Content Harry Potter
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With pepperoni and cheese still scenting the CCU, and feeling doubly-heartened by his steadily cooing Wheel of Anxiety, Harry sweet-talked Penelope into letting him out for a proper walk after dinner.  Freshly Disillusioned, he shuffled in his dressing gown and slippers down the corridors on her arm, two Peacock Knights hovering close behind.  Visiting hours now over, the hospital was winding down for the evening and Harry headed straight for the Closed Ward.  With one thing and another, he hadn’t spoken with Frank Longbottom since his day in the bath, and he wanted to see for himself that the nice old bloke was okay.

     “You want to go in there?” Penelope said dubiously, staring uncertainly in the general direction of Harry’s hospital-coloured head.  “Are you sure?”

     “Yes,” Harry said determinedly.  “I want to visit some friends of my mum and dad.”

     Although Penelope was willing, the Peacock Knights were disinclined to expose their charge to a ward-full of Saint Mungo’s most insane inmates.

     “Bit late for that,” Harry muttered under his breath.  “Look,” he said to them, “I just want to say hello; they’re like family.  I don’t have a lot of family,” he added shamelessly.

     The Knights decided to allow it, but only after camouflaging themselves as lime-robed Healers and executing a brisk security check.

     Excited now, Harry hurried down the ward as quickly as his tender toes would allow, past Gilderoy Lockhart, who was gazing adoringly in his mirror, past fur-faced Agnes, licking her paws clean from dinner, past elephant-nosed Gregory and triple-eyed Theophrastus, finally stopping at the bedside of grey-haired Frank Longbottom, who was busy tearing his newspaper into long strips.  He had a huge pile of them now at the end of his bed.  Harry grinned at how much Frank looked like Neville in Herbology, the way his forehead was all screwed up in concentration, the way the tip of his tongue poked from the side of his mouth.  Thoroughly chuffed to have gotten this far, Harry rocked on his heels, waiting for Frank to look up, but he didn’t.  Belatedly, Harry realised he needed to stop being Disillusioned.  The guards drew the curtains and removed the charm.  Harry’s grin stiffened slightly; Frank still wasn’t looking at him.  He moved around the bed to get closer.

     “Frank?” he said hopefully.  “Mr Longbottom?  It’s Harry, sir, Harry Potter.  James's boy.”

     Frank’s hands shook, ripping his strip in two.  His eyes roamed the walls, looking for something, finally stopping on the ceiling.  Harry looked up, too, saw nothing, and looked back down again, not sure what was going on.

     “I just — I just wanted to come and say hello,” he said uncertainly.

     Frank’s head jerked this way and that, avoiding the boy before him.

     “Harry,” Penelope murmured, “Mr Longbottom ... he isn’t really up to —”

     Harry wheeled around, cutting her off.

     “He is,” he insisted, “he just can’t — I don’t know — he just can’t get the words out — that’s all.”

     But the longer Harry waited for a sign Frank recognised him, the more he realised one wasn’t going to come.  There was nothing, nothing but the twisting, churning agony of utter and complete loneliness.    Harry didn’t know what he’d expected, but something — anything — some flicker of acknowledgment, but Frank wouldn't even look at him.  He felt Penelope’s eyes on him, felt her sympathy for them both.

     “Some days are better than others,” she said gently.

     Harry shook his head bleakly; it felt like something was dying inside him — dying inside Frank.  Hot tears welled in his silvered eyes.

     “I — I’d like to go back now, Penelope,” he mumbled thickly.

******

“Sir?” whispered a voice.  “Master Harry?  O-five-hundred.  Time for your fit.”

     Harry didn’t even ask; he just slid down to the floor and fell asleep again.  The Knights needed to prod him awake to make the appropriate moans and groans for Donna.  Harry drowsily drank down a cocktail of potions and fell immediately back to sleep.

     It was three full days since his accident and ever since then, whenever he fell asleep, his mind just slipped out of his body whether he wanted it to or not.  Right now, though, Harry was stuck.  His mind was aware and ‘awake’, but it was locked inside his dark, slumbering body.  He had not a clue how to leave his body on purpose.  Not that he had anywhere to go.  Frank’s rejection had affected him deeply — and left him at a complete loss as to what (if anything) he was going to tell Neville.

     Harry tried hard to clear his mind and deal with one problem at a time.  Although technically asleep, he was uncomfortably aware of himself; he could feel his lungs wheezing, his clogged nose snoring and snuffling, his right big-toe aching and his left instep cramping.  But these trifles were not what worried him.  Saint Mungo’s could no longer hide the fact that Harry Potter was getting better, and soon the Daily Prophet would be underneath Voldemort’s ugly slit nose.  Healer Dee said philosophical salts tethered your soul to your body, and she had a good deal more to say on the subject but Harry hadn’t really been listening.  Whilst he was glad he wasn’t about to lose his mind anymore, he couldn’t help but wish that his philosophical-thingamabobs had held off getting better until after Voldemort’s next dummy-spit.  The waiting was the worst, knowing that any minute, any second now, his world could explode with pain, and there he’d be, trapped inside his useless body.  Bloody doves.

     Harry cursed himself — a lot.  There had to be a way out of himself; there just had to be.  Getting angry didn’t seem to help, though Harry gave it a good shot.  As a last resort, he tried one of Elizabeth’s relaxation exercises.  Contemplating sea snails and galaxies and spinning spirals, one thought led to another, then another, and as the thoughts came more easily, he found himself somehow back at doves.  Thinking more clearly, now, it occurred to him that he might be able to do the eagle-owl thing again.  He felt it was certainly worth a shot.

