Chapter Nine: Skirting the Edges
Harry was standing in a large clearing and looking up at the stars. Tall trees with trunks as big as small cottages surrounded the soft earth on which she stood. Birds did not sing. Insects did not chirp. Wind did not rustle the branches. The place had the feeling of old power, but also of abandonment. In the center of the circle, standing on a mossy stone, stood a woman. She was short, and so was her light brown curly hair. She was wearing a grass green dress patched with darker green and a worried expression.
"Oh, dear," she said, looking at Harry. "I say, would you mind helping me down, dear?"
"Not at all," the girl said, moving forward to offer her hand.
"That's so much better," the lady said brightly, favoring Harry with a smile. "Evie Toadhopple, Haruspex and Hypnagogic Technician, at your service."
They shook hands.
"Pleased to meet you. . . . So, what's happening to me, Mrs. Toadhopple?"
"Oh, no dear. Miss Toadhopple, I thank you. I've never held with that getting married nonsense, you know. There's simply no time--not when one has seven girls, five boys, eight fish, two cats who'll come when called, nine cats who come when it pleases them, one dog who doesn't go anywhere, three loving parents, and several recalcitrant houseplants--not if one wants to have a career! One barely has time for the occasional--well, you see what I mean--can you imagine what it would be like if I were to have married the fellow partially responsible for it all?
"Actually, it sounds more like you're responsible for everything," Harry ventured.
"Well, Gordon is a very good daddy, you know. He keeps the house and I look after the animals, and the children, well, they seem to raise themselves--I'm teasing, dear. Gordon and I both take care of the babes--well, they're not all babes anymore, but you see what I'm saying, I hope?"
No, Harry did not, but she decided that silence was her best option.
"Now then, do you remember that we've been chatting?"
"Oh, good. You know, I've always found it a trifle difficult to guide someone through her thoughts when she didn't know I was there. And I wanted to see what you were seeing--and I wanted you to see me, so here I am. And," she said, pulling a sword and scabbard out of the right-hand pocket of her dress, "I've brought you this."
Harry took the sword.
"My graduation gift. How did you get it?"
"Oh, that's easily explained: I don't actually have it. I found it in your thoughts. It seemed important, so I wanted to know if it was important. That's why I brought it. Well, I thought it up and removed it from my pocket if you want to the specifics. What can you tell me about it?"
"Ah, yes--Hermione mentioned I should not touch it, particularly the scabbard, should I ever really find it--one assumes that, since it would most often be in the scabbard, that device was enchanted to protect the sword. Taken out of its scabbard, you'd be using it, and anyone who was on the business end--"
"Oh, no, dear--call me Evie."
"Evie, why do you think my sword is important?"
"It was hanging before an old door in one of your mental byways. I do hope you don't mind that I went wandering about, dear. You're full of the juiciest memories, you know. Some put me quite in mind of my Tuesday "date" nights with Gordon, and I--oh, but you don't want to hear about that--it's just that you seem to have had some fascinating experiences, and I did hope that they might shed light on how to . . . sort you out, to put it politely."
"Take me to the door."
And then they were at it.
"Oh, my. You're very good at this, aren't you? Well, that does make sense. You spent a lot of time suspended in this state, didn't you?"
The door was massive, about the height of three tall men, and as wide as six men lying end to end. Black iron bands reinforced its stain-darkened planks, and it was unguarded.
"Whatever it leads to must be most impressive," Evie allowed.
"My master would thank you, if it were possible."
"Oh! Were you apprenticed?"
"Yes. This door leads into the home of my first master."
"Shall we go in?"
"Oh," Evie said, looking disappointed for about half a second before continuing. "Why, that's fine. Secrets are healthy, I suppose. Now then, why was your sword hanging here in the first place, do you think?"
"Probably because Severus--Snape, Severus Snape--gave me this sword, and he didn't want me to be apprenticed to my first master."
Secrets are revealing, as well, Evie thought, noting that now that the young woman was more aware of herself, she did not want to reveal her level of familiarity with Hogwarts' Potions master. Interesting. Evie had not ever had time to pay attention to all of those rumors she heard in the Three Broomsticks about Snape and the Girl Who Lived, but it was nice to know that one of them might have been true.
