At 4 am, Fleur went to bed. The five men, too, were planning on taking turns to get a few hours of sleep on the sofas in the living-room. The storm finally seemed to be on the decrease, and the plan was to set out on a physical research for Harry in the morning, as soon as the weather permitted it.
Had the young wizard managed to find shelter to the wind and to the snow? Even if he had, would he survive the cold? Were they going to find him alive?
Fleur shunned the questions that were forming in her head.
If only he had his wand, Fleur thought bitterly for the umpteenth time as she sat down, exhausted, on the king size bed which felt lonely without Bill on the other side.
Bill and her had grown into quite the stereotyped married couple, she thought, smiling indulgently to herself - getting up together, and going to bed at the same time, day after day. And wasn’t that the prime of happiness? After suffering all those lonely days and nights during the war when, strung by worry, she didn’t even know what kind of dangers Bill was subjecting himself to, the monotonous routines of every day life were precisely what she needed. Tonight, at least, her husband was within reach, in the safety of their own house, but the feeling now of sitting here alone still reminded her of the dark times of the war.
Fleur laid down fully clothed on the bed and drew a blanket over herself. She was only going to sleep for a short while - she would have time to tidy herself up later.
But rest would not come easily, as thoughts continued to whirl through her head. She had been apprehensive and nervy for more than twelve hours, since she noticed Harry’s disappearance and contacted Bill at work. Then came the Aurors, and Severus Snape, and she had not had time to process her own feelings.
The bedroom was located on the third floor of their narrow house, and the noises caused by the storm were more audible here than downstairs. The tiles on the roof rattled menacingly, and Fleur could not help wondering what damage to the house the morning would reveal. Tears began to gather at the corner of her eyes, run down her temples and wet the blond hair on either side of her head.
Somewhere out there, Harry was fighting for his life against the cold, she was convinced of it. The Auror’s speculations about a deliberate disappearance were preposterous - or were they? Fleur tossed restlessly on the bed. It seemed to her that the wind was taunting her with it’s hauling sounds.
The storm, besides maybe bereaving them of Harry - a thought which she right now fought hard to keep away from herself - reopened all kinds of barely healed sores from the war. The storm was, once again, a reminder that one was never safe, that dangers would always pop up in life, if it wasn’t dark lords, it was the fortuitousness of the weather.
A particularly strong gush of wind broke something on the roof, there was a loud slamming noise, the walls shook, and Fleur bolted upright.
Damn the others who thought they were being noble in sending her upstairs to sleep in a proper bed, but who did not consider that she risked her life under a roof that could fall down upon her any moment! Fleur scolded her husband angrily in her head as she dried her tears with a quick gesture of the arm, before she gripped the blanket in one hand and her wand on the nightstand in the other and started to climb back down the stairs.
When she reentered the living-room, two of the Aurors were asleep on the sofas and her husband lay snoring on a mattress on the floor. The third Auror and Severus were still casting tracking spells from the middle of the room, and carefully assessing the magical echoes coming back to them. Severus looked so sallow and worn out, that Fleur could not fathom how he was still able to make something out of the process, until she met his black eyes, where she read the same determination as at the beginning of the evening, now mixed with a streak of desperation, however.
”Anything?” she asked cautiously. Severus shook his head.
”The echoes are coming from the exact same positions as before,” he said.
The group had made a mental inventory of possible magical creatures in the area, susceptible to interfere with the spells and give false positive responses. There were hibernating garden gnomes in the immediate vicinity of the house, but they hardly posed a problem, since they were so close. An old Erkling lived in the forest a few miles southeast, which all the trackers were quite sure to have located and detected with their spells. Naturally they would need to verify in the morning anyway. There were no other wizards or witches in the neighbourhood.
Earlier in the evening, the tracking group had discovered a second indication of a magical presence due north, which had raised Bill’s and Fleur’s hopes, but Severus and the Auror who had the highest precision in his spells, both thought that they could distinguish a number of magical responses merging in one, as if coming from several different individuals, so that it would most probably correspond to a gang of nogtails that were known to be rife in the area.
Finally, Fleur and Severus both thought that they detected an indistinct magical something, even further north. They agreed on the exact same sector of location, but none of the other Aurors, nor Bill, were able to confirm their finding.
”You still get that far-off response?” asked Fleur.