     Right ... er ... Fly!

     Nothing happened.

     Um ... Up!  Go!  Levitate!

     Nothing.

     Wingardium Leviosa!  Fly and be Free!  Whoosh!

     Harry felt very stupid.

     Right.  Think owl!  Come on — be the owl!

     Nothing.  No, that wasn’t it: he was riding the owl, wasn’t he?  Elizabeth told him sensory memories were some of the most powerful, so he conjured the familiar memory of stroking his jaw with the end of his eagle-feather quill, felt it rippling around his neck; then he imagined an eagle-owl, grey feathered with black stripes on its crown.  Then he imagined climbing onto its back and wrapping his arms around its neck.  Twelve inches tall and glowing a luminous gold, Harry nestled his cheek below the owls black ear-tufts and heard a dim fluttering heartbeat.  The owl shook out its wings and with great sweeping beats it soared straight through the ceiling, through the cafeteria, the roof, and high into the early morning sky, a tiny Harry hanging on for dear life.

     Flying over the City of London, Harry twice nearly fell off before he realised he wasn’t riding any old owl, he was riding his owl — himself.  He could go anywhere — he could fly anywhere.  Whooping with glee, he swept high over Saint Paul’s, swooped through commuters spewing from underground tube stations, shimmied through the crinkly bits of Westminster.  Hurtling along in the wake of a mad motorcycle courier swerving in and out of the morning’s peak hour traffic, he had never felt so alive, so unfettered, so free.  No one, no one at all, could attack him here, not even Voldemort!

     Harry had no idea what was going on back at Saint Mungo’s, and he didn’t much care.  Even if he wanted to go back — and he didn’t! — he wasn’t sure he’d be able to find his way.  As it turned out, he didn’t have a choice in the matter.  Struggling futilely against the pull of his body, he was sucked backwards in a blinding rush through the noisy streets of London.  His owl tumbled tip over tail through the CCU, slammed into Harry’s forehead and vanished into the ether, leaving its rider to topple onto the floor.  Automatically swelling to full height, Harry ducked involuntarily as his physical body thrashed this way and that, screaming but not waking up.  A pair of Knights held him down whilst a frightened Donna bound his wrists to the bed.  No one showed the slightest reaction to a transparent golden boy standing amongst them.

     Over the din of screeching ravens, blood-curdling screams sounded in Harry’s mind, the screams of someone else — Wormtail! — being tortured by an enraged Lord Voldemort.  Harry eagerly spun around, hoping to go hitch-hiking again, but could find no sign of the red-eyed creature.  What he did find was Cho, pressed against a wall, clutching a breakfast tray and looking scared out of her wits.  A copy of the Daily Prophet lay on the floor; ‘POTTER SAVED’ ran the headline.  It seemed Wormtail had managed to delay showing his boss the paper until there was someone else around to take the blame.  Voldemort released Wormtail and cursed a new victim — Yaxley, maybe.  Remus rushed into the room just as Harry’s convulsing body started choking on its own vomit.  Remus and the Knights managed to clear his throat but couldn’t rouse him.

     “Do something for him!” Remus demanded of Donna over the mad ravens.

     Donna tried to explain that she’d already given Harry both painkillers and a dreamless Sleeping Draught.  Completely out of her depth, she insisted he shouldn’t be experiencing anything at all.  To this, Remus loosed some language that Harry had never heard before.  Donna burst into tears and rushed from the room.

     “Get a proper Healer!” Remus ordered Cho.  Cho fled.

     Harry couldn't give a fig about his body right now.  Literally detached from his own pain, he could sense Voldemort’s feelings even more sharply than normal, sensed more fully than ever before his savage, almost sensual, pleasure in casting the Cruciatus Curse.  Both revolted and intrigued, Harry couldn’t deny how seductive, how empowering it felt when done — correctly.

     He was just thinking he should be feeling ashamed of himself for enjoying it all so much when an irresistible thrill inflamed his soul: he just caught a glimpse of Bellatrix Lestrange under Voldemort’s wand.  Hungering for more, Harry threw every bit of willpower he possessed into the vision, desperate to see for himself her writhing in agony.  All at once everything came into focus for him.  He was right there, seeing through Voldemort’s slitted red-eyes.  They were in some kind of dungeon — or maybe a crypt.  There were no windows; tallow burned in sandstone sconces; it smelled of death and sent jaundiced light over Lestrange’s terrified face.  Towering over Lestrange, Harry gripped his yew wand with white, bony fingers and cried out in a high, cruel voice, “Crucio!

      Exhilarated by his glorious rage, by the veins popping across his silky, hairless skull, he cast the curse again, and again, exulting in Lestrange’s suffering, loving the way she jerked like a cut snake on the stone floor.  Far too soon, in Harry’s opinion, he was done with Lestrange and new faces fell to his wand, all of them murderous Death Eaters, all of them begging for mercy.  Harry was unmoved.  As far as he was concerned, they deserved everything they got!  He only wished Kreacher could be with them.

     “Harry!” called a distant voice.

     Revulsion filled Harry’s soul; how he hated that word!

     “Harry!” called the voice again, louder now.

     Enraged, his black silk robes billowing, he spun on his heels, screaming, “POTTER!”

     Abruptly, the crypt vanished.  Lupin kept calling his name, which infuriated Harry, for not only was it pointless in his sleep-drugged state, it had cost him the opportunity to exact his righteous revenge on his cowering servants.  Frustrated, and craving to beat the crap out of someone, Harry’s golden spirit tore from the CCU, straight through the walls and down the corridors, dodging a very determined Cho dragging a portly Healer three times her size towards his room.  As they passed, Harry slid sideways through a wall.  His soul, still swollen with fury, halted in shock on the other side.

