Chapter 14 : Truth, Trust and Veritaserum

Publish Date: 31 July 2005

Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter, its characters, or anything associated with it. I'm not making any money from this story, and I don't intend to. I'm writing it purely for the satisfaction of it, and because several people warned me that there would be dire consequences if I didn't finish it. The resemblance of any character to an actual person is completely accidental. Please don't sue -- I don't own enough to make it worth your while.

Note: This is a Harry / Severus slash story -- and while their relationship is also accompanied by plot, action, and drama, if you seriously object to the slash element -- or to the particular pairing -- then don't read the story!


THE MIRROR OF MAYBE: Chapter 14
-- Truth, Trust, and Veritaserum --

After a week that included strange Sev behaviour, a typically bizarre conversation with Albus, and then all the excitement and emotion of meeting the non-Mirror versions of Ly'haniir and Silver, Harry summarily decided that he'd earned the right to indulge himself on Sunday morning by sleeping late and ignoring the stack of homework scrolls waiting for him in his office. As a consequence, he missed the arrival of the owl that habitually delivered his morning paper to the dining room. In hindsight, this turned out to be rather a good thing, since -- if he'd been on time -- he probably would've been in the middle of a mouthful of eggs and toast when he saw the front page.

As it was, he was spared the embarrassment of spitting his breakfast out all over the table, simply because the Daily Prophet was already there when he finally arrived. The innocuous-looking newspaper was neatly folded, face-down beside his plate, and as soon as Harry was seated, he automatically picked it up and turned it over.

'WAR MAGES AT HOGWARTS' the headline screamed in large print. And below that, in only marginally smaller text: 'Dozens of mysterious War Mages reported at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry -- secret meetings held!'

In shock, Harry hastily scanned down the article. It rapidly became clear that the Daily Prophet's ability to exaggerate had been working overtime. Strictly speaking, the word 'reported' made the overblown writing style completely accurate. Harry had no doubt that quite a few young and excitable first-years had scribbled off letters describing the arrival of several strange and unknown War Mages at the castle yesterday. However, the Daily Prophet had used those so-called 'reports' to make it sound as though there'd been a full-scale invasion by an entire battalion of dangerous battle-mad soldiers.

But even that nasty bit of misinformation paled in comparison to the implications of the story's last few paragraphs.

By the end of the article, the Daily Prophet's reporter was blatantly stating that a secret organisation of War Mages obviously existed somewhere in the world, and that such a trained and cohesive army of warriors might well pose a serious threat to the safety and security of Magical Great Britain. Harry's own appearance as Ash had not gone unremarked either, and it was strongly hinted that it was no coincidence he'd shown up shortly after Mr Harry Potter disappeared. The mention of 'secret meetings' held behind locked doors only served to complete the picture of a diabolical organisation with sinister goals lurking on the fringes of the wizarding world.

The author's closing statement essentially called for a full-scale investigation into War Mage activity by the Ministry.

It appeared that Harry would not be having breakfast after all.

He was now feeling decidedly unwell.

Laying the paper gently back down on the table, Harry deliberately took a few deep calming breaths. Once the initial sense of impending disaster had faded a bit, he tried to look at the situation rationally.

It had always been his intention to hide the circle's existence from the wizarding world -- and most especially from Voldemort -- for as long as possible.

Harry's reasons for this were many and varied, with the most obvious one being that you didn't reveal your true strength to an enemy until you were sure you could use it to win -- or until you were desperate enough to need it for survival. But another less obvious reason was that in the Mirror of Maybe Voldemort hadn't known about the circle yet.

The Dark Lord's current plans all revolved around the fact that he thought his enemies were the Aurors in the Ministry, Albus Dumbledore, and the members of the Order of the Phoenix -- all of whom were human wizards and witches. Even Harry's inclusion as 'Ash' hadn't been too bad since he was, after all, only one man, and his interest in Severus gave the Dark Lord a possible way to gain influence and/or control over him.

But now Voldemort was faced with the possibility that his enemies were more varied and powerful than he'd expected, and Harry was desperately afraid that this turn of events would goad the Dark Lord into premature action. If that was the case, then Harry would lose two big advantages: time to prepare his own power base; and the benefit of knowing what Voldemort's plans were by remembering what he'd done in the Mirror.

And as if all that wasn't bad enough, the Daily Prophet's front page disaster also caused Harry one more little headache...

...the thought of a War Mage 'organisation' was now firmly planted in the public's mind, and was very unlikely to go away.

Harry was all too aware that people tended to fear the unknown -- especially unknowns which were potentially dangerous and magically powerful. The circle of mages qualified as both, and if public opinion was set against them, it would make things very difficult in the future when he needed the circle's support.

Somehow, Harry was going to have to apply damage control to this mess -- and quickly.

He didn't even bother with the thought of simply denying the circle's existence. Harry was fairly sure no-one would believe him anyway, and absolutely sure that such a lie would completely destroy any credibility and trust he'd built up once the truth became obvious.

No, the damage was already done. What he needed to do now was minimise it somehow.

Ideally, he would be able to find a way to reassure both Voldemort and the wizarding public that the circle was not their enemy. It would be even better if he could somehow make the circle look weaker and less cohesive than it really was. And of course, the public -- and Voldemort -- would have to believe whatever he came up with.

If there was anything he could come up with...

A short time later Harry suddenly realised that he was still sitting in the dining hall, staring sightlessly at his newspaper, and conspicuously not eating breakfast. Hastily, he folded the Daily Prophet in half, arose from the table, and departed for the privacy of his own rooms.

He had some serious thinking to do.

----oo00oo----

A couple of hours later, Harry decided that he might have come up with a workable idea -- and the first step in his plan called for an appointment with Albus Dumbledore.

Decision made, Harry wasted no time and was soon staring at Albus' likeness in the flames of his living room hearth. He was amused to note that the Headmaster was still wearing his nightcap. Apparently Harry wasn't the only one who sometimes indulged in a bit of Sunday morning laziness.

Entertained by the ridiculous sight of a tattered little pom-pom dangling off the end of Albus' headwear, Harry quickly related the contents of the morning paper to the old wizard, and then requested a private meeting. Albus immediately agreed, but suggested a time several hours hence so he could read his own copy of the Daily Prophet first, and then contact a few people to get a feel for the general reaction.

Albus ended their conversation with the comment: "If it's a bad as you say, then we're probably fortunate the article appeared in the Sunday edition. If this had happened during the week, I daresay we would already have the Minister and a dozen Aurors camped out on our doorstep. Thank Heavens for the weekend!"

Harry then spent the next hour or so writing a letter to Ly'haniir and Silver. He described the newspaper article in general terms, and then his conclusions and concerns. He strongly suggested that there be no more unannounced or public visits, and politely mentioned that anyone who needed to see him should send an owl first. He also tore off the Daily Prophet's front page and pinned it to the letter, along with his recommendation that Silver should translate the offensive bit of journalism for the benefit of the council.

After that, he wrote a separate letter to Silver -- in English -- telling her to find that meddling cloud of smog calling itself 'Effie' and throw stink bombs into it until it explained just how the bloody hell exposing the War Mages to this kind of publicity -- and at this point in time -- could possibly be helpful to anybody but Voldemort.

