Moving On - Part III
Chapter 19 - EM-E - Moving On - Part III
"Come," Severus said, keeping his arm draped around Harry while leading him to an open carriage.
They got in and sat facing the walk where students were gathering to board next. Severus had placed Hedwig's cage on the open bench across from them and she seemed to be alright with that. Harry sat beside Severus and flashed a look up at his guardian as he scrubbed at his leaking eyes. Severus' expression was tumultuous and he was apparently unable to look at Harry for unknown reasons, but he kept his arm wrapped tightly around him. Harry struggled with all of his might to pull himself together, but he just couldn't. He was terrified that he'd finally reached the breaking point that he'd feared.
"You're safe for the moment, Harry." Severus said quietly as he cast a warming charm to hover over the uncovered interior space, in case some of Harry's shaking was from the cold. "Do not be ashamed of your emotions." Some of the boy's friends were at the front of the queue of waiting students. He jerked his head at the second tier of Harry's inner circle to indicate they should board, just as Lupin jogged up to join them. Longbottom, Ginevra Weasley and the Lovegood witch sat across from them. It was clear from the teens' expressions that they'd already gotten wind of the article. Lupin flashed a concerned look at Harry, taking Hedwig's cage to keep on his lap, and sitting on Harry's other side.
The carriage jerked as they began to be carted forward, and the first part of the journey back to the castle was spent in silence. Harry felt so deflated he didn't even care that his friends were seeing him upset. All of the sudden, it just didn't matter what anyone thought. And, anyway, these friends in particular would never judge him for being miserable right now. Through the dull haze that was settling down over his awareness, Harry realized Ginny had probably filled Neville and Luna in on what had transpired with Harry since they'd been evacuated from the Ministry, namely that Severus was now Harry's guardian. Neville's eyes were assessing the scene before him, and when they met Harry's, his customary Snape-induced nervousness was temporarily gone. Only his fierce loyalty to Harry came through, loud and clear, as he asked, "How can I help, Harry?"
Harry managed a small, watery smile for his friend while he struggled to formulate an answer in a mind that wanted to shut down more than ever. "Hold your ground when people start mouthing off about the DA not being necessary now, since the paper says I'm such a liar," Harry said. "We still need the DA. More than ever."
Neville nodded, and then turned his head to glare at the scenery ahead of them, as his own anger at how badly this trouble had affected his family, and his childhood, bubbled under the surface.
"When will we have a meeting, Harry?" Luna asked in her dreamy tone, her head tilted with a completely unreadable expression, looking Harry over as if she saw nothing out of the ordinary.
"Tuesday night, if we can manage it," Harry told her tiredly. He shot a look up at Remus. "We've got a real DADA professor again, so we'll make a lot of good progress, much more quickly."
"But you should still consider this a secret club, and use caution when you discuss it," Severus advised the group as a whole.
When they reached the school's gates, Severus kept Harry at his side in the carriage until the others had climbed out. "I want you to come back to our quarters," he said calmly to Harry. "I think it's best, son." He waited for Harry's reply but the boy had his head ducked down again, and he was shaking. Severus' chest was already tight with horrid, wretched guilt at his own contributions of abuse and neglect, while Petunia and her family had been treating the boy so abominably, so Harry's distress was pushing him to a breaking point of his own. Lupin was standing near, still holding the boy's owl's cage. Severus addressed the owl in an attempt to assuage Harry's need to make her feel safe, "Hedwig, will you come stay in our quarters tonight? We will take you out to stretch your wings early tomorrow morning."
He caught a reluctant smile tugging on the werewolf's tense expression when the owl hooted her agreement. "Go ahead out, and I'll hand her down to you." Lupin said.
"Professor Sinistra will cover for me with the Slytherins for now," Severus told the other wizard while Harry deboarded. Aware that the teens were listening, he added carefully, "Summon me if I'm needed." He took the cage from Lupin and handed it down to Harry before decending the short ladder to join his ward. Lupin jumped down behind him. Harry's three friends were watching the two adult wizards' expressions, and though they could decipher nothing of their silent communication, were in no hurry to leave the scene.
