Chapter 99 : Hard Truths

Publish Date: 26 October 2003

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TO READ THIS CHAPTER OUT OF SEQUENCE

  1. Prior to the beginning of this chapter, Ash walked in on Severus and Minerva arguing about Harry Potter.
  2. Minerva was arguing that Harry wasn't nearly as conceited as Severus believed, and that Severus was blinded by his dislike for Harry's father.
  3. Severus was arguing that Minerva was the one who was blind to Harry's faults because Potter was Gryffindor's Golden Boy, the Boy Who Lived, and their star Seeker.
  4. Ash interrupted them both by claiming that neither of them knew a damned thing about Harry Potter, and that he -- as a compete stranger -- knew Harry better than either of them simply because he'd actually gone to the Dursley's house and *looked* at the place.
  5. Ash made a bet with both Minerva and Severus that he knew Potter better than either of them, even though they'd been teaching the boy for five years and Ash has never met him.
  6. Severus knows that Ash *did*, in fact, meet Harry Potter, but he dismisses that meeting as irrelevent since he *knows* he is right about Potter being a spoiled brat -- and after all, Ash only spent an hour or two with the boy.

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!

Last update: 26 October 2003.


THE MIRROR OF MAYBE-- Hard Truths --

----oo00oo----

It was a few minutes before midnight when two figures draped in shadow suddenly appeared at the end of Privet Drive. Their presence went entirely unnoticed in the darkened street, and only the forceful puff of displaced air that accompanied apparition left any impression -- scattering leaves and odd bits of rubbish into the gutters.

"What a charming picture of muggle suburbia," Severus muttered in disgust.

Minerva simply rolled her eyes heavenwards and kept her comments to herself.

"So, which one is it?" he asked her.

"Number four," she replied, pointing towards a darkened house -- at which point Minerva suddenly realised she was standing in the middle of the street by herself.

"Severus!" she hissed as she ran after her long-legged colleague. "Severus, wait!"

She managed to catch up with him just in time to prevent the Potions Master from casting 'Alohamora' on the Dursley's front door. "Severus!" she whispered furiously at him, "The wards!"

Surprisingly, the Potions Master didn't bother to respond to her angry warning. Instead, he simply looked down at his upraised arm, and then back up into her shadowed face.

He raised an amused eyebrow at her.

Minerva abruptly realised that she had wrapped one hand around Severus' wrist in an effort to prevent him using his wand. With some slight embarrassment, she let go. "Severus," she reminded him with quiet exasperation, "this is *Harry Potter's* house. It's covered in wards! Start casting spells here, and we'll be explaining ourselves to Albus and the Ministry for the next week!"

"Will we really?" Severus asked mildly. Then, without so much as blinking, he added: "Alohamora."

Minerva nearly had a heart attack. But after a few seconds she realised that nothing had happened. Cautiously, she cast a simple little spell that would tell her whether she was standing next to any wards or warded objects. There were no spells that would detect Albus' wards from a distance, but since she was standing right on the threshold of the Dursley's home, her little enchantment should be effective.

There was nothing. No magic. No wards.

She looked back at Severus.

The Potions Master was smirking at her.

"My dear Minerva," he drawled smugly, "unlike you, I took the liberty of enquiring about the protection afforded Potter's muggle relatives before we left. Albus took the wards down weeks ago."

There were times when Minerva really wanted to strangle Severus.

But unfortunately, this was neither the time nor the place to pursue such desires. So instead, she simply asked, "And how exactly did you explain your interest in Harry's relatives? Or should I assume that Albus knows about our presence here?"

Severus snorted. "Don't be absurd. This is a private matter between the two of us and that arrogant know-it-all who teaches Defence. It most certainly does *not* involve our meddlesome Headmaster." And with that, Severus pushed past her into the house.

Minerva followed silently, wondering if Albus would let her get away with transfiguring all of Severus' cauldrons into Gigglepots. After all, they would still *look* like cauldrons...

Severus ignited a dim glow at the end of his wand and went upstairs to take care of his half of their agreed tasks. Minerva didn't bother with a light, but instead simply made her way into the nearest room at the front of the house. Faint moonlight outlined the furniture, and from the various shapes and shadows Minerva assumed she was in the living room.

"Infusco Visum," she intoned carefully. The spell would ensure that anyone watching the house would continue to see darkened windows. "Paulatim Lumos," she added, and a dim light appeared throughout the building, gradually becoming stronger with every passing moment. She and Severus had spent enough time travelling under faint moonlight for their eyes to become dark-adapted, and she was not silly enough to temporarily blind them both with a sudden 'Lumos'. The first part of her incantation ensured that the light would build up slowly until it reached the desired level.

She studied the muggle room curiously as the level of light continued to rise, and the furniture slowly took on colour and definition.

A few minutes later, the spell was complete.

"You might have waited you know," came an irritated voice from behind her.

"For what?" she asked mildly as she turned to see Severus standing in doorway. "Surely three sleeping muggles didn't give you any trouble."

"And it never occurred to you that illuminating the whole damned house might wake any of them up?!"

"No," she replied cheerfully. "I simply assumed that you knew how to cast a deep-sleep charm properly. Did I assume too much, Severus?" The Potions Master was now openly glaring at her, but she'd known him far too long to be intimidated.

"Of course not," he replied in an affronted tone. "They wouldn't wake up now if Longbottom was exploding cauldrons next to them. But you're lucky that bloated son of theirs is a naturally sound sleeper. I did him last, and it was already light enough to see far more of him than I ever wanted to."

"Bloated?" Minerva asked curiously.

Severus looked vaguely disgusted. "Go and see for yourself," he told her. "Potter's cousin looks like he drank an entire batch of Expanding Elixir."

"Oh dear," Minerva murmured, "that sort of size can't be good for him."

"But it does support *my* side of our little wager," Severus added smugly. "The boy is clearly spoiled rotten -- and you're more than welcome to go and look at the state of his room! I have no idea what half the rubbish in there is, but it's obvious they give him anything he wants. It's even more obvious that they've never bothered to impose any sense of discipline, neatness, or self-respect on the boy. No wonder Potter turned out the way he did."

This time it was Minerva's turn to scowl. "And of course Mr Potter has always been *so* overweight, hasn't he Severus? Why you'd think the two boys were twins! So alike they'd just *have* to be exactly the same in *all* respects, wouldn't they?"

Severus' lips thinned in annoyance. "I was just saying --"

"-- nothing that bears repeating," Minerva cut him off. "We're here to find out about Mr Potter -- not his cousin!"

"Fine," Severus agreed curtly.

"And by the way," Minerva added more calmly, "What, precisely, *did* you tell Albus?"

Severus looked at her curiously. "What does it matter? Isn't it enough to know that the wards are gone?"

"Humour me," me she suggested, "and pretend I'd like to know *why* Albus isn't going to be waiting for us the moment we step foot back inside the castle."

Severus regarded her with a slightly affronted expression. "I assure you, he knows nothing."

