Chapter Twelve: Toward the Greater Good
Reliving the past made the present easier to bear. It was something in which Albus found himself indulging all too often of late.
"She's with him, now."
"Then let them get on with it, man."
"Minerva, do you think that I've done the right thing?"
The witch pursed her lips in a considering way.
"I think you've done what you thought was for the best, Albus, and that is all any of us can do. Now come back over here and lose properly," she said, gesturing at the chess board hovering over her legs and just in front of herself.
So as not to disturb her, Albus hovered over his lover's calves, adjusting his robes so that he would not disturb the pieces.
While they played and talked of lighter things, the wizard followed his thoughts where they would go. Just because people come home doesn't mean that things get back to normal.
He had not known the names of the beings who had fired Hogsmeade, but their faces were burnt into his brain. He had caught them on Untaken Road as they were fleeing before Rosantha, and by waylaying them to discover what had occurred in the town, he had allowed the witch to catch them up.
She moved faster than he could see and made no sound.
When they were dead, his lover flew at him, claws dripping and extended, enraged.
"You let them in. You killed us. You knew. You knew they could get in and you didn't warn me!"
He had thought he might have to kill her.
What frightened him was how easily he had contemplated doing it.
But in the end, Ro had fallen exhausted and despairing to the muddy road.
She refused to allow him to speak as he carried her back to where their dwelling had been. The survivors were clustered about the smoldering ruins.
Albus could not even remember why he had been in the Wilds.
But Ro had been right. He had killed them.
It was centuries later before he had seen her again. By that time, she was Rowena Ravenclaw, and she took borders and apprentices. Helga Hufflepuff, who Godric, for so he was then known, remembered as Papavera of the Wilds, shared in the teaching of those who showed promise in the Olde Crafte. He could not remember why--something that always annoyed him--but it seemed slightly strange to find Helga working with Rowena. Hogsmeade had become a haven for Wizarding kind, and even Salthus, who had taken the name of Salazar Slytherin, had put aside old injuries to join the growing strength of the burg. The outside world--just as were the unknown Edges of it--was becoming increasingly dangerous. It had seemed prudent to combine resources.
"So it always is," Albus murmured.
"Ahem," Minerva sounded low in her throat. "Check."
"Let's play again."
He let the moments come to him and focused on his pieces.
Rory Carmichael had been a junior Ministry official. He was well-connected, of an old family, and had married a Muggle. Four days after presenting his wife to society at a rather boring and pointless bureaucratic affair, he had been found in his office, the veriest husk of a man.
He had been the first victim, but not the last. And those who followed him to his gruesome fate were always found after the sign of death had appeared in the sky.
It was not long after this that Severus had come to Albus and made his confession, begging the older wizard to relieve him of his potions notes and his life.
And so the headmaster had, but not in the manner of the younger man's desiring.
"I want you to return, so that you might do some good."
"I do not deserve redemption."
"If in the course of your activities you should discover it, and find that it is not to your taste, ask me again to kill you. . . . Lemon sherbert?"
Albus had made his offer to Severus as a warning: one never takes candy from strangers. It had been his way of offering the other man a choice. Despite having no idea to what he was truly agreeing, the Potions master--for such he had become under Lord Voldemort's tutelage--had selected a dainty from the dish, and then gone to the infirmary to see Poppy. She was an expert on discerning magical coercion, after all, and no one entered the castle without falling under her care.
Poppy had been furious with Albus for months after examining "the poor boy," as she had referred to Severus. And as for the wizard in question--he had learned too late that his bargain wasn't much of one at all.
He had never taken another sweet from the headmaster again.
Young Harry, as was Severus, was wont to sneak out of a night. Neither of them slept well. Nor did it seem did young Draco Malfoy, whose eyes absorbed the movements of his enemy as if he fed off of them. At every turn the boy waited for Potter, but never found him alone until it was . . . appropriate that he should do so.
On the night in question, the Potions master had slept very soundly indeed, whilst Filch chased Peeves through the dungeons.
The smell of something spicy and reminiscent of cloves greeted Harry's nostrils as he entered the kitchen. It quite put his guilt about being out after curfew out of his mind.
"What smells so good?" he called before he saw the other boy.
"Coffee, Potter. Don't tell me that your Muggle relatives never exposed you to coffee."
"Malfoy," Harry said, as though the name were the worst of poisons. "Out alone? That's right brave of you."
The other boy put a quick hand down for his wand, suddenly nervous.
"Don't worry. I won't hurt you."