     Kreacher!

     Rigid — as if petrified — his bulbous eyes fixed and unseeing, the ancient elf stood barefoot and in the middle of a white padded cell, his arms confined inside a child-sized straight-jacket over a tea-towel loin cloth.  Crouching around him, as if a spider playing with her prey, black-skinned Megaera.  She was real!  Harry knew it!

     In ragged robes of red and black, insect-like in her movements, the demon twisted her serpent-filled head towards Harry, smiled a terrible smile, revealing inch-long fangs, and turned away again.  Her snakes weaved lazily in the air, as if gravity were for lesser beings.

     “Soon, soon,” they hissed contentedly.

     “Deceiver,” Megaera whispered into the elf’s ear, her voice carrying the chill of a Dementor, “defiler of your family.  He’s dead because of you.  Dead.”

     “Too right!” Harry declared aggressively.

     “Dead.  Dead — because — of — you,” Megaera said callously, savouring each word.

     Kreacher’s body remained perfectly still but for a twitch of his right eye.  At this miniscule movement, Megaera’s snakes writhed excitedly, hissing and spitting, repeating her words, chorusing condemnations of the ancient elf.

     “Deceiver,” repeated Megaera, her bloody eyes glowing, “defiler of the family you swore to serve and protect.”

     Kreacher’s chin betrayed the slightest quiver.  Victorious, Megaera was endlessly patient, quietly ruthless, listing one after another of Kreacher’s transgressions.

     “Plotting, scheming with your master’s enemies,” she hissed menacingly.  “You will atone for your treason!”

     Kreacher’s stiff body jerked involuntarily, startling Harry, breaking him from some kind of spell, but not a magical one.  In the back of his mind, he heard someone crying his name.  A girl.  It sounded like Hermione, but Harry couldn’t think about that right now.  A purple Bookworm wriggled free of Kreacher’s hairy ear.  Megaera curled the worm around her finger, tugging it, teasing it from the lobe.  Then she ate it, sucking it straight from his ear like a strand of spaghetti.

     “You have no secrets from me,” she growled more harshly now.  Her cranial serpents were close enough to slither over Kreacher’s balding head and curl around his neck.  “Can you possibly believe your beloved Master Regulus will ever forgive your betrayal of his brother?”

     Kreacher was vibrating, now.  The demon was relentless, whispering accusations, condemnations.

     “Sirius is dead because you betrayed the House of Black,” she hissed in a sinister whisper.  “You’ll rot for eternity.  But you know that, don’t you?”

     Megaera’s smile was pure venom as Kreacher’s body convulsed, his eyes bulging, his scrawny body jerking as if under electric shock.

     “What are you doing?” blurted Harry.  His rage doused as if with cold water, his unease intensified when he realised the demon was repeating his own words. Megaera ignored him and continued feasting on Kreacher’s worms, licking them one by one from his wrinkled ear.  Her serpents constricted around his neck.

     “STOP IT!” yelled Harry; Kreacher was turning blue.

     Megaera pushed off the elf and spun on Harry’s golden form, her eyes bloody and full of righteous fury, her fangs bared, her snakes biting the air.  “The servant who betrays his master must pay for his treachery!  Justice demands his death!”

     Harry was horrified.  “Who are you to decide that?!

     Every serpent hissed, “WE ARE MEGAERA!

     “Let him go!” Harry insisted.

     Blood dripped from the demon’s eyes onto the padded floor.  For one moment, just one horrible moment, Harry thought she would attack him — find his body and tear it to pieces. 

     “Mercy is for fools!” she declared unequivocally.  “Or do you forget Pettigrew?  Do you forget how he repaid you?”

     She had a point, Harry thought.  But as much as Kreacher was a pathetic, vindictive little troll, he was now Harry’s pathetic, vindictive little troll.  He couldn’t let him be tortured to death.

     “I’m his master now!” he declared more aggressively than he felt.  “I decide his punishment!”

     To Harry’s great surprise, Megaera agreed.

     “As you wish, young one,” she hissed and stood back with folded arms to watch.  “Do better than you did with Lestrange,” she added archly.

     Still rooted to the spot, Kreacher’s body flailed like a loose sail flapping in the wind.  More Bookworms wriggled free of his ears.  Harry didn’t know what to do.

     “Kreacher!  Stop — stop!  I order you to stop!”

     Choking on his own tongue, the insane elf fell to his knees.

     Harry would never know what made him think to do it; he lunged for a Bookworm dangling from one hairy ear, grabbed it with golden fingers and pulled himself, shrinking as he went, through Kreacher’s ear and into a mind in utter chaos.  The only cogent thought repeatedly in a roiling mass of confusion was, “Kreacher must die!”

     “Kreacher, stop!” cried Harry.  “NO!  I’m your master now!  I order you to live!”

     But the gagging house-elf would not be convinced so easily.  The lack of oxygen was intoxicating; it promised blessed release.

     “NO!” screamed Harry, feeling Kreacher’s tongue swelling, filling his throat.  “I ORDER YOU TO LIVE!  That’s your punishment!” he added desperately.  “You’ve got to live — for Sirius — for Sirius!”

     Megaera loosed a hideous, unearthly cackle.  Through Kreacher’s eyes, Harry saw black wings sprout from her back, filling the white room.  Then she loosed a banshee-like shriek, dived straight through the padded floor and was gone.  Not even a single blood-drop remained to show she’d ever been there.  Kreacher’s frail body slackened and all went black.

