"Have I caught you thinking?" Evessa asked Severus, intruding upon his privacy early one morning the following week as he worked in the small hothouse attached to his laboratory.
He didn't look up from his task. "You ask that as if it would surprise you to find me thinking at all."
"Hardly. With you, it's always too much thought or too little."
"Was there something specific with which you wished to tax me?"
"Tch! Charm was never your forté, either. In fact, your sour mood seems to have spilt over into the company."
"Ah, I'm a bad host because I wouldn't dance last evening."
"No, you're a bad Supplicant because you've been ignoring your Choice, and the young man has been languishing in the library since after dinner last night, if the house elves are to be believed."
"Why do people say that?"
"'House elves' when there's only one."
"A polite fiction, Severus. Surely you understand something of the social graces?"
"Harry didn't actually sleep in the library."
"No, I don't believe he did."
"Tell me something," Evessa interrupted, leaning against Severus' worktable, "is it your intention to conduct a traditional Binding?"
"I realise that you don't wish—"
"You realise precious little, my—my brother. Yes or no?"
"Yes, of course I do."
"If that's true, then why haven't you exercised your authority over the Family since Father's death?"
Severus set down his pruning shears and removed his gloves, turning to gaze quizzically at her. "There are laws against taking a man's magic without cause, and you did beg me not to harm Michael, as I recall."
"I don't beg."
"You do ask," Severus replied, sighing.
"So I do, I suppose, but surely my wishes weren't enough to prevent you from—"
"I know, Evessa."
"You know what, exactly?"
"I know that Father kept you here and prevented you from marrying your Choice for years by exercising his hold over your magic. Mother told me. She also told me that he took great delight in keeping you out of the world, and that she couldn't understand why he finally relented and allowed you to marry Parkinson."
Mother was a liar, and Father was . . . . "Yes," Evessa almost whispered. "Father was . . . fond of his cruelties. I never understood him, either."
"I can't imagine what your life must have been like. You were married and gone before I was old enough to know you, though your letters were . . . most welcome, even though Father . . . didn't care for my receiving them."
Evessa's eyes burnt with unshed tears to see how sorrowful Severus appeared; it caused her no little pain to imagine what punishments Tobias must have inflicted upon him for simply reading her letters. "M—Mother was very good to give them to you in spite of the risk."
Severus frowned. "Mother didn't. It was Tippy who brought me your letters in secret, and always with bandaged hands."
"What?" Evessa demanded, anger overpowering her sadness. "She should have punished herself after—"
"Forgive me. I only meant that a child shouldn't have had to—"
"If it was your intention to jolly me into becoming a better host, then perhaps we should speak of something else."
"Am I to understand, then, that it was due to me—due to your abhorrence of my experience—that you didn't exercise your authority?"
"No, it was because I couldn't stomach the thought of being anything like him," Severus told her, looking away.
"You're nothing like our father, Severus, nothing. Never think otherwise!"
"I was referring to the Dark Lord."
"Ah. Of course."
"I've no wish to wield that sort of power over another," Severus said quietly, looking at her again as if pleading with her to understand. "I've no wish to become . . . what I was again."
Evessa thought her heart might break to see Severus in so much pain, pain for which she felt responsible. I've put you in this awful position, but— "If . . . that's so, then how can you be planning to—"
"You know, Evessa! You know I've no choice!" Severus shouted, rising and clenching his fists.
"Don't you dare raise your voice to me."
"Then come to your point, stop plaguing me with these questions, and tell me what it is I've done to displease you!"
"Oh, Severus," Evessa said, her anger ebbing in the face of his assumption, "you've not displeased me. You've worried me. All I've ever wanted was for you to be happy, but now it seems you're determined to throw away your best chance for it. I understand about Harry, but I think—"
"What do you understand about Harry?"
"That his gifts might preclude him from being properly Bound to you, and that, for this reason, you've begun to harden your heart against him out of a misguided sense of duty."
"You've always urged me to yield desire to duty, have you not?"