"I'm just going to have a quiet night," Harry told them. "I'll see you in the morning for breakfast. Tell Ron and Hermione for me, will you?"
"Of course," Neville said.
"'Bye, Harry," Luna and Ginny said in unison, staying where they were to watch the strange sight of Professor Snape escorting Harry Potter and his owl to the dungeons.
Neville looked over to Remus, "Professor Lupin, is that really Professor Snape? Or maybe I shouldn't ask, because he's a polyjuiced auror, or something?"
Remus barked a reluctant laugh. "No, Neville, I'm afraid you'll have to imagine a new boggart for yourself," he said as he gestured for them all to head up the path to the castle. "Professor Snape has made some changes. Even good things can happen in trying times."
"What did I intercept between you and my Slytherins?" Severus asked Harry as they walked up the icy grass, away from the parading students, lighting their way with one of Severus' hovering lanterns and crunching along at a steady clip. He cast a featherweight charm on the cage and added a moving hover charm to match their pace so that Harry didn't have to haul Hedwig and she could have a smooth journey. She hooted at him. It sounded like a thank you.
"I got shoved down by Goyle," Harry said dully. "He caught me unaware from behind, and I fell with Hedwig. He's lucky she wasn't hurt." When Severus didn't respond immediately with a warning about fighting with other students, Harry looked up at him. He couldn't read his guardian's expression. "It happened last time, too, and I retaliated then by making him fall down with my wild magic. He didn't get much more hurt than I did, but I felt bad about it afterward. You had been warning about me using wild magic on students who were bullying me. I got the message from that situation, and won't use it on my peers, except in real defense."
"Did I punish you with the paddle?" Severus asked quietly.
Harry was surprised by the question, and a little niggling dread crept in that he'd start hearing that threat again. "No," he answered reluctantly. "That was what got us past you thinking I might be stupid with my magic, and it was the only thing you were threatening to use it over. Well, that and apparating, which I was feeling a really strong desire to do. But not this time. I don't know why."
Severus was connecting the dots of Harry's panic from the time he portholed himself to Headquarters on Christmas Eve, and he was again relieved he'd not acted on the threat. If I was a perfect caretaker, I would promise him again not to raise a hand to punish him, Severus thought heavily. But Harry responded way too perfectly to that threat when things grew heated between them, and Severus was far from confident in his parenting skills to believe that he'd refrain from threatening it again when he was out of options. He needed Harry to believe there was a good reason to respect his authority. They walked in silence for a few moments. "Did you retaliate with Mr. Goyle this time, Harry?"
"No," Harry said again, embarrassment at having been rescued by Draco permeating his fugue. "Draco intervened, and then Lucius came over, so it was done by that point."
"Do you think you might have, if Draco hadn't shown up?" Severus persisted.
Harry thought about it as seriously as he could drive himself to do, realizing Severus needed to hear this. "I think I would have talked myself out of it," he said honestly. "But if I get in a scuffle with Goyle at some point down the line, and I'm justified in defending myself with force, I'll remember what he did to my owl." When Severus didn't immediately acknowledge this, he added, "And that would mean, I'd give as good as I'd gotten, but not more."
Severus' reached his hand out to cup around Harry's neck and swiped his thumb back and forth. The rest of the walk to an entrance on the side of the castle, that was a far more direct route to their quarters, was done in a companionable silence, once Severus had said in all seriousness, "I will throttle you if you ever reveal this shortcut to another student." The definition of throttle was left up to interpretation, but neither were particularly worried about it. Harry could be trusted with this secret.
Severus transfigured a coatrack into a perch for Hedwig and set it in the corner Harry had stood facing while he was in trouble the previous week. She seemed quite content to settle herself there for the night. Harry gave her some owl treats to tide her over until she could hunt again.