     Lost in the darkness of the elf’s mind, Harry frantically ordered him to breathe.  Abruptly, he wasn’t inside Kreacher’s head any more.  The door flew open, and a young male Healer ran into Kreacher’s cell, straight through Harry’s golden shade.  Within moments, he’d cleared the elf’s windpipe and laid him, still trussed in his straightjacket, gently on his bed.  No longer catatonic, the insane elf started sobbing inconsolably.

     “Master?” he whimpered tearfully to the ceiling.  He was looking and feeling more lost and alone than Harry ever thought possible.  “M-Master, please!  Master, come back!  Kreacher lives for Master.  Kreacher lives!  Master?”

     But Harry was already whipping backwards through the wards, reeled back to his body like a fish on a line.  He woke to find his chest heaving, his eyes moist, and someone shaking his shoulders.  The room was full of frightened faces, his ears with shrieking ravens.

     “GET OUT!” he railed, struggling to free his wrists.  “GET OUT!”

     “Harry, please — please!” Hermione pleaded.  “You were having a nightmare — just a nightmare!  You were crying out for Sirius.”

     His wrists bound, Harry couldn’t even roll away.  He squeezed shut his eyes and rasped miserably, “Get out.”

     He could hear someone clearing the room of visitors, hear the Healers arguing over which potions to give him.  Someone freed his wrists.  Harry immediately rolled over and buried his head in his pillow but couldn’t suppress the dry hiccoughing of his chest.  Someone was rubbing his heaving back; he didn’t want to know who.

     “Harry,” murmured the hoarse, familiar voice of his guardian.

     Harry twisted his head long enough to gasp, “Check — hic — check on Kreacher.”

     “Kreacher?” said Remus, bewildered.  “Erm … I will, but drink this first.”

     “Now!” Harry insisted.

     “Kreacher the house-elf?” ventured Healer Dee.

     “He belongs to Harry,” explained Remus.

     “I’ll check on him for you later,” said Healer Dee, patting Harry’s leg in that particular way people had of humouring an invalid.  “Now just drink this for me.”

     Harry wasn’t of a mind to wait.  Before she could stop him, he swung his legs out of bed and immediately crumpled.  Remus lunged across the bed to grab him.  The Healers manhandled him back in bed, muttering all the while in low voices to each other.  Harry didn’t care if they thought he was nuts; he flatly refused to cooperate until he knew Kreacher was all right.  One of the Healers went to check, returning shortly to report that Harry’s elf had indeed suffered another “bout of guilt” and was currently curled under his bed, sobbing.  The Healers didn’t seem surprised.

     “It’s been happening on and off since he got here,” Healer Dee explained resignedly.  “Some days are worse than others.”

     “Where’d Hermione go?” Harry demanded fitfully, forgetting for a moment that he’d just yelled at her to get out.  They fetched Hermione for him, but only after making him drink a tall glass of turquoise Strengthening Solution.

     “Are you okay, Harry,” she said, rushing to his side.

     Coughing blue bile, he said, “I need — I need you to do — do something for me.”

     “Do you want me to get Cho for you?” she suggested hopefully.  “She’s right outside.  Do you want her to conjure her Patronus for you again?”

     If he lived to be a hundred, Harry would never understand girls.

     “Find K-Kreacher — tell him I forgive him — I forgive him.”

     Remus gripped Harry’s shoulder; Hermione’s face was a study in confusion.

     “Harry —” she started.

     “Tell him,” Harry insisted.  “I saw Megaera again.  I saw her — him — Kreacher’ll kill himself if he gets the chance.  Tell him I forgive him.  Tell him he doesn’t need to die.  TELL HIM!”

     “Oh, Harry,” breathed Hermione, her eyes sparkling, “after all you’ve been through, you can still think of —”

     “GO!” yelled Harry.

     Hermione fled.  Remus remained, standing watchfully by Harry’s bed whilst the Healers continued bickering amongst themselves.  Harry didn’t care about his ‘overexcited’ heart chart or his ‘elevated’ sulphur levels; he couldn’t stop thinking about Kreacher and Megaera.  He knew full well that his previous possession of Kreacher, the night after his bath when he railed at him for betraying Sirius, must have contributed to his mad death-wish.

     “Do better than you did with Lestrange,” Megaera had said.

     Harry’s mind reeled.  How could Megaera possibly know about him casting a Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange?  Only two people knew about that: him and Lestrange.  Lestrange had ridiculed his efforts, telling him he’d need more than ‘righteous fury’ to cast Unforgivables.  Did she boast to the other Death Eaters about how pathetic his curse had been?  Did she conjure some demon to mess with his head?  Harry wouldn’t put it past her, but why would she bother attacking Kreacher?  Kreacher did exactly what she asked him to; he wasn’t any great use to her dead.  It was only him, Harry, who had a grudge with the elf.

     Him.

