, I noticed."
Harry was just generating a withering look, when Snape turned away and added, "I'll assume you were otherwise engaged. But do not make a habit of it."
"It's sort of difficult to write an essay on the roof of the school in the middle of a rainstorm. On a sunny day, maybe." He jested, but it brought a bright sting to his heart. "I'm going to be late for Transfiguration. Not that I have my essay for that class either."
Snape paced around. Footsteps built outside the door. Snape waved a charm at it to lock it and said, "You are not going to say whom you helped, are you?"
"If I ever was, I'm certainly not going to now," Harry said, happy with how solid that sounded. Every bit of ground he established between them felt like safety. Partly as a trial of that unexpected effect, he emotionally stepped back again and said, "So, if you wish me to continue and graduate with honors from the Dursley School of Remedial Manual Labor, that's your choice."
Snape studied him before saying, "I expect discipline from you, Harry. Maturity. Some leeway has been provided for you. Quite a bit in fact, but there are limits. They exist for a reason."
"You would think better of me if I told on my friends?" Harry asked. He had broken free of something and now felt heedless, uncertain where the boundaries were. "Loyalty means that little to you?"
Snape's head came around with a jerk. He pointed a finger at Harry. "Do not lecture me about loyalty, Potter." Snape immediately pulled back from his angry expression, physically put his shoulders back. He rubbed his face and paced, breathing audibly. "Get out of here. I need to figure out what to do with you, and I regret there isn't time right now to do that."
Harry collected his things, also feeling regret as well as freedom in equal doses. He parted the students waiting to get into the Defense classroom and walked slowly to his next class, stalling, because this late it did not matter how much later he became. The freedom did not feel like the good kind. It felt like the freedom to forget to use a Tether Charm and then subsequently fall off the roof of the school.
During lunch, while Harry tried in vain to do his Astronomy reading, Hermione asked, "Do you have detention again tonight?"
Harry shrugged. He had not thought to ask. Ginny bit her lips and leaned close. "I'm going to confess, Harry. This even-"
"Don't bother," Harry hissed, keeping his head down so only she could hear.
"Why not?" she asked, going from sympathetic to angry with two words.
"Because it's not about that anymore," Harry said.
"What's it about?"
"I don't know." He rubbed his eyes. He could care less about the celestial bodies making up Centaurus A. He had something far more important to work out, but did not know where to start.
That evening, Snape came to the common room, stopping everything everyone was doing. Students shoved things away that were perfectly allowed.
"Do I have detention?" Harry asked as he followed him into the corridor. He had waited to ask because he saw Ginny appearing to work up her courage and he did not want to give her a chance.
"Of a sort. Follow me."
Assignments had only felt like torture to his distracted mind, so Harry felt relieved at abandoning them. Snape led him to the gargoyles and up to the Headmistress' Tower. The late evening sky dominated the room, setting all the metal and glass in the room aflame. Harry took the indicated seat and waited while McGonagall finished something up.
"Harry," she said politely as she slipped a letter into an envelope and sealed it. When it was neatly arranged with some others she steepled her fingers and said, "Severus informs me you had a very tiny hand in what happened this weekend."
Harry shrugged. He planned on doing a lot of that this meeting and figured he might as well start early.
She smiled faintly, like she had him figured out. He let himself slouch more, which his tired body preferred anyhow. McGonagall said, "I'm quite surprised your friends—presumably they are your friends—have sat idly by and let you serve out such grueling detentions."
"So I was bait," Harry said.
"In a sense," she replied pleasantly.
Harry looked to his guardian to see his response. His eyes remained fixed on the rug. Harry said, "I told my friends not to say anything."
"You what?" Snape said, like a whip crack.
Harry turned to him more fully, "You think I want all that suffering of mine to go to waste? I don't know what you plan to do to my friends. Why shouldn't I take the punishment? You can't expel me."
Snape rolled his eyes, inspiring Harry to add, "You are the one who always insists I should use my influence more."
"That is not at all what I meant, and you know it, Potter."
Harry leaned toward him. "How am I supposed to know what you meant . . . I don't speak Slytherin."
McGonagall held up her hand. "Stop!" She sat back, making her chair creak. "Harry, you can go."
Harry's shoulders fell; he was just getting going. Head down, he stalked out.
After the door thudded closed, McGonagall turned to Snape and said, "I did not realize how thoroughly you had lost his good will, Severus. I apologize."
"Why are you apologizing? His actions merited punishment."