Minerva just stared at him. Her determination to get an answer relied heavily on the fact that the look on her face was the same one she'd successfully used to cower misbehaving students for the past thirty years. It was, in fact, the same expression she'd used on Severus himself for every detention the young Slytherin had earned while sitting in her Transfiguration class.

Her ex-student shifted uneasily. "Actually," he finally admitted, "I didn't tell him anything."

"All right then," Minerva replied in her 'I-will-find-out-the-truth' voice, "what did you *ask* that made him tell you about the wards?"

"Why Minerva," Severus protested, "what a positively Slytherin thing to suggest."

"Undoubtedly a result of the terrible company I've been keeping," she replied dryly. "Now kindly answer the question."

Realising that she wasn't going to give up, Severus affected an air of indifference and blandly replied: "I merely asked whether anyone had bothered to improve security around Potter's muggle relatives. After all, the boy *did* disappear while he was in their custody -- right under his uncle's nose, if I'm not mistaken. And if those idiots at the Ministry actually *do* manage to find him and put him back where he belongs, it would be extremely embarrassing to have the same thing -- or worse -- happen again."

"Ah," Minerva smiled. "Very clever, Severus." He bowed slightly in mocking acknowledgement. "I take it," Minerva continued, "that from the complete lack of wards, someone decided that Harry would not be returning -- even after he's found?"

"Apparently any increase in the strength or number of spells on the family would've begun to attract unwanted attention. The entire point of leaving Potter with his muggle relatives was to use their blood relationship to mask his magical presence. And since the current arrangement has proven to be inadequate, there was no point in continuing with it."

Minerva frowned a little. "So the Dursleys are left with no protection at all?"

Severus snorted. "Look around Minerva -- their very nature protects them! Have you ever seen a more utterly... *muggle*... set of muggles in your life? Without the wards or protections, this place has not one single drop of magic in it! And I can assure you that the people I saw sleeping upstairs do *not* resemble Potter in any way, shape, or form. With the wards gone, there's absolutely nothing to distinguish them from the millions of other British muggles who go about their lives in blissful ignorance of our world. And *that* is far more protection than they could ever get from any spell or enchantment."

Minerva acknowledged the truth of Severus' words with a nod of understanding. But at the same time, she also felt there was something... disturbing... about what he'd just said. But what was it? Idly, she looked around the living room, mentally replaying the things Severus had told her and trying to pin down the source of her unease.

She noted absently that Severus had gone off to explore the rest of the house.

For a few minutes, Minerva wandered around, staring at unfamiliar objects and marvelling at the strangeness of it all. She had a vague idea that the thing with the glass bulb in it was some sort of lamp, but since it didn't seem to need oil, she had no clue as to how it worked. On the other hand, the overstuffed sofa would not have been out of place in any modest wizarding home. //But then,// she thought, //I suppose a comfortable chair is much the same for everyone.//

"Minerva?"

Her accomplice was standing in the doorway again, looking vaguely disturbed.

"Severus? What's wrong?"

"Are you sure this is the right house?"

"What do you mean?"

"For Merlin's sake... What do you *think* I mean!? I'm asking you whether you're sure this is Potter's house."

"Yes, of course I'm sure. Albus left Harry right outside on the doorstep -- I was watched him do it myself!"

Severus looked uncertain. "That *was* over fifteen years ago..."

"Severus -- you make *one* crack about my age or my memory, and so help me --"

"Fine! Fine! This is the house! I believe you!"

"I'm so glad to hear it," Minerva retorted sarcastically. "Now kindly explain why you doubted me in the first place."

Severus snorted. "I thought you were actually listening when you agreed to be part of this ridiculous bet. Don't you remember that blasted War Mage's so-called advice?"

Minerva blinked. "... something about talking to walls?"

"He said -- and I quote -- 'if you're willing to listen, even muggle walls will talk to you'. Well, I listened -- or rather I looked -- and I now find myself wondering how this could possibly be Potter's house."

Intrigued, Minerva began to scan the walls, looking for whatever it was that Severus had noticed.

It didn't take her long to figure it out. There were numerous muggle- style photo's hanging on one side of the room above what appeared to be a... fireplace? Well, there was a standard-looking mantelpiece anyway. But what *should've* been the fireplace had been blocked up and decorated with a peculiar-looking bit of muggle gadgetry. However, what interested her most were the framed pictures *on* the mantelpiece and the photographs hanging above it.

At first, she had a bit of trouble recognising Harry's relatives -- the oddly flat and frozen quality of the muggle pictures made the people in them look squashed and lifeless. It was hard to recognise the figures as living human beings, much less people she'd actually seen going about their business some fifteen years ago. But eventually, she made the mental connection and correctly identified Harry's uncle and aunt.

And that, of course, meant the boy standing next to them in virtually every photo' had to be their son. "Expanding Elixir indeed," she murmured as she cast her eyes from picture to picture, seeing the boy progress from baby to toddler, to child, and then finally to teenager. Severus' description of his weight problem had not been exaggerated.

But other than Harry's muggle family, the remaining photographs only showed a few unidentifiable faces -- presumably relatives and friends.

Which left something -- or rather some*one* -- missing...

"Where are the pictures of Harry?" she asked in a perplexed tone.

"There aren't any," Severus told her. "Or at least, there aren't any down here. I didn't think to check the bedrooms when I was upstairs." Then a thoughtful look crossed his face and he added: "Come to think of it, I didn't see a bedroom that looked like it belonged to Potter either."

"That can't be right..." Minerva trailed off in confusion.

"See for yourself," Severus offered as he stood aside and gestured her out into the hallway. "If you want to start down here, there are more of these awful muggle pictures on the walls, and even one or two of them stuck to a big white... *thing*... in the kitchen."

The big white thing turned out to be a food storage cupboard with the muggle equivalent of a cooling charm on it. But no matter where Minerva and Severus looked, there were still no pictures of Harry.

"Upstairs?" Minerva asked doubtfully. Severus looked sceptical, but nonetheless headed back up the steps. Minerva followed.

A short time later, they were back in the living room -- no wiser than when they'd left.

"Perhaps they moved," Severus eventually suggested. "It *has* been nearly fifteen years..."

"No," Minerva argued, "that's definitely his uncle and aunt asleep up there. I spent an entire day watching those two in preparation for Harry's arrival. I know what they look like, and I *know* these are the people we left him with."

Severus sighed. "All right," he reluctantly agreed. "But I would just like to point out that there was no sign of Potter in either of the spare bedrooms upstairs -- so unless you've found a hidden one down here..."

"I know, I know," Minerva fretted. "I just don't understand it..."

They stood there for a few moments -- each contemplating the situation from their own point of view, and both trying to come up with some rational explanation for it all.

Their mutual silence was finally broken when Severus said abruptly: "You don't suppose they've put the boy's things in storage, do you? Perhaps we should look for an attic or something."

"It's possible," Minerva allowed, "but why would they take down all the pictures of him?"

"How should I know?" Severus replied testily. "Who knows what was going through their muggle minds when Potter disappeared."

"You're not helping," Minerva warned him.

"I don't hear you coming up with any better ideas."