"I suppose we could ask Hagrid how things are with the centaurs," Harry said quietly, but clearly distracted. "Last time, Voldemort was messing with them. Maybe that's why they shot her down. Or maybe it was just random."
"We can ask Hagrid about this tomorrow, and in the meantime, caution your familiar to avoid flying over the Forbidden Forest," Severus said as he came over to stroke Hedwig's feathers and have a look at Harry. The boy's profile revealed that painful thoughts were flowing through his mind. "Tell me what you're thinking, son," he requested.
Harry didn't want to say it. He didn't want to say that the article confirmed his worst fears about how he'd been growing up. He didn't want to say that he'd never completely believed that his aunt hated him. That a part of him didn't want to believe he was that worthless. But a burst of miserable anguish was working its way up into his chest and he was helpless to stop it. "I'm thinking about what an idiot I was," he said brokenly.
"When were you this idiot?" Severus asked, reaching to gather his ward into his arms, but Harry jerked away. Severus waited, alarmed at the intensity in the boy's posture.
"When you told me she'd signed me off, and that was why the wards had fallen, I couldn't believe I'd been stupid enough to think that she'd have waited to make sure I'd be safe before she did that."
Severus' heart broke a little bit further at hearing how much this had hurt Harry. "Your aunt?" he asked softly.
"Yeah," Harry said. Now he looked at his guardian, his face crumbling as harsh sobs overtook him. "I told- …you- …it was- …hard there!"
"Yes, you did," Severus said brokenly. He reached for Harry and pulled him closer until he could scoop him up in his arms. "I've got you," he said as Harry scrambled his limbs in shock at the action. Severus swept over to his armchair and sat with Harry on his lap, leaning back so that the scrawny teen could relax against his chest. He craned his neck forward and pressed his cheek Harry's temple. "I'm sorry, Harry …so very sorry that I turned a blind eye to signs that were very much right there in front of me all of this time." His voice was raw with his guilty emotion. "My own treatment of you could only have intensified your suffering."
Harry closed his eyes and let himself be comforted as he tried to shut out flashes of awful times that were running through his mind. There were many scenes speeding by, behind his eyes - times he felt so bloody trapped with his miserable aunt and uncle, and just as many here at Hogwarts, when his potions professor, Draco, Voldemort, Umbridge… all of them, had been cruel and vicious. But that is all in the past now. You've had two rounds of finding this out, and it's coming out the same again, even while other things are different. Severus is looking out for you now. If someone hurts you after this, they'll answer to him.
"I don't want you to feel guilty any more, Severus," he finally said after a long struggle to get himself under control. "You've done more for me in the last weeks than anyone has done in my entire memory. I know how complicated it's all been, for everyone, and I don't want to be another burden in your life."
"You are nothing of the sort!" Severus said fiercely, squeezing Harry hard.
"I am if you get weighted down with guilt."
"You are quickly becoming the best thing about my life," Severus told him in a tight voice. "That will be what gets me through my guilt. You're inspiring me to leave that bitter and dark side of myself behind." He needed to nip this "burden" idea in the bud, straight away. "We've discussed this, and will need to again, as often as it takes," he said forcefully in to Harry's hair. "You and I both must resist the inner voices that condemn us. You, Harry, must remind yourself that the shortcomings of others are not a reflection of you. And when you doubt that, you need only look around at those of us who have circled our ranks around you. You matter. And you are good. More good than most, in fact." He kissed the top of Harry's head and squeezed him again, and then settled back to simply hold him.
After an hour of silence, while Harry had slowly grown calmer and stayed quiet with his thoughts, Severus could tell he was finally relaxed enough to slip into sleep. "Are you hungry?" he asked the boy.
"If I move you over to the sofa to nap for a while, will you be alright while I go and address my House?"
Severus smiled a small smile of relief at that. Harry managed to stand up and stumble over to the sofa, head hitting the pillow he summoned for himself, eyes closed in the heavy sleep of one who was emotionally spent. Severus summoned a coverlet from the chair in his room and lay it over Harry. "I'll be about an hour. If you wake before I return, let me know through the coin," he said, laying his hand on Harry's head. The boy was dead to the world already.