She shook her head and studied her fingers. "You are losing far more than is acceptable under the circumstances. In the annals of Hogwarts history this is a minor affair, really."
Snape stared at her. "The Minister of Magic, on an annual inspection, was set upon by a horde of giant spiders in the Great Hall and you label it a minor affair."
She gestured gallantly at the door Harry had exited through. "Harry himself fought a basilisk within these walls. He fought Voldemort, several times. Shall I go on?"
Snape looked away with a huff that sounded grudging.
McGonagall said, "I cannot bear to see you lose your adopted son over this, Severus. The matter is closed. Why don't you focus on repairing the damage and consider Harry's rather exemplary work this weekend as more than sufficient pay back to the school. It sounds to me from the scant facts we have that he was merely too trusting at best and too mischievous at worst. Either way he does not deserve to lose his first ever family over it." Her voice fell stern at the end, commanding even.
"I am out of my depths," Snape said after a beat.
"Severus, if you managed to find middle ground with Harry before there must be copious amounts of it there." She pushed forward and adjusted her glasses on her nose. "Don't let his will harden, however; he's got rather too much of that going."
Tuesday, Harry scrambled to finish assignments during breakfast and lunch, but could not quite manage. A renewed energy or even panic had set in. If he was on his own, he had to get into the Auror's program, and he was feeling very much on his own. Maybe he preferred that after all, he thought as he thumbed the index of his Herbology book looking for slime molds that may glow when cut or crushed.
During dinner Snape stopped behind him. "You have detention this evening. My office."
Harry rubbed his forehead, feeling overwhelmed. Snape added, "Bring your schoolworks with you."
"At least it's not roof repair," Hermione said.
Snape's office had more than the usual number of lamps burning in it, lending the room a cheery appearance. Harry took the desk, finding all kinds of biting nasty things on his tongue, ready to escape.
"What do you have due tomorrow?" Snape asked, voice neutral.
Harry shrugged, but then gathered his thoughts. "Your readings. Transfiguration."
"Why don't we start with Minerva's assignment."
"We?" Harry echoed. "Suddenly you care how I do?"
Snape did not respond to this, simply waited for Harry to pull out his things. He held his hand out for the book. "What chapter are you on?"
Snape paged through that one. "And your assignment?"
"Summarize the chapter. Answer some questions."
Snape handed the book back. "Have you read it?"
"I somehow haven't worked it into my chores," Harry said, voice still trying to carry an edge, still trying to cut.
"Read it aloud then," Snape said.
"Right now? Bother you with it? You don't have anything better to be doing?"
Snape stared him down, but not as a challenge, as something else. "No. Go ahead."
Harry shook his head, feeling disgusted, but he opened the book to the start of the chapter. "You do this to your House students, draw them in, then cut them down, then draw them in again?"
"We are not discussing my House students. We are discussing Advanced Transfiguration."
Harry felt like he was fighting against ice. He could get no purchase and the ice did not care. Jaw muscles tight, Harry began to read.
When he finished, voice hoarse, Snape asked him questions, forcing him to reframe what he read and tie it into previous chapters. As Harry composed his essay aloud before writing each line with a hard stroke of his pen that tore at the parchment, he grew more obstinate, angry even. Snape's careful patience was irritating him more than he thought possible.
It was with extreme relief that Harry wrote out the last line of the essay. Before Snape could suggest it, Harry said, "I don't need your help with my Defense essay." This came out stronger than he intended, and Snape's chin came up, then his head cocked.
"No, I don't imagine you do." He looked up at the clock and said, "A little early to be released from detention. Why don't you tell me what else is going on with you."
"Like what?" Harry asked. Clipping his words.
"Such as, you must be somewhat stressed about your sub par performance in Transfiguration, since it has such bearing on your future plans."
Harry pressed his lips together. "I'll get through it. Even without your help, I can get through it. I don't need your help. I don't want your help."
Snape nodded sagely, like he had confirmed something. "Work on your other subjects, on your own, for another half hour and then you may go."
The next day, the weather turned warm, a last echo of summer. The sun contended with only a handful of puffy clouds. Harry and his friends took their sandwiches out on the lawn at lunch time, then dallied out there, enjoying the air.
A cloaked figure stepped by them, stopped and turned. "Potter," Snape said. When Harry raised his head, Snape said, "Follow me."