The accusation was, unfortunately, all too true. Minerva sighed. "Perhaps," she suggested, "before we go traipsing up and down the stairs again, we should attempt to summarise the facts." Severus snorted, but otherwise remained silent. "So," she continued, "what do we know?"

"Well according to you," Severus replied with a faint trace of sarcasm, "we know that this is definitely the house where Potter was left as a baby, and we know there are two adult muggles living here who are definitely his uncle and aunt. What we *don't* know is whether Potter himself has ever lived here -- since there's absolutely no sign of him!"

"No sign of him..." Minerva repeated slowly. And then she felt her eyes widen as she realised why the Potion Master's comments earlier in the evening had disturbed her so badly. "Severus!" she gasped, "-- you said that with the wards gone there wasn't one single drop of magic left in this house!"

Severus saw her point immediately. His eyes also widened as he added: "But that shouldn't be possible if Potter grew up here."

"No -- it shouldn't," Minerva agreed with a disturbed look. "I've *never* heard of a wizarding child who hasn't spontaneously transformed something into a toy at least once -- and the Ministry has never been able to track wandless magic, so unless they gave those toys away..."

"It makes no difference if they did," Severus argued. "Once he started school there should've been magical items accumulating all over the place -- at the very least there would have to be writing equipment for his summer assignments."

"And they just don't *make* quills without a no-leak nib charm anymore."

"Or parchment without anti-smudging spells."

"And yet the house feels..."

"-- magically dead," Severus finished.

"A rather negative turn of phrase," Minerva commented with a raised eyebrow.

"But not wholly inaccurate," Severus countered. Then he raised his wand and muttered a short but powerful find-magic spell.

A few moments later the spell ended.

"Well?" Minerva asked.

"Nothing," Severus replied in disgust. "No old toys, no used quills -- not even a scrap of parchment! -- no wizarding photographs, not one drop of ink -- nothing!"

Minerva frowned. "I find it hard to believe a teenaged boy could be so immaculately tidy. But still -- is it possible he kept everything in his trunk? It disappeared with him, didn't it?"

"Minerva," Severus said patiently, "I don't think you quite appreciate the complete and utter lack of magic that I'm describing. Even wizarding *ink* has an anti-fading solution in it -- and I defy any child to spend every summer doing homework essays without spilling so much as a single drop anywhere in the house!"

Minerva absorbed that statement in silence. If Severus was right -- and she had no reason to believe that he might have mis-cast the spell -- then there was really only one possible conclusion...

"Mr Potter did not grow up in this house," she said flatly, "and has probably never lived here at all."

"Indeed," Severus concurred. "And yet Albus and the Ministry are currently under the impression that he has been here the entire time - - that he was protected for all those years."

Minerva looked grave. This was now far more than a silly bet over which one of them knew Harry Potter best. A determined look settled over her features. "We need to know what happened."

"A time resolving spell combined with a revealing potion should do it," Severus agreed.

Minerva blinked. "And let me guess," she said dryly, "-- you just *happen* to have a revealing potion with you."

Severus smirked. "You didn't think I was going to rely on some ridiculous advice about talking to muggle walls, did you? And don't give me that look -- there was nothing in our bet that said I couldn't use magic to prove my side of the wager."

Minerva didn't even bother to mention the gross invasion of Harry's privacy, or the fact that -- out of the three of them -- only Severus had the skill to brew a revealing potion, and was therefore the only one who could use it to his advantage. Instead, she simply asked: "What did you use to focus the potion on Mr Potter?"

"His Potions essay from last year's final exam."

Minerva was surprised. "Severus," she began, "aside from the fact that you've completely destroyed a student's final exam, I'm quite sure that a mere piece of parchment cannot be used as a focus."

"It can if Longbottom was sitting the exam with the rest of them."

"What...?"

"In addition to the essay," Severus grimaced, "there was also a certain amount of practical brewing involved. If you then factor in a large amount of Gryffindor stupidity, several explosions, and some minor screaming, you get blood -- Potter's blood to be exact -- all over his assignment."

"Ah. That explains it." Blood was a powerful focus for spells and potions, and only a small amount would've been needed. Satisfied, Minerva drew her wand and moved back to give Severus some room. "I'll cast the spell component," she told him.

Severus merely grunted and pulled out a medium-sized flask. He broke the seal and casually held up the open container. But before he began pouring it out, he paused to say: "We know Potter was here just over fifteen years ago. I would suggest you focus the spell precisely fifteen years back, which should place it a few weeks after he arrived. Hopefully he will still be here, and we can then skip forward in monthly intervals."

"You don't expect much, do you?" Minerva replied sourly. The time resolving spell was a difficult incantation at the best of times, let alone with modifications.

"Would you like me to do it?"

Minerva glowered. "Just get on with it."

Carefully, Severus tilted the open flask and poured a sparkling white liquid onto the carpet. By the time the flask was empty, he'd outlined a fairly large circle on the living room floor. Minerva wondered vaguely whether it would leave a stain. Then Severus stepped back, and a few seconds later, the circle began to evaporate upwards, transforming itself into a misty white fog. Just as the last of the circle began to dissolve, Minerva stepped up and pronounced a *very* complicated string of syllables. She and Severus then watched as the fog swirled with indistinct shapes before drifting out of the room and into the hallway.

"Where's it going?" Severus asked as they followed it down the short corridor.

"I have no idea," Minerva replied, "I sent the spell back precisely fifteen years, just as you suggested. I didn't even change the time of day. We *should* be heading for one of the bedrooms -- which would be a nursery at this point."

But they weren't. Instead, the pale fog reached a small door set into the wall under the stairs, and immediately began seeping around its edges into the cupboard behind.

Now intensely curious, Severus unhooked the latch on the door, and peered inside. He was so stunned by what he saw, that he didn't even protest when Minerva shouldered him aside to get a good look for herself.

The fog had expanded to fill the little cupboard, and was now showing a ghostly white overlay of what it had looked like on this night fifteen years ago.

There was a diaper pail on the floor, a few clean and neatly-folded nappies on one shelf with some old shirts and rags beside them, and few unidentifiable bottles next to some baby powder. But what stunned both Severus and Minerva was the large makeshift shelf that had obviously been shoved into the cupboard, and was presently supporting a rather large wooden box.

Sleeping inside the box, wrapped up in a few old blankets, was a baby.

----oo00oo----

Several minutes later, after Severus and Minerva had both looked into the cupboard a number of times, they finally managed to convince themselves that -- yes -- baby Potter was actually sleeping in a box in a cupboard.

Minerva was the first to recover her voice. "What in Merlin's name was the boy doing in a cupboard? What sort of people keep a fifteen- month-old baby in a box in a *cupboard*?!"

Severus' face was an unreadable mask. "You said Albus left a letter...?"

"Explaining the situation, yes."

"Perhaps the muggles were unduly alarmed by it. Maybe they thought they had to hide the boy to protect him." But Severus didn't sound all that convinced of the explanation himself.

"I'm going to re-focus the spell," Minerva said grimly. "I'm moving it up a month."

But it was the same story a month later. The baby and the box remained in the cupboard.

Minerva shifted the spell three more times with similar results. After that, she decided to jump in two-month blocks until she reached a point where the baby had become a two-year-old toddler -- still sleeping in the cupboard.