By the time he'd finished the second letter, his appointment with Albus was fast approaching. Harry sealed both messages with a touch of magic, and summoned Dobby to take them to the owlery for him. The enthusiastic house elf was only too pleased to be of assistance, which allowed Harry to avoid a visit to the owlery himself, and the painful reminder that his own owl, Hedwig, was no longer with him. He didn't know whether she was actually in the owlery, or whether Albus had given her away to someone, but if she was there, then it was probably best for him to stay away. There was always the chance that she might recognise him through the disguise spell somehow, and he couldn't afford to have Harry Potter's owl following him around, trying to deliver his mail.

And then it was time to see Albus.

----oo00oo----

//Sometimes,// Harry mused as he stood outside the Headmaster's office, //I think I spend my life running to this man for help.// But Albus was the only one he could think of who had the political clout and the near-universal respect that would be necessary to carry out his idea.

He would just have to hope that Albus was also honourable enough not to abuse the power he was about to offer the man.

He knocked once to give Albus some warning, and then uttered the password and walked in.

He found the Headmaster -- now dressed in his usual robes -- standing by the fireplace, finishing up a conversation with Ron Weasley's father. The elder Weasley was a member of the Order of the Phoenix, and one of several contacts Albus' maintained within the Ministry.

"...should expect the Aurors tomorrow, Albus," Mr Weasley was saying. "People have been frightened by this, and since Fudge can't protect them from You-Know-Who, he'll be looking to make himself a hero by 'protecting' them from War Mages."

"Yes," Albus agreed seriously, "I do see what you mean Arthur."

"I wish I could give you better news," Mr Weasley sighed.

"I would rather have your honest opinion," Albus told him candidly. "Especially since we may yet manage to salvage something of the situation."

"You have a plan?"

"Not as yet," Albus replied. "But I suspect our resident War Mage may have something up his sleeve. In fact, he's just arrived, so I had better go and find out what it is."

Mr Weasley's image seemed to shudder in the flames. "You and a War Mage plotting together -- what a terrifying idea!"

"Arthur!" The Headmaster objected in hurt tones, but the image of wounded dignity was ruined by the twinkle of laugher in his eyes. "Your confidence in my abilities is really quite flattering. I shall do my best to ensure it is not misplaced."

"I don't want to know," Mr Weasley stated. "Fred and George are still living at home -- and that's really all a man should have to cope with at one time." The Headmaster laughed as Arthur signed off, and the fire returned to its normal state.

Harry momentarily felt himself grinning alongside Albus' laughter. It was sort of scary to contemplate the two of them plotting together. But then his smile faded as he remembered why they were plotting together.

His sober expression did not escape Albus' notice, and the Headmaster soon had them both seated over his favourite tea set. Surprisingly however, this was almost instantly followed up by the appearance of a coffee pot and a platter of sandwiches.

Harry's stomach rumbled embarrassingly. He had missed both breakfast and lunch. "How did you know?" he asked as Albus poured him a large cup of hot dark coffee, and then pushed the sandwiches in his direction.

"I do have some passing acquaintance with Xiomara's caffeine addiction," Albus replied with a smile, "and more than enough experience with Severus' habit of forgetting to eat when he's distracted by a potion or problem. I thought it might be best if you were not suffering from a withdrawal headache or hunger pangs while we are deciding what to do about this morning's little surprise in the newspaper."

Harry could only nod gratefully as he sipped his coffee and proceeded to demolish the plate of sandwiches.

While he was eating, Albus summarised the situation. First the Headmaster outlined what the article had stated, and then what it had implied. After that, he followed up with a list of the resulting problems. Albus' list was virtually identical to Harry's except for the part where Harry would no longer be able to predict what Voldemort was going to do. But then, Albus still didn't know about the Mirror, so that was only to be expected.

Harry wasn't surprised that Albus was taking the matter so seriously. The Headmaster already knew that 'Ash' intended to oppose Voldemort, and he'd obviously guessed that the elves' very public appearance yesterday meant that the circle might be willing to follow where their human colleague led. It was therefore every bit as important to Albus as it was to Harry that such a powerful group of potential allies was made to look as harmless as possible for the benefit of the public and the Dark Lord.

Harry was just finishing his coffee when Albus ended his analysis with the comment: "I'm curious to know how you originally planned to introduce your fellow mages to the wizarding world."

Harry blinked. "What makes you think I had a plan?" he asked. "I thought I told you about the circle's policy of non-interference."

Albus just looked at him.

"All right, all right," Harry grumbled, "yes, I had a plan -- and yes, I was fairly sure I could convince them to get involved. But it wasn't supposed to happen for a couple of years yet!"

"Originally," he explained, "I was going to allow the wizarding world to get used to the idea of War Mages by letting them get used to me first. And while they were getting used to me, I would've been teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts to their children. Those kids would then have gone back to their parents and out into the world with first-hand knowledge of the fact that I'm not some invincible fighting demon, but only a man with a bit more ability and training."

"Hmm," Albus mused. "I suppose watching you play hopscotch and flying with Xiomara would've helped, but I don't think it would've been enough to overcome the entire problem."

Harry smirked. "Yes it would," he disagreed, "once you add in the fact that I intended to wait until you and the Aurors needed their help. By waiting for the right moment, I could've made the circle's existence look like a gift from the gods."

"Ah," Albus nodded, "Of course. And after that, you would've explained their reluctance to become involved in strictly human affairs. We would actually have had to ask for their help and then try to convince them to join us."

Harry grinned. "By the time the general population found out about the circle," he said, "the War Mages would already have an established history of friendship and support amongst the forces of Light -- as well as the kind of respect and trust that comes from surviving life-threatening battles together."

"Brilliant," Albus complimented him.

"And now shot completely to hell," Harry finished.

"But you have a new plan," Albus countered, "or we would not be sitting in my office on a Sunday afternoon calmly discussing might-have-beens."

Harry grimaced. "It's risky," he sighed, "and I don't know how effective it's going to be." He paused for a moment, before adding, "We're also going to need Professor Snape's help."

Albus merely raised a questioning eyebrow.

"I'm going to need veritaserum," Harry admitted, "and someone to administer it."

----oo00oo----

The next morning Fudge and his entourage arrived almost before Harry had finished eating breakfast.

They arrogantly marched right up through the students and arrayed themselves in front of the high table. From Harry's seat next to Xiomara, he could see that at least one of the people accompanying Fudge was not an Auror. In fact, the man looked rather more like a reporter than anything else. Harry would've bet his last knut that this was the man who'd written yesterday's article for the Daily Prophet.

The rest of Fudge's people -- Aurors all -- were eying him with suspicion and thinly veiled hostility. Harry calmly ignored them and focused on Fudge.

"Cornelius!" Dumbledore exclaimed in apparent surprise. "What an unexpected pleasure! Would you care to join us for breakfast?"

The Minister -- who'd been trying to look stern and forbidding -- was momentarily confused. "Er... no... uh, thank you all the same."

"Are you sure? The kippers are particularly good today."

"What? No, no -- I..." and then Fudge paused and visibly pulled himself together. In a much more forceful tone, he said, "Now see here, Albus, I haven't come all the way from London at this ungodly hour of the morning just for breakfast! I'm here on a matter of national security!"