With a half huff, half sigh, Harry pushed to his feet and followed down the slope, glancing back at his friends whose expressions of concern remained discernible from rather far away. Snape crossed the lawn to the lake edge and made his way over a soggy boardwalk through the reeds that led to a trail. Harry followed several paces behind, happy enough to stretch his still-complaining limbs with some easy exercise.
The well worn trail led away from the lake through tall trees, then back again to the precipitous edge, then down into a swampy area. Harry followed, losing himself in the walk and forgetting his troubles. Snape strode on, his broad cloak flapping as he walked. Harry had to jog up a steep slope to avoid falling farther behind. At the top of the rise, he stopped to catch his breath and looked back. The school sat like a fortress at the edge of the lake, distant. Harry had never come this far before on foot.
The path thinned, becoming less a trail than just beaten down brush. Then it disappeared all together. Still Snape walked on. Harry jogged again, thinking to ask how far they were going, then he remembered he was trying to be difficult and continued to follow in silence.
At a gentle rise backdropped by massive trees, Snape came to a stop. A stone bench sat at the apex of the hill, just at the lakeside. He waved a spell to clean off the surface and sat down, gesturing for Harry to do the same.
Harry's legs were tired, so rather than make an excuse for not complying he sat down as well, not quite on the far end, which was crumbling.
Sets of ripples rolled across the lake, interspersed with spans of glassy water where the sky and the far trees were perfectly reflected. It occurred to Harry that afternoon classes must have long since started, that Snape was missing his teaching and Harry his Herbology lesson. The view was too lovely to mention that, not that there was any chance Snape was unaware.
Out of the corner of his eye, Harry noticed Snape observing him. He met his eyes like meeting a challenge, then glanced away again.
"I'm still not telling you," Harry finally said, just to say something.
"Minerva has closed the issue."
"Oh." Harry did not know where to go after that.
"Telling you last night seemed meaningless given that you were being obstinate entirely for your own reasons," Snape said. "Reasons I was slow grasping." He leaned forward, touching his fingertips together experimentally. "I warned Albus that I was not good at this. But nevertheless . . . here we are."
Harry searched through the last few days trying to grab hold of his anger again. Snape spoke into these thoughts saying, "I want you to repeat something you said to me yesterday."
Harry waited, but Snape did not say more. "What?"
With unusual patience, Snape said, "I want you to tell me you don't want or need my help."
Harry stared at Snape's angular profile, wondering what he was thinking with that. But just imagining repeating it emptied him of defiance. He remained silent, his dry tongue stuck firmly to the roof of his mouth.
Snape turned to him, eyes darker than normal compared to the bright daylight. "You do not wish to say it?"
Harry held still, watching him, wary now. "I don't understand."
"Don't you?" Snape shifted closer on the bench. "I do not intend to unhinge you, Harry. I am simply trying to ensure that I understand what is happening with you. I let my own anger blind me before to any kind of apprehension of your deeper state of mind."
Harry waited, curious but also anxious about what Snape may say next.
"You've been pushing me away," Snape stated, eyes fixed with interest on the far shore of the lake. "I initially thought you were merely reacting to your punishment, and perhaps it germinated from that, but I think you found some advantage to the distance and began working to maintain it. You deserved to be punished, but I should have found some other means of doing so given how very capable you are of falling into a quiet state of persecuted suffering."
Harry frowned, insulted and therefore free to talk. "I didn't think you cared. Around here, you like punishing people, and you've never cared before."
Snape turned to him, eyes intense. "There are many ways of caring about and for someone, Harry. Even I, of all people, realize that. You made an unwise decision regarding irresponsible classmates; then you refused to make amends for it directly. Letting you get by without any censure would be irresponsible and uncaring." He contemplated his knitted fingers. "You assume, also, I suspect now, that I was not keeping an eye on you. Did you really think that?"
Under the bench, Harry's feet twisted around of their own accord. "But you left me out there . . ."
"You think it was easy to do so?"
Harry could not hold Snape's gaze. He looked away and gave a falsely casual shrug. "I just assumed you didn't care that much."
Snape grasped Harry's arm, then released it immediately to put his arm around Harry's back.
"I insisted Mr. Filch assign you something safer the second day."
"More boring," Harry complained, finding his footing again by doing so.
Snape took his hand back. "Well, we can't have that . . ."
"You couldn't just treat me as an adult?" Harry snapped. "Letting me be treated like a First- or Second-Year, or like a Muggle?"