"Not everyone's impressed by that Boy-Who-Lived shit, you know."
"Glad to hear it."
Recovering, Malfoy sat down and picked up his mug--the source of the delicious smell.
"I thought all good Gryffindor boys would be in bed by now."
Harry ignored the strange suggestiveness of the other boy's tone, and asked, "What is that you're drinking?"
"Would Sir like some?" squeaked a voice from his knees.
"What is it?" Harry asked the elf.
"Relax, Potter. It's cardamon coffee. Quite delicious, actually--but probably too sophisticated for your unrefined palate."
The house elf looked worriedly from one young man to the other.
"You don't know anything about my . . . palate."
"Bet you don't even know what a palate is," Malfoy mocked. "You probably wouldn't know what to do with a palate if it was . . . properly served to you."
Angrily, Harry stormed over to the table at which Malfoy was sitting. "May I have a cup of what the prat's drinking?"
"Sir will have to tell me where the prat is, first," the elf squeaked.
Draco laughed, and taunted, "Even the house elves have more refinement than you do. I'm not surprised."
"Him. He's the prat," Harry said, pointing at the other boy. "I'll have the same kind of coffee."
A pitcher and mug appeared to Harry's left as the elf popped relievedly out of sight.
"Alone at last," Draco drawled.
Refusing to be intimidated, Harry poured himself a mugful and toasted, "to Hogwarts."
The other boy stopped him by placing a palm over Harry's mug before he could drink, his thumb inadvertently moving over Potter's, which had curled around his cup.
"It's customary to wait to drink until the other party has had occasion to tap one's glass. . . . To Hogwarts."
They clinked mugs and drank, never taking their eyes off of one another--Harry suddenly feeling hot, cold, excited, and angry all at once, and not quite knowing why, but traitorously thinking it would be nice to find out as he took his first sip. The velvety taste of coffee bean, chicory, cream, and cardamom made him gasp.
A slow smile spread over Malfoy's face, and he visibly relaxed as he asked, "That good is it?"
"Yeah. . . . I like it."
"Of course you do."
It was just as well that Severus had never known the origin of Ree's love of spiced coffee. But the night, or rather, the morning, that the young woman moved back into the dungeons with the Potions master, there was a cabinet full of the makings for it.
Ree soon learned to only offer her roommate coffee in the mornings, as the man objected to anything heavily caffeinated after tea time, and to offer him that coffee unsweetened.
Albus knew, however, that for the entirety of the witch's stay in the Wilds, Severus had conjured up a cup of the sweetened, spiced, steaming brew and placed it next to Ree's chair by their fire.
"Ree, how very good to see you after so long an absence," Rosmerta said archly, looking up from her game of Wizard's chess. "Come in."
The publican controlled the black pieces. Severus moved the white ones. He stood as she entered.
"Harry," he acknowledged, his face evincing no emotion.
"You weren't at home, so I thought--"
"That you needed to sample one of the back to school brews," Rosmerta interrupted. "I'll be but a moment."
"And how did you find your vampire?"
"You know that I'm not permitted to discuss 'my vampire', Professor Snape. You haven't been . . . preoccupied about that for the past two years, have you?" That's what you have to say to me after all this time? Harry wondered, forgetting, in her angry and disappointment, that for everyone else, she had only been away two months.
Unbidden, an image of Severus working feverishly over a cauldron, his hair hanging lankly in his eyes, raised itself in her mind. Without understanding why, she knew that what she was seeing was a moment yet to come.
"You look terrified sweating over that cauldron. What's wrong?"
"What are you talking about Potter?"
"What do you mean?" Harry asked, somewhat confused, but cursing herself. Great, now I'm letting my imagination spill all over everyone else. I've got to be more careful!
"What are you talking about, I 'look terrified'? Seeing you after an absence of two months is not quite as disturbing as you might imagine."
Spending a large portion of her childhood locked in a closet, Harry had developed, so she thought, an elaborate fantasy life by creating scenes in her head and wondering about what they meant. Her story-making had kept her entertained in the Wilds, as well, when she had the strength to dream, but she had never told anyone about her . . . hobby, which just so happened to be number two on the "Why I'm a Freak List" that she had been keeping for some time.
Before Harry could respond to Snape, Rosmerta appeared in the doorway carrying a tray on which had been placed three tankards.
"Here we are! I call it, 'Pining for Summer', and I'm certain that you'll enjoy it."
When each of them had some of the brew, Rosmerta toasted, "To getting back to normal."
"Here, here," Harry said tonelessly. "Because training to kill people is business as usual for those of us recently graduated from Hogwarts, isn't it?"
