Harry handed Severus a bottle of thick gooey mucus from some creature that only Hagrid would associate with and then leaned one elbow on the table.
"That looks disgusting," he said candidly.
"Luckily we do not have to ingest this potion for it to work," Severus replied.
"Are you sure it will work?" Harry inquired from his spot on the stool, a safe distance from the bubbling and currently toxic potion.
"Not entirely," Severus admitted. "It is, however, our best shot. Unfortunately, it requires two weeks to mature."
"Two weeks!" Harry exclaimed. He looked at his guardian, pained. "You know how many meetings he can have in two weeks?""Unfortunately, I am quite aware."
"Right." Harry frowned. He wished he wasn't the cause of everyone's pain, but apparently he was. Everything would go so much smoother if he hadn't accepted Severus's offer four years ago. Sure, he'd be lonelier, but at least he wouldn't feel quite so guilty. Harry could not regret rescuing Sirius, on the other hand. Leaving him with the dementors was an unbearable thought.
As if reading Harry's thoughts, Severus asked, "Have you and your godfather returned to good terms?"
Harry nodded. "He made me drop it.""But naturally, being you, you are still feeling guilty," Severus said with a hint of snideness.
Harry nodded again.
"Guilt helps no one. Focus on action," Severus advised.
Harry looked at him. "How exactly am I supposed to act? There's nothing for me to do."
Severus set down his stirring rod. "There. That has to simmer for twenty minutes." He turned to Harry. "During which time, I must speak with you."
Harry raised a brow. "Aren't you doing that now?" he asked smartly.
With long strides, Severus crossed in front of Harry to take a stool on his other side. He sat facing Harry, arms clasped in front of him, looking intense. Harry gave him an odd look. He was acting a bit strange.
"How is your Occlumency?" Severus asked abruptly.
"Er...I don't know? Why?"
"Have you been keeping up with it?" Severus asked. "Do you employ it without thinking?"
"Er, I haven't really needed to. I trust you not to legilimize me, so now and then I might use it, but not very often..." Harry trailed off, getting increasingly worried. "What's this about?"
"It has been a long time since you have faced a true mental attack," Severus said, ignoring the question. "Keep me out."
"Okay," Harry said a bit tentatively. He pulled up the blank wall that was at one
instinct to him. Harry really hadn't practiced a lot since first year. Sure, there were a few times at Durmstrang when he had used Occlumency, but they were few and far between, mostly out of paranoia than real danger. "I'm ready."
"Legilimens," Severus said.
Harry held his wall in place with effort. The cauldron popped and cracked behind him and Harry flinched. Severus latched onto this slip and used it to drive into his mind, breaking his wall. He released Harry immediately.
They practiced several times with much the same result. Harry was able to produce a decent block, but the moment some outside stimuli distracted him, he was vulnerable.
"Why are we doing this?" he asked finally.
"You must learn to employ Occlumency at all times, talking, eating, sleeping, waking. All times," Severus stressed. "Please continue to practice. It is imperative."
"Why?" Harry demanded.
Severus seemed reluctant to answer, but to Harry's surprise, he did. "Because Dumbledore has a suspicion that the reason you feel such pain in your scar is due to it being a link to the Dark Lord."
"Voldemort," Harry corrected quietly, trying not to interrupt too much. He was finally getting some information.
"Yes, him. He is still recovering, readjusting, but there will come a time when he realizes the link between you. It is almost inevitable. When he does so, we fear that he will be able to penetrate your mind and see what you know," Severus said grimly. "That is why you mustn't know more than necessary and why you must practice Occlumency."
Harry frowned. "Why didn't you just tell me that to begin with?"Severus gave a slight sigh. "I had wished to protect you from all of it. I did not want you to have to worry about being a link to Voldemort. I feared that you would somehow feel guilty for 'brining that upon us' as you no doubt would have put it," he said flatly. "The argument I lost a few hours ago was whether or not to tell you. It seems, once again, I made the wrong choice for you. "
Harry didn't dispute that. "I-I won't hurt anybody, will I?"
"I cannot answer that. I think not, but this is all new to me," Severus admitted. "I wish I could help you more."
