The Long Stretch To Independence - Part III
Chapter 22 - Emancipated Minor - The Long Stretch To Independence - Part III
The train pulled away from the platform, with Harry taking special care to wave to the senior Weasleys, who'd come to escort Ron, Ginny and Hermione back to the train. The twins, much to their mother's disappointment, were finished with Hogwarts, and were standing beside their mum and dad with satisfied grins, waving at the poor lads and lasses who had to return to school. They had at least conceded that having Remus return to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts was enough to cause a small pang in their hearts.
The first hour of the ride to Hogwarts was chaotic, with the Ministry Ensemble, as Ginny had named them, gathering around Harry in the compartment he'd grabbed with Ron and Hermione before they had to rush off to their Prefect duties. Hermione asked Harry to watch Crookshanks for her, and his heart dropped when he saw her cast a look around for Hedwig's cage. Ron dragged her out of the door before she could ask about his owl, and Harry had to struggle to tamp down the sad emotions that had caught him off guard. He covered by buying a slew of treats from the trolley to share with everyone. The four non-prefects used the next hour to compare notes about what they'd heard had happened to Umbridge, which was nothing more than Harry knew, which was ultimately nothing. And then there was the fact that the Ministry had not come after them for damages, in spite of everyone's fears that they would. They all seemed to know that McGonagall was the new Headmistress, but no one knew if the Ministry would stop nosing about at the school. Harry remembered Lucius saying he'd been asked to continue his daily presence at Hogwarts, but didn't offer up the information.
Ron and Hermione returned after about an hour, and Neville, Luna and Ginny seemed to sense that The Golden Trio needed private quality time.
"Bloody Malfoy was acting very strangely," Ron commented as Harry closed the door behind the departing Neville.
"Yeah," Harry said, not really knowing where to start. "I've got so much to tell you guys."
They all sat facing each other. Ron helped himself to the last pumpkin pasty.
"Well, you could start with telling us what happened to your glasses," Hermione suggested with a curious smile.
"Oh, er, I saw an Occulist and he cast some spells," Harry said. Hermione gave him a look that said she'd want full details later.
"Alright, then tell us what happened after the Ministry," Ron requested.
"Well, I was really weak from Voldemort possessing me, and I had to get away before Fudge saw me, so Dumbledore made a portkey and, er, Snape took me back, first to Hogwarts, then to the Dursleys," Harry told them. The way his two friends gaped at him made him nervous. Both situations were horrifying, both in the version he knew they were imagining because of the way they still thought of Severus, and the actual reality that he'd lived through. "Everything went pear-shaped after that," Harry said, losing track of what he'd intended to say. He suddenly felt mentally exhausted. "Like I said, I have so much to tell you."
Harry tried to recap the events of the holiday break, but found himself glossing over a lot. He just didn't know how to explain how he'd gone from hating Severus Snape, enough to cringe at the sight of him, to using the gratitude he felt for the older wizard's help and caring when he'd pushed Voldemort out of his mind. He just couldn't explain that, or the odd friendship he'd formed with Lucius Malfoy. So, he stuck to the parts that he needed them to know: his impending emancipation, his destruction of Voldemort's body, and the locket's strange effects on him, Severus and Lucius. But most importantly, he made sure they understood that it wasn't over. He hadn't killed Voldemort, only disabled him. And there were still Voldemort supporters in positions of power at the Ministry.
"Harry, you've had two encounters with Voldemort in less than three weeks, and lived to talk about it," Hermione said. She'd had her hands over her mouth, watching him with wet eyes while he'd given the brief overview. "You must be overwrought."
Ron scoffed at Hermione's empathetic response at first, but he flashed a look at Harry and realized she was right.
Harry nodded. "So much happened, I don't know where to start," he said. "And not all of it was horrible. Remind me to tell you about the dueling. Lucius Malfoy, Severus, and Remus put on quite a show. They were brilliant. And Tonks gave me a little lesson on a great shield I'm going to show everyone. I've got great ideas for the DA. And we're going to get to have it be an official group now. Even Severus wants us to continue with it. We won't have to hide. Remus wants to integrate what he teaches in with what we work on. That's going to be really great." He paused, realizing he was going ahead and assuming that there would be no more Ministry interference. "Well, if it can work out. If not, we'll just go back to meeting in secret. I don't want to be caught unprepared if Death Eaters find ways to attack us."
Ron had slumped back in his seat with his mouth hanging open. "Harry, you do realize you've just called Snape by his first name twice, don't you, mate?"