Aurora had just left the Slytherins to themselves when Severus quietly entered their common room. There was a palpable tension between the students, and once they noticed his presence, he found it directed at him as well. He accounted in his mind for each of the visible changes he'd made that could unsettle them: clean hair, less stuffy attire, publicly hugging Harry Potter. An ironic smirk tugged at his mouth as he realized the conflict he'd stirred with this alone.
"Hello, Professor," Theodore Knott said, causing a dozen heads to turn towards Severus. The boy had a curious expression and a small smile was forming as his eyes swept over Severus' appearance.
Severus nodded at Knott. He allowed his expression to resume its customary austerity, which was easy enough to do while he was still reeling from what had transpired with Harry earlier. He scanned the room and jerked his head at those who seemed to be waiting for an invitation to assemble before him. The upper years were openly unsettled by what appeared to be a blatant reversal of loyalties from their Head of House, and fellow Dark Lord supporter.
"Welcome back," he said to the group as a whole. "Many of you are looking at me with trepidation, as if you have lost something. This is not the case. I am here, as I have always been, with your best interests at heart." Some of the concern was already lifting from the expressions of the younger years' faces as Professor Snape addressed them in the tone he only used in private, with them. "But, there have been extensive changes. These changes affect our school, our bonds as members of Slytherin House, and they affect Wizarding Britain as a whole." He paused, sweeping his eyes over them, searching for the cocky expressions he knew he'd find on the faces of Vincent Crabbe, and Benedict Baldwin, whose fathers were Death Eaters, and who had never made any effort to hide this fact from their peers. "The most significant event to have taken place, although it has not been made public knowledge, is that the Dark Lord has been destroyed." There was a LOUD eruption of mixed reactions. "SILENCE!" When the murmuring had minimized, he continued, using his most dangerous tone, "Many of you know this already, and many of your parents are in a state of panic, or perhaps, plotting revenge. Perhaps some of you believe that to be an appropriate next step. I will warn you now: you are all young enough to walk away from the darkness that aligning yourself to the efforts to bring him back entails. The truth is, the Dark Lord sought power only for himself. His followers were rewarded only on his whim, and never on his loyalty. You have your futures to consider, and each of you is talented and resourceful enough to walk your own path, without following a Darkness that is filled with a life of cruelty and crime against your fellows."
Severus stood before his students, watching the varied responses to his words, and noting the rather alarming number of the upper years who were making no efforts to hide their fury at his traitorous words. He visually sought the three witches who had been in a fight earlier, and singled out the Prefect. "Miss Parkinson," he said, "A word of warning about the behavior your Prefect's badge requires you to exhibit, namely the wisdom to remember you are setting an example."
Pansy's face was pinched with resentment, but she had an appropriate tone when she replied, "Yes, Professor."
"Professor Snape?" Fourth year Macy Langstrom asked him in a somewhat intimidated voice.
"Yes, Miss Langstrom?"
"The Prophet said you'd become Harry Potter's guardian. Is that true?"
"It is," Severus replied, addressing the group again as he continued. "And if you have not yet heard rumors that I am showing him kindness, then let me set the record straight that I am very protective of my ward. If you find yourself resenting this, or having difficulty accepting it, remember that you have a right to your opinion, but also, do choose your methods of expression of said opinion very carefully." Again he scanned their faces, meeting eyes calmly, and waiting to see if anyone was foolish enough to test him yet. "As you also know, we have had some staff changes, and with the death of Cornelius Fudge, will likely resume a more sensibly managed student experience. You are to show Headmistress McGonagall absolute respect, and conduct yourself with honor, moving forward. The reign of the High Inquisitor has concluded," he paused for the snickers and snorts to be exhausted, before resuming. "There will be much uncertainty in the world outside of our school's walls. We will need to work together to withstand the fallout that may come with it."