     Megaera using his own words to attack Kreacher haunted Harry anew.  Remus called her a justice demon, just a myth Harry probably read about somewhere.  Now Harry thought about it, he realised he never actually saw Kreacher respond to Megaera, never heard him speak to her.  And the way she disappeared without a trace: no blood-drops, nothing.  Was she real or a figment of his imagination?  The part of him that craved vengeance?  The part he’d need if he ever got a chance to kill Voldemort?  The chance to become judge, jury, and executioner at barely sixteen.  Hadn’t he already started?  Hadn’t he gone after Bellatrix Lestrange in the Ministry to try to kill her?  The only reason she wasn’t dead or insane right now was because at fifteen he didn’t have enough skill, or strength, or experience, or something, to do the job properly.  Anxiety tightened Harry’s chest.  There was nothing noble about casting a Cruciatus Curse.  By rights, he should be serving a life sentence in Azkaban.  His soul was just as black as Voldemort’s, as Lestrange’s; he just wasn’t as good at being evil as they were.  Not until today …

     Remus, looking very grey and drawn, rested a comforting hand on his arm.  Harry couldn’t bear his sympathy.  His chest constricted, his insides burning as the events of the last few days started falling in on him like so many hot bricks, burying him under their sheer volume: trapped in the inferno of Kreacher’s fetid den; being beaten senseless by the horrifying nightmares of other patients; the relentless agony of the bath; and now casting Unforgivables with Voldemort and deliberately torturing a pathetic old elf. Harry didn’t even know what was real anymore and what was fake.  All he knew was that he ached to hear his mother’s laugh, something so pure and good, just one more time.  But was that a lie, too?  Did he hallucinate the Longbottoms, too?  Is that why Frank wouldn’t even look at him?  Harry’s shaking hand found his stinging scar.  Was this the only part of him that was real?  The only thing he was good for?

     “Harry,” Remus murmured, leaning over him, “you okay?”

     Yet another raven’s caw sounded.  Harry covered his face with his folded arms, hating himself and wishing for any life other than his own.

     “Could someone please turn off that ruddy bird?” Remus growled exasperatedly.  “And do you think you lot could argue outside?”

     Ever the diplomat, Healer Dee turned off the chart and shooed her colleagues from the room, leaving Harry and Remus alone.

     “Harry —” started Remus.

     “Voldemort’s gone underground,” Harry blurted, needing to talk about, think about, something else.  Haltingly, he told Remus all about the crypt, giving as many names and other details as he could remember, and offered no objection when Remus suggested sharing his drawings with selected members of the Order to see if anyone recognised the town.

     “He may well have moved on,” Remus said bracingly, “but it’s still more than we had.”

     Blinking, Harry nodded mutely.  Remus regarded him shrewdly and took his time straightening his blankets and pouring him water.

     “Rough morning?” he suggested at last in a low voice.

     “Voldemort knows I’m okay,” Harry said dully.

     Remus grimaced sympathetically.  “He possessed you?”

     Harry shook his head bleakly.  “We were — he was too busy cursing people.  He broke the connection when he realised I was with him.”

     “With him …” Remus ventured slowly.  “But you got away safe?”

     “Yeah, but then I —”

     Harry broke off; he couldn’t say it; it would make everything so — so final.  Remus would never be able to look at him the same again, as if he were just a normal boy.

     “But then you …” Remus prompted encouragingly. 

     “I — I think I possessed Kreacher,” he confessed shakily.  “Or Megaera did — I think she was me — or I was her — or something — I don’t know what was going on.  She wanted to make him pay for what he did to Sirius.  I tried to stop her, but he still nearly choked to death.”

     Remus needed several long moments to assimilate that.

     “I don’t want to hurt people,” Harry vowed, his voice breaking.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, he just had to believe that.  “I’m not Voldemort.  I’m not.”

     “Hey,” chided Remus, smoothing Harry’s sweat-matted hair, “of course you’re not.  The minute you woke up, you wanted to help Kreacher.  No, listen to me.  Listen.  You clearly have some extraordinary gifts, but the greatest gift is what you just said — that you don’t want to hurt people — and that’s what separates you from Voldemort.  Harry?  Harry, look at me.  I’ll admit possession scares me because I know so little about it — or how I could even hope to help you — but I do know your heart controls your choices, and you may be young, but you’ve got one of the strongest and best hearts I know.”

     Harry wanted so desperately to believe him.  Far from being reviled by his confession, Remus stood resolutely by his side.  Remus believed in him.

     “Harry, trust me,” he said quietly, “I know what it is to have powers you don’t want, powers you can’t control.  They are not what define a man.”

     Hermione burst into the room, declaring in a rush that she’d managed to coax Kreacher out from under his bed.  He’d even calmed down enough to call her a Mudblood.  Hope rekindled in Harry’s heart.

     “Is Cho outside?” he asked.

******

Whilst the Healers were off somewhere having a ‘conference’ about him, Harry impatiently counted the minutes for Cho to return from the task he’d given her.  She had needed a great deal of persuasion, but she was the only person he could trust to get the job done.  At last, she slipped back into the silent CCU.

     “I did it,” she said breathlessly, her face flushed.  “You’ve got thirty minutes.  Then they’ll be coming around with lunch.  Are you ready?”

     Harry immediately tossed back the dram of Sleeping Draught she handed him and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.  It took a little longer for his soul to break free of his body.  As soon as he was able, he made a beeline for the Closed Ward and Neville’s dad, who was also slumbering thanks to Cho.  Listening hard for the man’s thoughts, it didn’t take long for Harry to slip quietly into his mind.

     “Frank?” he called tentatively, hopefully.  “It’s Harry, Harry Potter.”

     To Harry’s profound relief, he felt joy flood through Frank.  Frank started spewing forth a stream of memories, as if picking straight up from their last chat three days earlier.  Harry cut him off — he didn’t know how much longer they had.

     “Frank?  Please, I need to ask you: did you know I came to see you?  And with Neville ... I mean I showed you him at school.  You know he’s my age and all, right?  Sixteen, now.  Do you know that he visits you?”

     Bittersweet feelings washed over Frank.  He conjured a memory not from the distant past but from inside his hospital ward.  It must have been Christmastime for a small tree in a cheap red pot sat on the windowsill, tired tinsel strung from its scrawny branches.