During one of those time shifts, the box disappeared, only to be replaced by a worn-looking mattress on a larger and more permanent shelf.

Finally, Minerva started shifting the spell in *six*-month blocks. She re-focused it half a dozen times before Severus finally stopped her. By then, Harry was a thin-looking little five-year-old with the same messy black hair he'd had at Hogwarts. But even so, the only real difference inside the cupboard was that the diaper pail and baby powder had disappeared some time ago, and the pile of old shirts and rags had become slightly larger. Minerva abruptly realised that little Potter was actually *wearing* some of those rags as pyjamas. However, the very last jump did bring at least one significant change into the boy's life -- a small pair of ugly-looking glasses now lay on the shelf beside him.

But Harry Potter still continued to sleep in the cupboard.

By now Severus had seen more than enough. "Minerva," he interrupted as she prepared to shift the spell yet again, "this is ridiculous! The boy hasn't moved from this spot the entire time, and we aren't going to learn anything new by watching him sleep for the next ten years! For Merlin's sake -- just add a couple of hours to the next jump so we can at least see what's going on while he's awake!"

And so she did.

It was with some relief that they watched the pearlescent fog finally leave the cupboard. It was now drifting into the kitchen.

Both Severus and Minerva followed anxiously.

When the spell finished re-forming, there was a ghostly Harry Potter - - now almost six years old -- standing on a chair in front of the muggle stove.

He was apparently cooking bacon in a frying pan -- one that was obviously much too heavy for him to lift.

As they continued to watch, Severus noticed something. "Minerva?" he asked with a look of disgust, "Is the boy actually putting bits of hot greasy bacon into his *pockets*?"

Minerva didn't reply -- and they continued to watch.

Very soon, other characters began to take shape out of the spell's pale fog.

Harry's aunt stepped out of thin air and peered critically into the frying pan. The little boy looked up at her anxiously. He seemed to want to please her, but she only grabbed his arm and roughly pulled him off the chair. Then she kicked the chair out of the way and lifted the frying pan off the stove. Minerva and Severus watched as Harry went and retrieved the chair, pushing it over into a corner. Then he climbed onto it and sat down.

His muggle aunt proceeded to serve breakfast to her husband, who formed up out of white fog as she neared the table. Harry's cousin entered shortly thereafter, and the family sat down to breakfast. Minerva and Severus were then treated to the sight of Harry's cousin acting like an ill-bred little troll at the table.

Nobody was paying any attention to Harry, who continued to wait patiently on his chair in the corner.

By the time breakfast ended, Harry had still not eaten. Harry's aunt kissed her husband and hustled her son out of the kitchen. She seemed to be cooing and making happy faces at her chubby little boy, and Minerva was grateful the spell didn't include sound effects.

Then Harry's uncle rose from the table and left without so much as a glance in Harry's direction.

As soon as he was alone in the kitchen, Harry darted up and began carefully picking and choosing from amongst the breakfast leftovers. Some of it he passed over, while other bits were quickly shoved into his mouth. Minerva didn't understand why he was ignoring most of the larger and more edible-looking portions in favour of the smaller scraps -- that is, until Severus murmured: "Clever boy -- stay away from the best bits -- they won't notice if the crumbs go missing..."

Then Harry's aunt re-appeared, and they watched as she made the little boy carefully move every plate one-by-one from the table to the sink. After that, he retrieved his chair to stand on and began washing the dishes under his aunt's critical eye. At the end of it all, Harry was rewarded with a single piece of toast and an apple that looked like it had been picked up off the road after falling off the back of a truck. Then his aunt grabbed him by the shoulder and pushed him into the hallway and back into the cupboard under the stairs. Minerva and Severus could only watch as she walked away, dissolving back into thin air as she left the spell's focus.

"And he still has the bacon in his pockets," Severus murmured to himself.

Minerva looked at him curiously, but the Potions Master had closed off every sign of emotion on his face. Only their long years of association allowed her to hear the strange combination of horror and admiration in his quiet words.

Personally, she hadn't yet made it past shock.

----oo00oo----

After that, Minerva began going through Harry's life with methodical thoroughness. She shifted the spell in two-month blocks, always changing the time of day, and always carefully inspecting Harry's face, hands, and arms for any sign of bruising or injury.

Together, she and Severus bore witness to the various bits and pieces of Harry's life. They watched him cook breakfast again, and followed him around the house as he scrubbed floors, dusted, vacuumed, and did the laundry. At around nine years old, they saw him cringe with fear as a wet drinking glass slipped between his fingers and shattered silently onto the kitchen floor. They watched while his aunt screamed at him in the ghostly silence of the spell, and his uncle came and shook him until the boy had to grab his glasses to prevent them falling off his face. After that, Harry was dragged back to the cupboard -- locked in like a prisoner while his uncle stormed off and dissolved back into mist.

Together, they observed the casual cruelty of Harry's cousin as the little troll grew into a bigger troll -- still rude and spoiled and only too happy to use his bulk to shove Harry into walls whenever he could. They saw Harry's face at Christmas, watching quietly from the hallway -- clearly forbidden to intrude on a 'family' moment. The muggles were gathered 'round a beautiful tree, laughing and happy -- Harry's uncle and aunt joyfully watching their son open a small mountain of presents. But there was nothing for Harry, and Minerva nearly broke down when Severus said: "Now we know why there were no toys. There was never any reason for him to want one -- since he wouldn't have been allowed to keep it."

As time passed, they took note of the threadbare and oversized hand- me-downs Harry was forced to wear. It was obvious the young wizard could not possibly keep up with his cousin's growing size and weight, and so each successive piece of worn clothing gradually became larger and larger on Harry's thin frame.

Occasionally, after one of Minerva's time shifts, the spell would fail to re-form -- lingering as a shapeless cloud near a wall or window. The canny witch had set limits on the magic in order to confine it to the house, and whenever Harry was somewhere outside, the milky-white fog would simply drift as close to his location as it could without crossing Minerva's boundaries.

But whenever that happened, Minerva steadfastly refused to skip her bi-monthly check. Instead, she chose to increase the difficulty of her self-imposed task by shifting the spell forwards an hour or two until Harry was once more back inside.

Eventually, the strain of shifting the spell so many times began to catch up with her. Minerva found herself becoming tired and frustrated -- but she refused to stop. As the years rolled past, illuminated by silent fog, she and Severus had witnessed terrible things -- but as yet, they'd seen no sign of any extreme acts of physical abuse. Somehow, the cruelty always seemed to stop just shy of beatings or true violence. Harry was shaken, starved, locked in the cupboard, and worked to exhaustion -- but not once was he hit or beaten, or physically assaulted beyond being grabbed or shoved around.

Yet Minerva persisted. She had to be *sure* -- she had to *know* that this was the extent of it -- that there was nothing... worse... waiting in Harry's future -- now his past.

But when she raised her wand yet again, there was suddenly another's hand on hers. Surprised, she glanced up to see Severus looking at her with grim resolution in his eyes. No words passed between them -- but the next shift in the spell was commanded by a wizard's voice -- and it was no less determined than her own.