The girl drained her mug and belched loudly.
"Oh, my. That good, is it?" the publican asked, looking thoroughly amused.
"Thank you, Madame Rosmerta," Harry said, somewhat more graciously. "I'm afraid I've forgotten my manners some in recent months."
"Not at all, dear. Did you come home through the Toll House?"
"Well, riding with John is enough to make anyone feel slightly out of sorts. Why don't you get yourself to the novitiate? Training starts tomorrow, you know."
"It does?" Harry said, astonished by how difficult she was finding the adjustment back to her own time? plane? circumstances? Shit, Remus will kill me! I promised to come for dinner before beginning my training. But you promised that two years ago--no, it was two months ago--still, perhaps he'll have forgotten? Not bloody likely.
Severus, who had been watching Harry with concern, asserted himself. "Potter."
"Master Moody has approved my syllabus for additional work in Potions for the trainees of your novitiate. You will find that document and your required texts on the desk in your cell at the house. Please acquaint yourself with these materials immediately."
"Of course," Harry said, turning to Rosmerta to thank her and then toward the door. I'd be happy to, you slave-driver. Welcome home, Harry. I missed you, Harry. Sodding dictatorial unemotional git!
"I'm certain I'll be seeing more of you, dear, now that you're one of mine--my neighbors," Rosmerta called.
Halfway through the tap, Harry heard Severus' voice waft through her mind. "Welcome home, Harry. I missed you, Harry."
The young woman spun around and found that the Potions master was leaning in a deceptively indolent manner against the frame of Rosmerta's door.
"Oi! Harry! When did you get back?" demanded Ron from behind her.
She checked herself, stilling the arm automatically reaching for her sword, and turned her head with appropriate speed to acknowledge Ron before turning back to Severus.
But in that brief moment, he had gone.
"Don't mind him," Fred--or--George, she wasn't sure which, said.
Ron laughed. "Yeah, he's been hanging around here looking 'scowly' ever since school let out. I think he misses having students to torture over the summer."
Idiot, Blaise Zabini, who had just walked into the pub, thought. "Ron's buying, I think."
"Mr. Zabini," Ron said formally.
"Mr. Weasley," the other young man acknowledged.
"What's with them," Harry asked George--or Fred--as they all found a table.
Blaise favored the witch with a very familiar look and kissed her cheek. "Ron and I are going to be training partners."
"What?" Harry demanded. "But Ron, we're always partners."
"Yeah, well, things change."
"Since you decided to go play vampire mind tricks."
"Prat!" Harry yelled, making as though to get up.
A hand on her arm stopped her. "Come on, Harry. It's not as though I'm going to blow up cauldrons anymore."
"Hello, Neville! What?"
The young man deliberately placed a chair between Blaise and Harry and sat in it. "You're going to by my partner."
Something in his voice stopped Harry from protesting. Instead, she said, "I'd like that."
"All right, then. Let's get pissed!" Fred--or George--said, ignoring the strange moods that had settled over the others.
"Medi-witch orientation," Blaise said, pointedly not looking at Ron.
"Yep--with Viktor," George--or Fred--said. "Seems like everyone's switching up, doesn't it, George?"
Oh. Bollocks, Harry thought. No wonder Ron's being such an arse. But it was a relief to finally be able to tell the twins apart. War has a way of scrambling your brains. It's like I'm walking through the actors in a play, only I don't know my lines because I'm not really one of the troupe.
But after a brief step-away to the fire to contact Remus and arrange to see him and Sirius as soon as Master Moody would permit, Harry found herself too swept up by being with her friends again to feel confused by Severus or daydreaming or the world that lay beyond her own in the Wilds, and she allowed her memories of that place slide more firmly to the back of her mind with each successive butterbeer.
Alcohol is a welcome, though short-lived, panacea, Albus thought.
The Potions master had been dosing himself with Warders since Harry had fallen into the care of Evie Toadhopple. It was not that he did not trust the witch to take care of the young woman. It just so happened that he had finally exhausted his testing on the remains of various war victims, which he had begun almost immediately following Harry's lapse into a coma after attacking Voldemort. Watching over her had given him plenty of time with which to think, and being in the infirmary had afforded him the opportunities of both talking to Poppy and noting just how often Minerva visited the other witch. As Minerva's symptoms had grown worse, Severus had begun to suspect that he would find his own handiwork at the base of the potion he feared might be killing people. He was certain that he could isolate that potion from the tissues of those affected by it given sufficient time.