"National security! Dear me," Albus said, stroking his long beard. "And my morning was going to be taken up with that silly press conference. But for a matter of national security, I suppose I'd better cancel it."

"P-press conference?" Fudge stuttered.

"Oh yes," Albus confirmed. "Over a dozen reporters are all having breakfast in the staff common room as we speak. I'm afraid they're going to be terribly put out with me -- dragging them all the way up here and then cancelling. But if it's a matter of national security..."

Fudge was starting to look a bit nervous when the Auror beside him decided to speak up. "Headmaster Dumbledore," the man growled, "we're here in response to reports of an entire group of War Mages suddenly appearing on the school grounds. We have no information on who these people are, where they came from, how they got here, or what they were doing here. There are further reports of secret meetings being held for reasons unknown, and rumours of an entire army of War Mages gathering intelligence through their advance scout -- your current Dark Arts teacher."

Albus stared at the man in apparent surprise. Towards the end of the table, Harry launched the next step in their plan and burst out laughing. Every eye in the hall was drawn to him -- and his evident amusement suddenly made the Auror's litany of suspicion sound like the ravings of a lunatic.

While Harry continued to laugh -- along with quite a few others in the hall -- Albus simply sighed and said, "Well, it looks as though I won't have to cancel the press conference after all."

Now thoroughly confused, Fudge simply asked, "Why not?"

"Because," Albus replied, "that ridiculous rumour the Daily Prophet printed yesterday is why I called the press conference."

----oo00oo----

Shortly thereafter Harry found himself trailing along behind Albus and Fudge, surrounded by five Aurors who were trying to look as though they were holding him in custody, while at the same time being very careful not to lay a hand on him. It would have been laughable if it weren't so serious.

When they eventually arrived at the correct corridor, it was with some relief that Harry spied Severus waiting for them. In keeping with his new habit of avoiding the resident War Mage, Severus had been absent from breakfast this morning. However, Albus had assured Harry that the Potions Master was quite willing to supply and administer the veritaserum, and that he would be on hand when they needed him.

//As if he would've said 'no',// Harry thought sourly. //Sev's curiosity has got to be eating him alive.// In the Mirror, Sev had occasionally remarked that anyone who willingly allowed themselves to be dosed with veritaserum was certifiably insane. "Everyone has something to hide," he'd cynically explained.

"What's that doing here?" one of the Aurors asked in a disgusted tone. He had an expression on his face as though he'd just swallowed something unpleasant. He was also pointing directly at Severus. Harry noted that the loud-mouthed Auror was the same man he'd laughed at in the dining hall. Harry felt his eyes narrow slightly as he took careful note of the man's face. There were fanatics among the Aurors who would cheerfully murder Severus because of his past. Harry intended to make sure that none of them were ever in a position to get the chance.

"That would be Professor Snape," Albus replied with the merest hint of steel in his voice, "who -- unlike yourselves -- was actually invited here this morning." Harry practically had to bite his tongue to keep from smirking as Albus verbally slapped the obnoxious Auror in the face.

"Now now, Albus," Fudge soothed -- trying to placate the man who would be addressing a dozen reporters in a few minutes, "I'm sure Auror Whitcombe didn't mean anything by it. You are perfectly entitled to have anyone you like at your press conference. It's simply that it seems a bit strange inviting a Potions professor to such a function. That's all he meant."

A memory nudged Harry's thoughts. //Whitcombe...// he pondered. //Now where have I heard that name before?//

"Yes," Whitcombe was saying in a snide tone, "a... Potions professor... hardly seems necessary. Why, the next thing you know we'll be inviting Death Eaters along so that You-Know-Who can find out all about the War Mage army. But I suppose that won't be necessary if you've kept in touch with all your old comrades, eh Professor?"

Fudge looked as though he wanted to kick Auror 'Loudmouth' Whitcombe. Harry knew he certainly did. But it was Albus' reaction that ultimately drew his attention. The Headmaster's eyes flicked briefly in Sev's direction, before coming to settle on Harry's face with a look of mild concern. Confused, Harry looked back towards the Potions Master, only to be greeted by a blank mask that gave absolutely nothing away.

For such an obnoxious pest, Whitcombe was surprisingly perceptive.

"Oh," the Auror said with casual malice as he turned towards Harry, "didn't they tell you, War Mage? Well, I suppose they wouldn't after what you did to that last one. Professor Snape is a former Death Eater -- and he even has the Dark Mark to prove it!"

"Whitcombe!" Fudge shouted. "What's wrong with you, man?! Are you trying to get yourself thrown --"

Harry tuned him out. Fudge's need to find better bootlickers wasn't his problem. His problem was the dark haired Potions Master standing just beyond Fudge's angry features, awaiting Harry's acceptance or condemnation with no attempt to defend or justify Whitcombe's spiteful denunciation.

With a tiny shock, Harry realised that this was what Albus had been trying to tell him last Friday night. This was what 'Ash' would not know, but that 'Harry' had known for years.

Severus Snape had once been a Death Eater and still bore the Dark Mark on his left arm.

//Well no bloody wonder he's been dithering around!// Harry thought dazedly. //So far as he knows, the last time I encountered wizards with the Dark Mark, I killed one of them!// Harry felt such a fool. To him, the Dark Mark was so much a part of Severus that he couldn't imagine not knowing it was there.

Which was precisely why he'd been unable to come up with Albus' mystery question last Friday night.

Suddenly Whitcombe's voice jolted Harry back to reality.

"-- should be in Azkaban! Everybody knows it!" Whitcombe was screaming. "Just because he escaped justice eighteen years ago --"

//Ah. Escaped.// Harry suddenly remembered where he'd heard the name Whitcombe before. Wallace Whitcombe -- Whitcombe, Wallace -- the Auror who'd once been known as 'Witless Wally'.

In the Mirror, Wallace Whitcombe had been an excellent Auror with a fanatical hatred of Death Eaters. It had been that hatred -- and therefore his potential threat to Severus -- that had originally brought the man's name to Harry's attention, even though they'd never actually met.

"What in Merlin's name is going on out here!?"

Whitcombe and Fudge were both startled into silence as the staffroom door was flung open. Standing in the entrance was Deveroe Quillpen -- the top British newshound for Wizarding World Today. The man blinked as he noted the presence of the Headmaster, the Minister for Magic, War Mage Ash, five Aurors, a Potions Master, and...

With a huge smirk, Quillpen said, "Hello there Edward. I didn't know you were invited. But then, I suppose it's only fair after the drivel your lot printed in yesterday's rag. Got to make up for it somehow, eh?"

The Daily Prophet reporter -- whose name was apparently 'Edward' -- started to puff up with indignation, but was cut off as Albus decided to take control of the situation. There were several curious faces in the doorway now, and the last thing anybody needed was a press conference in the halls on Monday morning.

"Good morning Mr Quillpen," the Headmaster smiled as he stepped forward. "I do hope you enjoyed breakfast. I know it was small recompense for dragging you all this way on such short notice."

"Oh, yes," Quillpen agreed -- eyes now fixed firmly on the Minister and Whitcombe. As he studied the tableau before him, Deveroe absently added, "The kippers were excellent."