And the years continued to pass.

----oo00oo----

If it hadn't been so awful, the morning that Harry's Hogwarts letter arrived would've been quite funny. But as it was, Minerva could only stare as Harry's uncle refused to give him his mail. It was then that Severus' curiosity got the better of him, and they jumped one day at a time -- watching until the house was virtually awash with unopened letters. Yet somehow, Harry never quite managed to get hold of one.

And then -- for several days after -- the spell stubbornly refused to re-form, and Severus finally gave up, muttering: "Bloody cowards. They've run off -- as if they could hide from Dumbledore. The fools."

So instead, Severus skipped ahead one month -- just to make sure that Harry actually made it back to the house before his first day of school. The boy did, and from what Minerva could see, he seemed non- the-worse for the unexpected trip.

After that, they were nearly at the end. Harry had begun his schooling, and there were only five years left to go. But of course, there was no point in looking for Harry here in the house when they knew he would be at Hogwarts for most of those years. In fact, all that was really left were a few holidays -- but it wasn't until she heard Severus shift the spell to the end of December that Minerva suddenly realised...

"Severus," she whispered on the verge of tears, "you needn't bother with Christmas -- or any other holiday. Harry will still be at school. He... he never went home..."

Severus didn't speak -- just gave a curt nod and raised his wand again.

And when summer vacation came around, neither of them were surprised when the spell began to drift upstairs. They'd seen Harry cleaning and working in every room of the house -- especially in his cousin's room, where the mess seemed to accumulate so much faster than anywhere else. It was therefore a bit of a shock when they found Harry's ghostly form sitting at a plain little writing desk in the smallest bedroom. His owl was sitting in her cage by the neatly made bed, and it looked as though the cupboard might suddenly be a thing of the past.

Minerva almost felt her spirits rising. *Finally* Harry's life was improving, at least a little.

But she soon saw that it was not so.

While it was true that Harry was now allowed to stay in a real bedroom, the Dursley's treatment of him was otherwise unchanged. And when Severus shifted the revealing spell into the middle of the night -- just to make *sure* he wasn't sleeping in the cupboard anymore -- they were shocked yet again. Harry Potter was half-hidden under the bedcovers, bent over one of his schoolbooks, trying to read by the light of some odd muggle gadget that looked like a fat cylinder with a lumos spell at one end. And from the nervous looks Harry would occasionally cast towards the door, it was obvious that he was afraid of being caught studying magic!

Severus shifted the spell a few more times, and they watched as Harry did housework by day and homework by night -- huddled over his parchment, hoping that no-one would notice the muffled light escaping from under the blankets. They noted how carefully he hid the rolls of parchment and the accompanying quills and ink -- always meticulous about cleaning up any sign of his forbidden learning. And while it was Minerva who said dazedly: "No wonder his summer homework was always so shoddy," it was Severus who pointed out in a subdued tone that at least they now knew why there wasn't one single drop of wizarding ink in the house.

As they neared the end of their journey through Harry's life, the two professors could only watch helplessly as iron bars went up on Harry's window -- and were then ripped away by a car full of red- headed Weasleys. They finally saw Harry eating decent food -- but it was little enough since the small pies were almost certainly sent by Molly Weasley, with a strong preserving charm on them -- and Harry was obviously rationing them out and carefully hiding them away under a loose floorboard.

When it finally came to the last moment -- the end of summer in Harry's fifth year -- Severus waved the spell out of existence with something akin to relief. Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts had been his last before disappearing -- and he hadn't made it back to the house at the end of it.

Their foray into the life of one Harry James Potter was ended.

And for that, Minerva was profoundly grateful.

In the end, there had been no violence that required hospitals or healing potions. But at the same time, Minerva wanted to scream -- to cry -- to rush into the master bedroom and curse Harry's relatives to the nether reaches of hell. But she was brought back to reality by Severus' angry words: "Let's get out of here before I do something unforgivable -- in both senses of the word."

The controlled rage in Severus' voice was like a shock of cold water. If it was hard for her, how much worse was it for her companion? -- a man who could no longer comfort himself with the belief that Harry was a spoiled egotistical brat who needed firm discipline in order to offset the lavish comforts of his home life.

If Minerva's illusions had been broken, then Severus' had been completely shattered.

At least she had the comfort of knowing that she hadn't made Harry's life any worse -- and had, perhaps, even managed to make it a little better from time to time.

Severus didn't even have that -- and he knew it.

Like a sleepwalker, Minerva went back downstairs to cancel the Lumos spell and remove the incantation that darkened all the windows to outside observers. Part of her wondered how much of Severus' anger was directed towards the muggles, and how much towards himself. If he felt even remotely like she did, then a great deal of it would be turned inwards.

How could she have been so blind? -- so *ignorant* of Harry's home life? Fifteen years ago, she'd even *told* Albus how bad these muggles were. Why hadn't she *known*!?

Minerva was still blaming herself as she waited for Severus on the doorstep. When he silently joined her, his face was cast in shadows -- but they did nothing to hide the mix of pain and fury reflected in his eyes. The control Severus had over his actions and emotions was astonishing. She knew without asking that he'd done nothing to the sleeping muggles -- even though he desperately wanted to.

"If I'd started," he said when he saw her expression, "I would've gone too far."

Then he brushed past her, and Minerva pulled the door closed behind them.

Together they walked back out into the street.

Minerva was exhausted. They'd been in the house for hours, and by now dawn wasn't far away.

When they reached the end of the street, they paused, and Minerva turned to look back at the darkened house with its well-kept little garden. She had no doubt that it was Harry's sweat that kept it looking so neat and tidy.

"Why didn't he *tell* us?" she finally cried.

"Why would he?" Severus countered harshly. "After all, we're the ones who left him there to begin with -- and abused children are often too ashamed to say anything." Then he swallowed painfully before adding: "Now I understand why there were no pictures of him on the walls..."

"-- they never took any."

----oo00oo----

The pre-dawn light was already painting the landscape in washed-out shades of grey by the time Minerva and Severus arrived back at the massive wooden doors of the castle. They'd walked side-by-side while their shoes crunched along the gravel path, but neither had spoken or looked at the other since they'd arrived at the boundary of the school's anti-apparation wards.

Once inside the castle, they separated -- Severus striding off to seek refuge in his dungeons, while Minerva...

Well, actually Minerva didn't know what she was going to do.

There was a small voice in the back of her mind telling her that she really should go to bed, and of course tomorrow -- or rather today -- was Sunday, so she knew she wouldn't have to get up and face classes. She would be able to curl up in her bed, under her blankets, and ignore everything and everyone until her exhaustion faded and the waking nightmare of Harry's life no longer felt so completely overwhelming.

But Minerva knew she wouldn't be able to sleep. If she tried, she'd only end up lying awake, staring blankly at the walls -- reliving all the terrible things she'd seen over and over again.

So instead, she wandered aimlessly along familiar corridors -- not really paying attention to where she was going. She absently noted the sleeping portraits, and occasionally said a weak 'Good morning' to an early-riser who called out to her from a decorative frame. She knew she was tired, dazed, and probably in a mild state of shock -- but she just couldn't seem to focus on anything -- that is, until she looked up and found herself standing in front of the staff room door.