Snape took a deep breath. Harry could see his chest filling, shoulders shifting back. "You need to act like an adult if you wish to be treated as one. But I think you are doing it again. I see it easily now. I could not see it before and I let you put far too much distance between us before Minerva intervened." Voice soft as ever, but with no threat, Snape asked, "Are you aware that you are doing that?"
"A bit," Harry said, not comfortable discussing this. He looked away, watching burgeoning ripples traverse the lake, sending V shapes racing to opposite shores: the Giant Squid swimming laps.
"But you keep at it," Snape said. Then fell silent.
The gap opened and Harry felt compelled to fill it. "I . . . it feels, I don't know," he complained, getting defensive.
Snape's brows were angled back when he faced him again. "It feels what?" When Harry did not respond, Snape said, "I could be mistaken. It is certainly likely for me to be. I'm hoping to draw the answer out of you in case I am wrong, rather than forcing an explanation upon you. But it occurred to me only after you departed yesterday evening that on the heels of Dumbledore passing on you may have been reminded too fiercely of having father figures dying and leaving you to your own devices."
Harry took a deep breath. "Maybe," he said, mouth wet now. And the wind was making his eyes sting all of a sudden.
"Yes, I do think that is it, and I do apologize for not seeing it sooner. Punishing you is fraught enough with pitfalls. My actions sent you off on a mission of independence, willingly taking on others' burdens as you are wont to do. Instead of reassuring you, I kept feeding you perfectly valid excuses to push harder."
Harry found that word insulting. "How were you going to reassure me," he said, nearly mocking and not sure why.
Snape stiffened and faced him on the bench. "I don't know. Apparently I still have not."
Harry clenched his jaw and looked away. "Dumbledore didn't have to go. He could have stayed for the rest of the school year. He could have given me some warning . . ."
"I half agree with you, Harry. He was certainly physically capable of remaining, albeit at a reduced quality of life. It was his failing health that motivated him to suggesting I adopt you. You were the most significant thing he would leave unfinished, and he told me he was determined not to let you be sacrificed to the larger cause he had guided you through." Snape breathed in and out. "On the other hand, it was beyond his time to move on. The wizarding world needed to learn to live without him. That I agree with."
"Because you're a cold hearted bastard," Harry said.
Snape, brow high, peered at him in surprise. "Are you still trying to push me away?"
"I don't know." Harry searched his face, wanting a response that gave him something to react to. Snape's calm made him a bit crazy. He blurted, "Are you going to avoid dying on me? Ever?"
Snape studied him slowly before shaking his head. "I can't assure you of that, Harry. I've seen too much death to make such an empty promise."
Harry looked away like he had been slapped and gazed fiercely out over the lake, eyes burning again.
Snape knitted his hands in his lap and cast his gaze out to match Harry's. "I can assure you that I will guard myself better than I ever would for my own good. That I will fight to remain here for you with every bit of strength I have."
Harry blinked rapidly. He was clinging to the words he was hearing and he did not even want to listen to them. "What if that's not good enough?" he retorted, angry at nothing in particular and everything in the world, both at the same time.
Snape held up his hands spread out in supplication, even though his voice grew harder. "That is all I can offer. I refuse to be dishonest enough to promise more than that. You deserve more respect than that. And if such a promise is insufficient to reassure you, and you believe it best to live with more distance between us, than I shall be here in whatever capacity you will accept me at. I made promises, and I shall keep them by whatever means you will allow."
Harry turned away to swipe at his right eye, then pushed his hair back to try to hide that he did.
Looking for something to say, Harry said, "Dumbledore trusted you, that I understand, but he thought you could be some kind of substitute for him?" This came out accusing to his own ears and he wondered why he had said it that way.
Before Harry could apologize, Snape calmly crossed his arms and said, "Now there is an assertion."
Harry burst out in a weak laugh. His mind was on overdrive, trying to find some place to rest. "What if I don't get into the Auror's program?"
Snape sat straighter. "Um . . ." After a pause, he said, "You do, sometimes, need to let your influence get you things, Harry."
"I don't want it to get me that."
Snape held up his hand. "Right. You've said that. Admirable. In that case you will have to think of something else. The year has barely begun. Do not despair yet, it is the coward's way out, and it is not an option that one is ever limited from pursuing at a later date."
Harry chuckled and sighed. "I thought once Voldemort was gone, things would be easier. But now I have to figure out what I want. I didn't ever get much of a chance to do that before. I suppose I'm not use to it."