"I've done much that I shouldn't have, but that's no reason for you to—"
Severus laughed, a harsh, hopeless sound. "Stop. Just stop. I don't wish to fight—I won't fight with you—but you can't interfere. Promise me that you won't. I suspect that you know what's at stake even better than I."
"So I do," Evessa said, noting the expression of surprise on Severus' face as he registered her defeated tone. "I shouldn't have disturbed you. I'm sorry. I just thought that we might find another way. I just . . . fine. Quite right. I'll just leave you now." Coward, she accused herself, as she turned to go. You should never have left him. You should have protected him. You should have told him!
Severus watched Evessa leave and cursed himself, for he felt that he'd spurned her unexpected concern in an unforgivable manner. He'd long wished for some sign of affection from his sister, who'd ever been unyielding in her strictures against failing the Snape name. For years, she'd been urging him to marry properly and produce an heir—"for the good of the Family"—so when he considered how little time was left to him to perform this duty, it seemed odd that Evessa should suddenly deem a love match acceptable.
I don't understand her, he thought, feeling lost and angry. I know that she means well, but I can't allow my feelings to cloud my judgment. What does she want from me?
He bit his tongue to keep from snapping then as he was interrupted, this time by Elizabeth Dellwood.
"Is Mrs Parkinson well?"
Severus nodded, not yet trusting himself to speak.
"Forgive me for disturbing you, but I feel . . . that is I—"
"Have become enamoured of Drusilla Denton, and she with you, and you wish to quit this place and court her somewhere more conducive to wooing."
"Yes, yes, exactly," Dellwood said, brightening. "I hope you're not offended."
"I'm not offended, Miss Dellwood." I'm relieved. I want to get on with it!
"Very good, then. I think I'll—"
"Permit me to conduct you to the Castle Arms," Severus said flatly.
"That won't be necessary. I know that you're, that is, I wish you the best of luck as you continue the Coutship Ritual. Dru is packing now, and we'll go after breakfast. You needn't bother about us, truly."
As he had not bothered about either witch since removing their names from the Scroll, Severus allowed himself to return to his task as soon as Dellwood left. I must attend to things other than the Courtship Ritual, he thought, continuing to prepare those herbs that he'd need to brew his antidote to the Draught of Living Death.
Given the train of Severus' thoughts in recent days, he was more resolved than ever to remove Lucius Malfoy from the world.
Reckless, irresponsible, stupid—I've been all of these things and more since allowing myself to hope, he damned himself. Damn Evessa for encouraging me, and damn the Eligibles, too! he inwardly exclaimed, working through breakfast in an unsuccessful attempt not to think of Harry.
Harry found Blaise grinning over the Daily Prophet when he joined him for breakfast.
"They printed my letter."
"It's almost ten o'clock, and you're still yawning? What have you been doing with yourself?"
"A great lot of reading, actually, and I don't understand the half of it."
Since the initial, arranged entertainment, the Eligibles had been largely left to their own devices, though they saw their host at most mealtimes. Blaise had explained to Harry that such parties were often informal by design to allow the guests to spend their time getting to know their host in their own, unstructured ways. But Harry hadn't spent much time with Severus since overhearing his comment about his lack of political interest. He'd preferred instead to remedy what he considered to be a defect in himself. It had hurt his feelings a bit to notice Severus' lack of interest in his pursuits, but he was trying not to dwell on it.
Severus doesn't really seem interested in anyone.
"What's it about?"
"Oh, er, Parliament, various Binding traditions and rituals, lineage breakages—"
Blaise whistled. "I take it you're considering the future of the Potter line, then?"
Harry yawned again. "Hmm?"
"Is it your intention to continue it?"
"I don't know, yet." Which is probably not what you want to hear, is it?
"I see," Blaise replied, sighing. "He's just undertaking the Courtship Ritual seriously, you know. He doesn't mean to ignore you."
"You know what?" Harry asked distractedly, as if he hadn't heard Blaise. "I never really believed I'd live long enough to have to consider my future, and sometimes, I'm not even certain that . . . that I did."
"You're thinking about your portrait not animating."
"No. I'm thinking about why it didn't animate. I'm a . . . I'm a freak, Blaise. No wonder he's ignoring me."