     Frank was sitting in a chair by his bed, hungrily drinking in the sight of the boy before him — though he could only catch a glimpse of him every now and then because his eyes kept drifting off over his son’s left shoulder.  Neville had brought him a pot plant, and Frank held it tightly in his lap, careful not to let it fall.  Neville told him it was a Hairy Toad Lily: tricyrtis hirta.  It had white star-shaped flowers with purple spots.  Frank knew it was quite rare, and he was also impressed Neville managed to make it bloom in the dead of winter.

     Frank’s frustration mounted; his mother kept talking and talking, droning on loudly with news of the family, not letting her grandson get a word in edgeways.  For his part, Neville sat slumped on Frank’s bed, offering a weak smile every now and then.  Augusta Longbottom finally turned her attention towards Alice.  Neville looked over to his father and tried a tentative smile.

     “You know what, Dad?” he said gamely.  “Gran’s got me doing dancing lessons now.  I went to that Yule Ball last Christmas.  Remember?  Gran said she told you that’s why I wasn’t here last year.”

     Neville stopped to look for some sign his father was hearing him.  Frank struggled to pull his eyes up from Neville’s right elbow.

     “Um … anyway, I took Ginny Weasley,” continued Neville.  “I think I broke half her toes.  She’s really nice and everything, but she dumped me quick smart.  Can’t say I blame her.”  Neville shrugged resignedly.  “Don’t know what I was thinking — she’s way out of my league.  Anyway, I figured I’d better learn to dance properly.  It’s hard going, though, on Gran, I mean.”  Neville lowered his voice to confide, “But she keeps putting all these glass birds on pedestals around the parlour.  It’s like trying to dance through an exploding obstacle course in there.  Anyway ...”

     Neville’s voice trailed off as Frank’s eyes stubbornly drifted to the window.  Neville blew out his cheeks resignedly and turned back towards where his Gran was helping Alice open a box of sweets he’d brought for her.  Frank loosened his grip on his pot plant.  If he could just get a bit closer, he could tap Neville’s knee.  Frank jerked his chair forward a little.  Neville was still looking at Alice.  Frank couldn’t quite reach him.  He jerked forward again.

     CRASH!

     “What?  Neville!  What have you done now?”

     A great fuss ensued as Augusta Longbottom’s wand whipped the air, cleaning up the broken pot and scattered soil.  Neville scrambled around in the dirt trying to salvage the Hairy Toad Lily.  Frank was furious with himself.  It belatedly occurred to him that he could have just stood up.  It was always like this, especially when he was wound up.  He knew what he wanted to do, but his body never seemed to know how to do it at the same moment.  Everything was always just out of step, always just out of reach.

     “It’s okay, Dad,” Neville was saying reassuringly.  “Don’t worry about it.”  He gingerly inspected the smashed roots and petals.  “I might be able to do something with it.”

     “Just throw it in the bin, Neville,” ordered his grandmother impatiently.  “You’re getting dirt everywhere.”

     Frank fumed as his mother made Neville toss the plant in the bin.  Soon, she was preparing to take his son away — too soon, as far as Frank was concerned.  Neville left, trudging after his Gran and looking thoroughly miserable.

     “Oh, Mrs Longbottom, are you leaving already?” called a Healer.  Frank looked glumly down the long closed ward.  Now his eyes decide to work.

     Harry felt miserable for Frank; he knew exactly what was coming.  He could see himself standing next to Gilderoy Lockhart’s bed, his head spinning around at the sound of the Longbottom name.

     “It’s okay, Frank,” Harry said sadly.  “I know what happens next.  I’m really sorry about all that.  I couldn’t think of a way to distract the others in time for Neville to leave in peace.”

     When the memory restarted, the visitors had all gone home.  Frank shuffled over to the bin and retrieved the damaged Hairy Toad Lily.  The elegant star-shaped petals hung limply now, all torn at odd angles.  Frank slowly and carefully set the wilting plant to one side and picked up the Christmas tree from the windowsill.  With shaking hands, he shook the tree free of its red pot and dumped it into the bin.  Making a fair bit of mess, Frank collected handfuls of soil from the other pot plants and painstakingly re-potted Neville’s gift.  Once done, Frank fell heavily into his chair and hunched miserably over the plant in his lap, his tears falling onto the bruised and broken Lily.

     With a sudden rush of understanding, Harry realised why all of Frank’s other memories of Neville had been of him as an infant.  It was because in those days Frank could remember being a real father to Neville, of holding him, of protecting him, of knowing at some level Neville was feeling his father’s love.  The memory faded, but Harry continued feeling Frank’s grief, his aching torment in having been unable to even reach out a hand to touch his precious boy when he’d been sitting so achingly close, right there, right in front him.

     “It’ll be okay, Frank, honest,” vowed Harry from the very bottom of his heart.  “I’ll tell him.  I’ll tell him everything.  I’ll tell him you’re always listening.  I’ll tell him, Frank.”

******

Harry woke to find an anxious Cho sitting by his bed, holding his hand.  He squeezed it back gratefully.

     “I need to see Neville.”

     Ten minutes later, Harry drew a deep breath as Neville came bounding into the CCU like a faithful old Labrador.  Cho carefully closed the door, her job now to keep everyone else away.

     “Hi, Harry!” said Neville.

     “Hi ... er, we didn’t really get a chance to talk yesterday.”

     Neville nodded.  Sitting on the edge of the bed, he looked up at Harry with his trusting face and said, “How are you feeling?”

     “Oh, you know, been worse.  Listen, there’s something I wanted to give you.”

