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Chapter Three: Close Enough to Home

Two days later, after what seemed like hours of answering questions about her "condition," Harry found herself publicly praising Number Two on her list of Mortal Enemies.

"--and I can't thank Mr. Malfoy enough for attempting to shield me from the Apparata spell and being sucked into the portal for his pains. He is a brave man who did his best to protect me, and I will not hear him slandered."

Harry turned to Lucius Malfoy on the platform situated in the Ministry of Magic's public meeting green looking the picture of gratitude and adoration. Reporters yelled questions, bulbs flashed, and Harry did not blink as she reached for Malfoy's gloved right hand. Oh, you're just the most amazing man, the most amazing man, ran the forced litany of her thoughts.

"Please accept my sincerest thanks, Sir. I know it would have been the worse for me had you not been there in that clearing to fight for my life and help me escape. I'll never forget what you did that day. I promise." With that, Harry leaned into Malfoy's black dress robes and tilted her head up to his cheek, upon which she deposited a lingering kiss.

The kiss looked chaste enough to everyone present. Only Lucius felt the little nip of teeth behind the soft lips of Harry's mouth.

"Hail, Great Caesar," she breathed without looking into his eyes, sinking back down onto the flats of her feet, and turning to face the reporters and their questions again. Amazing, amazing, amazing . . . .

Salazar Slytherin himself could not have trained her any better, Lucius thought, as he stood politely behind the podium exuding an air of magnanimous concern. Severus is correct. I cannot risk Draco's talents being neglected at Hogwarts. He will transfer to Durmstrang immediately.

Although Lucius knew that he would miss his son, he knew as well that there might yet be for himself an entertainment close enough to home. Frustrating to have to wait, he thought, reminding himself of Voldemort's injunction not to interfere with the Girl Who Lived. That he had not been favored with an explanation for the Dark Lord's change of mind was neither here nor there. I serve His will willingly. Willingly, I serve Him. I serve His will willingly . . . .

Albus was more relieved than he could say that Black had been prevailed upon to remain away from the press conference. He had promised Sirius that he would apparate directly from the Ministry to the Shrieking Shack at its conclusion, but, as he stood next to Severus watching Harry retching on her knees in Molly Weasley's arms on the road home from Hogsmeade, he was glad he had taken the detour.

"Oh, it was awf--"

"Don't talk, Harry," Mrs. Weasley soothed. "It's going to be all right." The lady's tone was comforting, but the expression in her eyes, which were locked with Albus', was murderous.

The headmaster did not need to look at Severus to know what he was thinking.

Albus sighed. Arthur and Molly Weasley--everyone, really--were furious with him, and rightly so, for allowing Harry to become more involved in Order activities. Unfortunately, the young woman was too deeply enmeshed in matters to be extricated safely, and it had seemed prudent to ensure that Lucius Malfoy would remain where he could be watched.

Sirius' objections had been overcome with more ease than Molly's, and they, by Harry herself. When the plan had been suggested, Harry's godfather had categorically rejected it, refusing to listen to anyone--that is, until Harry's low voice, thrumming with power, carried over the yells of everyone else.

"You have absolutely no say in any of this, Sirius."

The room had gone silent.

"What did you just say to me?"

"You haven't even been able to hug me since . . . Draco saved my life," said Harry, lowering her eyes and clearly struggling to find her words. "You have no idea what this is like. You have no right to tell me to do anything. "NOT," she said, holding up her hand and flickering her eyes to Sirius' briefly, "because you don't understand, but . . . but because I'm sixteen-years-old, now, and that means I'm legally able to make my own decisions. You're still my godfather, but you are not my guardian." She looked at Sirius directly. "Draco and I may have ruined everything. Please let me go?"

Sirius had rushed forward to grab Harry in a bear hug, lifting her off her feet.

"We'll continue this after lunch," Albus had almost whispered, rising and leaving the room at once. Everyone had followed except Remus.

At the shack, Sirius and Remus were waiting with Minerva and Hagrid. All of the currently enrolled Weasley children, Hermione, Draco, and Blaise were also found to be in the passageway that connected the shack to the school.

Harry looked terrified to see them, so Minerva sent them flying down the passageway before her with threats of negative house points and "old-fashioned" detentions with Filch. Hagrid got a hug in, and then went after Minerva and the children.

After a brief and edited recounting of the conference, Albus asked, "Molly, would you care to come back to my office for tea?"

She stabbed him with her eyes, but gave a quiet "yes" in answer.

Albus turned to duck into the passageway, expecting Severus to follow him. He did not.

Remus tried to press chocolate on Harry, but she refused. She smiled at him, pulling her head out of Sirius' arms. "I did okay," she said. "I did what Professor Snape said to do, and I think he bought it."

"I believe you are correct," Severus said, nodding his head. Lucius is certain he owns . . . it.

"We should get you back to the school, Harry," Sirius said.

"Wait--please?" Harry asked Severus, who was leaving. "Sirius, would you and Remus mind going on ahead? I need to ask Professor Snape something--it won't take long, I promise. Besides, you need to tell everyone what happened before someone bursts."

Remus chuckled. "Okay, we'll go talk to your friends." He turned to Severus and offered his hand. "Thank you for looking out for Harry, today. We appreciate it."

Severus took the other man's hand and shook it, evincing no surprise at the offer. Well, Black?

Sirius was already gone.

I thought so. "Yes, Miss Potter?" Severus asked, giving her his full attention.

Harry looked at him for a moment, a stunned expression splayed across her features.

Damnation. He had not intended his remark to be cruel. Well, she'll need to accept it sooner than later, he thought, thrusting the sharp edge of guilt from his conscience with a calloused conscious. "Harry?" he prompted in what he hoped would be a kindly tone.

"Yes, Sir. I . . . I want to know . . . ." She turned her back on him for a moment, and drew in a deep breath of air, exhaling it and pulling herself up straighter as she gathered her courage. "How old were you when you did it?"

Now Severus was shocked. He knew exactly what she meant.

If she'd asked me this question at any other time . . . . But she had not, and today . . . today Severus felt that Potter deserved an answer. "I was seventeen when I took the mark and began my service to Lord Voldemort."

"So--you weren't old enough to know what you were doing, either," Harry remarked, turning to face him again.

Severus caught the smirk from sliding out of his thoughts to dress his lips. "No, I wasn't." But you don't need to know that Albus asked me to join them. No, that would only encourage your ill-advised nobility and over-developed sense of courage further.

"That figures," Harry said, venturing a slight smile and then disappearing into the passageway with quick steps.

I will not like you, you disrespectful brat, Severus thought, following Harry at a measured pace. But it was too late to kill the embryonic kernel of respect for the girl that had taken root in his breast.


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