”It’s faint, but reproducible,” confirmed Severus.
”It’s him,” said Fleur. Severus closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose.
”Perhaps,” he replied tiredly. ”We need to get out there to verify. The storm is beginning to abate at last.”
”No, it’s not!” Fleur snorted angrily. ”The roof was threatening to take off, only a moment ago!” Severus blinked at her sudden flare of irritation.
”I’m sorry,” he said stiffly. ”Your house most probably will suffer some damage, but there’s not much you can do about it before the storm’s over.”
”No, of course there isn’t,” answered Fleur moodily, a bit embarrassed for acting out her fright, and irritated with Severus for stating the obvious - as if he believed that it would soothe her. He thought that she was worried about her house and did not realise that she was… simply afraid. Scared like a little girl. Now, why would she expect a practical man like Severus Snape to understand something like that? And why was her husband snoring away on the floor instead of comforting her?
Fleur turned, unnerved and discontented with herself, muttering a spell to conjure a mattress beside Bill’s on the floor. When she turned back again, Severus was still looking at her uncertainly. Fleur bit down another sharp comment. Decidedly, she was tired.
”We’ll see in the morning,” she contented herself to say, at which Severus nodded mutely, hesitated and, stiffly, turned his back to her to continue with his casting.
As she laid down, anger fading, Fleur came to the realisation that she did in fact pity Severus Snape. A few years ago, when she first met him, she did not spare him her contempt. She had been a guest student at Hogwarts coming from the Beauxbatons school to participate in the Triwizard Tournament, and Professor Snape had become her teacher in Potions that year. In retrospect, she might concede that the fact that she had been chosen as her school’s champion might have overinflated her self-importance just a tiny bit, but even if that were true, she was still a guest at Hogwarts and deserved to be treated politely and with respect. True, Professor Snape was rude and scathing to all and everybody at the time, but he still insulted her, and she had promptly written him down as a mean, ugly and contemptible person. When the rumours began to circulate that Snape was a Death Eater, she had had no problem believing them, and had not changed her opinion until considerably later on, and only reluctantly because Bill told her the opposite.
She admitted that the wizard’s manners had gone through a radical change after the resurrection, which in itself was a remarkable event that prompted everybody to reconsider their opinion of the man. She had heard rumours that his approach to teaching, for once, was very different nowadays and that he made a point of never belittling or offending his students. She had noticed for herself that his manners had improved and the fact that he was so involved in Harry’s education and in his well-being commended him greatly to Fleur. She had started to call him Severus, like Bill did, during the autumn as he flooed weekly to check on Harry.
But there was something in his behaviour - and she couldn’t quite pinpoint down what it was - that despite all his efforts prevented her from feeling completely comfortable in his presence. Almost imperceptible things in the way he reacted to her words and the way he failed to mirror, or respond to her gestures. A conversation with Severus somehow never went completely smoothly. He was an intelligent man, no doubt about that, and he had shown a polite interest and been attentive to her, to the point of flattering and almost charming her, but in the end there was something which prevented her from taking that last step to true friendship, because she still didn’t understand him. She realised that social skills did not come naturally to Severus Snape and she was sorry, now that she was conscious he made such an effort, that he was not better requited for it.
When Fleur woke up the next morning she felt strange. She knew something was off already before she emerged out of the depths of sleep. It felt like an alarm charm gone awry, causing you to oversleep, because the heat on Fleur’s eyelids told her it was broad daylight, and still it was so strangely quiet.
It was quiet! Fleur snapped her eyes open and painful light blazed itself all the way into her brain. Fleur closed her eyes spasmodically as she curled on herself and struggled to get up on her knees simultaneously.
Sunlight! Sunlight was shining right through the three windows of the living room. And the quietness - the quietness meant that the storm was over!
Where was everyone? Why had no one waken her up? Fleur rose on her feet and vacillated to a window where she squinted out, almost blinded by the light, over a perfectly still, glistering scene of a snow-instilled landscape. The storm that had whipped the trees the past night, broken their branches and tore up their roots, had rewarded them by coating them minutely in ice crystals. As a result, fantastic snow formations were now hanging from the battered branches. Magic by nature. What an incredible transformation! thought Fleur.
She had barely time to accept and rejoice over the fact that the threat of the storm was gone, before she heard some noise and voices coming from the front door, on the other side of the house.