     Neville’s face lit up as he opened the photo album Harry handed him.  “Wow, that’s really nice of you, thanks!”  He started flicking through the pages, laughing as he went.

     “The girls wrote the captions, not me,” Harry assured him.

     Neville grinned.  “I didn’t think you put little hearts over your ‘i’s.”

     “No,” agreed Harry.  “Neville, look, about the album, I was kind of hoping you’d give it to your dad.”

     Neville’s smile stiffened.  “My dad?”

     “Your dad,” repeated Harry.  “Listen, I need to tell you something, but it’s complicated and you probably won’t believe me, but I really need you to trust me on this.”

     Neville stared hard at his fellow Gryffindor.  “You know I trust you,” he said slowly.

     Now the moment was upon him, Harry was at a loss what to say.  ‘Hey, Neville, I’ve been possessing your dad — he says hi!’ didn’t seem at all helpful.  He drew another deep breath.

     “See, the thing is, when I got burned, it was pretty bad — Cruciatus bad.”  Neville paled but nodded for Harry to go on; they both knew what that was like.  “The burns were so bad my heart gave out.  They reckon I died for a few minutes.  They ended up replacing all my skin — fingers, toes, everything.  They had me in this bath for ages with all these weird potions.  It did something to me, Neville.  Look, can you keep this to yourself?”  Neville, who had started turning a sickly green, nodded quickly.  “See, I started moving around in the astral plane.  When you’re dreaming and leave your body,” explained Harry, for Neville’s mouth was opening and closing in an excellent imitation of his pet toad.  “Neville, you know I’m — well, you know ...” Harry felt his face growing hot, “... special.”  Neville’s simple shrug of agreement spoke volumes.  “Well, the thing is ... er, you know how I get visions and stuff?”

     “Like your godfather being kidnapped?” suggested Neville.

     Harry blushed more deeply.  “No, I mean like the one last Christmas, when I had a vision that Ron’s dad was attacked, and that’s how they were able to find him and get him to hospital in time.  That’s how come we saw you and your Gran here last year.  We were visiting Mr Weasley.”

     Neville absorbed that; Harry sensed a twinge of lingering bitterness.

     “Why d’you have to come up to the Closed Ward then?” Neville asked.

     “We didn’t mean to — honest,” Harry assured him.  “We were just going to the cafeteria and Lockhart roped us in to visit him.  We had no idea you were there.”  Neville nodded slowly to that, curiosity stirring again.  “Anyway, there’s this, um, this ability I have,” continued Harry.  “When I’m out of my body, I can see things a long way away, like Mr Weasley being attacked.  But there’s something else.  You need to keep this to yourself, okay?  I haven’t even told Ron or Hermione.”

     Neville nodded encouragingly and said in his simple, straightforward way, “You can trust me, Harry.”

     And Harry knew he could.  “The thing is, since the accident, I can visit people far away … talk to them.  Neville, I talked to your dad.”

     Neville’s mouth hung open in disbelief.  Powerful emotions boiled up inside of him.

     “What did he say?” he croaked.

     Flummoxed, Harry hadn’t expected Neville to believe him straight away.  “He wanted to know all about you, about everything in your life; he couldn’t get enough.  He really loves you, Neville.”

     A painful sob escaped Neville’s lips.  He jerked to his feet and stumbled backwards, stammering, “I — I have to ... I ...”

     Neville fled.  Two seconds later, Cho ran into the room.

     “What happened?  Is he okay?  Are you?”

     Harry struggled to calm himself from the fallout of his friend’s emotions.  He knew exactly where Neville had gone.  He would’ve bolted straight for his father, too.  Harry wanted to go after him, but first he had to get past his guards.  Cho straight out lied to the Knights, assuring them that the Healers wanted Harry to get some exercise, and soon Harry was standing outside the flowery curtains drawn across the Longbottoms’ beds.  Stifled sobs sounded from the other side of the curtain.  Harry wanted to go in alone, but the Knights were having none of that.

     “Look,” hissed Harry, pulling them aside, “my friend’s in there and he’s really upset and I know you’ve got your Foe Detectors, what else do you need?”

     The guards were sympathetic, but they weren’t about to let Harry — Disillusioned or not— out of their sight.

     “We’ll be discreet,” they assured him.

     Harry slipped through the curtains.  Neville sat slumped on the floor under the window, hugging his knees and hiccupping painful sobs as he watched his mother staring dreamily into space.  Alice was plucking tiny feathers one by one from inside a pillow.  She threw each one as high in the air as she could.  Harry followed the feather upwards and his mouth fell open.  The ceiling was covered by Frank’s thin paper strips; they were stuck on messily with bits of Spello-tape and chewing gum and connected together to form what looked like an enormous spider web.

     Harry couldn’t see where the guards had gotten to, but he felt one of them break the Disillusionment Charm over his head.  Neville jerked to his feet when he saw Harry.  His eyes burned accusingly.

     “You think this is f-funny, do you?” he shot.

     Harry’s eyes widened in horror.  “No — no — I never ...”

     Neville glared at him.

     “Don’t you see?” Harry pleaded, looking up.  “Your dad, he can see and hear everything you tell him, but he’s trapped, like — like a fly in a web.”

     Frank was sitting on his bed, staring up at the spider-webbed ceiling.  He was perfectly still but for a twitch in his right shoulder.

     “Are you having a laugh?” Neville challenged Harry tremulously, strong emotions rolling off him in waves.

     A sheen of sweat formed on Harry’s brow and he swayed a little.

     “Hairy Toad Lily!” he declared desperately.  “Last Christmas — you gave your dad one — he told me all about it.”