"Yeah, Ron, about that…" Harry gave his friend a pained look. "A lot happened, and somehow he and I have managed to become friends. You would never believe how much he's helped me. I mean, he took me into muggle London for the appointment with my social worker, for Merlin's sake. And as soon as I told him about how messed up I was from the Occlumency lessons, he just… well he changed how he treats me. I think he's going to be less of a git to all of us now."
Ron raised his eyebrows in disbelief, looking decidedly uncomfortable. "I'll believe that when I see it for myself."
Harry nodded. A big part of him wished he'd still had a few more days of holiday before he'd boarded this train today. He wasn't ready to resume his school routine, or to answer to his friends for his new allegiances. He instinctively knew they wouldn't understand.
Hermione had her shrewd eyes on him, but she misunderstood his angst. "We'll stick together, Harry, just like we'd planned to do. We've got the DA, either in secret or not, and we've got an excellent DADA professor again, and you'll be legally independent in just over three weeks," she said. "And if things really will change with the way Professor Snape treats you, then school will be so much better this term. As far as the wrath of …Voldemort's followers goes, well, let's just be sure we're ready for whatever they throw at us."
Harry forced a smile as the door opened and Remus entered.
"Hello, you three."
"Hi, Professor," Ron and Hermione said in unison, in equally happy voices.
Harry grinned as Remus took the seat beside him, picking Crookshanks up as he did and settling the part Kneazle feline on his lap. The new DADA professor reached into the bulging pockets of his robes and dumped a pile of chocolate frogs on the bench between him and Harry. "These are compliments of Draco Malfoy," he told them. "Apparently he created a charm that reveals who's on the card. These are all Cornelius Fudge, I'm afraid."
Ron grabbed three and tore into the first one. "I'm hungry enough to overlook that," he declared.
When the train arrived, Ron and Hermione had to leave again to serve their second shift of supervision for the lower years. Ginny came in to collect Crookshanks for Hermione. The half Kneazle was more squirmy than usual. Harry was glad Ginny was taking charge of him. Remus stayed with Harry as they slowly made their way with the crowd onto the platform. When Harry saw Hagrid, the half giant lumbered over to him to give him a crushing hug.
"I'm sorry 'bout Hedwig, Harry," Hagrid said gruffly. "It was an act of revenge for something ol' Dolores did in the Forest. She crossed a line with the centaurs, apparently, and they just can't let it go."
"That's what I was thinking," Harry said grimly. "Thanks for trying to save her, Hagrid. I'm glad it was you who took care of her."
"Buried her just beside my pumpkin patch, so you can look in on 'er, Harry," Hagrid said. "Come see me for tea soon, and we'll pay our respects."
Harry nodded. He turned to find that Remus had rushed off to intervene in some sort of altercation between some sixth year Ravenclaws. Harry made a point of going the other way, only to find himself getting shoved hard from behind, causing him to trip and skid on hands and knees on the roughly paved surface of the road near the carriages. Two separate feelings washed through him simultaneously. The first was the familiar feeling of being the target of a predator. The second was the realization that he could do something about it. Both rendered a warm tingling beneath his skin.
"Watch yourself, Potter!" Gregory Goyle said over his shoulder as he shared a loud guffaw of raucous laughter with two other, equally large Slytherins who were probably seventh years, by the looks of them. Goyle's left foot suddenly appeared to sink into a hole and get stuck, causing him to fall heavily with an ungainly flop onto his side, complete with a squeak of surprise and a grunt of pain.
Harry stood up and brushed himself off. He could see that the three Slytherins were eyeing him, no doubt wondering if he'd had anything to do with Goyle's fall, but he ignored them and made his way over to the next carriage, getting in with some younger Gryffindors. "Are you okay, Harry?" Dennis Creevey asked as the carriage pulled away.
"Yeah," Harry said. But he wasn't. He'd just done exactly what Severus had warned him about, and it had felt fantastic. And now he felt horrible.
Severus watched the crowd of arriving students filter through the doors into the Great Hall for the returning feast. He'd grown increasingly tense as the day had progressed, knowing it would be far more difficult to contain danger with all of the students present again. And he had no doubts that there would be frequent tests to his new resolve to show less of his cruel side. Severus had made the monumental decision earlier this evening to not wear his high collar, hundred-button formal robes, and settled for a simple black over-robe that was button free and revealed his white shirt and black trousers beneath. But more importantly, he had not reverted to the greasy haired look he'd adapted years ago to assure that no one made the error of thinking he wanted to make friends. These two factors combined guaranteed that he was going to be making a grand and immediate statement about his changing persona to a swarm of adolescents. Merlin, give me strength.