"Professor Snape?" This time a second year had mustered the courage to speak up with an earnest tone.
"Yes, Mr. Philips?"
"It's better, now, isn't it? Better than it was?" The boy had a furrow of uncertainty in his brow, as if he knew better than to say with Voldemort gone.
"I believe it is," Severus said calmly.
Severus found Harry as he'd left him. He stood debating whether to wake him for a late dinner, or let him sleep. The boy needed every full meal he could consume, but he also needed the rest… His inner debate was interrupted by the vibration of his coin. He narrowed his eyes, prepared to be annoyed if the message had gone to Harry's coin too, but the boy remained still. He checked the galleon. The message was from Lucius.
A word, Severus, if it is convenient?… We're outside your quarters…
He stepped outside his door and shut it quietly behind him. Lucius, Lupin, and Minerva were in the corridor, each exhibiting a varying degree of anxiety as they sought answers by studying his expression. He caught Lucius' assessing look, and knew his best friend was reading him like a book. In Minerva, he saw grief much like his own. He clenched his jaw to contain his irritation, knowing it was inappropriate, and was surfacing from his growing need to breakdown. "He's asleep at the moment," he told the assembly. "I have in the meantime addressed the Slytherins. We will have trouble from them."
"You told them…?" Lupin asked carefully.
Severus recited the highlights for them and received raised eyebrows and a very smug smile from Minerva at his declarations over Harry. "There is no point in hiding the facts from the children of those who will be seeking revenge," he said tightly.
"I agree, Severus," Lupin said. He was unable to muster a smile, however. "Will Harry be ready to resume classes tomorrow?"
"I believe so, but if he has last minute reluctance, I will allow him to stay here, and stay with him if needed," Severus said. There was no denying the very visible shock on each of his peers' faces. Apparently none of them thought he could be so indulgent. "His state of mind is my primary concern," he added defensively. Minerva smiled again, and he saw her long-held affection for him in her eyes. He scowled. Too much sharing. "Well, if that is all?"
Lupin bowed and said a quiet goodnight, the first to leave. Minerva squeezed Severus' arm as she said, "If you need your classes covered, let me know." She left as well, leaving Lucius to stand with his head thrust back, openly expecting Severus to reveal his turmoil, right there, in the corridor.
"Leave it," Severus said with a touch of desperation.
"There is no changing the past, old friend," Lucius said quietly. "And the boy loves you, and trusts you."
"How can he possibly?" Severus raged in a harsh whisper, his torment beginning to choke him. "When I was so unwilling to-" he closed his eyes and turned his head away, hands on hips, chest heaving. "I was cruel to him as recently as his first few days in my care!"
"I turned you toward the Dark Lord, Severus," Lucius said. "It is I who initiated you on that path to darkness."
Severus glared down the corridor, "And this amounts to what, exactly?"
"I know what you have been through," Lucius said fiercely. "And I know that you have struggled through much of your adulthood because of the choices you made, ones that you might have avoided entirely had it not been for me. This mess is larger than you. You have played your role in order to survive, much like Harry has. And now that path has brought you to a place where you can help that boy, and you're doing exactly that. Beautifully." He stepped closer to his tormented friend and gripped his shoulder. "You cannot change the past," he repeated. "And if you take yourself backwards in time, and attempt to find a place in that hell where you could have behaved differently, there is no way to know you would have escaped with your life as you have."
"I did not have to be cruel to him," Severus said brokenly, still looking away.
"I beg to differ," Lucius said. "It is not unrealistic to conclude that your showing kindness to Harry could have resulted in your extermination by the Dark Lord upon his return. All of those children of Death Eaters watched you very carefully over the years, and their parents' perception of your loyalties played a very great role in your standing with Voldemort." He clapped his hand on Severus' shoulder now. "You do yourself and Harry a disservice by delving into the what-ifs of a time that is gone. Make the best of what is in front of you now."