"You're doing fine," Harry offered absentmindedly. "I'm sorry I flipped out, then."
"Stop being sorry," Severus said a tad harshly. "Your penchant for guilt is unmatched."
Harry almost replied, "Sorry," but stopped himself. "Does this have anything to do with the fact that people keep telling me they're on 'my side'? Rhea said something about getting the news, but she was on my side. What's that supposed to mean?"
Severus rubbed his forehead with a large hand. "I unsubscribed from the Daily Prophet in attempt to spare you from this as well. It seems to have not worked."
"Spare me from what?" Harry asked, getting a little irritated. "Severus, you can't protect me from everything!"
Harry was beginning to believe his own words about things going smoother if he didn't have anyone to protect him.
"I know, but I had to try," he said. "They have not actually reported on you in a while, exactly. After they acknowledged your claim of Voldemort's return, they immediately began bashing it. At this point, nobody believes he is back and your name has become..."
"A joke?" Harry asked numbly.
"Precisely. They slip it in unusual places such as 'only Harry Potter could come up with a tale as crazy as that'," Severus said, anger latent in his voice. "It is outlandish and ridiculous and you should spare no more thought for it."
Harry simply nodded. So he was a link to Voldemort, the world thought he was crazy, and he might be responsible for Sirius returning to Azkaban. Fabulous. How was he not supposed to feel guilty?
Harry sat cross-legged on the floor with his friends back at Grimmauld place. A forgotten card game sat in the center of their little square and Ron was attempting to build a card tower. Harry watched, waiting for it to fall.
"Close one," Harry commented as it wavered but managed to steady.
"Yeah," Ron said with a sigh of relief. The rush of air leaving his mouth knocked the stack over into an unorganized pile. "Oh."
"You're lucky those aren't Exploding Snap cards," Draco pointed out.
"So Sirius's trial is tomorrow," Hermione commented casually. "Is he nervous?"
"Who wouldn't be?" Harry replied, watching Ron as he started again. "I mean, one wrong word and he goes back to Azkaban." The bitterness, directed mostly at himself, was hard to miss.
Hermione patted his leg comfortingly. "You're worried for him aren't you?"
Harry kept his eyes fixed on Ron's slowly growing card pyramid. "Yeah. I'd rather go myself than send him back to Azkaban."
"Have you figured out who sent them?" Draco asked. "The dementors?"
Harry shook his head. "Probably someone else who wants me dead," he said in a resigned way.
Hermione and Draco shared a look.
"What was that?" Harry demanded, looking up at them.
Hermione hesitated. "Well, we were thinking earlier about how it was good that you weren't as angry anymore. You know, at Snape. But I don't think you should be depressed either."
"I'm not depressed," Harry shot back immediately.
"Then what are you?"
"Worried," Harry said, knowing right away that it was the truth. "I didn't tell you why I stopped being angry, did I?"
"No," Ron said, looking up from his project.
"Why?" Hermione prompted when Harry paused.
Harry wasn't sure he should tell them. He feared he would frighten them away, that they would see him as...well, as Voldemort. Or some subset of him. On the same level of evilness, or potential for evil. But then again, if he couldn't trust his friends to stick by him, who could he trust?
"They gave me the information I needed, wanted," Harry said. He continued dully, "They think my scar is a link to Voldemort."Hermione reached over and grabbed his hand. Ron and Draco just looked at him.
"They don't think he knows it yet," Harry added.
"Maybe he never will. But if you need anything, Harry, we're here," Hermione said.
Draco and Ron nodded in agreement. Draco's eyes flickered to their hands and Harry let go.
"Really? You're not...afraid of me?" Harry asked.
Draco shook his head. "Harry, remember what I said to you over at Durmstrang? You're too good."
Harry looked at him. He could read in Draco's eyes that he didn't feel that way about himself. Though Harry was certain Draco was no longer embroiled in Dark Magic, such an influence couldn't be good for him. Harry wondered if he himself were any better.
Ron must have read the doubt on his face. "Really, mate. If anyone were going to be a portal for You-Know-Who, I'd want it to be you."
Harry stared at him in confusion. "Er...thanks?"
They laughed briefly as Ron attempted to clarify. "I mean, you have the least chance of being corrupted, I think."