Noting that Albus now had the situation well in hand, Harry allowed himself to concentrate on Severus. Silently, he turned and deliberately locked eyes with the Potions Master. Severus, of course, hadn't taken his eyes off Harry. While Whitcombe might be more vocal, it was War Mage Ash who was far more dangerous, and who -- so far as Severus knew -- had just received a nasty shock.

Harry allowed his face to soften into a friendly half-smile, and was rewarded with a surprised blink, followed by an almost imperceptible lessening of the tension in Sev's shoulders. But best of all, the opaque quality disappeared from his eyes, and the man himself was once more present behind the almost expressionless face.

But Harry wasn't finished yet.

Without moving, he flicked his eyes over to Whitcombe and allowed a truly evil grin to momentarily overtake his face. Then he looked back at Sev and raised an eyebrow as if to say 'I've got an idea -- wanna play?'

The corner of Sev's lips twitched. 'Maybe,' they told him. 'Show me your idea first.'

Calmly, Harry turned back to Albus. The Headmaster was presently suggesting that everyone move back from the doorway to allow the Minister and the Aurors to enter. "Headmaster," Harry interrupted apologetically. "I'm afraid that I must object to Auror Wallace Whitcombe's presence here today."

"Witless Wally's here?" a voice asked from behind the sea of faces surrounding Deveroe Quillpen. Whitcombe turned purple and did an impressive impersonation of a thundercloud.

Ignoring the anonymous question, Albus turned an amused but questioning glance on his Dark Arts teacher. "For what reason, Professor Ash?" he asked politely.

"Auror Whitcombe seems to have a problem with Professor Snape's presence," Harry replied. Someone in the crowd of reporters snickered. "Since the Professor is going to be dosing me with veritaserum in a few minutes, and as he will also be monitoring my health throughout the interview, you will understand that I would prefer he not be distracted by... um..." Harry allowed the sentence to trail off, knowing that most people would fill in the blank with some variation of 'a nutcase with a grudge'.

Whereas 'Auror Whitcombe' might not be too well known, 'Witless Wally' was a little slice of history to the old hands in the newspaper game. As an arrogant, overconfident, and pushy junior Auror, Whitcombe had once been given the relatively easy job of escorting an equally young Death Eater from his holding cell to an interrogation room. Somehow, in the short distance between the cell and the room, the Death Eater had escaped. Whitcombe had subsequently been found sitting on the floor of the holding cell mumbling to himself and trying to poke his wand up his nose.

The spell used on Whitcombe had left him in a state of partial mental shutdown for nearly two weeks. When he was finally cured and returned to work, he'd been heckled as 'Witless Wally' -- a nickname he'd earned for being an arrogant jerk as much as for screwing up such a simple job so spectacularly. Ever since then, he'd despised all Death Eaters with a passion -- particularly those he felt had 'escaped' their due punishment.

And Fudge wanted to bring this man into the same room as Severus Snape?

"Hmm," Albus nodded. "You do have a point. I myself would not wish to be under the care of someone whose attention was not wholly focused on my well-being."

Which was the exact moment when the word 'veritaserum' finally sank into Fudge's brain. "You... you're really going to take v-veritaserum?" the Minister stammered. If the War Mage was that confident, then he could be in big trouble here. Some serious face-saving might be in order.

"Well," Harry replied, "I couldn't think of any other way to convince everyone that a visit by two old friends wasn't a prelude to invasion."

"Two..?!" Fudge exclaimed. "But... but the paper said..."

Harry just smiled at him.

Someone in the staff lounge laughed.

"Perhaps," Harry suggested after a moment, "I shouldn't speak for Professor Snape." And he turned to raise a questioning eyebrow at the Potions Master.

Unseen by those behind him, Harry's eyes glinted evilly. 'Your turn,' he silently offered.

Coolly, the Potions Master regarded Whitcombe. He eyed the man as though he belonged to a species of vermin that required dissection before it could lead a useful existence as potion ingredients.

Whitcombe flushed, and Harry almost laughed aloud as the Minister for Magic himself unobtrusively stepped on the Auror's foot. "Ah, no," Fudge said before Severus could say a word. "I'm sure there's no need. Tricky substance, veritaserum. Even the thought of a distraction... Whitcombe, I'm sure you see how it is. You don't mind, do you? Of course not. Just go and wait outside, eh? Jamieson, why don't you keep him company? Better yet, why don't you both go and enjoy a butterbeer in Hogsmeade? On me, all right? No telling how long we'll be. No sense in making you hang about."

Fudge was practically babbling. He was also pushing Whitcombe and the youngest of the Aurors off down the hallway. Once they were both moving, he simply let go of them, and their momentum seemed to carry them forwards.

Whitcombe looked like he was going to explode, but the younger Auror was actively pulling on his arm by the time they rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.

Smiling and subtly wiping his hands on his jacket, Fudge sauntered back. "Right then," he said brightly, "what's all this nonsense about an army of War Mages?"

----oo00oo----

Fifteen minutes later, Harry was sitting on a chair in the middle of the staff lounge with a semi-circle of witches and wizards all staring at him.

//I must be insane,// he thought to himself -- a sentiment that was reflected in Sev's expression as he approached with a small bottle of liquid and a tiny measuring cup.

They'd already been through the 'How do we know that's really veritaserum?' question. Severus had simply asked for a volunteer to test it. Strangely enough, Deveroe Quillpen had even thought to bring his own volunteer -- a young wizard who worked in the copy room at the newspaper. The fact that Quillpen had known veritaserum was going to be used this morning came as no surprise to anyone but Fudge and his group. Albus had used the promise of a War Mage under the influence to lure them all up there overnight.

Severus had then watered down the drug and administered only enough to last a few minutes. The lad's subsequent honesty and minor embarrassment were enough to convince everyone that the veritaserum was genuine.

And now it was War Mage Ash's turn.

After ascertaining Harry's weight, what he had consumed for breakfast, and whether he had any known allergies, Severus carefully measured out a small quantity of concentrated veritaserum and passed him the cup.

Trying to look confident, Harry offered up a silent prayer to any god who might be listening... and drank.

Then they all waited.

----oo00oo----

//The human mind is an amazingly complex thing,// Harry mused while the veritaserum worked its way into his system.

Well actually, it had probably taken effect almost immediately. They were now waiting to see whether he was going to have an adverse reaction to it.

Wholly aside from the fact that some people were violently allergic to veritaserum, it was also a tricky drug to administer if you didn't know what you were doing. It worked by impairing the brain's ability to process thought and memory before engaging speech. Thus, what came out of someone's mouth came directly from their honest personal opinion or recollection of an event. The point at which such things could be twisted or altered was bypassed entirely.

In low dosages, veritaserum was useless because it only forced someone to tell the truth if they chose to answer the question. However, too high a dose was just as bad, since it then impaired a person's ability to discriminate between what was relevant to the question and what was pointless trivia. In extreme cases of overdose, people had been known to tell the truth about everything they'd ever done simply because they believed everything was relevant to the question in some obscure way. Not surprisingly, significant psychological trauma was generally associated with such instances.

Somewhere in the middle lay the ideal, whereby a person would be forced to answer any question that was asked, but would still have enough control so as not to run off on useless tangents. It was that tiny bit of control that meant Harry would actually be capable of thinking about a question before answering it.