”Bill?” Fleur shouted and darted gracefully, as only she was able to, even in the absence of witnesses, through the room to approach the rustle. What was going on?
The first thing that met her in the hallway was a stream of cold air welling towards her from the wide open door. Five men were crowding in the entrance - Bill in front of the others, one of them still outside and two of them supporting a third who was nevertheless standing on his own feet. Fleur let out a small relieved yelp and looked at her husband.
”You found him!” she gasped, overwhelmed by gratefulness. ”Harry!” she exclaimed in the next breath and moved past Bill to embrace her young friend.
”Don’t thank me,” Bill said to her back, smiling broadly. ”It was yours and Severus’ indications from the tracking that proved right. Auror Snight and I only followed Severus’ lead when we set out this morning. The two others will still be searching out there, because we split up initially. We recovered Harry in record time, but still not a minute too late. He had found shelter, but you can see for yourself what state he’s in.”
”I’m fine Fleur - going to be just fine!” the young man croaked with a smile. He was trembling, and so icing cold to embrace that Fleur let go immediately.
”Mrs Weasley, if you please,” said Severus who was struggling to lead Harry through the narrow hallway which Fleur partially blocked. Fleur realised how strained the professor must be to use her title in his utmost efforts to remain polite. ”We must move into your living-room and in front of a fire. Harry needs to thaw!” Severus cast a reprobating eye at the younger wizard.
Fleur hurried to usher them inside. Bill had already revived the small fire that had been charmed not to extinguish during the night. Harry was placed in front of it, shoes and clothes frozen stiff were removed and blankets were provided, as well as a big cup of tea.
Fleur felt so light, fussing about her young friend. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t slept half of the hours she needed to, that she hadn’t got time to clean herself up and change clothes, nor that her living-room was a mess of mattresses, blankets, empty cups and plates. Happiness and jubilation was bubbling in her chest.
Harry was alive! The boy who once saved her little sister was still here. The man who killed Lord Voldemort had not perished in the most powerful storm of the century. How encouraging for wizardkind was not that! Harry, the likeable and compassionate young man that she had just begun to learn to know and who would speak to her so passionately about magic and art was sitting right there, in her armchair, stretching his cold hands towards the heat of the fire.
Fleur felt tears of gratitude mount in her eyes, and then she caught sight of Severus. He, on the contrary, did not look happy. There was a deep crease between his brows, his shoulders were slumped and out of the dark eyes which squinted in the sharp sunlight shone anger, Fleur realised disconcerted - anger, hurt and resentment.
Suddenly the scowling man sprung to life.
”Blasted sunlight!” he exclaimed loudly, making Fleur jump. In two strides, he reached the windows and pulled the heavy curtains brusquely, leaving only a narrow slit for the sunlight to penetrate the room and help up the flickering light from the fire. Harry turned his head at the exclamation.
”Severus, are you all right?” he solicited. ”Have you slept at all? I’m so sorry for causing you all this nuisance. You shouldn’t have stayed up all night for my sake. I…” He was interrupted by Severus’ irritated reply.
”I’m perfectly at peace with having done my duty, Potter. Would you have preferred us say to ourselves: Oh well, Potter will take care of himself, we’ll go looking for him in the morning. And then go to bed? If it were not for the careful tracking we performed last night, we would have no idea where to look for you. It’s the least you could do to show some appreciation for our work.”
”I…” Harry bent his head down, and Fleur made an uncomfortable gesture with her hands. Why was the professor in such a scathing, flying rage? Severus must have realised that they were all staring at him in confusion, because he straightened up and said stiffly:
”I had better return to my duties at Hogwarts, now that the Saviour is back safe and sound.” He avoided to look at Harry, moving towards the pot with floo-powder on the mantlepiece. Harry jumped up from his chair. He was still shivering from top to toe in the process of regaining his normal body temperature, and made quite a pitiful figure.
”Stay, please,” he said.
Severus ignored him and lifted the lid from the pot.
”You’re welcome to stay, Severus, and get some rest before you return,” intervened Bill. ”Surely, you won’t be able to teach your classes today anyway?”
Severus only shot him a dark glance, weighing the floopowder in his hand.
”I’m sure you’ll want to speak to Harry in the quiet when everything has calmed down,” continued Bill.