"So, to return our attention to your enchanted sword--what does it do that's enchanting?" Evie asked, clapping her hands together.
The lady was so excited that Harry could not refuse her. She placed the scabbard around her waist, drew her sword, whispered the necessary word, and then the hilt and blade disappeared.
"Magnificent! The element of surprise!"
"Yes," Harry said, drawing the tip of it across her palm.
"Oh! But why did you cut yourself?"
A thin line of blood outlined the tip of her sword, and Harry made as if to sheath it. But before pushing the blade into its scabbard, an eldritch flame moved over the metal from tip to hilt, and the red trail was burnt away.
"The professor never did trust me to clean things properly."
"I wonder if I could persuade him to visit my house? Gordon would be so grateful," she said, and then the memory shifted.
"Secretary Croakes" read the nameplate on the door into which Evie followed Ree, who no longer seemed to know she was present, and also Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Albus Dumbledore.
"So, you understand, do you, that this object is irreplaceable, young lady? the wizard who Evie knew had to be Croakes asked.
"Yes, Sir. I'll be careful not to lose it, of course."
"Well, well, of course you won't lose it. No one thinks you will, Miss Potter! Just remember that no one in my department can explain its use--therefore, it's very important--and we'll need any notes on it you might have time to make while you're . . . away."
Harry accepted the milky stone cylinder from Croakes with a nod. She could feel the power contained in the small object, and was fascinated by how the surface of the rod seemed to swirl without moving.
"Ree?" Remus prompted. "It's time to go."
Evie tried to follow the party, but found it difficult; a strange fog seemed to obscure what was happening.
When Ree looked up, she was the only one still sitting. How did I just lose all that time?
The next thing she knew, she was remembering hugs, kisses, and admonishments while riding in a carriage that smelled of stale straw and burnt bark. It was almost like stepping into one of those dreadful Regency romance novels that Parvati used to talk about in Divination all the time--except for the fact that the bark Harry could smell was burnt by medi-wizards to apply to suppurating wounds. She wondered if the person who was hurt and infected and oozing had made it to his or her destination alive, and shuddered a bit as the sick smell of rotting flesh insinuated itself into the air.
I should stop kicking up the straw.
The cylinder was still in her hand, but now it contained whorls of black smoke. Harry laid it down on the seat next to herself and leaned out the window. Two thestrals pulled the conveyance, but there was no coachman. So far, it was just like approaching Hogwarts, except for the disturbing smells and the fact that she was not traveling on a road. She was being pulled in the air over a churning river that cut through the sandy valley beneath her like a wound. Soot from fires dotting either side of the water rose toward the sky like smudges on canvas, and the scene below seemed terribly ill-defined.
"It isn't fixed."
"Ow!" Ree exclaimed, hitting her head on the casing of the window as she straightened to pull herself back into the carriage.
A sturdy looking older lady with black hair and eyes was sitting across from her; she was holding a stone object much like the one Harry had brought with her.
"I apologize for startling you, dear. My name is Vedette."
"I'm called Ree."
The lady smiled at her. "Do you have a surname, dear?"
"Potter, Ma'am. . . . Do you?"
"Oh," said Harry, feeling a bit disconcerted when the lady did not offer hers.
"I don't use mine, you see."
"Oh? May I ask why not?" You probably shouldn't have asked that, you idiot.
But it was difficult to make casual conversation with someone who has just appeared.
Inexplicable, Vedette told her, "Marry someone worthwhile, dear, someone with whom you'll be proud to share a name."
"Oh! Oh, I'm sorry."
"What on earth for?"
"Well, for whatever he did that made you not want to share his name, I suppose."
The witch laughed, and said, "Yes, indeed, thank you. Shall we talk of slightly less confusing things?"
Have we been having a conversation? Harry wondered, absentmindedly rubbing her stone.
"Is this your first time in the Wilds?"
"Yes. You know, I'm not certain how I even got here. And would you mind telling me why there appears to be an army beneath us?"
"Look down again."
Harry did. The river still flowed roughly and whitely across the land, but the desert was now a green vale, and there was no sign of fire.
"It's not fixed, as I said. Unless you keep your key, your experience here will be far more discombobulating than it has to be."
"My key? This?"