He spotted Harry and immediately knew the boy was distressed. Harry didn't even look up to make eye contact as he made his way to his house table. Severus had forgotten that Granger and Weasley were Prefects. They had not yet surfaced from their duties…. He was peripherally aware of the ripple of murmured comments about his new look as he pulled his enchanted galleon from his pocket and silently sent a personal message to Harry.
I will come to speak with you later tonight about whatever it is that is bothering you. I'll summon you to come into the passage outside of your House common room.
Harry looked up at him then, and nodded solemnly.
Lupin entered through the doors behind the staff tables and came to take a seat beside Severus. "There's already a lot of rumblings among the students, Severus. This is going to be a challenging term." Severus shot him a frown when he stopped speaking to take a long drink of water from his glass. "I've already had to intervene into three altercations, all of which were between members of the same houses. Two with Ravenclaw sixth years, and one with Hufflepuff seventh years."
Severus responded with his trademark sneer. "How odd that no one from my house needed your attention," he said snidely.
Remus grinned at him. "My thoughts, exactly."
Severus returned his attention to the mass of students, all of whom had managed to settle into seats. He noted that Granger and Weasley had joined Harry, and were currently studying their potions professor as if he were some sort of obvious impostor. He narrowed his eyes at them as Minerva stepped around to the podium to address them all.
"Good evening," she said to the room, which fell silent immediately. "I would like to welcome you back, and am hopeful you each had a nice holiday break. We have had a few changes in staff since you were last here. Madame Umbridge will no longer be Headmistress, High Inquisitor, or Defense Against the Dark Arts professor-"
Her voice was drowned out by a ROAR of happy hooting and clapping.
She let the students get it out of their systems before adding, "And I would like to welcome Professor Lupin back to his post as Defense professor-" more loud, raucous applause to which Minerva indulged a small smile. She flashed a look back at Remus and saw he'd turned red, but seemed pleased at the positive response from the students. "Professor Lupin will also act as stand-in for me as Head of Gryffindor House until our real Headmaster is reinstated-"
Another rumble of noise drowned her out again.
"Alright, students, settle down. There is more, and this is the important part," she said with an edge of sternness. "Just this morning, I was informed by Minister Thickeness that he would still require a Ministry presence on our school grounds for the time being. There are some odd rumblings about social unrest in Wizarding Britain that could become a security issue, which he wants to keep an eye upon. The Ministry representative will be Mr. Lucius Malfoy. Mr. Malfoy will be present on the grounds, and available if anyone has concerns about safety or security, and is to be regarded as a person of authority." She gestured to Lucius, who had been standing off to the side and now bowed in response to her acknowledgement.
Ron scowled at the senior Malfoy over the hum of student mutterings at this news. "What, no little speech about his concerns for the integrity of the school?"
Hermione was watching Harry, who said quietly, "I know it's hard to believe, but he's on our side Ron. It will probably take me a month to find the time to tell you everything, but I am completely confident that he's-"
"Harry, he's a bloody Death Eater!" Ron said angrily, and loudly.
Harry frowned. This was harder than he'd imagined to explain, and he couldn't blame Ron for the way he was interpreting the situation. "Look, what he did to Ginny was unforgivable, and I'm not saying I forgive him. But I've found out a lot of stuff that explains-"
"He was after us at the bloody Ministry," Ron said, ducking his head down and using a harsh whisper at this point.
"I found out he was playing a role," Harry said quietly. "If you think about it, he didn't hurt any of us, although he had plenty of opportunity."
"I don't want to hear it, Harry," Ron rasped. "He's been a bastard to my family for as long as I can remember."
"I know," Harry said. He kept eye contact with Ron, enduring his best friend's disgusted glower for as long as he could. "I know." He didn't know what else to say.
"Ron, Harry's not responsible for Malfoy being assigned here," Hermione chided. "And let's not forget what he's been through while we've been completely comfortable and safe with our families."
Ron blinked, and looked instantly guilty. "I know that," he said, but his glower returned, his eyes still on Harry. "I'm not forgetting how ol' Lucius has treated you in the past, either, you know."
Harry nodded and dropped his eyes to his plate. In the meantime, the Headmistress had gone on to instruct them to be aware that curfews and boundaries on the school grounds would be strictly enforced, and any student who could not abide them would receive extended detentions with Filch. He was registering all of this, wondering what McGonagall now knew about potential threats to their security, while digesting the conflict he was feeling over Lucius. Ron was probably not going to get it, no matter how he explained.
Harry suffered through dinner and dessert, poking at what he'd served himself with little interest. It was early yet, but he just wanted to go to sleep. He wondered how long it would take for Severus to get up to see him. He'd noticed a lot of friction between students from all of the houses, and wondered what was behind it.