And that was really all he needed.

Briefly, Harry's thoughts flicked back to his time as an apprentice War Mage. In the beginning, his lessons on dealing with truth drugs and interrogation spells had been more like a course in philosophy than anything else.

The first thing he'd learned was that he should always consider the nature of the question that was being asked. For instance, if someone were to ask 'Where's your command centre?', Harry first had to decide whether they were asking what country it was in, what its address was, or whether 'two doors up from the post office' would be sufficient information. But of course, a reply like 'Britain' or 'Europe' would only make an enemy phrase their questions more carefully.

So with a question like that, the correct thing to do was to ask yourself 'Which command centre?'. If the interrogator didn't actually specify which one, then Harry was quite free to rattle off the location of any command centre he could legitimately regard as being 'his'. As a British citizen, Harry knew of quite a few such centres scattered around the world -- particularly those left over from muggle World War II. After all, it wasn't like anyone had specified a command centre that was still in use.

The next thing Harry learned was that being asked a question did not mean you had to provide a comprehensible answer. By definition, mages could think in concepts that were completely foreign to their own species. This meant that if Voldemort were to ask him how to undo the spell he'd placed on the Gringotts' Foundation Stones, then he would have to give at least part of his answer in goblin. English simply didn't have words to describe the goblin components of the spell.

Actually, Harry could theoretically supply every answer in various language combinations if he chose. But doing something like that generally caused your enemy to up the dosage of drug, or to strengthen whichever spell was being used against you. This reduced your ability to think about how best to answer a question, and generally caused you to lapse into your native tongue anyway.

The best idea was to stick with a language your captors understood and simply provide the most accurate translation you could manage. It was still a truthful answer -- just not a useful one. But then, the correct answer in goblin wouldn't have been useful either, so there was no conflict.

After that, Harry's instructors taught him that 'truth' was actually very hard to pin down. An awful lot depended on your personal beliefs and the assumptions you made about the nature of reality. For instance, if someone were to ask him 'How powerful are you?', he could honestly say that he wasn't very powerful at all. He could also say he was extremely powerful. Both answers were true, depending on your point of view. Compared to a volcanic eruption, he wasn't very powerful. But compared to a mouse, he might as well be a god.

But whichever answer he gave, Harry was not responsible for the assumptions an enemy might make based upon what they thought he was saying.

And therein lay the art of answering questions under veritaserum.

The final part of Harry's training on this topic had simply been practice -- and of course, incorporating quick-time into the whole process. Interrogation potions and spells were supposed to loosen a prisoner's tongue. If you took your time thinking about how to answer a question, then your enemy would know something was wrong. By dropping in and out of quick-time, Harry could consider his answer without any discernable pause between the question and his reply.

By the end of it all, Harry had gained considerable experience with being drugged and spelled.

And yet...

Too much veritaserum, or a question phrased too precisely, or even just a moment of stupidity on Harry's part -- and disaster would follow. Nobody submitted themselves to a drug like veritaserum without risk.

Harry knew he was playing with fire the moment he'd mentioned the potion to Albus -- but he hadn't been able to think of any other way to convince the wizarding world of the 'truth' he needed them to believe.

Harry was abruptly pulled from his internal reverie when Severus leaned down and placed his fingers over Harry's wrist.

The Potions Master was checking his pulse.

Harry was well aware that his heart rate was a bit on the high side -- and not all of it was due to the stress of knowing he was about to be questioned under veritaserum.

This was the first time since Harry had emerged from the Mirror that Sev had actually laid hands on him.

Touched him.

Even without the veritaserum, his pulse would've been fast.

"Focus on my hand," Sev ordered, and Harry dutifully watched Sev's hand move back and forth while the Potions Master checked the whites of his eyes and the dilation of his pupils.

When Severus was finally satisfied, he stepped back and said, "Your pulse is a little fast, but not dangerously so. If you feel any dizziness, numbness, tingling, itching, or tightness in your chest -- say so immediately. Do you understand?"

"Yes, I understand," Harry replied automatically, and there was a slight rustle as the gathered reporters noted the speed and directness of his reply.

Sev moved off to one side and sat down in a position where he could monitor 'Ash' for any sign that he was having a bad reaction to the veritaserum. Harry was counting on Sev's presence as his last line of defence if the interview started to turn sour. While Harry couldn't lie -- and didn't want to look like he had something to hide by answering in another language -- he was quite capable of faking a slight tremor in his hands, or of limiting his breathing until he really did feel dizzy. At that point Sev would step in and bring things to a halt. Whether the Potions Master figured out that Harry was faking it was of no consequence, since by then he would be in the Hospital Wing and safely away from public scrutiny.

As soon as Professor Snape was seated, Albus stepped up and drew his wand with a theatrical flourish. There was minor confusion behind the Headmaster as he pointed his wand at Harry and said "Auris Silencio Ego Exceptum".

"Hey!" "You can't do that!" "What's going on here?!" A number of outraged and angry voices clamoured from the watching group of reporters.

But Harry heard none of it.

Indeed, all he would be able to hear until Albus removed the spell, was the Headmaster's voice.

Harry risked a glance in Severus' direction and saw a combination of surprise and admiration for the unorthodox spell Albus had just used.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," the Headmaster announced, "for those who might not have recognised the spell I just cast, I will explain." Harry could see people shifting restlessly, but he heard nothing until Albus continued. "Auris Silencio is a spell which renders its target completely deaf. However, I have added an exception to the spell whereby Professor Ash will still be able to hear my voice."

Harry saw several angry looks at this announcement, but could only imagine the outraged comments that were being thrown around the room.

This then, was the power Harry had freely handed over to the old wizard -- the ability to ask 'Ash' any question at all and be assured that he would be forced to answer -- and answer honestly. Harry was under no illusions about the precision of the questions someone like Albus Dumbledore would ask. The Headmaster was a master of misdirection and relative truths himself. Harry was placing enormous faith in Albus' integrity, for if the Headmaster asked even part of what he must privately suspect, it would be a disaster that spelled the end of several of Harry's hopes and plans.

Finally, Albus was able to get his audience to calm down so that he could continue.

"No," Harry heard him say in response to someone's comment, "I do not consider this to be either a cheat or a sham, since I have not done this for Professor Ash's protection. Indeed, War Mage Ash does not require such protection! Rather, I have done this for the protection of his family, his friends, and his privacy."

There were a few startled looks.

"Consider if you will," Albus told them, "the fact that a War Mage -- any War Mage -- must inevitably acquire enemies." Albus then looked sternly at the massed group of reporters over the top of his glasses. "For instance, you are all well aware of the Professor's dislike for Voldemort." And Harry saw most of the people in the room flinch at the mention of the Dark Lord's name. "A single careless question," Albus told them, "and you could easily be responsible for the death or kidnapping of any member of the Professor's family."

The Headmaster gave them a second or two to absorb that, and then added, "There is also the question of his privacy. How many of you would have asked for Professor Ash's private name?" Several reporters looked away in embarrassment. "And you would have done that," Albus chided them, "in spite of the fact that historical records -- which I'm certain you've all examined -- clearly indicate that it's the height of insult to use that name without the Mage's express permission."