"Yes, the stone contains the slip of time you're meant to follow. Keep it with you, dear, or you'll end up fifty years past your own funeral when you get home--or fifty years early for your birth."
Harry glanced at Vedette's key, which held green vapor.
"You and I appear to be headed to different locations."
"Yes, we are. Mind you don't wander Master Tancredo's castle alone at night. Take a servant with you everywhere."
"Oh, you've been to the master's home?"
"His home you call it? Dear, you do know that you're going to a fortified castle, don't you? A fortified castle currently under siege?"
"No. I didn't. I know that the master is a vampire, that he can help--"
"Now, now--don't go giving away any secrets, young lady. That won't do. Not in the Wilds--not anywhere."
"What a remarkably well-behaved girl you are. Your mother must be very proud of you."
"Thank you, ma'am," the girl said.
And suddenly, she was somewhere else, watching herself--or being herself--she did not know.
Harry was nervous, but determined. Recent events had convinced her that she was no longer welcome in the Gryffindor dormitory, and she hoped that Professor Snape might allow her to return to the dungeons. But Severus is probably so relieved that I'm gone that he'll only laugh at me when I ask. She had gone to the Astronomy tower to attempt to compose a letter without distraction, but was surprised to hear, as she neared the tower, the sound of a sopranic rant.
"--and if you won't do your duty by your family, I will have nothing more to do with you! You wretched, hateful, ungrateful boy! I am ashamed to call myself your mother. Ashamed! I hate you, I hate you, I hate--"
"INCENDIO!" Snape howled, pointing his wand at the red envelope that was hovering near his head.
The letter burst into flame and its ashes dispersed in the chill breeze.
Harry was already turning around to flee down the steps when she felt the hand close around her neck. Mercifully, all it caught was a handful of invisibility cloak.
"You will never make a decent spy, Potter," the Potions master spat. "What is it that you think you are doing?"
"Trying to give you your privacy, Sir," she responded angrily, thinking, Maybe I won't ask!
Balling the cloak up and placing it into one of the pockets of his robe, he demanded, "What business do you have up here at this time of night?"
"I might say dueling club business, Professor."
"Albus might find this business of our being . . . colleagues entertaining, but I do not. You will tell me the truth," he said, stepping as close to her as he could without touching her and glaring down at the top of her head.
Harry could feel the heat from his eyes and wondered if Snape knew any visual hexes.
No, death glares would get him a detention.
Inconveniently, this thought made her giggle.
"And just what, exactly, do you find so amusing?"
"Clearly, family isn't everything," she said, a mocking lilt gilding her voice.
It had the desired effect.
Furious once again, Snape threw her away from himself--but she had her cloak back--and she was invisible before he had brought up his wand.
"Potter! Do not dare leave this tower."
Harry said nothing. She was too busy trying to breathe quietly.
"Potter, show yourself this instant!"
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Let the git scream and shout. Breathe in, breathe--
After a few abrupt turns around the tower, Snape stopped speaking and appeared to concentrate.
Oh no! Harry thought before trying not to think at all.
"Very good, Potter. You've been keeping up your Occlumency practice. We'll do this another way." With that, Snape turned and cast a locking charm on the door to the tower stairs, and then waved his arm in a graceful sweep of the area. "Disconcelarus!"
Harry did not know the spell, but she realized what it meant when the professor's eyes focused on her immediately and he stepped forward and seized her cloak again with a triumphant smirk.
"Did you ruin it?" she demanded, forgetting her fear.
"No. But you won't have it after the spell wears off in any case," Snape said, circling Harry before leaning down to hiss against her hair. "Tell me why I shouldn't defenestrate you for your insolence."
Do anything you want to me. Just tell me about it while you're doing it, Harry thought before she could stop herself. Oh, gods! Moving back into the dungeons is a terrible idea.
"Potter, I'm waiting for your explanation," Snape whispered again, drawing out his syllables.
"Then stop breathing down my neck so I can think."
"Interesting. Have I at last managed to intimidate our noble heroine?"
"With respect, sir, you're an awful prat."
"No, I am a tremendous prat," he said, though he was not sure why he had.
His words startled them both into laughter, which stopped only when Harry reached out to Severus for support. When she began to pull her hand back, he caught it lightly and held her in place.
"Why are you here, Harry?"