"You're not a freak. You're like Merlin was."
"What was Merlin? What am I? The 'power the Dark Lord knows not'—what the hell is it, anyway?"
"Does it really matter to you? We won. You beat him."
"No, I raised the spirits of the slaughtered on the grounds of Hogwarts. I waited for enough people to die so that I could, in fact, and then I set them against him. I murdered, Blaise, and anyone can do that—but no one knows how I managed it."
"Harry, those people died because of him, not you. You just did what you had to do."
"I could have fought. I could have saved more of them! Instead, I—"
"Stopped a madman from stealing souls to make his proof against death. I don't care how you did that. You did it, and that's enough for me. It's a gift, Harry, to be able to commune with the dead—to be able to steer them Beyond rather than allowing them to be gulled into becoming part of another's essence, as Voldemort intended at the end, and as he'd been planning to do for half a century, I might add. You didn't know then that you were a—"
"A freak. A . . . a necromancer. Right. I'm aware."
"That's not what I meant."
"But it's true! My portraits don't animate. They can't! They can't because I'm . . . tainted. Part of me is—"
"Part of you is able to move Beyond," Hermione said, entering the room and closing the door.
"What?" Harry and Blaise asked.
"Part of you is able to travel to the Other Side, Harry," Hermione said quietly, coming to sit on his other side and taking his hand. "That was part of your mother's gift to you."
"What are you talking about?" Blaise asked, at the same time that Harry demanded, "How can you know that?"
"Listen, I've never discussed this with you because you've never asked, but after . . . after, when the Slow Death Hex dispersed and you reincorporated and we were able to go to you, after, while you slept, I did nothing but research. . . . Merlin, they called Merlin a necromancer. Do you remember that from History of Magic?"
"It wasn't strictly true, I think. He never raised the dead, and neither did you—but you can talk to them. You can even control them to some extent, just as you did during the . . . just as you did when we were still in training, during that Death Eater attack in Kent."
A tear slid down Harry's cheek, but he made no move to wipe it away as he replied, "Yeah, I did." And afterwards, Dumbledore explained how I might use my control over the dead to defeat Voldemort, he thought, remembering how horrified he'd been by the idea at the time.
"Well," Hermione continued, "from what accounts we have of Merlin in battle against the goblins, we know that he could do the same thing. He turned a field of fleeing souls into soldiers to torment the enemy before releasing them to their fates. He didn't raise the dead, he just held their spirits back from the Beyond. You did the same thing against Voldemort to protect the souls of the dead from being absorbed by him. You saved those people, Harry, you didn't murder them."
"Yes I did, Hermione. I waited for them to die—and then I used them!"
The idea of what he'd done still sickened him; he'd never been able to forgive himself for it.
"They were going to die, you know that, Harry. Severus told us about Voldemort's plan to reopen the Chamber of Secrets and release the curse upon Hogwarts after bringing you back to Headquarters following the battle for the Ministry, and if we hadn't have got the school evacuated when we did, even more people would have died."
"I didn't die." I should have, but I didn't.
"That's because you were protected by your mother's sacrifice, and none of the Auror squads closest to the school were. They should've listened to Dumbledore, but they didn't. They didn't accept that Voldemort wanted as many unprotected souls near Hogwarts as possible so that he could fuel his immortality ritual with them."
"Fudge didn't accept that, you mean," Blaise said angrily. "He refused to order the squads away!"
"It was awful. It was awful to watch them all die," Harry whispered, embarrassed to feel tears spill down his cheeks.
"I'm so sorry, Harry, but Blaise is right. You're not a murderer. You're a—"
"Please don't call me a hero. Please," Harry begged, before his guilt became too much and he gave in to it at last.
Hermione choked back a cry and caught Harry up in her arms, rocking him as he sobbed uncontrollably for many long, anguished moments, and all Harry could do was let her.
They'd none of them ever discussed how the war had ended, and not many people truly knew, for Dumbledore had ordered the Aurors loyal to him—led by Kingsley Shacklebolt—back to Hogsmeade as soon as he'd realised that the hex had been released, keeping only a few Order members by his side to wait for the explosion of Dark magic to disperse; but Harry had refused to remain in safety while others were dying and had rushed forward to meet Voldemort at last.