Suddenly a comfortable chair and a hot cup of tea seemed like all she'd ever wanted from the world.

The staff lounge was, of course, completely deserted. It was far too early -- even for the most zealous of her colleagues. But it was also familiar, and right now Minerva felt a great need to be somewhere familiar -- somewhere that was not her own rooms, but nonetheless made her feel comfortable and welcome.

Making tea in the small kitchen area was almost therapeutic. She'd made so many pots of tea over the years that she didn't even have to think about what she was doing. In fact, it was a relief just to let everything go and allow her body to follow the habits of a lifetime.

She wasn't surprised when she woke from her reverie to find herself sitting in one of the high-backed chairs in front of the staff room's fireplace. She was, however, a little disturbed to find herself tucking her wand back into her sleeve, and a cheery fire now dancing in the hearth.

She couldn't remember making the decision to light a fire, and likewise couldn't remember performing the spell that set the waiting logs alight.

She stared blankly at the flames for a moment, before turning her attention back to the tea service on the low-set table in front of her. But her concentration failed her again, and she was momentarily overcome by the feeling that everything was just too hard -- too *much* -- and she really didn't know what to do -- where to start...

And then a pair of hands entered her field of vision, adding another teacup and saucer to the table.

She looked up to see Ash sitting on a padded footstool beside her. He didn't say anything -- simply poured out the tea, adding sugar to his, and a small dollop of honey to hers -- just the way she liked it. Wordlessly, he passed her the cup, and she accepted it with silent gratitude.

And so they sat there together, waiting for their tea to cool, staring at the fire, and occasionally sipping the hot drink carefully from the edge of their cups.

Given that she didn't really know him that well, Minerva found Ash's silent presence surprisingly comforting. He already knew what she and Severus had seen tonight -- he must do, or he wouldn't have made that stupid bet with them in the first place -- or given such bizarre advice about listening to the walls. And because he already knew, Ash wasn't demanding an explanation for her strange behaviour. He wasn't asking painful questions, or forcing her to re-live everything in order to satisfy the curiosity of someone who hadn't *been* there. He was just... sitting with her, sharing tea, and offering his presence and support.

By the time they'd finished their respective drinks, Minerva was feeling a great deal better. Watching Ash pour and serve her favourite beverage had gently reminded her that even though she was a strong woman and a powerful witch, as well as Deputy Headmistress and the Head of Gryffindor House -- she did not *have* to do everything herself. There were people who would help her -- who would pour tea for her and sit with her -- if only she remembered to ask. And that's when Minerva realised that it didn't matter whether she had no idea about how to deal with what she'd seen tonight -- because somewhere in the world there would be someone who did, and it was simply a matter of finding that person and asking for help. //Or perhaps,// she thought suddenly as she looked over at her companion, //it's more a matter of *recognising* that person when he's sitting right beside you.//

Ash noticed her look and gently asked, "Do you want to talk about it?"

Minerva smiled weakly. "Hell yes," she joked, but the slight tremor in her voice betrayed her.

[New section added: 26 October 2003]

Ash placed a hand over hers, and she instinctively turned her palm up into the warm fingers. In response, Ash placed his other hand over her shaky grip and murmured: "It was in the past, Minerva. It's over. He wouldn't be sent back there now even if he walked into the Minister's office tomorrow."

She nodded slightly, knowing Ash was right. But with Harry still missing it was small comfort.

"Minerva," Ash continued, "please don't blame yourself for this. You didn't know -- and destroying yourself with guilt and regret won't help either him or you. I know it's a terrible shock, but it *wasn't your fault*."

"No -- you don't understand," she replied shakily. "Fifteen years ago... I *told* Albus how wretched those muggles were! I told him! I knew -- but I did nothing!"

"So you knew Harry was being treated like that? You weren't surprised by what you saw last night?"

"What?!" Minerva gaped at him in astonishment. "No! I *never* thought --"

"Then you *didn't know*," Ash told her firmly.

"But I should have..."

"No," he argued. " 'Should have' only ever makes sense in hindsight -- and you can't live in the past if you hope to have a future. *Remember* the past, yes -- and learn from it if you can. But don't waste your time or your strength on things that are over and done with."

"But --"

"*No*," Ash repeated. "In this, there are no 'buts' -- no 'ifs' or 'maybes'." Then he looked at her with compassionate dark eyes, and said bluntly: "Minerva, you *know* I'm telling you the truth. You've seen enough of life to understand that none of us are gods. We can't know everything." Then he gave her an ironic look and added: "-- even if Albus does do a pretty good job of faking it."

Almost against her will, Minerva felt a tiny smile playing at the edges of her mouth. "He really does, doesn't he? Sometimes I just want to smack him upside the head for it..."

Ash laughed. It sounded good -- happy -- and she couldn't help but chuckle a bit herself. But she soon quieted -- her thoughts unwilling to turn away from her present troubles. But it seemed that Ash, too, was unwilling to give up.

"Why," he asked quietly, "are you trying so hard to punish yourself for something you didn't cause, didn't know about, and can't change?"

//A good question,// Minerva thought. In her head she could acknowledge that everything Ash was saying made perfect sense. It was, in fact, exactly what she'd be telling him if their positions were reversed. But in her heart... "Probably," she sighed, "because my emotions aren't listening to my common sense -- and..."

"And?" Ash gently prompted her.

Minerva swallowed. "And," she whispered, "I'm afraid..."

"Of?"

"Of not... of not *knowing*... not *seeing*... Don't you understand? If this could happen to Harry -- for so long -- and right under my eyes! -- in my own House...!"

Ash's fingers stroked her hand, unconsciously soothing her. "You mean this has never happened before?" he asked her. "In all your time as a teacher, you've never had another student who was neglected or abused?"

"I... no -- I mean, yes -- there have been... a few." But only a very few, thankfully -- and she'd been so *angry* each and every time...

"But you recognised *them*, didn't you? You saw -- or at least suspected -- what was happening?"

"Ye-es," Minerva slowly acknowledged.

"Then you haven't been negligent -- or ignorant -- and you will almost certainly continue to be the best Head of House any Gryffindor could ask for."

"But Harry..." she protested.

"-- was a unique case that you aren't likely to see again," he assured her. Minerva's confusion must have showed because Ash then asked: "Those other children -- the ones you knew about -- had they been abused all their lives? Or was it recent -- a few months, perhaps a year?"

Minerva frowned, thinking about it. "Recent," she decided,"-- if you can really call it that. One boy -- Merlin! -- his brother had been hitting him for nearly eight months, and his parents..."

"Did nothing to stop it," Ash finished sadly.

"But what does that have to do with --?"

Ash held up a hand for silence. "I'm getting there," he assured her. Then he paused as if to collect his thoughts. "Minerva," he began, "there are certain characteristics that dominate each House here at Hogwarts, correct?"

"Yes, of course," she replied. "That's what the Sorting Hat does -- so that the children will be surrounded by people who are more likely to understand them. It's easier for them to make friends that way."