"If there are those among you," Albus continued, "who are prepared to ask such a question, then what else might you be prepared to ask? His most embarrassing moment? His most terrible failure? His first date? His shoe size? Where would you stop?"

Several people were now fidgeting and looking at the floor. Harry had always been amazed by Albus' ability to turn grown men and women back into naughty children who'd been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

"And finally," Albus concluded, "I cast the spell in order to prevent Professor Ash from going insane while trying to remember and answer a dozen different questions at once."

Most of the reporters looked startled again. They obviously hadn't thought of that.

"Remember," Albus warned, "that War Mage Ash has voluntarily taken veritaserum. He will be compelled to answer every question he is asked, regardless of how many are asked at one time." Then, with a hint of amusement, the Headmaster added, "I think you will find that this is the reason veritaserum has never been used at a press conference before -- and also why our courtrooms are spelled so that participants cannot hear anyone sitting in the public galleries."

There was a general nodding of heads, and Harry could tell that although they didn't like it, the crowd of reporters had pretty much accepted the need for what Albus had done.

"So," Albus stated, "without further ado, let us begin, shall we?"

----oo00oo----

Under Albus' direction, they first established a few basics facts.

Harry stated that 'Ash' was most definitely his name -- although not his entire name -- and that he really was a War Mage and was presently employed as the Hogwarts DADA teacher. He also assured everyone that he was -- so far as he knew -- 100% human.

The act of answering felt very peculiar to Harry, and something of the sensation must have shown on his face.

"All right there, my boy?" Albus asked him quietly.

"I'm fine, Albus," he answered. "It's just a bit strange not being able to hear my own voice."

"Oops," Albus murmured. "Sorry about that." Then he frowned a little. "I could probably come up with something..."

"No," Harry replied. "Don't bother -- it's not that important."

And so they continued.

Albus thought the next question bordered on personal, so instead of asking he simply stated, "They would like to know where you were born and how old you are." Harry considered that. They were essentially trying to find out who he was by narrowing down the time and location of his birth. He decided to answer the question anyway, and voluntarily stated that he was 29 -- which he was in his own mind -- and that he'd been born and raised in Britain. Then he added that if any of them thought his accent was Scottish or Welsh, they should probably have their hearing checked.

Harry noted the amused looks and wondered whether anybody had actually laughed aloud.

After that, they started in on the serious questions.

"How many War Mages are there?" Albus relayed.

"I don't know." //Although,// Harry thought, //I could probably make a reasonably accurate guess. Too bad nobody asked for one.//

"Why don't you know?"

"The circle of War Mages doesn't keep membership records. I've also been absent from the circle for a while, so new mages may have been Accepted in my absence, just as existing mages may have been killed." In a slightly sad tone, Harry added, "Being a War Mage doesn't make us immortal, you know."

There was some debate over what the next question should be. Eventually Albus asked, "You mentioned the 'circle of War Mages' -- is this a military organisation?"

And here Harry had to be careful. "Yes and no," he replied. "Yes, it's a military organisation in that we learn about military strategy, tactics, weapons, and magic. We are War Mages after all. But no, it's not a military organisation in the sense that we don't have a military structure. There are no privates, captains, or generals, and although we do sometimes work together, there's no formalised chain of command and nobody who's 'in charge' of anybody else."

This answer caused a bit of debate. Minister Fudge in particular, seemed to be having some difficulty with the concept of nobody being 'in charge'. Eventually, Albus simply turned to Harry and said, "In general terms, how does the circle of War Mages work?"

"Basically," Harry replied. "we have an apprentice system. When someone with War Mage potential is discovered, the mage who found them becomes responsible for their education. If this person can't fulfil that obligation -- say for instance, they already have an apprentice, or if they think someone else would better fulfil this duty -- then they'll hand the trainee over to another War Mage. Eventually, someone will accept the new mage as their apprentice, and that person becomes the mage-in-training's Course Guide."

"A Course Guide," Harry continued, "is responsible for the entirety of their apprentice's training up until they're Accepted as a full War Mage, or until they decide they don't want to be a War Mage after all. However, it's very unusual for a Course Guide to do much of the actual teaching. That's because every mage has different abilities. It would be just too bad if you had an affinity for elven magic and your Course Guide didn't. Then too, the best person to learn elven magic from is an elf. So what tends to happen is that an apprentice will be sent to a variety of teachers to find out whether they have any ability in a range of different magics. Then they'll get further education in the magics for which they show an aptitude."

Harry's audience showed surprise at this information, but Harry wasn't quite finished yet. "The same system," he added, "also applies to all non-magical studies. When we learn hand-to-hand fighting, we learn it from whoever our Course Guide thinks would be the best one to teach us. In some cases that may be the Course Guide themselves, but most of the time it isn't. The real job of a Course Guide is to make sure their apprentice has the opportunity to learn as many different kinds of magic as they're capable of performing, and to ensure that they're proficient in all the non-magical studies that are required of a full War Mage. So a Course Guide essentially oversees an apprentice's entire course of study."

"At the same time," Harry concluded, "a Course Guide may also have several 'students' who've been sent to them from other Course Guides. This is especially true if the War Mage is known to be particularly skilled at something. Mostly, they'll take on students while their own apprentice is away studying with someone else."

"So you have no standardised program at all?" Albus asked curiously. As the Headmaster of a school himself, his professional interest had obviously been aroused.

"Not in theory," Harry answered. "But in practice there are a number of core skills that have to be mastered before you'll be Accepted. Everybody does tactics and strategy for example -- whether they have an aptitude for it or not. In the end though, it's up to your Course Guide to decide when you're ready to be tested. At that point, they'll pick out three War Mages who haven't had anything to do with your previous training, and ask them to test you." Harry smiled wryly and added, "Of course they don't tell you you're being tested. You just happen to fall into some of the worst situations you can imagine. It's a common joke among apprentices that if you're having an abysmally bad run of luck, then you're probably being tested."

"In the end," Harry finished, "you'll only be Accepted if those three different War Mages all agree that you're good enough to stand beside them when the shit hits the fan and curses are falling all around you like rain."

The faces staring at Harry had taken on something of a stunned expression.

"So," the Headmaster asked after a little pause, "there's no War Mage army?"

"No," Harry replied succinctly, "and I sincerely doubt there ever will be since no two War Mages have ever had exactly the same skills and abilities. In fact, you couldn't even get us to march in step! Can you honestly imagine an elf striding along beside a dwarf? The dwarf would need three steps for every elven one! And worse, what about a canis who has four feet? Or a naga who doesn't have any?" Suddenly, Harry laughed. "And don't even get me started on uniforms! You can't get an elf to wear anything that doesn't look like a forest, while the Kyrii hardly wear anything at all!" Ruefully, Harry added, "I'm afraid the circle of War Mages is far too diverse and individual to ever form something as structured as an army."

Of course, what Harry wasn't telling them was that War Mages didn't need to form an army. What they were when they worked together was so far outside human understanding that there wasn't even a word for it.