"I didn't know, Harry," Hermione whispered, rocking him. "I didn't know you felt . . . so responsible—but it wasn't your fault! You have to believe me. It wasn't your fault—shh, shh."
Was, Harry thought, as Blaise said, "That still doesn't . . . answer his question."
"You mean," she asked, raising her head out of the crook of Harry's neck to look at Blaise, "about what he is?"
"I think you're right about Harry being like Merlin because of what that wizard wrote about himself, which was, 'I cannot re-knit souls to their decaying flesh. I can speak to them, and they listen. It is enough. It is more temptation than any mere mortal should have to bear, the ability to commune with the dead and be tempted to travel with them'."
"Where did you read that?" Harry asked, pulling away from Hermione, sniffling. "In History of Magic, Binns said that Merlin did think of himself as a necromancer."
"I think it would be more accurate to say that Merlin allowed others to think that of him as a means of augmenting his mystique and persuading others to agree to his goals."
"That's . . . awful."
"No, Harry. It's pragmatism. It's Professor Dumbledore's kind of pragmatism, in fact."
Blaise snorted at that, and Harry asked, "But where did you read it?"
Hermione sighed. "It's from Merlin's personal journal. The Ministry's Department of Ancient Texts has the only known and incomplete copy of it, but it is a copy."
"Fuck! Dumbledore. He's got the original, doesn't he?"
"Yes, Harry, he does. It's a family heirloom."
"Are you saying that Albus Dumbledore is a descendant of Merlin?"
"No, Blaise," Hermione replied. "I'm saying that Albus Dumbledore wouldn't mind it if people believed he were a descendant of Merlin."
"Yeah, that sounds like the Headmaster," Harry agreed, pulling away from Hermione and wiping his nose on his sleeve. "But where'd his family get the journal, then?"
"All he'd say was that his family had always been 'avid collectors of books'."
"Why did he never tell Harry about the journal?" Blaise asked angrily. "He knew he was confused—"
"No," Harry whispered. "No. He knew that I was young and more powerful than anyone born in oh, fifteen hundred years—the blue sparks, remember? Not even Dumbledore can direct as much wandless magic as I can, and I don't think he'd feel easy about my learning to become even stronger. He's 'pragmatic' that way, too. Besides, I've never given him the chance to explain things to me. I haven't stayed long enough in one place for anyone to really talk to me since the war. I couldn't bear to think about what . . . about what I'd done and why I'd survived."
Hermione reached out and wiped the last traces of Harry's drying tears from his cheeks and asked, "Is that why you've been staying away, because you feel guilty about not dying?"
Chagrined to have been so honest, Harry lowered his head.
"Is that why," Blaise suddenly demanded, "you've been taking on every exceedingly dangerous assignment you could? Is that why you used yourself as bait for Lethifolds?"
The ire in Blaise's voice startled Harry, but he braved it and nodded.
"Idiot!" Blaise yelled, throwing himself to his feet. "You've been trying to get yourself killed!"
"Maybe, I don't know," Harry admitted.
"Hence the Lethifolds—because if Living Shrouds can't swallow one up into nothingness, nothing can!" Blaise exclaimed, before storming from the room.
"Fuck," Harry spat, feeling stunned and unable to look at Hermione. This is why I don't talk about it.
"He thinks of himself as a murderer, too."
"And worse—a kin killer—but he's never tried to kill himself, Harry."
"Bollocks! What were all those magiceutical binges, then?"
"I . . . I suppose you're right. Perhaps that's why he's so angry."
Harry took a deep breath to compose himself and replied, "Maybe. Or perhaps it's just that we're his family now, and he can't bear—you need to go to him, Hermione."
"Don't you think we should let him calm down?"
"Not this time."
"I'm all right."
"Harry," Hermione said doubtfully, "you just—"
"Okay, so I'm mostly all right, but I'll be fine. Go talk to Blaise. He needs you more than I do, right now." And I know you want to go to him.
Hermione kissed Harry's cheek and rose to leave.