He had been correct.
The wasting magic that Voldemort and his Death Eaters had used in the war had at its foundation traces of his "object lesson" within it.
It was his fault that Minerva was dying.
"Why hasn't Albus killed me yet?"
It was in this mood that Harry found Severus after willing herself out of the quiet of her mind and off of Evie Toadhopple's couch to find herself at the Potion master's door.
Timing is an important principle in more things than comedy.
If there was any other way, thought Albus sadly as he moved one of his bishops, I'd spare them what is to come.
But sometimes one was forced to bear a great deal in the collection of potion ingredients.
Poppy heard the sounds of the sobs coming from the student area of the Infirmary and rushed down the corridor until she saw the source of the despair.
"Oh, poor dear," she said, scooping the young woman up into a firm hug. "What's the matter? What's happened? Did that woman upset you?"
It took Harry a moment to realize that Madame Pomfrey meant Evie Toadhopple. "N--no. Miss Toadhopple was very kind to me, she--"
"Don't talk, dear. It's all right."
"No, no it isn't, M-Ma-Mad--" she attempted.
"That's all right," the older witch said, pulling out her wand and murmuring an incantation, "Call me Poppy."
"Well, it's better than the alternative," she said, catching the phial that had floated toward her. "Drink this. That's my girl."
Harry felt more calm almost immediately, but rather too crushed to speak of what was troubling her. Instead, she asked, "What alternative?"
"My name--Papavera--it means "poppy," but it is a mouthful."
"I think it's pretty."
"Thank you, dear. Now tell me what is troubling you, won't you?"
The young witch pulled herself up and scrubbed at her face with her eyes. Poppy summoned a handkerchief for her and waited for Harry to speak.
"I don't know where to go."
"What do you mean?"
"He hates me. And in my head, everything's confused. I don't actually teach here, so I can't take those rooms. I left Ron alone, and now he's, he's dead. How will I face Molly? And the moon is full, and Hermione will be asleep, and he hates me, so I have nowhere to go," Harry said, beginning to sob again.
"You're really waking up, now, I think. Oh, I'm so sorry, dear." Privately, Poppy was thinking that Toadhopple was an amateur and regretting ever allowing Ree to leave her care. But she knew it wasn't really true. What she did not know, however, was to whom the girl meant by "he," though she had a strong suspicion. "Have you been to see Severus?"
"Yes," Harry whispered. "He threw me out of the dungeons. He said, 'You have adequate accommodations elsewhere, and I am not disposed, at present, to offer you house room'."
The nurse stiffened. The boy's been at the Scotch again. "Did he say anything else?"
"Quite a bit, actually."
He wounded you, and you came back to your hospital bed where you have always recovered. But I can't heal this hurt, my sweeting. "I'm so very sorry, my dear."
"I didn't know that I was such a burden."
None of us ever do. "You are certainly not that, Ree."
When Harry woke up sometime later, she discovered Poppy sitting next to her bed.
"I didn't mean to fall asleep."
"You needed your rest. But I think that you would be far more comfortable if you went to your own quarters."
"No. No, I don't think that I could do that. I don't belong there."
"Stuff! This is your home, dear. There is nothing that any of us wouldn't do for our own hero."
"Please don't call me that. Neville, Ron--so many others--they're dead because I failed them."
"Tha's takin' a bit too much on yerself, inn't?" asked an unexpected voice.
"Hagrid," Harry said, rushing down the corridor and throwing herself in the half-giant's outstretched arms. "I thought you were in France!"
"And I thought you were in 'Amnesia Land', lass, but Filch owled to tell me you was runnin' through the halls o' his castle again."
"Why would he do that?"
"Because I asked him to keep an eye on you, is why. I got here as soon as I could. Olympe and Fang send their love."
"Well, I expect the two of you have some catching up to do. I'll say goodnight. If you need me, Ree, don't hesitate to return, all right?"
"Thank you, Poppy."
"Good night, dears."
"By now, one of the house elves will have the hut in order for me I expect. Would you like to come down and have some tea an' biscuits? It won't take long to make them."
Harry could not think of anything she wanted more in that moment than one of Hagrid's teeth-breaking biscuits.
Dawn rose and spread its light over the grounds of Hogwarts, illuminating the garden in which Hagrid and Harry sat, that young woman surreptitiously dunking biscuits into her tea. The sunlight did not penetrate the walls of the dungeons, in which Severus was waking up cold and stiff and alone in his parlor.
He had sent away the only person who would have thought to put a blanket over him as he slept.
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