     Unconvinced, Neville hiccupped again.

     “Neville, I am not making this up!” pleaded Harry.  “He told me everything.”

     “You were here last Christmas,” said Neville accusingly.  “You could’ve seen me bring it in.”

     Harry’s words tumbled out in a rush.  “It was white and purple and your dad dropped it and it smashed on the floor and — and you tried to save it, but your Gran made you throw it away.  Your dad — he saved it from the bin and tried to plant it again.”  Neville remained sceptical.  “Right,” Harry said with mounting frustration, “I guess you think I could’ve seen that, too.”

     Neville was blinking rapidly.  Harry knew he dearly wanted to believe him, but he needed something — anything.  Unfortunately, Harry couldn’t think of one thing Frank Longbottom told him that he couldn’t have found out just by snooping around.

     “Neville, you have to trust me on this!” insisted Harry, growing angry now.  “Don’t you think I know how hard it is to grow up without your mum and dad?  Do you really think I would joke about something like this?”  Harry grabbed Frank’s shoulder to steady himself and added in a voice cracking with emotion, “I’d give anything for this to be my dad.”

     Tears streamed down Neville’s face and Harry knew he believed him.  No matter what proof he might have been able to provide, nothing could have convinced him more than that.

     Neville looked anxiously up at the spider-webbed ceiling and blurted through his hiccoughs, “Wh — what should I — hic — what should I do, Harry?”

     Harry sank with relief onto the bed next to Frank.  “Just talk to him; he can understand everything you tell him.  And send him letters, too, he can still read.  And show him your album; I know he’d love to see that.  He has trouble moving his body, especially his eyes — they go everywhere but where he wants them to — but he’s always trying to look at you.  You just have to be really patient.  It’s hardest for him when he’s worked up.”

     Neville swiped his running nose on his sleeve and inched closer to his father, then glanced back at his mother.  She’d stopped throwing feathers.  Tears shone in her eyes.  Neville turned back to his father and moistened his lips.

     “Dad?” he said.

     Frank’s head jerked a little and he looked away from his son.  Harry reached around and twisted Frank’s head back towards them.  A ghost of a smile flitted across the man’s lined face.

     “Did you see that?” blurted Neville.

     Harry beamed at father and son.  Possession might be evil when Voldemort did it, but Harry would defy anyone who said that the look of hope shining in Neville’s eyes could be the result of Dark Magic.

     “I reckon you two can take it from here,” Harry said weakly, spent but happy.  He stood up a bit too quickly and clutched for the bedpost for support.  He missed, and would’ve fallen, but a hand grabbed him in time.  It wasn’t Neville.

     “Thanks,” Harry muttered under his breath to whichever of the Knights had caught him.  “I’ll see you later, Frank,” he added.  Turning to leave, he found Alice in his path, timidly holding out her hand to him.  Harry gently accepted one of her little white feathers.

     “Thanks very much, Mrs Longbottom.”

     Neville still looked lost.  “What should I do, Harry?”

     Harry looked back to Frank and Neville and felt a powerful ache of longing for his own dad.

     “I’d give him a hug ...” he suggested huskily, “... he could really use a hug.”

     Harry felt a crack over his head and he immediately blended into the flowery curtains.  The Peacock Knights didn’t say anything on the way back to the CCU, and Harry had no idea what it was they thought was going on, but their attitudes toward him seemed to have shifted gears somehow, as if their protectiveness had suddenly got a lot more personal.

******

Thoroughly spent, Harry was resting alone in his circular hell when he heard people arguing heatedly outside.  He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but he was sure that one of them was Remus.  Slipping out of bed, he crept to the door and opened it slightly to glimpse his guardian surrounded by half a dozen Healers.

     “Bed, Master Harry,” one of the Knights said chidingly and firmly closed the door on him.

     Harry leaned his forehead into the now solid door, wanting — craving — more than anything to go home, to get back to some kind of normal, just him and Remus.  At dinner time, his spirits took an upturn when Remus returned carrying a bag of street clothes.

     “Did the Healers say I can go home?” Harry asked, immediately pushing his dinner tray away and climbing out of bed.

     “No,” said Remus flatly, dropping the bag on the bed.  “They think it best to keep you here for the rest of summer; I think it best to get you as far away from this place as possible.  Of course, if you’d rather stay, you’re welcome to — umph.”

     Remus broke off, winded.  There were a lot of things Harry couldn’t say that went into that hug.

     “Now, you’re going to need to take quite a few potions each day,” Remus warned him.  “Elizabeth is down at the Apothecary getting supplies sorted as we speak.  And you’ll want to take it easy for a while: rest, fresh air, exercise ...”

     Harry’s head nearly fell off from nodding.

     “Right then,” continued Remus, cracking a smile, “just relax for a bit and eat your dinner.  There’s about a mile of red tape I need to fill in to get you released.”

     As soon as Remus was gone, Harry grabbed the Knights; he didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye to the Longbottoms.  Neville had already gone home, and Harry sat Frank and Alice down together and explained that he was leaving.

     “I want to thank you for telling me about Mum and Dad,” he whispered, glancing back at the Knights (who, to be fair, were doing their best not to listen), “it was just brilliant, really.  But look, you’re going to get out of here.  I’m not sure how or when,” he admitted, “but you have to trust me on that.”

     Frank smiled slightly at his knee.  Harry leaned closer.

     “It’s gonna be okay, I promise.”  He offered a small, self-deprecating smile and added, “See, apparently, I’ve got this daft ‘saving people’ thing.”

******
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