"And to have the support they need so far from home," Ash agreed. "But Minerva, there are... side-effects... to being sorted that are particularly relevant for abused children." And he looked at her gravely. "Your Gryffindors who were abused -- did any of the abuse start *after* their first year at school?"

"For some of them," Minerva acknowledged.

"And how did you know something was wrong?" Ash asked her. "What gave it away?"

"They... they were different -- not so enthusiastic about school. Their work suffered --"

"In short," Ash interrupted, "there was a definite change in behaviour."

Minerva nodded her agreement.

"And," Ash continued, "what about those who were being abused *before* their first year? What made you suspect them?"

"It was... I don't know... something about them that wasn't quite... right." She was struggling to explain something she'd never had to put into words before. "They didn't... they weren't as outgoing as their classmates -- their behaviour was... subdued -- but not all the time." Frustration welled up within her. "I'm not making any sense..."

"Yes, you are," Ash told her. "But perhaps I could help you out a bit. Would it be true to say that they didn't act like *Gryffindors*?"

Minerva blinked. "I hadn't thought of it like that..."

Ash gave her a little half-smile. "But that would be an accurate description?"

Annoyed, Minerva retorted: "We aren't all rubber-stamped copies of Godric Gryffindor, you know."

"But you *are* all Gryffindors -- lumped together by a ratty old bit of headwear because you have similar personality traits. And if someone is sorted into your House who doesn't display those traits..."

"Oh," Minerva said in surprise, "yes, I see what you mean. We're not all the same, but I do tend to expect certain things from my students that I don't from the other Houses."

"Things," Ash agreed, "that involve their underlying beliefs and general attitude towards life. And because you *aren't* all the same it can be quite difficult to recognise those things and say: '*that's* what's wrong'..."

"So instead," Minerva finished, "it comes across as more of a hunch -- a feeling that something isn't quite right. Yes -- that's it exactly."

"But notice," Ash told her, "that in both cases there were personality traits and behaviour patterns that were in conflict with their underlying 'Gryffindor' nature. And the children we've been talking about were only *short* term abuse victims." Then quietly -- ominously -- Ash asked: "Aside from Harry Potter, can you think of any other long term abuse victims in your House?"

Minerva tried to remember. There'd only been a handful of such children over the course of her lengthy teaching career, and she could recall each and every one of them -- but had any of them suffered at the hands of their abuser for *years*... perhaps even a lifetime? And what would that *do* to a child...?

And then she got it.

She understood.

"No-one," she whispered, on the verge of tears, "other than Harry. But then -- they wouldn't come to my House, would they?"

"No," Ash agreed. "An entire lifetime of abuse does not necessarily destroy a child's courage, but it certainly teaches caution. And by the time they arrive here, their tormentors have usually found a way to prevent them from telling anyone about the abuse. Threats of violence, or promises that no-one would believe them -- perhaps convincing them that no-one would care even if they did know -- or that they would be seen as weak and pathetic for letting themselves be abused in the first place. A thousand reasons, and the child would never say a word."

"And," Minerva added, "they would become... adept... at hiding it. They'd learn how to lie..."

"And with the fear of being exposed hanging over them, they would learn to lie *well*," Ash confirmed.

"They wouldn't trust anyone..." Minerva continued. "And they would have excuses prepared should anyone suspect." She blinked back tears. "They'd be in Slytherin, wouldn't they?"

"Not all of them," Ash denied. "Some would find their way into Ravenclaw -- books can be a wonderful escape if you have an affinity for them. And Hufflepuff would be a good choice for a someone who's spent years trying desperately *not* to draw attention to themselves -- or who is still willing to believe in the protection of a House known for its loyalty. But most of them... most of them have only one overriding priority in their lives -- and that's simply survival. They learn to read facial expressions, and to listen to the way people speak just so they can anticipate whether they're about to be attacked. And it's not uncommon for long term victims to try manipulating the people around them in an effort to avoid or placate their abuser."

"Lies," Minerva reflected, "-- scheming, manipulation -- anything just to survive. It shouldn't *be* that way! They're just *children* for heaven's sake!" And then she took a deep, calming breath -- carefully trying to reign in her emotions. "I cannot imagine how Severus copes... How would he know if such a thing was going on in his House? It must be terrible..."

"You forget," Ash reminded her, "that Professor Snape is a Slytherin himself. He shares the same affinity for his own students that you do with yours. He doesn't see the same behaviour pattens that you do -- but then Slytherins don't behave like Gryffindors. He sees the *Slytherin* behaviour patterns, and he knows when something isn't right just the same as you know when a Gryffindor isn't acting the way they should. That's one of the reasons each Head of House is always an ex-member of their House."

Minerva smiled a little. Ash was not-so-subtly reinforcing his argument that she was still the right person to be Head of Gryffindor House.

"And then too," the War Mage continued, "you must remember that we've been talking about a tiny percentage of students. No matter what you may have heard about Slytherin families, I can assure you that they love their children just as much as anybody else. They may not show that love the same way a Gryffindor would -- but it's there nonetheless."

And then he sighed, and looked away towards the fire. "The ones I feel bad for are the muggle children," he said quietly. "There's no Sorting Hat for them -- no easy way to group them together and see whether they're behaving like their yearmates. And they often have much larger classes than we do here at Hogwarts -- and no Head of House with whom they share an affinity. It's much more difficult for a muggle teacher to recognise an abused child -- and yet somehow they do -- or at least, for some of them they do." He paused for a moment before adding sadly: "Not every child gets the help they need."

"Not every child does here, either," Minerva added with a sense of failure. "Harry certainly didn't."

Ash turned back from the fire to regard her thoughtfully. "Minerva, Harry was a rather unique case any way you look at it. He may have been placed in Gryffindor, but from what I understand he showed rather a lot of Slytherin traits -- including a certain disregard for rules, an amazing determination to survive, and a talent for hiding his problems from his friends and teachers. If anyone was going to realise that something was wrong, it would've been Professor Snape or one of his Slytherins. And the Professor's dislike for Mr Potter is well known, as is the general inter-House rivalry. The only people who *might* have seen through Harry's mask were the very ones who were least likely to."

"It sounds as though you think Harry should've been sorted into Slytherin."

"No," Ash denied. "Never."

Minerva felt oddly relieved, but slightly confused. "But you just said he would've been better off in Slytherin..."

"No -- I only said that I've been told he showed a lot of Slytherin traits. But he also showed a lot of Gryffindor ones. The mere fact that you never suspected anything is proof of that. How could he fool you so completely if he wasn't just as much a Gryffindor? That's why I said Harry was a unique case. It's my belief that at the time he was sorted he was both Slytherin and Gryffindor in nearly equal measure."

To Minerva, that make a great deal of sense. "It's an unusual combination," she reflected, "but yes, that would explain it. And he would only need to have slightly more affinity for Gryffindor in order for the Hat to place him with us."

"Or perhaps the Headmaster had a little 'chat' with the Hat prior to sorting him," Ash suggested.