War Mages working in concert maintained an underlying mental link with each other that allowed them to be subconsciously aware of what every other mage in the link was doing. If someone died, or for some other reason couldn't complete their part of a planned assault, then the other mages were aware of it and could work around the loss, or alter the plan to account for it. Similarly, if one of them discovered an unexpected advantage during battle, then the others were instantly conscious of the fact, and the whole group could move to take advantage of it. In effect, linked War Mages functioned as separate self-aware beings and as a single subconscious mind. That kind of cohesive individuality took quite a bit of getting used to, and was one more reason why Harry would need to be Accepted before he could work efficiently with others from the circle.

After a little more debate, which Harry couldn't hear, Albus eventually asked, "If a person or group wanted to deal with the entire circle of War Mages, how would they do it?"

Now that was a very intelligent question. Harry almost smiled as he silently admired the way someone had managed to ask if there was a person or group that wasn't actually in command, but that all the War Mages would nonetheless listen to. With a little bit of care, this was the perfect opening for Harry to lead his questioners to a very important bit of information that he desperately wanted the wizarding world to have.

"They would approach the council," he replied. //And now that you know about the council,// Harry thought with satisfaction, //one of you had better have enough brains to ask whether it sets any circle-wide policies.//

There was a lot of confusion and shuffling. Fudge was practically bouncing in his seat, and Harry could only imagine him going on and on about knowing somebody had to be in charge after all. It wasn't long before Albus asked him, "How can there be a council when you told us there was nobody in charge of the War Mage circle?"

"The council is not a governing body," Harry easily replied. "Its purpose is to advise members of the circle about things they should know. It's also responsible for storing any information or equipment that should be commonly available, and acts as a point of contact for anyone who wants to deal with the circle as a whole. The council is more for administration than anything else, although it does make recommendations from time to time. Circle policy and rules are voted in by a majority decision from the members themselves."

Deveroe Quillpen practically pounced on Albus to provide the next question.

Albus turned to Harry and asked, "Do the War Mages generally go along with recommendations from the council?"

"Yes," Harry replied. "It's very unusual for the circle to make a decision that the council doesn't approve of."

"Then," Albus said with a slight frown, "even though they're not a governing body in name, isn't the council effectively the ruling authority for the circle?"

Harry could have kissed him. This was the perfect opening. "No," he replied. "And the reason for that is that the council in no way, shape, or form enforces the circle's policies on any War Mage. If it did, I would not be sitting here now."

"What do you mean?"

Harry smiled wryly. "I told you that I've been absent from the circle for a while. One of the reasons I'm teaching at Hogwarts is that I didn't feel I could be intimately involved with the circle while it still maintained a policy of non-interference in human affairs."

The surrounding wizards and witches looked stunned again. Quick to emphasize that information, Albus asked, "Are you saying that the War Mages will not involve themselves in any conflict with the wizarding world?"

Harry frowned, although inwardly he was cheering. "I can't say what the circle might or might not do in the future. I'm not a seer. What I'm saying is that the policy of non-interference -- which was in effect long before I joined the circle -- has so far discouraged members from involving themselves with the wizarding and muggle world in any way, shape, or form. That means that so long as the policy is in place, they won't start a conflict, won't move to end a conflict, and certainly won't participate in one -- even if you ask them to."

And that was the information Harry wanted to get out to the wizarding world. He wanted the public to know that they were safe from rampaging hordes of invading War Mages, while at the same time allowing them -- and Voldemort -- to believe that there would be no help for either side in any wars that humans started amongst themselves.

Harry could see from the expression on one or two faces that the concept of War Mages as allies had only just occurred to some people.

Albus asked another question. "Do you think it might be possible to gain War Mage assistance in our attempt to defeat Voldemort?" Harry could practically see everyone wishing Albus would stop saying that name.

"You already have War Mage assistance," Harry replied. "As I said before, I don't agree with the non-interference policy. However, if you mean War Mages other than myself, then I think it would be highly unlikely while the non-interference policy is in effect. And by the way, it's been in effect for at least a couple of centuries now." What Harry didn't say was that the policy would be scrapped very shortly, if it hadn't been already. Instead -- and just to rub it in -- Harry looked directly at Edward the Daily Prophet reporter and added, "That article in yesterday's paper certainly didn't help. The only message that sent to the circle was one of mistrust and paranoia."

Edward shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

One of the Aurors posed a question. Albus looked a little dubious about it, but passed it along anyway. "You said you would assist in the fight against Voldemort. Are you, or have you ever been in league with him -- or would you consider joining him for any reason at some point in the future?"

Harry made an effort to remain calm. It would not do to let anyone to see how much that question offended him. A generalised and distant hatred of Voldemort could be overcome using many different spells and potions. A specific and deep-seated personal abhorrence would be harder to deal with. Harry didn't want to give Voldemort any reason to think Sev might have trouble gaining control over him. Carefully, he replied, "I have never been in league with Voldemort. As for the rest of it -- not long ago, one of his Death Eaters asked me much the same question. My answer was the same then as it would be today. I told him to sod off. As I've said before, I'm not a seer -- so I don't know what the future holds. But what I can say is that I cannot imagine a situation or circumstance wherein I would ever agree to work with him or for him."

Albus passed along another question: "Will you be working with the Ministry on the Voldemort problem?"

//The Voldemort 'problem'?// Harry thought incredulously. //Someone just made the most powerful and evil wizard since Grindelwald sound like an infestation of rats!// But aloud, he merely replied, "No I will not. For now, I'm committed to teaching a full year here at Hogwarts -- and besides, the Ministry hasn't asked for my help. I'm not an Auror and I don't think they'd know what to do with someone like me anymore than I'd know how to work in with their methods and procedures." The Aurors in the audience were looking somewhat relieved to hear it. "And besides," Harry continued, "as you all know I've only recently returned home, so I'm not yet as familiar with things as I should be. At this point, I expect I'd be more likely to botch up a Ministry operation than be of any real assistance." All of which was true, but didn't include the rest of Harry's reason -- that he had his own plans to work on over the coming year and no time to be bothered with the Ministry or its Aurors. However, the Aurors in the audience were nodding sagely in agreement and looking quite pleased with the War Mage's modest assessment of his own abilities.

Harry was severely tempted to laugh at them.

After that, the rest of the interview was not quite so fraught with tension and suspicion. The War Mage circle was now accepted as a loosely associated group of people with no particular relevance to the wizarding or muggle world. They were obviously not a 'proper' organisation at all, being little more than a social club with a haphazard system of education and no defined standards for professional membership. Why some of them were very likely not much better than an ordinary wizard or witch!

For the next hour and a half, Harry fielded several questions of varying importance. He explained that his elven visitors had been his Course Guide and an old friend from the circle. The third elf had simply been his friend's current student. They'd come to visit because they hadn't known where he was since he'd left the circle and they wanted to catch up with him.

Again, this was the complete truth since Ly'haniir and Silver hadn't known he existed -- let alone where he was -- from the moment he'd stepped out of the Mirror. And nobody could deny that they'd definitely wanted to talk to him once they found out where -- and who -- he was. It was made all the more plausible since the three elves hadn't made any attempt to hide their presence.

Harry also explained that the 'secret meetings' had in fact simply been three old friends discussing such things as how War Mage Silver earned her Name, and what Ash had been up to since he'd rejoined the wizarding world.

Again, all completely true and entirely misleading.