Snape sat forward, matching Harry's posture, which let their gazes meet. "Things are easier, Harry. You are making them more difficult than necessary. I am not helping much by catering to your wounds rather than helping you heal them."
Harry wanted to deny that, but couldn't open his mouth.
"Yes, no one likes to be discussed in that manner, but we have had too much miscommunication the last few days to worry about such niceties."
Snape sat back and pondered the scenery, looking relaxed. Harry said, "You're missing your classes."
"Yes. No matter."
"No matter? Have you ever missed a class before?"
"I am still learning to balance my myriad responsibilities, but you are far more important than the rest of them, Harry. Something else I'll try harder to keep in mind, lest it slips again." After a beat, he added, "You are especially more important than the third year Hufflepuffs."
While Harry smiled weakly, Snape put a hand on his shoulder, then brushed his hair back lightly. "Are you all right, now, Harry?"
Harry shrugged, feeling lightheaded more than anything else.
"Your favorite answer lately. Shall I simply grow accustomed to it, or can I convince you to elaborate?"
Harry scratched at his nose with his sleeve. The passing sunlight was nicely heating his dark uniform. "It's true I don't always want to need you as much as I do. It's . . . " He fell away, not wanting to give voice to what rose up in him like a Dementor, pricking his insides with icy spikes.
" . . . Frightening?" Snape completed for him. "So much so that it seems appealing to instead have nothing at all to lose?" When Harry did not reply, Snape said, "I do understand this, Harry. We found middle ground on precisely this kind of similarity. And you will grow out of needing any kind of father at all soon enough."
Harry stared at him. "All this talk of promises . . . you almost make it sound like you don't prefer that I grow out of it."
Snape sucked in his lips before saying, "I certainly do not prefer that. I am in no hurry to be anything less to you. With a bit of improved effort on my part I hope to be more to you while there is still time."
"You're only telling me that because of the trouble we just had," Harry said. It did make him feel better to hear these words, partly because he knew how hard they were for Snape to say.
"Ah, we've moved to the past tense," Snape observed. "I am pleased to hear that."
A large cloud slid over the sun, rendering half the lake into a cold slate slab. Harry tugged his robes tighter at the neck. "I don't really want things to change with us," he said. "But I wish I understood better why Dumbledore left, especially without explaining much." He tossed his hands helplessly. "I'm glad I have you to count on. You think I'm making things harder for myself, but . . . I just wish . . . I don't know . . . maybe I just wish that I didn't feel like I could lose everything." Just voicing that made Harry's heart slip downward in his chest.
The lower edge of the approaching cloud hung with blurry tatters of rain. Snape stood, gesturing that Harry should lead the way back.
"We won't make it," Harry said, glancing repeatedly at the sky.
Snape took hold of his shoulder to come alongside him. "Trust in something other than yourself, Harry. Believe me when I tell you I am very much aware of how difficult that is to do. But do try."
They started walking, with Harry finding the bent grass that marked their journey here and following it back. At the bottom of the hill, the breeze fell off and the air grew warmer. Harry glimpsed something out on the lake, but when he stopped to find it, it was lost in a shimmer of sunlight on the water. It slid into view a minute later.
It was Hagrid and his rowboat, and he was heading straight for them. Harry searched for a good spot for the boat to come ashore where they could board it without getting wet. He found an area where large flat rocks had long ago fallen off the cliff into the water, forming a natural quay. Harry stepped out onto it and held his hand to his eyes to watch Hagrid's approach. The ripples fanned out from the oars in surges, slapping on the rocky shore before the boat made it half way to them.
Snape stepped up close beside Harry and in a low voice, as though worried Hagrid could somehow overhear from out on the lake, he said, "I am a survivor, Harry. I have survived to this point against terrible odds and I intend to live on much longer now that they are vastly improved." His hand rested on Harry's back. "If it is humanly possible, trust that I will be here for you."
Harry's eyes burned again. The creak of the oars grew musical as the boat approached.
"I'm going to hold you to that," Harry said, mouth thick with emotion.
Snape put his hand on the back of Harry's head and pulled it down to his shoulder, holding him that way against his sun-warmed robes. Harry closed his eyes and listened to the rhythmic thunk of the oars, smelled the living green of the lake water.
Harry was released and he raised his head to see Hagrid waving from the boat. The half giant cupped his hands and called out, "Would yer like a ride?"
Harry nodded, then worried it may not be visible at that distance, waved his hand over his head.