"That's good to know," Harry replied. He didn't exactly agree. "Anyway, the important thing right now is Sirius. Voldemort is just going to half to wait," he said flippantly, trying at humor. They grinned back at him.
"Draco? Ron?" Mrs. Weasley called from below. "Come help move this table around, the twins are being-"
"Be right there!" Ron called, cutting her off. He rolled his eyes at Harry. "Honestly, Fred and George just try to fire her up so she'll take it out on the rest of us. You're lucky she still likes you or else you'd get roped in."
Harry grinned. "Have fun."
"Oh, and Severus? Have you looked at the boggart?" Mrs. Weasley's voice came floating up the stairs as Ron and Draco opened the door to leave.
Harry wrapped his arms around his knees. It was just he and Hermione now.
"So are you and Draco...?" Harry asked, fishing for conversation. They seemed closer than he remembered.
Hermione shook her head, blushing fiercely.
"Sorry," Harry said.
"No, it's alright. I mean, we're good friends of course, but he... I think he likes me more than I like him," Hermione said, glancing up at Harry from beneath her mass of hair. "Is that okay?"
"Absolutely," Harry replied. "Though someone should probably tell him."
"I don't have the heart to," Hermione admitted. "I mean, I do like him." She shrugged. "I just don't want to ruin our friendship, you know?"
"I know," Harry replied.
"Have you heard from Rhea?" Hermione asked.
"Just a few days ago, actually," he replied, nodding. "She's doing well."
"What?" Harry demanded, blushing despite himself.
"Nothing," she said, still grinning. "Come on, we should go help."
Harry stood and helped her up. They headed down the stairs, Hermione going first. As he passed the Drawing room entrance, he paused. Hermione stopped and looked back at him.
"Go on," Harry said, "I just thought I head something. I'll be down in a second."
There was a crash in the kitchen and Hermione nodded, headed that way just as the screaming from Mrs. Weasley started. Harry vaguely thought he heard sobbing from inside, but he couldn't be sure. Pushing open the door, Harry stepped inside and froze.
Severus stood, back pressed up against the wall, as a fake version of Harry lay on the floor, still, dead. Suddenly, it sat up, eyes red, hissing in parseltongue.
"You have failed me, Severus," the fake-Harry hissed. "I have embraced the Dark like you never could."
Harry blinked. In a shaky voice, he managed, "Severus- what's going on?"
Severus's heart pounded in his ears. He couldn't think. All he could see was Harry, switching back and forth from Dark to dead. He couldn't decide which he feared more.
The fake-Harry sat up and rasped unintelligibly. Severus couldn't make sense of the hissing, but he willed it to stop.
"Severus- what's going on?" a small voice came from the doorway. Severus glanced that way. Harry. His Harry.
Seeing Harry there brought Severus back to reality. It was a boggart, nothing more.
"Riddikulus," Severus said, voice soft and distressed.
Fake-Harry shrank into a dog and Severus forced it back into the cupboard. It was then that Severus realized that his cheeks were wet. He swiped at them in embarrassment.
Harry blinked as the boggart was forced back into the cabinet. Severus's worst fear was that he would end up dead, or worse, Dark. Harry shivered involuntarily and stepped forward. Severus's eyes were still detached and distant.
"Severus? I'm right here," Harry said. "I'm not dead and I'm not evil." Yet, he added to himself.
Severus looked down at Harry before placing a hand on his shoulder as if to assure he was real.
"Are you okay?" Harry asked. He had never seen his guardian cry, yet there were streaks on his cheeks. It was unnerving.
"Yes," Severus said a bit unsteadily. "Yes, I will be fine."
Harry bit his lip. He never wanted to be so important to someone that just the thought of his death would affect them in that way. It was too much pressure. And still here he was. He felt so bad for Severus but knew he wouldn't want his pity. So Harry gave him the only thing he might want.
"I promise I won't go Dark, Severus," Harry said quietly. "I promise I'll do everything I can to resist. And I promise I won't die."
"You can't promise that," Severus said quietly.
"I don't know, I think I can," Harry replied. "After all, I do my best not to break my promises. See, you haven't failed me. In the end, I think you'll be the one to save me."