I suppose it would help if I read the Daily Prophet once in a while… but why should he subject himself to their rubbish?
He was walking up to Gryffindor Tower with Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Neville, letting the others chatter while he kept his thoughts to himself, when Crookshanks streaked by in a blur.
"Crookshanks?" Hermione called after her familiar, but the cat had darted around a corner and out of sight. "I wonder what he's after?"
"Well, it's safe to assume it's not my rat," Ron said brightly, to which they all snickered in unison.
Hermione dropped back to walk beside Harry, who had been bringing up the rear. "I can tell you really need to talk, Harry. I'll listen, you know. Whatever you need to say, I'll listen."
"I know," Harry said. "I've just got so much on my mind, right now. It's going to be hard to get back into the routine of classes again."
"Well, let's get settled in and then we can find a quiet corner to catch up, alright?" she said, looping her arm through his and giving it a squeeze. "I want to know everything."
"Yeah, alright," Harry said with a smile.
But things never really settled down in the common room. Remus came in to address them and tell them how to access him if there were emergencies. It turned out, there was a little-used passage not far from the common room entrance with a stairwell down to the third floor, where his quarters were. He'd warded his private door for students to be able to alert him by placing their wands on a nameplate he'd charmed to the wood, and speaking as if into an intercom, telling him everything he needed to know. He would receive the information whether he was actually inside his quarters, or elsewhere on the grounds. He did not elaborate on how this was possible, but Harry knew he'd adapted his copy of the galleons they'd all shared over the holidays to deliver these messages.
Ron and Hermione left to do their evening patrol of the hallways at half nine, and Harry found himself retreating to his bed. He was about to pull out the Marauder's Map to have a look at who was still out and about when Dean came up.
"Hey, Harry," he said. "You doing okay?"
"Hi Dean," Harry said. "I'm doing a lot better in some ways, thanks. I met your aunt Rebecca over the holiday. I think you kind of figured that out."
"I guessed, yeah, but I know it's none of my business, and I won't say anything to anyone," Dean rushed to say. His bed was the next nearest to Harry's, opposite Ron's. He sat on it as he continued, "Aunt Becky is really committed to what she does. I used to think I wanted to grow up to do that kind of work, but then I found out about aurors, and decided I'd rather give that a go."
Harry half smiled. He wondered what it would be like to not have to figure in things like getting a piece of a dark lord out of your skull before making plans for the future. "She was really great. I needed help, and she completely came through," he said. Now that he was saying this out loud, he found his old reluctance to reveal the horrors of his life with the Dursleys kicking back in. "And so did Snape, for that matter."
"I figured it was something like that," Dean said. "Snape came with Aunt Becky to put wards up at my house. I think he was just doing it to make her feel better. He was being… well, not very Snape-like."
"He's been that way around me, too," Harry said.
"Did something bad happen, Harry?" Dean asked after a beat. "I know my aunt saw something of the magical world that scared her. She didn't tell me anything, and she won't, but I was worried about her. I just want to be able to tell her that she's safe."
Harry looked at Dean. "She saw something scary, and I was there, and so were Snape, and Lupin, and Dumbledore, and Lucius Malfoy… and some others…" he paused when Dean's complexion took on a pasty hue. "But she didn't get hurt, just frightened. She's really cool, your aunt. She's not spooked by magic, which is great."
"Yeah," Dean said. He obviously sensed that Harry had said all he'd intended. "Well, mate, I'm glad she was the one who helped you. That's cool. And she'd come through again if you needed her to."
Harry nodded as Neville and Seamus came into the room. The four of them chatted for a while longer before each of them began to yawn with fatigue. Everyone else went to get changed into pajamas, but Harry stayed on his bed, not wanting to change clothes until he'd seen Severus. He took out the map and checked to see where everyone was. His eyes scanned over each of the levels, looking for Severus, or Ron and Hermione. He saw Draco and Pansy Parkinson patrolling near the Great Hall, and Lucius not too far away. Surprised that the senior Malfoy was still on the grounds at this hour, Harry continued to watch for a couple of moments. He saw a name moving along the map in his peripheral vision but paid it no mind at first while he was distracted by the Malfoys, but then his eyes jumped to the moving name, which zipped out of view on the fifth floor just as his eyes were settling on it. He could have sworn it said Peter Pettigrew.
"No way," he said aloud as his galleon heated and vibrated in the chest pocket of his school shirt. He reached through the V-neck of his school jumper to grab it and see the message from Severus.
I am outside your House entrance
Harry pressed his wand to the coin. "Severus," he said aloud to engage the enchantment that would direct the message only to his potions professor. "I'm coming now. Nutius." He grabbed the map and scooted out of the room.