The only question of any real interest after that, was the one where a reporter wanted to know why Ash was the only War Mage to defy the circle's non-interference policy.

"I can't tell you what anyone else is thinking," Harry had replied. "But I can tell you that as far as I know I'm currently the only human War Mage in existence. I'll let you draw your own conclusions from that." Which cemented the idea in a number of minds that the circle of War Mages really didn't care about the wizarding world at all.

----oo00oo----

It was well past mid-morning by the time the veritaserum wore off and the interview broke up. Albus cancelled the Auris Silencio spell, and Fudge -- who was offering every reporter in sight the chance to interview him too -- finally made himself useful by proposing a free round of drinks back in Hogsmeade.

A few minutes later Albus, Harry, and Severus were the only ones left in the silent staff lounge.

"Thank Merlin that's over," Albus sighed. "This sort of thing is always so exhausting."

Harry knew exactly what the Headmaster meant. He was practically reeling on his chair, and he felt like he'd just survived an all-out assault -- one where somebody had managed to hit him with a headache hex. After such a long time with no sound but Albus' voice, even the quietest background noise now seemed loud to Harry's ears.

"My dear fellow-Professors," Albus said tiredly, "please feel free to take the rest of the morning off. I've arranged for your classes to be covered until after lunch." And with that, he turned and left Harry and Severus alone.

Alone.

Together.

For the first time since Harry had propositioned the man.

Too tired to engage in verbal sparring, Harry looked over at Sev and simply said, "I know about your past Professor. And I know what I would see if you were to roll up the shirtsleeve covering your left arm. Are you going to continue avoiding me?"

Severus -- who had not spent the last couple of hours being grilled by a bunch of reporters -- looked back at Harry with something that might almost have been sympathy. "Do you really wish to discuss this now?" he asked in a neutral tone. "From your appearance, I would hazard a guess that you're hardly capable of coherent conversation at the moment."

Harry gave him a weak smile. "I just need to know that now isn't the last chance I'm ever going to get to talk to you."

There was a moment's hesitation before Sev quietly replied, "It won't be."

"Thank-you," Harry acknowledged gratefully.

Severus snorted. "I haven't agreed to anything you realise."

Harry laughed. "Of course," he replied fondly. Then he leaned forwards and pushed himself up off the chair. He wobbled a bit before steadying himself.

"Do you require assistance?"

"Only if you're heading back to our corridor," Harry replied. "I think I'll grab a couple of hours sleep before I have to face my classes this afternoon."

"It... would not be out of my way," Sev replied, and then slipped a steadying hand under Harry's left arm.

Somewhat suspiciously Harry asked, "Why are you being so nice to me all of a sudden?"

"Perhaps I enjoy conversing with you while you're too exhausted to guard your tongue."

"The veritaserum's worn off, Professor."

"Then," Severus replied in an odd tone, "perhaps this morning's events have simply reminded me of someone else in your situation -- someone who was not offered such assistance when they had need of it."

//Someone like you during the Death Eater Trials,// Harry thought sadly.

As they made their way towards the door, Harry suddenly said, "You do realise I knew, don't you? I mean, before Whitcombe told me. Even before I found your potions book, actually."

Severus didn't look surprised. "I... thought it likely. But I couldn't be certain." They were in the hallway before he finally added, "Who told you?"

"Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Draco too, come to think of it."

"Draco Malfoy?"

"Yes." Then Harry added, "He isn't going around telling people if you're worried. It's... umm... Draco and I talk from time to time... and somewhere along the line he realised I knew."

Severus was silent, and Harry wondered what he was thinking. At length, the taller man said, "Draco has needed someone to talk to for quite some time. I am his Head-of-House, but for various reasons I cannot fulfil that particular need. I'm... pleased... that it seems you can."

They spent the rest of the walk back to Harry's quarters in silence. It wasn't until they reached the door that Severus hesitantly asked, "What... precisely... did Draco say about me?"

Closing the door behind them, Harry decided to give Sev the most honest answer he'd given anyone so far today. "He said that you were -- and still are -- one of Voldemort's Death Eaters, and that you're currently under orders to seduce me and deliver me to Voldemort."

Severus was standing stock still in the entryway behind him. After a second or two, he relaxed and moved further into the living room. "You don't believe him," Severus said.

"Albus trusts you," Harry replied. "That alone tells me you aren't a Death Eater -- or at least that you aren't one anymore. I personally believe you're Albus' spy, so it makes sense that Lucius Malfoy's son would think you were still loyal to Voldemort."

There was a little silence. "And the orders for your seduction?"

"Oh," Harry said casually, "that's real enough. Draco has been instructed to watch both of us for signs of a developing 'friendship'."

"And the fact that I would have no choice in the matter doesn't bother you," Severus said in a flat tone.

"It would," Harry replied, "except for the fact that you will have a choice because I'm offering to pretend to be your lover -- even if you decide not to turn that deception into reality."

"You... Why would you do that?" Severus asked in confusion.

Amused, Harry said, "I told you -- I'm tired of notches. I want the real thing, and I want it to last." Then Harry paused for a moment before adding, "But I will admit, the thought of stringing you along did cross my mind."

Severus gave him a considering look. "What brought about the sudden change of heart?"

"One," Harry ticked off on his fingers, "I'm tired -- and as you observed earlier, I'm probably not thinking very well." The corner of Severus' mouth twitched upwards in amusement. "Two," Harry continued, "after due consideration, I do believe I'd be royally pissed if someone did that to me. And three, you frightened the life out of me by avoiding me for two weeks. If you were actually willing to risk Voldemort's anger over this... well... I just... Ah hell, I just decided to remind myself that a lasting relationship isn't based on blackmail."

"Oh, I don't know," Severus smirked, "that would depend on how skilled you were as a blackmailer."

"Not very," Harry replied dryly. Then he made his way over to the kitchen for a glass of water. The veritaserum had left a funny taste in his mouth and answering questions all morning had made him thirsty.

He'd already drunk half the glass when Severus suddenly asked, "Did you mean it? You would... pretend... to be my lover? -- no strings attached? No... conditions?"

"I swear it on my oath as a War Mage," Harry replied very seriously. "Yes -- I meant it. No strings attached."

Severus seemed to be thinking that over.

"Look," Harry finally sighed, "nobody has to decide anything right now, all right? How about... how about if you have dinner with me next Saturday? That'll give you the rest of the week to think about what I've said, and it'll also give you something favourable to report if Voldemort decides to ask."

"Right now though," Harry finished with a huge yawn, "I think I need to fall down somewhere comfortable for a few hours." And leaving his glass right where he'd finished it, Harry headed towards the bedroom. "You're more than welcome to join me..."

Behind him, Severus snorted.

"Yeah, yeah... it was just a thought..." Harry mumbled. "Oh," he said, turning back from the bedroom door, "since blackmail is out of the question now, would bribery be all right?"

Severus blinked, and then looked amused again. "You've already offered me your physical... charms. What else could you possibly have that I would be interested in?"

"A slightly-used potions book?" Harry asked hopefully, and he was rewarded by a genuine laugh from the tall Potions Master.

"Bring it with you next Saturday," Severus told him. Then a swirl of black robes signalled his departure.

----oo00oo----