Harry sniffled again, feeling like a prat for having caused such a stupid scene and upset his friends. I probably should have talked to them before now, shouldn't I have? I should have talked to Dumbledore. Speaking of whom— "Hey," he said to Hermione, before she was out the door.
"How'd you get Dumbledore to let you read Merlin's journal?"
"I didn't. Professor McGonagall gave it to me to read. She knew I was trying to figure it all out, and—"
"She knows something about book collectors."
Hermione smiled slightly. "He wasn't particularly pleased with her or me when he discovered I had the book. He made me promise not to discuss it with you unless you asked."
"And . . . and you're sure I'm not a necro—"
"You're not a necromancer, Harry, of that, I'm certain."
"Thanks then—for letting me ask."
Looking a little less weepy for the sudden sternness about her eyes, Hermione replied, "Next time you've a question, don't wait so bloody long to ask it," before turning smartly and exiting the room.
Alone, Harry decided that Albus Dumbledore was the worst kind of withholding bastard.
He might have told me I wasn't a necromancer, but at least he did tell me that Voldemort was ignorant of love, he mused, feeling sad but also proud to know that his mother had understood the power of her sacrifice for him. Perhaps Hermione's right. It was my magic that allowed me to kill Voldemort, not his, and having Merlin's sort of magic can't be all bad, can it be?
Harry's stomach grumbled as if in answer, and he reached for the cold, buttered toast on Blaise's abandoned plate.
"'M prob'ly still a fweak, tho'," he mumbled, thinking, What does all this mean for Severus and me?
Now that he understood that his magic wasn't grounded in necromancy—which even he, in spite of his ignorance of certain aspects of wizarding culture, was wizard enough to know was an abomination—he was determined to take the Courtship Ritual more seriously.
I've got a good chance, I think. At least, I will have one if I can manage to stop crying over people all the time.
Blaise was in the library looking disdainfully at a blanket and books piled carelessly in a large chair by the hearth when Hermione joined him.
"He's been living in here, it looks like," he said. "He's been living with his guilt this entire time . . . ."
"Haven't you been?"
"Haven't you been living with your own gui—"
"'And be tempted to travel with them'?" Blaise interrupted, not yet prepared to discuss that topic with Hermione. "You said that Merlin was tempted to travel with the souls he communed with, didn't you?"
Hermione sat down in the empty chair by the fireplace and replied, "Yes. I think that must mean that Merlin could discorporate too, which implies that he—"
"Had a mother—"
"Or someone close to him who died for him, yes. That makes sense, if we assume that Harry's mother's sacrifice is related to that ability, which perhaps we shouldn't."
"But how can someone who's living become . . . like a ghost?"
After levitating the books on the other chair to a nearby table and gesturing for Blaise to sit, Hermione replied, "Well, Avada Kedavra rips the souls from people's bodies and releases them Beyond. If we assume that the magical protection inherent in someone's saving love prevents this process, or reverses it, there's a chance that the soul is restored after having gone, at least part of the way, through the Veil, as it were. And I suspect that if you've crossed that boundary once . . . ."
"You can cross it again," Blaise finished for her, frowning. "You have given this a lot of thought. I'm surprised you've not written a paper on the subject."
"And where would I have had something like that published? The Quibbler?" demanded Hermione, flushing. "Besides, it's not something we can discuss, is it? If people knew what Harry could do—"
"They'd never leave him alone."
"Are you really angry at Harry? I don't think he was trying to get himself killed, not necessarily. I just believe he . . . hasn't been able to think about things clearly, that he didn't want to think about things clearly, so . . . ."
"So he hid from his thoughts, much as I've been doing."
"You've been doing better lately, well, until recently," Hermione agreed quietly, giving Blaise a searching glance before looking down at her lap.
No I haven't, he thought, but I want to be. Taking a deep breath, he admitted, "I spoke to her."
"I wanted to apologise to her."
Hermione looked up. "For?"
"Slaughtering my family, taking revenge, drowning myself in bad habits—moving on," Blaise said nervously, as he watched Hermione's eyes widen.
"Yes, Hermione. Moving on—with you."