"I came to ask you if I could come back. I'm not--I'm not welcome in the dormitory."
"No. All right. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked," Harry said, pulling her hand away.
"No! No, I didn't mean that no as a negative. I meant it as an enquiry. What do you mean you're not welcome in the dormitory?"
"Do I have to tell you that?"
Severus considered her. "Of course not. But why do you want to move back into the dungeons? Surely you know that the Headmaster would secure you accommodations elsewhere."
Harry turned away from the professor and walked to the edge of the tower.
"I don't want special treatment. I just want things to go back to the way they were before."
Severus followed her and stood next to her. He noticed that she was shivering.
Damnation, he thought, removing her cloak from his robe and draping it over her shoulders before realizing how disturbing it would look. "That won't do."
"What won't do? My disembodied head?"
Severus snatched the cloak back without thinking about anything in particular--not memories of the library, not naked, uncloaked women, not improperly, though overly, clad students under his protection.
"Take this," he ordered, ungraciously shoving his own robe into her hands.
He pretended not to notice when Harry took her cloak out of the pocket in his robe in which he had crammed it and tucked it into her clothing.
"Just getting comfortable," she said when she noted him not noticing.
"And to think--Draco once accused my living with you of having improved my vocabulary."
Severus was taken aback by this revelation.
"I did not realize that you were still in contact with Draco."
"I'm not . . . not really. . . . Are you?"
"Narcissa assures me that he is well--making top marks, playing well, dating lots . . . ."
"That's all right. I know."
Zabini, Severus thought, cursing him for his lack of discretion. Of course, the boy was merely attempting to clear the field by speaking ill of Draco--however true what he said might be--though it had not done him much good. Charlie Weasley seems to have stepped into the void Draco left quite nicely, hasn't he? "You miss him," he stated, though he meant it as a question.
"I worry about Draco, professor. I'm not sure that's the same as missing him."
"Perhaps not," Severus responded, allowing his shoulders to sag a bit.
His mother's words were still crashing about in his head, but they faded as Harry's thoughts grew unguarded.
I wish he'd at least answer my letters.
"You know that things will never be the way they were before, Harry. Don't you?"
But Harry did not want to talk about Draco anymore. She had enough of that sort of conversation while spending time with Blaise after curfew. Thanks to Charlie--and the fact that Charlie was rather far away--she found herself breaking curfew several times a week.
Deliberately misunderstanding Snape, she asked, "You mean you've put fire flax in the cupboard again?"
"If you do not cease your inappropriate flippancy, I shall be forced to recommend that you do see Tongish Oddfish for counseling. . . . Brat."
"Oh? You want to see Tongish Oddfish?"
"No. You are a tremendous prat."
"Potter," Severus said, making an effort to sound more professorial than sympathetic, "I am many things, and . . . most of them are worthy of your respect."
She turned and looked up at him, the regard plain in her expression, and said, "I agree."
That's not out loud, you know.
"Potter . . . ."
"May I have my room back, Sir? I'll cook for us again."
"You think I miss your cooking, do you?"
Harry swept a slow gaze from his feet to his hair, and then looked pointedly again at his mid-section.
"I have not been hungry," he said, a defensive edge returning to his voice to mask his enjoyment of her frank ocular assessment of his body. He turned to look out over the grounds. When Harry did not respond, he asked, "Do you truly wish to leave the comfort of your tower for the . . . dungeons, Harry?"
"You know that I do," she responded, almost too softly to be heard. Severus.
Smoothing a wind-blown lock of hair back into place behind Harry's ear, the Potions master smiled in a way that he knew would provoke a pleasing reaction from the girl.
Colleagues or not, Miss Potter, I'm going to have to insist that you address me appropriately at all times. "Even in our quarters. Understood?"
"Understood. Thank you."
"Looking after me," she said.
After his mother's assessment of his myriad inadequacies, Harry's complete faith in him was gratifying--though it did tend to quell the warmer feelings he harbored for her and promote an irritating sensation in himself that he imagined might be guilt.
I should be reading you a bedtime story, not thinking about taking you to bed.
It was far too early to sleep, curfew or no, so Severus conjured some pillows and tried to remember an appropriate Wizarding fable with which Harry might be unfamiliar.
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