Minerva's automatic reaction was to deny that Albus would do such a thing. Sorting a child into the wrong House amounted to deliberately trying to warp their natural development. It wasn't healthy. However, if a child was closely balanced between two Houses... but no, Albus couldn't have known that about Harry beforehand. And even if he had...

"The Hat would never allow itself to be swayed by a third party," she stated confidently. "I don't care how powerful Albus is -- the Hat comes down to us from the Founders themselves and they placed spells on it that would destroy it before it could be suborned in such a way."

"Perhaps so," Ash agreed, "but it's overwhelming directive is to sort children into the House that's best for them -- which is not necessarily the House they are best suited for." Minerva blinked. What was that supposed to mean? And then Ash added: "Imagine if you will, that Harry *was* sorted into Slytherin. How long do you think he would've survived there? And I don't just mean surviving amongst the sons and daughters of Voldemort's Death Eaters. Consider how the rest of the Wizarding World has reacted in the past. Harry Potter the Parseltongue -- the possible heir of Salazar Slytherin -- the powerful wizarding child who survived the Killing Curse as a baby -- the young man who brought home a dead body under mysterious circumstances at the end of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Can you imagine how much worse those events would've been if he'd been Slytherin as well? From what I understand, he was accused of being a Dark wizard often enough as it is! And *then* factor in the children who choose to follow their parents into Voldemort's service. Would you truly want to put an eleven-year-old Harry Potter into the House that turns out so many of his supporters?"

"That isn't fair!" Minerva protested, "Slytherin is *not* a training ground for Dark wizards! And not all Death Eaters come from Slytherin -- much to my shame!" Then, unhappily, she forced herself to admit: "But you're right. It would not have been... prudent... for Harry to be in Slytherin."

"More than that," Ash argued. "It would not have been *safe*. And that's why I don't believe he should've been in that House even if the Hat wanted to put him there."  Then Ash sighed. "As for the Headmaster," he added quietly, "there's no proof that he tried to influence the Hat, but I don't think young Harry's safety is something he would ever leave to chance if he could avoid it. It just seems to me that it's something Albus would do if he could. And of course, it wouldn't take much to sway the Hat if the boy's life was at risk. I doubt Albus really even cared which House he ended up in, so long as it wasn't Slytherin."

Minerva thought about that. If Harry had really been so evenly balanced between her House and Severus', was it so surprising that he'd been able to hide his troubles from her? To this day she didn't really understand Slytherins. She could occasionally predict their behaviour based on years of experience with previous generations, but she'd never understood the motivations *behind* that behaviour. It was easy to ascribe greed or cruelty to some of it, but that was a simplistic explanation, and Slytherins were anything but simple.

Gradually it came to her that maybe -- just maybe -- she really *couldn't* have known about Harry's home life. And if that was the case, then it was only because Harry Potter was unique in a way she'd never seen before. A Slytherin Gryffindor. Who'd ever heard of such a thing? And that knowledge comforted her because it meant that she probably hadn't missed any other abused souls in her House. And it was important because now that she *had* seen a Slytherin Gryffindor, she would know what to look for in the future. For students like Harry, she couldn't rely on hunches -- on her House affinity. But she *could* rely on physical facts. She would set a charm on her student lists to flag those who never went home for holidays, or who never received letters from home. And she would monitor the presents that arrived at Christmas. She had a suspicion that Harry had never received one single gift from those dreadful muggles.

Minerva's heart still ached, and the guilt she felt might never completely fade, but the sharp pain -- the shock of it -- was easing. She had a *plan*. There was something she could *do* to ensure that it never happened again.

A slight squeeze on her hand distracted Minerva from her internal reverie.

"Feeling a bit better?" Ash asked.

Minerva gave him a half-hearted smile. "Somewhat," she admitted. "I suppose my emotions are finally catching up with my common sense."

"And," Ash replied, "you've started to think up ways to prevent this from happening again."

"How did you...?"

"Because," he smiled, "you don't strike me as the kind of person who could write this off as a once-in-a-lifetime problem and never give it another thought. If you feel any better at all, then it's not because you've realised that it wasn't your fault. That fact is cold comfort at the best of times. But if you can prevent it from happening again -- well... let's just say I know how much that helps when you're trying to find a way to atone for a failure."

"Even if that failure wasn't something you could prevent?"

"*Especially* if that failure wasn't something you could prevent."

For the first time since returning from Privet Drive Minerva felt her lips curve upwards into a genuinely happy smile. "Thank you," she said simply as she squeezed Ash's hand.

"Dear Lady," he replied, "you are more than welcome."

----oo00oo----

Fifteen minutes later, they were both still sitting in front of the fire discussing possible spells and charms that might help Minerva put her safeguards in place. She already had a general idea of what she wanted, but the question of how to implement everything was a lot more complicated than Minerva had first expected. For instance, if the school was seriously going to monitor incoming owls, then they first had to work out what sort of monitoring was possible while still respecting the privacy of each child and their family. Reviewing the content of each letter would be a totally unacceptable invasion of privacy, but what about recording the point of origin? Or perhaps it was only necessary to learn how many owls a child received. Questions like this would have to be reviewed by the school's legal advisors before any action could be taken, and only then could they begin working out details for the actual spells and charms they would need.

But even so, there were still some generalised enchantments that would be necessary no matter what was decided. Letters, for example, would require a spell that could distinguish between birds carrying mail and birds that simply lived around the school. And this was not as easy as it sounded when you realised that not every owl was a postal owl, and not every wizard or witch used owls to deliver their mail. Ravens, hawks, and other hunting birds, while not common, were not unheard of.

However, none of these problems were insurmountable. They simply required a bit of thought -- and in some cases, a little help...

"You know," Ash mused, "you're going to have to talk to the other Heads of House about this too. Wholly aside from the fact that students who show mixed-House tendencies aren't necessarily going to be in Gryffindor, some of the things we're talking about can only be set up if they're applied to the entire school."

"Yes, of course," Minerva replied absently. "I was going to bring it up at the next staff meeting, and we'll need Albus to help us with the..." Her voice trailed off.

"Minerva?" Ash was looking at her anxiously -- and no wonder when she could feel the blood draining from her face. "Minerva?" he repeated, "What's wrong?"

"I... I just realised," she whispered, "Albus... he doesn't know. He doesn't know about those horrible muggles." Distressed, she turned to the War Mage. "Oh, Ash -- how am I ever going to tell him?!"

The War Mage looked equally distraught. His mouth worked soundlessly for a few seconds before he eventually took a deep breath and reached out to lay a hand her arm. "Minerva," he said slowly -- almost reluctantly. "Albus knows."

She stared at him blankly for a moment. "What...?" Her voice sounded strange, even to her own ears.

"He knows," Ash repeated painfully. "I'm sorry, but --"

"No," she protested. "He... he couldn't... he *wouldn't*...!"  

----oo00oo----

The next section has been partially written already, but the sequence of the explanation needs to be re-ordered... or something. It just doesn't read correctly.

I am going to try and get back into the habit of posting more regularly again. I'm also flattered and amazed that you're all still here and still so enthusiastic about the story.

Cheers,
Midnight Blue :-)