”What’s there to discuss?” Severus retorted vehemently. ”Harry leaves the house in a fit of desperation on finding out that the girl he wants has rejected him. It’s an act of impulse - I understand. That’s how some people react. With Harry, it happened before and it will probably happen again. How are you ever to protect someone - or to protect yourself for that matter - against unstable emotions of such dignity?”
Harry gripped the back of the chair to steady himself and looked from Severus to Bill and Fleur.
”Is that what you think?” he said. ”Do you think that I set out deliberately, on an impulse to kill myself?” Bill shifted uncomfortably.
”We needed to examine all the possible explanations for you walking out in such a weather without your wand,” he mumbled. ”We knew you had gotten a letter from Ginny, and Severus had heard a rumour at Hogwarts…”
”But I took shelter! I fought to stay awake all night and moved about in order not to freeze to death. That’s proof enough to you that I didn’t want to kill myself!” Harry burst out.
”It’s okay, Harry, I never thought…” answered Fleur, but Severus interrupted her.
”It’s commendable that you changed your mind and decided to stay alive,” he said caustically. ”We’re eternally grateful!” Fleur winced at the sarcasm in his words. ”I’m perfectly aware that you may not have consciously formulated the intent to commit suicide,” Severus went on, ”…even to yourself. It’s the impulse we’re talking about. The fact that you reacted with such desperation, that you felt so forsaken that you needed to leave without thinking about the consequences. You probably didn’t think of killing yourself, but more in the line of disappearing for ever - which, naturally, is the same thing. To let yourself go, almost as if in an accident, is the most cowardly way of doing it, because you don’t even take responsibility for your actions.”
Severus paused to gather his wits. His hands were trembling from outrage, and the floopowder had slipped between his fingers back into the pot. He turned and scrutinised Harry with a hurt and accusing gaze.
”Knowing your… your temperament of violent sensibility, I reckon that you felt that there was nothing else to live for when you read that letter. Yet, how could you do this to them?” he said, pointing at Bill and Fleur. ”Do you think that just because Ginny Weasley rejects you, no one else cares about you? Let… let me tell you that it’s absolutely loathsome and… and irresponsible to… to disappoint everyone who believes in you by letting one single emotion overwhelm you and to act out on it. It’s an affront to Bill and Fleur’s hospitality and the way they have cared about you these past months.”
”Not only us,” Bill added, looking as if he was starting to understand what Severus’ fury was about. ”There are so many people who care about you, Harry.”
Apparently something was dawning on Harry, too, because Fleur watched the shock and the indignation at Severus’ outburst fade from Harry’s face to be replaced by a compound of clemency and tenderness. He advanced cautiously towards the taut and angry wizard.
”It wasn’t like that. You need to let me explain,” Harry said softly. He tried to remove the pot with floo-powder from Severus’ hands, but the older wizard reflexively gripped it harder and clenched his teeth stubbornly. Harry let out a small chuckle.
”Severus,” he said, mildly reprobating. ”Look at you. Do you even realise that you’re behaving - and sounding…” Harry raised an eyebrow to emphasise his meaning, ”…exactly like… like before? You know?”
It took some time for Fleur to understand what Harry meant. She watched Severus develop red spots on the sallow cheeks and release his grip on the floo-powder pot, as if it was burning. Harry replaced it on the mantlepiece while Severus let out one long sigh and sat down defeatedly on a chair. He looked decidedly embarrassed, thought Fleur and realised that what Harry had pointed out to him was that he sounded exactly like he used to do before the resurrection. She could not but agree. What had flown into the Professor?
”Er, Harry, do you think you’ll be all right, or do we need to consult St Mungo’s?” asked Bill, breaking the strained silence.
”There’s not much more they can do, but cast the unfreezing charms that you’ve already done,” said Harry. ”It remains to see if I’ll keep all my toes and fingers, or not. I feel fine, though. I’ll remain in front of the fire for a while if you don’t mind.” Bill nodded.
”Then I think that Fleur and I had better retire to the kitchen to prepare some breakfast, before we all catch up on our sleep,” he said. ”And I suppose you’ll want to find your colleagues and tell them that the mission is completed?” he added to the Auror who confirmed. ”Come, Fleur,” entreated Bill softly.
Fleur followed Bill and the Auror out of the room, turning her head as her gaze lingered on Severus. The wizard looked so utterly vulnerable all of a sudden.